Ida is not my oma, but she might as well be. Her granddaughter Danielle and I have been best friends for around six years, and consequently, I’ve become another grandchild myself. From sleepovers at Oma’s house followed by delicious homecooked breakfasts, to dinner dates at the diner, to playing her favorite wheel of fortune video game together, I’ve been made to feel like family. “You can come [over] anytime,” she’ll tell me, “Even if Danielle is not here, you know that.” “I know Oma,” I’ll say. Despite the closeness I feel to this woman who is not even truly my grandmother, there was much that I wasn’t aware I had left to learn about her.
Ida grew up in Nijmegen, Holland on the border of Germany in the midst of World War II. Her elementary years were spent hardly going to school as a result of the constant sounding of sirens in her hometown. With each bombing, tragedy struck – buildings leveled and countless lives lost. On February 22, 1944 alone, close to 800 lives were lost and hundreds more injured when the United States, aiming for an enemy target in Germany, accidentally struck residential Nijmegen instead. Hundreds more civilian lives were lost in Operation Market Garden as the Allied Powers attempted to take control of several bridges, one of which was in Nijmegen and another on the other side of the river. Ida told me that September 17, 1944 – the day that Nijmegen was liberated by the Allies – was a day she would never forget. “All these parachutes from the 82nd Airborne, I mean, thousands of parachutes in the sky. Unbelievable. I have pictures of that. You have to see them when you come [over] the next time,” she insisted. By the war’s end, 2,200 people had died and only 19% of the housing in the town was left undamaged – a circumstance that would change the course of Ida’s life in the years to come.
Several years later in May of 1958, Ida and her husband Chris were twentysomething-year-old newlyweds preparing for their long-awaited journey to the United States the following month. Although they had been planning to wed for some time before this, the lack of available housing in Holland forced them to wait until the approval of their immigration paperwork to do so. If they were to have married sooner, the happy couple would’ve had to spend an extensive amount of time living in separate homes with their parents simply because there was nowhere to go. This circumstance combined with a poor job market resulted in little opportunities available for young people in Ida’s generation that were trying to build lives for themselves. “In Holland when we were trying to get married and find an apartment, everything was bombed out during World War II and there was no rebuilding. We just couldn’t find any housing and the job market wasn’t great at that time, so we decided immigration was the way to go,” Ida explained to me. “I would say close to 70% [of our generation that wanted to get married] was immigrating to different countries. The favorite countries were Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and the United States. We didn’t like any of the other countries and it was very hard to get into the States, but that was our favorite one to go to,” she continued. Because of specific quotas in place at the time, Ida and Chris were placed on a long waiting list to immigrate to the United States. Once it was their turn, they had to fill out and sign paperwork stating that they had a sponsor and would not become a burden on the United States, as well as go through several health exams and an interview process with the American Consulate. Because Ida and Chris did not know anyone in the States, they were sponsored by the National Catholic Welfare Organization, which meant a separate set of interviews required just to gain the sponsorship of the organization. “We waited three years to come to the United States,” Ida admitted to me, “But it was worth it for us to wait for that.”
Ida and Chris traveled for 17 hours through Holland, Ireland, Newfoundland, and Boston before finally arriving in New York City. Once reaching their destination, they were immediately taken aback by the sheer size of the tall buildings that surrounded them. “We were not used to skyscrapers at all,” Ida explained. Though their hometown in Holland was a fairly decent city and they were used to city life, New York was something different altogether. “We were used to houses that were attached, and we had maybe a few apartment buildings, but certainly nothing higher than four stories if anything because so much was bombed out […] especially in our hometown.” In addition to the landscape, the lifestyle of Manhattan’s inhabitants seemed a strange phenomenon to the Dutch immigrant and her husband. “[The city] was extremely fast. People seemed to be always in a hurry […] and they spoke very fast,” she told me. The couple initially resided in residence hotel in the heart of Midtown Manhattan, convenient to New York’s greatest tourist traps such as Macy’s 34th Street and the Empire State Building. This, however, was temporary; they needed a place to stay that was nearer to Chris’s place of work in a laboratory around 150th street. This lead them to their rented Belmont Avenue home in an all Italian neighborhood in the Bronx, about eight blocks from Fordham University’s Rose Hill campus.
Ida and Chris adopted a routine in their new life in the States. Each morning they would wake up and take the L train from 183rd street to 149th street, where Chris would get off and walk a short distance to work and Ida would transfer to another subway. At the Times Square station, Ida would get off and walk another block to her job at J.P. Stevens Textile Corporation where she did both secretarial work and work related to statistics and finance. After work, the couple would get back on the train, come home and attempt to make dinner. Much of the time, they would be stopped by their Italian neighbors. “This lady in the apartment would say ‘no no no, that is not good’, that I had to have pasta. So, in the end I gave up, if she wanted to make us pasta that was fine with me,” Ida laughed. Some nights, Chris would attend classes at New York University toward a master’s degree in chemical engineering, as he had already gotten a bachelor of science degree in chemistry while in Holland. Later, he began attending night school at Columbia University to work toward his master’s degree in business administration. “That was a great opportunity [for him] here, to go to night school here […] those opportunities were not available in Holland,” Ida said. “He was always a study head, in Holland already too,” she added affectionately.
