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Journey to America

Escaping the Holocaust to Freedom/50th Anniversary Edition with a New Afterword from the Author

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A beautifully repackaged 50th anniversary edition of Sonia Levitin’s powerful classic story about a young Jewish girl forced to flee her home, winner of the National Jewish Book Award.

In 1938, Lisa Platt and her family know something dangerous is happening in Germany. Lately, there have been more and more restrictions for Jews: yellow stars they have to wear, schools they cannot attend, things they are forbidden to do. When their neighbors are arrested for petty reasons, the Platts realize they have to escape.

Forbidden to bring money or possessions out of the country, Lisa’s father secretly leaves for America, planning to work until he can send for them. But when conditions in Germany worsen, Lisa, her mother, and her sisters flee to Switzerland to wait, surviving on what little they have in a continent hurtling toward war.

Inspired by Sonia Levitin’s own experience of fleeing Germany as a child, this moving novel chronicles one family’s bravery in the face of aggression and apathy.

1. Good-Bye to Papa GOOD-BYE TO PAPA
THAT WINTER HAD BEEN THE coldest and the longest I had ever known. It was a deep, chilling cold, the fog turning to rain, and rain turning to sleet and snow, until the streets of Berlin were white and silent. It was a strange silence, with people hurrying into their homes before late afternoon, as if the darkness itself might bring danger.

I sat in the window seat, my favorite place, for it was warm and cozy there, and I could see everything, both outside and in. Beside me lay my lesson book, with the arithmetic problems still unsolved. I had written only the heading, Lisa Platt, February 7, 1938.

“Are you doing your lessons, Lisa?” Mother came to ask, glancing anxiously down to the street.

“Yes, Mother.”

We looked down together, neither of us speaking, watching the two uniformed men who strolled back and forth as if they were trying to reach a decision.

“If the doorbell rings,” Mother began uneasily, then she said, “Never mind, Lisa. Just do your lessons. Everything will be all right.”

How could I do my lessons, and how could everything be all right when Papa was leaving tonight? And what if the doorbell did ring, and those men asked for Papa?

I could hear my parents talking from the other room. “I’ve packed six new handkerchiefs for you, Arthur,” Mother said. “They’re folded inside your shoes.” Since early morning she had been packing and repacking the two suitcases. Papa would take no more than he could carry, as if he planned to return.

Papa chuckled. “Now, Margo, don’t you think they sell handkerchiefs in America? You mustn’t worry about such little things.”

“I worry about little things,” Mother replied, “to keep from thinking about the others.”

“I know. Where’s Ruth?”

“At her violin lesson—don’t you remember?”

“I don’t like her out so late.”

“It’s just past four, Arthur.”

“I want her home!” Papa said sternly.

“I can’t keep a fourteen-year-old girl in the house like a baby!” Mother cried.

There was silence, and I knew they had drawn close together, regretting the least little argument that they might remember after tonight.

“Are you meeting Benjamin at the station?” Mother asked, her voice gentle again.

“Yes. There’s no reason for him to come here.”

Annie burst in. “I want to see Uncle Benjamin!”

“Not tonight, dear. Papa’s leaving.”

Papa had left us before, two years ago, to get Ruth from boarding school in Marienbad. We had planned to move to Brazil. That was the year the Nazis made the law that Jewish children could not go to public schools anymore. It was, Papa said, a sign of worse things to come.

Mother, Annie, and I had met Papa and Ruth in Italy; then we took a ship to Brazil. The heat in Brazil was unbearable. I was sick nearly all the time, and Mother, too, was miserable. Papa could find no work, for who wanted to buy coats in that tropical climate? So we returned to Berlin, and for a time it seemed that things might get back to normal, and that perhaps we had been foolish and hasty, as my uncles said, for leaving Germany in the first place.

But Papa had been right. Now the only way to escape was in secret, and the only place Papa wanted to go was to America. Who could picture America? I only knew that it was far, far away, and that I wouldn’t see Papa for a long time.

I heard his footsteps and tried to smile.

