In this bittersweet oral history former Inwood resident Herb Maruska describes the uptown immigrant experience in the years surrounding World War II. A second generation German immigrant, Herb was born in an Texas internment camp. His family, upon release, moved into a rented apartment on Vermilyea Avenue.
Take it from here Herb…
“I was born on July 17, 1944 in Seagoville, Texas, in an internment camp for German-Americans rounded up by the United States Government as potential threats to democracy, just as Japanese-Americans were confined to prison camps.
I was just a little new born baby, and in my opinion hardly a threat to society, but here is picture of me in the camp, apparently ready to cause mischief.
A U.S. Department of Justice, Immigration and Naturalization Service list of Civilian Alien Enemies in Custody on December 31, 1944 at the Seagoville Internment Camp, included little me, my father and my mother (who was a United States citizen). Oh well.
After the war we were sent back to New York City.
My parents, Paul Maximilian and Emma Maruska, soon found themselves in apartment 2-C at 157-159 Vermilyea Avenue in the Inwood Section of Manhattan.
Inwood was pretty much divided east and west by Broadway. On the west side were generally more affluent people who lived in nicer apartment houses. Most of these people were Jewish. On the east side of Broadway the apartment houses were older and more run down. Here most of the residents were Irish.
It was certainly difficult to find an apartment in New York City in 1946 when all of the victorious American soldiers came home and married their sweethearts, and to make matters worse, my parents did not have good references, having just arrived from the internment camp in Texas. So they could not afford to be very choosy.
157-159 Vermilyea Avenue was squarely in the Irish part of town, but it was owned by Mrs. Lichtenstein, who was Jewish. Because both my parents were Bohemian-style intellectuals, they fit in more easily with Jews than with simple working-class Catholics.
So my father lived in a house owned by a Jewish lady and worked as a salesman for a dairy business owned by a Jewish man named Charles Schreiber. I think that these facts show that despite having been interned by the U.S. government on suspicion of being an “enemy alien,” Jewish people did not consider him to have been a Nazi, which of course he never was. Otherwise we would not have had so many Jewish friends.
It is impossible for me to remember the details of the first few years of my life. As best as I can figure, my father went off to work every day as a dairy food salesman and my mother stayed home with me.
The front of the apartment house faced west, and when you entered our main door from the hall, you were facing north. All of the windows of apartment 2-C were facing north. We lived on the second floor overlooking a courtyard. We never got any sunshine in this little apartment. Our building had running water, bathrooms with toilets and steam heat. They clearly represented state-of-the-art construction in 1910.
Initially, the adults shared a standard double bed in the bedroom, while I slept in a crib in the same room. I figure that the bedroom was about 9 ft by 11 ft. You entered the bedroom through a glass panel door which had a semi-transparent curtain on it. My parent’s bed had a wooden headboard which was set up against the right (east) wall. This wall was the rear wall of the apartment, with another unit behind it. The far (north) wall was solid brick, the exterior wall of the building. The left wall had a window in the center which looked out into the courtyard. To the left of the window were stacked a trunk, and then two suitcases, filled with clothing and other possessions. To the right of the window was a chest of drawers, with five drawers. My father had the top drawer. He was very neat, and all of his under-clothes were carefully arranged in his drawer. He also kept his wallet and other papers in this drawer. My mother was totally messy. Her drawer looked like a rat’s nest! The bottom drawer was for sheets and towels. There were two other drawers: one for myself, and eventually one for my younger brother Rolly.
My parents never made any good friends in the neighborhood. They talked with the Polish people in the basement (Harry Konopka, the Super, and his wife Julia). And they said “hello” to some people with whom they crossed paths in the Park. But my mother’s only real friends seemed to be her three sisters. My father had several German friends. Most of these friends he met in the internment camp. His best friend was Otto Burkhardt, who, like my father, was a pastry chef.
