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SONIA PRESSMAN FUENTES ORAL HISTORY
CHRISTA WHITNEY: This is Christa Whitney, and today is February 6th, 2015, and Iam here with Sonia Pressman Fuentes in Sarasota, Florida. We're going to record an interview as part of the Yiddish Book Center's Oral History Project. Do I have your permission to record?
SONIA PRESSMAN FUENTES: You do indeed.
CW:Thank you. So, I thought to start, could you tell me briefly what you knowabout your family background, about your grandparents' generation?
SPF:Very little. My mother's name was Hinda Leah Dombek, D-O-M-B-E-K. And herfather, in the shtetl [small Eastern European village with a Jewish community] in Piltz, where she was born. Was called Itzhak Moshe Dombek. And he -- the 1:00Yiddish words are marshelik [wedding jester] or batkhn [wedding entertainer]. He was an entertainer who went to weddings and bar mitzvahs and told jokes and stories. I learned about that when I was a teenager, and I got a big kick out of it because I'm known for my sense of humor and I tell stories, and I like to think that I got that from my maternal grandfather. He did not make much of a living at that. My mother lost her mother when she, my mother, was ten years old. And my mother always talked -- often talked to me about that loss. And I'm named after that grandmother. My Yiddish name is Sheyndl, and I looked up various names of that grandmother, Shandla and different things. So, I'm named after her. I don't know anything about her. Then, after her mother died, my 2:00mother's father married another woman who had a daughter of her own. This other woman did not care for my mother, and there's a whole bunch of stuff. I don't know how much you want me to tell.
CW:Yeah, go ahead.
SPF:And, well, this is in my book. You read it. And this woman did notparticularly care for my mother. And she had her own daughter, what did she need the daughter of my grandfather's previous wife? So, the story that my mother told me was that she was studying -- now, this is odd to me, now I think about it, because I think she said she was studying khumesh [Pentateuch, Five Books of Moses], but I didn't think girls studied in the old days, just boys. So, I don't know, but that's what she told me. She was studying khumesh. And when her father came home that night, the stepmother complained that my mother studying out loud 3:00gave her a headache. So, my grandfather took my mother by the hair and threw her across the room. And so, my mother went outside and sat on the stoop and was crying, and she had a wealthy uncle from Warsaw who happened to be coming visiting at that time. And he saw her sitting there crying and he said, "Loneshu, why are you crying?" So, she told him the story. So, he said he would take her with him to Warsaw. He was a wealthy man, had a wife, a daughter, and a son. The daughter was named Helche and the son was Dalak, and I have a lot of pictures of the son. Very handsome man. And so, my mother left her father and stepmother, came back for visits, and grew up in the home of that uncle. I don't 4:00know anything beyond that -- further back. I tried, but I couldn't find anything further back. And when I was in Poland, I got a book, which I have here, of the Jewish cemetery in Piltz, and I went there. And I can tell you how it came to be written, but this book lists all the gravestones and everything. So, I thought I would find something there, but I couldn't find anything that I would recognize, and it's also mostly in Hebrew. I know nothing about my father's father. I've often wondered -- my father's last name was Pressman, which is German -- how he got a German name. But I never heard an answer to that question. His mother, I do know about. Oh, I know her name and I can't think, but at the moment -- maybe 5:00it's in my book. His mother ran a bakery, and was apparently a tough cookie. And my father told me that she had had three husbands. I had a cousin, Fela Lefkowitz, that used to live in Chicago, but also from Europe. And when she heard me say that she had three husbands, she said, "Three? She had seven." So, I don't know if she knew what she was talking about. I always heard that she had three husbands, but I don't know about any of them. I guess the last one was my father's father, but I don't know any more than that.
CW:I want to talk about your visiting there later, but do you have a sense ofwhat Piltz was like when your parents were growing up there?
SPF:I know nothing beyond when I visited there. They didn't really talk about --well, a little bit. My mother used to tell me different stories. I'm trying to 6:00think. I'm remembering one now where a woman was told that if she was in bed, she should keep her legs in pots or something so she couldn't have sex, and was some kind of a weird story there. But she also once told me, and I'm guessing this was in Piltz, that people went to the bathroom outdoors and there was a hill like this, a triangular hill, of people after they went to the bathroom. It was outdoors. I remember that. She told me a number of stories, because at one time, I sat -- I told her I wanted her to tell me stories and I would write 'em down. And I don't know where that stuff is. I might still have it. But I did it for just a short time. That's when some of these stories came out. I did it for a short time and then I didn't keep up with it. So, I don't know, except -- well, I know a little bit about their lack of education. My father never went to 7:00any school. My mother said that she went to some lower classes, because she had uncles who were teachers. Now, I always thought this was in Piltz, but when she was ten, she went to Warsaw. So, I'm not sure. I always thought it was in Piltz. And the one thing that I do remember was that my mother was left-handed. But left-handedness in those days was not acceptable, and in this country, too. So, she told me that when she went to class and the teacher, who might have been her uncle, saw her writing with her left hand, he said, "Lonishu, go out and come back when you can write with your right hand." So, that's exactly what she did. And when I knew her, she did everything with the left hand, but she wrote with the right hand.
CW:Wow. Can you tell me the story of your parents' marriage?8:00
SPF:Yes. So, I told you how my mother came to Warsaw. Well, first of all, shewas very close to this cousin, Dalak. And she probably loved him. Very handsome guy. And she told me that he was after her to go to sleep with him. And she said to him that if she did that, she became pregnant, she'd have to jump out the window and kill herself. So, she didn't sleep with him. So, then, she had a romance with a blind violinist. And she said it was amazing, that he took her all over Warsaw, and knew every place, and where to go and all of that, and was interested in marrying her and she was interested in marrying him. But her uncle 9:00talked her out of it. He said that if she has a baby, he wouldn't be able to see the baby and that this would not be good. And the uncle broke that up. So, then, my mother, I didn't really know her, she never really knew her exact age, because she told me her father didn't bother registering just one child. So, she never knew her exact age. But I found out that she was born in 1892 when I went to Poland. But she was no longer alive then. So, she was funny about that, because if she had a day that she didn't feel so well, she'd say, "Well, I'm not so young anymore. I'm eighty-two." But if she did feel good on another day, she could say, "I'm only eighty-one," 'cause she didn't know her age. But she knew her birthday was March 15th. All right, so meanwhile, she was already maybe 10:00twenty, twenty-one, which is over-the-hill over there. My father, when he -- we started out in Piltz. For some reason, he didn't work in his mother's bakery. He started out when he was in Piltz delivering clothes for a tailor. And then, when he was fourteen, he decided to run across the border to Germany to find work. And that's what he did: ran across the border. As he was going across the border, the border guards shot at him, and the shots made the hat that he was wearing come off his head, and there were bullet holes in it. So, they brought that hat back to his mother. I'm thinking of her name, which I know. They brought it back to his mother and told the mother that he'd been shot and 11:00killed. So, the mother thought he was dead. Udel Ulmer was my father's mother's name. Udel thought that my father was dead. So, my father went to Germany, and he initially got a job as a tailor, and then he was a supervisor. And then, when he was about eighteen years old -- oh, meanwhile, something else happened. When his mother was pregnant, she was at one point in the mikveh [pool for ritual immersion] and became friendly with another woman. And they agreed that if one has a son and the other has a daughter, the two of them will get married. And my grandmother had my father, the son, and the other woman did have a daughter. So, then, my father went back to Piltz to visit his mother. So, when he went back, since he couldn't read or write, he never wrote to her or anything. When he came 12:00back to the house, knocked on the door, she opened the door, saw him standing there. She said, "Spirit, go back to your grave!" She thought he was a ghost. So, he convinced her that he wasn't dead and he came in to visit her. And at that same time, my mother came to Piltz to visit her father. So, my mother had a cousin who was a shadkhn, a matchmaker. So, he introduced the two of them, and my mother said they took a walk, and she said he was so handsome she couldn't bear to look at him. And then, during this walk, she asked him what he earned. (laughs) And he told her a lower figure, because he didn't want her to be interested in him for the money, so he told her some figure. And then, he showed her a picture of himself. And she looked at it and she said, "That's nice," and she gave it back to him. And he said, "No, you may keep it." So, she said to 13:00herself, Boy, this guy is interested in me. He's letting me keep the picture. So, then he went back to Germany and she went back to Warsaw. But he was writing her postcards. He didn't know how to write, but friends, they had these -- and I have some of them still in my albums -- they were these picture postcards, but the pictures were these old-time pictures of a man and a woman with some writing, I love you, this kind of flowery stuff. So, he would send her these postcards that other men would write for him. And she got these postcards, and then in one of the postcards, he addressed her as darling. So, she wrote back and said, "You can't call me darling. It's not proper." And then, he wrote back and said, "It's all right for me to call you darling because I'm going to marry you." So, that's how they decided to get married. You want me to go on or to stop?
