Growing up in Chile

Growing up in Chile

Evi Meinhardt, first of Vienna, now of Livingston, remembers life in Santiago

If the stories of Holocaust survivors were not so all-encompassingly traumatic, terrifying, and nightmarish; if their experiences did not include full-on exposure to undeniable evil, we would be able to pay more attention to the stories of Holocaust refugees.

Compared to survivors, they were lucky. Compared to the rest of us, though — those of us graced by birth into loving, stable families, with relatives and roots and jobs and joy, with birth certificates and passports, with a path forward —they were not so lucky. They were storm-tossed.

But some ended up on hospitable soil, and now they can look back, many decades later, and marvel at how far they’ve come.

Take, for example, Evi Singer Meinhardt of Livingston.

Ms. Meinhardt was born in Vienna in 1936. Kristallnacht — when the Nazis rampaged against synagogues, Jewish homes and business, and not to put too fine a point on it, Jews — happened in 1938. In 1939, Gertrude and Heinrich Singer and their only child, 2-year-old Evi, left.

“My father had a piece of paper that said Chile on it,” Ms. Meinhardt said. “We had no idea what that meant, or where that was. So we immigrated to Chile.

“We arrived there at the last minute of the last hour,” she added. They were lucky to get out.

“I grew up in Santiago,” she said.

Most of the family remained behind, and the Nazis killed them. Ms. Meinhardt’s maternal grandmother escaped with the family, although she soon died. Mr. Singer had a brother, Jack, who did not want to go to Chile. He held out until he was able to get a U.S. visa; he settled in Allentown, Pennsylvania.

Back in Vienna, the Singers had owned a warehouse where merchants used to store wholesale goods. They had no other particular skills, and “nobody in the family spoke Spanish,” Ms. Meinhardt said. But as they attempted to fit in — and maybe to disassociate himself from Germany and German — Heinrich became Enrique Singer.

Although they had no relatives in Chile, the Singers did not travel or arrive alone. The parents had close friends, the Salzbergers; Evi and her best friend, were born at just about the same time and in the same place — Vienna — and still are best friends now, even though Susi Salzberger Deutsch still lives in Chile. The families escaped together.

“My father and his friend Salzberger decided that they needed to do something to make some money,” Ms. Meinhardt said. “How do you make money in a country where you don’t know the language?

“So they decided to open a boarding house and rented rooms to the immigrants who were coming into Chile.

From left, Gertrude, Heinrich (Enrique), and Evi Singer, and Gertrude’s mother, Elsa Herzog.

“I don’t know how they did it — they came with $10 each — but the managed to open the boarding house, and little by little it grew and grew and grew, and finally my father decided that he’d had enough.

“Immigration was slowing down, and immigrants were becoming more affluent. So he sold the boarding house, and he decided that he would change his manner of life completely.

“He was a very good businessman,” she added.

“My mother died in the year 1948, and my father remarried in 1949,” Ms. Meinhardt said. “Lotte Singer was a wonderful woman, who had escaped the concentration camps.” Ms. Singer was born in Czechoslovakia; she’d been married and had a child, but both of them “died of typhoid in the camps,” Ms. Meinhardt said.

“Usually the stories about stepmothers are that they are not the greatest people in the world, but this woman was wonderful. She raised me, and today I am what she decided I could become. Up till this day, I thank her for what she did for me.”

The family spoke German at home but Ms. Meinhardt spoke fluent Spanish at school. “My stepmother, who spoke five languages, came into the family saying that I had to speak only Spanish to her, otherwise she would never learn it,” she reported. “She read every Spanish newspaper.”

Meanwhile, her father decided to transition from the boarding house to a button and zipper business. “That is a different story completely,” Ms. Meinhardt said. Her stepmother’s brother, Ivol Fryma, was an engineer who lived in Israel; her father and stepmother convinced him to go to Chile to use his craft on the notions they created.

