April 1, 1941
The grey mantle of fog lifted, sunlight revealing the soaring spires of the recently built Golden Gate Bridge. Walter nervously paced the San Francisco pier, watching the MS Nitta Maru steam slowly into port. All the events that brought him to this moment ran though his mind: his childhood days in Lüneburg; leaving home; sailing alone on the MS Deutschland across the Atlantic; the train trip across the entire United States from New York to California.
He’d hoped to take photographs of buffalo and meet some real cowboys as the train sped across the Midwest, but, as he wrote in his journal, “I’m probably fifty years too late.”
For seven long years, Walter saved everything from the small salary he earned while working for his Uncle Ulrich to help his parents. When he became an American citizen at twenty-one, he was allowed to put his parents on a priority immigration list. He spent every spare moment completing all the complicated tasks necessary to obtain the required visas that would allow his parents to enter the United States.
Now, within a few minutes, his parents would at last be safe.
Walter couldn’t believe how much they had suffered. Anti-Jewish laws allowed their property to be seized and sold for a pittance to the Nazi Koopmann, who proudly handed over the business to his son, a member of Hitler’s feared and hated Schutzstaffel military organization, known as the SS. Then, with the approval and help of Lüneburg officials, young Koopmann cheated the Lesses on the value of their store merchandise. The new owner’s family moved in and took over most of their home. The Lesses were allowed to live in three small rooms on the first floor for which they paid rent to Koopmann.
But most horribly, on the night of November 9, 1938, the Gestapo pounded on the door and dragged Walter’s father out of the house. Herr Less was beaten, shoved into an army truck, and imprisoned in the Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp, located outside of Berlin.
It was weeks before Walter learned in a brief telegram from his mother that his father was still alive. Herr Less had been allowed to send one postcard home.
Walter would never forget living in such constant fear and anxiety. Would his father be killed? Would the Nazis take his mother next? Would he ever see them again? He had never felt so helpless. When a telegram finally arrived stating simply: “Father is home,” he felt he had been holding his breath for months.
The atrocities of Reichskristallnacht – “The Night of Broken Glass” – were deliberately planned attacks by the Nazi Party against all Jews living throughout Germany. The government orders were eagerly carried out by storm troopers, “ordinary” Germans, and Hitlerjugend, while German police and fire departments stood by and did nothing. Crowds of spectators watched mobs smash the windows of Jewish businesses, loot stores, set fires to homes, and rampage through the streets singing military songs like: “Wenn das Judenblut vom Messer spritzt, dann geht’s nochmal so gut.” “When the Jewish Blood spurts from the knife, things go twice as well.”
Because an outraged world press had documented the brutality and violence, Walter knew the devastating facts by heart: seven thousand businesses destroyed and looted; over thirteen hundred synagogues burned to the ground; hundreds of Jews murdered and twenty thousand men and boys shipped off to concentration camps, all in one single night of unimaginable chaos and terror.
One of those boys could so easily have been him. He often found himself wondering, “What if…?” What if his Uncle Ulrich had not agreed to sign the required affidavit that guaranteed an immigrant like Walter would not become a “public burden” on the American government?
That all-important affidavit was supposed to be the final step in his obtaining a visa. But anti-Semitic officials in the United States found even the most trivial reasons to reject Jewish applications. In Walter’s case, they made up the excuse that, because he had poor eye sight and wore glasses, he “could become blind and be unable to support himself”.
Walter vividly remembered the day that letter arrived. His parents looked stunned.
“Don’t worry, son,” his father tried to sound positive. “We will find another way.” Later, Walter heard his mother crying quietly in her bedroom.
The situation appeared hopeless until his uncle’s friend, Hiram Johnson, a powerful senator from California, contacted the U.S. State Department and demanded that Walter be allowed to enter the country.
What if Senator Johnson had not helped him at the last minute? And what if his mother and father had not been willing to send him away?
The foresight his parents had about Hitler and the Nazis still astonished him. There had been so many heated discussions between his parents and other members of their Jewish community. He could hear their arguments as if they were spoken yesterday.
“Hitler’s appeal will be short lived. The idea of separating our families, leaving our homes and businesses, is completely unnecessary. We are Germans. Many of us fought in the last war. This is our home. All this political unpleasantness will blow over.”
