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Arrived at Last: An Immigrant Narrative

Arrived at Last: An Immigrant Narrative

Автором Gert Niers

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Arrived at Last: An Immigrant Narrative

Автором Gert Niers

268 pages
4 hours
Mar 21, 2014


After many years of publishing journalistic and scholarly articles, Gert Niers decided to break away from this format and to apply to his writing a more personal style suitable for autobiography and memoirs. Arrived at Last is the story of his life in Germany after World War Two and then in America, the country of his choice. He tells his autobiography in an uncomplicated, colloquial fashion the way one would talk perhaps at a bar table surrounded by friends. This approach allows him to comment on many experiences and aspects of life. He also reminisces about his excursions into France, Belgium, and the Netherlands and later on about the many people he met in the German and German-Jewish community of New York City. Everything is seen from a very personal perspective, confession-style. Still the author has rendered historical facts as precisely and correctly as it was possible to him. His descriptions and conclusions are those of an experienced observer. His book is a contribution to minority and immigrant literature, but also a cultural commentary about life in Europe and the U.S.
Mar 21, 2014

Об авторе

GERT NIERS has been a contributor to German-American literature for many years – as an author, scholar, editor, journalist, and translator. He also taught German and French (at Georgian Court University, Rowan University, Ocean County College – all in New Jersey). He was born in Dresden, Saxony, in 1943, came to the United States in 1971, and adopted U.S. citizenship in the Bicentennial year of 1976. Arrived at Last. An Immigrant Narrative, is his autobiography. After many years of publishing journalistic and scholarly articles, Niers decided to break away from this format and to apply to his writing a more personal style suitable for autobiography and memoirs. Arrived at Last is the story of his life in Germany after World War Two and then in America, the country of his choice. He tells his autobiography in an uncomplicated, colloquial fashion – the way one would talk perhaps at a bar table surrounded by friends. This approach allows him to comment on many experiences and aspects of life. He also reminisces about his excursions into France, Belgium, and the Netherlands and later about the many people he met in the German and German-Jewish community of New York City. Everything is seen from a very personal perspective, confession-style. Still the author has rendered historical facts as precisely and correctly as it was possible to him. His descriptions and conclusions are those of an experienced observer. His book is a contribution to minority and immigrant literature, but also a cultural commentary about life in Europe and the U.S. The first part reflects on the years of childhood, high school, and university studies until the author’s emigration to the U.S. Part two is basically an introduction to the German-American press of the 1970s and 1980s as demonstrated in the case of Aufbau and Staats-Zeitung. The third and last part of the book focuses on the consequences the author has drawn from his encounter with the German-language element in America: he offers his personal interpretation of various German-American authors. However, this autobiography or memoir – as we might as well call the narrative – is not a dry and academic presentation. It contains sufficient “light material” to keep the reader entertained.

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Arrived at Last - Gert Niers

AuthorHouse™ LLC

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Phone: 1-800-839-8640

© 2014 Gert Niers. All rights reserved.

No part of this book may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted by any means without the written permission of the author.

Published by AuthorHouse    03/25/2014

ISBN: 978-1-4918-5642-0 (sc)

ISBN: 978-1-4918-5640-6 (hc)

ISBN: 978-1-4918-5641-3 (e)

Library of Congress Control Number: 2014901697

Because of the dynamic nature of the Internet, any web addresses or links contained in this book may have changed since publication and may no longer be valid. The views expressed in this work are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the publisher, and the publisher hereby disclaims any responsibility for them.



Part One: Europe, the Old World

Moving West

Bad Choices

Making out Early

A Mixed Bag

Rude Awakenings

Occasional Flashbacks

Enforcing the Law—What Law?

Signals from Another World

School Days—Happy Days?

More School Days

A Valuable Lesson Not Learned in Class

The Long and Winding Drag

Blame it All on Salvador!

Paris—je m’éveille

Small Town Blues

The Wonderfully Wild and Creative Sixties

Part Two: Living in the New World

New Beginnings

Aufbau—A German-Jewish Newspaper from New York

New York, New York

Gone with the Wind

Of Mice and Man

Another Mixed Bag

We Couldn’t Make Them Stay

The Origin of the Name

My New Family

Part Three: German-American Literature

Hans Sahl, Author of the Exile

Stuart Friebert—An Unusual Case in Multiculturalism

Don Heinrich Tolzmann, Scholar of German-Americana

Margot Scharpenberg’s Poetry: Between Language and Time

Norbert Krapf, American Author of German Heritage

Peter Beicken, German-American Poet and Professor

Friedrich Bergammer—Surviving in the Language

Esther Dischereit— A New Jewish Voice from Germany

The Austrian Connection of Eva Kollisch and Carol Ascher



I n recent years my American family members have encouraged me on various occasions to sit down and write my memoirs. Especially my children wanted to know where exactly I come from and how life was in the old country. I’ve never considered myself important enough for such a project and, therefore, have had a hard time trying to relate anything worth remembering: I’ve never held any public office, never caught the attention of the media—be it as a hero or as a villain, and certainly never made it to the rank of what in today’s media is considered a celebrity. My life has been pretty average, no major ups or downs.