In their free time on the weekends, and sometimes even after work, Ida would stay in Manhattan and her husband would meet her there from work or school. Together, they would drink in as much of the city’s biggest attractions as they could, from the Statue of Liberty, to Ellis Island, to the Empire State Building and more. “We weren’t sure if we were staying in the jobs we had [or] if we had to move to another city […] we didn’t want to [move] but you never knew where the best job we could find [would be],” Ida explained. When Chris’s job moved to Queens, the couple followed the company there and – finally as homeowners – set up shop in Kew Garden Hills, where they would remain until 1965. In the future, they would go on to live in New Jersey, in South Carolina, and on Long Island as well.
Despite all they loved about their new environment, establishing themselves in the United States did not come without challenges. For Ida, the biggest of these challenges was learning English, despite knowing a small amount of what she called “the Queen’s English” before her immigration. Sounds, expressions, and even some words of American English were completely different than even the small amount of the Queen’s English she already knew. To help themselves, Ida and her husband made a pact: from the day they arrived, they would not speak any Dutch whatsoever. “We had decided when we came, we were not going to speak Dutch to each other, we were just going to try to keep speaking English. That really helped a lot I think, because you have to get used to it,” Ida explained. The couple also picked up some English from their black and white television set, and from the radio. Still, there were things that they struggled with. Ida had trouble with the structure of the language in particular, which she called “talking backwards” in comparison to the way Dutch was spoken. Words that sound the same, but mean different things – such as to, too, and two – also posed a challenge. Different expressions could be difficult to master as well and sometimes led to interesting encounters. Ida told me in between laughter the story of a fifteen-minute argument she once had with a cafeteria worker when trying to pick up the “pie a la mode” that her boss had asked for. When she got back to her boss, she profusely apologized for what she had returned with and explained that the worker had insisted on putting ice cream on top of the slice of pie. She was bewildered when her boss reassured her that he had wanted exactly that. “‘A la mode’, to me, was a French expression which meant ‘pie of the day’ […] I had no idea that ‘a la mode’ meant ice cream,” Ida told me. She later told me that it took her at least six months to begin controlling the language better. She was not fully comfortable with the new language and her new home until she began to dream in English.
Perhaps the worst experience the couple had in their new city was the result of an error of interpretation. One of their first times using a laundromat, Ida and Chris misinterpreted the box of soap referenced in the instructions to be a full box sold in the supermarket, rather than a single use box that could be picked up in the laundromat. Consequently, the full box of soap they used for their small load of laundry was far too much. “The foam was coming out of the store, all over the street, all over the sidewalk, and people were standing there looking. […] Little did we realize until we got to the door that [the foaming machine] was the machine that we had put the soap in,” Ida laughed. Extremely embarrassed and not wanting anyone to know of their mistake, Ida and Chris turned and walked away, returning only in the middle of the night to retrieve their items. “It was like two o’clock [in the morning] and these stores were open 24 hours. We waited until nobody was in there and took all of our clothes out, soaking wet and soapy, stuck [them] in the basket, and then went home with it. I had to rinse them all out in my bathtub. Oh, we were so embarrassed!” she exclaimed. It was the first and only time they made such a mistake, but they still never returned to that laundromat again.
Although she and her husband faced challenges during and after their transition to their new home, Ida was confident that they had made the right decision and would do it all the same way if she had to. “We never regretted coming to the states,” she told me. “I was never homesick. I missed my family and so did Chris I’m sure, but we never regretted coming here because the opportunities for us at that point in time were much greater here than in Europe.” Ida and Chris eventually went on to sponsor Chris’s brother when he immigrated to America, a testament to how far they had come. She advises anyone that may be in her position now to try to get their English under control as much as possible, citing the importance of learning the language of the country you are coming to. Ida also believes that an immigrant transitioning to the United States should do their best to get used to the customs of their new country, no matter how different they are from what one might be used to. “Whatever those customs are – they might be crazy in a way, but they might be good things too,” she said candidly.
A self-proclaimed city girl, Ida still believes New York, New York to be the best place she and her husband ever lived. “I had a good time. I’m not sure that I have any disappointments really, except my own stupidities at times,” she told me. “We had really, very good times.”
Roodenburg, H. (n.d.). History of Nymegen, Oldest City in the Netherlands (A. Simon, Trans.). Retrieved May 16, 2018, from https://www.noviomagus.nl/Historie/HistorieEng.htm