CW:No, yeah, I think the story of what happens next is --14:00
SPF:Okay. So, then, they were making a wedding. And so, my father said to hisboss that he has to go to Poland, he's getting married, and the boss said, "You can't go now, it's the busy season. I need you," whatever. And my father said, "I can always get another job, but I can't always get another wife." So, he left and he went to Poland. Meanwhile, his mother was not happy that he was marrying my mother, for a number of reasons. First of all, she had that commitment to that woman in the mikveh. Secondly, my mother was taller than my father and she had freckles, which was not good. And she was slim. And then, the mother said she had read in the paper that some woman in Warsaw with a similar name gave 15:00birth to twins, and how did my father know that that wasn't my mother, and she might already have children? And I think she said, "What do you know about this woman? You only took a walk with her." So, then my father started to have doubts about the whole thing. And he said that he went to sleep at night and that my mother's dead mother came to him in a dream and said, "Marry my daughter. She'll make you a good wife." And my father woke up from that dream and he said, he's going through with the wedding. So, they were going to have the wedding, but my mother's uncle had given her a nadn [dowry], a dowry, and she had lent it to a cousin who was a gambler, and he lost it. So, she didn't have a dowry. And she was petrified as to what would happen. Didn't tell my father. So, they're 16:00starting with the wedding and everything, and my father's waiting and talking to that uncle. And my father used to say the uncle kept putting his hand in his pocket, and my father thought he was going to come out with the nadn, and he came out with a pocket watch or with something, he never came out with the nadn. So, my father asked about it and he found out what happened. So, he felt that he was being tricked into this wedding, there was no dowry, and he ran away. And so, all the people at the wedding ran after my father because they said he would shame my mother, to be at the wedding and not to show up, and my mother was an orphan 'cause she didn't have a mother, and that my father shouldn't do that. So, they caught him. And one man had a cane, and my father was wearing a collapsible top hat. So, that man took a cane and he hit my father and that hat collapsed, and they brought my father back to the wedding. Dragged him back. And 17:00my father said to my mother, "My mother was right. I shouldn't be marrying you. But now I'm doing it 'cause I'm forced. But you should know I'll be leaving tomorrow for Germany, alone. I'm just doing it 'cause I have to." And my mother said she just felt after the wedding, she'll kill herself. She was always talking about killing herself and she never did it. So, they had the wedding, and then they went to some little house, and the custom was that all the townspeople would try to look in the window of this little house to see whether the couple were consummating the marriage, whatever they were doing. So, they went to this little house, and my mother, when I knew her, she was a size -- I don't know if they have those sizes today -- used to be a size forty-two, forty-four -- she was maybe five-five and she was a solidly built woman. But in those days, because she used to have a beautiful light blue lacy bra, a girdle, 18:00with a matching fan. It was light blue with a matching fan. And I asked her, "What was the point of having a girdle with a matching fan? Who sees you in a girdle with a fan?" And I never figured that one out, but that's what she had, and she was slim. And she wore cotton to make her breasts look bigger. So, apparently, when they went into this little house, she changed clothes, she mistakenly left those cotton breasts in the bathroom. And my father came into the bedroom holding those and he says, "What are these?" So, she said she knew it was all over then when he saw that, but she told him what it was and he laughed, and everything was fine. And the next morning, they left together for Germany. So, they were on the train a short time when all of a sudden, my father 19:00said, "Oh, I forgot the luggage." He says, "I'll get off and I'll meet you at the next station," and he jumps off the train. So, my mother's sitting there and some man who's nearby came over to her and said, "You're traveling here alone?" And she said, Well, yes, but she just got married and her husband forgot the luggage and he's going to get it and he'll meet her at the next station. So, this man says, "Are you kidding?" He says, "You'll never see that man again." My mother said, "Oh, my God." Here she is, going on a train to Germany by herself. She doesn't know the language over there, and that my father will n-- it made sense, what this man said -- and that my father will never come back. So, she's sitting there wondering, What the hell is she going to do? And they come to the next station and my father pops up with the luggage. I never figured out how he managed this. So, then they get to Germany and my father hasn't got a job. So, 20:00my mother went to his boss and said, "Look, I'm the wife that he went to marry and, you know, he's a good tailor," and this and that, everything. And he took him back. My father went back to work for him. So, my mother didn't trust my father. Oh, so the uncle did give a second nadn, and he gave my mother a little money, just to have a little money for herself. And she always kept it in a cupboard there. And whenever she came home, she looked in that cupboard, if that money was there, and when she saw it, she felt better. She felt good. So, one afternoon, she came home, she looked in the cupboard, and the money wasn't there. So, when my father came home, she said, "I have to tell you something. I've had this little bit of money that the uncle gave me just in case something went wrong with us or whatever, so I would have something of my own. And I looked there today and it wasn't there." So, my father said, "That's right, I 21:00took it. I didn't marry you for love. I married you for your money, and now I have it." So, my mother said, "Oh, my God." And she again went to the window. (laughs) She was going to jump out, and my father caught her and took her in his arms and says, "You don't have to hide money from me. We are married, we are together." And they made it up, and that's how they started their married life.
CW:It's a great story. (laughs)
SPF:Yeah, I love it.
CW:Now, I know you have an older brother, but when --
SPF:I had an older brother.
CW:Had an older brother. But can you tell me when and where you were born?
SPF:My brother was born when my parents were married about a year, in Frankfurtam Main. I was born in Berlin, Germany fourteen years later.
CW:And can you explain this? I understand you were an accidental birth?
CW:Can you tell me about that?
SPF:Well, the interesting thing is that when my parents were married a shorttime, they were worried that my mother wasn't pregnant. So, they went to a 22:00doctor and that, and then she got pregnant. My brother was born about a year after they got married. So, then, my mother told me that -- meanwhile, my parents became well-to-do. In Berlin, they had maids and my mother said to me -- this doesn't make a lot of sense to me, but my mother said to me, it wasn't fashionable among well-to-do people in Berlin to have a lot of children. Now, I don't know what this means, 'cause all they had was my brother. But she had seven abortions, and --
CW:And how did one do that back then?
SPF:Well, this is a whole side story, which I'll be happy to tell you. She hadtwo abortionists. And I've done some reading about it, and she told me that the birth control she used was some kind of soap or something, and it wasn't very 23:00effective. So, she had two abortionists. One was Jewish and one was not. And she thought the non-Jewish one was the more capable one. She liked him better. Oh, but a year before she was borne with me, she had an ectopic pregnancy, and she said it took her a year to recover and that when she would walk in the house, the maid would walk behind her and give her a teaspoon of tea or something. It took her a year. And she was told never to get pregnant again. That's when she became pregnant with me. So, she went first to the Christian doctor for an abortion, and he was having an affair with a Swiss ballerina and was away for the weekend or whatever it was with that ballerina in the Swiss Alps, wherever they went. So, my mother came home and went to bed. And my father came home, he saw her in bed. He said, "You had it done?" She said, No, Doctor So-and-So is 24:00away, I'll go to Doctor So-and-So next week. The Jewish one. So, my father said, "Eh, let it be already." So, she didn't have the abortion. But there's a little sideline to this. When I was writing my memoir, I took a writing course at the Bethesda Writers Workshop in Maryland, and one of the things I learned was that when you write about people, it's easier for the reader to identify with them if you give them names if you don't know their names. Make up names. So, I made up a name for the Christian doctor, and I made up a name for the Jewish doctor. And for the Jewish doctor, I made up the name Levy. Common Jewish name. So, when I wrote the story, I sent it to my brother, because he was involved, for him to tell me if it was accurate, if I had it right and everything. So, he gets the story and he calls me back and he said, "How did you know Dr. Levy's name?" I 25:00said, "What are you talking about?" And the real doctor was called Dr. Levy dash Lenz, L-E-N-Z. Well, I couldn't believe it. So, then, I don't know how I found out about this, but I found out that this Dr. Levy-Lenz was -- he didn't advertise that he was an abortionist, but he was an expert in birth control, and had written a memoir, and I think it was called "Memoirs of a Sexologist." And I got it out of the Library of Congress. I was living in Washington, DC and I read his memoir. And he talked about having invented this contraceptive sponge, I think. So, I thought it was fascinating. So, did I answer your question?
CW:And I know you were young when you left, but do you have any memories of26:00Germany, when you were a kid?
SPF:The only memory that I have is that once my mother took me, or my parents --my mother, I think -- took me for an ice cream. And I came out of the ice cream store, and in the next store there was a liquor store or something with a big dog. And that dog saw that I had -- ice cream cone, and he jumped on top of me to get the ice cream. I remember nothing else. But I know everything, because my parents -- mostly I lived with them, because my brother was twenty-four, he got married and left the house. But it wasn't a family where the parents speak Yiddish if they don't want you to understand. First of all, I understood Yiddish, and nothing was ever kept from me. I was just talking to my trainer today, and I was very involved in my family as an adult. I never had, really, a childhood. I missed out on that, but I was always involved with my parents. So, I knew stuff because they told me. And my brother told me, too. So, I know from 27:00them, but I have no recollection of it myself.
CW:And do you know what your house looked like, what neighborhood you were in?
SPF:I know the neighborhood. It's in my book. But I think, 'cause I asked myparents, that we rented it. And when I went back to Germany the first time, in 1978, my husband and I went to see that house. It was either the house where I was born or it was the house where we were living when we left Germany five years later. I think it was the house we were living in when I left, or where I was born. And I knocked on the door of people to ask if they might have known my parents. But, as I recall, they said the oldest resident there moved in in 1945. So, there was nobody who knew us there. But I did go to see the house.
CW:And can you just tell briefly how your --28:00
SPF:Briefly, I don't do.
CW:(laughs) Well, how your family decided to leave Europe?
SPF:Okay. It's not briefly.
