Becoming an American

Becoming an American

Kurt Roberg’s odyssey from Germany to Tenafly

(Photos courtesy Kurt Roberg)
(Photos courtesy Kurt Roberg)

This year, the Fourth of July will be odd. We will be socially distancing; it’s hard to watch fireworks that way, instead of all jammed in together, staring upward. It might be a little harder than usual to remember what the fireworks are about — that we are celebrating our democratic ideals, the birth of liberty in the New World, the founding of the great American experiment.

Some of us might find that celebration a bit hard to join in wholeheartedly this year, with the pandemic, the cratering economy, and the racial upheaval all around us.

But it always is useful to remember the experiences of those people who were not born here but have become citizens of what we hope will remain this great land of ours.

Kurt Roberg

It is our habit at the Jewish Standard to talk to immigrants, people who chose to become Americans, to mark the Fourth of July. So now, meet Kurt Roberg.

Mr. Roberg, who lives in Tenafly, was born in Germany in 1924; he got off a boat in Jersey City — passing by the Statue of Liberty’s other side — exactly 69 years ago this month. He was 18, and had lived, by a conservative estimate, many lifetimes.

He went on to have an adventurous and prosperous life; he’s now a 96-year-old widower, a father, a veteran of the U.S. Army and World War II in the Pacific, and a successful retired businessman. But the story of how he made it to the United States, like the story of just about every Jew who found his or her way here during that benighted time, from benighted Europe, is a wild one.

Above, Kurt Roberg’s class in Calle in 1937, with Mr. Klemm. Right, Kurt with his parents in Calle in 1938. (Courtesy Kurt Roberg)

Mr. Roberg was born in Celle, a town in northern Germany, near the city of Hanover, in 1924. He could trace his father’s family back to 1690 in Celle, and his mother’s to 1725, in a small town in southern Germany. His father’s family were butchers and his mother’s family were cattle dealers; those were two of the few trades open to Jews.

His father, Victor, had been apprenticed to a dry-goods merchant when he was 14, and eventually became a traveling salesman. “The most modern method of transportation in that time was a bicycle,” Mr. Roberg said, so his father pedaled his way to the farmers in the countryside, sample cases in big carrier baskets strapped to the bike.

Victor was terribly near-sighted, so he did not fight in World War I. Instead, he founded his own business, one of four Jewish-owned ones in Celle. In 1921, he married Frieda Marx; the two met through an ad in a local Jewish newspaper, not unlike the kind of ads that used to run, maybe until 20 or so years ago, on the back page of the still-flourishing Village Voice. “My mother ran the store, and my father continued traveling,” Mr. Roberg said. His older brother, Hans — later called Harry — was born, and soon Kurt completed the family.

Kurt with his parents in Calle in 1938. (Courtesy Kurt Roberg)

It was not an easy time to be a Jew in Germany; in fact, it was not an easy time to be a German. “There was tremendous inflation in Germany after the war,” Mr. Roberg said. “Business was very difficult, and there was a lot of political uproar.

“I remember, even when I was a small boy, the communists and the Marxists and the Nazis and the storm troopers would antagonize each other. They’d hold parades, drive into each other’s territory, and have fights. It was a very tumultuous time.

“It was the roaring 20s in America, but that was not the case in Europe.”

How did a young Jewish family cope in that dangerous environment? “We all stayed away,” Mr. Roberg said. “Even as small children, we were very aware of all of it.”

Above, in 1952, Kurt went back to Rotterdam for the first time. From left, he’s with his uncle Wilhelm, Wilhem’s wife, Suus, Kurt’s cousin. Hilde, her husband Marijn van Dantzig, and their son Guido. Below, Kurt took the SS Escambion, below, to Jersey City in 1941. (Courtesy Kurt Roberg)

Celle had one synagogue, built in 1741. “The Jews of that time weren’t allowed to live within the city walls,” Mr. Roberg said. “They lived right outside the walls.” By the time he came along, “We didn’t have a rabbi. There were maybe 20 Jewish families, and not all of them attended services.”

His family was nominally Orthodox. “My father did eat pork occasionally, but he was not allowed to bring it into the house,” Mr. Roberg said. “He ate it on the outside, when he traveled.” The house was kept kosher, but by an idiosyncratic definition. “We mixed meat and dairy, but we didn’t eat any pork. This was called New Kosher.” Mr. Roberg laughed.

