Somewhere over the Rainbow - Autobiography of Hans Georg Stern

My parents were Johanna and Moritz Stern, living in Gelsenkirchen in 1924, when I, Hans Georg Stern, was born on October 11th of that year. I believe we lived in an apartment in the von der Recke Strasse, although I am not positive of that. I know that we lived there before we emigrated. My father and mother owned a menís clothing store, located, I believe, on the Bahnhof strasse, next to a motion picture theater. They did well with the store, as I recall that both were very busy, and my brother and I were taken care of in our early days by Kindermaedchen. Our life was a very comfortable one.

Hans Georg Stern (right) and his brother Wolfgang in 1929

Hans Georg Stern (right) and his brother Wolfgang in 1929

When I was six years old, I was enrolled in the local Jewish school, the same one my brother was attending as well. By the time we left Germany, some two and a half years later, I had learned how to read and write German, as well as, of course, speak it, something that has been of some use to me my whole life.

I soon learned that all was not well. I recall seeing marches of the unemployed down our street, chanting about their unemployment and hunger, both during the days and at night, when many of the marchers would be carrying torches. One day, when my brother and I were on our way to school, we were attacked by a gang of young hoodlums, who correctly guessed that we were Jewish because we were headed to the Jewish school. My brother managed to fight them off, but it was an unsettling experience, and we felt unsafe after that.

We owned a primitive radio set, as I recall, and the news we heard was more and more threatening. As Hitler was elected into power, things turned altogether bad. My father was a brave man, who was one of the earliest of the German Jews to realize that the rising tide of anti-Semitism, codified now, would only worsen. He said to us that as soon as the first laws against Jews were passed, he would take steps to leave his homeland.

He was as good as his word. Some time in 1933, I no longer recall the exact date, the store was sold, and we packed our belongings, and moved to Holland. In Amsterdam, we stayed for a few weeks with a real estate broker, whom my father must have known. She found father a large house on the Appololaan, a fancy street in the "south" part of the city. My parents had to invent a new way of making a living, in a country which was hospitable enough, at least at first, as you will find out as you read on. but whose language none of us knew.

My parents decided to open a pension in the large house they had either leased or purchased. My father ran the business end of the pension, renting to those who soon found the pension to their liking. Most of the guests made the place their home, and stayed on even after we left many years later. As I mentioned, father took care of the business end of the enterprise, the renting of the rooms, the collecting of rents, the bookkeeping, dealing with the tax authorities, and eventually, the remodeling that he commissioned. My mother had the more difficult task of hiring the necessary staff, the cook, the housemaids, etc. and training and supervising them. As my mother had always helped my father in the store in a secretarial capacity, serving as bookkeeper, and doing other chores as needed, she had never learned how to cook.

She had to do that in a hurry now. She had to plan the menus for what turned out to be a very fussy clientele, who were used to and demanded the best for their three meals a day. The shopping for food became her job as well. She did not have a minute for herself. We children were not much help. The space under the attic was turned into two small rooms, one became the bedroom for my brother and me, the other served as the bedroom for my parents. Space in the cellar was turned into various bedrooms for the help, who, by the way, were mostly young ladies from Austria, and one another refugee from Germany.

Soon, my brother and I were enrolled in the local elementary school. The first few months were difficult indeed. I did not understand the language, and so missed about four months of instruction. After that, I slowly picked up enough of the language to understand my teachers. After two years, I was fluent in Dutch, and spoke it without accent. My brother and I were pretty much on our own. Our parents had no extra time to spend with us. Even though we lived in a large house, the only space we boys had was our small bedroom. I studied and read in the public area of the house, which was furnished beautifully, as befitted a first class pension, and where I soon found my favorite chair to indulge one of my hobbies, which was reading. The other one I discovered almost accidentally.

As many of the other children of the refugees who found a home in Amsterdam, my brother and I attended a religious school in addition to our regular one. Wednesday afternoons we had to go there to learn about our faith. Every year this school sponsored a theatrical performance manned by the students. I soon learned that I simply loved being on stage, and the acting bug hit me even before the first performance. I particularly enjoyed making people laugh.

