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Freda Isaksen


The Family House
Family Relations
Days, Seasons, and Special Occasions
Childhood and School
Adolescence and Teens
Years of Discontent
Meeting Micael
Getting Married
My Years in Norway
Tragedy and Upheaval
My Last Year in Europe
Our Journey to the U.S.
The United States of America

The Family House

I was born in London, England. The first house that I can remember living in was my grandmother Leah Hartstein’s house on Cazenove Road in London. My mother, father, their five children, Minnie, Rose, Jack, Freda, and Phyllis, moved in after my grandfather Philip died so that my grandmother should not live alone. It was a typical London house, very narrow and attached on two sides to the next houses, with a front and back garden. There was a cellar, then a kitchen and scullery on the first floor, a parlor and dining room on the second floor, one bedroom and bathroom on the third floor, two bedrooms on the fourth floor, then above all this the attic. Imagine the climbing of stairs necessary!

I shared a bedroom with one sister. It was a fairly modern house for those times with running water, electricity, and indoor plumbing. A lot of cooking was done in a coal heated oven which at the same time heated the water. Although, we did also have a gas stove for cooking. All the clothes washing was done in the scullery by a woman who came in once a week, so shirts and underwear were not changed daily as this would make too much work. Weekly, the coal was delivered by a coal man who schucked the coal into the cellar through a special hole for that purpose. How I remember that man, who although white by race was always black from head to toe!

In another part of that cold cellar the food was kept. Refrigeration in a house at that time was unheard of. How I hated to enter that dark cellar. The light switch was located at the top of the stairs and opening the cellar door and seeing that dark void in front of me was a thing I dreaded each time. I hated to go down into the dimly lighted cellar, but there was no excuse. I was obliged to go down for food, like it or not.

Because the eight people in our family ate breakfast at different times, we ate it in the kitchen. But other meals were always eaten together in the dining room. This room was also a living room. I remember the parlor as a very cold and unfriendly room, only used for company, where I don’t think I ever sat down.

Also, the attic scared me at night because it was bleak and unfurnished, but we children had a good time playing there during daylight, for there were no carpets, curtains, or furniture to spoil.

Each room had a built-in fireplace, and all the heat in the house was made by coal in these fireplaces. The bedrooms were rarely heated. One really had to be sick in bed to warrant heat there. I only remember a “fire,” as it was called, in my grandmother’s room. Once a year another black man came to call, the chimney sweep.

In those days of cheap labor, every middle class family had a maid. We children therefore were not expected to do many chores. I had the weekly job of cleaning the silver. Another chore assigned to me was scraping salt. In those days salt was purchased in blocks, and I would have to scrape it with a knife in order to separate the grains before it could be used for cooking.

We lived in that house until my grandmother remarried. We then moved into another very similar one on Linthorpe Road. I lived there until I left to marry.

Family Relations

My grandmother played a dominant part in our lives. She and my mother ran the household, and I believe my parents discussed our up-bringing with her. I remember that I often ran to “Bobba,” as she was called, for comfort in my times of woe. I still can feel her arms around me. She was a very stately lady and very much the matriarch. When she died I was broken-hearted and missed her terribly. At the time, I was in my early teens, and I do recall standing over her coffin and weeping.

My two older sisters were only two years apart in age, and they always seemed to be close friends, while my brother Jack and I had a good relationship, with five years difference in our ages. Although there were many years when we were apart because of distances, my attachment to him lasted throughout our entire lives. Upon my returns to London, it was always to my brother’s home that I went.

I didn’t resemble my brother or sisters in any physical way. They were dark haired, and I was blond. They were short in stature, but I was tall. Being around my brother and his friends a lot, I was considered to be a tomboy, especially when I fell and broke my leg on my way home from school.

My father owned his own business where he manufactured cardboard boxes. 1 He worked at his factory for long hours every day except Saturday and sometimes Sunday. Because Sabbath eve dinner was special, on Friday nights we were expected to await dinner for him no matter how late he came home, for we were obliged to eat together as a family on that night. This desire to be with my family on Sabbath eve has remained with me, and only recently has it become necessary to discontinue this custom because of family separations.

My father came home especially late on Fridays because he had to pay the workers their salaries and finish off the week’s work, and we children always resented the wait. When he finally did arrive, we had a further wait because he had to recite the Sabbath prayers. But after dinner, it was all worth while because he always brought home peanuts. We all would sit around the fire shelling and eating them while telling of the week’s events.

On his days off, my father loved for us to dress in our best clothes, and he would take us to Hyde Park where a lot of Londoners of all classes would promenade. Transportation was always by bus, for we did not own a car. Backing onto the park was the home of the present Queen Elizabeth, and we would often see the little Princess Elizabeth and Margret Rose playing in their garden. My father was always impeccably dressed, and before he put away his clothes at night. he would stand and brush and brush away every speck of dust.

I vaguely remember my father’s mother Rachel as a very old lady, all dressed in black, and wearing a sheytl, an orthodox wig, on her shaven head. She was only 73 when she died of old age or so they said. She lived alone, and I am sure that my father was her sole means of support. My father came from a large family, his father had married three times in Russia, but after the pogroms there, they all settled in different countries. One brother and one sister, Eva, lived in London, but both died during the flu epidemic of 1918. Eva left five small children. We saw them often but there was also a feeling of charity, as their father was somewhat shiftless and needed help. The girls would come to our house for their weekly bath, and they would all use the same bath water. My father had promised these three girls that when they married, he would provide for their wedding receptions. When they did marry after his death, my mother honored his promise. 2

My mother had four brothers and sisters. Barnett, Abe, Eva, and Luba all were born in Russia and their wives and children were very much a part of our immediate family. I had a very close relationship with the cousins of my age and spent many hours in their homes as well as vacations together at the seaside. When I was in the hospital with appendicitis, I remember that most of my cousins came to visit me.

Our maid Emily has a vivid place in my memory as she lived and worked for us for many years. She had no family and never married. Although her own personal room was up on the same floor as the attic, she was always there in the kitchen like a fixture. In the evenings she would ask my younger sister and me to play cards with her. She must have been getting very old because she started to mumble and grumble to herself, maybe about all those stairs she had to climb. When someone saw her slobber into the morning’s oatmeal porridge, it was decided to send her to a pensioner’s home. Incidentally, the porridge had been slow cooking all night long on the still warm wood burning stove. No instant or quick cooking oatmeal in those days.

Our next househelp was Elinor. She was young, pretty, and the hardest worker. She moved heavy furniture and polished the floors on hands and knees. Mother insisted that it was not necessary to move the furniture every week, but Elinor wanted to keep the house spotless or so she said. After some weeks it became apparent that she was trying to induce a miscarriage. Because she had no place to go if she left us and she was such a great maid, the family agreed to let her stay with us until her confinement. The last month she agreed to stay in her room as it made everyone uncomfortable to have her around. After the birth of her baby, Auntie Luba gave her employment and allowed her to keep her child in their home. I can’t, however, remember how long Elinor stayed with them. 3

The only household pets we ever had were cats because they were useful to catch the mice which were prevalent in London.

Days, Seasons, and Special Occasions

Our family were Orthodox Jews. After all, they had all left Russia because they wanted to observe their religion and were not allowed to. Now in a free country, they could continue as they wished. However, they were not fanatic about religion.

All the food eaten in the home was strictly kosher, but we all, including my parents, would eat in non-kosher restaurants. Any pork products were strictly taboo. Until we came to the U.S., I observed this kosher custom in my own home, but to this day I do not allow pork products in my home only because I wish to continue the customs of tradition.

