Transmission 21: Wilma Herzog

Menu from a 1958 crossing made by Wilma Herzog (née Eis). Courtesy of Wilma Herzog.

Menu from a 1958 crossing made by Wilma Herzog (née Eis). Courtesy of Wilma Herzog.

I wanted to see the “Big Apple,” New York City, but had no money to go there. I had no intentions to stay in the United States forever, either. I was lucky enough to get a job contract, I thought I’d stay for one year at the utmost. And what a beginning: a trip via the SS United States. I felt like a king!

I had not eyes enough to see. How can I say how impressed I was by this grand ship and its service? How we were spoiled as passengers: music, dance, a library where late night, snacks were served.

Most of hometown, Gerolstein, was destroyed by bombs during WWII – 85 percent. My immediate family survived, but was then homeless and had to flee. We ended up living in primitive shelter where each morning I received a bowl of wonderful, warm soup sponsored by the American Quakers. While we dug in empty potato fields looking for overlooked potatoes, and ate dandelion greens and boiled nettles, we were told that in the USA, they dumped shiploads of wheat into the ocean. My desire drew – that marvelous, wealthy land, I had to see it, no matter what!

No one in my family knew I was to go to New York for a year; I did not want them to interfere with my plan. I waited to tell my parents until the night before I was to leave, and when I did, I asked that no one make a fuss or even go with me to the train. After all, I would be back in one year. Today, I’m shocked to think of this! My poor parents!

One day during the crossing, the SS United States encountered bad weather. The crew installed red velvet ropes for the safety of the passengers. At mealtimes, the tables were nearly empty, only a few dared eat. I got terribly seasick, so the room steward brought me some dry bread. I can’t recall the names of any of the crew now, but I do remember how the table steward addressed even us young girls elegantly as “Madame” – wow!

I had never sailed on a ship before, and until a German girl who travelled frequently informed me, I had no idea that I had to tip anyone! I was shocked, and worried that I did not have enough money for decent tips for the cabin steward and table steward. I took two envelopes and put 15 Deutsche Mark in each, and little letters saying thank you for all the wonderful service, and explaining that I had no more money to give! Then, I entered American soil with just 5 German marks in my pocket.

The only valuable item I had with me in my cardboard suitcase was “Der ewige Brunnen,” [in English, “The Eternal Fountain”] a book of German poems. When I put my book of poems into my suitcase, I did not know that it would become my one and only consolation. Everything was strange to me, a country girl. The efficient elevators, people running busily this way and that way, and not looking at each other. I just looked and looked!

Often people asked me questions that made me wonder, like whether there was toilet paper in Germany. Lots of questions about the war, of course. One morning in the office where I worked, one of my co-workers said to me, “You seem to be a nice girl, but you’re a German. You can’t do anything about your genes, they contain antisemitism.” I nearly fainted! I sat up nearly all night and to calm my soul, I read aloud all the wonderful German poems in my book written in our wonderful German language by our great German poets. It was not easy.

After six months in New York City, I met my future husband, and in 1961, our daughter was born. I learned so much in the United States — most of all, I learned to be grateful, and to express it. I think of what President Kennedy once said, too, “Don’t ask what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country!” This formed and changed my life thereafter. To this day.

My daughter surprised me recently with many books and information about “my ship” – the SS United States. I hope it will be restored. Everyone can jet anywhere, there’s nothing to it, but being at home on a wonderful ship like the SS United States, traveling several days in style, that is the best, “non plus ultra.”

— Wilma Herzog, neé Eis, who immigrated aboard the SS United States in 1958