SPF:All right, so, as I mentioned, we were well-to-do. My father had this men'sclothing business with a little factory in the back. And he had just bought an apartment building with forty apartments and four stores as an investment. And my brother used to go and collect the rents there. So, the year was 1933, and Hitler became Reich Chancellor of Germany on January 30th, 1933. Interestingly, my daughter was born January 30th, many years later. And my brother started keeping a diary in German shorthand, in Berlin, in 1932. And he kept it until 29:00sometime in 1935, when we were living in the Bronx. And you can see from that diary that my brother immediately saw the threat that Hitler and the Nazis posed to us. And then, there were also incidents of people we knew, Jews that were taken away, they didn't come back. And then, there were a couple of incidents involving us. One, my brother said -- he had this kind of a car they had in those days called a Hanomag. Oh, he didn't have -- I think -- there was a car called a Hanomag and he was driving, I mean, he was going on his bicycle and this Hanomag cab, it was a cab, hit him. So, he was thrown to the ground, bleeding a little bit. Nothing terrible. But he said a circle gathered around him of people that he recognized, and they said, Who cares that he got hurt? 30:00He's a Jew, that kind of thing. He heard those kind of comments. So, that was an incident in which we were -- my family was (UNCLEAR). And then, the second one, the thing that broke the camel's back or the last straw was that one day, bunch of guys, hoodlums, thugs came into our store to rob the store. And my father recognized some of them. They had worked for us. And they were going to put my -- there was a safe there. Must have been a vault. And they were going to put my brother and my father in that vault, because when my father had the business, used to be the Dresd-- in Germany, it was called the Dresdner. Here, it would be called the Dresden Bank. So, that's why there was a vault there. So, they were going to put my father and brother in the vault. But meanwhile, when my brother 31:00saw what was happening, he ran to his office, which had a glass front, and he called the police. And through the glass front, he saw one of those guys trying to get into his office, but he didn't come in. So, the police came, they chased away those thugs, and they said to my father, We came this time, Herr Pressman. But if something like this happens again, don't call us because you're Jews. And then, there was also an incident where they marked up the Jewish stores with "Jude." And it's in my book, and my father washed off the paint, that kind of thing. So, my brother saw the writing on the wall and he said to my father, "We have to leave here." And my father had first gone to Germany in 19-- well, in 1913, he came back to visit. So, he'd lived in Germany over twenty years. My 32:00mother, less time. And he was in business, he was established, everything. He wouldn't hear of it. He said, "Hitler will blow over and it'll be all right." Wouldn't hear of it. So, my brother decided to go himself. He was, at that time -- well, he was born in 1914. So, I guess he was eighteen, nineteen. So, he wanted to go to London, but he couldn't get a visa to go to London. But we had cousins in Antwerp, so -- and he was able to get a visa to go to Belgium, but just to visit for a few days. But he went to Belgium. And so, he was writing to my parents and my mother wrote to him and said, "Things are better here now. Come back. We need you in the business." And my brother wrote back and said that he read in the paper that Jews who left Germany, when they come back, the Nazis 33:00are waiting for them at the train station, and you don't see them anymore. "But," my brother said, "if you order me to come back, I will come back." He was a very obedient son. So, my parents said, Yes, you are to come back. And then -- and I never figured out what changed their minds, I didn't have the sense to ask my parents when they were alive -- but my father sat down in a small room with a few Nazis. He had already been sending money out of the country. So, he had sent money out of the country, different countries. Maybe also in the United States, I would think. And he sat down in a room with the Nazis and he gave them our business and that investment property that we had bought for a fraction of the value, and they said we could go. So, that's how we left Germany, and we went to Antwerp. You want me to continue, I can.
CW:Well, I'd like to hear a little bit about the Red Star Line.
SPF:Oh, that's a fantastic thing. I always knew that I came from Germany, and I34:00knew we had spent time in Antwerp. But it was just like a stopping point. I gave no thought to it. And then, when I was a child, I used to read the "Forward" in Yiddish, but I lost a lot of that ability. I can still read, but very slowly. So, I used to be a subscriber to the print version of the English "Forward," and now I read it online. So, I happened to be reading the "Forward" and there was a column there by a woman who still writes for them called Masha Leon. And she said that a museum was going to be built in Antwerp dedicated to the Red Star Line. And that's the line on which we came to United States, on a ship called the "S.S. Western Land." I later found out it was called the "S.S. Western Land 35:00II." So, I read that and I said, "We came here on that." And I said, "I wonder if I should write to these museum people and tell them I came on their ship?" And then, I said, "Well, why would they care that I came on their ship? Millions of people came on their ships. What's the big deal that I was one of them?" And then, I thought, Well, I have nothing to lose. But I didn't know how to write to them, and that article by Masha Leon mentioned YIVO in New York. So, I wrote to YIVO and I said, "Could you forward this letter to the people with the Red Star Line museum?" And they did. So, then, I got an email from Luc Verheyen, with whom I'm always in touch now. He's the head of the museum, and he emailed me back immediately. He wanted proof that I really was on the ship and -- know more about it. And I think this was in 2009. So, then, a woman who worked for the 36:00museum, Mandy Nuwelertz was her name, he said, she's coming over, she's going to interview a ninety-year-old guy or something in Miami Beach who also went on the ships, and she'll come and interview me. And from this beginning, I started to learn all about this Antwerp chapter about which I knew very, very little. So, Mandy came over with the cameraman, like you are a camerawoman, and his name was Mario DeMonk. And she came here. We sat on that couch. And she had gone to the Antwerp archives and the Brussels archives and the neighborhood where we had lived when I was five years old. And she brought me pictures. Makes me cry when I talk about it now. She brought me pictures of where I had lived when I was five years old. And I sat on the couch with her and I looked at those pictures. 37:00Couldn't believe it. So, she spent a couple of days here with Mario, and they interviewed me. So, then, she said that they would like me -- it turned out that I'm one of five people, about, who are alive who were passengers on the Red Star Line ship that they know about. I subsequently learned of one woman here in Sarasota that also came on the Red Star Line, but she came in '38 when it wasn't the same owners. We came in '34. So, she said they would like me to come before the museum is built. They kept changing the date, but eventually it was opened in September 2013. And she said they would like me to come in 2011 to see the progress of the museum and everything. So, I said, "Well, it just so happens that I am trying to make a trip to Germany." And I was in touch with the 38:00consulate in Miami, and, "It may be that I'll be going to Germany in 2011. And if that comes to pass, then I could come to Antwerp for a couple days after that trip to Germany." She said, "Okay." So, that's what happened. That trip worked out. I went to Germany in I think, it was September 2011, for about a week. This was -- eight people were on this trip, prominent Jewish people from the United States and one from Canada. And it was sponsored by the German Foreign Office. And I went to Germany and Dresden, and then I came to Antwerp. And meanwhile, a coincidence: when I first wrote that letter to the Red Star Line Museum, a man named Philip Heylan, H-E-Y-L-A-N, learned of the letter. He was then the vice mayor of Antwerp for, I think, religion, culture, and tourism. Now he's just 39:00culture and tourism. And he claims it was his idea, that they were going to -- some of the buildings from the Red Star Line were still there, and they were going to tear them down and make a parking lot or something. And he said, "No, no, these are historic buildings and we should make a museum." That's the prevalent story, but I'm also friendly with another man that I met in Antwerp called Erwin Joos, J-O-O-S, and he is the founder and director of a museum called Eugeen Van Mieghem. And, he said it was his idea to make the Red Star Line Museum. So, I don't know. But anyway, this Philip Heylan found out, read my letter, and he couldn't get over it because he'd been coming to Florida for about fifteen years, to Sarasota. He has family in Florida, not in Sarasota. But he loves the -- it belonged to Leona Helmsley. I think it's called the Lido Sandcastle, and he stays there every time. And he couldn't believe that a 40:00surviving passenger was living here in Sarasota. So, I spent two, three days in 2011 there. They showed me the buildings and how they building -- and oh, and then I had a terrific experience. And then, I went to Brussels and different places. So, before I went, they were planning an itinerary for me, and they said they have a day for me that I'll be in the Brussels archives. And I said to myself, Why do I want to spend a day in the Brussels archives? That doesn't sound interesting. So, I wrote them back. So, they made it an afternoon. But I wasn't looking forward to that. I also went to the Antwerp archives. So, then I'm there and I go in with these two men. One was this Mario DeMonk, the cameraman, and another one was Bram Bilart, the main historian for the Red Star Line Museum. They were with me. So, we walk into this Brussels archives, and for 41:00some reason, where I walked in, it was dark. You couldn't see anything. And all of a sudden, out of the darkness, I heard a man's voice and it said, "Shulamit?" Now, Shulamit is my Hebrew name, but I didn't know it until I was a -- I always knew my name was Sheyndl in Yiddish and Sonia in English. I never heard Shulamit. But I had occasion to look at my birth certificate when I was about thirty years old, and it said Shulamit. So, here I am in the Brussels archives, a place I've never been in my life, in the dark, and some man who I don't know says my Hebrew name. I was completely flabbergasted. The man was Dr. Frank Caestecker, C-A-E-S-T-E-C-K-E-R. He is the expert in Belgium on the Jewish immigrants to Belgium in the early '30s. And I was the first person, he said, 42:00that he met in person after being a scholar and a professor. He's a professor at the University of Ghent, and the first human being that he met of the kinds of people he studied. And he was completely familiar with my file, and he knew my Hebrew name. So, then, we went -- there was also another man there, I think he was head of the Brussels archives, who was hanging around, too. So, we went in a room. Bram was there, Mario was there. And they took out my file. The family's file, not my file. They took out the family's file, from '33 to '34, when we were in Antwerp. It was all in --
SPF:-- in Flemish. And he translated every -- told me what every page was. Andsome of this Mandy had told me when she was here, but then he really told me. 43:00And then, I first understood this, which I didn't really know well beforehand, and I learned it from Mandy and then from Frank. And here's what happened. When we were in Antwerp, none of the family had the legal right to remain there. Meanwhile, I was going to kindergarten there. But we didn't have the legal-- my brother had just a visa to visit for three days and my parents had nothing. So, my brother was running around, trying to get us the legal permission to remain. But we were denied, because there was an organization called the "Sécurité Publique," and the head of it was a guy named Robert de Foy. And he was an anti-Semite, and he also didn't want foreign businessmen coming to Belgium and competing with Belgian businessmen -- like, what if my father had opened a men's clothing store? Which he was thinking of doing. He would be competing with Belgians. So, de Foy didn't give us permission to remain. And the mayor of 44:00Antwerp -- and all of this I learned from Mandy and from Frank. I never knew this. So, he gave the order to the mayor of Antwerp, a man named Camille Huysmans, who later became prime minister of Belgium, to deport us to Poland. Well, my parents hadn't lived in Poland for twenty years or something. We'd been deported to Poland, we would've been killed there. If we had been given permission to remain in Belgium, the Germans came in, we would have been killed there. But we didn't know this. But we certainly didn't want to go to Poland. So, Camille Huysmans was a fine man. I may not be saying his name right. It's H-U-Y-S-M-A-double-N-S, I think. He was a socialist mayor, sympathetic to the Jews. And he refused to execute the order of Robert de Foy. He wouldn't deport 45:00us. So, Robert de Foy called his own federal police, 'cause Huysmans had jurisdiction of the municipal police, and Robert de Foy called the federal police and told them to deport us to Poland. And when they came to the house, we were on the "S.S. Western Land" going to the United States. And we came on the Polish -- under our Polish visas. So, that's the story. So, then, there's a P.S. to that. So, when I meet somebody that I would like to keep in my life, I keep them in my life. So, I corresponded with Frank Caestecker after that, and he sent me an email. He said, "There's a bizarre thing." He said, "Did you know that Robert de Foy was taken into the Righteous Among the Nations?" Do you know what that is? Okay.