All the major religious holidays were observed mostly with my mother’s sisters and their families. The days before Passover were very hectic. The house was cleaned from top to bottom, all the kitchen cupboards were cleaned out and scrubbed, and the dishes, pots, pans, and all the cooking utensils were changed to another set stored in the attic. They were kept from year to year only to be used during this one week of Passover. In order to bring these dishes etc. down from the attic to the kitchen, one child would be stationed on each floor and the containers handed down from child to child. No bread or non-kosher special for Passover foods were allowed to be eaten for eight days. The seder itself with all the rituals and special foods was conducted by my father in Hebrew and English and took some hours to complete. The old orthodox haggadah was used, and it took a lot of patience to sit through the recitings before the meal was served.

Chanukah at that time did not compete with Christmas and was relatively simple. The observance was to light the candles each night for eight days, and my uncles and aunts would come to visit and give us Chanukah gelt, money.

The Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah, and the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur, were observed with prayers in the synagogue. We children were expected to attend, and afterwards there were the family dinners with the traditional foods such as chicken soup, gefilte fish, and noodle pudding. We still observe these major holidays today in our home and synagogue although we now practice Reform Judaism. Our son Leonard conducts the seder, and he has rewritten the haggadah which is a blend of Orthodox and Reform Judaism and is thus very meaningful to anyone who reads it. Sabbath candles are still lit today in my home.

Birthdays were only casually observed, and no parties were given. Only my brother’s thirteenth birthday and bar mitzvah were celebrated.

My parents liked to play cards. I especially remember a game called solo. Monday nights were open house at our home. People were not formally invited but came to play cards, and tea and cakes were served.

The climate in London is not a pleasant one in winter. It can snow, but the snow quickly turns to slush. It constantly rains, and the fog becomes so thick and yellow or black, that it is called pea soup. But none of this deters an English person. Poor weather is expected. One carries the umbrella and continues as usual. I had to walk about one mile to school, back home for lunch, and then walk back to school for the afternoon. No excuses for bad weather. You dressed warmly with fur coats for the adults. We used hand muffs, ear muffs, gloves, wellington boots, and of course head coverings.

On Sundays in England all the stores would be closed. Incidentally, on Wednesday or Thursday afternoons the stores would close. Church bells would ring in the mornings and I still miss those Sunday mornings when there was a feeling of peacefulness around. On this day, our dinner was eaten at midday. The English gardens and flowers are, of course, famous when they bloom in the spring and we would take family outings to the many parks and gardens in London, always carrying the inevitable umbrella, just in case. My father was fond of the circus and that was an outing to remember. I wonder if it was a circus in itself to travel on the buses with five children.

The south of England is considered the warmest place in England. So for a week or two in the summer, Mother would take us to the seasides of Bournemouth, Brighton, and Margate where we would stay in a boarding house.

Childhood and School

I have practically no recollection of my early school days. I vividly remember my first day at school walking into the classroom and seeing a blazing fire in the fireplace. No doubt this was meant to give a child a sense of feeling at home as every household had a fire of coal to heat the house. As I became a little older, I remember stopping on the way to school to pick up some girl friends to accompany me. I even remember the names of the streets as Osbaldeston Road and Fountain Road, but my recollection of my friendships with these girls is only from later school years.

In England at that time, one attended grade school until ten years of age, then a test was given which would determine the child’s future public school education. If the student passed this test, he would change to a secondary school until sixteen years of age. If not, he or she would continue at the grade school until fourteen years old, and the end of public school education. There was also private school, but the average family did not send their child to private school.

I remember well that day I was to take the test. It was a dreaded day. Sure I had failed, I remember scanning the sheet which was displayed some weeks later with the results. My surname began with a T, which placed my name near the end of the list, and I did not realize this. It took some time before I found my name, and my hopes were gradually dwindling. When I finally found my name, the feeling of relief was tremendous. I had never been fond of school, so I was not elated at the thought of six more years of education. But because of the shame of failing it, it was important to be on the list.

I never had a teacher who inspired me in any subject. I only really remember two teachers up to the age of sixteen and only because they didn’t manage to teach me anything at all. One was Miss Dodd, my French teacher, very strict and unattractive. I don’t think she liked children. I was sure I would never be able to learn a foreign language, yet when I went to Norway, I learned very fast to speak Norwegian. Although I have not lived there in over forty years, I still write, read, and converse in that language. My geography teacher was Miss Stead. She had flaming red hair, and I can remember sitting at my desk in class thinking how uninspiring she was. I thought that geography was so uninteresting, yet in later years, I developed a great desire to learn about the world and to travel to see it.

I had some interest in mathematics, but my favorite subject was English. Although, I cannot remember any teacher that encouraged me in that class. I loved to make up stories and to write them, and I really believe I passed the exams at ten years of age mostly because of my composition. I even remember the title of the assignment. It was “If I Had Wings,” and I was able to express myself and give my all to that title. For a long time my ambition was to become an author or a journalist, but I was never encouraged in this.

In my family it was not considered necessary for a girl to get an education. “She’ll end up washing the diapers” was a common statement. Only my brother continued on to a private school even though it was assumed that he would enter my father’s business, which he did, and in turn his son has now inherited the business my father started. However, we girls were given the opportunity to learn to provide for ourselves until we married. My sisters learned shorthand and typing. In grade school and secondary school girls were taught to sew, knit, and embroider. I showed a special talent for those handicrafts, so it was decided by my parents that I should become a dressmaker. It was my grandmother who insisted that I should attend a school for clothes designing. She offered to finance this venture, and this became my vocation. I had been consulted, but when I expressed my wish to become a writer, the idea was ridiculed. I never really loved my work, but I didn’t dislike it either. My knowledge in sewing, however, has given me a lot of enjoyment as a hobby. I am sure that I could have been capable of success in some other profession if I had a better education. I know that it was unusual for girls of my family status to acquire a higher education, so I do not reproach my parents for this lack.

I was not particularly good at sports, but because I was always tall for my age, I was chosen to be on the basketball team. Swimming was taught in school, but I never excelled in that and can only do the breast stroke.

I never had a lot of friends. The friends I had in grade school continued with me into secondary school. Because I had a close relationship with cousins, I didn’t need school friends so much, and we were not encouraged to have friends outside our own faith for fear of intermarriage in the future. So until my teen years, I have no memories of close friendship.

I think that my very young years must have been happy years because I can’t remember them as unhappy. I don’t remember feeling love for my parents. They were authority, taken for granted, and provided a safe haven. We never displayed a great show of affection. This is one thing I regret, as I didn’t pass onto my children this “Did you hug your child today?” attitude which is prevalent today. But then again, my children were raised in a time when this was especially frowned upon with boys for fear they would become sissies.

Adolescence and Teens

Of course, I had many rifts with my brothers and sisters. Some incidents I remember, such as my brother telling me to bend over and pick something up, and then he kicked me in the rear. I fell and cut my chin, and I still bear the scar. There were also disagreements with my sisters over petty differences, but they left no resentments in my feelings towards them. My first break with anyone in my family came in my teen years with my favorite cousin. Hilda and I had been especially good friends. We confided all our secrets and innermost feelings and spent whole weekends together mostly at her home because she had a room to herself which we could share. I remember taking the bus to Dalston Station, taking the train to the station near her home, and then walking over to Ayleston Avenue. Her mother, my Auntie Annie by marriage to my mother’s brother Abe, called me her adopted daughter, and whenever I returned to London in later years, she insisted on seeing me, as she remembered me as being like one of her own children. She passed away just about five years ago at age 98. She had always been a very glamorous lady, and when I last saw her shortly before her death, she was still very attractive with her dyed bouffant hairdo and pantyhosed still well shaped legs. Two of her sons, Monty and Philip, became pilots during World War II and were shot down and killed.

