Tuesday, December 20, 2011

December 25th Happy Birthday


Birthdays of many noteworthy people are celebrated on December 25,th including scientist Isaac Newton, actor Humphrey Bogart and musician Kid Ory.  Though Jesus of Nazareth’s year of birth is believed by biblical scholars to have been January 6, 361 AD, his birthday has been celebrated on January 25th since the 5th century AD when Pope Leo I officially inaugurated the practice.
 Another Jewish child was born on December 25th, less famous, but important to some of us, nonetheless. Anna (Anneke) Bianca Kohnke was born on December 25, 1941 in Hilversum, the Netherlands.

Leni and Day-Old Anneke
 Nearly 30 years later Anneke became my wife. As readers of this blog will know, her parents were killed in Auschwitz, Poland September 21, 1943.  When blonde-haired blue-eyed Anneke with her “Dutch Boy” haircut arrived at 1900 Riverside Drive in New York July 16, 1946, her little friends in the building where she lived, most of whom were Jewish with dark hair and brown eyes, decided among themselves that she must have been a gift from Jesus, because of her appearance and her birth on December 25th.
Anneke's Passport Photo 1946
 She was 5-1/2 years old and extremely thin and had bruising from severe malnutrition during the Dutch Hongerwinter of 1944-5, during which so many Dutch people died of starvation. She was suffering from Rickets. During her first months in America, Anneke’s aunt Greta Herzfeld Leyens, got up in the middle of the night to prepare complete meals for the ravenous little girl who awakened crying of hunger.  Fortunately she is unable to remember any of that.
 \Sixty-five years ago, Wednesday, December 25th 1946 Anneke experienced her first Christmas in America.  The New Yorker that week featured a cover painting of a traditional snowy Christmas scene with a family arriving at Grandma’s house.  She and Greta would have listened to “Winter Wonderland” by Perry Como on their wooden table-top radio while preparing holiday cookies.  The New York Times carried a story that day, that the mysterious GI, “Kilroy” who scrawled his name on walls all over Europe during WWII was a real person, James J. Kilroy, a factory worker in Quincy MA who wrote his name on machined items he inspected, “Kilroy was here,” which apparently was how the tradition began. 
 It would be the first Christmas since she was 18 months old that Anneke would have a family.  On Christmas 1946, her birthday, there would have been few gifts, unlike today, and since the family was Jewish, no Christmas tree or lavish giving of presents was part of the tradition. The event was really about enjoyment of family. She would have received a doll and a book, and perhaps a toy from Uncle Erich.  Like most other Americans, they almost certainly listened to President Harry Truman’s Christmas greeting broadcasted via radio, asking Americans to “strive with undaunted faith and courage to achieve in the present some measure of that unity with which the Nation’s sons and the sons of our allies went forth to win the war,” after the National Community Christmas Tree celebration.
1947 Christmas Card
 In the afternoon of Christmas day, Anneke, and her little friends, Joan and Carol Singer would have gone outdoors to play until their mother’s called them for dinner. Christmas day was clear and breezy, a few degrees above freezing temperature, great weather for games in Fort Tryon Park.  Anneke had dinner with her uncle Erich, whom she called “Daddy,” and her aunt Greta, “Mummy.”  If Anneke’s aunt Greta was like other recent immigrants, she most likely prepared a traditional German Christmas dinner, chicken soup with spaetzle, roast goose with apple sauce, Brussels-sprouts, creamed potatoes, freshly browned butter buns and pie.  Greta likely prepared a scrumptious plum pudding she had learned to make while an immigrant in England during the early years of the War. It’s also very likely Greta or her friend Eva Singer also made Lebkuchen, delicious Christmas cookies for a treat with milk or coffee in the evening. After dinner they would have retreated to the small living room of their apartment in Inwood, and listened to ABC Philco Radio Time with Skitch Henderson and the Charioteers, and Great Gildersleeve comedy show, and tried to understand the broad humor of their new homeland.

That Christmas evening when Anneke went to bed, she would have taken her new doll to bed with her and fallen asleep without diving for cover when a car backfired out doors, reminding her of bombing not far from their house in Voorburg, Netherlands where she had been hidden. It was a time to appreciate that her hunger and protracted fear for her life, were actually over and a new life had really begun with her very own family.

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