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That's Where Everybody Begins

That's Where Everybody Begins

America is the most wonderful place. It made me who I am.
— Ulrich Meyer
 Clara, Barry, Naomi, and Claudia. 

Clara, Barry, Naomi, and Claudia. 

The Subjects

In 1925, in the northern town of Hagen, Germany, Arthur and Claire Meyer welcomed their son, Ulrich, into the world. It was a chaotic time: World War I had devastated Europe and caused hyperinflation and mass unemployment in Germany. Many Germans saw their life’s savings disappear and were thrown into poverty. In the Meyer house, there was personal tragedy—Claire suffered complications from childbirth and died two weeks later, leaving newborn Ulrich and his older sister, Gerda, without a mother. Arthur Meyer eventually remarried, hoping to bring stability to the family. But economic chaos made Germany’s new democracy very fragile, and stability became impossible. In 1934, when Ulrich was nine years old, Hitler abolished the office of President and declared himself “Führer” of Germany. In 1935, just before Ulrich’s 10th birthday, Germany adopted the Nuremberg Race Laws. German Jews were denied citizenship, prohibited from marrying anyone of “pure” German blood, and disenfranchised. In an attempt to protect his children, Arthur Meyer sent Gerda and Ulrich out of Germany. Between 1938 and 1940, so many Jewish parents sent their unaccompanied children abroad to escape Nazi persecution that the phenomenon was given a name—“Kindertransport.” Gerda went to England, where she became a servant to distant relatives. Ulrich was smuggled across the nearby border to Holland, where he was put in an orphanage.

On the night of November 9, 1938, Nazis across Germany looted synagogues and broke into Jewish businesses. It would be called “Kristallnacht,” The Night of the Broken Glass. In Hagen, where the Meyers lived, the town’s only synagogue was set on fire, its books and furniture burned. Jewish homes and businesses in Hagen were looted, their windows broken. At some point before 1940, Arthur Meyer traveled to Holland to retrieve his son. On December 5th, 1939—almost one year to the day after Kristallnacht—fourteen-year-old Ulrich Meyer got a German passport and an immigration visa to the United States. The Meyers found a way to retrieve Gerda, and the family boarded the third-class decks of a Holland America ship bound for New York City. They arrived on December 22, 1939.

The Meyers settled in Chicago, where Ulrich and Gerda attended Senn High School and became US citizens. As a teenager during the war, Ulrich served in the US Navy in Okinawa. After his honorable discharge, Ulrich made use of the GI Bill and attended junior college, then went to work as a salesman at Goldblatt Brothers Department Store. Later, Ulrich started his own business—a carpet store that turned into a successful chain called Carpetland USA. In his fifties, he married Harriet and had two daughters: Claudia and Nicola. They settled in Hyde Park, where Ulrich continued to work. Nicola became a pediatrician and Claudia the director of the Early Childhood Center at JRC. On September 16th, 2016, Ulrich passed away at the age of 91.

Below is his family story, as told by his daughter, Claudia. 

The Heirlooms 

Photographs from Germany 

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That is his mom just before she died. She died two weeks after childbirth. We thought her name was Clara. We asked dad... ‘What was her name?’ And [he said] ‘Clara.’ When we talked to my aunt…she said her name was really Claire. But that was how my dad would tell stories; he thought her name was Clara.”
— Claudia
 Ulrich as a boy in Hagen, Germany. 

Ulrich as a boy in Hagen, Germany. 

…they knew they couldn’t stay there [in Germany] so…his dad sent my aunt [Ulrich’s sister, Gerda] to relatives in England where she basically was their servant, their maid. And my dad, who was very young, they drugged him and put him in a potato sack. He [Arthur Meyer, Ulrich’s father] paid someone to carry my dad drugged in a potato sack over the border into Holland. That’s what they did: they would drug them so the kids wouldn’t make noise. So they drugged him and smuggled him into Holland and he was sent to an orphanage…he’s ambidextrous because they [the orphanage staff] had beaten it [using his left hand] out of him. So he could do some things, like he always played tennis left-handed. He used a hammer left-handed. But he always wrote with his right hand because that’s what he was taught to do [in the orphanage].
— Claudia
 Naomi and Clara hold a picture of Ulrich and Gerda. 

Naomi and Clara hold a picture of Ulrich and Gerda. 