Hilda and I were very young when she fell in love with Jimmy Cowen. My aunt and uncle were opposed to this not only because of age. There were other reasons which I understood. They appealed to me to speak to their daughter and to convince Hilda that she should give up this involvement. Hilda became very annoyed with me as she said that I had been her best friend and confidant but had turned against her by agreeing with her parents. She and Jimmy later eloped, and Hilda and I never resumed our friendship. However, she later became very good friends with my sister Rose in South Africa.

Soon after this came my break with Rose. Rose was seven years older than me. She had become very successful as an executive secretary, but the opposite sex were not attracted to her. It was said that she was too business like and that she scared the men away. She earned a high salary and so was not dependent on a man as a girl of that decade should have been. I was starting to date, and I was aware that she felt some jealousy. One day she invited a young man to the house. I do not know if she had any serious intentions about him, but in view of what happened, he obviously wasn’t serious about her. I remember coming into the living room and there was this young man. I was introduced to him as Rose’s sister. I left the house after exchanging a few words with him, and I forgot all about him. A few days later he telephoned and asked for me. He asked me to go out with him. If I had been older or wiser, I might have realized that I should have refused him, but I can’t remember my emotions at that time. I only know that I accepted and started to date him. My family was furious and my sister in hysterics. I foolishly and ignorantly resented their attitude but had no real interest in him. He was just a date, and after a lot of unpleasant times at home, I agreed never to see him again. I remember that I would let my family influence me. He was quite a bit older than I, and I think I was flattered but knew that he wasn’t the best friend for me.

I think that Rose never did forgive me. There was a coolness between us always, and we quarreled often after that episode. Offered an excellent position, she later went to South Africa. She never married and was always independent. I didn’t see her again for many years nor did I correspond with her. But I am glad that about ten years ago during my visit to London, she was there and there was no estrangement between us. I was not told at that time that she had returned to England because she had a terminal illness and wished to spend the remaining days with her family. When I received the news that she had died, I was pleased that our last meeting was a pleasant one.

My sister Minnie had been the elder sister. She married Adolf Wiseman, lived in London, and we had a close relationship. Minnie had a stillborn son and did not give birth again until fifteen years later when Patricia was born.

Years of Discontent

I formed a few attachments to girl friends during my teen years, The schools were not co-ed so we had almost no way of meeting boys until we reached the later teens. We would then go out to dances mostly on Saturday nights. There was a weekly Jewish newspaper which we girls would scan and decide which dance to attend. We promised between ourselves that if we were lucky enough to attract a boy, we would always stick together for the evening and never leave the other alone.

As I got a little older, I started to become very discontent and wanted more than my narrow life. I finished the course at designers’ school, and a friend of the family who owned a dress factory gave me a job. I started at the lowest level as a finisher but soon was promoted to the sewing machine. I didn’t like this work so when I was asked if I would like to be a cutter, I was pleased and enjoyed this work much better. I was very young and had plenty of time ahead for success, but I could not visualize that I would become successful. I earned very little and began to be afraid that I would never acquire a better salary and independence like my sister Rose. I changed jobs twice that I can remember, but at that young age I did not improve my status.

Then I was unhappy because I wanted more than my very sheltered life. I began to resent the fact that it was so hard to meet boys when we girls were so limited in where we were allowed to go. Of my meager earnings, I was required to pay a few shillings to the household so that I should have some sense of responsibility. I made my own clothes so I had very little expenses. I saved all my extra money towards vacations. I remember going to Devonshire, Cornwall, and on a cruise to Spain, Portugal, and Morocco with a girlfriend. This must have been a trip organized for teenagers as I remember a lot of young people on board.

Inevitably, as my horizons broadened, I became acquainted with people of a different background than my own. I knew that my family would not approve of this so I secretively would go off and not always be truthful about my associates or my destinations. My parents suspected that I was not being altogether honest with them, and they started to object. I remember one time I was so upset with my parents’ inquiries that my two aunts Eva and Luba were called in to speak to me. Eva suggested that I come and stay with her for a few days, and I believe that she was able to calm my fears somewhat. She had a billiard table in her home, and her son Emmanuel, who was called Sonny, taught me to play pool. Auntie Eva and I became very fond of each other, and many years later after the war, when she was in her eighties, she wrote to me in the U.S. saying she wished to see me again. I replied by inviting her to come to California to visit me, but she said she was too old to travel. She sent me a return ticket to London so that I could come to visit her. Unfortunately, Auntie Eva became senile and lived her last years as a recluse because she refused to go into a home for the aged. As I started to return to England more often, I tried to help her, but she was very stubborn and obstinate. She died at ninety-four years of age after being found in a state of dehydration because she could not care for herself.

My life continued in the same manner until one Saturday night I met Micael at a dance at Boots Restaurant on Regent Street. I was twenty-one years old.

Meeting Micael4

When Sylvia Delow and I walked into the elevator to go to the dance on the second floor, two fellows followed us in. Later they introduced themselves as Joseph and Micael. It was Joseph who showed an interest in me that evening. He explained that he was visiting for a few days and staying with Micael who was living temporarily in London. He was unfamiliar with the city and asked me if I would be his escort and show him the famous sights of London. I was not too favorably impressed with Joseph. He was not a type that I admired physically, and he was too anxious to impress me with his monetary worth. However, I thought that if he was really so well off financially, I might as well take advantage and have a good time for a few days. I really showed him London and spared no expense until he left.

Shortly after, Micael telephoned and asked me to go out with him. He was the exact opposite to Joseph. Evidently, he had been warned that it was expensive to take me out, so he was wary. On our first date he explained that he was from Trondheim, Norway. He had closed his business temporarily to attend a school for men’s custom tailoring in London. For some unknown reason his funds, left with his brother in order to be sent monthly as an allowance, had not arrived for that month. He was broke and surviving mainly on broken cookies and milk. I felt sorry for him and invited him home for a good meal, which became many good meals. He told my mother that his favorite dish was lokshen kugel, or noodle pudding. He was definitely disappointed when my mother made this for him because he was used to a sweet pudding with raisins and my mother’s version was unsweet and used to accompany meat. We dated often, but as he was always broke, our good times consisted of walking around London and the suburbs, which we reached by bus or subway, and drinking cups of tea at Lyon’s Corner House.

After some weeks Micael decided it was time for him to return home, and he suggested that I come to Trondheim for my summer vacation. I did not consider this seriously at the time, but we kept up a correspondence which consisted mainly of his urging me to come and visit him. So I thought that this would be quite an adventure. When I broke the news of my intention to my parents, they thought I was crazy. I had met a young man who was obviously half-starved, broke financially, and had maybe told me a pack of lies about his family and business. It was out of the question as far as they were concerned. From my point of view, it would just be a summer vacation, and if I was disappointed, I would return home. Their answer was a definite no, but I was just as stubborn that I would go. My father finally decided that the only way I would be allowed to go was if he accompanied me. I think that I was secretly relieved by his decision.

Although Norway is not so far from England, in those days one did not travel by air. We had to cross the North Sea by boat, and believe me, that was and still is a stormy crossing. On the boat we both thought we were crazy. From Oslo we took the night train to Trondheim, which is in the central part of Norway. I remember we did not lie down in our bunks all night because we were so amazed at the twenty-four hours of daylight in the month of June. I was invited to stay at Micael’s mother’s home, and my father stayed in a hotel. After a few days, when he was convinced that everything Micael had told me was true and that he came from a perfectly respectable family, he returned home and allowed me to stay on. He spoke to the rabbi and asked him to keep an eye on me and to give me assistance and advice to return home if I needed it. He realized that I must be serious in my intentions of a future with Micael and told me that I must be out of my right mind to think of leaving a city like London to live in a small provincial city in a strange country.

