Love and America in a DP Camp

By Ruth Drimmer Gilad. This post is part of the JCPA’s “Celebrating New Americans” project as part of Jewish American Heritage Month.

 My father, Karl Drimmer, was born in Vienna, Austria in 1915. Shortly thereafter, he and his family relocated to Borislav, Poland, to join their very large and extended family. After World War II broke out my dad escaped the Nazis and spent the war years in Siberia working for the Russian military as a distributor.

After the war was over he learned that he had only one surviving sister, Louise, who had remained hidden in Poland. Karl made a plan to escape from Siberia. He convinced his commandant that he would return to his hometown under the guise of organizing a communist party. He thereby obtained permission to travel back home, a privilege rarely granted in such a regulated society.

Before he left Siberia, Karl was able to save up several bottles of rationed vodka, which he took with him to serve as bribes for the conductors on the train. This allowed him, his sister and her new husband to proceed on to a displaced persons camp (DP) in the American zone of occupied Germany.  While in the DP camp, Karl was placed in charge distribution (again) of donated clothing to the refugees in the camp.  One day a young woman, Berta Basch came into the depot looking for a dress. Little did he know how much his life would change once again.

Berta Basch was born in 1924 in Spinka, Romania and had spent the war years in Budapest working as a seamstress. In 1944, she returned home to be with her family for Passover, unfortunately, just in time for the last efforts of Nazi Germany to finish the final solution. She found herself in Auschwitz until her liberation in 1945, not knowing the fate of her family. She later learned that only two of her sisters survived and they were reunited in the same DP camp that my father was working in.

On that day Berta walked in, she rejected the dress that Karl offered her suggesting, sarcastically, that he should give the dress to his fiancé. The next day, as my father frequently and fondly recalled “she came back for the dress and me.” They married in the DP camp in 1947 and hoped to emigrate to the United States where my mother had a cousin working for IBM in Binghamton, New York. The quota system of immigration was in place and fortunately my aunt (Louise) had hidden my father’s birth certificate during the war. The quota for Austria was unfilled but the official handling his case was suspicious about the authenticity of my father’s papers since Austrian papers were rare. At this point, Berta was already pregnant and she was determined that her first child would not be born in Europe. The official took the time and expense to travel to Vienna to investigate and the document which was found to be authentic.  There was much jubilation in the camp and Karl and Berta were soon on their way to the United States assisted, by HIAS, to Endicott, New York. Berta’s wish came true – her first child, Ruth, was born in the United States and not in Europe. Their remaining relatives soon followed.

Bertha with her daughter Ruth in Endicott New York (1949).

Bertha with her daughter Ruth in Endicott New York (1949).

Karl began working as an upholsterer with his brother-in-law, but was disappointed with the lack of economic opportunity and the unavailability of a Jewish education for their now two children. My parents and my mother’s two sisters all relocated to Brooklyn, New York. While in Brooklyn, my father went to night school to learn bookkeeping in order to broaden his opportunities. Eventually my dad found a job as a bookkeeper in a silk manufacturing firm, and my mother as a fur finisher, where they stayed in for the rest of their working lives. Both children were placed in Jewish Day Schools at great financial sacrifice. They struggled with the language but eventually mastered English. They started out in very modest apartments, moving from one place to another until they purchased a two family home and eventually lived out their lives in a lively single family home.  Among my most poignant and vivid memories is the day they received their citizenship papers. As a young child I well recall their pride and joy as they displayed their papers. They were finally free as American citizens. Even at a grand age of 97 my dad called me on Election Day to have me bring him to the polls “I vant you to take me to vote!” he said.  Through their love and devotion to each other they a built a new life for themselves, and their children, in the New World. They had truly lived the American Dream.  Their dream and legacy is carried on today in the form of 2 children, 9 grandchildren, and 19 great-grandchildren.  Their path had been long and hard and part of the fabric of our Jewish-American Heritage. Their memory is truly a blessing.

Bertha's family in Endicott, New York. Bertha and Karl Drimmer are in the middle seated on the couch with their daughter Ruth.

Bertha’s family in Endicott, New York. Bertha and Karl Drimmer are in the middle seated on the couch with their daughter Ruth.