CW:Can you explain it, though?
SPF:The Righteous Among the Nations is a -- I think it's a part of Yad Vashem in46:00Israel, and they recognize you as one of the Righteous Among the Nations if you are a non-Jew during the Holocaust who risked your life to save Jews. So, I said, "What!" when he told me that Robert de Foy was taken in. He says, "Yes." He says, "Those were the early days, they didn't have good records. And there was also some incident where Robert de Foy was involved, where he might have helped Jews. Anyway, he was taken in." So, I said, "What about Camille Huysmans, the mayor? Was he taken in, too?" And Frank said, "I don't know, probably." So, I looked it up on Google immediately. I saw that Camille Huysmans wasn't taken in. So, I said, This is ridiculous, and I looked around what I could do. And I filed a claim with Yad Vashem that Robert de Foy should be removed from the Righteous Among the Nations and Camille Huysmans should be taken in. And Frank helped me. He sent my whole file to Yad Vashem, to the program on the Righteous 47:00Among the Nations, to substantiate that Robert de Foy shouldn't be in it. So, it took at least a year, writing letters and carrying on and everything, and I did not succeed. They wouldn't take Robert de Foy out. And I didn't have enough evidence for Camille Huysmans, because during most of the war, he wasn't in Belgium. I think he went to England during that time. Couldn't get enough substantiating evidence, I tried. So, I didn't succeed. But that's sort of a bi-story or whatever about my trip to Belgium. Okay, so that happened in 2011.
CW:And so, just to back up the Red --
SPF:Oh, excuse me. One other thing.
SPF:So, while I was there in 2011, they introduced me to a woman named PaulaAdler, who was a Holocaust survivor and a volunteer at the Red Star Line Museum. And she took me and, I think, Bram and Mario, also, to the neighborhood where I 48:00lived when I was five years old. And I have pictures of it. And then the house where I had lived, Paula said she lived there also. Not at that time, but at another time she lived in the same building. So, that was a tremendous coincidence.
CW:So, what did it look like, that neighborhood?
SPF:I have pictures. Well, the thing is it's a totally Orthodox neighborhood.The Jews in Antwerp that are there now, they're all Orthodox. So, it's like you go into any Orthodox neighborhood, the men with the beards and the signs are in Hebrew and this kind of thing.
CW:Oh, so the --
SPF:Also, a lot of them are in the diamond business. And I wanted to buy myselfa pair of diamond earrings, and Paula's son co-owned a diamond store. So, I went there and I bought myself a pair of Belgian diamond earrings.
CW:(laughs) And the Red Star Line, of course, is now famous because of this roleof helping Jewish refugees get out of Europe, correct? 49:00
SPF:I think it's famous because of the museum. But it is now famous, right. So,then, they had the opening in September 2013. I was the only survivor there. The Red Star Line brought people from Antwerp and Europe to American Canada, and some went back. Between 1873 -- and we came in the last year of its operation, 1934, because during that year, they arrested the owner. Hitler arrested the owner, but he later let go and came to the United States. And meanwhile, the ships were sold, the whole thing fell apart. But Red Star Line continued to operate after that with some of the ships. And I told you, I met this woman that I know who went on one of those ships. She sent me the menu and the activities when she was on it. And I have that. But I was the only survivor who was there. And they asked me --Philip Heylan, I think, or Luc, the manager, asked me while 50:00I was there -- first of all, I was treated royally. I had a chauffeur, Marcel, at my disposal. Was just treated beautifully, put up at the Hilton. And they asked me to give a talk at the museum. And they had an international press conference. I was there, and I also gave a talk at the city hall event about my experiences. And what else? Oh, while I was there, I also went to the Holocaust Museum. I had a three-hour tour by the head of the Holocaust Museum, which was fantastic. I went to a party. They had just gotten a new American ambassador to Belgium, and she had a party at the embassy. I went to that. It was incredible. And I was going to tell you something else that I forgot while I was there. Oh, and I met the king and queen of Belgium.
CW:Wow. And so, you were five or six when you came on that ship?51:00
SPF:I was five.
SPF:I became six -- we landed in New York May 1st, 1934, and I became six May 30th.
CW:Do you remember the trip itself?
SPF:No, but I knew we were all seasick. It was ten days we were on the ship, andI know we were all seasick, but that's all I remember.
SPF:I used to have, but it got lost, I used to have a little blue sailor madeout of velvet, and on his cap it said "S.S. Western Land" --
SPF:-- but I lost it.
CW:Oh. Now, I'd like to talk a little bit about your -- I know that you movedaround once you got to the US, a lot. But can you just describe the family that you grew up in? What was the culture of your home growing up?
SPF:Okay. Well, my mother and father were different types, but they -- my mother52:00was maybe a year or so older, because when I went back to Poland, I mentioned that I found my mother's birth certificate. My father was short. Not much of a talker. He was really a man of action. He used to tell me he used to smuggle things when we were in Germany. I don't know why. And he said the police knew he was smuggling things and they never caught him. My mother was very solicitous. She was a wonderful cook of Jewish food. She was very solicitous and very loving. My father, I don't think he ever said I love you to me. But if I had said to my father, "It will help me for five minutes if you cut off your arms and legs," he would go and do it. And I knew that. So, I had incredible, unconditional love from my parents. My trainer said to me today, and every once in a while, somebody says to me, Oh, your family must be proud of you. My 53:00parents could have cared less about anything that I did. They loved me and I didn't have to do anything. And, of course, most of what I accomplished was after they died, but they didn't care about that. They're very loving. Okay, my mother kept a kosher home.
CW:I wanted to ask, though, about the food that your mother would cook. Did youhave any favorite dishes that she used to make?
SPF:Well, here's something funny. I have an excellent appetite now, and I loveto eat. Now I'm a vegan, for the last two, three years -- I still love to eat. But I wasn't much of an eater when I was growing up, for a couple of reasons. One, I was interested in books and in my studies. I didn't like taking time to eat. That was number one. And the other one was that my parents were always trying to fatten me up, because the European style was you should be buxom and 54:00curvy. And I was always slim, and my mother used to take me to the doctor and say, "What's wrong with her? She's thin." So, they always gave me more food than I wanted. So, as soon as my mother put the plate down, I cut it in half and ate the other half. And I don't think I was particularly interested in it one way or the other. Now I love Jewish food, or any kind of food, but I can't eat it, most of it, because I'm a vegan. But the food that she made -- were traditional Jewish dishes. She was a wonderful cook. So was my brother's wife, my sister-in-law. Oh, she would make chicken, she would make different kinds of meat, but not the American steaks. She made a dish, lokshn, with the sauce from the fish, with noodles, lokshn is noodles, or she would make noodles with 55:00cottage cheese, that was good. I don't know, whatever the Jewish dishes -- was, she would do. Sometimes, I think, she would make the noodles herself. She would make hamburgers herself, because she didn't trust what was in chopped meat. So, she bought a little doohickey and she would buy particular kinds of meat and then grind it herself to make -- she didn't serve hamburger, but to make -- I guess you call it -- she'd make a meatloaf, but some kind of meat patty. She would make gefilte fish from scratch. Well, she would buy the white fish, pike, or whatever and make it. She was a wonderful cook, but I didn't really appreciate it at that time. And then, there was a -- we had a thing in our family. I had no interest in cooking. And my father used to say periodically to 56:00my mother, "You've got to teach her to cook." But I had no interest, and periodically she would call me in. The thing was, she never let me do anything in the kitchen. She wanted me to just watch her. Well, how interesting is that? I was never able to do anything myself. She wanted me just to watch her, so I'd watch her for a while and then I'd go off and look at a book or something. And my mother would see that I had no interest, so she would kick me out, and my father would say, "You got to teach her to cook." And my mother would say, "You teach her," because she saw that I had no interest. So, that was going on. (laughter) Not a big problem.
