Merry Christmas! Happy Hanukah! Loyal blog readers will recognize today’s featured immigrant – 96-year-old Hanna Bratman, a writer from the memoir-writing class I teach for older adults in downtown Chicago every Wednesday, grew up in a Jewish family who owned a butcher shop in Mannheim, Germany. “We had many Christian people working at the shop, and we had lots of Christian friends and neighbors, too, “she told me, explaining how friends would join them at their house for Christmas every year. “The Christkind wasn’t the one to come to give presents, though – it was Santa Claus!”
Things changed for Hanna’s family and friends after Hitler took office. Hanna escaped on her own before World War II. She was only 19 years old when she arrived, alone, in the United States. Others in her family didn’t make it out in time.
”On Santa Claus day in Germany, I found myself on the train from Mannheim to Trieste, Italy where the MS Saturnia ship was to take me to safety to New York,” Hanna writes, explaining that when she arrived in Trieste, she was told the refugee ship had docked in Genoa instead. “So we were transported to Genoa on a train at night. That’s where I met MY LOVE: my future husband, Eugene Bratman, was also on the MS Saturnia, escaping to resettle in America.”
Eugene and Hanna married and continued heading west to find work and acclimate to new ways of living – including skiing on Wisconsin hills rather than European Alps. “After moving to Chicago, Eugene and I invested in ski boots and skis, and as often as possible went to Wilmot Hills, where at that time they had a tow rope that I mastered quickly,” she writes. “On 3-day holidays, we took the train to Iron Mountain, Michigan for 2 or 3 days. We did this several times and stayed in the same hotel always by the railroad depot. We ate pasties just like the locals.”
Once their daughter and son were born, Eugene and Hanna stuck closer to home. “With the children, we only traveled to Wilmot again, where I spent most of my time on the Bunny Hill,” she writes, pointing out that Eugene had a lot more to adjust to when it came to skiing. At home he’d skied in the highest range in the Carpathian Mountains, a mountain range that forms a natural border between Slovakia and Poland. “Eugene was a graceful, very experienced skier, well known in the Tatra Mountains.”
Their first baby was born in 1945. Baby furniture was hard to come by, but they did have a pram, and Hanna writes of dragging the buggy up and down from their second-floor apartment at 1059 Dakin, usually with the baby in it. She sterilized glass baby bottles and nipples in a large soup pot she’d brought from Germany five years earlier. “Rudy Joan, our beautiful but fussy infant had to put up with an inexperienced easily panicky mother,” she writes. . “We had no family to ask for advice or help. My very few new friends were busy with their own families.”
Rudy slept in a cradle that Hanna describes as “a transformed beautified extra-large laundry basket.” Their ship’s trunk was covered with a tablecloth and topped with their beloved radio. “The baby slept through many radio concerts and night parties,” she writes, remarking on how precious the public radio station that played classical and jazz music was to them. “Our Blaupunkt radio was tuned to the latest new transmission station WFMT which we loved and supported with a donation of $15.00, a big part of our budget.”
The radio was Hanna’s domain, she says. “And the phone on the buffet was my lifeline to the world.”
Hanna and Eugene’s children grew up strong, thanks in part to advice from their pediatrician’s wife, who Hanna would regularly call with questions. “The strict rules were to feed a baby only every four hours, not a minute sooner to establish a routine, no excuses,” Hanna writes. “Rudy was an early gourmet, she preferred her mother’s breast to boiled water.”
Rudy also liked undivided attention. “In the evening, as soon as Eugene turned the key in the entrance door, she would start crying,” Hanna writes, referring to her baby as a Schreihals (an incessant loud crier). “One day she cried and cried and when I looked she had thrown up and was all covered with vomit, face, eyes, ears, hair, clothing a mess, her face red with rage” Hanna took one look and panicked, reached for the phone and called the doctor. From her essay:
I told the condition of that baby who can hardly catch her breath and had a mess of stuff running out of all openings. This good doctor listened patiently and finally said reassuringly:” Have you tried to clean her up?” End of phone call.
These days Hanna celebrates holidays with her lively and talented children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. She had little desire to return to Germany, but the couple did make one trip to the Carpathian Mountains Before her love Eugene died in 1997.
“This was in spring, so there was no snow, but the chair lift was operating for tourists.” She writes that the people operating the lift recognized her husband immediately. “These people had been Eugene’s ski buddies in the 1930s — they gave him a royal welcome and free rides.”