Gloria DeVidas Kirchheimer

We Were So Beloved: Autobiography of a German Jewish Community

Excerpt from the Introduction


My dad woke me up at 12:30. He couldn't wait until morning to tell me that the good guy had beaten the bad guy. Joe Louis, the American, had defeated Max Schmeling, the German. It was June 1938, two years after my arrival in America from Germany. I was seven years old.

I had been primed for this event for months. We were all rooting for the American, even though my dad had met Schmeling in 1930 and drawn his portrait for the Saarbrücker Zeitung. To us in 1938, anybody and anything German was bad, despite the nostalgic mutterings of some of our fellow refugees who seemed unable to connect the sufferings inflicted on them with their former homeland.

Growing up in New York City during the war years, we refugee kids were sheltered from the worst of the Nazi horrors abroad, but there was no ambiguity about who was good and who was bad. I of course was one of the good guys, although later this edifice of black and white began to crack.

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Walk along Fort Washington Avenue in upper Manhattan at three o'clock in the afternoon. The street rises gently from 157th Street to 192nd where it culminates in Fort Tryon Park, the highest point in Manhattan. The park commands spectacular views of the Hudson River, a vista so like the Rhine that it was one of the main reasons that led my people, when they fled Germany, to settle in Washington Heights. During World War II, the Swedish liner Gripsholm was anchored right off 161st Street, our street, in the middle of the Hudson River. My father and I often stood leaning on the wall on Riverside Drive to check up on her. Assuring me that there were no ocean liners on the Rhine, let alone great suspension bridges like the George Washington Bridge, he convinced me that the Hudson was far superior.

If the weather is good, you will see elderly people strolling or standing on the sidewalks and chatting. The language here is German, heavily accented and liberally sprinkled with American slang. Mostly in their eighties, the men walk slowly, their backs bent, hands clasped behind them if they are not relying on their canes. As for the women, they might be participants in an outdoor fashion show on Frankfurt's Kaiserstrasse rather than elderly housewives on their way to the supermarket. Elegance prevails; not a hair out of place, not a smudge on a lapel.

On summer days, the people sit in webbed aluminum chairs in front of their buildings, which are six and seven storeys high, made of brick, and of prewar construction. The chief pastime is staring, and anyone who ventures out in a housedress or obviously uncorseted is in for some heavy censure. When I came uptown to visit, I had to be sure my shoes were adequately shined to avoid embarrassing my parents.

Just before four o'clock, the street empties. Everyone has gone indoors for the ritual Kaffee und Kuchen.

This is Washington Heights, "Frankfurt on the Hudson," where I lived, along with twenty-four thousand other German Jews, a pretty dull place for me when I was at City College where I met a faster crowd. But I was a lucky child as I was to realize much later.