On Oct. 15, 1937, my father crossed the border from Kehl, in the southwest corner of Germany, into Strasbourg, France. Five days later he boarded the SS Bremen in Cherbourg for the five–day voyage across the Atlantic to New York.
One of Dad’s first jobs in New Haven was working as a night clerk at the Hotel York, a residential hotel in a sketchy neighborhood near the railroad station. He earned $10 a week, which even in those days was a paltry sum. In January 1939 he took a job as a salesman for the J.R. Watkins Company, a Minnesota-based maker of soaps, spices, extracts, and other household products.
My parents were both Ashkenazi Jews from not-very-observant families, but that’s where their similarities ended. My father grew up in a world of big houses, fancy cars, and vacations at posh resorts. My mother was the product of a tight-knit family of modest means. She was 31 when she married and had lived with her parents in the same house virtually her entire life.
I grew up in the first-floor flat of my grandmother’s house on Willow Street in New Haven. It was a neighborhood of stout, three-story shingled houses a mile or so from the ivy-covered neo-Gothic halls of Yale University. It was a tight-knit community of immigrant families, mostly Italian, Irish, and Jewish.
Once or twice a year Dad took the family to New York for a weekend matinee. The show that made the deepest impression on me was a performance by the French mime Marcel Marceau. From the moment he shuffled onto the stage in his signature striped sailor shirt, tight-fitting black vest, and white bell-bottom trousers, I was completely in his thrall.
On Tuesday, August 18, 1942, Train Da 503 pulled away from Platform 40 of Frankfurt’s Grossmarkthalle. Its destination was a small town north of Prague, near an old fortress called Theresienstadt. The train was packed with more than a thousand elderly Jews. Among them were my grandfather Otto Kupfer, 68, and his 72-year-old sister Mina. Both would be dead by the end of the year.