By the summer of 1936, the work of the pension had become routine enough that my mother could take her first vacation in many years. After his arrival in Holland, my father had tirelessly urged his and my mother's relatives to leave Germany, and many had listened to him. By 1936, we had relatives living in Holland, Argentina, and the United States. Mother had a sister and her family living in New York, and that is where she went on her vacation. When she returned, she urged my father to apply for an immigration visa for us so that we, too, could go to the United States. My father did not need much persuasion. Unfortunately, such a visa was by that time virtually impossible to get. America allowed immigration on a quota system. The number of Germans residing in America determined the number of new German immigrants for a particular year. As many German Jews were by now desperate to leave a hostile Germany, and many of them had family in America already, they had made the logical choice for them, and had applied for visas in record numbers. The time for us to get a visa was estimated to be years away. That turned out to be all too true.

We could, of course, do nothing but wait. By the summer of 1938, both my brother and I had finished elementary school, and my parents had the good idea to send us for a brief period to an English boarding school, Buxton College, so that we might learn some English in anticipation of our eventual move. And so my brother and I moved to a new country, and new school, and struggled to learn our third language. We stayed in England for two semesters, and did, indeed, learn enough English to converse with others to some degree, and to be able to read with limited fluency. Still, it was enough to provide a basis for us to continue to learn English on our own.

After we returned to Holland by the end of 1938, my brother was sent to Belgium to learn French, and I enrolled in a commercial school in Amsterdam, the Schoevers Instituut, where I learned another important skill, namely typing. My parents always envisioned me following a commercial career, something that did not happen. In June of 1939 disaster struck our family. Word of my father's efforts to get his family to leave Germany must have reached, and offended, some officials in Nazi Germany, who likely put pressure on compliant authorities in Holland, because suddenly, without warning, my father was summoned to the immigration authority in Holland and summarily ordered to leave at once. Where were we to go! Returning to Germany would have meant certain death for all of us, that we knew. Father was lucky to be able to get a transit visa to Belgium, after he convinced authorities at the Belgium consulate in Amsterdam that he had applied for an immigration visa to the United States. My mother miraculously arranged for a sale of the pension, and we joined father in Belgium. Long we could not stay. Once again, we had to be on the move.

In late August, we obtained a transit visa that allowed us to travel to England, where we moved into cramped quarters in London. On September first, World War Two began, and word from the American embassy came that all immigration matters were deferred until after the end of the war.

There we were, the four of us, living in two small rooms. Mother spoke a little English, father, at the age of 55, none at all, and my brother and I, 14 and 15 years old at the time, spoke it well enough to get by. None of us were allowed to work, and our limited funds were draining away, even as we turned over every penny twice before spending it reluctantly.

Wartime in England was grim. Food and clothing was rationed immediately, and all of us were issued gas masks, that served as daily reminders that we were all in great peril from an enemy perhaps half an hour away by air. To add to our misery, the weather soon turned bitterly cold. For some reason, the water pipes ran along the outside of the house, and these would now freeze with some regularity. Our only source of heat was an open fireplace in one of our rooms, and fuel was soon next to impossible to obtain. We scoured the neighborhood at night for anything that might serve as fuel: paper, wood, coal, discarded clothing, rags, etc. As a strict blackout was enforced, our nightly searches were very difficult. Only the moon provided what little light there was.

We soon discovered that we shared our accommodations with rats and mice, who would roam through our living-bedroom at night, occasionally even straying into our beds. During the day we would flatten the tin cans that had contained food, and nail shut all the holes we found in the baseboards of the walls. Unfortunately, rats and mice are resourceful animals, and as soon as we had nailed up the holes we found, the rodents would gnaw new ones. Air raid sirens would sound with some frequency and would send us scurrying to the cellar, which we would share with the landlady and other residents of the house.

My mother spent most days trying to teach father English from an old textbook we had found, an extremely trying enterprise. He would eventually learn the language well enough to follow radio and television shows, read newspapers, and carry on simple conversations, but never mastered it completely. The only people my parents knew in London were some very distant relatives who were staying in an apartment near us, and whom we visited often. However, we boys soon made friends with other kids in the neighborhood, and I remember hours of playing Monopoly. A Boy Scout troupe leader was kind enough to invite us to become members, and so we did have some social life. I also discovered a neighborhood public library, and soon was able to spend hours reading books.

The uncertainty of our life was perhaps the worst part of it. What was to become of us, slowly using up the few resources we had, daily reading and hearing about the worsening conditions everywhere? But in the middle of January 1940, father was summoned to the American embassy, and was told that our visas had, indeed, arrived. What a miracle! We were subjected to a medical examination at the embassy, and, after that, the precious visas were stamped into our passports. After turning in our gas masks and ration cards, on January 26, we embarked on the ship Veendam of the Holland- America Line, and sailed away from England.

