FREDA (TRACHTENBERG) ISAKSEN
(1914 - 2011)
(1907 - 1992)
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 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. 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 took the whole day to complete our moving day, and by then the man himself was lying drunk in the street.
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. 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.
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. When we finally reached our destination, that baby carriage was about all of our worldly possessions.
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 Incidentally, the baby buggy was also stolen in Los Angeles.
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. I had one dress and wore it every day for six weeks. The entire right side was navy blue, and the entire left side was royal blue. When I finally discarded it in Los Angeles, it had holes and tears.
Because Micael’s sister was still ill, his mother was still living in Stockholm. 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. 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. The coal driven train spewed black smoke which covered everything, including us. I would constantly ask the attendant for chi-dva, two teas. 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. These people were always drably dressed with their kerchiefs over their heads. 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.
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 was docked a few feet away from the dock, and we had to cross an unsteady rope bridge carrying everything we owned. 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.
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. 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. We were then to leave for Hawaii. We sailed from there on the Kamakura Maru. There were a lot of homeless Jewish people on board, mostly with visas to South America. 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. We docked in San Francisco in April of 1941. Entry into the U.S. was relatively simple.
I have returned to Trondheim many times. Each time I would pass by my former residence with nostalgia, never knowing what had become of our former possessions.
My visit this summer would have been no different except that my nephew Lennart told me that the receptionist in his office said that her daughter has bought a house at Stats Ingenors Gate at the corner of Rosenborg Gate. He replied, “My goodness, such a coincidence because my uncle and aunt used to live there sixty or seventy years ago. My aunt is coming to Trondheim very soon.” His employee told him that there is some old stuff in the attic. “Do you think your aunt would like to look at it for no one knows who it belongs to.”
When my nephew told me this, my heart skipped a beat. “Oh yes, you bet I would like to look at it, maybe it’s mine.” Lennart called to make arrangements for us to go over there. At the appointed time we arrived. When she opened the door to us on the first floor I was almost overcome with nostalgia, but I had to compose myself as we climbed the stairs to the attic. There were a couple of old cupboards there which had not belonged to me.
The lady invited us to her apartment on the second floor, but it had obviously been redecorated so it was not familiar to me. We had lived on the lower floor, but the present occupant was away so she could not let us visit there.
She invited us to have tea with her and she served a chocolate cake with blackberry topping. She took us down to see the cellar and that was very familiar, with the same shelves that stored my blackberry jam, they were empty.
With thanks to Freda and Micael's grandson, Dan Isaksen, for permission to publish part of Freda's biography.
For futher reading on Freda Isaksen's biography,