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Thursday, January 20, 2005


Coming to America

For my entire adult life, I've marked every January 20th as the anniversary of the day my family came to America in 1951. That includes me. Yes, I arrived on these shores just days before my first birthday.

My mother and her family, from Kalisz, Poland, miraculously managed to survive in Poland during the years of Nazi terror. In 1946, they made their way to a Displaced Persons camp in American-occupied Germany at Hof-Saale, just West of the westermost tip of Czechoslovakia. They were moved around a bit by the authorities to various DP camps and by 1949 found themselves settled in the beautiful little town of Amberg in northern Bavaria. A former military barracks outside the ancient wall of the 11th-century town served as home for the refugees.

That's where I enter the picture - I was born in Amberg at 3PM on Saturday, January 28, 1950 at Marienkrankenhaus (St. Mary's Hospital.) Mom says the sisters at St. Mary's took good care of us both.

Grandpa Jakob and
Living with my grandparents Jakob and Mila and my uncle Joe (who was age five when I was born,) and Mama Mila's sister Hinda and her husband and daughter, I got plenty of attention and love those first months in Amberg - and, looking at that photo of "Pop" Jakob proudly holding me, I was pretty well fed, too.

By this time, tens of thousands of war refugees had immigrated to the Unite States under the Displaced Persons Act, and initiative by President Truman in 1948. Thanks to this law, our extended family obtained visas and headed for a new life in America.

To prepare to leave, my grandparents, Uncle Joe, Mom and I traveled to Bremen around New Year 1951.Arrival in Bremen 1951This photo shows us arriving in Bremen by train. Mom tells me that there were photographers waiting at the station, speculatively taking photos of arriving passengers. You would pay them a few marks, give them your forwarding address, and they would send the photos later. And Bremen photographer Herr Ludwig Michael Schmidt of Breite Stra├če was true to his word. In the past few years, I've seen at least five other photos exactly like this one belonging to other refugee families. And they all looked as happy as we did (well, all but Uncle Joe - he looks as if he were ready to throw up.)

To take us to our new life, the government and People of the United States provided us with an all-expenses-paid one-way cruise from Bremerhaven aboard the USNS General C. H. Muir (T-AP-142)
. The General Muir was a liberty ship built by Kaiser in 1944. Decommissioned in 1946, it was brought back into Naval service in 1950 for transporting troops and equipment to Occupied Germany. USMS Gen. Ch. MuirAs part of the implementation of Truman's Displaced Persons Act, it brought refugees back on the return trips. The Love Boat it was not, but it was a free and a generous ride.

The General Muir left Bremerhaven January 8, 1950. Mom was assigned to a small cabin because she was a mother with a baby. The rest of the family were in crew quarters during the trip. Mom says that everyone in our family got seasick except for her and me.

Mom on board the General Muir, 1951
The General Muir arrived in New York City January 20th. Because all of the refugees had already gone through significant processing in Germany before boarding and had already been issued Green Cards, most passengers only had to go through customs at a regular berth in New York City. However, I caught measles aboard ship, so Mom and I had to be quarantined on Ellis Island for 10 days.

Twelve years ago, Mom was reminiscing about this adventure, so I asked her if I could tape what she was saying and later transcribed it. So I'll let Mom tell you about it in her own words:
I remember I was running around at Ellis Island with you naked [for medical examinations], bundled up inside my coat.

I was too young [she was 19] and naive to be scared about the responsibility - I mean sometimes Immigration did reject people. We were separated from Mama Mila and Grandpa, too - they went on to New York City while we were quarantined on Ellis Island.

When we finally got to New York, the HIAS [Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society] put us up in some fleabag hotel... only I didn't
know it was a fleabag hotel at the time. To me it was great. They gave us an allowance every day for spending. I remember being introduced to cornflakes then... I was fascinated by the little boxes that you could cut open and eat out of.

The first thing I wanted to do was walk down Fifth Avenue and go to the Automat! I went with my girlfriend Alice from the DP Camps... she had already been in New York for a while.

I was sorry to leave New York - because we had lots of friends. Different people would come by the hotel to see us every day. At that time, New York was full of refugees, and they would go out to the docks every day to see who was arriving.

So then we came to Baltimore. Uncle Leo was so happy to finally see his sisters and have their families here [Leo Jachman, my grandmother's brother, immigrated to the U.S. in the early 20's and hadn't seen his brothers and sisters since then] He was especially happy because Sylvia was getting married later that year, to Willy, and now he could have his sisters share the simcha!...
As Mom said, our ultimate destination was Baltimore, where Mama Mila's brother Leo lived. He sponsored all of his surviving brothers and sisters with the exception on Uncle Michele, who had lived in Morroco since the '20's. Aunt Ester had settled in Queens, New York, but the other three siblings and their families all were in Baltimore by the time we arrived. Six of Mama Mila's eleven brothers and sisters had been murdered by the Nazis, but the survivors were now safe and ready to start a new life in a generous and accepting country.

It's a great American story, one of hundreds of thousands from that time.

Steve, thanks for sharing this story and the pictures. On the other side of the world, my parents and the rest of our extended families were all displaced from their ancestral homes by the Japanese invasion and occupation. My parents and I immigrated to America in 1963 from Hong Kong. We literally had only two suitcases and a duffel bag, and no cash. Our plane ticket money was borrowed. We lived with my dad's father's family for a while. Our reason for coming here was so that I can have a better future. I was five, and thus was the perfect age to enter the school system. I with our story was as well documented as yours. Regards, Warren
Thanks for your comment, Warren - another Great American Story!

If your parents or other relatives from that time are still living, ask them lots of questions! If you have or can find some old photographs, they really help the memories flow. Then write down as much as you can.

Your chidren and your children's children will thank you.
As many times as I hear the family story it gives me goose bumps. I have never heard it told better.
I am certainly glad that Uncle Joe made it as he has been my beloved husband for 38 years.
Aunt Andi
Wow, thanks for sharing this. Many times I've heard stories about immigrating to America, but in more general terms. It really put things into perspective reading your personal story. And the photos! Those photos will live on forever. They really added significant depth while reading about your family history.
If you would like to take a short look at the DP Camp of the late 40's in Hof/Saale that is mentioned in this story, go here:


It is in a section of photographs of the Kaserne in Hof/Saale from pre 1950. There are later pictures of the Kaserne but they primarily center around the US Army and US Air Force activities in the "Borderlands" during the Cold War which you are also welcome to check out.

Hof REunion Association
that's awesome!

i came across this blog looking for a picture of the uss general muir because my grandmother and her family came over from germany on this ship, too!
Steve, Thanks so much for your wonderful article, but especially the picture of the USNS General H.C. Huir! I was a passenger on the General Muir between December 2 - 13, with my parents from Bremerhaven to N.Y. NY. Our destination was Schnectady, NY. As a four year old, I didn't remember much, just remember hearing stories. Your picture helps fill some gaps. Thank you.

If you still write this blog please contact me. My grandparents and Mother were also on this ship and I would truly enjoy seeing pictures. My name is sonya and my email is smarino1317@gmail.com

Thank you. I also live in Washington, DC

Steve, I can't thank you enough for sharing your story. It gives me hope that I will someday find where my family came from.
My grandparents escaped Russia and survived by living in the Displaced Person Camps for five+ years. My mother was born in Germany so she was too young to remember anything of this experience. She and her family arrived in NYC on December 13, 1950 on the USS Gen C.H. Muir from Bremerhaven, Germany (same as "Anonymous" above).
Best to you and your family!
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