Otto had a wife named Elfriede, but they never had any children. Somehow the Burkhardts were able to scrape together enough money to set up a bakery shop in Queens, at the intersection of Broadway and 31st Street. The Burkhardts worked exceedingly hard and made a great success out of their bakeshop. Since my father was a pastry chef by trade, Otto invited him to join the business. However, my father could not see himself toiling in front of a hot oven. He suffered from “big shot” tendencies, which in the end did him no good whatsoever. During Christmas season the bakery was extremely busy, and my father would make himself a little extra money by moonlighting there.
Working in the bakeshop was no joke. My father would travel to the shop on Friday evening and sleep over in the Burkhardt’s apartment. They lived in the building over the bakery. The bakers had to be up and at it by 4 AM. They had to get the oven going, and then start making the cakes. Elfriede minded the store and dealt with the customers. By 2:00 pm all of the baking was complete and the bakers went to sleep. In later years as the business prospered, Otto employed several other bakers, always Germans, to help him on a regular basis. The Burkhardts did so well that they bought the entire apartment building. Then they bought themselves a house in New Jersey, and a house back in Germany
In the early years in Inwood, my father also knew people called Schiller and people called Rohner, camp buddies. However, as the years away from the camp grew longer, these friends drifted away.
He had one other important German friend, a woman named Martha Culkin. Culkin was her married name, but her husband was long gone. She was originally from Alsace-Lorraine, on the border between France and Germany, but she spoke German. She had no children, and lived in one of those single-room-occupancy hotels on the West Side around 90th Street. She visited our apartment frequently, and so she became “Aunt Martha.” Through the years, my mother and Martha became good friends.
Martha was a watchmaker by trade. She worked in the Bulova Watch Factory by Queens Plaza. She smoked endless cigarettes. Martha brought lots of presents for my birthday and Christmas, so she was a dear “Aunt.” She never learned how to cook, and ate all of her meals at a diner on Columbus Avenue. She would remain friends with the family until she died many years later.
My father pictured himself as a great political leader. Now that Hitler and his gang had been exterminated, Paul Maximilian felt that he would be especially useful back in Germany, to help the country re-establish itself after the devastation from the Second World War. He was extremely anti-Russian, and in fact referred to the cockroaches, which infested his apartment as “Russians.” Whenever he would step on a roach, he would curse and mutter, “Another Russian is dead!” He and Martha argued endlessly about the political situation in the world. My mother did not bother to listen to their ravings, and instead buried herself in the reading of history books. She was especially interested in books which confirmed her suspicion that Jesus was not really the Son of God.
Needless to say, I grew up without any positive religious convictions. Although both of my parents had been originally baptized as Catholics back in Europe, we never went to mass in Good Shepherd Church.
From December 26th-27th, 1947, there fell 26.4″ of snow in New York City. This would hold up as the largest recorded snowfall total in New York City until 2006. I believe that I can remember being taken over to Inwood Park that weekend and to my glee, the park benches were buried under the snow, and little Herbie was able to walk along the seats of the benches without having to climb up onto them.
My brother Roland was born on February 21, 1948. There was hardly enough money in the house to support three people, and now there were four! When little Rolly was brought home from the hospital, I had a cold and had to wear a handkerchief over my face to look at the new baby. We wound up with two cribs in the apartment, one in the bedroom, and one in the living room. You would have thought that at 3½, I would have been too big to fit in a crib, but somehow we survived.
As the years went by, both Rolly and me got bigger and bigger. Obviously at some age I could no longer fit into a crib. As far as I can tell, a steel folding bed was acquired and placed in the living room along the east wall. This is where I slept, while little Rolly had his crib in the bedroom along with mom and dad. However, Rolly also got bigger, and finally he also outgrew a crib.Somewhere along the way, the whole bedroom was re-arranged. My parents threw out the old double bed and bought two new single beds. Rolly and I each got one of these new beds, which were placed in the bedroom. Rolly got the inner bed, along the north wall, while I got the outer bed, by the door.
Where did my parents sleep? This is difficult to figure out. There was a steel folding bed in the living room. There was also a standard sofa. So apparently one of them (probably my mother) slept on the sofa, and the other one slept on the bed. It seems a little strange, but I certainly remember a sofa in the living room placed along the south wall. There was also a large stuffed chair, known as the Green Chair, which sat along the west wall, next to the radiator.