“Ah, there you are, Lisa.” He sat down on the cushioned seat. “I always know where to find you. While I’m away I’ll think of you sitting here in your special place. But you haven’t even started your lessons! What are you doing?”

“I’ve just been looking out,” I said. He drew me close, and I shut my eyes for a moment, to remember this feeling.

“You must not neglect your schoolwork,” he said seriously. Then he smiled and his dark eyes twinkled. “Numbers are the same, you know, even in America, so don’t think your learning will be lost.”

“I can’t seem to concentrate.”

“Sometimes we have to pretend, Lisa, that we don’t see things.”

“Like those two men? Why do they keep walking back and forth here?” I asked angrily. “Why don’t they go away?”

“They’re going now,” Papa said. “See? There was nothing to worry about at all.”

“Maybe that’s what the Mullers thought,” I said, immediately wishing I had not spoken.

“What do you know about them?” Papa asked, startled. “You hear everything, don’t you?” He sighed, but in an instant his eyes were gay again. “Sometimes I forget that you’re not a little girl anymore. When did that happen?” he teased. “Wasn’t it just a few days ago that I came home from work and Frau Leuffelbein met me at the door and said, ‘Dear me, another girl. Oh, I am sorry!’?”

I laughed in spite of myself. “That was when Annie was born.”

“Oh yes,” he said. “Now I remember. Poor Frau Leuffelbein—she had promised me a boy that time. She was quite shocked, I recall,” he laughed.

Papa was always teasing about Frau Leuffelbein and about having all girls. “If I had ten children,” he would say, “you can bet they’d all be girls.” But he always carried our pictures with him in his wallet and showed them around to everyone.

Now he spoke seriously, “I’m depending on you to help Mother while I’m away. You’re so good with Annie, and I know you can take responsibility. And please, Lisa, don’t worry Mother by talking about things like—like the Mullers.”

“I won’t, Papa. I’ll be cheerful.”

“Good! You’re rather pretty when you smile, you know.”

Annie came running in. “Am I pretty too?”

“You—you’re a little clown!” Papa scooped her up in his arms and tickled her until she squealed, then he put Annie on his shoulders the way he used to do with me. Just then Ruth came in, with her cheeks red from the outside, and Mother tried to get us all settled down for supper.

“Stop playing, Arthur,” Mother said, concealing a smile. “You’re worse than the children. Go wash your hands, Annie. Ruth, you’re dripping water on the rug. Lisa, ask Clara if dinner’s ready.”

“An organizer, that’s what your mother is,” said Papa. “Look at her, children! A fabulous woman—beautiful…”

“Oh, hush, Arthur. Come to dinner.”

Clara had been cooking furiously all day, and scrubbing and cleaning in between. It was her way, when she was troubled, to keep her hands busy.

For dessert Clara had made Papa’s favorite, plum cake.

“Clara, you’re a genius!” Papa exclaimed. “How did you find plums in winter?”

“You can get anything for a price,” Clara said, then she quickly excused herself, and I saw that there were tears in her eyes.

Clara was like a second mother to us. She had been with us ever since Ruth was little, and when we returned from Brazil she was waiting at the station. “Frau Platt, you are like my own family,” she always said.

Even when the Nazis made the law that Christians could not work for Jews, and the penalty was imprisonment, Clara refused to leave.

“I’m not afraid of them and their laws,” she said, and her voice bristled with defiance.

“But I’m worried about you, Clara,” Mother said. “You should find yourself another place.”

“You think I’m like that Marie, to run off like a scared rooster?” Clara said. Marie had been hired to do the housework, while Clara looked after Annie and did the cooking. Now that Marie was gone, Clara’s work was doubled, but still she remained firm.

“Oh, Clara, what’s to become of you?” Mother sighed. “I think you’d thumb your nose at the devil!”

“Perhaps not at the devil,” Clara laughed, “but at Herr Hitler, you can be sure!”

I tried to forget that Papa was leaving tonight, to pretend that it was an ordinary evening. But all through the meal I felt that I was just listening and watching, that I wasn’t really a part of it.

“Lisa, you’re dreaming,” Mother said. “You haven’t even touched your cake.”