Trondheim was and still is as unlike London as anything can be. It is possible to walk through the whole town in one hour. But Micael taught me to love hiking in the mountains, the beautiful fjords, and the friendliness of the people. His family of ten brothers and sisters really welcomed me. They all had summer homes outside of the city on the shores of the fjords, and we would visit them often. The summers are so short there that every possible minute is spent outdoors. The sun is really appreciated there, and I learned a completely new set of values that summer.

Getting Married

It was in August of 1936 that we decided to get married. I wrote and told my parents. Their reply was a telegram which read, “We insist that you be married in London. Your wedding is arranged for September thirteenth. Return home immediately to make preparations.” I realized that I owed them this wish so I returned home to London with Micael’s assurance that he would be in London the day before the wedding. My sister’s friend had recently been abandoned at the altar on her wedding day by her prospective bridegroom from another city, and everyone was nervous in case the same thing should happen to me. But Micael, his mother, two brothers, and his best friend Mannie Buchman all arrived in time. We were married in a synagogue with a tea dance reception held afterwards at the Regent Palace Hotel.

The day after our wedding my Uncle Barnett and Aunt Katie made a farewell party for me in their home. The following day Micael and I boarded the train for Newcastle and the boat to my new life. Auntie Eva, Auntie Luba, and of course my parents were at the train station. I can even remember how Eva was dressed and that Luba carried a bouquet of flowers for me. When I was on the train, I remember thinking, “What have I done? I am leaving all those people who have been so good to me.”

I did not leave home empty handed. A middle class family such as mine considered it a responsibility to provide a bride with a trousseau. The past month had been spent not only preparing for the wedding, but also shopping for linens, curtains, and other household supplies which were crated and shipped to Norway. My grandmother had left each grandchild a legacy which would be used to buy furniture in Trondheim. There were also wedding presents, and some of them were quite valuable being of sterling silver. Everything followed us to set up our new home.

Micael had rented a small apartment with a garden at the back that led to the banks of the Nidelva, the river which runs through Trondheim. This garden and river were much nicer than the not very attractive apartment. I had already, however, made the decision that my standards would have to be lowered. I realized that this was just a temporary home, and after about a year, we moved to a newly built, very nice apartment. Actually, the standard of living was very high in Norway. Because the climate is so confining, people spend a lot of time indoors so their homes are very comfortable. With my new name, I acquired Norwegian citizenship and gave up my British one. I immediately set about to learn the language of my new country by taking lessons from my teacher, Miss Gundersen. This posed no problem, as I learned very fast from her.

Micael’s friend, his best man, met my cousin Stella at our reception. They fell in love at first sight, and she followed him to Trondheim. Her parents and four sisters came there for the wedding. Stella didn’t adjust well to life in a small city, so she convinced her husband, who was a medical doctor, to open a practise in Oslo. Stella and I visited one another throughout our years in Norway and in the U.S. About five years ago, I received a telephone call from Norway asking if I had heard from Stella. I was most surprised with this question as I had never corresponded with her other than to say that I was coming to visit. But the explanation was that she had disappeared and all efforts to find her had failed. Some months later her body was found in the mountains. She had gone for a hike alone and suffered a heart attack. She collapsed, and it snowed shortly afterwards. The snow covered her, and when the snow melted some months later, her frozen body was uncovered and found by other hikers. 5

My Years in Norway

Micael and his brothers owned seven men’s outfitting stores in Trondheim. Their youngest brother was the only one to attend the university, and he became a dental surgeon. The stores were individually owned, and they were therefore in competition with one another. Micael was the least prosperous because he was the youngest and not so well established. Besides, he had closed his store to go to England. They all catered mostly to the working man’s needs. Micael was the only one of the brothers who had been trained as a master tailor. In Norway to be a tailor, plumber, electrician, or any other type of craftsman one must have a certification of training in the chosen field. After Micael’s extra training at the cutting school in London, he opened a store in the better part of town where he hoped to attract a more select clientele with the name of “English Tailoring” on the store front. However, this was not too successful. Evidently the name of Isaksen had been associated for so long with lower priced clothing that the well dressed man was not willing to try Micael’s new venture. So when his lease expired, he returned to his old store. Still, it was not too easy to get his former customers back, but he was certainly able to make a living.

I helped out in the store in a limited way. I don’t think I was too helpful because I remember a coat, which Micael had just made, being left on the ironing board. I moved the hot iron and placed it on the coat. The coat was ruined and a total loss. Although I did do some dressmaking, I did not make a career of it. I did, however, always make my own clothes.

As a family, the Isaksens were very close and frequent visitors to one another. I got along with all of them very well except Micael’s two youngest sisters. The two girls were the last of the eleven children to be born and therefore were extremely spoiled. Micael’s mother was very good to me. His father was deceased, and I was attached to all my sisters-in-law. At first I was made quite a fuss over. After all, I was a girl who had come all the way from London and caught a very eligible young man. The family was very well known in this small city of only fifty thousand people, and many strangers really would notice me on the street with some wonder. There can be a lack of privacy in a small city where one is well known. Sometimes I resented this, but I was happy with my new life.

I can’t remember ever being lonely in Trondheim. There was such a large family, and they were always together for holidays and ready to assist. Consequently, I was never homesick. Besides, every summer some member of my family would come to visit and stay with us. I only remember feeling homesick when I learned that my father had died in early 1940.

Although the culture of the Norwegian people and the Jewish people there is similar to that of England, life itself was quite different in Norway The winter climate is very severe with many feet of snow all around. The walks are slippery and dangerous for a girl unused to snow. All Norwegians are born on skis, but I was never too successful for fear that I would fall. There are also the skating rinks which all the natives enjoy during the long winter months when there are only about six hours of daylight with the sun never coming out.

Also, I had to learn to dress differently. To go outdoors it was essential to wear heavy boots, coats, hats, and gloves of fur. My fingers and toes would often freeze, and I had to learn how to defrost them in cold water not warm. If it seemed like a mild day, I would hang out my newly washed clothes to dry. They would inevitably freeze on the line. I soon learned that if I bent the frozen clothes, they would tear apart. Indoors the homes are much warmer than in California because they are built differently and heated very adequately with coke ovens that retain the heat all night.

Naturally one looks forward to summer and some warmth. However, in the central part of Norway the summers can be cold, but there are some nice days. On the warmer days everyone is outdoors to enjoy every minute of the warmth. During the summer, businesses close at three in the afternoon, and in order to utilize every minute of light, the curtains are not drawn at night.

Then I had to learn to prepare food differently. Not that I was proficient in cooking, but the manner of acquiring the food was different. Fish is the main dish in Norway. England also relies heavily on the consumption of fish so this was no adjustment. I would, however, have to buy the fish in the open air markets, clean it, and cut off the heads myself. Because vegetables were only obtainable in the summer, we bought sacks of them for storage until the winter. Fruits were an expensive luxury as nearly everything was imported. One would buy a small slice of melon if you were lucky enough to get it. Berries do grow in Norway, and we would pick them ourselves and make preserves. 6 Overall, the people in Norway eat very well but not quite so lavishly, and their foods are prepared simply.

All Norwegian Jews were orthodox and kosher. I had been raised in a kosher home, so I understood and continued the practice. In England one went to the butcher and bought the cut of meat desired, but in Norway it was unlawful to slaughter animals in the orthodox manner. The rabbi, who was also the shoykhet or the one who was licensed to slaughter meat, had to travel to Sweden once a month to obtain meat for the congregation. When he returned with it, it would only stay fresh for a few days as refrigeration in the homes was very scarce in those days. Our meat supply was therefore limited and of poor quality. The rabbi was allowed to slaughter chickens, but he sold them to us with the feathers, heads, and insides all intact. I had to learn to clean them and prepare them myself. They were old hens and took hours to cook. It’s a good thing I liked fish!