The building had steam heat. The furnace in the basement had a boiler attached to it to generate hot water and steam. The steam went up through the building in pipes to provide heat in the winter. There were three pipes in the apartment, each pipe being maybe three inches in diameter, and a radiator in the living room. It got very hot, and if you touched it, you got badly burned. After many years, the heat given off by the radiator caused the Green Chair to dry up and fall apart. Then we got a new chair.
One day I was sitting upon the right arm of the sofa, making believe that it was a “horse,” and trying to get the “horse” to “gallop,” when the arm broke away from the sofa. Good grief, I’m sure that I got severely punished for that maneuver!
Look at the Christmastime picture below. We are sitting in the corner of the living room. My father’s bookcase is set against the wall which has the bedroom behind it. Notice the cloth stuck to the corner of the bookcase to prevent Little Rolly from slamming his head while running around the room. The Christmas tree is set up on a table which later was used as the meal table in the kitchen. The kitchen was very small, and this table was a little bit too large for the space it needed to set in.
Rosendo and Fe Palafox came to America from the Phillipines. They lived in Apartment 1-C. They looked Oriental. During the Second World War, the Palafoxes had to walk down the streets of Inwood wearing signs around their necks stating “We are not Japanese” so that they would not be hauled off to a Japanese Internment Camp. This sort of behavior in America makes me very uncomfortable. What a shame. I don’t know what sort of business Mr. Palafox was in, but he liked to take pictures. He took all of the nice color photographs which I have. He did well for himself, and around 1950 or so the family bought a house and moved to Queens. We never saw them again.
The Palafoxes had relatives in Apartment 1-E named Garcia. The Garcia family members also wore signs around their necks disclaiming Japanese origins. Pino Garcia and his family moved away around 1952.
They were not the only victims of misplaced hostility.
Years later, I attended PS 98, and all of my friends were Jewish. Our family name sounds Jewish (it is a Czech name). Because we never attended mass at Good Shepherd, the neighbors assumed we were Jewish. On several occasions I was over on the meadow in Inwood park with my little Jewish friends, when we were attacked by a bunch of Catholic guys. They beat us up, and I remember getting my face pushed into the mud, and all of that stuff. Also, there were times when Catholic kids chased me down the street, yelling, “Let’s get the Jew!” Ugh.
Finally, when I grew up, I joined the Catholic Church. I married a Catholic girl in a beautiful church wedding. We had our kids baptised. One day as an adult in my 20’s, I was sitting on the benches in the park, overlooking the salt marsh. The same old group of Catholic guys, who used to beat us up, came over and sat down by me. They said, “Oh, here is the Jew.” I said, “Actually, I am not a Jew, I am a Catholic just like you. Just because my parents chose not to attend mass, does not mean that you should attack me nor should you beat up my other Jewish friends. “Gosh,” said one of the guys, “We beat him up for nothing!” Then they all offered me their apologies, which I accepted.
The 157-159 Vermilyea Avenue building always had a janitor living in the basement. This person was known as the “Super,” which indicated he was the superintendent of the building. But the Super never supervised anything. The Super lived on the ground floor at the back of the building. This basement was built on the surface of the ground, which is why there were so many stairs in front up to the first floor, where rent-paying tenants lived. The basement contained all of the rooms which existed on the upper floors, but only a few of the rooms were livable. The rooms at the front of the building, by the street, were used for storage, including the storage of coal. Coal was delivered in a coal truck which pulled up on the sidewalk and dumped the chunks through a basement window. In the center of the basement there was located the furnace, which provided heat in the winter, and hot water all year around. The furnace burned the coal, which needed to be hauled back to the furnace in a wheelbarrow. Ugh! The furnace was located in the region of the basement directly below the living room of Apartment 2-C.
