excerpts from our projects
Anthony, let´s talk about your family background.
I grew up in Sicily, Italy. We lived about 13 miles outside of Messina, in a little town called Santo Stefano. It was near the sea.
I slept in my grandfather´s bed. I remember the sound of his snoring, but it was a nice sound and didn´t bother me. In 1908, when I was five years old, there was a big earthquake and the nearby city of Messina was destroyed completely. It was near the ocean, and the water came into the city. All the big buildings that were five or six floors just collapsed. Most of the people died.
I was sleeping with my grandpa on the second floor in our house. I remember I woke up and asked him why the building was shaking. He said, "It´s an earthquake. We're going down now any second!" because a lot of houses around us were crumbling. My grandfather said, "Don't be afraid," and he held me until the shaking subsided.
In our town, only two people died. My house didn´t collapse -- a few more seconds of shaking and it would have though. It cracked from one end to the other end, in a big line. But it didn't go down.
What do you recall about Berlin in the 1930s, Eva?
My father´s family was Jewish, but my mother was Catholic, my grandmother was Protestant, and I was brought up as a Christian. The German Jews were very unique in Europe. They were the most integrated Jews in the world. There was no difference made between them or anyone else. Ours was a German household. Jewish customs were alien to me.
My father couldn´t have looked more Aryan. He had the bluest eyes you´ve ever seen, fair skin and fair hair. But, suddenly, in 1931, his business was taken from him. We were pushed out of our home. Jews were told, âOh, you can´t live here; you have to go thereâ and theyâd simply take away our home. We lived with my uncle. Without my father´s business, we had little money. He took small jobs where he could.
The whole atmosphere in Germany became one of fear. Oh, you can´t say that.â âDonât forget to say, Heil Hitlerâ.â We were afraid all the time.
Did your family consider leaving?
My parents thought about it all the time. We finally did manage to leave Germany and move to France, in 1936.
In 1940, I remember my father´s brother was suddenly brought to Bordeaux, where we were staying. We found him in a huge convention hall, where they had herded thousands of Jews. We visited him there, and I remember that, with his last few pennies, he bought me a candy bar. I was 12 at the time and I was in tears because this man had no money and he bought me candy. He figured where he was going he was not going to need any money. That´s the last time I saw him. The whole family disappeared. There were 43 members of my family who were still in Germany, and they all disappeared. Without a trace.
In 1941, we went to Paris. Suddenly my father had to wear a yellow star. He liked to accompany me to school, and pick me up. I felt so torn inside, because I really liked to be with him, but I was embarrassed by the yellow star. I was 13 years old now. I adored my father, and didn´t understand why our lives were shattered. The Nazis made us feel like pariahs.
Junie, what are some of your early memories of being Japanese in Los Angeles?
Alien Land Laws didn´t permit Asians to own land or lease land for long, so we had to move every two years. In order to move so often, we had little houses that we put on a truck, and then we moved the whole house. All the neighbors would come over and help load the house on the truck. I remember I learned once in school that you should keep the windows open in your house to get enough air. I told my mother and she laughed. âWith all the cracks in our house, you don't have to worry about getting enough air!â
When I was growing up in the mid 1930s, when we went to the store, we were the last ones waited on because we were Japanese. My mother would bang on the counter to make herself heard but it didn't help.
When I was in the 3rd grade, I got into trouble. We had a maypole dance and we each put in 10 cents for the crepe paper. After the dance was over, they gave all the crepe paper to the white girls. I remembered that my teacher had said if we ever had any problems, we should write to her. So I wrote her a letter and told her it was very unfair that only the white girls got the crepe paper. I was on the teeter-totter the next day and this teacher told me to get off. She pulled me aside and told me she was going to have me expelled for what I wrote. It scared the heck out of me. I realized then that the world was a dangerous place to be. She was a very much-loved teacher. When a teacher does this to you, it's very sad.
In May of 1942, we walked to the train station a few blocks away, took a train to Union Station, took another train to Parker, Arizona, and then took a bus to Poston Internment Camp. It was very dusty. I remember getting off the bus and sinking about calf deep in dust. At the beginning of the trip I was thinking, âI must remember this... I must remember this.' We were given a little apartment for the six of us and I recall my father squatting on the floor with his head in his hands.
I've always been confident that, if everyone else could do something, I could do it. That's what kept me going. But it was very dehumanizing. You had to get in line for everything, like we were inmates. I felt very much alone. Our family was not one that talked a lot or supported each other, so I think each of us carried our own burden quietly.
Lena, how did your parents meet?
My father was five years older. When my mother was 13 and he was 18, they lived in two different shtetls, or villages, and they came together in one of the villages for a funeral. My mother immediately fell in love with my father. He became her idol. But my father looked at my mother as a baby; there was no interest. But there was great interest on her part--she had a crush now.When she was 16 and he was 22 there was still that big disparity, but now that was beginning to close. It was at this point that he left for America. She was heartbroken.
She decided she was going to America to find him. She got the permission of her parents and they said goodbye and she left for America.
My mother knew my father was in St. Louis, and she had relatives there. She contacted them, and they said she could come and work for them as their maid, since she had no trade to support herself with.
This family had three or four daughters and they were always looking for an eligible young man. Father was from the same shtetl, so the family knew of him, and he was invited on a Sunday to the house for lunch.Their objective, of course, was to introduce him to their daughters.
He was a handsome, tall, well-built guy with a good personality. It was just a coincidence that my mother happened to be there, working. When he got there, lo and behold, my mother walks in and he takes a look at herâŚ
Mother and Dad fell in love with each other and became very serious. Of course, the relatives were quite unhappy. My mother was thrown out of the house and was no longer welcome there. She was a very beautiful young woman. She was too much competition for the daughters. My parents got married, and the rest is history!