Judy Garland singing "Somewhere over the rainbow" in the the "Wizard of Oz"

Life on board ship was exciting for us. The food was both plentiful and very good, an almost unbelievable change for us who had become used to scrimping on rationed food. The entertainment was wonderful, and I still remember seeing the just released film The Wizard of Oz. What could be better? There were two very emotional moments that are still etched in my memory. One occurred on one evening after several days at sea, when without warning, all the lights of the ship were turned on! Since the beginning of September of 1939, we had lived every night in complete darkness, and the sudden flood of lights caused a happy shock that meant certainly one thing: we were finally out of danger. The other occurred at dawn on February 5th, 1940, when we sailed past the Statue of Liberty into New York harbor. Finally, we were ready to start our new life in our new home in a country at peace.

Johanna und Moritz Stern, the parents of Hans Georg Stern in 1965

Johanna und Moritz Stern, the parents of Hans Georg Stern in 1965

We moved in with our delighted relatives, and soon it would be time for more important decisions. My brother and I enrolled in the local high school, George Washington High School in New York, where teachers, looking at my record, decided I should be enrolled in a class called English as a Second Language, with all the other children who had just arrived in America. That lasted one day. The next day I was transferred to a regular English class.

After a few weeks, my father decided that after living through a terribly cold winter, we would live in Los Angeles, where it was allegedly eternally spring time. It was good decision. Soon after our journey by bus across the country, a trip that took several days during which we rode on the bus days and nights, because stopping anywhere on the way would have been too expensive, we arrived and settled in an apartment in downtown Los Angeles. Father soon found a small restaurant for sale, and so all of us helped by working as cooks, waiters and dishwashers to make the place a success. For mother and father it was grueling work, as the restaurant was open about 14 hours a day. My brother and I enrolled in the local high school to continue our education, and pitched in after we had finished our homework.

Father still had a terrible time with the language, and he felt insecure in dealing with customers, and the many companies that supplied the food and drink served in the restaurant. He had been born in Ulrichstein, where his family were farmers, so he felt that he knew something about agriculture. The San Fernando Valley, just over the low mountains that border Los Angeles, but part of the city of Los Angeles, was still much an agricultural area. We soon relocated to Van Nuys, a city a part of Los Angeles in the San Fernando Valley, where father started a chicken farm.

This move worked for father, as the chickens did not require him to speak English. For the rest of the family, it was the usual hard work. My brother and I enrolled in Van Nuys High School, the local high school, and after classes, joined father in feeding the chickens, cleaning their cages, collecting and cleaning the eggs they laid, and repairing the cages when they needed that. At the height of that venture, 5,000 chickens demanded our attention. I learned to hate every one of them. It was not their fault, really.

There were drama classes at Van Nuys High School, and I, of course, took every one of them that I could, and was able to continue to indulge my love of acting. I got parts in every school play that was put on. Both my brother and I pursued in general an academic course that would lead to our eventual enrollment in our local university, the University of California at Los Angeles, better known as UCLA.

Before that, however, came December 7, 1941, when Japan attacked Hawaii, and shortly thereafter the United States joined the combatants in the Second World War. This had consequences for us. We were still, technically and most reluctantly, German citizens, and soon we learned that we were now classified as enemy aliens. How ironic that was! In due course, my brother, born Wolfgang, but now Wolf, graduated from high school, and enrolled at UCLA. His studies did not last long. He was 18 years old by now, and was drafted into the United States army, so off he went to serve in the United States, thereafter Europe and eventually even Japan. He returned in the fall of 1945, resumed his studies at UCLA, and eventually became an attorney, a profession he worked in until he died in 1999, at the age of 76.

A few days after Dec. 7, 1941 all of the United States went on war status, which meant the rationing of food, mainly sugar, oil, butter, and meat; clothing, including shoes; and gasoline. Gasoline rationing had a major impact in Los Angeles, where distances were long and public transportation such as trams or busses were poor or non-existent, because almost all families owned at least one car.

People of Japanese ancestry, both those here legally but not citizens, and American citizens, who lived on the west coast were deported to relocation camps, where they stayed until the war ended. Not until decades later did the government issue an apology of sorts, and a modest amount of compensation to the survivors or their families for this act of arbitrary relocation. Most of the Japanese in California were farmers, and many lost their land, as they were forced to sell it, because they could no longer farm it. For us enemy aliens, a curfew was instituted. We had to be in our homes between the hours of 20:30 and 6:00.