He went to a public school — because parents are parents, across time and space, his mother worked hard to get him into the right grade for him, despite his birthday, so he started a bit early — and “I was the only Jewish boy in my class,” he said. “Aside from my brother, there were only about three or four Jewish children our age in the school.” The Jewish children were exempt from the otherwise mandatory religious class; he went to Hebrew school on Sunday mornings and Wednesday afternoons.

Amid those pleasant or neutral memories, there are bad ones. “The Nazis came into power in January 1933, and I remember that April 1, 1933, was the first Nazi boycott of all Jewish stores,” Mr. Roberg said. “I only had school in the morning, and I came home” — the family lived near the business, a dry-goods store — “and there were two uniformed Nazis standing to the left and the right of the door to our store. They had painted swastikas on the windows, and they were hollering ‘Don’t buy from Jews.’ I walked in between them to get in the store.

“My mother was glad that I was back, and she told me that nobody had come into the store all morning because they were intimated by the Nazis. And then a woman came in — she’d never been a customer, and in a small town you didn’t have much walk-in business. You had your clientele. So this woman came in, and she said, ‘Mrs. Roberg, I don’t really need anything, but I saw those two guys standing there, so I had to come in.’

“She stayed for about 10 minutes. She didn’t buy anything, but she walked out with her head held high.”

Kurt with his uncle, Wilhelm Marx, in Rotterdam in 1941. (Courtesy Kurt Roberg)

Life continued more or less as normal. The German public school system offered some choices; parents could choose a school that prepared a child for a trade or a more academic path. Mr. Roberg went to a school that taught modern languages and was seen as a way to enter business. The school, for which parents had to pay, had about 400 students. The two Roberg boys, Hans and Kurt, were the only Jews. Some of the teachers were members of the Nazi party; “they were placed in the school not only to report on the students but also on the teachers,” Mr. Roberg said. One year, his homeroom teacher was a Nazi. The next year, his homeroom teacher, Mr. Klemm, was “my favorite teacher, really my guardian angel,” he said. “He was a prince of a man, and he protected me.”

In 1935, the Robergs closed their business; the boycott killed it. “We lived off what little money my father could get from selling to the farmers in the country, but there was anti-Semitism,” Mr. Roberg said. He remembers that one day he went along with his father; the two of them biked to Bergen and then to Belsen. Those places then were country towns. Later, they became death camps.

1936, Mr. Roberg’s mother’s brother, Wilhelm, a successful and wealthy businessman, moved to Holland. He took in many family members, including Harry, who joined his uncle in Rotterdam and trained as an electrician. Plans were underway to get Kurt to Holland too in 1938, when Kristallnacht happened. “Of course then we knew that there was no future in Germany for Jews,” Mr. Roberg said.

Frieda Roberg was a very smart woman. That summer, when England and France signed the Munich Pact with Germany — that’s when Britain’s deluded prime minister, Neville Chamberlain, promised “peace in our time” — “my mother had the foresight to take a trip to the American consulate to get a visa,” her son said. It wasn’t so easy. There was a waiting list. “You took a number, like in a bakery.” She got herself on the waiting list for six visas — three for her family, and three for another family.

The Robergs did not know about Kristallnacht at first because “we did not have a radio,” Mr. Roberg said. There were some primitive sets around, but “Jews were not allowed to listen to the radio, because they weren’t allowed to listen to foreign stations.” There was an all-German station, the Volksradio, but all it played was “Hitler’s tirades,” he said. It was propaganda.

“So at 7 the next morning our doorbell rang. It was the Jewish maid of a Jewish family we were friendly with, the Wulf family. Mr. Wulf was the head of the Jewish congregation, and he had one of the few Jewish stores that still was open.

“She said, ‘Don’t you know what’s going on?’”

Then she told them that the Wulfs’ store was demolished, and that the family was hiding in the attic.

And then it was time for Kurt to go to school.

“The school was only about 100 yards behind our garden, and my mother could look into my class window. So she said, ‘You go to school, like it is any other day, but if there is a problem, I will blow on the whistle three times.’” The family had a very loud whistle; his mother would blow it to tell him that it was dinnertime, Mr. Roberg said.

“So I went to school, and it was very quiet as I walked in. Usually there was a lot of conversation. And then the teacher came in. Everybody sort of looked at me. The kids who had come through town had seen that the Jewish stores were demolished and all the merchandise was thrown out into the street. Mr. Klemm came in, and he saw me, and he called me up front, and he said, ‘Roberg, do you know what is going on in town?’ And I said yes. He said, ‘You can stay here or any time you want to leave, you can go.’ So I sat down, and we had recess, and then we came back, and about a quarter to 11 I heard my mother blow the whistle from the kitchen window.

