From Europe to America
Portugal was supposed to be a neutral country, I don't know how neutral they actually were, but, it was a very strange sight, walking on the main streets, to find a German propaganda office with big swastikas and a little further the American office with the American flag, all major countries were represented. They all were trying to convince the public of their good intentions. There was another strange thing I want to talk about. I explained earlier that John and I could not travel through Spain with our German passports without being arrested and shipped back to Germany. Therefore we traveled with Roumanian passports. To obtain the Spanish transit visa we had to have a Portuguese visa first and for this reason we had to remain Roumanians while in Portugal. Now comes the "but", but we did not want to enter the U.S.A. with passports we knew were not kosher. We found out that Portugal recognizes dual citizenship. In my German passport is a stamp from the government office of Lisboa/Lisbon, explaining that the date I entered Spain with a Roumanian passport, issued in Beziers, France and that I will be leaving Portugal with this German passport on the ship Serpa Pinto. This was a good answer to a problem.
While John and I were in jail for four weeks, our parents contacted the "Hias", a Jewish help organization out of New York, and they were able to get passage to New York for us. Many people wanted to leave Europe, therefore tickets were very much in demand. American citizens always had the priority on American ships and foreigners did not have much of a chance. There was another reason why we needed the Hias: the five passages to New York were too much for our pocketbooks and we appreciated it very much that there was somebody there to help us. The name of our ship was the "Serpa Pinto" it sounds mysterious. I called the Portuguese consul and learned that it is only a fairly common male first name and a common family name in Portugal, no mystery at all. She was a mixed freighter with some cabins mid ship and huge cargo holds in the front and in the rear. We went on board June 12, 1941. We were very disappointed when we were led to our quarters. The women were sleeping in the front hold of the ship and the men in the adjoining one. They had erected triple bunks for hundreds and hundreds of men and women. We were traveling good old steerage but it was the best available to get out at that instant.
The moment we entered our wonderful accommodation, we noticed a strong sour smell. The Serpa Pinto had come from Brazil with a full load of soya beans, if a little seasickness was added to this smell, the result was horrible. The ship must have been filled way over capacity, if I remember correctly it had 9000 to 10000 tons. Towards late afternoon she left the pier and moved to the middle of a wide river, the "Tejo", which flows through Lisbon and to the Atlantic.
We were sitting there at anchor for a couple of hours, I guess the captain was waiting for high tide. John and I noticed the word Portugal was painted in very large letters on each side of the ship and also the Portuguese flag. Big floodlights were mounted over the sides to show the nationality of the ship also at night. German submarines were allegedly plentiful in the Atlantic. We had very good weather that day, the ship was not shaking but if one walks on board a ship it feels always strange, different from walking on land. The reason for this is the rounded decks to drain water from rough seas. While we were waiting, the parents and Yvonne had deck chairs. Mother and Yvonne looked greener by the minute and also got sicker by the minute and Father, John and I knew we were in for a rough crossing. The estimated time to reach New York was eight to nine days. The ship took off towards evening. The crew started soon to serve dinner, we were divided into three shifts. For breakfast and lunch we had the same arrangement of three shifts. We slept fairly well, we were young, Father had a problem sleeping and Mother and Yvonne had a bigger problem because they were seasick. We became as of that moment the official waiters for the rest of the family. The two women did not once dare to go to the dining room. We two enjoyed the food, it was quite good. The worst thing about the voyage was the location of the sleeping quarters. Even in quiet seas the bow of the ship will go up and down three to six feet and this could make almost anybody seasick. By the way, John and I got used to the movement of the ship and it did not bother us anymore. Mother became sicker and sicker every day, so did Yvonne, after a few days on the high seas, we asked the ship's doctor for permission to bring the two women to the upper deck in the middle of the ship. There was no shaking up there what so ever and both felt much better after a few hours, but they could not stay there overnight and got sick again in their sleeping quarters. The next morning they went again to the center deck and they felt a little better after a few days. We two observed if the wind got a little stronger and the ship was shaking more, less people would appear for the three meals and we could have double portions, we enjoyed that very much. Father turned out to be a good sailor and the motion of the ship did not bother him, but Mother and also Yvonne kept him busy.
After nine days we approached the American shore, this ship was slow and old. We passed within a few hundred feet the Ambrose lightship and we knew, we had read about it, that we were near the New York harbor. The date was June 21, 1941.
The Ambrose Lightship is now a museum and is now anchored in the East river. Margaret took us there on one of our visits to New York. It was like a symbol to us and it is very impressive. The Serpa Pinto docked at Staten Island and we saw the customs and immigration officers come on board. An announcement came over the speakers: U.S. citizens would be checked out first and immigrants, in alphabetical order, last. This meant we had a few more hours on the Serpa Pinto. We looked over the railing and saw the first real New York cops,, we saw a lot of black people with red caps. What we saw was a big harbor and a very busy one. A lot of people had come to pick up the passengers,, and there was one young girl,. she looked very pretty and she was waving and did not stop waving. I did not have any idea who she was waving to,, until John and I finally recognized her, it was Rita, your mother. We had been corresponding with each other, she knew the ship we would be taking, but never less it was the greatest surprise to see her there. With her was a nephew from our mothers side, Jerry Spencer. While we were standing on the upper deck, John was wearing his raincoat, when suddenly a rat jumps out of his coat pocket, surprise, surprise. We were too high and too far away to talk to each other. It took several hours before we could leave the ship. We had carried the immigration files and documents for each of us. There were at least twenty different and very important looking papers in each file, the cover had a red ribbon with a seal attached to it. These were the most important bunch of papers, because they made it possible for us to enter the United States. When we finally came to the immigration officers in the ship's dining room, they took the file apart and they put papers here and some they put there and out of this big file they gave us a little piece of paper, the size of a credit card, it said, "landing card" on it, I asked if we got any of the other papers from our files, and I was told: "You don't need them anymore." We went down the gangplank and there was the big New York cop standing and he took our landing cards and put them in this pocket. We were almost lost, coming from Europe we could not understand that we did not have any of the visa papers left. So we asked the cop, what we should do if somebody wanted to know how we got here. His answer was "Nobody will ask you how you got here, good bye and good luck."
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A Teacher's Guide to the Holocaust
Produced by the Florida Center for Instructional Technology,
College of Education, University of South Florida.
©1991 Kurt Lenkway.