Even the use of electricity was different. Because the abundance of water was used to make energy, there was plenty of power. No gas was used. One bought a certain amount of electricity, and when that was used up, all the lights went off and the cooking stove stopped cooking. One quickly learned how to judge the use of electricity.

Tragedy and Upheaval

War started in Europe, and England was involved. Norway had been neutral during World War I, and it was assumed that Norway would be left in peace in this new war. I wrote to my family that if life in wartime England became very bad, they should come to Norway. Because so many commodities and much food was imported into Norway, we were rationed for many of life’s necessities, but this was a small price to pay for peace.

During the summer of 1939, Micael’s brother Isidor and his wife Rosa went on a trip. They asked me to stay on a resort farm with their three children Gerd, Leonard, and Harry. I was delighted to do this as it was a paid vacation for both Micael and me. He came there evenings and weekends for he did have his job. Gerd was thirteen, Leonard eleven, and Harry eight years of age. I became very attached to the children at that time. Everything was serene and peaceful and nobody ever dreamed that on the night of the following April 8 our secure world would be turned upside down by a man named Adolf Hitler and his accomplice Mr. Quisling, who sold his country to the Nazis. The three children amongst others were deported to Germany and murdered. 7

We were awakened that night by the noise of many planes flying overhead. We turned on the radio and heard the repeated announcement that Norway was now a part of the German Reich. We immediately called the rest of the family. David lived in the center of town, and he told us that soldiers wearing swastikas were marching in the streets. 8 We dared not go out at night, but first thing in the morning we all gathered at Micael’s mother’s house. We all felt certain that Great Britain would not allow this invasion to continue. They would surely come to liberate Norway, and there would certainly be a lot of fighting in the port town of Trondheim. So the married men decided to take their families across the Swedish border. Those brothers still unmarried would stay to join the Norwegian army. Micael decided to stay on to serve his country and urged me to go with the rest of the family. I refused, and likewise, Micael’s mother, Rebekka, who had left Poland in her youth because of Jewish persecution by the Russians, refused to leave her home again. So Isidor, David, Bernard, and their families left Trondheim and took the train across the border to Storlien. I was about three months pregnant, and the next days were extremely difficult. Although the Germans assured us that no changes would take place and everything would continue as normal, I was afraid to leave my home or talk on the telephone. With my English accent, I thought I was a double enemy of the invaders. Micael persuaded me to follow the others to Sweden as he knew that as soon as the British came, he would have to leave and join with them. I would not leave Micael’s mother and sister behind, so they consented to go also. We were not aware at that time that we took the last train allowed to cross the Swedish border. 9

I vividly remember standing at the train window waving goodbye to Micael and Rudolf realizing that I might never see them again. Not expecting to be gone for the rest of my life, I had packed a bag with just about one change of clothing. As I left, Micael handed me a suitcase in which he had put our sterling silver wedding presents. He said that I might have to sell them because all bank deposits had been frozen, and I had to leave with only petty cash.

We crossed the border into Storlien and only had to ask for the whereabouts of the Isaksen family. Here again they were well known as Storlien was a resort town where they had often gone skiing. But whereas before they had always stayed at the hotel, now they had taken into a farmhouse where we joined them. Everything was very primitive. There was only one bed for nineteen people, the toilets didn’t flush so we had to pour water into them, there was only cold water, and we used a wood burning stove. They decided that I should have the bed since I was pregnant, but after one night on that lumpy bed, I joined them on the floor.

Strangely enough I remember this as a time of good spirits. We felt that we were only waiting for the British to come and liberate Norway, and soon we would return home. There was a great feeling of love and helpfulness for one another. Adele kept our spirits high with her good humor and song. One day I was amazed to see Micael and Rudolf approaching with their skis. In Norway they had abandoned hope that the country would be liberated and had travelled for seven days on skis hoping to be able to cross the border undetected by the Germans. They were lucky to have made it safely because otherwise it would have been certain death.

Now our spirits were very low. It was Passover, and we decided to observe our heritage by observing the seder. Someone in Stockholm had sent us matzos and salami, so this was our seder meal. To keep the holiday kosher, we ate off paper napkins and colored the water red to make believe it was wine. We also recited the haggadah to the best of our memories. All this helped us with the will to survive as our ancestors had done. I remember this seder as the most meaningful one of my life.

We could not stay in Storlien indefinitely, for we had no financial resources. So we all took the train to Stockholm. The Norwegian government had also fled to Stockholm, and they were eager to assist any refugees. The Jewish community there was also very helpful. We found an apartment large enough for twenty-one people and acquired some used furniture. The furniture was very old and not at all what we were accustomed to, but we managed. The brothers had been businessmen independently all their lives and now had no way of earning a living. Micael was the only one able to get a job for he had a craft. Therefore, money was extremely scarce. I remember that Bernard had holes in the soles of his shoes and had to stuff them with newspaper. The men became very restless and unhappy with no hope of supporting their families, but we got along surprisingly well.

The months in Stockholm were tragic, but certain humorous events remain as memories and are important as such. Minna and Bernard had two daughters, Liven and Harriet. Minna’s philosophy of child rearing was that if one spoke softly and kindly to a child and never inflicted corporal punishment, the child would respond favorably. Well, Liven certainly proved this theory to be correct. She was a sweet, obedient child.

Harriet, however, was very temperamental. Her mother used the same methods with her, but Harriet did not respond as her sister did. She would scream and have tantrums if she didn’t get her own way. One day Micael and I were eating soup when Harriet insisted on bouncing a ball in the dining room. Suddenly, the ball landed in my bowl of soup with a big splash. The tablecloth and my clothes were full of soup. I couldn’t understand why a child should be allowed to play ball in the dining room, and Harriet still remembers how furious I was.

Another day there was a knock on the door. I opened it to find two Swedish policemen. They asked to come in and explained that we had been reported for abusing a child. I referred them to Minna as the mother. The neighbors had heard Harriet screaming and assumed that she was being mistreated. The police saw that this appeared to be an orderly household, the mother normal, and the child showing no signs of being abused. Of course, we were an unusual household with so many people living together, but they were not concerned with that. Minnie told them that the trouble was that Harriet should be spanked and wasn’t. When the policemen finally left satisfied that the child was not in trouble, they advised us to keep the windows shut so that the neighbors would not hear the cries.

The news coming out of Norway indicated that everything was continuing normally. There was no persecution of the Jews, businesses were open, and the only evidence of occupation was the German troops. My sisters-in-law had left parents and families that they were anxious about, and the men thought that they could return and open up their stores again. So gradually the family became homesick and longed to return. They would just ignore the Germans, and the Germans would ignore them. I begged them that this would not be so and assured them that I would never return to Norway as long as one German soldier remained there. To this day they remind me how right I was. Well, they did return. Golda had become ill so she and her mother remained in Stockholm. This undoubtedly saved both of their lives.

Later on Isidor, his wife Rosa, and their three children were deported to Germany and died in the gas chambers. David and Wolf were taken out of their homes and shot for listening to short wave radio. This was reported on the radio in Stockholm, and their mother heard the announcement on the news. Seeing many of her children killed before her own death, it is very distressing to realise the pain Rebekka went through. Micael’s sister, Rosa, died in Norway of a brain tumor, no doubt brought about by the terrible circumstances there. Her three year old daughter and husband were deported to Germany and died in the concentration camp. The rest of the family and children escaped with the help of the farmers who smuggled them from one village to another until finally across the border. There was an active underground army who helped make this possible. When they returned to Stockholm, Micael and I had already left for a new life.

