THE GREY FOLDER PROJECT
"THE ONLY WAY TO EMIGRATE is over Moscow, Siberia and Japan," my grandfather wrote in an account of their arduous journey through Russia and Asia to the United States, which he titled In the summer of 1940, from Berlin to Siberia and Japan to the U.S.A., an Unadorned Travel Report by Kurt Sonnemann. Margaret Jones of the American Friends Service Committee concurred. "The route via Siberia and Japan is the only one open," she wrote in a memo, "and it offers tremendous difficulties."
"As difficult. . . as it is to obtain ship tickets – since Italy was already at war," my grandfather wrote, "it was many times more difficult to obtain train and ship tickets and legal permits for this long trip . . .around halfway across the globe of the earth!"
The Russian Consulate made my grandparents wait four weeks for their visas, and they had to travel first to Berlin and then to Hamburg to obtain them. By that time, their paid-for ship tickets had somehow become lost, and all they had was a letter acknowledging receipt of the U.S. dollars paid for these tickets.
"SO WE HAD TO START this long journey, not knowing until Yokohama if this loss would be acknowledged," my grandfather wrote. "Independent of this was the difficulty of obtaining the various visas for this journey.
"These difficulties multiplied because those visas had to be issued in Hamburg -- because in Berlin we had to wait for many weeks. All told, to obtain all the needed visas to make this trip through Russia is truly most difficult!"
"My wife saw how mothers fell on their knees begging employees of the Russian Consulate for visas for themselves and their children -- turned down, and 'Next one, please," -- it was totally unfeeling. Add to this that the consulate knows only the name and occupation of the requester. Further inquiry from Moscow would take four to six weeks and the possibility to emigrate would be totally lost!"
Do you remember the bad and bitter morning
When we fled across land and sea
From the poem Abschied (Farewell) by Kurt Sonnemann. Read in its entirety here.
"SO ONE DAY WE AND MANY HUNDREDS of German Jews decided to go even though many had only funds to travel from Berlin to Moscow!"
With a rough translation of the "Unadorned Travel Report" from my father, I tried to follow their trip from Berlin.
In Vilna, Lithuania, they missed their connecting train to Moscow and had to wait until the next day. As they left the train station in search of a hotel (even though they had no money to pay for lodging), they witnessed a demonstration of the Lithuanian government's incorporation into the Soviet Union.
"As we left the railroad station, there was a tremendous mix of people -- hundreds of flags flying in the wind, huge pictures of Stalin followers, and it was a day of celebrations."
SOME OF THE MOST VIVID DESCRIPTIONS in the travel account are from the miserable week-long trip in third class accomodations on the Trans-Siberian train, with only a sack of straw to sleep on.
"Even at 35 C (95 degrees F), one is not allowed to open the windows," my grandfather wrote. "The dust of the steppe came through the closed windows and filled the train so that we could barely breathe. Every moment an attendant entered to clean up the dust."
The warm drinks offered "did not help to lift our spirits," he added. Every day the same meals appeared: "vegetable soup and never any meat. One look into the kitchen, seeing the cook clean the vegetables, was enough to kill your appetite." My father told me that his parents had subsisted on bread and tea, each of them losing 30 pounds on the journey.
In contrast to the misery of the Trans-Siberian, Opa recalled their stay in Moscow's Hotel Metropole before the train trip. "While in the train the conditions were terrible, here everything was wonderful," my grandfather wrote. "Marbled walls and shining clean toilet seats. . . all was shining and clean."
THE GEOGRAPHY OF THE TRAVEL ACCOUNT was a little confusing (and to further confuse me, Opa skipped around a bit in his account, with descriptions of Moscow both before and after the Trans-Siberian train trip) so to help sort it out I turned to my cousin, Thomas Lahusen, a professor of history and comparative literature at the University of Toronto. His grandmother, Rahel (with a fascinating story in her own right) was a sister of my grandmother Berta. Thomas grew up in Germany and Switzerland, has a deep interest and scholarly expertise in Soviet and Manchurian history, film and culture, and is fluent in English, French, German, Polish, and Russian, with speaking and comprehension skills in Chinese. Clearly he was the perfect person to interpret the passports' many visas and stamps!
"The passport pages are chilling," Thomas responded to the scans I'd sent him. "They passed through Manzhuli, the border station between today's Russia and China. That means they took the Chinese Eastern Railway which passed through Harbin. From there they continued on to Antung (Andong today) at the Manchukuo-Korean border, then two colonies of Japan."
"Strange how things happen in life," Thomas added. "I was always fascinated by the history of Manchuria." He recalled visiting my parents in Chicago years ago, telling them he was working on a film about Manchuria and Harbin. "My parents were there!" my father told him.
In Kobe, Japan, my grandfather writes, they were woken in the night, and drove through the night to Yokohama. "This way we could claim our ship tickets for the U.S.A. before expiration of our visas," my grandfather wrote. "In hot sunshine we arrived in Yokohama on 6 September with our visas expiring on 8 September." They boarded the M.S. Kamakura Maru on September 7, for a three-week trip, to arrive in San Francisco on September 21, 1940.
The most moving part of the Unadorned Travel Report, which my grandfather wrote on the ship from Japan, one week before they landed in San Francisco's Angel Island immigration Station, is at the very end. All the emotions and experiences -- the horrors endured in Germany, the rigors of the trip and the hopes of a future in America with their family -- are bundled together in the concluding paragraph. Even so long -- 75 years -- after these words were written they are still so poignant and heartfelt that they never fail to bring me to tears.
A SHIP NOT TAKEN.: My grandparents were originally scheduled to go on a ship from Yokohama to Seattle, but because of a mix-up, they had to wait some days and take a ship to San Francisco.
"AFTER ANOTHER WEEK ON THE SHIP, we will arrive in San Francisco and will then have seen the greatest part of the world. We know that thousands of electric lights will greet our arrival. We have been traveling underway for six weeks and our final goal is Chicago. There we will be greeted by our two sons! There, after this long separation, we will finally hug our sons! It is all like a long dream to put our arms around our sons, to forget terrible Germany, the war, the persecutions of us Jews! I have lost 30 pounds, but here in the USA where one can get all, I will soon regain it all! Full of gratitude to all in reaching our new home, finally found in health." ---K.S.
RE-UNITED. My grandparents with their sons in Chicago in October of 1940, shortly after completing their long journey