“I’ll have it later. I’ll go help Clara with the dishes.” I purposely pushed aside the thought of my arithmetic homework. I wanted to be with Clara, watching as she washed the dishes in a large pan filled with suds. She worked vigorously, but she talked in a gentle, easy way.

“Ah, Lischen, you’ve come to help me,” she said. “I was wishing for company. Tell me, did you have dancing at school today?”

“No. Tuesdays and Thursdays. I don’t want to talk about school.”

“So. Are you going to cry?” Her look was direct and challenging.

“If it weren’t for Uncle Benjamin,” I said, “Papa wouldn’t be leaving.”

“That’s nonsense,” Clara retorted. “Who told you that?”

“It was Uncle Benjamin’s idea for him and Papa to go to America together.”

“Your father didn’t need anyone to tell him. It’s the only wise thing to do.”

“Then why aren’t the others leaving?” I demanded. My grandparents, uncles, aunts, and cousins—all were staying in Germany. “Rosemarie says that her parents say there’s nothing to get upset about,” I went on heatedly. “They say that nobody should take Hitler seriously, and it’s silly for people to move away, because it will all blow over.”

“It’s far more silly for people to ignore what’s going on right under their noses!” Clara exclaimed. “Your father is just smarter than the others,” she continued, “and he has courage. Don’t you think it takes courage to give up everything, his home, his business, and to start all over again in a strange country? You,” she said sternly, “should be proud of your father.”

“I am!” I cried. Already I felt empty inside, as if Papa had left. “I’ll miss him,” I whispered. “And what if they stop him at the border?”

“Now, now,” Clara soothed. “I know you’re thinking about the Mullers. I know you listen to everything. But think, Lisa. The Mullers were arrested because they were trying to smuggle out money.”

“It was their money! It doesn’t make sense.…”

“They broke the law.”

“What kind of law is that?” I demanded.

Clara sighed deeply, then she wiped her hands on her apron and turned to me.

“How can I explain it? I don’t even understand it myself. What kind of law? you ask me—an evil law, that’s all I can tell you. Laws should be for the good of people, not against them. But these are terrible times.”

I knew that the Nazis hated us, and only because we were Jews. But why? What had we done? One of the laws was that Jews could not take money out of the country. The Gestapo, the secret police, saw to it that Hitler’s laws were enforced.

The Gestapo had searched the Mullers at the border, even taking the baby from Frau Muller’s arms to look through its clothing. Under the little vest they found a bundle of bills, and the Mullers were taken off to jail. What became of the baby, I didn’t know.

“Your father won’t take any chances,” Clara said. “He is a clever man. And soon you’ll be going. Think of it!” Her eyes shone. “Oh, what I wouldn’t give to go to America!”

“Come with us then,” I begged, flinging my arms around her. “Oh, please, Clara.”

“No, Lischen, I can’t. My mother is too old to travel, and I’m the only one she has. Go now. Your father wants to talk to you. And don’t show such a long face!”

I went into my parents’ bedroom. Papa’s suitcases stood by the door; his overcoat and briefcase were laid out on the chair. I watched while Papa combed his hair, then patted his cheeks with shaving lotion and fastened his cuff links. I always liked watching him. When I was little he used to dab my cheeks with the foamy soap from his shaving brush. Then he would laugh. “Oh, pardon me. I forgot you’re too young to shave.”

When Mother and Ruth came in, Papa said, “Time now for talk, then for presents.”

We sat on the bed, Mother and Ruth and I, and Papa pulled over a chair.

“Ruth,” he said, frowning, “I’m going to have to ask you to make a sacrifice.”

Ruth flushed slightly and stared at Papa.

“I’m afraid that you are going to have to interrupt your violin lessons for a while.”

“But Papa!” Ruth began to twist the dark lock of hair on her forehead.

“I know how much it means to you, but you cannot be out alone so late in the afternoons,” he said. “And I don’t want your mother to be worrying about you.”

“All right,” Ruth whispered, and then she glanced at me as if to say, Now, what will you sacrifice?