One memory that always haunts me is that in the good years Gerd had appendicitis. When they took her to the hospital for surgery, she was frightened and screamed, “What are they going to do to me? Will it hurt?” Imagine her dread when the Nazi soldiers took her from her home as a thirteen year old girl. 10

My Last Year in Europe

Micael was working so we were self-sufficient in Stockholm. We moved to a smaller apartment with our used furniture leftovers. Golda was not well, and she and I had never gotten along too well, so we took two separate apartments. This moving day was an event in itself. There was an unwritten law in Stockholm that if you wish to move from one apartment to another, it should be done on given days two times a year. For that reason one can only find an apartment to be vacated on those given days. So we found a smaller place, paid our deposit, and prepared to move. To our surprise the new landlord asked for a certificate to assure that our furniture would be free of bugs. Stockholm was an old city, and the older parts were especially ridden with insects. We were required to call in the health department who would hopefully issue the needed certificate. To our horror he told us that our beds were infested with bed bugs. Now we understood why our skin had been itching in the mornings. I explained to him that these were not really our beds, but we were using them temporarily. I assured him that if he would issue the certificate of cleanliness for the rest of the furniture I would leave the beds behind. He was very reluctant, but I begged him and explained our plight as refugees with donated furniture. He did finally issue the necessary permits excluding the beds. Of course we had to acquire others.

Just before moving day Micael tried to get a moving truck. We had not realized that because so many people would be moving that day that we should have ordered the truck months before. The day before the moving we were nearly desperate. Micael was going from store to store asking if they had a truck to lend us. At the grocery store a man said, “Yes, I have a truck, and I can help you.” We were so relieved at this last minute stroke of luck but anxious that he might not turn up.

At eight o’clock the next morning we were watching out of the window when he arrived with a wheelbarrow. Before he came to the door, I saw him take a swig from a bottle. “Are you going to move this large furniture on that?” we asked. “No problem,” he answered. This man and Micael carried those large heavy pieces of used furniture down the stairs, piled it on the wheelbarrow, and tied it up with rope. It took several trips to transport it all. Every few minutes our helper would take a swig from the bottle. Micael went with him through the streets of Stockholm pushing the wheelbarrow piled high with old junk. Before long the whole pile collapsed and lay in the street. It would then have to be piled up again. It took the whole day to complete our moving day, and by then the man himself was lying drunk in the street. 11

I gave birth to my son Leif in August of 1940. He was given a Norwegian name because we were sure to return home eventually. Sweden has socialized medical care so prenatal care, delivery, and post natal care cost us only four dollars.

More and more Norwegian Jews were escaping from Norway, and our apartment became a meeting place for these people. Every evening was open house, and as many as fifty people would come. Of course the conversation was only of their plight and war news. Some even started to stay over all night, for the news they heard often worried them, and we offered comfort. Friends were living with us, and as they left, others would take their place. To sleep on the floor was of no concern to them.

To live in Stockholm was like sitting on a keg of dynamite. German troops were allowed to cross Sweden in trains, and one never knew if the Germans would invade. After all, if Sweden had refused this, the country would surely have been taken over. We were issued monthly permits to stay in Sweden but feared that pressure would be put on the Swedish government to refuse this. If this occurred, the Germans would force us to return only to be killed. Micael and I wanted to go to England, but it was impossible to cross the North Sea with war all around. So we started to envision a safe life in the United States. We appealed to the American embassy for visas. At first we were refused for it was just before the presidential elections of 1940. After Roosevelt was re-elected, we were contacted and visas were granted. But they warned us that it was impossible in wartime to cross the North Sea en route to the Atlantic Ocean.

In order to reach the United States, we would have to fly to Moscow, cross Siberia on the Trans-Siberian Railroad to Vladivostok, take a ship to Japan, and cross the Pacific Ocean via Hawaii. They asked us if we had the courage and resources for this approximate six week undertaking with war all around us in Europe. We had the desire and the courage but not the money for the expenses. We appealed to the Norwegian government exiled in Stockholm. With the understanding that after the war they would be compensated with any of our remaining assets in Norway, they agreed to help us. Next we needed a sponsor in the United States. I sent a telegram to my cousin in New York. He immediately replied that he would sponsor us.

So we obtained all of the necessary visas, permits, and inoculations, and every phase of the six-week journey was booked with specific dates to connect with one another. The Swedish government gave us a paper stating that should we not be able to complete the journey, they would allow us to re-enter Sweden. We knew that that paper would be worthless in time of war and that we could be stranded anywhere.

It was necessary to keep expenses to a minimum, so we would travel third class except on the ship from Vladivostok to Japan. This was described as a “hellish” experience and first class was advised. Warned that desperate people from war torn countries would use any means to steal our American visas, we decided that we would tie our documents to our bodies underneath our clothing. Someone would really have to kill us to get them.

A major problem was how could we manage with our six-month old son? Some clothing I hoped I could wash somehow, but how to manage with diapers? There were no disposable diapers in those days. Many friends tore up sheets, towels, and whatever to provide us with a six-week supply to discard along the way. Assuming that I could always find water, I took along a small metal box to wash him in. It was really just a lunch box. I continued to nurse him so his supply of milk would always be with us. Thinking that apples were universal and that I could always scrape some suitable for a baby to swallow, I took along a metal scraper. To this day I use this food scraper and have not had another in over forty years.

One of my constant worries was how would I constantly carry a baby around, and where would he sleep? When Leif was born, we had purchased a baby carriage, and this was a show piece even in Stockholm. It was made of white leatherette, did not fold, had ball bearing wheels, and was high off the ground. Here in Los Angeles there is nothing to compare with it. It was large enough to hold two children, and I insisted that this should go with us so that the baby would have a place to sleep comfortably. Those who thought that I was already crazy to undertake this journey were now convinced of it. I was just that obstinate English girl. I believe that everywhere we went people were so astounded to see this carriage that they didn’t even have the presence of mind to refuse it to be with us. Sure enough, when we finally reached our destination, that baby carriage was about all of our worldly possessions. 12

Our sterling silver was pawned to a gentleman of our acquaintance who promised to retain it until one year after the end of the war unless we claimed it by then. We did redeem it, and it is ironic that after all that, some of it was stolen in 1984 just one year before this writing. Incidentally, the baby buggy was also stolen in Los Angeles.

Our Journey to the U.S.

In March of 1940 Micael, Leif, and I left Stockholm, and the story of that journey to the United States would be a book in itself. We carried three suitcases filled with baby clothes, and of course the baby buggy also went with us halfway around the world. I had one dress and wore it everyday for six weeks. How could I ever forget that dress chosen for its particular color? The entire right side was navy blue, and the entire left side was royal blue. It was very straight and simple with just the different colors accenting the style. When I finally discarded it in Los Angeles, it had holes and tears.

When we arrived at the airport for the flight to Moscow, we were informed that the DC-3 could not take off because it had to refuel in the Baltic States and that airport was flooded from melting snow. We returned to the airport the next day, the next, and the next. Because Micael’s sister was still ill, his mother was still living in Stockholm. Each day as we left for the airport there was a repeated tearful parting because we knew we would never see one another again. On the third day it was apparent that we would miss all of our pre-arranged connections for our journey, and all of our plans would be aborted. We appealed to the exiled Norwegian government again. They made arrangements for the plane to carry fewer passengers and more fuel to enable the plane to fly to Moscow non-stop in order that we could reach the Trans-Siberian Express in time. So although we had expected to be in Moscow for two days, we arrived there only in time to complete formalities. An intourist official met us at the airport and then accompanied us to the train which was delayed for two hours to await our arrival. All of this consideration was not given to us because we were important people but because some government officials wanted to see three Jewish people gain their freedom.