When I let my memory wander, I tried at the same time to examine the past, to scrutinize what came up to me in retrospect. Instead of pouring everything into a long stream of consciousness narrative, I’ve tried to organize this self-examination by looking for themes and highlights, that way creating a sequence of chapters. I am aware that sometimes repetitions in the presentation of facts and events occurred or that information was not offered all at once, but step by step. This method is of course reminiscent of the detective story, but in my case it was just lack of writing experience.

As far as the contents of memoirs or Erinnerungen are concerned, I think that someone who describes his or her past has to produce something like an eyewitness report. The author was present and has to tell exactly what happened, as well as he or she can remember it. Therefore, I’ve tried to give exact locations, dates as far as they were available or bibliographic information as brief as possible. Of course there is room for describing feelings, impressions, emotions, ideas—they are real, too: they factually exist, are indeed facts. One of my problems is that I’m addressing a readership historically and geographically very far removed from what I’ve experienced. Had I been writing for a German readership and perhaps even for readers of my age group, some explanations may not have been necessary.

As for the moral side of this report, yes, I have suppressed some facts. I have met many more bastards and idiots than I have described. Have I been manipulating the truth, bending the past? My answer is simple: all the people who have not been mentioned probably did not deserve being mentioned. There are some whom I’d rather forget. Of course, there are others whom I may have overlooked unintentionally or whose feelings I’ve not wanted to hurt. To these I apologize.

Point Pleasant, New Jersey, March 2014

Part One

Europe, the Old World

Moving West

T he sky was grey—like the old woolen blanket attached to the lower part of the window frame to muffle the cold draft during the winter months. Window panes were rare in the early postwar years in Germany. After the glass had been shattered during air raids, tar paper or cardboard often filled the frames to keep the bad weather out. Tucked into the warmth of a feather comforter on a sofa bed, I must have drifted between a state of tiredness and sleep. I don’t know if I just dreamed it or if it actually happened, but I remember it as the last time that I drank milk from a baby bottle. Scrolling back to the images of my early childhood, I would place this epiphany into the second half of the 1940s, probably in 1946.

Shortly after my second birthday, I arrived in Oberhausen in October of 1945. My mother tried to cheer me up with the announcement that I now had a little baby brother, but I was just looking for the white bed of my days in Dresden. It was gone like the city itself. Dresden, the capital of Saxony and my place of birth, was pretty much wiped out by British and American bombers between February 13 and 15, 1945. My father, a native of the industrial town of Oberhausen in the Ruhr Valley, about 365 miles west of Dresden, saw the writing on the wall and insisted that my mother, grandmother, and I join him on his move west to escape the Russian troops advancing from the East. Thus I eventually wound up in what became West Germany or, as it was officially called from 1949 on, the Federal Republic of Germany. After leaving Dresden, we arrived in the town of Wolfen, roughly 90 miles away from the inferno. Even from that distance, one could still see the sky over Dresden reddened by flames during those dreadful February days of 1945.

After the war the Communist regime of East Germany often compared the destruction of Dresden, a city of no military significance and overcrowded with refugees, to the nuclear annihilation of Hiroshima and accused the Allies of a major war crime. Although my mother’s family lost every material possession (not just my white bed), I wonder what the Nazi regime would have done to American cities if it had regained the upper hand.

After the German surrender in early May of 1945, Wolfen, located in Saxony-Anhalt, was first under American occupation. It seemed safe to my father to leave my grandmother and me behind with relatives and first get my mother, pregnant at that time, farther west to Oberhausen. They arrived there in August of 1945. However, by the time my father came back to pick up my grandmother and me, the political situation had changed in Wolfen. The Americans had withdrawn and left the territory to the Russians. That, of course, complicated matters in many ways. One day, there was an encounter between a Russian soldier and my father. The member of the victorious Red Army threw his weight around and harassed the German civilians. My father was able to say to him in Russian, It is peace now! The Russian let him go. From my grandmother I heard the story that during those days in Wolfen a Russian soldier gave me a cookie. He bent down to me while I was sitting in my stroller and handed me the pastry item. My grandmother, not knowing what to do, was terrified. She had been struggling emotionally after her only son was killed at the Russian front in January of 1945, just a few months before the war was over. He was 19 years old. My mother told me many years later that my grandmother was haunted by the idea of suicide after this loss, but then embraced me as a sort of replacement for her own lost son. I remember how she beamed with joy when, many years later in 1975, I presented her with my own son, Geoffrey, at that time of the same age that I was during the early postwar period.

