An American tale

An American tale

Closter's mayor talks about her journey from Nuremberg to New Jersey

Mayor Sophie Heymann, third from left in the back row, is surrounded by her children, their spouses, and their children.

Anyone trying to predict the course of newborn Sofie Dittmann’s life in 1928 would have imagined a solid, possibly even stolid upper-middle-class life, most likely in her birth city – Nuremberg, Germany.

It would have seemed an odd leap to imagine Sophie Dittman Heymann as she is today – the Republican mayor of Closter, coming to the end of her term as she completes eight years in office.

Her story, as Ms. Heymann tells it, involves hats, salamis, of course ambition, and a surprising but logical take on Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

It began with Sofie, as her name then was spelled, and her younger sister, Ilse, growing up in a comfortable German-Jewish home. Her father, Fritz Dittmann, a leather dealer, was a World War I veteran, and he had earned an Iron Cross fighting for Germany in that war. Her mother, Gerda, was the daughter of a banker. The family’s life in Germany ended abruptly in 1933, however, when one of her father’s employees – who “was a Nazi, but also very loyal to my father,” Ms. Heymann said – warned him that the Nazis would be coming for him the next day.

The family escaped that night – by taxi.

Safely out of Germany, the Dittmanns wandered through Austria, Italy, and Switzerland before they settled in France, where they lived for five years as Mr. Dittmann tried to get the visas that would allow them to immigrate to the United States.

“My father would go to the consulate in Lyons every few months to try to get us visas,” Ms. Heymann said. “He did that for five years.” But the American government “required safe conduct passes for women – or at least for my mother – and the Nazis in Nuremberg refused to give one to her.” The family was stuck. Eventually, though, the consul in Lyon was replaced by another one. Ms. Heymann does not know that consul’s name, although she has tried to find it, but she credits her life to his decency. He gave visas to her family, as well as to other Jews stuck in Lyons; she believes he should be recognized among the righteous in Yad Vashem but has been unable to learn enough about him to submit his case for consideration there.

Her parents’ documentation did not allow them to work in France, but they supported themselves by the funds that they, like other well-to-do Europeans, had deposited in countries other than their own. Some of that money was accessible to them. “There wasn’t a lot, but the demands weren’t very high,” Ms. Heymann said. They lived in a working-class neighborhood in Dijon, and went to school there.

“Where we lived, there weren’t many Jews,” she said. “There was one congregation of Sephardic Jews from Algeria and Morocco, and a few refugees started trickling in. My teachers treated me very well, and my classmates didn’t think anything of my being Jewish.”

Still, her parents wanted out. They knew that the Nazis were coming. Members of Mr. Dittmann’s family had moved to Palestine in 1936 – his widowed mother and her daughter joined them there two years later – and he went to visit them, “to see if living there was a possibility for us,” his daughter said.

It was not.

A man used to comfort and decorum, “he was very disappointed in the way people lived in Palestine,” she said. So that route to freedom was out.

In 1939, their visas finally came through, and the family embarked on the ocean liner Ile de France. At least at first, they were going to live with their father’s cousin in Brooklyn

Like many things that sound glamorous, the reality, at least for the 10-year-old Sofie, was not. Reality revolved around seasickness.

Berths on ocean crossings came in three levels, and the Dittmann family traveled on the middle one, in second class. But “the children on the boat were corralled by a teacher, and we were allowed to go into first class because that’s where the nursery was,” she said. “If I hadn’t been seasick, it would have been a very nice voyage.”

It also was the little girl’s first exposure to Americans and their odd habits. “There were cold water coolers on the deck,” Ms. Heymann said. “I thought it was kind of strange. I asked what they were for, and they said ‘Americans like cool water,’ and I said ‘What?'”

In France, she said, children did not drink water at all, no matter the temperature. It wasn’t sterilized. They did not drink milk either – it was not pasteurized. They drank tea – water was acceptable once it was boiled – or wine, or tea and wine mixed together.

