Martha Reiter was born in 1938 in Queens, New York. Her parents came to the United States in the 1920s from Germany, and Martha grew up speaking German at home. When she was 12, she visited a number of her relatives who lived in Germany after the war ended.
In this interview, Martha recalls hearing planes overhead during blackouts in New York City. She also remembers her mother sending her relatives care packages in Germany, and visiting her relatives after the war. Martha also reflects on being part of a German community and having a German identity during the war.
Closing Blackout Shades
We had to have blackout shades on the house, for at night, you couldn’t show light. And somewhere, I remember being aware of airplanes and bombing. And when I would sit out on the back porch, living in Queens—I’m not sure if LaGuardia Airport was open and functioning, but Idlewild definitely was, which is now JFK. And I remember planes flying over the house, and I would sit there and look at them and think, “Oh, I hope they’re not going to drop a bomb.” I didn’t go so far as to run in the house screaming, but I just remember looking at the planes. I don’t know who talked about bombing, and I don’t remember my parents talking a lot about the war, but I have the sense that their worry was—that they were obviously not in favor of the war—their worry was more for all of their relatives, over there [in Germany], and were they safe.
Sending Packages to Germany
You could sign up for care packages, which were pre-set bundles of food. And my mom just made packages and sent them to everyone, and I still have her books. She kept meticulous records. Her parents got a package every week, the members of her coffee klatch, you know, each got one package whenever she could manage it. She collected clothes all over the neighborhood, and we had the big sacks of lentils and she’d package them smaller, so as I say, I have more memories of after the war.
BC: So your mom was really interested in relief after the war and like, helping out wherever she could?
Yeah. And when we went over to Germany in [1949 or 1950]—it was right before I turned twelve, ‘cause I could go for half price. One of my father’s nephews came—or, a package came, still, ‘cause it took them a long time to get over there. And at that point my mother would—sometimes she’d put in jugs of honey that they soldered shut, and in that particular case the honey can had ruptured and the honey got on the suit, and I remember my father—a nephew or something showed up—and my father said, “Gee, I never thought I’d see that suit again!” And the nephew was in his suit.
There was a family across the alley in the back, the alley went through and that’s where the garages were with the porches on top. And my—one person that I played with was a Jewish boy. And as far as I know, there was no rancor between the two families, I mean his family was perfectly okay sending him over to play tea party with me, and I think we went to different high schools, but we sort of kept loose touch over the years. One time when I was there with my kids, he happened to be there, ‘cause his parents lived there forever, and fit into the neighborhood, and that was that. I don’t have any sense that anybody ostracized them or they us. But yes, Herbert Friedman was my good friend. As I recall, the Friedmans were the only Jewish family. And as I said, they fit in; obviously Herbie came to play with me every day or I went over to his house, so there was no problem there whatsoever.
Motor Oil for Dessert
As I say, I was young, and more of my recollection is after [the war], going over [to Germany], and still seeing the churches—well, the churches would be standing, in most cases, and the whole city would be flat.
BC: How was that, after the war, going and visiting and seeing all of that?
That was tough. It was tough. I was glad to see my grandparents, and the aunts and uncles, that was the one and only time I saw my grandparents. Oh, there’s one funny story. We were at my uncles for dinner and they were serving custard pudding or something for dessert. And he produces this bottle. And he says, “This is raspberry syrup from before the war, and we saved it during the war!” And he pours some on his pudding and starts to pass it around and he takes a taste, and he spits it out and he goes, “Oh my god, it’s motor oil!” [laughs] So I guess what they had done during the war was if something – motor oil, was scarce, and they probably disguised it in bottles as something else. And somehow it got confused, so he was so proud that he had saved this bottle of raspberry syrup, and it was motor oil.