Fighting Apollo--and Hitler

Memoirs of Ilse Jacobsohn, an Oak Park Arms resident

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Ilse Jacobsohn, a resident at Oak Park Arms, told Elmhurst College students Steph Matulek and George Wedel about her Jewish family's escape to Havana, Cuba, during World War II. Here are some excerpts from her memoir.

We landed on the shores of Havana, Cuba in March of 1939, when I was 19 years old. We were the last boat shipped over from Germany, and luckily my father's lottery number was called just in time. My family had a guardian angel, and we were thankful every day to be alive.

A hot dog company called Oronoco was kind enough to lend its ship out to some Jews trying to flee Hitler's evil reign. We were the only survivors of Hitler from our family, and we just assumed that everyone else we knew was dead. The pain was too much to bear, and survival was the only thing on my mind. I was a long way from home, and I knew that I would probably never see West Germany again.

We landed with only six wooden boxes filled with furniture to our name. We knew we would have to start from scratch and help each other out more than ever. I was very close to my mother and father, and I felt that as long as we were together, everything would be fine. This would be my family's toughest test. It was here that we began to put the pieces of our lives back together.

The sun was so fierce it pierced my skin, and the humidity was suffocating. Apollo never pitied my situation, and every day he reminded me of this by revealing his most powerful weapon, a relentless sun. I knew the weather would be hard to deal with, but at least I was alive, and that's all that mattered. 

My family learned to economize when we moved into our new house. We had to live day to day, which meant no shopping. We had to cook our food with coal, which made it even hotter. Oftentimes I felt that the heat was so overpowering that it could suck the life right out of me. Ice was delivered to our door, because it would melt if you tried to store it inside. It seemed like everything around us was on the verge of melting, with temperatures inching past 100 degrees on a daily basis. Bars closed off our windows, so the air could circulate through the house more easily. We slept beneath mosquito nets and learned very quickly that the bugs were just as tortuous as the weather. We would often return home to a house filled with cockroaches.

The buzz of mosquitos was always ringing in our ears. My mother would hang her silk dresses in the open closet in the corner of our house. The first article of clothing was always covered with small bite marks from the mosquitos; we couldn't hide anything from the bugs. We had to be particularly careful with our food, since it came in such short supply, because the bugs would devour that too if given the chance. We were so hungry; we hardly ever had enough food.

The heat continued to exhaust our spirits, and we prayed for some sanctuary, some place to escape from the humidity. My family owned one fan stationed in our living room, and we would spend countless hours huddled around this fan, thirsting for the small gusts of air that would breeze across our faces. At night we would move our beds around the coolest place in the house, usually right in front of the window, and hope for one good night of sleep. Since our house was so small, we never knew which room we were sleeping in, but all that mattered was that we had a few house to escape from the heat, and we cherished those hours.

But as time passed, I began to develop a new appreciation for the city and all of its beauty. Havana was a beautiful place. The palm trees swayed lightly in the wind and the air smelled fresh. Children's laughter floated above the bodegas and clouds slowly inched their way across the sky. The old-fashioned buildings towered over the narrow streets and cast their shadows against everything within their reach. Iron gates fenced in each house, and people were always outside sweeping their sidewalks or cutting the hedges around their small houses. Sweat dripped down their faces as they peered up at me as I passed and greeted me with a smile. The people of Havana were very friendly and luckily I knew enough Spanish to communicate with them. The world was so alive and everything seemed to be blossoming despite the intense heat. I would wander around the city aimlessly and lose myself in the vivid colors that surrounded me. Many places were lined with beautiful mosaic tiles that sparkled in the sunshine. The colors would bounce off my eyes as I strolled down the street, wandering around until the sun finally began to make its descent behind the tall ancient buildings.

My days of wandering came to an end when I got my first job as a nanny to a young Cuban boy named Chew Chew. Chew Chew was two years old, and I learned quickly that he was the man of the house. You could not forbid him to do anything. I was expected to give him anything he asked for, and punishment was supposed to be limited. In Havana, children seemed to rule their parents, which was a completely different mindset that what I knew. I eventually formed a bond with Chew Chew, after taking care of him for several months, and every day before his nap I would sing him German nursery rhymes as his eyes slowly fluttered into a deep sleep.

Although my father was a physician and my mother was a schoolteacher, work was hard to come by in Cuba, and I was grateful to be given a job. At the time, I was supporting my family, and I knew how important this job was to our survival. I was making $15 a month and this money furnished my family's basic needs. During that time I was making good money for my age, and oftentimes I made more money than some grown men who lived in our small community. We learned to live on very limited means, paycheck to paycheck.

Despite the burden of the intense heat on a daily basis, the Cubans were extremely friendly people. It always took about 20 minutes to leave a party because everyone seemed so disappointed that you had to go. Slowly, we began to form a small circle of friends. We were one of many Jewish families in our community. We relied on each other for companionship, but no one talked about their past. We knew that pain and suffering haunted the past of many people around us. We could see it in their eyes. It was like everyone was hiding something--something they wished could stay hidden forever. Occasionally, my father would look in the New York newspaper for some hope of finding our remaining family members; we always hoped there would be just one survivor. Although the newspaper was our only link to the broken world we had left behind, we were hesitant to trust it because it often published unreliable news. So every Jew in our community just went on wondering where their family members were--and if they were even alive.

The best times in Havana came when it rained. The world seemed to stop in its place. Everything and everyone just stood still, and people enjoyed the small drops that dripped down their faces. Some people would stand outside with open mouths and embrace the cool raindops gently grazing their skin. Some hid inside their houses and listened to the pitter-patter of raindrops on their rooftops. If we were stranded far away from home when the rain began, we would just knock on a neighbor's door and take refuge inside their home. This was how people socialized and met new people in the community. I always remember the excitement that swept over the town while people rushed for safety, as if the rain would somehow melt their hot skin. Small children would jump over rain puddles while parents urged them to hurry and seek shelter. Couples would wrap their arms around each other and peer out the windows as liquid drops fell from the heavens. Rain brought people together, while the heat seemed to break people apart.

My family left Havana in December of 1940, and once again we were one of the last ships to be sent over to America. Our guardian angel was loyal and refused to leave our side until we reached our destination. My father's number was called for the lottery once again, and we packed our few possessions immediately.

As we stepped onto the boat, we took one last look at the beautiful city of Havana that had embraced us as one of its own. We were off to another country to face yet another struggle.

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