“I looked over and I saw her at the window, so I excused myself, like I was going to the bathroom, left my books there, and went home.”

He never went back to school in Germany. The next day, Jews were told not to go back.

Meanwhile, when he got home, “my mother said, ‘The Gestapo was here. They arrested father and took him into protective custody so he would be protected from the outrage of the population.’”

His mother continued her story. “They said, ‘You have a son. Where is your son?’ I said, ‘He is at school.’

“I was 14 years old then,” Mr. Roberg said. “If I had been at home, they would have taken me away too.” They were supposed to take only boys who were 18 and over, he added, but they weren’t sticklers for such details.

That day, Frieda Roberg was able to get to a telephone; she called her brother in Rotterdam, and the work to get Kurt out of Germany began.

About a month later, Victor Roberg came back home. “He was a broken man,” his son said. “Physically and emotionally. He started to tell us how he was mistreated, and he would break down and cry.” From then on, his mother made all the decisions for the family by herself.

The Robergs were given 90 days to get out of Germany. The Nazis didn’t care how they did it, or that they had no resources left. They just had to be gone. That was the one desire that the Jews and the Nazis shared. They wanted to get out.

That Christmas Eve, Kurt got on a train by himself — the date was chosen because the Germans were off celebrating and that made traveling safer — and set off for Rotterdam. “The train came in from Hamburg and stopped for one minute in Celle,” he said. “I had to get into a compartment and open the window. The train already was moving and I was waving goodbye to my parents.” He was 14 years old.

Eventually all four Robergs ended up in Rotterdam. Kurt’s brother became an electrician, and Kurt went to trade school, studying auto mechanics. Kurt’s parents and his brother were able to use the visas that eventually came through to get to the United States; Kurt, still a student, stayed with his uncle. They all thought that Holland would remain neutral and safe; the Germans would need access to the Rhine River. But then “on May 10, the Germans invaded Holland. At 9 in the morning I heard the planes coming. There were military airports near Celle, so I knew the German aircraft by their sounds. I knew that I heard Junkers,” German warplanes. “My uncle said that I was crazy — but I wasn’t.

“And then the next morning, the Dutch police came. I had turned from refugee to enemy alien overnight. So they arrested me.” His uncle was not arrested; he’d become a Dutch citizen. “I and all the other German Jewish refugees were interned. We were taken to the town hall in Rotterdam, next a police station. The town hall wasn’t big enough, so they put us all in a dance hall. They put mattresses on the floor. They had a couple of guards there but it didn’t really matter. We weren’t going anywhere.” He was 15 by then.

The Dutch surrendered, but not in time to stop the bombing of Rotterdam. “They said, ‘Oh, the planes already were on their way, and we couldn’t call them back,’” Mr. Roberg said. “It’s not like they didn’t have radio.”

Bombs fell on the police station and the town hall, and got the dance hall too. “The ceiling fell in,” Mr. Roberg said. “Luckily in school in Germany we’d already had training about what to do. I’d learned that if you are in someplace being bombed, you stand under a doorway instead of out in the open. So I did, and that’s what saved me. The man standing next to me was hit by shrapnel, and the walls started falling in. The Dutch guards said, ‘Go! Run! Save yourselves! So I ran to our apartment, which was maybe 10 minutes away. My uncle wasn’t there. I grabbed my bicycle and some clothes and my stamp collection and put them on my bike.” Traffic had stopped entirely, but Kurt was able to ride his bike through the snarled mess, and went to cousins who lived at a safe distance. From there, “we watched Rotterdam burn,” he said. It took a week for the fires to be entirely out; much of the city had been rendered unlivable.

Kurt moved around; life eventually became so normal that he was able to go back to trade school, this time in Gouda rather than Amsterdam. But eventually the Germans got tired of being gentle with the Dutch, hoping to win them over.