Ruby, let´s talk about your life in Oklahoma.
I was born September 16, 1922, in Lindsay, Oklahoma. There is a river that runs through there, and the Indians were on the river a lot. People never had a doctor; women would just give birth Indian style--throw the baby in a bag and go on. I was born on the banks of the river with the Indians. I do not have a birth certificate or anything.
We had a farm and I lived there until I was eight. We had dairy cows and chickens, and we raised sweet potatoes and peanuts and a lot of corn for popcorn. We planted wheat, and we harvested the wheat. Then we´d take sacks of wheat and have flour milled from that. We had barrels and barrels of lard from the pigs, and we made our own soap. The only thing we had to buy was sugar.
Did you have jobs on the farm?
Oh my, merciful heavens! When you were big enough you followed along behind the mule to do the plowing. I started that when I was six. You could daydream while you walked in back of the mule, watching the dirt get plowed. Iâd be out from daylight to dark.
How did the Depression impact your family?
As long as you stayed on the farm, you had enough food. We did not have money to spend, but we had plenty to eat. Everybody that lived in our area raised the same things we did. We could not sell the butter. We could not sell the milk or the cream. People did not have any money to buy it. We could not even give the eggs away. You´d haul everything to town to sell and you´d have to haul it back; nobody was buying. Period.
There was a terrible drought. We had 75 dairy cows on the farm and not enough grain to feed them, so the cows were starving. The government came to our farm, counted out seven cows, paid my stepdad 75 cents a head for the other 68 cows, and they shot them all. Then they bulldozed them and burned them.
That´s when my stepfather said we were getting out of there. He took the 75 cents a head for the cows that were killed and bought a Ford truck. Then he piled all of us into that truck and headed for California.
What are some memories of your father?
After my parents divorced when I was seven, we were with Dad every weekend. It was like going to camp. On Saturday mornings, my sister and I waited impatiently for him to arrive and whisk us away. Whether we wanted to or not â and we usually did want to â he took us on adventures. Cleveland has amazing parks throughout the city, and the Chagrin River Reservation was our stomping ground. We climbed cliffs, forged streams, caught crayfish or salamanders and explored the woods. In the winter, Dad taught us to ski on a local golf course. We tobogganed there as well. I remember how much I hated having to walk back up the hill. He had little patience for whining, though.
We went to a matinee movie every Saturday. Sometimes we sat through the same movie twice if we all liked it enough. Our favorites were Danny Kaye films. We always took our own candy with us to the movie theater. Dad had Milk Duds and my sister and I usually had Holloway suckers. They were made of a thick, sticky substance that could pull your teeth out. We also took full meals with us â hamburgers, deli sandwiches, French fries and milk shakes. We even took a huge pizza once. This was way before movie theatres even sold actual food. My father was a big kid in so many ways.
What else did you do on weekends with your dad?
Every Sunday we went to my grandparentsâ apartment for lunch. Grandma was a wonderful cook and we always could smell her cookies as we walked down the hall. After lunch, my grandfather and Dad would watch the football game â they were Browns fans. I have vivid memories of them both yelling at the television. I remember one Sunday, while they were watching a game, there was a news bulletin showing Lee Harvey Oswald being walked out of jail. As we watched, Jack Ruby shot him. I still have that picture in my mind.
We were also with Dad on Wednesday nights and we always ate hamburgers at Mawbys. We were very friendly with the cook there. Something my father did in restaurants that always impressed me was that he could turn a rude waitress into a nice one by ignoring her attitude and being friendly to her. It always worked.
Many of our rituals with Dad revolved around ingesting sugar. Dad definitely had a sweet tooth, which he passed on to us. Every Sunday before going to lunch at Grandma´s, we went to a penny candy store and my sister and I spent a quarter. Dad was quite addicted to Tootsie Rolls, so he always had them in his pocket. In fact, when I was getting married, as he walked me down the aisle, he handed me a Tootsie Roll.
Howard, what was your daily routine in the tank?
We slept on the ground or we slept in the tank or we slept on top of the tank. It depended on where we were and how dangerous it was.
We didn´t bathe; we didnâ´t shower. It wasn´t like being in the Navy or the Air Force, where you go back to a base or ship and take a shower and change your clothes. We didn´t have a change of clothes. That´s what life was like. The thing the Army was most concerned about at that time and in that locale was taking care of your feet, because many of the guys were on foot. Whenever it was possible, the guys on foot would jump up on the tank and ride with us. If we were moving from one place to another where there was no shooting, we would always have 10, 12 or 15 guys on the back deck of the tank, getting off their feet. They would also keep warm there, because of the heat of the motor. We didnâ´t have real winter clothing. The army had arctic clothing, but we didn´t.
We had just four pairs of socks and two pairs of boots. My feet got frostbitten because my socks got wet and I didn´t change them soon enough, I guess. It was painful, but not like those people in the Bulge, where they were deep in snow, which we never were.
What was the terrain like?
Hitler built this wonderful network of highways all over Germany called the Autobahn. This was supposed to be Hitler´s secret weapon, to be able to move troops easily from the Russian Front to the American Front and back. Well, Hitler apparently didn´t consider the fact that these highways were also available also to us! We would get on the Autobahns and we could cover a lot of distance in a day. Sometimes, the Germans would blow up a bridge so we couldn´t get across. But, just as fast as the Germans blew up bridges, we had combat engineering units that very quickly put up temporary structures. The American Army was amazing when it came to that sort of thing.
Our tanks were terrible, though. The Germans had much better tanks than we did, and they had better guns than we did. But we had more. If they lost a tank, they lost a tank. If we lost a tank, we had four more that some factory in Detroit had produced. We really out-produced the Germans. That ´s what helped us win the war.