Why Go to Switzerland?

Just as suspense keeps a story going and your audience interested, there comes a point when you have to tell them what happened. You have to answer the questions you’ve implied or asked directly earlier in the piece.

Why did Abram insist on stopping off in Switzerland first and then coming to America second? The world was at war. He was in Beirut, Lebanon. Switzerland was a long way away. The Nazis controlled many of the countries he would have to pass through and he was a Jew. All good reasons, I would think, to come to America immediately now that he had the Visa and could do it. There was nothing more to wait for.

The excuse he gave my parents and grandparents doesn’t make sense. He needed to stop off in Switzerland first because he had some medical problems. After the Swiss doctors helped him, then he would come.

The world was too dangerous for him to make a stop like that for health reasons. The chances of him being killed were too high. There were plenty of doctors in America he could see after he arrived. No, I believe he had another, much more important reason for going to Switzerland first and then coming to America.

Abram had been a very successful businessman. He grew up in Bucharest, Romania. Later, after he became head of an Italian-American shipping line, the King of Italy knighted him. He was important and wealthy. He was also very generous with his family. He took care of his mother for many years, supporting her in Bucharest and later moving her to live with him in Constantinople (now Istanbul).

Abram was also very generous with his oldest sister, Clara, my grandmother.  World War I ended on November 11, 1918. Abram came to San Francisco sometime in 1919. He invited Grandma, Papa, my Mom and Maximillian, his younger brother who was traveling with him, to travel around Europe for a year, visiting family and seeing the sights.

Everyone was thrilled at the opportunity. From the stories my Mom tells, they had an absolutely marvelous time! They started by taking the ferry from San Francisco, across the Bay to Oakland, where they caught the train to New York City. From there, they sailed on the RMS Aquitania, one of the most luxurious ocean liners of the time.

Mom was six and Maximillian sixteen, not exactly a child but not all grown up either. He used to take her to the park, the circus and out for ice cream while the adults went to shows like the Folies Bergère or out for drinks.

They traveled to France, Switzerland, Rumania and Turkey. From my Mom’s stories, Paris was one of the highlights of the trip: the Louvre, the shops, the people, and the atmosphere. I grew up always wanting to go to Paris, walk down the Champs-Élysées and see if it was as wonderful as she said. It is!

At some point they took the Orient Express to Constantinople. The trip took 80 hours—three days, eight hours. They had a sleeping car and ate in the dining room. Mom talked about how exciting and wonderful everything was!

They stayed a while in Constantinople visiting family. Mom became fast friends with her cousin, Eva, who was about the same age. I’ve seen pictures of them standing together, dressed the same—two cute six year olds with smiles from ear to ear.

Later they went to Romania. One night there was a birthday party at Papa’s mother’s house, with lots of singing and dancing. The highlight of the evening was Papa dancing a Viennese waltz with his mother on her 80th birthday. Many people had tears in their eyes.

Then, in 1929, just before the Stock Market Crash, Abram came again to San Francisco to visit. He also brought Maximillian. Mom was now sixteen and Maximillian twenty-six. Soon they and Grandma and Papa were off for another year in Europe, traveling and visiting family.

Mom had just graduated early from Lowell High School so she could make the trip. When she came back a year later, she started college at the University of California in Berkeley.

When I think about this, it seems clear that Abram was a very generous man, who was also well off, and was happy to share his good fortune with his family. I also think, like many other well off Europeans of that time, he put his money in Swiss banks. It would be safe and secure and the Nazis couldn’t touch it.

When my Dad got Abram the American Visa in 1941, and let him know that the family in America would take care of him, Abram must have thought, I’ve got money in Switzerland. There’s a war going on. Hitler may win. I may never be able to return to Europe. I need to take it with me.

There were no computers in those days. Abram couldn’t just go online and transfer his money from one bank or country to another. He must have found it hard at that point in his life to leave all his wealth behind and be dependent on his America family for the rest of his life. Why not try to bring it with him?

Considering all the odds against him, I don’t know how he thought he could do it. He did know a lot of people and maybe he thought some of them might help him. He spoke a number of languages and he might have thought that would help too.

Abram’s always sounded like a very optimistic person; someone who believed they could succeed against all odds. It must have been awful for him to come so close, Trieste, less than a day’s travel from Geneva, only to be captured. I can’t imagine what it must have been like for him when the Nazis took him off the train and to the Savoia Hotel, where he’d lived for so many years. Did he think he could make some kind of arrangement with them until the very end, or, once they took him off the train, did he know it was over?

If my interpretation is correct, what happened to the money? Abram was murdered in his hotel room at The Savoia Hotel in Trieste, Italy sometime in late 1941. He never made it to Switzerland. So he was never able to send his money to America.

For that answer, you’ll have to come back next month.

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