Kurt’s uncle kept trying to get his nephew to America, but problem after problem arose. Kurt’s passport had been in the American consulate in Rotterdam when it burned, “and with no passport you can’t go anywhere.” They started to get his documents together, but it was a slow process. Eventually, though, he did get a passport. And then he had a piece of luck. He was put in contact with Geertruida Wijsmuller-Meijer, whose life’s work was to reunite Jewish children stuck in Europe with their parents in America. Ms. Wijsmuller-Meijer was recognized as Righteous Among the Nations by Yad VaShem. One of the children she rescued was Kurt Roberg. After making his way to Amsterdam, and after a series of misadventures that had a bunch of children and their careful adult guardians from the local Jewish Agency going from the Portuguese embassy to the Spanish embassy and back again — their ship to America was to leave from Lisbon — eventually they got on the Excambion, the American Export Line ship that took them across the Atlantic to safety and eventually to freedom. It was 1941.

Passage, however, was not free. Kurt’s mother had to buy him a ticket. It cost $180. “The most important coin in America in 1940 was a nickel,” Mr. Roberg said. “For a nickel, you got a cup of coffee or a ride on the subway. So $180 was a lot of money.

This is the visa that finally got Kurt into the United States. (Courtesy Kurt Roberg)

“I came across on the Excambion in a cabin with 11 other people,” he continued. “It was mainly a freight ship; it carried only 180 passengers. And it had only one class, which I found was very comforting.

“I was exposed to American food for the first time. There were very nice people at my table. I didn’t have any money, but they had a daughter about my age. She would take me to the soda fountain and buy me a Coke for a nickel.

“And then, on June 3, I sent a telegraph to my mother from the ship. She didn’t know I was on my way. I had to borrow two dollars from a German-speaking steward on the ship to send the telegraph.”

Frieda Roberg was on the dock to meet her son when the boat arrived, but the reunion didn’t happen as planned. The termination date had been left off his visa; the date it was issued was four months and a day before the day he landed. The termination date was supposed to be four months after the document was issued. And the boat left a day after it was supposed to leave, and so got to New York the day after it was supposed to arrive. Had everything gone on schedule, there would have been no problem.

Kurt was held back when everyone else got off the boat, and then “the immigration guy called me back. He looks at me and says, ‘Why were you trying to enter this country with an expired visa?’ And I said, ‘We left late! I was onboard the whole time!’ He said ‘There seems to be a conflict here. You can’t go on shore. You have to stay onboard.’”

The boat landed in Jersey City. “My mother was on the pier waiting for me. I finally located her, and she came to the part of the ship rail where I was standing, and we shouted back and forth. But they wouldn’t let me go down to her, and they wouldn’t let her come up to me.”

Instead, Kurt slept on the ship that night, and then the next day he got on a motorboat that took him to Ellis Island, which would be his home for the next two months.

The first judge to consider whether he could stay in the United States decided that he did not have the authority to decide, so the question was handed over to the State Department.

This is Ellis Island in 1941; Kurt lived there for two months that year, until the State Department decided that his visa was good enough to allow him to stay in America. (Courtesy Kurt Roberg)

On Ellis Island, “during the day we were kept in the large receiving hall,” Mr. Roberg said; “we” were the other Jewish would-be immigrants whose paperwork was not straightforward. “We were led to the dining hall for meals, and the guards would stand and count us with a mechanical printer. From the dining room we went back to the day lounge. We were allowed to go outside for one hour, from 10 to 11 in the morning. We slept in dormitories — there was one for men and one for women. Families could not stay together.

“That was life on Ellis Island.”

His case went forward. “Some Jewish organizations worked on my behalf,” he said. “Primarily HIAS. And also, interestingly enough, the American Export Line’s lawyer.” Why? Because if he lost, he’d be deported, and the shipping line would be out the $180 ticket. It was cheaper to pay a lawyer’s hourly rates, Mr. Roberg said.

This is the cash that Kurt had in his pocket when he got to New York in June 1941. (Courtesy Kurt Roberg)

Eventually, the State Department sent a letter to Mr. Roberg’s parents, who were living in Washington Heights, telling them that he was free to enter the country. “My father was severely handicapped, and he also was very nearsighted, so he couldn’t handle the subway. He went to my uncle” — another uncle, that is, not the Rotterdam one — “who took a day off from work and went to Ellis Island to tell me that I was free.

“So he picked me up, and we went on the ferry, and he took me to Manhattan, and that is how I entered this country. He took me by subway — the IRT — to 168th Street and Broadway. When I came outside, the first sign I saw was Broadway and the biggest building I saw was Columbia Presbyterian.” He was confused. Was this Broadway? He was expecting 42nd Street.

