Thursday, January 7, 2016

Sixty years in America: a day, a trip, to remember

       Sixty years ago today -- Jan. 7, 1956 -- we got our first look at the Statue of Liberty. It was a moment to remember, and to treasure.
       We arrived in the United States that day, the boat trip from The Netherlands at its conclusion after 10 mostly seasick days.
       It was Dad and Mom -- in their mid-30s -- and my sister Elsa and me. None of us spoke much English, just a few words Mom had learned from a book -- and I had no clue what the Statue of Liberty meant or represented.
       She welcomed us. She held her torch high.
       I do remember my mother telling us, in our little cabin, that we needed to go upstairs on the deck to see the Statue of Liberty. OK, Mom, whatever.
       On Jan. 7, 2016, I can tell you it was one of the great experiences of a lifetime.
       I have written about this previously, in the first year of my blog (2012), but today I present my mother's version of the trip from Holland and our first week in the United States. 
       She wrote this in January 2006, on the 50th anniversary of our arrival, and read it as part of her speech to a group in Shreveport that honored my parents then. There are details in it that I remember differently, but Miss Rose sometimes didn't let the facts get in her way.
        It's lengthy, but I think it's touching and it's neat, so bear with it ...
        "We applied for an American visa but the immigration laws were so strict we had to have a relative sponsor, and we didn't. In 1953, this country made a special law for Holocaust survivors called the Non-Quota Law. We could come, but we had to have a work sponsor. The HIAS (Hebrew International Agency for Survivors) found us a family in Shreveport, Louisiana, who were willing to sponsor us. They also had a job for Louis in an oil pipe and supply company. They were responsible for the first five years we were here. The owners were Abe Gilbert and his two sons-in-law, Lazar Murov and Neal Nierman. They were what we call in Yiddish real "menschen," which means exceptionally good people.
The earliest photo I have of us in the United States, spring
1956, in front of the duplex on Jordan Street. That's me, Elsa
and Dad with Janet Vandenberg (Mom took the photo). Janet
and her father, Ed, were the first people of Dutch heritage we
met in Shreveport and they were wonderful friends.
       "We had gone in Amsterdam to the American consulate to learn about Shreveport. We knew that we would live a complete different life, but we were determined to adjust. Our friends in Holland didn't understand why we would go to a place where we didn't know anybody. To us, it was a challenge. The 10 years we had lived in Holland (after World War II) were extremely difficult. It probably would have been easier to give up. But how many people get a second chance on life? And if you are fortunate enough to get that chance, then you must try hard to do the best you know how.
      "... We got a visa to come to this great country. We have never regretted it one second that we came here.
      "Someone asked me the other day if I remember where I was New Year's Eve 50 years ago. Yes, I remember it well.
      "We had booked with the elegant, beautiful ship of the Holland-America line. The date was 28 December 1955. All our friends had passes to come on board with us to say our last goodbyes. We all shed some tears. It was very emotional. I realized that nobody made us leave.
      "We were informed that there would be some great parties on board celebrating New Year's Eve 1956 and lots of entertainment. I had made an evening dress of champagne-colored taffeta for Elsa, our 4-year-old daughter. Our very observant son, Nico, who was 8, wanted to know what the brown paper bags on the railing were for. I told him I hoped we never needed them. Just wishful thinking.
      "We went from Hoek of Holland (a city on the North Sea) to Marseille, France, through the English Channel to Southampton. Up till then, the trip was enjoyable. We had a nice cabin with two bunk beds and a great view of the North Sea. The people we met were interesting and amicable. The food in the dining room was scrumptious. Our children were having a good time, which was very important to us. The sea was calm and nobody was seasick.
     "The trouble started going in to the Atlantic Ocean. The ship went east to west and the waves from north to south. Not a very pleasant feeling.
     "Our 4-year-old daughter, who always got carsick, was doing great. She would go by herself to the dining room and told the steward there that the three of us were seasick. She would bring back apples for us, which were supposed to make you feel better. No such luck. We weren't able to take part in any of the parties.
     "If you ever plan a trip to Europe on a ship, don't go in January. After 10 days of misery, we landed in Hoboken, N.J. I kissed the ground, not only to be glad to be in America, but also to be off the ship. I swore I would never go on a ship again, not even a rowboat.
