Oral History 2: Leaving Germany, 1940, as told by Norbert Freedman

On November 30, 2011, my father-in-law, Norbert (Bert) Freedman, passed away at the age of 88. He was an inspiration to all who knew him–a man who lived life more fully than anyone I’ve known. Despite the many difficulties he encountered in his life, including fleeing Germany in 1940 at age 17, becoming blind, and losing his first wife to cancer when his children were very young, Bert forged ahead and never complained. He married my mother-in-law, Joyce, more than 30 years ago, and was working as a practicing psychoanalyst up until the last days of his life. The moving eulogies at his funeral from both family and colleagues were testaments to the lasting effect Bert had on so many.

Bert lived large before that term was even used. He loved to eat, drink good wine, use too much salt, tell jokes, schmooze, and entertain. His apartment was sometimes a hotel for European visitors. Although he was blind, he commuted from the Upper West Side of Manhattan to Brooklyn on the subway to his office at Downstate for decades. He embraced technology in a way few people his age did, even those who were sighted. A few weeks before he died, he was getting ready to consult the “Geniuses” at the Manhattan Apple Store to find out if the latest  iPhone with the talking assistant Siri could make his life easier. He was a force.

In December 2008, Bert recorded the story of his experiences as a young man in Hamburg, Germany, in the 1930s, and how his family had to leave Germany because of the rise of the Nazis and the growing anti-Semitism they faced. In the recording, Bert tells of his family’s painful realization that they had to leave their homeland. His was a highly assimilated Jewish family that was not religious, and they felt as German as any other citizens. But beginning in 1932, Bert’s world changed when he first encountered anti-Semitism from his soccer teammates, who became violent towards him when he scored a goal. Between 1932 and 1939 his parents took a series of steps to prepare for the family’s exodus from Germany. They learned other trades and improved their foreign language skills in order to be able to make a living in what they hoped would be the United States. They had to travel separately and by different routes to reach the United States. In 1940 Bert and his mother left Hamburg, finally traveling on the Trans-Siberia railway to Yokohama, Japan, and then across the Pacific to Seattle, Washington.

The posted audio file of Bert’s story is long (53 minutes) but it is well worth the time spent listening to it. Thank you, Sam, for  turning a narration from a hand-held dictaphone into an MP3 file and posting it for me!




Addendum, July 2020. A transcript of this interview is now available.

Bert Freedman interview


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