“Hitler can’t mean what he is saying. Everyone knows it is just propaganda. We should do nothing. Wait and see. Keep a low profile. Follow the rules they are setting up for Jews now, and soon everything will be back to normal.”
Walter knew the only reason his father was released so quickly from the camp was he had been sending valuable American dollars to German consulate officials to pay for his parents’ tickets to America to buy them asylum from the Nazis. Not only was he required to pay in advance, but the amount was also at least double the actual cost of the fare.
Walter had no choice. Such unfair demands must be met. Any problem, no matter how small, could halt the entire process of getting them out of Germany. In fact, Jewish newspapers continued to report how thousands of Jews were trying in vain to escape the Nazis and find a safe haven.
But they had nowhere to go. No country wanted them.
His parents couldn’t write much about events in Germany. Mail was now read by the authorities and heavily censored. He did learn that the Nazis forced another Jewish family, the Schicklers, to move in with his parents after their home and store were damaged during Reichskristallnacht. The Nazis wanted to make living conditions for Jews as restrictive as possible.
How crowded it must have been. How they all must have lived each day in terror, wondering if the Nazis were coming for them!
Walter shivered in the warm California sun, realizing how different his parents’ fates could have been … and his own.
His parents had been traveling for almost two months. Because Germany was already at war with France and England, the Lesses could not make the usual Atlantic crossing. The only route open was by train from Berlin through Russia, Manchuria, Korea and Japan, where they finally boarded their ship, crossing the Pacific Ocean to America.
When he was young, Walter simply thought of his parents as his mother and father. Now, he recognized them as two very brave, very determined people. He was so proud of them. The ship came closer to the dock. He carefully scanned all the passengers crowding the railing.
Then, there they were, an elderly couple bundled in heavy coats and hats, looking up at the beautiful city of San Francisco rising on the hills. Walter ran forward, calling out their names, waving as hard as he could.
They raised their hands uncertainly to wave back, almost as if they didn’t quite believe their son was really there waiting for them. As soon as the ship docked and the gangplank opened, Walter rushed up and embraced them.
His mother looked up and gently stroked his cheek over and over. His father simply held him in his arms. How they had aged. Sadness seemed etched in their faces.
After a few minutes of tears and silence, Walter found his voice. He tried to lighten the mood. “Willkommen in Amerika!”, “Welcome to America!” he said in both German and English.
He gathered all their necessary paperwork to get them quickly through customs. Checking their passports, he saw firsthand something he had only heard about: A huge red “J” dominated the documents. “Israel” had been added to his father’s name and “Sara” to his mother’s. The Nazis had deliberately dehumanized the Jewish people by changing their names to ones that “sounded Jewish” so they could be “more efficiently identified”. If addressed by either of those two names, every Jew was expected to respond immediately or suffer serious consequences.
Walter covered his fury by quickly changing the conversation.
“So, where are your bags?” He was shocked to see only two battered suitcases. “That’s it? That’s all?”
“It was all we were allowed to take,” Herr Less sighed. “They confiscated all our money, except for ten marks for traveling. We chose things that meant the most to us: photographs, some family silver, rare stamps we thought we could exchange for money when we got here. We sold some things, too, our china, linens, silver, furniture, even our family menorah. We stored some of our belongings and furniture at the Hamburg docks, but we had to leave everything else behind in our house to be auctioned off to Germans, many of them our former friends and neighbors.”
Herr Less paused. “Waiting for our visas was a very difficult time for us. The Nazis…” His father hesitated and lowered his voice, afraid to be overheard.
“Go on, Vater, it is safe to talk here. Tell me.”
“The new laws against Jews did not even let us leave the house. We could only go out for half an hour in the afternoon to shop and, by then, all the food in the stores was gone. The Nazis made us wear the yellow star, the Gestapo followed us, and people … people we had known for years … wouldn’t even talk to us…” His voice shook and he took a deep breath. “But we were fortunate. Do you remember Olga Bösicke, who worked for us?”
“Of course,” Walter replied, “but I thought she quit, too. Like Ilse.”
“No, not like Ilse. Ilse was afraid. Olga refused to work for the new owners, but she promised she would try to help us. We’d make a shopping list, leave money and hide it in the cellar. We would unlock the downstairs door so she could get our note and bring us supplies. She took a great risk helping us. If she had been caught…” He stopped and shook his head slowly. After a long pause, he added, “Someday, I must write and thank her.”