On the day the boat docked in New York Harbor, “my mother woke us up very early in the morning,” Ms. Heymann said. “She said that we had to see the Statue of Liberty.

“The boat really should have sunk,” she added. “Everyone was standing on the same side, looking at the statue.”

She remembers another boat ride, years later, with a professional organization. “We had guests from all over the country, and we took them on a boat ride in the harbor. When we got to the Statue of Liberty, all these Americans all burst out with the “Star-Spangled Banner,” all on their own.”

Safely in her cousin’s house on Brooklyn’s Eastern Parkway, Ms. Heymann met cousins she’d heard about but never known, and they took her roller skating. She’d never done that before either, and ended up breaking her leg. For the next two months, as they adjusted to life lived in a new language on a new continent, Sofie also had to adjust to dragging her plaster-encased leg up and down subway stairs, in and out of new experiences and adventures.

Her family moved to the burgeoning German Jewish colony in Washington Heights. They Anglicized their names – Sofie became Sophie, Dittmann lost the last n, and Fritz became Fred.

They learned English, and the children became trilingual. “I spoke French to my sister, German to my parents, and English to my classmates,” Ms. Heymann said.

Her father never worked again – “he was in his 50s, and when we got to America it was the Depression,” Ms. Heymann said. He was relatively lucky, though, at least compared to survivors and other refugees – he had been able to get enough money out to support his family. His adjustment to his new circumstances was slow – “he kept saying ‘My God! And I won an Iron Cross'” – but “he was very realistic about it. And he still thought that the Germans did some things very well, and that they were very efficient.” It was hard on her mother as well; “she was quite a young woman, and she was totally displaced.”

When Sophie started school, she did not yet speak English, so she was put in a class with children two years younger than she was. She was moved up regularly, however, eventually graduating junior high with older children. Establishing friendships was pretty much out of the question – “when I see my children and their friends – I never had an opportunity like that,” she said. But it was a different time, and expectations were different.

Next, she went to Hunter High School, and then on to Hunter College, graduating at 19. She earned an MBA from NYU, and then began to work in the garment center. Throughout all of that, she lived at home.

Her career trajectory began “with a friend who taught me how to be a bookkeeper in two easy lessons,” Ms. Heymann said. She got a job keeping books; her employer happened to be a milliner. Those were the days when a hatless woman by definition was not a well-dressed woman.

They also were the days when a well-bred woman by definition was not an MBA student. Ms. Heymann, though, worked full time during the day and went to night school for her MBA. “There were two or three other woman who graduated with me, but I never was in a class with another woman,” she said.

“NYU promised that they would place all their MBA graduates,” she continued. “I went to the placement office, and they looked at my record, and said ‘We’re sorry. We can’t find a job for you.’ I said ‘I thought that you promised everyone a job.’ They said, ‘Yes, but you are a woman, and our jobs are in banking, and banks don’t hire women.'”

So Ms. Heymann found her own job, going through at training program at Alexander’s, a successful department store whose niche was low-cost, high-end discounts. She became a buyer, specializing in hats. “Hats had so much more variety then,” she said wistfully. “More ornamentation, different fabrics. And our sales forces had an understanding of how different hat shapes complemented different face shapes.”

She was happy there. She was happy in general. In 1951, Sophie Dittman married Lee – ne Leopold – Heymann. They met through a mutual friend. Kurt Silbermann, now of River Vale, the longtime cantor at Temple Emanu-El when it was in Englewood, and Mr. Heymann had been friends since childhood, and met again in this country. Ms. Heymann met Cantor Silbermann at youth group at Beth Hillel, the Conservative shul to which they both belonged.

Mr. Heymann, who had escaped Germany and came to New York alone at 15, joined the U.S. Army, where he served for four years. As he established his life here after the war he used the GI Bill to apprentice for an uncle, who was a butcher. Soon he and a partner went into business for themselves as Abeles & Heymann, manufacturers of salamis, hot dogs, and other kosher fleischig delights.