My father did not like the restrictions, so by March of 1942 he sold our chicken farm, and we moved to New York, where there was no curfew. He and my mother started work as a "domestic couple": my mother was the cook, and he did general housework. I re-enrolled at George Washington High School, and finished my high school education by June. I then enrolled at UCLA, which meant that in August of 1942 I once again journeyed across the country by bus to start my university education. Because I had virtually no money, I had to work my way through the university, something many students did at the time.

In October of 1942, I turned 18 years old, and registered for the military draft. Shortly thereafter, I had to report for the mandatory medical examination. I had always been very short, and never measured more than 1m. and 58cm. At this time I weighed 45.39kg. A few weeks after the medical examination, I was informed that I was not medically fit for military service, and they listed tachycardia as the deciding factor, a disease I did not even know I had.

So I was able to continue my university education. I also worked as a waiter at a local drug store to pay my way. My studies and my work kept me busy at least 18 hours a day. By 1944, I had decided to become a teacher, and in June of 1945 I graduated from UCLA with a Bachelor of Arts degree. To earn my teaching credential would take another year of study, which I began immediately. By June of 1946, I was ready to start my teaching career.

My parents decided in 1944 to return to Los Angeles, where they bought a modest home. I moved in with them from the rented room I had lived in up to then. By August of 1945, World War II was finally over, restrictions were lifted, and we celebrated mightily. In April of 1946, I became a United States citizen, and able to get my teaching credential, available at the time only to U.S. citizens, and looked forward to finally going to work in my chosen profession.

My first position was in the little town of Needles, California, in the Mojave desert, where to my shock and surprise the temperature both day and night was 41degrees C. But one gets used to almost everything, and by December, it suddenly turned very cold: the real desert is a place of extremes. In my first year of teaching I learned a great many things, as I was asked to teach English, history, and drama classes. I survived, but took the first train back to Los Angeles, home, after all, where I already had a job with the Los Angeles Unified School District, for whom I worked for the next 39 years. My parents, had found a variety of jobs, after their return to Los Angeles, my mother usually catering for the film making community, and my father in various factories, usually in the shipping department, where he worked with others who had limited English language skills. In the early 1960's my father made a series of very profitable investments, and they could eventually retire comfortably.

I had continued my acting through university and thereafter, with a nine-month hiatus while I was in Needles. Los Angeles was the entertainment capital, and one night, after I had completed a performance, I was approached by an agent, who wanted to get me under contract so that he could find motion picture parts for me. No one was more astonished than I was by this turn of events. I signed on, and to my great surprise, the agent found a number of parts for me in films made by Paramount, Warner Bros. and a number of independent studios. I worked as an actor with some regularity, and when I got a part, I usually had to take a temporary leave from my day job, which was as a rule no problem, as long as the leave was no longer than a day or two. But soon the parts got more substantial, and after one lasted four weeks, I knew I had to make a big decision; it was impossible to pursue two careers at once.

I decided to stay with teaching, which turned out to be the right choice for me in the long run. I continued to act in plays with my actor friends, something I could do after school, but turned down parts which would take me out of school. My last theater performance was just before our daughter was born in 1962. After I had been teaching for seven years, in June of 1953, I decided that I should take a sabbatical leave, even though I was not eligible for one in the Los Angeles school district for whom I had worked only six years. I was granted a one year unpaid leave, and started to look around to see how I would spend it. I turned down various job offers, including one from the Armed Forces, who wanted me to teach in their schools in Africa. After turning that offer down, I wondered what would happen next. I did apply for a Fulbright Grant, but knew that was what we call a "long shot." But miracles do happen, even more than once, and by late August, I was offered a chance to be a Fulbright exchange teacher and Scholar, teaching English, and studying Austrian theater in Austria. I should mention that by then I had completed two advanced degrees: a Master of Arts in Theater Arts at UCLA, and another Master of Arts in Educational Administration at the California State University of Los Angeles.