The Trans-Siberian Express was a European type train with long corridors and compartments leading off of them. Our third-class compartment had wooden benches to sit on and no sleeping berths. We just made ourselves as comfortable as we could at night. There were two Russian men as travelling companions, but we could not converse with them. We never undressed at night. In that era a woman did not expose herself nursing a child, but I had no other choice. So over the seven days these strange men became used to it, or maybe it was customary in Russia.

The coal driven train spewed black smoke which covered everything, including us. There was a special dining car, but the food was of poor quality. Always there was the inevitable black soot on the plates. We ate to survive. For me, the important nourishment was hot tea. Needing the liquid to ensure my flow of milk, I would constantly ask the attendant for chi-dva, two teas. He would first wipe his brow and nose with a cloth and then wipe the glass with the same cloth. Always there was the previous drinker’s lip prints on the rim of the glass. Well, close your eyes and drink; you have to survive.

It was the month of March in Siberia. The country was very flat, snow covered, and bleak. Inside the train it was not too cold, however. We passed Novosibirsk, Lake Baikal (which was frozen over), Barbitsian, and Irkutsk. Every day the train would stop at a station where we would get off and walk up and down. There were always Russians at the stations standing in the snow waiting for the passengers to disembark. They offered for sale such foods as hard cooked eggs, apples, and cakes. I would buy the apples and eggs to mash for the baby, and always the baby buggy would attract crowds of people.

These people were always drably dressed with their kerchiefs over their heads. If you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all. At Barbitsan there was a Jewish colony, and some spoke Yiddish. Thinking we recognized a Jewish face, we approached him. Then a small crowd of Jews gathered, and it was like coming home. So on and on monotonously to the coast and Vladivostok.

It was on the train that we met Mr. Lindstrom. Hearing us speak a familiar language, he approached us. He was also trying to reach the United States. Originally Swedish born, he had emigrated to America in his youth. He had returned to visit his native country at a most unfortunate time and now could only return home this difficult way. He was in his seventies and scared stiff to put it mildly. He begged us to allow him to be with us throughout the journey. Afraid that he would lose his travel documents, he urged us to carry them with ours tied next to our bodies. So Mr. Lindstrom became our shadow.

Leaving the train and taking a taxi to our hotel in Vladivostok was a relief. To our disappointment we were assigned a room with two strange people. The hotel was filled to capacity in this port town with refugees from many countries trying to escape Hitler’s regime. Not all of them had a destination. Micael urged the hotel clerk as best he could with the language handicap to give us a room alone as the baby would surely disturb the others. With some bribes, they did cooperate.

Primitive as it was, it was luxurious to us at the time. It had a wash basin with running cold water, and before long the whole room was filled with laundry. We looked forward to a decent meal, but I remember only the pickled cucumber and green tomatoes. Soon I was constantly waiting in line at the communal toilet.

Vladivostok was another bleak city with potholes in the streets and sidewalks. People were lined up at the communal stores which hardly stocked any merchandise at all. Everywhere we walked people would stand and stare at that white baby carriage; in fact, it attracted crowds.

Before leaving Stockholm, someone had told us that watches were easy to sell in Russia, so we had taken along some dime-store watches. We surreptitiously approached people, and without fail they were eager to buy them at a handsome profit to us. At the hotel many people had dollars and were getting a poor rate of exchange for them. We had rubles from the sale of the watches, and we were anxious to be rid of them before leaving Russia, so we offered a better rate of exchange and disposed of our rubles. However, we now had one problem. Upon entering Russia we had been asked to declare how much money we were carrying. Now we had more. Sewing the dollar bills into our coat linings was the only solution and exactly what we did. Later on when we went to an American bank with them, the clerk eyed these oversized bills suspiciously and said that they had been out of circulation for many years. But they were still good!

Before leaving Russia they searched our poor worldly possessions in the suitcases mostly full of baby clothes. But right there on the top was a map on which we had marked off our route. This caused an immense furor. Officials were called in. They suspected us to be spies and therefore questioned us. We thought that we would be detained and searched, and if they found the money in our coat linings we would surely be in trouble. But after many anxious moments, we were released, and we left the docks on a Japanese ship to sail for Japan.

It soon became apparent why we had been advised to travel first class on this ship. It was docked a few feet away from the dock, and we had to cross an unsteady rope bridge carrying everything we owned. No help available here! Upon boarding, all passengers were directed below. What met us there was unbelievable!

A number of Chassidic Jews accosted us begging for food and help. We soon found out that these people had escaped occupied Poland and had been promised asylum on a French island in the Pacific. However, upon arriving there, they were refused admittance because the mainland France had been taken over by the Vichy government. So these poor souls were being shunted back and forth on this Japanese ship, and no country would admit them. They continued their daily religious rituals in the orthodox manner, and we can only hope that eventually their prayers reached merciful ears.

We were assigned marked-off places on the floor six feet by four feet for each passenger, luggage and all. We would eat, sleep, and subsist in our little space. Feeling very indignant my husband went above and demanded to see the captain. He explained that we had first-class tickets, and it was surely a mistake to place us down below. With a big smile the Japanese captain told Micael to bring his family to the office. We gathered all we had, glad to escape this horror and went up to the captain’s quarters. The locked door confronted us. I rapped on the window and held up the baby. The captain opened the window and with a wide grin on his face called out, “If you don’t like it down there, you can jump in the ocean.” We realized there would be no sense in arguing.

The crossing took five days. Three of them were spent in those terrible conditions. We were given a bowl of rice and watery soup three times a day. This was set out on the long trestle table so we helped ourselves to our ration. On the fourth day a sailor came to the opening and called out, “The cabins are ready now for the first-class passengers.” He demanded money to escort us.

Our cabin, although primitive and with no private facilities, was tolerable. Again we shared with two other men. Obviously we didn’t complain. At least they gave me the lower bunk. We looked forward to a meal in the first-class dining room. Here we were served the inevitable bowl of rice with the added gourmet strips of dried fish. It was so highly seasoned, however, that our mouths were burning. We requested a bottle of soda pop. No water for free here! The waiter asked for two dollars in his open palm just for the request, another five dollars when he brought the drink, and then another two dollars for the service. Nine dollars was a lot of money in 1941, now too for that matter, but one does not argue with such people. In front of my eyes he poured the soda pop into a glass, and when I raised it to my lips, he snatched it away and disappeared. Not one sip did I get to drink! This was the year that Pearl Harbor was attacked.

So we gladly left the ship at Tsuruga and because we had three days to spare before sailing again from Yokohama, we had arranged to spend those days in Tokyo. When we boarded the train for Tokyo, they refused to allow the baby carriage into our compartment for the first time on our journey. They insisted that it be placed in the cargo section. Upon arrival in Tokyo, Micael went to retrieve it, and we waited on the platform. It was terribly cold and windy, so I left Mr. Lindstrom, told him to tell Micael where I would be in the waiting room, and instructed him to guard the suitcases and not to leave them.

Shortly after, Micael found me but Mr. Lindstrom was gone. It was difficult to find anyone who could speak English in those days in Japan, so we ran around making motions with our hands until someone indicated that they had seen a white man board the train to Yokohama. We telephoned there and found that he was indeed there. He explained that I had told him not to leave the suitcases, so when a porter put them on a train he followed not even knowing where he was going. Of course we were all distraught. We had Mr. Lindstrom’s prized possessions, his travel documents, and he had our diapers. “Stay where you are,” we said, “We are coming to get you.” So we left Tokyo without even stepping out of the train station and spent the remaining days in Yokohama because we were to leave there for Hawaii.

We thought that we deserved to take a room in a good hotel. After all, we didn’t know what was ahead for us on the next Japanese ship. Then the baby started to fuss and cry. We feared that he was sick. Hoping that we would be able to converse with the hotel doctor, we called the front desk. To our surprise, an English-speaking American doctor came to our room, examined the baby, and informed us that Leif had cut his first tooth.