CW:And did you go to shul growing up?
SPF:Little. There was a while, I think when we lived in Woodridge, I'm not surewhere, where there was a rabbi that all the women found attractive, including my mother. So, during that rabbi's tenure, she used to go every Friday night or 57:00whatever. I think my parents just went for Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, but otherwise they did not go much. In fact, when my father died, I was heartbroken. And we were living in North Miami Beach, and the rabbi there made a service for my father, but he didn't really know my father. So, I was sitting there, really crying inwardly. And this rabbi who didn't know my father is talking about my father, and he says, "I don't really know Mr. Pressman, but he might very well have been one of the founders of this temple," because the temple was called Monticello Temple, and it had people mostly who had lived in the Catskills, where we had lived in Monticello. So, he said, "I didn't really know Mr. Pressman, but he might have been one of the founders of the temple." And as broken as I was at my father's death, I was smiling inwardly, because my father would have never been one of the founders of the temple, not just because he wasn't religious, but he didn't do volunteer stuff. He had one goal in life -- 58:00well, maybe his main goal was to make a living for his family. And he also liked to go fishing. He was a terrific amateur fisherman. But that's all he was interested in. And being in business, making a living, he would no more have been a founder of the temple than I don't know what.
CW:And so, what languages did you hear in your home?
SPF:I've often thought about that. I certainly must have heard Yiddish andGerman. But it was interesting, I just had an experience. Sunday, I'm going to the Brandeis Committee. I belong to it. Didn't go to Brandeis, you don't have to. I'm going to book an author club by a man named Gregory -- the speaker is going to be a man named Gregory Dawson, who has written a memoir about how his mother -- I think she was a pianist -- escaped from the Ukraine during the 59:00Holocaust. So, I sent him an email and we've been corresponding. And then, I just sent him an article, and he wrote me a note and he said, "spasibo [Russian: thank you]." And my mother knew a little Russian, and I knew that spasibo means thank you. It's Russian. But I wrote to Gregory and I said, Isn't the mind something, that I should know -- my mother's dead, I figured out, forty-four years or something. She died, I think, in '72 -- that I should remember from my mother, who knew a little Russian, that spasibo means thank you. My mother knew a little Russian. She also told me, and other people confirmed it, that she spoke a beautiful Polish. My father, I think, knew Yiddish, and I guess he knew Polish, I don't -- he must have known Polish.
CW:And between the two of them, would they speak Yiddish, German?60:00
SPF:I've often asked myself that. Whatever it was, I understood it. I hadanswered in English. They must have certain, in the United States, they must have spoken Yiddish in addition to English. But I'm thinking that in Germany, maybe they spoke German and Yiddish, I don't know. But I know Yiddish, and my German is that of a five-year-old child. Now, an interesting thing happened: when I went back to Germany the first time in 2011, I felt that I understood what a five-year-old knew, 'cause that's what I was when I left there. Then, when I went back in 2011, I was there for two weeks, and we had a wonderful guide. Her last name was Pitki. I can't think of her first name now. She had a nickname. And she noticed that one time we were listening to a lecture in 61:00Dresden by a Jewish woman who was head of the Jewish community of Dresden. And she was giving a speech in German, and the young woman whom I saw later on was translating the German into English. And our guide saw that I understood the speech before it was translated. And I started to speak, on this trip, I started to speak a little German. And she said to me, "Sonia, if you'd be here two weeks, you'd be fluent."
SPF:So, I think it would come back to me. And my brother, of course, knewGerman. So, I think I must have spoken German and known Yiddish or something like that. And then, I learned Flemish. When I went to Belgium, I learned, but I have no recollection of it.
CW:So, of course, you ended up being a lawyer.
CW:Can you describe a little bit about your parents' attitude towards education?
SPF:My mother loved education and she used to go to night school. For a while,62:00we lived in Long Beach, Long Island, and she went to night school and loved it. And she thought the teacher was the greatest and everything, but she was so devoted -- so, when she went to the night school once a week or whatever, she used to make a meal for me and my father in advance, and all we had to do was turn on the stove to heat up the meal that she'd prepared. And then, she stopped going to night school, as much as she loved it, because she felt she wasn't doing the right thing for my father and me by not serving us dinner, that we had to do that big job of turning on the stove. So, she quit night school. My father never had any education whatsoever. And in Germany, my mother used to hire tutors for him, we could afford it, and he ran away when that happened. Didn't want it. I remember when we were living in North Miami Beach, when I was going 63:00to law school, and every night I came home and my mother was teaching my father to sign his name, every night. And whether he ever learned it, I don't know. They were not particularly enamored of my going to college, although they drove me up there and paid for it.
SPF:Because their idea of what a young girl should do was to get married. Thatwas what they knew from the shtetl. But I think, even in the United States, there was the idea in those days -- oh, I went to college, it would have been 1946, it was -- in those days, that's what young women did. They got married. Maybe they were a secretary for a while. So, my parents thought, my father especially, thought I was too smart. And by going to college, that would be 64:00putting the last nail in the coffin of being a spinster. So, he was not happy about that. About going to law school was --way out. But, as you know from my book, when I went to law school, my father moved from Long Island and bought a house so I could live with them while I went to law school, and moved from Long Island to North Miami Beach, Florida. And paid. Of course, paid.
SPF:They were very incredible people. I told my daughter, when I was raisingher, that -- I said, "Zia, if you do something that I consider reasonable, I'll pay for it." But I said, "I'm not like my parents. I'm not going to pay for it if you do something that's way out in left field and that I don't approve of."
CW:So, I wonder if you can --
SPF:Oh, I'll tell you one other thing --
CW:-- oh, sure.
SPF:-- that really made me feel bad. My father was a very smart man. So, when wewere living in North Miami Beach, one time a woman came with her ten-year-old 65:00daughter to ask my father's advice on raising the daughter. I don't know what put that idea in her head. And I remember my father said in front of me, he said, "One thing don't do. Don't give her an education." And I felt so bad when he said that. But that's how he felt.
CW:Wow. Well, I wanted to ask you a little more about that. You were growing upin the '40s. What careers did you feel were open to you, as a woman, as a Jewish woman?
SPF:Well, I wasn't thinking about careers. I had never seen a college in mylife. I had no plans to go to college. I took typing in high school, and I learned to type. And then, while I was in high school, I was interested 'cause 66:00my brother was a businessman, my father was a businessman. So, I was interested in working in a department store. So, while I was in college or about to graduate, I was accepted -- there was a department store in New York called McCreery's. This was after college. Or let me go back to high school. All right, so back in high school. That was later, after college. So, I'm in high school and there was a guy in my class named Jake Nemmerson. And I've seen him at reunions, and I think he's no longer alive. And he came to me one day and he said he's going -- think he was going to Middletown, was a bigger town about thirty miles away. He said he's going to take an exam for a scholarship. I think that was called the George LeFevre Scholarship to college, and that if you win 67:00that scholarship, you get four hundred dollars towards college. And he invited me to go with him. Why, I don't know, because I knew him, but I had no particular relationship with him. And he asked me if I wanted also to take that exam. I mean, I graduated first in my class, so I was bright. Maybe that's why he asked me. So, I said to Jake, "I don't know, let me ask my father." So, I went to my father and I said, "Jake Nemmerson invited me to go with him to take this exam. It costs seven dollars to take it, and if you win the scholarship, you get four hundred." My father said, "Certainly, take it." I didn't know till later that my father thought if you paid seven, you got four hundred. That was his understanding of it. Otherwise I don't think he would have authorized it. So, I said to Jake, "Yeah, my father said go." So, we went. I won the scholarship. So, I was all excited and I went to my father and I said, "I won 68:00the four hundred dollars." That's the way he understood it (laughs) in the first place, so he didn't get excited about that. And then, because I had taken that one, I took a second scholarship, the New York State Scholarship, and I won that, too. So, then I asked people what to do, and they said that I should apply to two colleges, that would be enough. So, I applied to Cornell, I don't know how I knew about it, and I applied to a small college called Hartwick College in Oneonta, New York. So, Hartwick College accepted me, and then I said, Fine, I'll go there. And then, after they accepted me, Cornell accepted me. So, I figured that's a bigger school, so I turned down Hartwick and I decide to go to Cornell. I had no idea what a college looked like or anything. 69:00
CW:(coughs) Wow. Well, can you tell me a little bit about how Yiddish has playeda role in your adult life?