Now, Kurt began the process of becoming an American. He lived way uptown, in Inwood, surrounded by other German Jewish refugees. The apartment was on the top floor. “It was easy to find something on the top floor, because a lot of people didn’t want to live there,” he said. “What would happen to them if New York were bombed?”

His first job was in Jersey City, as an upholsterer, making $12 a week. Minimum wage was $14. “My cousin told me that in America, you can quit any time, and you can be fired any time. So I came in on the fourth day and said that I was quitting, and they paid me seven dollars and 20 cents for those three days.” He’d gotten another job, “so I immediately saved 50 cents a week commuting. That was big money to me then.”

Mr. Roberg went to work in a machine shop, and he rose quickly in the company; it did defense work, “and I became the foreman. I was 18, and I was in charge of about 60, 70 people. I got several army deferments because of the contracts, but after the third deferment they said I had to report for military service.

“So in August 1942, I was drafted.” He was 19. And that’s how he became an American not only in worldview and outlook but also officially — “you could not be sent overseas unless you were a citizen,” he said. His brother, who was drafted before Kurt, fought in the Battle of the Bulge, but the general in charge of the division into which Kurt was placed “decided that nobody born in Germany, either Jewish or Christian, should go back to Europe, because if we were captured, we would be treated differently — not better! — so a bunch of us were sent to California, where we became citizens, and then to the Pacific.” He was in the 223 Field Artillery Battalion, he added.

“I was lucky. They didn’t tell us where we were going, but I ended up on New Caledonia, the only island in the entire South Pacific that had no cases of malaria.”

His time on New Caledonia was colorful, Mr. Roberg said; it involved “an arrangement with a local French widow that could have been in ‘South Pacific,’” the 1949 Rodgers and Hammerstein musical. He was sent to the Philippines for training and was meant to be part of the planned invasion of Japan “when the atom bombs went off, and that changed our lives.

“Our outfit was disbanded, and I was sent to Manila. I elected to be a guard in a Japanese prisoner of war camp. I didn’t want to be involved in anything else.” He was discharged in 1946 and went back to his old job.

Since then — and it’s been many decades since then — Mr. Roberg has prospered. He married Constance Altman soon after he got back, and they had two children, Inez and Paul. He eventually got to go to college, graduating from Baruch College with a long-overdue bachelor’s degree. He worked in the photography business; he was an innovator in developing archival photographic storage and preservation systems. The family moved to Tenafly in 1964, and Mr. Roberg has been there ever since; Constance Altman Roberg died in 1989.

Mr. Roberg has been going back to Germany since 1952; his attempts to get restitution for his family’s demolished business did not yield much other than frustration, but he’s worked hard to teach Germans about their history by bearing witness to it. He went back to Celle often. “I have seen the changes that have taken place there, but I also recognized that the former Nazis suddenly had forgotten all about having been Nazis.” Since then, those former Nazis largely have died off, and Mr. Roberg has dedicated himself to making sure their descendants know what happened.

In 2005, the Jewish Museum in Berlin asked Mr. Roberg to contribute to an exhibit called Home and Exile — Heimat & Exil in German. The curators chose almost 100 of the documents he lent them for the display; once the exhibit was finished, Mr. Roberg made the loan permanent. He frequently goes to the museum and talks and teaches there.

“To me, it is very worthwhile to educate German students — youngsters and adults — about the Holocaust. When they read about it, it really doesn’t mean a hell of a lot to them. But when they hear it from an eyewitness, that makes an impression.

“That has been the focus of my efforts.”

Mr. Roberg seemingly remembers everything that has happened to him over the course of a very long and very eventful life. And he has strong feelings, based on these experiences.

“I have some thoughts about where we were 80 years ago, and where we are heading in the future,” he said. “We German -Jewish ‘refugees,’ as we were called, in comparison to other ‘immigrants,’ adhered to all the required immigration rules and regulations, no matter how complex or difficult.

“Unbeknown to us was the existing but disguised anti-Semitism in the United States at the time, both in government circles as well as in business and society. Looking back on 50 years of business, I held jobs with only Jewish companies, starting with Sam Kofsky” — where he worked as a machinist before the war — “and ending with Joshua Meier Co.,” the photography company. “Jews were a minority in the 1930s and after World War II — as we are today — and were discriminated against on many levels.

“We have come a long way since then, but there is still a lot to be changed by present and future generations. My efforts have been to remember and learn from history, so the errors are not repeated.”

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