That’s my dad and his sister, my aunt [Gerda]. And they were…a year and a half, two years apart. The same as our kids [Clara and Naomi]...”
“…he was in the orphanage and didn’t think he would ever see his parents again. And two years later he got called to the principal…or whatever it’s called… and he was brought to the office and his dad was sitting there.
— Claudia

Ulrich's German Passport, Issued December 5, 1939

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Every single Jewish person…their middle name was turned into Israel. I believe it was Israel for a boy and something else for a girl. It was just to state that they were a Jew. But his real name is Ulrich Emil…
— Claudia
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This is where the story is unclear because while we think he was eleven or twelve [in the passport picture] I don’t know…he possibly could have been much younger when all this happened. We would ask him: how old were you? And he would say, ‘Oh I was ten.’ And then one time: ‘oh I was nine’…Maybe his dad got it [the passport] for him, knowing he was going to America…
— Claudia
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…growing up we kind of knew about the story and we would talk about it sometimes. But then growing up I lived in France and I wanted to live there and work there, and somebody told us that there’s a law that was made based on the fact that he was forced out because of his religion, my sister and I were allowed to become German citizens. So he happened still have that [passport]…and he took me to the German embassy on Michigan Avenue and we walked in and he handed it [the passport] to them and automatically it was: ‘What can we do for you? How can we help you.’ And because of that I am a German citizen and so are Clara and Naomi, and they can live and work anywhere in the EU.
— Claudia

Ship's Manifest, Holland America Line, 1939

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…they came over on a boat, and I believe they arrived very close to New Year’s Eve… they arrived in New York, and his stepmother knew people in Chicago, so that’s how they ended up in Chicago…The only family we ever knew about was my dad, his dad, stepmom, and his sister. We never really heard about any other family...my dad never would talk about this, so we never knew.”

“Mr. and Mrs. Arthur Meyer. And his [Ulrich’s] name wasn’t on there so he took a pencil and wrote his name on the last page…
— Claudia

Immigrant Identification Card, USA, 1939

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…His name is Ulrich, and the story is he went to the movies with some cousin and he went to see Casablanca and that’s where he got the [nick]name Rick, from the guy in the movie.”

“They went back to Germany: my mom, my dad, my aunt and her husband. They went back when I was in middle school or high school. But they went to Berlin and my mom and my aunt went to the camps, and my dad didn’t. When he went back, within ten minutes of being in the cab, his German was back. He was speaking German. Where he never spoke a word of it when he came here. And the last three weeks before he died—you know, with dementia they say you go back to infancy—so he was speaking German…

Certificate of Naturalization, USA, 1944

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None of us knew [about the operation scar on his chest, described on the US naturalization document]…my sister especially who is a doctor said, ‘How is this possible that we didn’t know about it? …It actually made us all start thinking about Clara. [In 2016, 4-year-old Clara had open-heart surgery to repair her heart.]
“She was born with a hole [in her heart.] They found out when she was a baby because they noticed she had a heart murmur…Basically there was a hole connecting the two upper chambers but it wasn’t just that, it was one of your four veins going into your heart, and one of them was going into the wrong chamber.
— Claudia

Photographs From Ulrich's Service In The US Navy 

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…America was in the war…and they sent him [Ulrich] to Japan, because they didn’t want him to be in Germany and people would think he was a traitor. So he was a Seabee [ part of the United States Naval Construction Battalions] He…did the construction in Okinawa.
“…My dad was always…a business man and an entrepreneur. So he made this friend [in the war] and they started a business where they would take the scraps from the planes that crashed and use those metal scraps and make wrist bands for watches, because everybody’s watch bands were leather and would deteriorate on the water. So they started this business, made a couple hundred dollars…and when the war was over his friend left and my dad never saw a penny of it.
— Claudia

Ulrich's Knives 

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My dad was very European in a lot of ways. We were never allowed to wear jeans going out to dinner. The whole idea of flying on a plane was fancy and you have to look nice…And he also ate like a European. So, Americans take an orange and they stick their finger in it and they start to peel it. He [Ulrich] would cringe when my sister and I would do that. He always had..this knife, and it had to be sharp but not too sharp—kind of dull, because it couldn’t cut into the orange, it just had to go through the skin. And he had this little routine where he would rub it [the knife] against his finger to see if it was the perfect dullness…And then he had this whole routine of how to peel the orange. First you roll it on the table to loosen the skin. Then you take off the top little hat, which is kind of like a mushroom, because when you pull off the top there’s the stem that comes out from the middle of the orange. And then you do the same from the bottom. And then you take off each side by…carving each side into sections. He did that my entire life. Even with the [grand] children, with Clara and Naomi. And they would watch him…His sister would do the exact same thing. And living here, you don’t’ see people do that. It’s a really big memory that we have of him…
— Claudia
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Family Photographs