     "There were several people to welcome us; we had known them from Holland and Belgium. Some of them had come to America before the war or right after the war was over. They were all diamond polishers and offered Louis a job. He didn't accept, and I was delighted. I had enough of snow and ice and temperatures far below freezing. We were invited the next day (Sunday) for dinner by some of our friends. They were living on Long Island.
     "Our friend, Sally, picked us up from where we were staying. The HIAS had brought us there. It was on Lafayette Street (in New York City). The building used to be an old school. It was now a place for immigrants. There were people there who had lived there for years. It was nothing to compare with the Hyatt. Fortunately, we had to be there for a few days.
     "We had a wonderful time with our 'old' friends talking about 'the good (?) old times.' After dinner, Sally dropped us off at the railroad station. We took the train to Great Neck, N.Y., where we had to change to New York City. It was the first time we were on our own. Not knowing exactly where we were, not speaking the language well, with two children to whom it all was different and strange. It was sort of stressful.
      "Back in New York, we took a cab to Lafayette Street. The next day we took the subway to Broadway to see the Rockettes dance. It was maybe the only chance we would get to do that; we probably would never come back to New York. It was fabulous except for the ice cold, freezing, snowing weather.
     "Tuesday, we again took a cab to Penn Station to catch the train to Chicago. There, we had to change platforms and another train. We waited three hours for the train, which would bring us, hopefully, to St. Louis. It was Thursday, 12:30 a.m., when we arrived in St. Louis.
     "We left there with our two tired, sleepy children at 2:45 a.m. At 5:50 a.m., we stopped in Hope, Arkansas, where we had to go to another platform. The station was closed. There was not another train coming until 6:40 a.m. We sat outside on the two suitcases we had, not very comfortable. At 7:30 a.m., Jan. 12, we arrived in Shreveport.
      "The Jewish Federation director was there to welcome us. He was very kind. His name was Maurice Klinger. We were impressed with the car he was driving. It was a 1956 Chevrolet two-toned, grey and pink. In our eyes, it looked like a limousine. In Holland, you wouldn't see cars like that. Everybody drove small cars, like little toy cars.
      "We had an address on our papers for a hotel downtown, the Caddo Hotel. The Jewish Federation had rented a room there for us for two weeks. Mr. Klinger brought us to Jordan Street, to a two-story house. I said to Louis in Dutch, never seen a hotel like this. It turned out to be a duplex; it was nicely furnished. There was some food in the refrigerator, among other things, a chicken. Our first meal in Shreveport was chicken soup, of course.
     "The next morning we found an elementary school in the neighborhood. Louis and I thought the faster Nico would go to school, the faster he would learn English. Afterward, we came to the conclusion it was a big mistake. We should have given him time to acclimate. He had a very difficult time in the beginning. He became good friends with the rabbi's youngest son, who was a tremendous help to him and us.
     "There were no public kindergarten schools, only private, and we couldn't afford that. With the help of Nico, I tried to teach Elsa at home. There was one word she was familiar with: 'cute.' Everything was 'cute," from toys to cars to flowers. Even some food. She heard that word over and over again because that was what people would say to her.
     "Friday night, we went to Shul (Agudath Achim, on Line Avenue). It was about three blocks from where we lived. It was quite an experience. They made us all feel welcome -- something we really needed. Until then, we hadn't met many people.
     "The next day, we walked around the neighborhood to get familiar with our surroundings. On Sunday, we walked all the way to Kings Highway, about an hour from Jordan Street. There we took the city bus to the Mansfield Road where Gilbert Pipe Co. was located. We wanted to see how much time Louis needed to go to work.
     "The next day Louis went from diamond polishing to the oil pipe and supply business. He was hired for six weeks and stayed for 28 years. He learned the business from the bottom to the top. He not only liked the work, he did what was even more important -- he liked the Gilbert family and so did I.
      "... We are blessed in so many ways having come to Shreveport, meeting so many people and making so many good friends. All of them showed us love, care and kindness. We can't thank everybody personally, but we want you all to know how much we love  you and appreciate you."
     It is 10 years since she wrote that and gave the speech. She's gone, Dad's gone, and they had more than 50 years in this country. Elsa is in New Jersey, and I'm in Texas. There are now six Van Thyn great-grandchildren.
     And we're grateful.
     The Statue of Liberty stands in that harbor and it might be debatable to some, but not to me: She is a welcome sight still.
     It's 60 years and counting for us. Seems like a lifetime.      


