I chanced upon Journey to the Golden Door: a Survivor’s Tale by Jay Sommer, and like all holocaust centered books, it contained both the all too familiar, and the amazing.
In 1981, Jay Somer, a high school foreign language instructor at New Rochelle High School, was named the National Teacher of the Year. His path to that honor was extraordinary.
Somer was born in a very small Carpathian village (then in the new nation of Czechoslovakia; now apparently in Belorus), to a disfunctional family. His father, who later abandoned the family, was a religious zealot who could not hold either a job or his liquor. His mother was devoted and affectionate and hardworking, but died of tuberculosis when Somer was 12.
Because there was no Jewish education available in his home town of Kustanovice, Somer was sent to a neighboring town for his cheder training, living with strangers, having meals at different houses each day, at the age of 6. Then, shortly before his father’s abandonment, the family moved to a bigger town, and Jay was sent to a Greek Orthodox school, being apparently the only Jewish student. By age 10, he was working full time, eventually apprenticed to a bicycle mechanic. Then, following his mother’s death, as he was about to turn 16, he left his home and went by himself to Budapest in 1942, at the age of 13, where he found employment, but struggled to pay for food and lodging.
Who can imagine today that a child of this age would have to face these challenges, basically on his own. As life was beginning to take shape for Somer, the world was falling apart. World War II was raging and, in 1944, the Germans entered Budapest. Jay, like most Jewish boys, was sent to a German work camp. He was 15.
He was clearly a bright boy, particularly adept at languages, having by now mastered the dialect that was spoken in his original village, as well as Czech, Yiddish, Hungarian and probably German.
He survived the work camp, and was there when the Russians invaded. Because of his linguistic ability, he became a translator for the Russians, who were trying to root out Nazis and Nazi collaborators. His linquistic skills improved more (he added Russian to his languages), and he was convinced to join the Russian army, which he did.
He was given a short furlough to Budapest to look for surviving family members. He found his older half-brother (his mother had been married previously and had been a widow), and with his brother and sister in law, and several others, escaped across the Austrian border (it was an organized escape by a Jewish group that gave out false papers and bribed guards) and, shortly thereafter, crossed by foot through the Brenner Pass into Italy, winding up at a DP camp in Cremona, where he was to spend another two years or so (adding Italian to his language bank).
He had a severe soccer injury (the DP team was playing a local team, and he was involved in a collision which left him with a perforated intestine; he lived only because recently discovered penicillin was available at an American army base, and his brother and friends had the gumption to press for it), he fell in love with an Italian girl, and then by complete fluke and happenstance, he wound up with a sponsor in New York (a relative of someone in the Cremona camp, who was willing to sponsor him), a visa, and steamship passage from Naples to New York.
He landed at Ellis Island in 1948. He was 19 years old.
His early New York days were difficult, but he found employment, and went to school, earning a bachelors, masters, and Ph.D., and adding English and, believe it or not, Spanish to his languages. He became a teacher, first in the Bronx and then in Westchester County.
Apparently, Somers is still living in New Rochelle, and still teaching (he is now in his 80s) Hebrew (oh, yes, I forgot that: he also learned Hebrew) at a synagogue there.
A typical and extraordinary story of a survivor. Worth reading for sure.