We sailed from there on the Kamakura Maru. It was a far cry from a cruise ship but tolerably comfortable. We finally had a cabin to ourselves. No service by stewards, of course. There were a lot of homeless Jewish people on board mostly with visas to South America. When we told of the United States as our destination, we were envied. We, therefore, tried to avoid mentioning it. One couple whom we befriended was going to “Chic-a-go” as they called it.

I vividly remember two things from this journey. First, one day a lady approached me and said that she had seen me on the third class deck with the baby. She then asked me if I would like to come to her first-class cabin and take a bath. How dishevelled I must have looked! Secondly, after each meal we were obliged to take our dishes to the man who washed them. He would dip them into filthy, greasy water where cigarette butts and food were floating, then without rinsing them he put them on a rack to dry in order to be used for the next meal.

Our next stop was Honolulu which at that time was a small village with one major hotel, the Pink Royal Hawaiian. Then we sailed on to San Francisco.

The United States of America

We docked in San Francisco in April of 1941. Entry into the U.S. was relatively simple, for very few immigrants arrived on the West Coast at that time. We felt trepidation and jubilation as we approached the coast of America. There was no Statue of Liberty to welcome us, but there was the Golden Gate Bridge, the shoreline of San Francisco, and the immortal words of Emma Lazarus just as significant here.

Our intention was to continue almost immediately to New York. The cousin who had offered to sponsor us was the son of my father’s twin brother. 13 Our two families had always had close contact. I had met Joshua in London when he visited us, and my parents had visited them in New York. There had always been correspondence between the two families, and I imagined that we would again be part of a large family. Upon docking in San Francisco, however, a letter awaited us from my cousin. He suggested that as long as we were in California it would be wise to remain there as so many Easterners would be glad of the opportunity to live there. Micael and I took this suggestion as an indication that they would rather not have us in New York. After all, we were refugees and penniless. I did realize later that this was well meant advice. Joshua also informed us that I had a cousin in Los Angeles who was in the garment industry. He went on to give their address and stated that maybe they could advise us. We had very little to lose at this point. We were two people who had always been surrounded by family and security now alone in a strange country.

We checked into a room and decided to send a letter to my cousin in Los Angeles. I had vaguely heard of him as he had a brother in London, so I did know of the relationship. He immediately answered that he thought we should come to Los Angeles, and he would give us any advice he could. Los Angeles or San Francisco - it didn’t make much difference to us. All we wanted was some friendly contact. I wrote back stating that we would arrive by train and would contact them further.

When we got off the train at Union Station, somehow we immediately recognized one another. I suppose there weren’t any other people who looked as we did. They were appalled to see our condition, arriving with torn clothing, one remaining suitcase, a baby buggy, and a baby in arms. He and his wife took us to their home, and we spent the night with them. The next day Micael rented a furnished apartment for us, and the day after that he found a job for seventeen dollars a week. His boss was obviously taking advantage of our status because before long Micael found a job paying twenty-five dollars. When Micael decided to leave this first job, his boss offered him thirty dollars if he would stay.

So we settled in Los Angeles. There was a big adjustment to the climate. During that first summer, I learned that one doesn’t cook hearty soups and heavy meat dishes when it’s ninety degrees Fahrenheit outside. Micael soon learned to discard his long underwear, but we were used to changes in our life style. The worst thing was the loneliness. Our cousins were very friendly, but it is not the same as having life long associations. We enjoyed exploring Los Angeles, and of course we were happy that we were now safe from persecution.

America entered the war that year, but there was no personal involvement for us. We wanted a larger family, and so Leonard was born in 1942. It was not necessary for me to go out to work as Micael was well able to earn a living once he found he had better opportunities in women’s clothing. We purchased our own furniture and lived simply with little extravagance in a one bedroom apartment. We always felt that we were so alone in the United States, and in the case of need, there would be no one to turn to for help as in our days in Europe. Therefore, it was necessary to become independent and have enough set by for a rainy day.

Micael was thirty-six years old in 1944 and had two children when we surprisingly received “greetings” from the U.S. government informing him that he was eligible to be drafted. He was given the opportunity to refuse, but this would deny him the choice of becoming a U.S. citizen in the future. This was one of our life’s major decisions. We finally came to the conclusion that it was Micael’s obligation to serve this country, for he had not the chance to in Norway. Also, this country had given us a safe haven, and was fighting a common cause. So when he left, I was completely alone. I received one hundred twenty-five dollars a month for subsistence, but thank God the war was over that year. When the armistice was declared, Micael had already been sent overseas to the Philippines. He stayed there another year and returned home a United States citizen. Before I could become a citizen, I had to go to school to learn about the U.S. government. Leif automatically then was eligible to receive his papers as a minor.

The years after the war were prosperous years for everyone, and we were happy enough except for the loneliness. The family who had returned to Norway and my family in England began to urge us to return. My brother wanted us in England where he said that Micael could be employed in the family business. This was out of the question as far as we were concerned. From Norway they wrote that the country was returning to normal and prospering and that Norway was where we belonged. I am sure that if we had settled in New York, we would have returned, but we felt that California was almost paradise with its climate and opportunities. We had no desire to give up what we had acquired and start all over again. The determining factor was the fact of our U.S. citizenships and our two sons as U.S. citizens. We felt sure that if we returned, they would eventually want to come back to the U.S. In Europe the United States is always viewed as the land of opportunity and the dream of the young people especially in a small country like Norway.

We have often wondered if our decision to remain was a wise one because we have always had a sense of loneliness. Since our children grew up with no family around them they have never known the feeling of close attachments. I am very sorry for this lack for there is so much they don’t understand.

Our youngest son John was born in 1948. Also in 1948 we purchased our first car and our own home in which we still reside. To buy this house was a big undertaking as it was actually beyond our means, but we wanted to establish ourselves in the same style we had been accustomed to.

Micael always had the desire to establish his family securely so that we would always be independent no matter what occurred. The garment industry was unpredictable, and he started to dream of purchasing real estate. When they built some apartment houses close by our home, we invested in one building. We both worked hard to manage and maintain this, and later we expanded and invested further. When Micael reached the age of sixty-two, he was able to completely retire from the garment industry and gain that independence. And this is where my story ends.


  1. The Chance of Opportunity describes the origins of the cardboard box business. The Trachtenberg Story, by Freda’s brother Jack Trenton, gives much more detail on the origins of the family’s business interests.
  2. More information on Freda’s father’s family appears in An Unloved Ancestor.
  3. The stories of Emily and Elinor appear in Work and Play. Emily’s story, told from her perspective, appears in Emily’s Kitchen.
  4. The events in this section are also discussed in Dance to the Unknown.
  5. Stella’s story is also told in The Sense of Belonging and Not Belonging.
  6. Read more about preserving berries in What Happened to My Blackberry Jam?.
  7. Gerd’s fate is the subject of There Is a Secret Corner in My Heart.
  8. The story A Reason for Panic is a more intense and detailed version of the first night of the invasion.
  9. These events are also discussed in Turning Point in My Life. See also a letter to the Los Angeles Times.
  10. Gerd’s fate is the subject of There Is a Secret Corner in My Heart.
  11. See Moving Day in Stockholm for a slightly different version of this episode.
  12. Fit for a Prince is a story from the carriage’s perspective.
  13. Freda’s father’s twin brother is mentioned in An Unloved Ancestor.

Copyright Freda Isaksen 1986–2006. Permission to reuse for non-commercial purposes is granted, provided that the text is unaltered and the original source is acknowledged. For more information, contact isaksen at

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