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It was November 1938. I was 19 years old and coming home from work with my older brother, Naftali. As we approached our apartment we saw a mob breaking windows and assaulting people. Years later, this night would be known as Kristallnacht, or the night of broken glass. With a frightened look on his face Naftali turned to me.
“This doesn’t look safe, I don’t think we should go home lets stay with Betty”
Several years earlier my passport was revoked by the German government and I was thrown out of a specialized high school where I was studying to be an engineer. Although I was born in Berlin, my father was born in Poland and therefore I was not considered to be German. Betty, my oldest sister, was married to Leo whose family was in Germany for several generations thus considering him to be German.
Once at Betty’s apartment, Naftali and I discussed and decided that we no longer felt safe and wanted to leave Germany. Most of our family had already left Germany. Our parents and our 3 sisters Mary, Selma and Lotte had already made their way to England and our brother Willie was in Cuba. We contacted our sister Mary and told her that Germany was getting dangerous as the war spread. Mary was married to Joe, a furrier, and they were able to arrange and pay for passage for Naftali and myself to flee Germany. In the meantime, we were in hiding. Naftali and I could not go back to work and we heard from friends that the Brown Shirts, German thugs, were after us. On January 1, 1939 we flew to Amsterdam and on January 3rd we boarded a steamship, the S.S. Cottia, to Trinidad. Because Mary was wealthy and made our arrangements we were lucky to be on the upper class portion of the ship. The ship was rocky and many people were seasick for the voyage that lasted for a few weeks, Naftali and I however were fortunate enough to not get sick and just thankful to be out of Germany. I remember I found it odd the first night when entering the dining room to find the waiters wetting down the tables. I ask the reason for it and one of them replied with,
“The water keeps the plates from sliding and if we don’t use water on the tables, the plates will slide right off”
When we arrived in Trinidad we were locked up in a British internment camp because we were Germans. However, the British knew that we were Jews and didn’t view us as a threat. They treated us fairly and allowed us to work. I got a job working as a tool and die maker at Burrows Adding Machines but I was forced to pay a British guard to escort me to and from work each day, so that I could leave the camp.
I became friendly with a co-worker, John who was from India. One night he invited me to go out with him to the movies. Again, I paid the British guard to escort me to the movies. There John and I sat down in the front of the theater. The next day at work my supervisor approached me,
“Benno, I saw you at the movies last night sitting with John in the non-white section. I know you are not used to our customs but if you associate with the non-whites, the whites won’t associate with you”
I found this interesting because I fled Germany due to anti-Semitism only to encounter racism in the free new world.
Naftali and I lived in Trinidad for three years. During this time the United States had entered into a war with Germany. Naftali and I had many discussions about leaving Trinidad.
“Naftali, since there are no Germans coming from Germany due to the war I think we can finally enter the United States under the German quota”
“We’ve been saving our money Benno, I’m sure we have enough to buy steamship tickets to the United States”
We purchased tickets and arrived in New York at Ellis Island in the spring of 1942. I left Germany behind and my name was now Benjamin Fischer. My older brother Willie had previously arrived from Cuba and was already settled in New York City. We lived together in a cramped apartment with Willie, his wife Gerda, and their daughter Ruth. Willie had contacts with a Jewish agency who told me there was work to be had in Indiana. Naftali, now known as Nathan, stayed in New York while I got on a bus to live with a Jewish family in Indiana. I started a new job with the Pullman Train Company, working in a factory. I loved my new country and hated the Nazis; I wanted to fight for the United States against Germany. I went to enlist but failed the physical examination with a 4F classification due to a hernia. I went back to work in the factory for about a year and then in August 1944 I got notification that I was being drafted. At my physical exam my 4F classification became a 1A as the U.S. was at war and needed all men to go fight. I was sent for basic training in South Carolina, ironically there was another Benjamin Fischer who kept getting into trouble and I was the one getting called into the Commanding Officer’s office. This caused me a lot of inconvenience so I dropped the “c” and became Benjamin Fisher. The night before I went to fight in France, I was taken to a local court house and sworn in as a citizen of the United States.
I arrived in France and because I was fluent in French, German and English I was assigned a job driving for a general. It was the best job I could ask for because I was far away from the fighting, no one was shooting at us and I was able to eat with the general. The only problem was the war ended. I was reassigned to The Counter Intelligence Detachment in the Military Information Service and sent back to Germany as an interrogator at a German P.O.W. camp in Darmstadt, Germany.
The camp was full of German S.S. officers, some of whom were attorneys defending war criminals at the Nuremberg trials. This was quite the turn of events, I’m back in Germany, but now the S.S. were my prisoners. At Darmstadt, my job was to interrogate S.S. officers and try to figure out if any of them committed war crimes. I also had to shuttle S.S. lawyers to the Nuremberg trials.
After my tour of duty, I received an honorable discharge from the U.S. Army. I arrived back in New York as Benjamin Fisher, U.S. citizen. I was able to go back to school to become the engineer I always wanted to be. I met Edythe Spalter, got married and started a family. I worked for many years as a mechanical engineer and my last job was working for Oxford Pendaflex designing machines to create the hanging folders system that is available today under the Esselte Pendaflex name.
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