In his book “The Stable Boy of Auschwitz,” written this year, Henry Oster reminds us what is at stake and what can be lost faster than we might imagine.
Considering how some in Europe and America are reacting to the plight of desperate immigrants, I offer you Mr. Oster’s reflections on arriving in America.
I hope you read the book to understand how he arrived at his thoughts recorded in his chapter entitled “The Woman in the Harbor.”
We cannot allow history to be edited in classrooms, book censoring, or politicians who constantly twist reality for their purposes.
Anti-Semiticism is on the rise and cannot be allowed to poison the uneducated and prejudiced across the country.
“When you arrive in New York on a broken-down ship and you see the Statue of Liberty… well, it’s an experience that’s almost impossible to describe. I don’t care how many people have tried to say it, but when you see that impossible statue, with that torch held up in the air, everything changes.
The concept of what you are, who you are, what you have been through—it changes completely at that moment. That incredible, beautiful, symbolic structure tells you that you have arrived at the gates of something that your imagination could not possibly conceive.
People who are born in America have no way of understanding what America means to poor, beaten-up, desperate people who have run out of luck or money or space in whatever country they came from. To these people—people like me, that gray day in April 1946—America is much more than a new place. It is a new life.
I had almost no money. I spoke no English. I had no skills. I had no home, and no real family. But even to me, arriving there with nothing, it felt like I was the luckiest kid on earth. After all those years of being despised and nearly annihilated by the Nazis, having so many things go right in my life seemed like a long, wonderful dream. It’s a dream I have still not awakened from, all these years later.
I stayed for a short time in New York with a distant relative, Millie Lachman, who was a cousin of my mother, and her husband, Henry, whom I had known in Germany. I also reconnected with a couple friends I had known in Cologne. One was a boy about my age who was the son of one of my mother’s cousins, and another was an old classmate of mine, from way back in 1935 before the Germans had kicked us out of school.
These wonderful people showed me my first glimpses of America. I was nearly knocked over by the sight of my first American supermarket. There was nothing like this in Europe: everybody there bought their groceries at a local store, within walking distance of their homes. Here was a cathedral dedicated to food in its every incarnation. Walls of bread. Oceans of milk. A meat counter bigger than any home I had ever lived in. Fresh, glowing green vegetables and rainbows of fruit from every corner of the world.
The Automat was another American invention that took my breath away. It seems a little spooky and industrial now, but at the time it was an astounding invention. You put your 50 cents into a slot, and then reached into a revolving machine to grab the sandwich you wanted. It was robotic and machinelike, but it was also hip and modern and fast. You could get a sandwich in a few seconds—no more waiting for an actual person to take your order, put your meal together, and then take your money and make change. Bang, bang, bang, things happened in America faster than anywhere else on earth. All this food was a visual treat, and an eye-opening look at a whole new world, the world of the future, spread out right before my dazzled eyes. But in an odd way, the food itself really didn’t excite me.
Even now, once people meet me and realize what I went through all those years ago, they seem to have an unreasoning need to feed me. “You were starving,” they will say. “You need to eat more.”
I hate to disappoint these well-meaning people, but food really doesn’t mean much to me. It hasn’t since I left Buchenwald.
That was then, and this is now. I can’t make up now for what I couldn’t get then. It may be that my stomach, and my metabolism, grew up with next to nothing to eat, and that it never changed after I came to America, the capital of too-much-to-eat. I don’t have any desire to eat much at a time, and sometimes it seems like such a chore, eating and cleaning up and digesting, that I wish I didn’t have to do it at all.”
Oster, Henry; Ford, Dexter. The Stable Boy of Auschwitz: A heartbreaking true story of courage and survival (p. 246). Thread. Kindle Edition.
Henry Oster was born in Cologne, Germany, on November 5, 1928. In 1941, he was shipped to the Lódz ghetto, where his father died of starvation. In 1943, he was deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau, and soon after to Auschwitz I, where he performed forced labor in a stable. He was liberated in 1945 while imprisoned at Buchenwald camp in Germany. After the war he moved to France, and then joined extended family in Los Angeles, taking the first available ship from Europe to the United States after the war. He attended UCLA and became an optometrist. He was interviewed on September 15, 1995.