We Had Never Heard of Pearl Harbor



Neighborhood: Uncategorized, Upper West Side

We Had Never Heard of Pearl Harbor
Photo by Jewish Historical Society of the Upper Midwest

I hated Saturdays. We had been moderately observant Jews in the small German town where we had lived before we fled to the US. The trauma and anxiety of starting over in a new land with two young children and the horror stories that were filtering out of Europe pushed my mother towards the security she found in a stringent orthodoxy. Her efforts to impose this Old World discipline on me was a constant source of argument between us from those early days. I was in an almost constant state of rebellion.

By the 2nd Grade in New York, surrounded by Jews of every degree of enlightenment and gentiles with their kaleidoscope of religious beliefs, I became ever more resistant to what seemed to me to be the senseless sacrifices I was forced to endure to my mothers increasing piety.

We lived on the upper west side of Manhattan where there were few other Orthodox German Jewish refugees. Most of the indigenous Jews were Conservative (they wore Yarmulkes in Synagogue) or Reformed (Yarmulkes were optional). My mothers’ extended family, who began arriving a year or two after us, had all settled further north in the Washington Heights section of Manhattan, which became a major German Jewish Refugee enclave. There, the Jews were classified according to the Rabbis who led the Synagogues that they attended. There were (Rabbi) Breuers’, (Rabbi) Jungs’, and (Rabbi)Sterns’, the three most prominent Congregations all German and all Orthodox. My Mothers relatives belonged to Rabbi Breuers congregation. They were as clannish as Hatfields and McCoys. They too, grew more religious as the times grew more perilous, the headlines more horrific.

They sensed my apostasy and looked at me as a dangerously aberrant infidel even at the tender age of seven. For my part, I couldn’t accept their unquestioning fanaticism, the men’s black hats, the constant prayers, or the traditional sheidels (wigs) worn by the married women. Fortunately we were separated by the geography of Manhattan Island and the restriction against travel on the Sabbath. Thankfully, the two branches of my mothers family only got together on Holy days or for occasions like weddings and Bar Mitzvahs. I hated those events even more than Saturdays.

Removed from this intensely conformist culture I soon began to rebel at what I felt were the onerous Sabbath taboos. Riding in an elevators was proscribed although we lived on the fifth floor. Lights were left on from Friday night until sundown Saturday. The same for the stove. The light in the refrigerator was even removed because it went on when the door was opened. Carrying money was forbidden. You couldn’t even carry keys in your pocket although, arguable, it was permissible to pin them to your clothes. It was a sin to tear a piece of paper even by accident, so the Sabbath toilet paper supply was prepared in advance. The pay telephone that was downstairs in the hall was off limits. The usual reply to my impertinent questions about the paradoxes of these rules was that “these are the rules set down in the Bible and the Talmud and if you break these rules God will curse you.” I didn’t buy these less than factual answers, I couldn’t see the analogy between modern electricity and Biblical camp fires. Nor could I find where work was involved in dialing a telephone or pressing a button. Tearing papyrus was different from tearing toilet paper, and how could riding in a car or subway be forbidden ex post facto?

Most of every Saturday was spent inside a dimly lit apartment converted into a Synagogue, chanting prayers in Hebrew which I did not understand, and listening to interminable sermons in German that I didn’t understand either. To my mind the boredom was another level of torture. Here I was confined in an expatriate German Orthodox Synagogue. I stood and sat in unison with the congregation while inwardly I seethed with anger. My thoughts were with my neighborhood friends and non-refugee contemporaries who were playing stickball and baseball or street hockey on those warm summer Saturdays or ice skating and sledding in Riverside Park in the winter snows.

I wanted badly to be an American, to be like my American friends. Their parents spoke unaccented English and didn’t worship in two foreign languages. And, oh yes, when our histrionic Rabbi grew particularly intense during his sermons he sprayed spittle over me and the congregation.
In stark contrast to the Saturdays, our Sundays were often wonderful. We would go on outings. In the summer the whole family would go to Coney Island. We’d ride in the first car of the IRT with our noses pressed against the front door watching the endless ribbon of track streaming towards us out of the dark tunnel and disappearing under the train. Once there, at the crowded beach, we’d claim a blanket’s worth of sand and have a picnic. After the obligatory one hour cramp wait, we’d swim in the murky salt water, jumping up and down in the weak surf.

My brother and I would often explore the cool, damp sand under the boardwalk, crisscrossed by thin lines of sunlight through the shadows, looking for dropped coins and other lost treasures. We’d press up against a fence to watch the rolling Steeplechase ponies carry their riders to the finish line. We watched as white captive silken parachutes slowly carried young couples up cables to the cupola at the top of the huge tower, where, with a snap, they would be released, the canopy filling and the passengers descending, screaming into earshot as they floated back to earth. My father would give us a few coins and we’d go to the penny arcade.  I loved the machine gun device there, fantasizing that I was a fighter pilot shooting at planes on the screen inside. I also liked the mechanical boxing ring, where I controlled one of the two robotic figures, flailing steel arms against my brother’s boxer without the peril of a bloody nose and working off some of my accumulated anger.