Our first arrival in Oberhausen was less than spectacular. My father, grandmother, and I had spent two days on a freight train in an open box car, the only means of railroad transportation at that time. From the soot of the steam engine, our faces were darkened as if we had come to audition for some kind of a stage show. It was the beginning of a quarter of a century that I spent in a town that still today prides itself on being the cradle of the Ruhr industry and where smoke, coal dust and all kinds of uncontrolled emissions made up the daily portion of pollution.

On a more nostalgic note it should be mentioned that in the year 1758 a certain Baron Franz Ferdinand von der Wenge zu Dieck founded the St. Antony Ironworks on the outskirts of Oberhausen, in a section called Klosterhardt. The site was in use until 1877, initially as an ironworks unit (blast furnace) and from 1842 as an iron foundry. Coal mining, steel production, and related branches of heavy industry became the trademark of the Ruhrgebiet, the area around the Ruhr River, for a period that lasted until the 1970s. During World War Two, also this area was a major target of Allied bombing. In Oberhausen it took more than ten years to remove all the rubble caused by the war. While I was growing up, this environment served as our playground.

Bad Choices

T he street where we lived was called Alsenstraße, the house number was 3. The town of Oberhausen was often referred to as Oberhausen/Rhineland although there was and still is no Rhine River to be seen. As the closest river the Old Ruhr or perhaps the Emscher may qualify—depending on the section of town where one lives. I could also mention the Rhein-Herne-Kanal, but that’s a man-made water way, not a natural river. We lived far away from both rivers and the canal, in that part of town which was referred to as the Old City. The house at one end of our block, actually opposite from us, just separated by a patch of grass 40 x 40 yards, had been hit by a bomb. The same goes for three houses at the other end of the block. From our bedroom window, we could see the still intact façade of what was once a respectable townhouse. Inside the remaining structure lay the rubble of three floors. Such ruins, which were no rarity in a German town during the late forties, soon became a playground where we as children dug out kitchen gadgets and other household items that not too long ago had fulfilled a practical purpose. At one point, I was even able to reach with my shovel the totally intact section of an elaborately tiled hallway.

In our neighborhood central heating for an apartment building was totally unknown. The rooms were heated by a coal stove that was also used for cooking, boiling laundry, heating up bath water, and the like. There was also a small two-flame gas burner for making coffee, preparing soups, etc. Since many houses were still in ruins, people developed the habit of throwing household garbage and ashes from their stoves into these ruins—garbage to garbage, no point in filling up garbage cans or buying them in the first place. As kids we often strolled through these dump sites created within a ruin, always avid to find something that still could be used or traded for something else. A special fun activity was smashing glass bottles and/or burnt-out electric bulbs, normally by throwing them as hard as we could against a wall. Of course our parents had strictly forbidden us to engage in such amusement, since they did not want anyone to get hurt by the flying shards. Therefore, I could not tell my parents that a glass splinter had hit my left upper thigh right underneath the short pants. I had to use my handkerchief to press down the blood and claimed that I had fallen into a pile of broken window glass when I took a shortcut through the ruins to arrive at home in time for supper. The small scar can still be seen today.

We lived on the third floor—officially on the second, since in Germany the first floor is not counted—of an old apartment building that certainly had seen better days. Our modest two-room abode had to house five people. There was no such thing as a children’s room. Therefore, my younger brother Peter and I sometimes played also in the bedroom and created our own diversions. One summer day, I came up with a special window stunt. I have to explain that the windows in old German apartment buildings consisted of two wings to be opened vertically towards the inside of the room and—above those two wings—one horizontal section that could be tilted towards the inside to let air in. I had the idea to climb on the window sill while the two wings of the window were opened so that I could stand up and put one foot out on the ledge. I was not afraid of falling out. All the way down, underneath the window, grew an elder bush. I was sure it would dampen my fall and considered giving it a try by just jumping down while holding on to an opened umbrella. That shouldn’t be too bad. At that moment my mother came around the corner down in the street, in one hand a shopping bag, with the other hand gesticulating wildly. I wasn’t exactly sure what her signal was supposed to mean, if she was threatening me or encouraging me to jump. I couldn’t read the expression on her face, so I decided to abandon my experiment.