There was nothing for me to give up. I had stopped taking ballet lessons from Frau Zimmerman more than half a year ago. “She cannot teach you anymore,” Mother had told me, and I didn’t ask why.

Papa leaned forward in his seat. “I want you to listen closely now. Listen well, and remember. I am going to send for you. As soon as possible, we will be together in America.”

“When?” I whispered, almost frightened by the look in Papa’s eyes.

“Soon,” Papa said. “Don’t ask me more. Ruth and Lisa, I am going to ask you for the most important promise you have ever made. You must not tell anybody about our plans, not even your closest friends. Promise me.”

Together we promised, Ruth and I, and my heart was thumping as if, in some strange ritual, I had sworn a sacred oath in blood.

“It will take time,” Papa continued, “for me to get settled in America and to make the arrangements. When it is time for you to leave, you will tell nobody where you are going. It will be as if you were only going on a short vacation, to Switzerland or to France.”

“But how can people think that,” Ruth asked, “when we’ll be moving out?”

“You won’t move out,” Papa said, his hand uplifted for attention. “Everything will be left here.”

“Everything?” I echoed.

“Yes,” said Papa, “except for your clothes and personal things. But listen! The most important thing is that you must obey your mother, immediately and without question. Your lives,” he said, “could depend on it.”

“You are frightening them, Arthur,” Mother said in a low tone.

“Better to frighten them,” said Papa sternly, “than to take chances.” He reached into his pocket, and in that instant his eyes were gay again. Papa loved giving presents, I think, as much as we loved receiving them.

We knew that he had no patience with wrappings and strings. “Close your eyes,” he said, “and hold out your hands.”

When I opened my eyes, there was a ring on my finger so deeply red and glowing that it seemed to warm my whole hand. I couldn’t even think to say thank you—I only gasped, while Ruth exclaimed, “Oh, thank you, Papa. Thank you!”

I saw that on her hand was a ring like mine, except that the stone was bright green.

“I’m glad you like them,” Papa said, chuckling. “You have good taste. These are real,” he added, taking each of our hands into his own. “Your stone is an emerald, Ruth, and yours, Lisa, is a ruby. But we’ll pretend that they are only glass. That is another secret we’ll keep between us.” He turned to Mother. “You could sell these anywhere, if necessary, and get a fair price.”

“You mean we won’t keep them?” Ruth asked, and I could see that she was close to tears, for she pulled at the curl on her forehead.

“You’ll keep them,” Papa replied, “unless your mother needs them. Then, of course, you must give them to her. You are to wear these always,” he said, “from the time you leave Germany until we are together again. That way you won’t lose them.”

Papa looked at his watch. “It’s time to say good night.”

It was the moment I had dreaded all day, and I saw Ruth go calmly to kiss Papa, as if tonight were like any other. I wondered why Ruth didn’t feel as I did that terrible tightness inside. Or did she? Did she, too, hold back a cry? Don’t leave me, Papa. Don’t go!

I kissed Papa’s cheek, and he put his hand on my hair for a moment, holding me close. “Good night, Lisa,” he said, and then he whispered close to my ear, “God keep you.”

For a long time after Ruth’s breathing had grown deep and even, I lay awake listening to the sounds in the house. Finally I heard the front door close. Papa was gone.
Photograph by Rose Eichenbaum

Sonia Levitin, like Lisa Platt, escaped from Germany in the late 1930’s. Among her acclaimed books for young readers are The Mark of Conte and The Return.

“Germany in the early days of the Nazis. Told from the viewpoint of a young Jewish girl and told mostly in dialog…it becomes more than just another journey: it becomes a vivid documentary of insane cruelty and limitless courage that will never be forgotten by anyone who reads it.”

– Publishers Weekly, May 18, 1970

"People being people give Journey to America a special glow."

– Kirkus Reviews, March 20, 1970

“A very moving though never maudlin story with good characterization and a fast pace, this novel will be a definite asset to any collection.”

– School Library Journal, May 1970

“Commendably, neither issues nor ideals intrude on the reader abstractly, but emerge naturally from the human condition portrayed in the story.”

– Booklist, June 1970

More books from this author: Sonia Levitin