Scroll down for the video story told by Alfred in front of an audience.
The women and children were released. When they got home they witnessed a fire in the street in front of their home where locals had piled all the contents from the nearby synagogue and set them aflame.
Alfred Kuhn was only four years old when his parents started to plan how to get out of Germany. It was 1938 and almost too late. They thought they were safe from Nazi edicts in their remote rural town of Barchfelt where change usually straggled in from the cities at a snail’s pace. But Nazi edicts eventually took hold that forbade Jews from owning a car and then any property at all. Al’s parents were forced to liquidate their general store. Soon after came the rule that Jewish kids could not attend German schools.
In November 1938, they experienced Kristallnacht, a night when the Jewish population, Jewish businesses, and synagogues were targeted for vandalism throughout the country. Every Jew in town was arrested. The men were sent to concentration camps. Alfred still remembers being loaded on a truck with other families and taken to the county seat – to a large drab-colored basement room, waiting to be processed, wondering where all the fathers had been taken.
The women and children were released. When they got home they witnessed a fire in the street in front of their home where locals had piled all the contents from the nearby synagogue and set them aflame. (The German innkeeper whose establishment adjoined the synagogue insisted they not burn the building so it would not endanger his business.) The burning seat cushions released their feathers into the sky and Al still remembers feathers floating down like snowflakes for two days after.
Treatment was harsh at the concentration camp where Alfred’s father was taken, and many of the men were traumatized. Alfred’s father managed well enough and indeed he gained a release four months later due to the fact he had served as a German soldier in World War I.
The reunited family wanted to emigrate to the U.S. but the quota system would have required a three-year wait. They learned of a Swiss entrepreneur who needed cheap labor for a dairy farm he was starting in Bolivia – employing modern European farming techniques. In April, 1940 they were able to book passage to Italy and from Genoa got steamship passage to Chile and train tickets to Bolivia.
Alfred was not yet six years old but he remembers the three-week ocean voyage as the first time he was allowed to drink red wine. He’d been allowed to take one toy with him and he chose a hundred-piece erector set.
At the remote Bolivian farm they lived with no electricity or hot water and not much food. Still Al remembers it as a childhood adventure. After one year, however, his parents were intent on getting Alfred into a school and his mother moved to La Paz with him and his ever-present erector set. Alfred attended a Jewish school with children of the 5,000 mostly recent Jewish immigrants in Bolivia’s capital city. The teachers were from the immigrant community, some of them doctors and lawyers who could not practice in Bolivia.
After sixth grade Alfred attended a La Paz school geared to Americans. His sister worked at a hat shop and eventually the family purchased the store, adding shoes and stockings to the inventory. Nine years after they came to Bolivia the family had saved enough to emigrate to the US arriving in Worcester, MA in 1949. Alfred attended a special school for immigrants and studied English and US History. Every foreigner had to pass an English language test before they could attend regular public school. The erector set still provided an outlet for Alfred’s growing passion for designing mechanical things, but now he could also purchase assembly kits from a hobby shop.
The family moved to New York City in the early 50’s. Alfred’s father found work at a sheet metal factory in Harlem while his mother became a seamstress and sewing machine operator at a fur coat factory. Their careers went backwards, but it was worth it to see Alfred accepted to NYU, where he majored in Engineering. He was fascinated with flying machines and the possibilities of space exploration. After graduation Alfred was hired by Grumman Corporation. Also, his Uncle arranged a blind date with a visiting French girl who wanted to learn English and before long they married.
Al and his wife lived on Long Island for 39 years while he worked on the designs of numerous transport vehicles including airplanes, submarines, and as the reader might imagine – spacecraft. In fact, Al was on the team that designed the lunar module landing vehicle. Not bad for an immigrant kid with an erector set.
Today Al and his wife live in a senior residence in Palo Alto near their two sons who live and work in the Silicon Valley.
The interview with Al Kuhn was done by Elliot Margolies at the Moldaw Residence in Palo Alto.