The business, headquartered in the east Bronx, prospered. The Heymanns, who lived in the Bronx, had the first of four children; with the second on the way, they decided that they needed more space. Ms. Heymann, to this day a committed gardener, wanted land. “We made a circle around the plant, including everything within a half an hour drive. I didn’t like Long Island, Westchester was too expensive, so we looked in Bergen County,” she said.

“We saw two houses that we liked. The one in Englewood Cliffs was a few thousand more, so we took the one in Closter.

“I am so happy that we did.”

That was in 1956.

“Closter then was in some ways more exurban than suburban,” Ms. Heymann said. Many families, mostly of Dutch and English descent, had lived there for many generations; there also had been a large influx of Italians, and then of Irish, but until the influx fueled by the GI Bill there had been very few Jews.

That has changed, she said. “When we first moved, the indigenous population all knew each other, and everyone was blonde and blue-eyed. My daughter was blonde and blue-eyed, so she fit in.

“Nowadays, a blonde, blue-eyed person in Closter would be the oddball.”

There was one synagogue in town when the Heymanns moved in – Temple Beth El, which they joined. “It was Reform – because the Reform movement gave them a Torah,” she said. “They were ambivalent about whether to be Reform or Conservative. It was very much on the borderline.”

When they moved to Closter, Ms. Heymann began to work for her husband, and as the family grew, she became increasingly active in town. “I became active in the PTA, I was a Girl Scout leader, and head of the local Girl Scouts for some 10 years,” she said. “I joined the League of Women Voters, became active in it, was president of the local chapter, and then vice president of the state League.”

All that work did not go unnoticed. She ran a candidate’s successful campaign for a borough council seat, and in return she was asked to chair a commission. She has sat on or chaired each of the four divisions of Closter’s government. Eventually she ran for the council, and then for mayor. “I was the only Republican on the council then,” she said; now there are no more Democrats left.

Ah, the Republican question. Ms. Heymann is a lifelong GOPer. On a table in her office, she displays a photograph in which she is standing proudly next to the proudly Republican Governor Chris Christie.

Because, at least in the popular understanding of how political affiliations work, most Jews of her generation and education are Democrats, the question demands to be asked. The answer is both surprising and logical.

Why? “My whole family was very upset with the way Franklin Roosevelt handled the Jewish issue,” she said. “We had to wait five years to get into the country. Other people lost their lives. That includes my husband’s father, who was sent to the east and gassed.”

In 1940, in fact, as a recently arrived 12-year-old, Ms. Heymann campaigned for Wendell Wilkie in his doomed presidential campaign against Mr. Roosevelt. “I had a booth on Broadway in Washington Heights,” she said. “I gave out literature.”

She now has some misgiving about the party’s direction – “I was a Javits Republican,” she said. “A Rockefeller Republican.” – but her commitment to the party remains strong. And in any rate, the town’s government is largely nonpartisan; the effect of national politics on the borough level “is virtually nil,” she said.

All four of Ms. Heymann’s children – Constance, Leonard, Mitchell, and Elizabeth – are happily married, and that is something that gives her great happiness, she said. She has six surviving grandchildren, and she is proud of their success as they develop their lives. Her husband died in 2002, and the loss still hurts.

They are all deeply connected to Jewish life, each in a slightly different way.

Constance, who is a lawyer, changed careers and now works as an educator at Temple Shaarey Tefila on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. Her husband, John Muller, is from Closter, where his mother still lives; their daughter, Katherine, is on the national board of JStreet. Mitchell’s wife, Naama, is the assistant principal of Temple Emanu-El of Closter’s religious school; the family lives in Norwood. And Elizabeth Goldmann is the cantor at Monroe Temple Beth-El in Monroe, N.Y.

“We gave them all a liberal Jewish education, but we didn’t push anything on them,” Ms. Heymann said. “And they all came to it themselves.”

Ms. Hermann’s term ends in January, but she does not plan on retiring. Vital and energetic, she brims with plans to keep active in the she loves.

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