Ring of Defiance

by Ellen Stern (Willow Grove, PA)

Recently I lost a gold band off the ring finger of my right hand. The ring is a plain gold band, and I use it as a guard to keep that hand’s main ring, a lovely garnet I once bought in Jerusalem, from slipping off.

The gold band had been my mother’s wedding ring, and I wore it  constantly, not only as a reminder of her, but also of an episode that has meant an increasing lot to me over the years.

I have never forgotten the day in May of 1939 when my mother and I had reservations at the Hotel Bremer Hof , a well known hotel in Bremen, for the night before we were due to board the North German Lloyd liner EUROPA for our emigration to the United States.

When it came time for dinner Mimi (my pet name for my mother) called room service for some food to be brought up for Pips, my Scotty, who had been certified to travel with us. Pips even carried traveling papers stamped with an official swastika clearing him for the voyage.

Pips’ food arrived and hit the spot with the dog. But it was the slip of paper on the silver tray that left the message I remember to this day. It read in elegant typescript: “Our Jewish guests are requested to refrain from entering the dining room for any meals.”

The next morning my mother and I stood on the Bremerhafen pier undergoing one last bodily inspection before boarding the S.S EUROPA.

Two fat bosomy matrons in white uniforms had already searched all orifices of my mother and me (I was all of 11 years old) looking for gold, diamonds or other treasures which we might intend to smuggle out of Germany. Not having found anything they were looking for one of the heavy females spotted my mother’s wedding ring and demanded: “Hand it over!”

With a rapid, but calm, movement my mother slid off the ring, moved a few steps closer to the edge of the pier and tossed the ring into the harbor water between the pier and the ocean liner. Too young to know what the dangerous consequences of her action might have been I admired my mother’s courage that day

The S.S.EUROPA left Bremerhaven early that evening. The shipboard band played “Muss I denn, muss I denn” (a German folksong beginning with the words “why must I leave this little town?”)

There were tears in my mother’s eyes as we stood at the railing watching Bremen fade into the distance. I did not understand why she cried, but I was very young and did not have her memories of better German days.

It was an enormous feeling of satisfaction to visit Pips at his kennel on the top deck. Twice a day a German sailor, black-white-red swastika emblem pinned to his uniform blouse, walked my little Jewish dog around the upper level of the ship to do his “business.” Even this eleven-year old somehow found this to be an act of poetic justice.

Soon after our arrival in Louisville, our new American home, my mother requested my father, who had managed to arrive ahead of us, to buy her a new wedding ring. She did not feel married without it, she said.

And it was this ring, which I wore as a guard on my right hand, that I’d lost.

Fortunately this episode has a happy ending.

After a few hours of frantic searching, the Ring of Defiance reappeared. It had slipped off my finger during a session on the computer and awaited discovery right under the keyboard.

Of course, it is not the original Ring of Defiance, but even as a replacement I am very happy to have it back on my hand where it belongs.

Born in Germany, Ellen Norman Stern came to the United States as a young girl and grew up in Louisville, Kentucky. She’s the author of numerous books for young adult readers, including biographies of Louis D. Brandeis, Nelson Glueck, and Elie Wiesel.  Her most recent publication is The French Physician’s Boy, a novel about Philadelphia’s 1793 Yellow Fever epidemic.

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Filed under American Jewry, European Jewry

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