Memories of a Schoolgirl – Part 5

We all loved the Americans. They gave us magazines, including a Look magazine with Perry Como on the cover. I thought that was such a funny name. I saw a story about an actress who seemed self-centered in the extreme, talking egotistically about her fingernails and her hair. Someone gave me a copy of the book Forever Amber, which I put aside because I was too busy. Later I read it to improve my English.

One day some unusual refugees knocked on the door. The young Count Esterhazy and his pregnant wife had fled Hungary, along with her mother and her mother’s gentleman friend. They had escaped with only their jewels. The countess and her mother were absolutely beautiful, with black hair and black eyes. The count was tall and blond. They asked for shelter and we put them up for awhile. Later they found a place of their own, after the count started working for the American forces. He came back once in a while to ask for milk for the baby and onions to put in their goulash.

The mother Maria was very friendly. She read my palm one day and she said, “You will marry a man who is working in an institution with many men.” I visualized many big buildings, and later Henry worked at West Point, teaching math to cadets. Years later, we read in the New York Times about a family named Esterhazy, recent immigrants to the United States, who were employed as cooks for an orphanage on Staten Island. A picture accompanied the story, so we knew it was the same family.

Henry left sometime in the fall. He made a business trip to Kissingen and did not know when he would be coming back. Upon his return, he walked over to our house, and I was so happy to see him. He told us he would be leaving for good. We all went to the airport to see him off in a small plane to Bremerhaven. He was going back to the U.S. on a transport ship full of black soldiers who would be under his command. He was gone and I really did not expect to see him again.

Fraternize

Several weeks later, I got a letter from Henry with the heading “My Darling,” which I thought was rather bold because he had never called me that. We did not have any real love relationship before he left. In the envelope was a clipping from the New York Times with the headline “Fraternization Ban Lifted.” In the letter Henry told me he was Jewish and he hoped that would not make a difference. He asked me to marry him. I answered the letter and said yes. My English was not very good, and I do not remember what I wrote.

After I had accepted Henry’s proposal, he gave instructions on how to obtain permission to enter the United States. (To our disappointment, he could not get enough leave to come back to Germany so we could be married in the White House.) Soon I met George and Alice Leavitt, an Army Colonel and his wife who were temporarily staying at the White House while on official business in Kassel. We were introduced at the ping pong table, and they both played. In the course of our conversation, I told them about Henry and me, and that I was about to apply for a visa at the consulate in Frankfurt. They volunteered to help. What a Godsend!

The Leavitts invited me and Elisabeth Vorster to stay in their apartment in Frankfurt. They lived in the American compound near the IG Farben building, in the very same neighborhood where I had lived with the Fahrenbergers during my school days. They took us to the consulate and to the CIA headquarters, where I was interviewed to make sure I was not a Nazi bigshot. Then I waited. Several times I was called back to Frankfurt, which was horrible because the trains were overflowing with people, standing room only. One had to fight to get on the train.

I waited and waited. It took about a year and a half before I was given permission to enter the United States. I think the authorities took their time in an effort to discourage marriages with the “enemy.” Henry was required to pay a security deposit of $400 in case I wanted to go back to Germany.

Meanwhile, we went on with our farm work. After the harvest was in, Hans Jürgen started to work on a secret project. One day he came running from the stable area and stopped in front of me, speechless. I looked at his face and was horrified. It was bright red with loose pieces of skin all over. Hans Jürgen seemed to be in shock, so I ran for help. The adults decided quickly to ask for help from the Americans, who would be better equipped for such an emergency than any village doctor. Within half an hour, a car drove up with a doctor and Hans Jürgen was whisked away to a hospital. When they brought him back, his face was a white mask of bandages with peepholes for the eyes and mouth. He was ordered to stay in bed in his attic room. The doctor came to visit periodically. When the mask finally came off, his face looked as good as new. What had caused all this trauma? Hans Jürgen wanted to make sugar beet schnaps as a Christmas present for everyone, and he used a milk can for the distilling process. When he opened it to peek inside, the steam hit him in the face.

The following summer was not very exciting. Col. Weikert, who was a circus aficionado, took us to see the Zirkus Althoff when it came to Kassel. He befriended the Althoff family, so we got to know them too. Col. McCartney’s wife and daughter arrived from the States and joined him in the White House. It was suggested that Rosy and I take the daughter, who was about Rosy’s age, for a ride through the fields and woods in a horse carriage. This outing turned out to be a flop. She was obviously bored and we could not think what to do to keep her entertained, especially since we could not speak the same language.

Wedding

Wedding day at West Point, November 26, 1947

The black market had been flourishing since the collapse of the third Reich, but now some normal activities were starting up. The first store to open in Kassel was Woolworth. The theater and movie houses opened, but we did not go often.

Finally, in the fall of 1947, the visa came. Elisabeth Vorster employed a refugee who was a professional seamstress, and she made a handsome suit for me to wear while traveling. Elisabeth also gave me some of her dresses, so I could arrive in what style was possible. Henry had arranged for me to fly TWA from Frankfurt. When the great day arrived, Elisabeth, Rosy, and Elisabeth’s best friend all came to the airport to see me off. When I had boarded the plane, I looked out the window and saw Rosy in bitter tears, which gave me a stab in the heart. Then the plane took off, and Germany was behind me.

The flight was uneventful until we were over Boston, and suddenly we were in a terrible storm. The plane started to shake and shudder and I got awfully sick. But it soon stopped and we landed at La Guardia airport in New York. The first American I encountered was a gruff and unwelcoming customs official. But as soon as I was past him, there was Henry, looking slim and graceful in a grey civilian suit. He took me out to the car, where his mother Flossie was waiting. As we drove north along the Hudson River, Flossie was saying, “Look Elisabeth, look,” and I was turning my head right and left to see the flaming fall colors.

For me coming to America was wonderful; I felt euphoric. West Point was beautiful, all the officers were so friendly, and people were always joking. Henry acquainted me immediately with the man he had chosen to be his best man, Harold Ogden, a handsome Army Air Force captain who had taught him to fly an airplane. Harold asked me, “Elisabeth, do you think I’m sexy?” To me that was a very naughty thing to say. I answered, “Oh, noooooo!” and they all laughed.

Henry’s father Milton arrived before the wedding, and his first words to me were, “You look like a picture.” We went to the chaplain’s office for instruction and baptism into the Episcopal Church, and on the 26th of November 1947, we were married in the Cadet Chapel by Father Frank Pulley of Louisburg, N.C.

Katz Family

Mess call for the Katz family, Vienna, 1959:
Marie, Henry, Elisabeth, Katherine and William