“There were many documented experiences of people who survived the voyage from Germany and other war-affected countries to America, but this is one that truly stood out. This is the story of a six-year-old boy named Yanek Levine, who journeyed to America by boat at the age of 10…”
There were many documented experiences of people who survived the voyage from Germany and other war-affected countries to America, but this is one that truly stood out. This is the story of a six-year-old boy named Yanek Levine, who journeyed to America by boat at the age of 10…
It all started the day Mother insisted that we wore bands with a star on our arms and pins on our school uniforms. Mother told me that it meant that I was extra special and not to ever take it off. My three best friends whose fathers were often picking up their tailored suits at my father’s shop no longer talked to me. While I was inside reading a book with my papa, my friends Louis, Leon, and Noah were with their fathers on the street corner, monitoring our neighborhood where everybody wore an arm band. Except for them.
In the coming weeks, even more stiff soldiers with red armbands began lining our streets. Every time we passed them, Papa squeezed my hand extra tight, and I did the same to him because I thought it was a game. When I went to Papa’s tailor shop with him, the same soldiers walked in to pick up their uniforms, but Papa did not seem to take any money like he usually did with other customers, and he didn’t smile either.
The tension really started picking up when Papa and Mama were making latkes for our neighbor’s Bar Mitzvah. As I was getting ready for bed, we received a knock on our door from our neighbor, Henrike. He muttered something in Hebrew to my father. Immediately afterward, Father pulled his yarmulke off of his head and clutched it in his fist, close to his heart. I slowly stepped back into my room, and all that I could hear was the wailing sounds of the sirens and the piercing sounds of bombs cascading through the sky and falling around us. Moments later, stern German words from angry Nazi soldiers invaded my home. I wondered if they were the same Nazis that watched our every move. As I was hiding in the closet of my room, the voices became louder and louder. I could see the tip of a rifle poking my belongings. From the kitchen I could hear my mother screaming my father’s name in Polish —
“Wake up! Wake up!”
Then a bang suddenly silenced her too.
When there were no more polished boots shuffling around my flat, I climbed out of the broken window and onto the street where the smell of fire filled the air and ash trickled down from the sky. Giant trucks drove past me loaded with frightened people anxiously wondering where they were headed. I knew my mother told me never to take the armband off, but I felt the need to. I ran past Papa’s tailor shop, but found that it had been destroyed. I stood motionless, staring at what was left of his humble business, until I heard loud men screaming in German and dogs barking rabidly. I ran and ran until I reached the Baltic Sea, which was several miles away from my home. I sat near the edge of the ocean and from my pocket I pulled out a latke that my mama had given me before I went to my room. I began to eat it. With every bite, I thought of her more, and my heart felt heavy with memories. In the haze and confusion of the night, I fell asleep.
I was abruptly woken up by the sound of a man yelling from a boat. I quickly got up and almost ran in the opposite direction because I thought the soldiers were coming after me, but the man threw a blanket in my direction, so I sensed he was nice. I was still a little uneasy, so I slowly walked over to him. All of a sudden out of nowhere a little kid appeared from behind him. He was speaking German. I couldn’t really hear what they were saying, but I grabbed the blanket as the father reached his hand out toward me and pulled me onto the boat. On the boat, I studied the little boy and noticed that he looked about my age and had blonde hair and blue eyes unlike me. My curly brown hair fell just above my green eyes. The boy, Abe, motioned me downstairs to the bottom of the boat where other Jewish families were quietly huddled together. We arrived at nearby location where we picked up another woman. The lady grabbed Abe and gave him a kiss. His eyes lit up, and I could sense she was his mom. I saw their warm exchange and felt a sense of jealousy because I yearned for the safety of my mom’s arms. The kind man docked the boat in front of a small stone house. He aided everyone get off the boat. We all walked up a pathway where the mom took everyone else into a bunker and told Abe to bring me inside their home. Abe initially just looked at me but did not respond.
The mom became firm and said again in German, “Take him in the house now!”
Once we arrived in the house, they set me up in Abe’s room with him.
That night as we ate dinner around the table, the mom in a soft voice said, “You are one of us now too.”
As the dad looked over, he stopped eating his mashed potatoes and rustled my hair and smiled.
After one year of finally settling into my new life, news got out that the Nazis were starting to invade nearby towns. Fearing that we were in danger, we got back onto the boat with the other families who had been staying in the bunker. As we set sail, the water became choppy, and ships started coming our way. One ship came too close and overturned our small boat. Before we knew it, we were tied up to a post on the larger German ship. The ship quickly docked and brought us to a camp that I now know was constructed to work us to death. We were separated by men, women, and children. My curly hair fell at my feet as my hair was shaved off. They took my clothes and gave me an oversized prisoner’s uniform, which had blue and white stripes on it. I was beaten every time I stepped out of line or did not finish my work details. I was given broth and hard bread to eat which made it very hard to function since it was my only meal for the entire day. What scarred me the most though was watching the other prisoners get tortured to death especially, Abe.
This monotonous pattern of my day to day life lasted nearly three years. On May 8, 1945, the guards had woken us up early and shuffled us out of the camps as far as they could. All of a sudden, they brought us to a halt and forced us to kneel down, and they started executing random prisoners, but in the midst of all of this chaos planes flew from overhead, and shots were fired not at us this time but at the guards. We all looked at each other trembling in both fear and jubilation. Moments later, the area was surrounded by French soldiers who took us to a displaced persons camp in Austria.
The conditions were far better than what I had experienced in the Dachau, concentration camp, north of Berlin but were still rather challenging. For example, we were provided clothes and food, but it was difficult to recuperate. Many suffered from malnutrition and other diseases that they acquired at their camps, and nearly everyone was suffering from posttraumatic stress. One of the French soldiers named Abrial who oversaw the camp took a special interest in me and helped me find distant family in America.
During the war, only 16,000 individuals were allowed into the America. However, after the war, under the Displaced Persons Act of 1948, I along with 205,000 DP’s and 17,000 orphans were permitted entry into the United States. I was brought before a board in Hamburg, Germany where I was screened to make sure that I was suitable for entering the country. I suppose I passed the interview because a few weeks later I boarded a C-4 Troopship headed toward America. The voyage was estimated to take ten days. The mood on the ship was bittersweet. Many were aware that they were leaving their country where they were raised as well as a very dark past. Yet we looked forward to starting a new life.
On the tenth day we arrived in America, I was greeted by my aunt and all of my distant relatives. The only time they had seen me was in pictures before the war had begun. As I looked deep into her eyes I could see my mother’s reflection, and I knew that I was going to be okay.
My new life in Pennsylvania was exactly what I needed to recuperate. I was able to lean on the sewing skills that my papa had taught me as a young child back in Poland. Sewing helped me block out the bad memories of the war and brought me closer to Papa. Sewing indirectly saved my life at Dachau too because the soldiers’ uniforms often needed mending. After graduating high school in Pennsylvania, I met the love of my life, Linda. We moved to New York City where I opened up my own tailor shop which I called Morty’s in honor of my father. Soon after Linda and I settled into our new life together, we had our first child — a boy, whom we named Abe. Abe Levine’s blonde hair, blue eyes, and kind heart will forever connect me to the Abe Müller that helped me persevere through one of the hardest times of my life.