SPF:Yiddish hasn't played a huge role in my adult life, but being Jewish I love.I'll say a little about Yiddish, but it's being Jewish that -- I have said to people, If you cut me open, in my bones it'll say Jew. That's how I feel about Judaism. And I belong to a wonderful congregation here that I love. It suits me to a T. You'll speak there tomorrow. It's called the Congregation for Humanistic Judaism, and they are part of the Society -- which is nationwide -- for Humanistic Judaism. And that suits me, because I'm an atheist. And in my congregation, we don't pray, we don't talk about God, but we do celebrate our 70:00culture and our people and our society. I just love being part of the Jewish people. I usually say the two passions of my life are women's rights and Judaism. It's a very important part of my life. And I love the Yiddish language. I was just talking to my trainer this morning about how, since I can remember, everybody says it's a dying language. And it's still here, but the only people who speak it today are the Orthodox, and they speak it to their children and so on. And I love the Yiddish language.
CW:What do you love about it?
SPF:I don't know. It's my language, and I express myself. I sent you a sayingthat I like today. I just love that language. It's humorous and it's funny and it has expressions that aren't in any other language, and I just adore it. Some 71:00years ago, about 1990, we went to England and I took a month of Jewish studies that was being given at Queen Mary and Westfield College. You know that I spent a week also at the Yiddish Book Center years ago. I love to hear people talking Yiddish. Mel Brooks had a show just about a week ago, a comedy show. He's eighty-eight years old, and he talked about Yiddish. It's in my heart, it's in my bones.
CW:Can you give an example of one or two of those sayings that you really likein Yiddish?
SPF:Well, the one that I said to you today I love. My mother used to say, "M'kennisht tantsn af tsvay khasenes mit ayn tukhes," which means, "You can't dance two weddings with one behind." And it comes in handy often, especially here in 72:00Sarasota, where there is so much to do in the wintertime that there's always two things that you want to do at the same time. And I'm constantly making appointments and canceling them and it's too much and I can't do it and I did do it. So, that expression comes in handy, and sometimes I use it. And I tell people I can't go to this, because you can't dance at two weddings with one behind. When I was in England, the course that I took was given by a Dr. Devra Kay, and she was going to collect a book of the sayings that I remembered, and I had a whole bunch of them. But the one that I -- there were a lot of curses in Yiddish, too. One is about he should -- something grow like an onion with his head in the ground or something like that, Yiddish. And my mother used to curse with those curses. Full of these curses, which I thought was a terrible thing. But it's part of that culture. I can't think offhand. If a situation comes up, I very often use a Yiddish expression, but just out of the blue, I can't think. 73:00
[BREAK IN RECORDING]
SPF:Time nisht kayn toves -- don't do me any favors. But it's sarcastic. If,let's say, we were out in a snowy area and you would say, "I'm going to bring you a snowball." Not very appropriate, but you say "don't do me any favors" when the thing you're offering me isn't really something I want. So, that's another one I like.
CW:Yeah. In your perspective, can you say more about where you see Yiddishtoday? Where is Yiddish in the world today?
SPF:I don't think it's, much as I love it -- I don't know anybody speaking itexcept the Orthodox. And I'm a secular Jew, so I'm not crazy about the Orthodox. They're the only ones I know that speak it to their children. I know they teach it in some colleges, but that's not a living language. I used to belong and go 74:00to the conferences of the International Association of Yiddish Clubs. And there was a Yiddish club in Washington. There used to be a yidish-vinkl [Yiddish group] here in Sarasota. There isn't anymore. We do have a leyenkrayz [reading group] here of people who read Yiddish, but I'm not good enough for that. I love Yiddish music. I know all the songs. We have a Jewish chorale here, and I recently -- I'm a friend of a guy named Yale Strom, who is a very well-known filmmaker, he has a band, he writes books, sings songs. So, I recently arranged -- his wife is Elizabeth Schwartz. She also sings. I recently arranged for them to give a program at Temple Beth Israel on Longboat Key, and I went to that program. And I was singing along with them, and I didn't realize that I was 75:00sitting next to two women from the Jewish Chorale here in Sarasota. So, after the program, they said to me, You know every song. I said, "That's right." So, they wanted me to joint he chorale. But, of course, I don't have a singing voice, nor do I have the time. But I was very flattered that they wanted me to join. I love -- American songs, I know too, but I love Jewish music.
CW:Well, I'd like to ask a little bit about your trip to Germany and your tripto Poland.
SPF:Which one? I made two.
CW:The first one.
SPF:The first one, okay.
CW:I think it was in '78?
SPF:'78. That came about -- oh, I know what. When I was living in Washington,DC, I, as you know, was a founder of NOW and I worked at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. So, I was involved in women's rights, and one of the things I started to be involved with was that the federal government had 76:00training programs around the country, to train people to go to the highest levels in the government, which were grades fifteen, six -- I think fifteen, sixteen, seventeen, and eighteen. It was called GS sixteen, seventeen, and eighteen. But women never got to go to those training programs 'cause they never got to be grade sixteen, seventeen, and eighteen, because women weren't promoted to those levels. So, when I found that out, I wrote a letter to the Civil Service Commission, now it's called the Office of Personnel Management, and I said, This isn't right, blah-blah-blah. So, they decided to have a pilot program at the Federal Executive Institute in Charlottesville, Virginia, which was one of these training programs. And they invited ten women in government to attend this pilot program where women would be attending it for the first time. And I went, my friend Tina Hobson went and, altogether, ten women. And after that, they started to have women at these programs. So, one of the guys at that 77:00program was a guy named John, I can't think of his last name. And he worked for USIA, United States Information Agency. And he said to me, he told me while we were at this Federal Executive Institute, that the USIA had a program where they sent experts in different fields around the world as an American specialist. And you would go and speak with selected groups. It was not anything that was just open to the public. You would give speeches to selected groups and you would have small meetings with selected groups. And he said I should sign up for that, which I did, and that started a whole career of mine of traveling around the world for USIA. And one of the first trips I made was they asked me to make a three-week trip to France and Germany. So, it took me two weeks to decide that I 78:00would step into Germany, because I've always thought of it -- that the ground there is full of the blood of my people. But I asked around, rabbis and other experts, and they all said to go. They said that Germany deals with Israel and does a lot of good things, and nobody told me not to go, except my brother said he wouldn't go. He had a hatred for the Germans because he experienced it as an adult, which I did not do. So, after two weeks, I said, Yes, I would go. So, I went first to France, but it was just -- went to Paris, but I didn't give any speeches or anything there. I just was there one night. But the night that I was there, at that time, the next morning, in the paper -- I have this in my book, but some German said that there were no Jews who were exterminated in the camps. 79:00They just exterminated lice there, or something like that. Ridiculous statement. And it was on the front page of the paper. So, I started in France, and then my husband met me there in Paris, and then we went to Berlin. And it just so happened we arrived on the anniversary of Kristallnacht. And so, this was in 1978. It was, I think, the fortieth anniversary of Kristallnacht. So, my husband and I went to this -- it either was or used to be -- Jewish community center. And on the outside of the building, there was some piece of stone attached to the front of it. And I said to my husband, "What is that?" And we didn't know. So, then we went in, and they had an exhibit of all the temples and synagogues 80:00that had been in Germany before the Holocaust, how they looked before, and what happened to them. And that's when we learned that what was outside that building was, I think, the former Jewish community center that was ruined by the Nazis, destroyed. And that little bit was left, and it was attached to that building. So, then, I spoke --
CW:Now, what was your very first impression? What was the first thing you sawand how'd you feel when you first got there?
SPF:I knew all the time where I was. It never left me. And as I said, I feltlike I was walking on the ground that was full of the blood of the Jewish people. So, that never left me. And then, I had an incident in East Berlin that you would have read about in my book. One day, we were in East Berlin, where it turned out -- I was born in East Berlin, and we went there and found the house 81:00where I was living, I mentioned earlier. So, one day, I was crossing the street with my husband, and coming the other way were two men in uniform. I think they were policemen, but I saw them, and I thought they were Nazis coming for me. And I got very frightened. It didn't last long and I got over it, but that was an incident. And then, I tell in my book, one day I had breakfast with a professor and his wife, and he complained about the fact that, It was so many years later, how many years did the Germans have to feel guilt? And that was a question. And then, I met with somebody at the Jewish community center and I posed that question to him, about how long did Germans have to feel guilt, and he gave me a good answer. Let me think if I can remember it. But his point basically was that it's something never to be forgotten, and that the Holocaust didn't happen that 82:00long ago. And then, of course, I went to a concentration camp. And I met this man and his wife. I took a picture of them, which I don't have, but I was going to send it to them. And he told me that he lives in Israel, this was his Israeli -- well, first of all, what happened was whenever we walked around in this -- in Dachau, we were -- wherever we walked around, I saw this man and his wife. Also, most of the people were Germans at the camp. So, finally, I said to my husband, "Wherever I'm looking, I'm seeing that man, and they're speaking a foreign language." I didn't know what language they were speaking. So, I finally went to that man, I said, "What is it? Wherever I look, I see you." So, then, he told me this story. I think he was speaking either Yiddish or Hebrew to his wife. She was Israeli. He had come to testify in a Nazi war trial, but he brought his wife 83:00to Auschwitz because he had been in a similar camp and he wanted her to see what it was like. And he told me that when he first arrived there, one of the Nazis pointed to the smoke coming out of a chimney and said to him, "Tomorrow, that'll be you." And he also told me that while he was in that camp, he was once so beaten with a whip -- oh, they had an exhibit of the whips that the Germans used, and he showed his wife, and he said to me and to his wife that he had once been beaten by such a whip. And after that, for two weeks, he couldn't sit down. And then, I also had a nice -- I met with different people. I met with two women who were in Munich, who were heads of Jewish organizations. And I asked them, "How can you live in Germany?" So, one woman was a little ashamed of it, and she 84:00said her son considers himself a cosmopolitan, whatever that is. And the other woman said that they had gone for a while to Russia and they didn't feel comfortable there. They didn't know the language, they didn't know anything, and they came back to Germany because that's what they know. And then, she said to me, "After all," she said, "the Swiss made that Zyklon B or whatever was used in the camps." But later, people told me the Swiss didn't. So, she said she works with the Germans, they're nice to her, they accept her, and what can I tell you.