Walter’s mother smiled for the first time as she lifted her hand and pointed to her gold wedding band. “Those Nazi bullies demanded we turn over all our valuables before they gave us our passports, but we managed to keep my ring and your father’s silver pocket watch.”
“Good for you, Mutti!” He hugged her to let her know he understood how much this small act of defiance meant to her. His mother gripped his hands and looked into his eyes.
“We were the last to escape, Walter, the last. All our friends, whole families, everyone we knew, gone. No one was safe. So many times we believed we would never get out. Our synagogue demolished, stores and property stolen. There are no more Jews in Lüneburg. It is as if we never existed.”
The sadness in her voice almost broke his heart.
Two long hours later, they were free. After going through customs, Walter carried their bags to his small, green Chrysler and smiled at their surprise to see him behind the wheel of a car. He drove through the city, pointing out some of the sights to try and make his parents feel more at ease. They seemed dazed, he thought, almost as if they were just waking from a dream.
“Not a dream,” he angrily corrected himself, “a nightmare!”
As if reading his thoughts, he heard his father’s voice. “There are no soldiers here.” It was both a question and a statement.
“No, Papa, there are no soldiers here. You are safe.”
As they drove, Walter kept up a steady stream of conversation, hoping to lift their spirits. He told them how he had photographed the new bridge being built; how he had walked across it the first day it opened; and how the name “Golden Gate” symbolized a new life for so many newcomers to the United States.
He pointed out all the San Francisco landmarks: Coit Tower, Twin Peaks, the Palace of the Legion of Honor, the Presidio military base, the harbor seals at the Cliff House, the Sutro Baths, and even the University of California at Berkeley, its campanile visible far across the bay, where he had been offered a scholarship.
“You are all grown up,” his mother whispered. “I’ve missed so much.” She reached for his hand again and held it tightly.
Finally, Walter parked the car on a hill in front of a white stucco house with a red tile roof. He opened a wrought iron gate, guided them up the brick stairs that led to one of two apartments, and ushered them inside.
The rooms were sunny and airy; the scent of eucalyptus trees wafted through the open windows. The apartment was well furnished and comfortable, but certainly not as elegant as their beautiful home in Lüneburg. A large picture window provided a panoramic view of the city, and the living room looked down on a small garden brilliantly colored with a variety of poppies, hydrangeas, pansies and a trellis of roses.
His father stared, unseeing, out of the window for a long time.
Walter stood quietly behind him and rested his hands gently on his shoulders. This was not the smiling, outgoing father he had left behind. The Jewish press had published reports smuggled out of Germany about the work camps and the horrible conditions the inmates had endured. They wore ragged clothes or uniforms, were deprived of food and water, slept three to a wooden pallet in filthy straw, and had their heads shaved. There were stories about beatings, torture, and murders by brutal guards and officers.
Even though it had been over two years since his father‘s release, the effects were still clearly visible. Walter could feel his father‘s bones through his clothes. The light illuminated the gauntness of his cheeks. What had he seen? What had they done to him?
His mother saw Walter’s face as he studied his father and quickly laid her hand on his arm. “He is not the same since he came home from Sachsenhausen,” she whispered. “When he knocked on the door, I didn’t even recognize my own husband. I thought he was a beggar!” Her voice trembled. “Please don’t ask him. He refuses to talk about it. He said the Nazis would find and kill all of us if he said anything. But I know it is often on his mind. He has terrible nightmares. There are times when he thinks he is alone that I have seen him cry. Once when I asked him, he said he weeps for those left behind.”
Walter felt his anger rising again, but calmed himself quickly. He didn’t want to upset his parents.
“Isn’t the view wonderful?”
“Yes, it is,” his father agreed softly. “But now tell me, who lives here?”
“You do, Papa, you do. This is your home.”
Tears began to roll down the old man’s face.
“Home,” he whispered. “We are home.”
On the kitchen table, a redwood bowl filled with California oranges caught the glow of the late afternoon sun. Walter’s mother cradled one of them in her hands. Then she turned slowly to her son.
“Let me tell you what happened to Hans.”