Another favorite excursion was a subway ride to South Ferry. We’d take the Staten Island Ferry and a bus to Silver Lake Park. Before the bridge was built Staten Island was a completely rural enclave. The bus went past working farms before reaching the small lake that was as pure and clean as a beer commercial. My father would cut a woody stem from the shore of the lake with his penknife. Then he would loosen and remove the intact tube of bark. Part way down the core of wood he’d cut a half moon notch, and above this he flattened about an inch of the core to the end. When he put the bark back on it became a tunable whistle that we would blow on for hours until it finally dried out and split.

In winter, we would go to Central Park and ice skate on the lake underneath the Belvedere Castle. Sometimes we’d explore the still raw Hudson River shore where Robert Moses was building his Riverside Park and West Side Highway.

When the weather was bad we’d go to one of the City’s many Museums all of which were free. For us, the Museum of Natural History was a regular stop on rainy days as well as an after school hangout. Nearby, the Museum of the City of New York featured real antique fire engines, Currier and Ives prints and life-size dioramas of early New York and Nieuw Amsterdam.

However, what excited us more than any other museum was the Museum of Science and Industry, at Rockefeller Center. The industrial displays of this unique museum were like magic. I didn’t understand all that I was seeing, so the actions and effects seemed even more amazing. I would stand transfixed in front of an exhibit that featured ball bearings being tested. The shiny metal balls would pop out of a slot one after another, onto a flat steel plate, ball bearing after ball bearing, bouncing high and true in endless perfect arcs and out through a small exit hole. There were displays of things that belched smoke. There were working models of steam engines and gasoline engines. There were arc lights and wire recorders and radios and all kinds of operational displays that showed how a watch or a toaster worked.

Even though we were young kids, we were well aware that the world was heading down the greased path of crisis. The tension of the gathering omens war preoccupied our parents and teachers and filtered down to my brother and me with a sense of impending doom. We heard the names Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, Franco, and Churchill; we knew who the good guys were and hated the villains. We sensed that the world was sliding headlong into an awfulness that could not be prevented.

One cold dreary Sunday early in December, when I was seven and a half, my father, my brother and I went to the Museum of the American Indian. It was in a building on the West Side near Columbia University, a long walk from our apartment. There is something about the American aborigine that is endlessly fascinating to anyone from Germany and there is no better market for the prototypical American Western Film. Having been born German, my brother and I were infected with this obsession, and we lost ourselves in the artifacts that had been stolen from the proud native tribes of North America and deposited in a huge incongruous Greek Temple. There were peace pipes, moccasins and wampum. Feathered headdresses, rugs and blankets. Tomahawks, papooses, buckskins and bows and arrows. Beautiful things that even someone as young as I was able to appreciate.

Stimulated by the beauty of the artifacts, we walked home along West End Avenue. As we passed the Tennis Courts that used to occupy the block between 95th and 94th a boy about 10 years old came running up to us breathlessly.

“The Japanese have bombed Pearl Harbor,” he shouted at us and then spread his news to some other people across the street. It meant nothing to us. We had never heard of Pearl Harbor. We shrugged and kidded about his excitement. A twin engine plane heading east flew overhead. “Maybe that’s the Japanese bombing New York,” we joked.

We lived on 93rd near an equestrian statue of Joan of Arc that sat on a land island park off Riverside Drive. We were home in a few minutes and my father turned on the radio. There were news bulletins on every station affirming the now-terrifying news. Did this mean that Hitler and the Nazis were on their way to invade New York? Frightened, I sat on my father’s lap as he tried to reassure us that the real danger was still thousands of miles away far across the wide Atlantic. We looked up Pearl Harbor in the Atlas and learned that it was in the middle of the Pacific and that Japan was many thousands of miles from the US. We weren’t reassured because, somehow, they had managed to attack it. We knew planes could cross the Atlantic in hours- hadn’t Lindbergh proved that? Was Hitler, the monster scourge, following us to America? Was there no place to hide, no escape? I remember the sheer, trembling terror.

Over the next weeks, months and years the world assumed a feverish pace. War was declared. We were issued small cream colored plastic ID tags that we wore on a chain around our necks. Rationing was imposed on almost everything. Gasoline was hard to get. Norman Rockwell painted the Four Freedoms. My male cousins began disappearing into the Army. We collected paper, tin foil, even donated our prized cast iron toys to the incessant scrap metal drives. We started collecting posters of Air Force planes. Because we were of German origin my father had to have the short wave section of his Grundig Console radio disconnected.  But every day, that AM radio brought us news of the Allied victories in Africa, the battle for Italy, the D-Day invasion, the shock of FDR’s sudden death and at last, the ecstatic joy of victory over the Nazi scourge.

Fred Abrahams has had an interesting life. Fleeing Germany just before the Holocaust, he spent his childhood on the upper west side of Manhattan. He graduated from Stuyvesant High School and the University of Pennsylvania before serving a tour of duty with the US Army in Germany. A career in marketing grew into a stint as a writer/producer of TV Infomercials. A quad bypass started him writing about his experiences, including; travels in post-war Europe; partying with the abstract expressionist painters of the Chelsea school; his 270 minutes of fame as a champion on a TV Quiz show; visits to the original Studio 54; co-founding The Improv comedy club and the interesting people he’s met along the way.An avid skier and amateur photographer he now lives in Brattleboro, Vermont.

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