  1. Thanks Nico for sharing your mom's story. It explains so much. When we arrived by airplane in 1960 it was clear the community expected us to have had the more difficult passage and to have greater needs than was our case. My most distinct memory of the whole affair was the photo taken for a newspaper article that had us looking into a well stocked refrigerator. We tried to pass as happy, but were in fact dumbfounded by the contents. This was food in America? Really? I do remember that early in 1961, a month maybe after we arrived, that we drove for more hours than I thought civilized at the time, to visit your family's friends in Arkansas. I remember a movie set-like general store on top of a barren hill... it was like being on a different planet. None of the countries we'd ever visited before could have prepared us for Arkansas. Or Louisiana.

  2. An amazing story. I'm sure she had many more to tell. I'm so glad you came to Shreveport!

  3. From Tommy Youngblood: Glad you put your mother's letter out there. That is a great story. Really tells you what America and your parents' generation was all about.

  4. From Elsa Van Thyn: Good article. I remember going to the dining hall alone on the ship, but no memory of the Statue of Liberty. I remember the hotel stairs in New York City and some of the train ride.

  5. From Leo Van Thyn: It’s amazing how much your story is so much similar to us. Being young and not understanding everything and being on that ship -– I remember it all quite well.
    One major difference is where our family went. In 1953 my parents applied to emigrate to the U.S. Unlike you we could not get sponsorship. My mom’s cousin was an appliance salesman living in Cleveland who volunteered but was deemed not to have enough of an income. There was no one else.
    In Canada the Jewish Immigration and Aid Services sponsored us. Had we found a U.S. sponsor we would have been Americans like you. It is 59 years and counting for us with seven great-grandchildren, and yes, we too are grateful.

  6. From Tommy Canterbury: Great. I have a couple of 70-plus-year-old Polaroid type pictures of my dad at Auschwitz. Soldier with a rifle in a nightmare place. [Auschwitz was] just liberated. He was in the first groups crossing the Rhine, Bastogne, Bulge, etc.
    Love the history , hate the sins. We took Mom and Dad back 15 years ago and traced Dad's journey ... Remarkable!

  7. From Kitty van der Woude: In the Amsterdam Lights Festival there is a place on one of the canals where the work of art consists of three 10-foot-high copies of the Statue of Liberty. Instead of torches they are holding up horns overflowing with all kinds of fruits etc. The name of the work is The Horn of Plenty. Fits very well in Rose’s story!

  8. From James Bustillo: This is a fabulous read and a very happy story. It’s just great that you have so much history and recollection of your family’s heritage.

  9. From Mickey Lowe: I just finished reading your mother's memory of arriving in America. To me this was a very moving article and she told and wrote it from the heart. I am sure (know) it was extremely difficult for them and you to come to a new country and not know anyone.
    About the same time you were coming here, we were moving to Shreveport from the big city of Delhi (La.). We had some family here, but it was still difficult for me to get accustomed to the big city (compared to Delhi it was big). As I think back we were lucky we both had parents who loved us and taught us that the only way to succeed in life is hard work and dedication. I did not know the older Gilberts, but I know Mr. Bill (Braunig) and there is no finer person. So I am sure the rest of the family is the same.
    I know your Mom was proud of the man you became even though she probably got mad at you a few times just like mine did.

  10. From Doug Bland: I saw [the Statue of Liberty] for the first time last fall when we went to the LSU game at Syracuse, but it didn't have the same meaning as it did for your family. Man, has the world changed since ya'll were welcomed to the U.S.

  11. Nico,
    Great to hear your story again. I didn't understand it while growing up in Sunset Acres as you were just another buddy that I spent a lot of time with playing football on the playground across from your house with Edwin, Ross, Terry and others. My Dad spoke often of your Dad and with great admiration. I enjoy your blog very much.

  12. From Mary Norquist: Great story. Makes one realize how easy most of us have it.

  13. From Billy Hathorn: Beautiful story. I'm sure you never realized how young your parents were in 1956, at least not until much later.

  14. From Lynne Perler: Beautiful! I can hear [Rose] telling the story. I so loved your parents. Their memory is a constant blessing for me.

  15. From Cate Larmoyeux: I met Mr. and Mrs. Van Thyn in gatherings at the Catholic Center in the late 1980s. Their story and example continue to inspire me. Your mother once told me that courage isn't just in surviving events, it is in living past them with joy and grace.

  16. From Philip Kopuit: Good for you and for America, but we lost out on the four of you living so far away. Enjoy this joyful event.

  17. From Helaine Nierman Braunig: We are the lucky ones! We could never have known how blessed we'd be to have your family join ours.

  18. From Cindy Childers Kilpatrick: You never knew this but your family's story of new life inspired me to look toward Europe for my baby girl. I found her in Romania and now she is a senior in high school. I pray that someday she will inspire others.

  19. Nico....These articles bring tears to my eyes. When we were children, we had no idea what your family had lived through in those horrendous years. I do, however, remember that first day when you were the "new kid" at school in Miss Davis' room at Line Avenue. Believe she had you sit between Meyer B. and me. Can only imagine how hard that was for you. Interestingly, I thought your English was excellent! Paula (Turner) Freeman

    1. From Elsa Van Thyn: Table, lamp, chair are the words I remember knowing. Wow, I think Paula has an incredible memory, but I guess it was not every day in Shreveport in 1956 that a foreign kid entered your world. What I remember from that time is walking to school with you and being told to wait until recess and you would play with me. The problem was we forgot to tell Mama. Sixty years later and I still remember sitting there until Mama figured out where I was and came to pick me up.