Fred Sternberg’s Memoirs

These memoirs were written by Ken’s uncle Fred Sternberg, who was born and raised in Herborn, but emigrated from Germany in 1936, as the signs of Nazism’s evils were already made clear.

Fritz Fuchs in Argentina
Fred at Colonia Avigdor, Argentina

I was born August 3rd, 1911, in Herborn, a small town in West Germany, about 100 km. north of Frankfurt-am-Main. The town of 5,000 inhabitants was an old, walled fortress with narrow cobblestone streets and a castle. Remnants of the moat, which surrounded the town, are still visible.

My parents met through a mutual business acquaintance of my grandfather.

My sister Betti was born 1913.

When World War I started in August 1914, Father was drafted to serve in the Army. Mother then moved with us to Dieburg/Hessen near Darmstadt to live with her parents for the duration of the war. Dieburg was a town of 6,000 families.

My grandparents were very well-liked. Grandmother was a kind, but stern woman, and Grandfather, who owned a textile store, was easy-going and settled. He had a red beard, was one of the founders of the local Turn-Verein and one of the chief movers of the Jewish congregation. Mother had three sisters and brothers. One died as a child. They lived in a big red brick house with a tile roof with a store, family room and huge kitchen on the ground floor, and a living room and four bedrooms on the second floor and two more bedrooms on the third floor. The house had a basement to store coal (for heating), potatoes, etc. It also had a covered courtyard and one outhouse.

The town was to a high degree a rural one, and the majority of the inhabitants were Catholic. I had my playmates, and during the demilitarization, we spent a lot of time with homecoming soldiers riding and tending their horses. The grandparents also had a garden outside the town, where they grew potatoes, beans, etc. We always had enough to eat in contrast to people who lived in nearby cities.

Unfortunately, the War dragged on to last over four years. In 1916 I had to attend elementary school. The War finally came to an end after Germany was defeated. My uncle, Hugo, Mother’s youngest brother, lost his life. But we were lucky. Dad came home unharmed and could join us again. It is hard to remember after more than 70 years how life was during the War. As far as Father was concerned, there were no good stories to tell.

After his discharge from the service, the four of us moved back to Herborn. My parents started a little textile business in their apartment. Mother kept the books and took care of customers who came to the “store.” One room was set aside for this purpose. She also had to take care of us children and do all the housework. Father was away every day peddling his wares. His customers were mostly small farmers. This was he was able to barter some of his merchandise for provisions to feed his family. It was a hard life, but in spite of everything, our parents were able to save enough money to make a down payment on a house with a store in the middle of town.

Of course I was enrolled to attend public school until 1921 to learn the basic 3Rs and to receive religious instruction, which was compulsory and part of the curriculum in all German schools. After four years of “basics,” I moved up to become a student in the local middle school. The attendance had to be paid for by my parents, in contrast to the public schools, which were free.

When I was 14 years old, I was sent to Dieburg, where I lived with my Grandmother after Grandpa had died. There I attended the Oberreal Schule (high school). This school was part of a convent and, therefore, most of my teachers were monks. This was not the happiest time of my adolescence.

Then, after two years, I returned home again. To further my education, my parents enrolled me in the Oberreal Schule in Giessen, a university town 36 km from home. I had to travel by train, which took about one hour traveling time daily. After I had graduated in 1928, I started my apprenticeship at a well-known men’s furnishing store in Frankfurt-am-Main, and in the evenings I attended lectures in bookkeeping and business administration at Goethe University.

For the first time in my life, I was on my own. I had made many friends, and my social life flourished and took up most of my free time. I had learned to play the violin, played on a soccer team and went skiing whenever possible.

After two years (I was 20 years old then), my apprenticeship ended, and I had to decide what to do with myself. Father’s store had grown and could easily support a partner, and Dad could use some help to make life a little easier for him. Or, I could stay on in “my” store to work there as a salesman. I decided on the latter. I felt comfortable with my new friends and my associates, and I doubted whether I could become accustomed to life in a small town and change my lifestyle again. So everything went fine, the way I had envisioned it. I became financially independent after a few promotions.

