Monday, April 26, 2010

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

My grandmother, Betty Löwenstein (maiden name Ehrlich), escaped Germany by fleeing east and caught one of the last Trans-Siberian trains before the Nazi invasion of Russia. Her aim was to join her brothers in Reading, Pennsylvania. Family legend has it that as she caught the train to leave Germany, a woman handed her a baby to take with her.
The distance from Berlin to Reading is about 6,000 kilometers. The path Betty took to reach her destination was in excess of 24,000 kilometers.
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. They were due to meet up and travel together from Britain to the USA, but she was delayed and his departure was urgent. On the day of the invasion she tried to leave Germany 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. 
I don't know when she decided to leave Germany from the East, but in April she got a visa for the USSR, 9 months after the start of the war. In May Germany conquered Holland and Belgium and invaded France (which fell by June 1940). 
On the 10th of May 1940 she got a visa for the USA. 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. 
US Visa, issued May 10 1940

 She got her Japanese visa in Hamburg on July 3rd 1940 and the next day (4th of July) she got a visa for "Manchuko": Japanese-occupied China.

Japanese visa, issued 3 July 1940
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. The left visa page in the image above has her exit stamp and shows she flew from Koenigsburg airport on the 3rd of August 1940 (Wikipedia says it is one of the oldest passenger airports in the world). She flew from there to Moscow because she hadn't managed to obtain a Latvian visa: The USSR had invaded Latvia 5 weeks earlier in  late June 1940. 
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.
1,000km train ride followed by a 1,000km,  7 hour flight in a thunderstorm  

Soviet visa, issued 11 April 1940

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. Jews who had a visa to leave Germany could count on help from Jewish charities who would pay their travel and provide for them on the way.

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. My grandmother 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.
Manchuko visa, issued 4 July 1940

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

She travelled from Harbin overland for two and a half weeks to "Fusan", which I think is Fusan in South Korea (now called Busan), then Japanese occupied. That's over 1,200 kilometers through Japanese occupied China. A couple of other people who took the route also went this way, so I assume it was a standard route. Apparently there was a single train from Harbin in Northern China which went down to Busan at the the Southern tip of Korea. See

From Busan she sailed to Kobe in Japan. Apparently there was a Jewish community in Kobe and these helped Jews arriving 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. 
1,250km train ride from Harbin to southern tip of Korea, followed by 500km journey to Kobe
In 2021, a signboard was erected in Kobe commemorating the Jews who escaped through Japan: See also

Betty 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 Heian Maru (it has a Wikipedia page) 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
The date of her arrival in the USA was exactly one year and one day after her son Heinz arrived in England.
8,000km journey from Kobe to Seattle

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 distance from Berlin to Reading is about 6,000 kilometers. The path Betty took to reach her destination was in excess of 24,000 kilometers. 
 5,000km bus journey across the USA
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 grandmother with her precise documentation has left something for posterity. 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 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 This is also a remarkable story. 

This page from the US Holocaust Museum tells how 2,200 Polish Jews escaped over the Trans-Siberian:

A personal account by someone else who followed this route:

Betty Lowenstein's hand-typed account of her journey

More passport photos


  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. Very interesting to read this. My maternal grandmother, a Czech Jew took exactly the same trip, leaving from Prague, however, and arrived on the Nitta Maru on November 1, 1940. I only have a few notes from her about the trip, basically a list of the cities she stopped in on the train. Wish I had more to work with; you are lucky!

    1. Thanks for sharing this. Evidently quite a few Jews were saved using this route. Kudos to our brave grandmothers.

    2. Hi, if you are still out there, I would love to see your grandmother's notes.

  3. Hy! I myself went on this route, starting in June 1940, as a 2 year old child, with my grandmother. We got to Yokohama, and from there to Buenos aires on th "Rio de Janeiro Maru" ship. We arrived 8th august 1940. Now, for more than 40 years, I live in Israel, upper Galilee. My name is Evelyn papernik hammerschlag

    1. Unfortunately it alwasy takes me a while to see the posts here, but I will look yu up.

  4. Hey! Do you use Twitter? I'd like to follow you if that would be ok.
    I'm absolutely enjoying your blog and look forward to new posts.

  5. I am telaviv1 on twitter:
    Haven't been using it much lately.

  6. Link exchange is nothing else however it is simply placing the other
    person's website link on your page at suitable place and other person will also do same for you.

  7. I couldn't resist commenting. Veryy well written!

  8. I do not know if it's just me or if everyone else encountering issues with your website.
    It seems like some of the written text in your content are running off
    the screen. Can somebody else please comment and let me know if this is happening to them as well?

    This might be a problem with my browser because I've
    had this happen previously. Many thanks

    1. Thanks for the info, I changed the setup and hopfully it is all reight now.


Recreating ancient kingdoms: Arab Nationalism vs Zionism.

Although Zionism and Arab Nationalism are at loggerheads over Palestine (or perhaps Southern Syria), the two have a certain amount in common...