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Adventures of Lehman

On Coming to America [by Anne Lehman (1915-2009), as told to David Lehman]

DLandAnne
David and Anne Lehman, in Vienna, 1998


When I was born the third child to my parents, they were not overjoyed, since they already had a daughter and a son. But my mother told me I was so pretty that they didn’t mind too much.

We lived in Vienna, in the 16th district. It was not a very Jewish district. Jews lived mostly in the 2nd and 20th districts. And in my class in school were only three Jewish girls, out of thirty students. Of course from an early time we were made to feel different. Yet I had many gentile girlfriends and I remember one of them I was pretty close to. Her parents had a little garden with a hut in the outskirts of Vienna and she invited me to sleep over. Yet when Hitler came to power and I met her on the street, she acted funny and held her hand over her bosom until I found out she was wearing a swatstika! This was years before Hitler overran Austria—she must have been an underground member in order to have the swastika. This gave me a real shock.

The police came one day and asked for Adolf [my brother]. They had orders to take him to the police station. Why, we asked. We need him as a witness, they said. He was present at an accident, they said. We told them: as soon as he comes home we shall send him to the police station. But of course when Adolf came home he told us there had been no accident. He was on a list. The Nazis wanted to send him to a camp. You see, Adolf was the president of some idealistic university organization, a good socialist. And from that day on, he went underground until he got a visa to go to America.

It was a nightmare to live in Vienna at that time. Every time the doorbell rang, we were afraid—they’re coming for us!

A friend of mine got me a permit to go to England as a mother’s helper. This way I got out of Nazi Germany. These people, Wright was their name, lived in Southsea. He was a shipbuilder and she was a dentist. They treated me very well, and he gave me English lessons every day. But I was lonely there so after a few months I went to London, where I had some friends from Vienna. My friend Trude and I found work in the home of an English theater producer by the name of French. Trude was supposed to be the cook and I was the parlor maid. Once Rex Harrison came to dinner. He was very friendly, a real gentleman.

I was in England when the war started and we all received the gas masks and instructions for the air raid shelters. The American consulate closed and we had to move to a refugee home. When I saw how bad the situation was and my parents were still in Vienna, I tried to get them out to England. For America they had to wait too long, their quota was very small, since my parents were born in Poland. And we did not know when Hitler came how important it was to be registered in the American consulate. In March 1938 Adolf went to register himself and in April Bert [my younger brother] went. I only went in June to register, but at least while I was there I also got the papers to register my parents. Later I found out that each month meant one more year to wait for the visa. But it took even longer if you were born in Poland. So I asked the French people and they filled out a lot of papers which would have enabled my parents to come to England. Everything took so long, when I finally got everything together England was at war and my parents couldn’t come. I had no way of getting in touch with them. [Later, we learned that they were murdered by the Nazis.]

“But the American consulate finally opened its door again and I received my visa to go to America. How happy I was. Naturally I was worried to travel on an English ship, so my cousin from America sent me additional money and I changed my ticket to an American ship, the President Harding. I think it was the last Atlantic crossing it ever made. It took us ten days of the most terrible shaking. Everyone on board was sick and wanted to die. We were so sick that we weren’t even afraid of hidden mines, and as in a dream we did all of the safe drillings, etc. The last day was Thanksgiving. We had, and for me it was the first time, a delicious Thanksgiving dinner with turkey and all the trimmings, they played “Oh, say, can you see,” and when I finally saw the Statue of Liberty, I was really grateful to God, that he let me live and see America.


September 09, 2021

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August 27, 2021

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I left it
on when I
left the house
for the pleasure
of coming back
ten hours later
to the greatness
of Teddy Wilson
"After You've Gone"
on the piano
in the corner
of the bedroom
as I enter
in the dark


from New and Selected Poems by David Lehman

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