My experience in Austria was wonderful. I was able to travel a great deal, and I made many friends, some of whom we still correspond with to this day. Then it was back to work in Los Angeles. In 1955, I met the girl who was to become my wife. She was Dutch and we met at my home soon after she arrived from Holland. As her family and she are Jewish, they had their own horror story to tell about the war. When the Germans invaded Holland, they went into hiding, and did so for some two and a half years. It was a stolen childhood that Milie, my wife, never got back. After completing her interrupted education, she became a nurse and soon found work in Los Angeles that she liked in her field, first at hospitals, and later with a number of physicians in private practice. We married in 1959, and in February of this year, 2008, celebrated our 49th anniversary. In May of 1962, our daughter Michelle was born, a real blessing in our life. We tried to make sure that she had the stable childhood, which was denied to both of her parents. She is a wonderful daughter, now married with a daughter of her own.

In September of 1960, after a visit to Europe in the summer, I began my studies for a doctorate in education at UCLA. The studies had to be part time, of course, after school and during vacations. In 1966, I was finally awarded the degree. I continued to enjoy teaching and other work in education, until I retired from full time teaching in June of 1987.

Emilie und Hans Georg Stern, 2006

Emilie und Hans Georg Stern, 2006

By that time, I had become interested in computers, and taught others how to use them in the adult education classes offered by the Los Angeles schools. In retirement, I continued teaching students how to use computers part time in various local colleges, including Santa Monica College and National University. I did that for about 12 years, until, in 1999, I developed cardio-vascular problems that needed to be treated with several angioplasty operations. I survived the operations, but finally retired from all work. At 83, as I write this, we enjoy our home, a few short vacations, and, above all, our daughter and her husband, both writers in the entertainment field, and our granddaughter, Sophia.

Hans Georg Stern, Los Angeles

In Juli 2008 Hans Georg Stern wrote to GELSENZENTRUM: "Dear Mr. Jordan, Imagine my surprise to find the biography of Fred Wolf on the Gelsenzentrum web site! We see each other almost every day at the Gelson grocery store where he works and where we shop. We knew Fred was a Holocaust survivor, but now we know a lot more about him. Thank you for making it happen! Hans Georg Stern"

Pictures with courtesy of Mr. Stern (left) and Mr. Manfred "Fred" Wolf, 2008 together at Gelson's Supermarket in Los Angeles.

Hans Georg Stern (left) and Fred Wolf at Gelson's Supermarket in Los Angeles

Hans Georg Stern (left) and Fred Wolf at Gelson's Supermarket in Los Angeles

→ Interview: Fred Wolf, formerly "Number 105064" - Survivor of the Holocaust

Hans Georg Stern, Los Angeles, USA. February 2008

Golden Wedding-Gift - Travel to Alaska

In September 2008 Hans Stern wrote:

Dear Mr. Jordan,

Thank you for including the pictures of Fred Wolff and me in my little autobiography! I shall tell Fred to look them up, and I know he will enjoy them too.

In the meantime, in February of next year Milie and I will be celebrating our 50th wedding anniversary, so in August we gave each other a wonderful cruise to Alaska. Attached you will find a few little pictures I took on our journey. I wish you and yours all the best, Hans

Wonderful pics, a gift from Hans Stern to me:

Hans and Milie Stern's journey to Alaska

Hans and Milie Stern's journey to Alaska

Hans and Milie Stern's jorney nach Alaska

The Butchart Gardens, tucked into a serene 50-acre country estate on the southeast corner of Vancouver Island, is a garden of earthly delights in every season. From summer splendour to autumn's golden glory and sparkling holiday magic - there's always something to see, learn and experience.

Fifty acres of floral finery offering spectacular views as you stroll along meandering paths and expansive lawns. In 1904, the concept of The Butchart Gardens began with an effort to beautify a worked-out quarry site on the 130-acre estate of Mr. and Mrs. R.P. Butchart, pioneers in the manufacture of Portland Cement in Canada. Their endeavour became a family commitment to horticulture and hospitality spanning more than 90 years and delighting visitors from all over the world. From the exquisite Sunken Garden to the charming Rose Garden, this 50-acre show-place still maintains the gracious traditions of the past, in one of the loveliest corners in the world.

The Butchart Gardens are located in Brentwood Bay, 21 km north of the capital city of Victoria and 20 km south of the Vancouver - Victoria ferry terminal at Swartz Bay.

Butcharts Gardens

Butcharts Gardens

Butcharts Gardens

Butcharts Gardens

Butcharts Gardens

Butcharts Gardens

Pics taken by Hans Georg Stern

Andreas Jordan, Juni 2008