In the year 1932 the political and economic situation in Germany started to deteriorate after the Nazis under Hitler came to power. Anti-Semitism had poisoned the minds of the population to the point that I found it impossible to stay in the land where I was born and had grown up, and where my family had lived for centuries. My non-Jewish friends had abandoned me. Therefore I had no choice but to start a new life somewhere else. To stay anywhere in Europe was out of the question. Some of my Jewish friends had found refuge in Israel (at the time, Palestine), but there were a lot of problems to overcome, and I believed life there was not for me. Another option was to immigrate to Argentina to one of Baron Hirsch’s settlements, one of which was to be settled by German Jews. To qualify for this project, I had to work for eight weeks on a farm east of Berlin (Fürstenwalde), together with other young people of both sexes who were to live and work on a kibbutz, a Jewish agricultural commune, in Israel.

I finally left August 1936 on a French freighter bound for Buenos Aires, together with 12 other young men. It was not easy to leave my parents and sister behind, especially when it was uncertain if we would ever see each other again. We were a closely knit family and leaving under these circumstances was very hard.

After one week in Buenos Aires, we were sent by railroad to our destination, Colonia Avigdor, Entre Rios. We became farmers, 12 young men hailing from all parts of Germany and from all walks of life, in a foreign land, not knowing the language. The first day of our journey was a very interesting one: the whole train was loaded on the deck of a ferry boat which then crossed the River Platte to the Province of Entre Rios.

After this, and two more overnight stays, we arrived in Bovril, a small town in Entre Rios from where we were transported by horse carts to our final destination, Colonia Avigdor. After six hours over dirt roads in over 100-degree heat and a lot of dust, we arrived filthy, hungry, and tired at our destination.

Our living quarters consisted of two houses, about 100 meters apart, two outhouses, and between them a pump and a trough, where we had to draw water to wash, to cook, to drink for us and the livestock. One of these dwellings contained cots for the 12 to sleep and the other one was to be our “dining” supply room for tools, etc. Our meals were prepared on a fireplace outside (rain or shine). A young woman was in charge of preparing our meals. I can imagine that all of this is hard to comprehend, but we had no choice but to adjust to these conditions, like it or not. For transportation and for heavy farm work we depended on horses, thus I, as well as all my fellow “farmers,” became expert equestrians (although not the fancy variety). I soon learned to sleep in the saddle and also how to roll my own cigarettes, etc. The components of a Gaucho saddle could be used as a mattress for sleeping outdoors.

Every morning at sunrise the cows had to be rounded up, driven into a corral to be milked and treated for cuts and bruises. I also learned to throw a lasso and how to rope an animal. All this might sound romantic, but to me it was anything but. During the rainy season, roads were almost impassable, not even horses could get through the loamy mud. We then used teams of oxen to pull our wagons through the mud.

The most important thing we learned was to make do and to improvise with what we had. Of course, I had to learn Spanish, and I got along fine with the native cowhands and our native neighbors. To them I was Don Frederico, the Criollo Rubio. Once we became accustomed to this kind of life we had good times, too. We had a little dance band, in which I played the violin and very soon became the bandleader.

After the “school year” came to an end, the Hirschmann family — my uncle Max, my Aunt Selma (Mother’s sister) and Eric, their 16-year old son, and a helper came to join me. We had taken over 100 hectares of land, 20 head of cattle, 10 horses and 50 chickens. The operation of the farm was planned and supervised by the administration of the Company. All the work had to be done manually: electricity was not available and gasoline was far too expensive. The virgin land had to be cleared of underbrush and then plowed to enable us to sow our crops, consisting of corn, linseed or wheat. The soil was very fertile, and if everything went well, we sold our products. But every now and then, swarms of locusts ate everything that grew, and left the fields brown and barren overnight. Those were sad experiences… all the work had been for naught.

Everything went well and everybody had adjusted as well as could be expected, until after one year Aunt Selma became ill. Medical facilities in Avigdor were inadequate, and the family decided to leave the farm and move to the U.S. Bernard, their helper, got married, and he moved out to live with his wife on the farm of her parents.

I was left behind and had to cope with the new situation. Meanwhile, in order to survive, I kept afloat working as a farm hand, and for awhile helped out in the warehouse of the Farmers’ Cooperative. At harvest time I drove a combine (harvesting machine). There was no tractor, and the machine was pulled by teams of 10 horses, alternating every three hours. This was backbreaking work, but I survived. Then I got a break. I was offered a position as surveyor with a crew of native workers, clearing land to make it arable to sow alfalfa for a British cattle farm and meat-packing company. The Estancia Capivara was a huge tract of virgin land owned by the Compania Bovril, a British meat-packing company. My crew consisted of about 100 Criollos and their families (Criollos are a mixture of native Indians and mostly Italian immigrants). I lived with them on the job site, where I also was in charge of the canteen, but then, war started in Europe, and I was employed by a British corporation. Being a German national, I could no longer work there.

