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Monday, April 26, 2010

The Journey of a Lifetime: my grandmother's escape on the Trans-Siberian railway

I had a chat with my sister yesterday. She lives in Rome, and tells me that a friend of hers read about my grandmother's passport (I have a copy of her Nazi-issued passport) and volunteered to help me translate the German. That inspired me to do a bout of research into my father's childhood in the Weimar republic. If you read my earlier post (my other passport is with Mossad) then you will know my father, who grew up in Nuremburg, only just got out of Germany thanks to a parliamentary question and a forged passport.
My grandmother, Betty Lowenstein (maiden name Ehrlich), caught the last Trans-Siberian train before the Nazi invasion of Russia. Family legend has it that as she caught the train to leave Germany, a woman handed her a baby to take with her.
I should add that her husband committed suicide in 1932. Though there may be some question marks over exactly how that happened to him. I have his death certificate here.

My father left Germany on the 28th of August 1939. three days before the invasion of Poland. He was fifteen and flew to Britain - my grandmother told my mother she sent him by plane to ensure that he arrived safely. On the day of the invasion she tried to leave Germany (she had a visa for Britain) but was turned back as war had been declared. She remained trapped in Germany for another year which she spent trying to obtain visas for a journey out of Europe to the East. She got a visa for the USA on the 10th of May 1940.
Getting a visa for the USA was extremely hard in those days, especially for Jews, but her brothers had migrated a couple of years earlier. She got her Japanese visa in Hamburg on July 3rd 1940.
Page-8-9(japanese visa)Page-8-9(japanese visa)


My grandmother wrote an account of her journey as part of her citizenship training for the USA and I have attached it as a jpg at the end of this blog. In her account, she says she travelled to Koenigsburg (now called Kaliningrad) and then flew from there to Moscow to avoid travelling through (semi-independent) Latvia which wouldn't give her a visa. I checked this journey on the Eurorail site: They recommend a train to Prague where you take a train to Warsaw, from Warsaw you take a train to Vilnius in Latvia and from there you can get a train to Kaliningrad. It takes two days.


From Moscow she took the Trans-Siberian railway - a 9,000 kilometer journey. She wasn't allowed to take any money out of Germany (there was a ban on Jews taking money or goods) so she paid for the whole thing in advance and was given vouchers to use on the train.


The mathematician Kurt Godel followed a similar route at roughly the same time. He wasn't Jewish so he went through Latvia. Who knows maybe they met on the train. She took the Trans-Manchurian line (see a map) and left the train at Harbin in Manchuko (Japanese occupied China) while Godel seems to have taken another branch which arrived at Vladivostok. The Trans-Siberian took her 9 days. She says conditions on the train were harsh and alleviated only by the incredible scenery (see the modern site).

There were a lot of Jews living in Harbin. One of them was called Olmert and his grandson became prime-minister of Israel. There is a lovely internet exhibition on the Jews of Harbin and there is a museum in Harbin telling the Jewish story.

Betty Lowenstein says there was cholera in Harbin in 1940, and that it was killing 150 people every day. We now know that the Japanese biological warfare program ("Unit 731") was based in Harbin and they were artificially inducing cholera. See http://www.ww2pacific.com/unit731.html.

She travelled from Harbin overland for two and a half weeks to "Fusan", which might be Fushang in China, just south of Shanghai. Thats a 1,700 kilometer journey through Japanese occupied China. From there she sailed to Kobe in Japan. Apparently there was a largish Jewish community in Kobe and these helped Jews arrving from Germany. The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee was providing funds for Jewish refugees (though she says nothing about this), so once she got to Kobe she was safe. She left Kobe on the 15th of August 1940, arriving in Seattle two weeks later. I found the manifest of the ship she arrived on. It was called the Haien Maru and arrived 29 August 1940, about half the passengers were Jewish refugees. She gave her occupation as 'Housewife' and her nationality as 'German'. Jewish passengers often gave their nationality as "Jew" or "Hebrew". She evidently had a strong German identity, if after all those years of persecution she still called herself a German.
Manifest of the ship she arrived on., look for Betty Lowenstein on the list

From Seattle Betty got a bus to Reading, Pennsylvania. I looked this bus journey up on the Greyhound website. Today (2010) its a three day journey costing 234 dollars. Greyhound puts the distance as 5,000 kilometers. Seattle is on the Pacific coast while Reading is close to New York on the Atlantic coast.

I assume her brothers were in Reading.
Altogether, the journey of a lifetime. Perhaps one day I can recreate it.

The text she wrote is undated. She was naturalized in 1946, and the essay appears to have been written as part of her preparations for American citizenship. So it probably dates from between 1941 to 1946 and is reasonably accurate.  My son is also a US citizen.  I wonder if having a grandmother who was a US citizen and a son who is a US citizen entitles me to US citizenship.

My sister's friend may be right. We always thought the amazing story was my father's but it is possible that my grandmother with her precise documentation has left something for posterity that outweighs his story. Her account of her journey is so remarkable that it should probably be typed and uploaded to the internet.

Betty had sent her son to England on the 28th of August 1939, intending to join him three days later. Instead it took her a year to reach the USA, arriving on the 19th of August 1940. In June 1941 Germany invaded the USSR and this route would have closed. Six months later Japan attacked the USA and the Pacific end must have been cut. 

For further information and account of how her son was saved see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Heinz_Bernard .

Letter.page1
Betty Lowenstein's hand-typed account of her journey
Letter.page2Letter.page3Letter.page4

Cover
More passport photos
Page-1Page-2-3(picture)Page-4-5

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