The two rear apartments were joined together. These formed a large apartment where the Super lived. When I was a little boy, the Super was an old man from Poland called Harry Konopka. He had a wife named Julia Konopka. They had a daughter named Olga. Harry was a tall lean man with a thin white mustache, while Julia was short and round. They looked like your typical image of old time Polish peasants. My parents were friendly with the Konopka’s because they also came from north-central Europe. I called Mr. Konopka “Wujeku” (pronounce oo-yuh-koo) and I called Mrs. Konopka “Ciotka” (pronounced set-ka). These words mean uncle and aunt in Polish.
A word here about the “dumbwaiters” in the building. Apparently back in 1910 when the buildings were constructed, people felt that it was too much trouble to carry their garbage down to the basement. So each apartment was outfitted with a dumbwaiter. The dumbwaiter was a box located in a shaft which ran from the basement up to the roof. There was a pulley system for each dumbwaiter located in the portion of the shaft that protruded out of the roof. Our dumbwaiter shaft was located in the kitchen, but it was no longer in use. It had been nailed shut. The dumbwaiter shaft was 2 feet, 5 inches wide, and about 2 feet deep. But the dumbwaiter in the back hallway was still in operation. It was a public dumbwaiter. When you wanted to dispose of a bag of trash, you went down the hallway to the dumbwaiter and opened the door. Typically a foul stench exuded from the shaft. You pulled on a thick rope, and with a groan, the dumbwaiter would start its squeaky ascent from the basement. The box would arrive at the door, and you put your garbage inside. Then you sent the box back down to the basement.
In the basement, the dumbwaiter box arrived in the central utility area. Wujeku had to unload each bag of garbage. Being a man from Europe who lived by the code, “Waste not, want not,” he sifted through each bag of trash. Any scraps of food were thrown to Butchy and Jacky, the basement guard dogs. I would guess that their real names were Polish, but that’s what they sounded like to me as a young boy. Butchy was dark black, with long thick fur. Butchy barked at you and seemed to be threatening. Jacky was kind of orange-brown and just slunk around in the background. Jacky was probably much more dangerous. Anyway, these ugly dogs were not allowed inside the Konopka’s apartment.
Harry Konopka gathered and collected any and all useful items that were thrown out by tenants. He maintained shelves on the side of the utility room where he stored all of these treasures. When my father’s wind-up alarm clock failed, my mother went down to the basement and selected a replacement from the Konopka treasure trove. Little Herbie wanted a fish tank? A bird cage? These things were all available in the basement. Since I was just a little boy, I don’t know what Wujeku charged my mother for these items.
In their kitchen, the Konopka’s had a huge cage with a large parrot. The parrot was very beautiful, and it spoke fluent Polish, which I could not understand. I was warned never to put my fingers near the wires of the cage or the parrot would just bite them off. The outside door to the utility room was never locked. You could just walk right in. Of course, the sight of Butchy and Jacky snarling viciously in the utility room was enough to frighten unwelcome guests away. Once inside, we would ring the bell of the Konopka’s apartment. They were always home. Harry Konopka enjoyed drinking alcohol, but somehow he managed to keep the building in order.
There were 46 feet of open space behind our building. Up against the structure there was concrete paving, maybe 16 feet wide, but then there was a lovely garden. I would say that the garden was 50 feet wide, and 30 feet deep. There was stone wall separating the garden from the concrete walkway. In the center of the garden was a huge cherry tree which Wujeku had planted many years before. He also had a lovely white birch tree. There was a shed along the inside of the stone wall where Ciotka kept all of her gardening supplies. She filled the back yard with flowers and vegetables when springtime arrived. She had a raft of morning-glory vines growing on clotheslines which stretched from the stone wall back to her four rear windows of the apartment. What a lovely site. You can see the garden wall and the morning-glory vines in the photo below. Ciotka even created a small flower garden for me. When my mother needed to go somewhere in daytime when my father was at work, she would leave me in the garden where she knew that I was safe. I amused myself by digging little holes in the ground. Oh what a life! But then I got to be six years old, and I had to go to school…”
A special thanks to Herb Maruska for making this post possible. If you are reading this and have stories or photos you’d like to contribute, please drop me a line.