I decided to leave the farm and move on to Buenos Aires, back to civilization. I had a lot of old acquaintances from my former milieu. The bad part was, however, there were no jobs available. Once more I had to work odd jobs to stay afloat. The few pesos I still had from selling my belongings went fast. I worked in a garage as a night attendant pumping gas (manually, no machine-assisted pumps like today) and scratching up other people’s cars; selling cigarettes in a night club, mixing cement for a construction crew, etc.

News from my family was very sparse. My dad had been incarcerated in Buchenwald, a concentration camp. He was released under the condition that he had to leave the country immediately without going back to Herborn. Mother was left all alone to take care of the move. A Gentile friend helped her and protected her, even though he endangered his own life by doing so. Betti had secured a job in England, enabling her to get Mother to England, too, and get what was left of our family together. Betti was working very hard as a maid to get herself and the parents through these hard times. All this was very depressing for me. Standing by and unable to help caused indescribable mental pain. Meanwhile, Betti had managed to obtain visas for all three of them to immigrate to the U.S.A. Of course, there was no way for me to remain down here. The family pooled their resources so they could send me the money so that I could buy passage to New York. I was in seventh heaven.

I went by train to Valparaiso, Chile. A rockslide had buried the railroad tracks in the Andes and the railroad company transported all passengers by automobile to the Chilean border, an eight-hour long ride across the Andes. The Pacific route was much more interesting than going along the Atlantic coast. My ship, the Santa Lucia, was a freighter with some passenger accommodations. Since she had to load and unload cargo every other day, I had plenty of time to see the sights. But the Chilean government did not permit Germany Jews to enter the country, so I became a temporary Protestant.

Finally, in April 1941 I arrive in New York. After my ship docked, I spotted Father, Mother, Bernhard and Betti, Uncle Max and Aunt Selma, and I was so overwhelmed by my emotions and could not hold back my tears.

The parents and Betti had an apartment uptown in Manhattan. This section was called the “Fourth Reich,” because many Germany immigrants lived there. To me the place seemed luxurious. We had a bathroom, and in the kitchen there was a refrigerator. Now a new chapter of my life began. I went to night school to learn the language. Soon I was looking for work. My father went downtown from office to office peddling candy bars. Betti found employment as a masseuse in one of the fancy department stores, and Mother, besides keeping house for us, earned a few dollars altering dresses, etc. Jobs were very scary at that time, but Dad found work for me. I did not earn much, but at least I could contribute to the family treasury, which was managed by Mother. It was easier to weather rough times together as a family.

It was painful to look back. Dad’s two sisters and two brothers and their whole families disappeared in the Holocaust. So did three of my cousins and their families and five of Mother’s cousins. But life here had to go on. After I had changed jobs a few times and settled down some, the temporary Gaucho Frederico became Fred.

I was now working with Willy Schwab, my new employer, as a helper in a small factory and soon advanced to machine operator and foreman. Betti and Bernhard got married, and all the Sternbergs moved to Long Island. I adjusted quite well and things were looking up until the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and World War II started.

In March 1942 I joined the U.S. Army. After basic training, I was assigned as an interpreter in an MP (military police) company, but later on was sent to the Pacific theater of operations and wound up in the jungles of Guadalcanal. From there our outfit was moved to the Philippines.

In March 1945 I was hospitalized in Manila with a spinal injury and then sent back to the U.S. in September for six months in Atlantic City. I had been corresponding with a young woman in New York. We were introduced in writing by Aunt Frieda. Her name was Fanny Ullmann. Fanny and I married on my first furlough. I was discharged from the service March 1946. Now a brand new chapter of our life began.

Fanny was (and still is at heart) a nurse. We were planning on having a real family. I went back to my old job at Schwab. Sandi was born 2/2/47 and Linda was born 12/9/49. In 1949 we bought our first car, a Hudson, and in May 1951 we bought our house in Paramus and managed to make it into a home for all of us, including “Oma Malche,” Fanny’s mother, and Aunt Lencha, Oma’s sister, who helped us to afford the house. Debi was born July 22, 1952.

The document ends here, with a note “May 1990 and following”