Of course my dubious interest in stupid tricks could still be topped by other young & reckless, like those schoolboys who in the summer of 1947 came across a pile of misfired bombs stored in a public park, the Kaisergarten named in commemoration of the German emperor William I. My mother and grandmother frequently took my brother and me there, just to get out of our tiny apartment and to enjoy some fresh air. On that hazy and humid August day, when those youngsters played around the bombs, my mother and grandmother had turned back halfway to the park because they were too tired to continue. We were heading home when suddenly there was an explosion so powerful that it even caused the window glass of a building ahead of us to crash to the sidewalk. My mother grabbed my brother, put him into the stroller, and off we ran, believing that the war was not yet over. As the local press reported later, the teenagers had started a fire near the stacked-up bombs and then ran away from the scene. The shrapnel killed a girl playing tennis about 100 yards from the explosion site. More than 20 people were injured.

It is not unusual to find still today misfired bombs that were dropped by the Allies on residential areas in Germany during World War Two. As a matter of fact, when I was putting the final touches on this book, one of those Blindgänger, as they are called by the locals, was found and defused in my old hometown. That was in September, 2013. One month before, two misfired bombs were located in the outskirts of Oberhausen and properly removed by township personnel. Oberhausen is not a singular case. Such souvenirs can be found in many German towns, often during excavation work on construction sites.

It can, however, also happen that World War Two memorabilia of German origin show up on the other side of the Atlantic. As a matter of fact, some were found off the coast of my new hometown, Point Pleasant, New Jersey. The most notorious case was the discovery of the wreck of the German submarine U-869 in 1991. It wound up on the ocean floor 65 miles east of Point Pleasant. In 1985 a fishing boat dragged in a German torpedo from ten miles off the coast of Point Pleasant. This catch caused the temporary evacuation of some local residents before it was disarmed by Navy experts.

I have to say that in both countries those failed killing devices were removed without any expression of hatred towards the former enemy. The items found were dismantled with professional efficiency so that they could be sent into oblivion as soon as possible. In the case of U-869, three American divers even lost their lives in the effort to explore the wreck.

Oberhausen, Alsenstraße 3. The photo was taken in 2013 after extensive renovation had taken place. Still the façade shows the original classicistic decoration around the three windows in the middle of the picture.

Making out Early

T here was a section of the roof of our house where the shingles had been blown away when a bomb exploded in another building. The hole in the roof was covered with a large sheet of corrugated metal. That roof protected the top floor where the Weise family lived, an older couple with a young daughter about my age by the name of Lore. Lore was a very strong-willed girl. At one point in her brief past, her right hand got burned by hot milk, and the skin of that hand was shriveled up ever since. Lore didn’t listen to the warnings of her mother and got her hand into the pot on the gas stove where the milk was boiling. A German proverb goes Wer nicht hören will, muss fühlen meaning He who does not want to listen must feel (the pain) . Lore obviously had a lot to feel early in her life. But that did not discourage her from pursuing her childish independence.

I visited her occasionally in her attic-like apartment, just one flight up from ours. At times I also played with her outside in the damaged world of the adults. Since there was always some kind of debris accessible, busted wood, bricks, pieces of card board, sometimes tar paper, we children—I was about six years old at that time—used this material to construct a little hut of our own, a shelter just high enough for two or three kids to sit in and withdraw from the eyes of the adults. Later on, we hid in those retreats to smoke cigarette butts found in the street. When I was with Lore, I had no intention of smoking cigarette butts. We just snuggled up against each other. I threw my arms around her and gave her a long kiss. I had no clear perception of what I was doing. It just felt good. Lore didn’t say anything, but she did not protest either. I was just about to evaluate the situation and to sort out where we could go from there, when we heard Lore’s mother yelling for her to come upstairs. I suspect that Frau Weise did not trust me. I never could give a clear answer when adults drew me into a conversation. These exchanges of words always felt like an interrogation and soon made me uncomfortable, and mumbling around without looking into the adult’s eyes did not work in my favor.

Lore had also a habit that I found intriguing and that appeared to me like an act of resistance, a smart and calculated provocation of the adult world. Of course I could not formulate it that way, but I felt that she definitely was going her own way again. Lore was using a pacifier at home and in the street—not always, but often enough so that adult passersby shook their heads and said in a moralizing tone: Such a big girl—and still using a pacifier. That’s not right. Probably not, but Lore was not committing any crime—she did not steal anything, she did not damage or destroy anything, except perhaps a popular concept of appropriate behavior that had even survived the bombing raids of World War Two.

I have no idea what happened to Lore since then. The family moved away, probably settling somewhere else in the new Bundesrepublik.

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