“There was a Jewish community in Santiago then, and I was very involved in it,” she continued. “There was a club called Estadio, where all we young people would go. That’s where we’d meet boys, and be part of a social enclave.” HIAS — the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society — had an active presence in the city then, and there were both Ashkenazi and Sephardi shuls. “We joined the German one, which was more Orthodox than anything else,” Ms. Meinhardt said. “The women sat separately from the men.”

In 1957, after she graduated from high school, Ms. Meinhardt went to Allentown, where she lived with her uncle and his family for six months. That’s as long as her tourist visa allowed her to stay. “I had a wonderful time,” she said. “I decided that I wanted to come back.” So once she was back in Chile, she went to the U.S. embassy to apply for a visa.

“There was a quota,” she said. She found herself at the end of a five-year wait for Austrians; her parents had become Chilean citizens but they had not naturalized their child. “I don’t know why,” she said. “So I figured that if I got married in Chile before my papers came through, that would be fine. I’d stay there. If not, I would move to the United States.

“Either way, I’d go on with my life.”

So she waited in Chile for five years, working with her father. Meanwhile, the German Jewish community was sending their money out of Chile, feeling that it was much safer in the United States. She met someone, in fact, who worked for a bank and promised her a job, once her papers came through and she could immigrate up north.

Evi Meinhardt

It turned out not to be necessary.

Her papers finally came through. She hadn’t met a man she wanted to marry, so instead “I came to the United States. I flew. I came by myself. I was 26.

“I went to Allentown again, and my uncle accepted me again, but this time it was a short stay,” she said. ‘My father had close friends in the United States, Joe and Bessie Stern, who lived in West Orange. They introduced me to a young man they’d known all his life. Al Meinhardt.

“I came to the United States on a Tuesday, I met my Al that Sunday morning, three weeks later we were engaged, and three months later we were married.”

They married at Temple B’nai Abraham, which still was in Newark then. The officiant, another German Jew, was Dr. Joachim Prinz. “I’ve been a member of B’nai Abraham ever since,” Ms. Meinhardt said. “It’s been a long time.”

Al Meinhardt had been a part of B’nai Abraham for even longer. His parents, Elsebeth and Bernard, left Europe in 1939, just as Evi’s parents had — but they were able to go from Nuremberg straight to the United States, as the Singer could not. (Bernard’s bar mitzvah was the last in  his family’s shul before the Nazis vandalized and demolished it on Kristallnacht, his grandson said.)

They landed not in Ellis Island but in Hoboken, and moved to Newark, where they joined Rabbi Prinz’s synagogue.

Like Mr. Meinhardt’s parents, the young couple began their married life in Newark; of course, they lived in the Weequahic section. “We were and weren’t part of the community there,” Ms. Meinhardt said. Most of the people there were a bit older than she and Al were and they had escaped from Germany; her childhood in Santiago set her a bit apart. She and Al had been spared the horrors that they had lived through.

“They all flocked to Temple B’nai Abraham because Rabbi Prinz was there,” she said. “He was from Berlin, and many people knew him from there.”

Meanwhile, Evi and Al imported small leather goods from China. “We traveled a tremendous amount,” she said. “And we were quite successful. We went to Hong Kong, and then, when China opened up, we went there.” The company, B. Meinhardt — named after Al’s father, Bernard — started first in Newark, then Hillsdale, and then in East Hanover. The family — Evi, Al, and then their son, Edward, moved first to Hillside and then to Short Hills. Al died in 1991, and a few years later Evi moved to Livingston.

Ed and his wife, Elena, also joined B’nai Abraham; Ed is a former synagogue president, and Elena was a co-president of its sisterhood. They have two children; Jillian, 25, and Garrett, 22. “My kids are the fourth generation of Meinhardts at B’nai Abraham,” Ed said. “I was bar mitzvah in Livingston, and both my kids were bnai mitzvah at Livingston too, on the same bimah, under the same ner tamid.”

Which means that some of the people who escaped the Holocaust were able to set down roots.

Evi and Susi stand in front of the boarding house in Santiago that their families owned.