CW:What was your takeaway?
SPF:I was very glad I went. I think it's -- there's always a yearning to go backwhere you came from. I like to hear German when it's spoken in Germany, or even here. I recently met some people at a Thanksgiving vegan dinner I went to, 85:00because they were speaking German. Everybody wants to go back where they came from. I'm glad I went back. As you know, I went back again. Oh, Billy was the name of my guide, Billy Pitki, the one that I mentioned earlier. I could never live there. And now, a lot of Israelis live there. It's popular among young Israeli people. Other Jews live there. I could never live there. I hope I would never be under the circumstances that I would have to live there, because I couldn't enjoy myself there. But I'd like to go back.
CW:And what was it like for you to go back to Poland?
SPF:Oh, that was very exciting to me, because initially, I just went to visit.There was this trip coming up, and I think it was a Global Volunteers trip. No, I wasn't a volunteer there. It was some other group trip, and I just wanted to 86:00go where my parents were born. And then, somebody said to me, "Are you going to try to find some records of your family while you're there?" So, I said, It didn't occur to me. My parents left in 1913, my father earlier. And who's going to know or anything. But she put that seed in my mind, so I made up my mind to try to find some records of my family. So, when the tour group was going to Auschwitz, I took a day off and I hired a driver to take me to Piltz. I hired Christine, I think her name was, a Polish translator, and a car and we went off to Piltz. So, before I went, somebody had told me that the priest has records of 87:00all the people who lived there, the birth and death, whatever he has. Oh, and before that, also, when -- we went to Krakow, and I went to this Jewish section, Kazimierz -- I'm not saying it right, Kazimierz. And I went, there's a Jewish center there run by non-Jews. There was a head of it at that time, and two or three people working there, nobody was Jewish. And the head of it, his last name was Russek, and his first name was something like Joachim or something like that, Russek. And I spent several hours talking with him, and he said to me that Piltz is an hour's ride from Krakow. And he said to me that when I go to Piltz, I should -- and I said I was looking for my family -- he said I should go see the mayor. I said, "The mayor? How do I come to a mayor?" And he said, "Go see 88:00the mayor." So, when we got into Piltz, Christina and me and the driver, we were driving along, looking for that priest, the church. And I didn't see it, but all of a sudden, I saw "biblioteka," which I know means "library." So, I said, to the driver and to Christina, I said, "Let's go in there. Because I'm a writer, let's go into the library." So, this is cute and you read it in my book. So, I took a few steps and Christina says, "You can't go anymore." I said, "Why not?" There was a sign there that said the library opens at ten AM, and now it was maybe nine. She said, "You can't go." I said, "Are you kidding?" I said, "That sign is not for me." And I kept going, when all of a sudden, an upper window opened and a woman stuck her head out, a woman about forty. So, I said, Oh, my God, she's going to tell me I can't -- it's not open now. And I told her, I'm here from America, look up about my family. And she said, "Come in!" She was 89:00welcoming. So, we went in and I spent about an hour with that woman. I just loved her. And we bonded immediately. And when my parents were in Piltz, it's in my book, I think there were about 2,500 Jews there or something. There wasn't a one left. Not a one in Piltz, which in Polish is called Pilica. And then, she went to look up in books if she could find out anything about my parents, and she could not. But then, she did find out something about -- no, she could not. Couldn't find anything. But she said to me, the priest is right down the street, she'll walk down with me. And also, I told her about my memoir. And first of all, she was thrilled that I came back to Piltz. It meant a lot to her that I came back. And then, I told her I would send her a copy of my book, which she said she'd love to have, and I sent it to her. Coincidentally, for many years, 90:00I'd been friendly with Rabbi Michael Schudrich, whom I didn't know then. He was, at that time, the Chief Rabbi of Warsaw, is now the Chief Rabbi of Poland. He's an American. His mother used to -- I think she must be dead now -- used to live in Silver Spring near me in Potomac, but I never got to see her. So, then she said to me -- she made a call and she said to me that I should go to the mayor's office, because there's an office of births, marriages, and deaths. So, I thought, How interesting that Russek had told me. Joachim Russek had told me go to the mayor's office, and now I was going to go. So, she walked with me down the street and the priest was sitting on a bench in front of the church. So, I said, I heard that he has the records of everybody who lived in Piltz. He says, That's right, he has records of every Catholic person who ever lived in Piltz. I said, Well, goodbye and good luck, right? So, then we went to the mayor's office. The mayor was out. I saw him later on. As I was leaving, he was coming in. But we went to the office of marriage, births, and deaths. Oh, and before 91:00this, I had written to every Polish organization, trying to find some records about my parents, and I was told that all the records were destroyed in the war. There's nothing left. So, I come in, there's this sturdy woman sitting behind the desk. Not particularly friendly, not charming, not nothing. So, I said to her, "I'm here looking for information about my family." I said, "But I don't really know any names." I threw a couple of names at her like Dombek, my mother's maiden name, and a couple of other names that I knew, but didn't have much in the way of names, and didn't know when my mother was born. I knew about my father, and my mother -- so, here she had all these books, all these records, 92:00which they told me there was nothing left, and all these records. She pulls down one book. Nothing was in it. She pulls down a second book, 1892 was the second book, and she opens it up and she says, "Here it is." I thought, Oh, my God. It was one of those moments. She had my mother's birth certificate. She had my parents' names, their age. They were about forty at the time. And she says to me, "Would you like a copy?" It was five dollars. She ran off a copy for me. It was incredible. When she said, "Here it is," I just didn't know what to do. And then, I went up to the mayor's office. He wasn't there at the time, but his secretary was there and she gave me a beautiful, a glossy booklet about Piltz. So, then, another interesting thing happened. At some point, we went out to eat 93:00in a restaurant in Piltz. And we met, I don't know, two couples who were Polish and they were doing a tour. And they said, "Are you going to the castle?" I said, "What castle? I don't know any castle." So, it turns out there was a famous castle there, so we decided -- we didn't go with them, they'd already been there, but they recommended we go there. So, we went to this beautiful castle on gorgeous grounds. Oh, Piasecki is her name. I'll tell you about her. It's a gorgeous castle on beautiful grounds, but you could look in the window and you could see it was all neglected inside. But outside the castle looked all right and the grounds was gorgeous. And then, I met the man who was the caretaker. And he told me the woman who had bought that castle, her last name 94:00was Piasecki. I think her first name may been Barbara. What's the name of the -- Johnsons. There is a Johnsons family in the United States that owned -- was a big pharmaceutical company. There's also a Johnson's Wax, but this was the Johnsons' medical. This Barbara Piasecki was a poor, peasant type of a girl from Poland who came to America to get a job. And she was hired by this old man Johnson to take care of his ailing wife. And she may have been a cook, too, I don't know. Something like that. The ailing wife died. She married the old man. He died and left all his money to her. And she was, I once read, the fourth richest woman in the world. Came from Piltz. So, then there was a big lawsuit 95:00for several years. His children didn't want her to have the money and there was a big lawsuit, but she won. So, she was the fourth richest woman in the world. So, I wrote her a letter, and I told her that I had seen the castle in Piltz and that it's not kept up, and (laughs) why doesn't she fix it up? I never got an answer from her. So, that was another part of my visit there, was an interesting side story, okay.
CW:What does Piltz look like?
SPF:It's a little town. I have pictures of it in my albums, and I've got couplepictures on my website, one standing next to a picture of Piltz and one with the librarian. It's on my website, and more are in my albums. Like a small town.
CW:Yeah. What was your feeling about being in Poland? Did you have any --
SPF:It was very nice for me to be back where my parents were born, and where I96:00went to the -- there was a cemetery in Piltz, which -- I told you I have a book about it, but I also went to the cemetery. The driver said I should go to the cemetery, and he takes me to this neglected place with a sign on the floor, and I didn't want to go in. I said, "This is not a cemetery." He said, "Yes, it is." I said, "This is not a cemetery. It's a neglected thing. There's nothing here." And it was a cemetery and I went in, walked around. When I came out, I saw on that sign which was on the ground was a Jewish star. And the reason there is a book about it, which I have, is that people realized that the Jewish cemeteries all over Poland were going to be forgotten, neglected. So, a couple of men who weren't Jewish decided they were going to make a book with the gravestones and everything from every Jewish-Polish cemetery in Poland. And they started with Piltz, and that's the only one they did. And I have a copy of it. Joachim gave 97:00it to me.