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He started there [at Goldblatt Brother’s Department Store] and he started as the schelpper and then ended up on the sales floor…He was a really good salesman…
He had a chain of…carpet stores called Carpetland USA…the first one was in Munster, Indiana. And he had maybe 60-80 stores. They were all in rural towns of the United States…he had franchises, and…these people in these small towns, he gave them these wonderful lives and gave these people these stores. He taught people how to run the stores and basically gave them the stores. So people always speak…very highly of my dad. We had his 80th surprise party and this one girl stood up and said: ‘You put me through college.’
…He was a very, very hard worker…He loved his work. He loved everything about it…When I started working he taught me that the customer is always right, and he really believed that…
— Claudia
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That’s him at about 50 [years old] when he met my mom. That’s what he looked like in their wedding pictures…
…he ended up going on a trip to New York one day and my mom’s…boyfriend—my mom was dating a guy from Australia—said [to her]: ‘My friend [Ulrich] is going to be in New York. You guys should hang out.’
… She said when she met him, she knew within ten minutes that they would be married…They ate lunch for four hours, had two bottles of wine, they went to the US Open and had already planned their life together and knew they would be married.
— Claudia
 Claudia and her sister, Nicola, with her mother Harriet and her father Ulrich. 

Claudia and her sister, Nicola, with her mother Harriet and her father Ulrich. 

Because of the history and everything that happened, he [Ulrich] was not raised religious. They weren’t eager to share their religion based on what had happened in Germany…a lot of Jews at that time didn’t suppress their religion, but they didn’t say: ‘We’re going to…be super-religious,’ because they were really deep-down nervous what would happen. And so, for us, growing up it was much more cultural… his story and his history and the importance of who the Jewish people are, and who they were, and what happened to them. So we really grew up with that. We were sent to religious school. We went to synagogue on the High Holidays…But it was much more the idea of the culture of the Jewish people. And that’s how I kind of see our religion now. I want my children to go to religious school, but not because I care whether they speak Hebrew but because I want them to learn about the culture and the history.
It [religion] was kind of in the background…it was always…brought into whatever we were doing: that we were Jewish and this is the way things were. I remember once we were on a trip and we were on some big shuttle bus going from somewhere to the airport, and I was practicing my Torah portion…And I couldn’t remember a word or something and I threw my Torah portion—a paper of it—to my mom, to ask: what does this say? And some not-so-open person saw it and ended up making these anti-Semitic comments. And I remember that…then my parents sat us down and talked to us and said: ‘Guess what? Not everybody is like the people you grew up with…you need to understand.’
….we were raised in Hyde Park, where people are very open and understanding of different people and different cultures, and to me that was…the world…we didn’t know anything different.
— Claudia
 Ulrich and his granddaughter, Naomi.

Ulrich and his granddaughter, Naomi.

He and Naomi had a really special relationship… they would eat lunch together every day. He would, if she wasn’t home, sit there and wait for her…and they shared blueberries every single day. And to this day she still talks about whenever she sees blueberries and how they would share…They would share them one at a time…and they just, they had a really special relationship.
— Claudia
 Naomi, 2017.

Naomi, 2017.

The Questions

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1) What would you ask the original owners of these objects, if you could speak to them today?

My mom said from when she can remember him, he always had those knives, peeling those oranges. So where did those come from? And did he always use the same ones? And did he learn that from his dad? …I think knowing his history...asking: What was he like as a kid?...Because everything he did, really was because of who he was growing up, and growing up in Germany. How he worked so hard.
…when I lived abroad and came home and I was in my phase where I was too cool, I said: ‘I hate America.’ And he never yelled or ever raised his voice, and he [yelled]: ‘Don’t you ever say that. America is the most wonderful place. It made me who I am’

And he really was...the American dream. He created this life for himself. And I remember it was one of the few times he ever yelled at me.

... I would have liked to talk to him before it had all been suppressed: what he remembered being in Germany back then, and coming [over] on the boat.
— Claudia

2) What lessons or ideas do these objects communicate that you hope your children will carry through their lives? 

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It’s not really the objects [themselves] but what I try to tell them [Clara and Naomi] because I’m concerned that…they won’t remember him when they’re older…he really was the most caring, generous, warm person in the entire world, and…not a lot of people are like that… The way he treated people: no matter who they were, everyone got the same respect and consideration…

When I got my first job and I had to organize boxes in the [Carpetland USA] storeroom and I called and I said: ‘This sucks I don’t want to do it.’ He said: ‘That’s where everybody begins. You do it like it’s the best job in the world and you work hard.’

Instead of saying ‘you deserve better’ it was: you don’t deserve better. You start with this and you prove that you can do better. He never taught us the idea that we deserved anything. We had to earn it.
— Claudia
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Love Thy Neighbor

Love Thy Neighbor

Without Bitterness

Without Bitterness