CW:Wow, wow. What do you think your parents would have thought of you going toPoland and Germany?
SPF:I don't know, I never mentioned going to Germany. But I remember when I saidto my mother that I was thinking of going to Poland, she said, "What for?" Because she thinks of it as an anti-Semitic place, which it was when she was there. And her reaction was, "Why would you go to Poland?"
CW:So, of all of this that we've talked about today, what was important for you,if any of this, to pass along to your daughter?
SPF:I am estranged from my daughter, so I'm not passing along anything to her.It's interesting to me, because I'm interviewed often, but always about being a 98:00feminist activist and founding NOW, being a co-founder of NOW. So, this is a different kind of interview, because the most important thing that I'm known for, you haven't asked me about! I'm doing this because I had the opportunity to play a role in history, both because of my Judaism and my feminism. And I love being interviewed and I love talking about this stuff, but not in -- and I think I mentioned to you that I'm in touch with the American Jewish Archives in Cincinnati, and they have a collection of my papers. So does the Schlesinger Library, and the History of Women in America. But the American Jewish Archives, this guy Kevin Proffitt, he just loves everything I send him. So, it's just nice for this stuff. Before I wrote my book, I had the feeling that my parents were 99:00special people. And certainly, they were unusual people 'cause they weren't Americans, although there were plenty of immigrants. But to me, they were bigger than life, and I didn't want them to pass from the scene and be forgotten. So, one of the reasons I wrote my book, my memoir, was to preserve their lives, 'cause they were really something else. And I also understand now that I played a historic role with regard to my activities for women, so, and I enjoy this kind of --
CW:What do you think you learned from your parents?
SPF:I once did that. We were living in Cleveland, and when my daughter was beingbat mitzvahed -- and I belonged to a Jewish secular community at that time, and it was my first experience with secular Judaism, and the parents and the 100:00children worked on this writing this bat mitvah service for a year. And one of the exercises we did was make a list of what you learned from your parents, and those things that you follow and those things that you don't. So, that was very interesting. Well, from my parents, I'm a Jew because they were Jewish, and I appreciate that. I'm trying to think of -- I guess the way I keep house, and so on. But other things, like my father used to ridicule me because I am honest. And this was not an admirable quality for him, and he used to make fun of me that I wanted to be a lawyer. And he called it the "true business," because I liked speaking the truth, and he thought that was ridiculous. And I would say 101:00that they were people of their time in that they certainly had not the kind of relations I have with people who are black or people who might be of other races and religions, and I've devoted my life to knowing as many people as I can of all kinds. And they lived an insular life. Until I went to college, I don't think I ever had a -- well, I had a Chinese friend, but where we lived in the Catskills, you just socialized with Jewish people. So, I didn't want to live that way. Once I went to Cornell, it was my first experience being with people who weren't Jewish. And I, for a couple of years, I didn't want to be Jewish. I didn't like the fact that I'd been cut off from most of the world, and I didn't want to be Jewish for a while. So, what I learned from my parents (laughs) is not to be that way. It's too narrow, and you're missing out on too much. But I 102:00feel I learned a lot of things from them. I can't tell you what they are. Well, I learned it's important to make a living. I remember when I used to date, when I was younger, and very few of the guys came up to my father as far as being able to provide for the family. And here, he had no education and they were Americans and everything. So, I think I learned -- the Yiddish word is "parnus--" maybe it's a Polish word, "parnuse," to make a living. It's an important thing. And I've been an activist all my life, but I always made a living. So, I think that's something I learned from them. And another thing I learned from my father, when we lived in Monticello, where we had a bungalow colony, and we had a house in the middle for us. And many of the people in the Catskills -- the same is true in Sarasota -- in the season, they rent their homes to somebody else to make money, and they go and live in a basement or 103:00someplace else or whatever, right? I don't know where my father got this, but he said, "I don't rent where I live. I'm not going away from my home, and I don't want other people living and using my furniture," and this kind of thing. So, we never rented our house. We lived in our house. And I have never in my life rented where I lived. I don't want -- and I must have that from my parents. I can't imagine I should let somebody -- this is no fancy place, but I don't want somebody sitting on my couch and my table and sleeping in my bed, everything. So, I never did it when I used to close up my house in Potomac, Maryland and come down here for the winter. I could have made good money renting that house. I never thought of it, and I've never done it here. Thank God, I'm financially able not to do it. But that's something I learned from my father. And something 104:00that I learned from him indirectly, from the age of ten, I was writing contracts for a rooming house that we ran in Woodridge and then for the bungalow colony, and was involved as an adult because I knew my English, of course, was better than that of my parents. They didn't have the opportunity to go to school here as I did. So, because of that situation, I was -- I had good training for becoming a lawyer and a writer and all that.
SPF:And they loved each other. They were a very devoted family. So, that wassomething nice, to grow up in -- now, they weren't this hoochie-coochie kind of affectionate type of people, but I knew that they loved each other. And, in the later years, my mother once found a bottle of a hundred pills that my father had in the medicine chest. And he told her, in case she dies before him, that's for 105:00him to take. And he once told me also that when my brother was a baby, he would go into the room to look at my brother sleeping, but he would never tell him that he loved him or anything. That wasn't the culture they knew. You didn't tell children that you loved them and you weren't affectionate to them. But I never missed it, because I knew how my parents felt about me.
CW:Well, I have just one other question, but are there other things that --stories you wanted to tell on these topics that you haven't had a chance to?
SPF:On the topics you've asked me about?
CW:Yeah, about your --
SPF:No, because you haven't asked me about women's rights, which is my bigthing. (laughter) But about Judaism and my parents and everything, I've told you, and if they want more, they can go to my website or they can read my memoir.
SPF:Which is called, "Eat First, You Don't Know What They'll Give You: The106:00Adventures of an Immigrant Family and Their Feminist Daughter."
CW:Great. Well, I'm curious if you have an eytse [piece of advice], if you haveadvice, considering the advice you got from -- or things you learned from your parents, do you have advice for future generations?
SPF:Follow your passion if you possibly can. When I became a lawyer and wentinto women's rights, a lot of people said to me, You don't want to be in women's rights. We're not going to make a lot of money in that. The money is to be made in corporations. Become a corporate lawyer. And I did do that for a while. Not for that reason, it just worked out. I left my job, I lost my job, left my job in Washington with the government, then I went to work for two corporations. But I didn't follow that advice when it was given to me. I'm not telling you to follow your passion. Remember, I said it's important to earn a living. So, you 107:00have to earn a living, but it's a tremendous privilege if you can earn a living doing what is your passion. I heard the other day on some kind of survey, they said that about fifty percent of the people don't like their jobs. And I thought, Oh, wow, what a sad thing, because that's where you spend most of your time, and that's -- I used to think it was who I was, but it's not. I'm more than that. But it took me a long time to find that out. I was fired from a job in Cleveland. I used to think I was just an attorney, and that if you took that away from me, I was nothing. And I was fired from my job in Cleveland because I wanted to do it. And I was a year and a quarter not working. And I once wrote a skit for the Jewish community and I produced it and everything, and some woman came up to me and said, "Sonia, you're a woman of many talents." And I never 108:00forgot it, because I never thought of myself that way. I thought of myself just as a lawyer. And now I know that I'm more than that. So, you've got to make a living. I also think it's very important -- I have to tell you a story. Our main theater here is called the Asolo. And I recently saw a production of "South Pacific" that they had, which was wonderful. And in the "Playbill," the woman who's the dramaturg wrote a whole page about women in the military. So, I sent her an email congratulating her on doing that. So, now, they -- because of that, they invited me to come. They're having three plays in which women play a pivotal role. And after those three plays, they're having talkbacks. And they 109:00invited me to go to the plays, gave me an extra ticket for a friend, and then to come to the talkback and be a part of that. So, why did I start to tell you that? What were we talking about?
CW:You were talking about following your passion and --
SPF:No, but it was --
CW:-- but you're more than an attorney, many talents.
SPF:No, but it was something else that happened. Oh, I know, about this woman atthe talkback. So, the first talkback was after "The Matchmaker." It's a piece of eytse that I want to give. So, we were talking about that and one woman spoke up and said that she chose not to have a career. And I heard from another woman the same thing years ago. She chose not to have a career. She had, I think, five children. She has three children, five children. She devoted herself to her husband and her children, and after twenty years of marriage, her husband said he's not interested in being married to her anymore. So, she said she could never catch up in her career. What she missed for twenty years, of course not. So, the moral of that story is it's important to have a way to support yourself. 110:00You may get married and have a wonderful marriage, or you may not. Or your husband could die, or he could divorce you. God knows what could happen in life. It's important for women. Men, you generally know they have to make a living. But women think, well, not today so much, but when I was growing up, they thought, Well, they'll marry somebody and -- you have to have a way, I don't care what it is. I used to be a secretary. It could be being a secretary, it could be being a typist, I don't care what it is. You have to have a way -- and furthermore, most families today require two couples bringing in salaries. But I think it's very important for women and men to have a way to make a living. From my father, I learned that's first. Everything else is second.
CW:Nu [Well], a sheynem dank -- thank you very much.
SPF:S'i nitu farvos [No worries].
CW:Thank you very much for taking the time and for doing an unusual interview(laughs) for you. It's been a pleasure, a fargenign. 111:00
SPF:Pleasure for me, too. Thank you.
[END OF INTERVIEW]