Peter Engler: 'I Sense and Hope That We Have Formed a Bond'
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Peter Engler recalls his reunion with Margaret Hudson and reminisces on his childhood with the Adler family.
Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in this blog post are solely those of the interviewee. Responses have been edited for length and clarity.
PBS: What was the most important reason for you to find Margaret?
Peter Engler: I was very close to her parents Fritz and Stella Adler. Fritz, Stella and I had an unusual friendship - not at all like that between a 10-year-old kid and two adults my parents' age. Before Fritz and Stella married Fritz was seeing two ladies (Stella was one of them) and another lady whose name I cannot remember. I was the messenger between this “ménage à trois." The three of us would share our thoughts and problems like three adult friends, not like two adults and a 10-year-old.
I truly adored Stella and I was able to speak with her about the problems I had with my parents. Fritz believed my parents were not raising me in an adequate “masculine” manner, and to this end he gifted me with soccer boots and an air rifle, much to my parents' dismay. He also took me to see a newsreel film of a boxing match - Joe Lewis vs. Max Schmeling as I recall. For my bar mitzvah he gave me an accordion, which I still own and treasure.
Stella did confide in me that the three-way relationship between her, Fritz and the second lady was not one that she was willing to put up with much longer. She met one member of the U.S. military occupying forces in Shanghai who offered to marry her and bring her to the U.S. Stella decided to accept the offer if Fritz could not make up his mind. I was the person who delivered this message to Fritz. Fritz did make up his mind and the outcome is Margaret Hudson, née Adler, born Dec. 23, 1948.
PBS: What were the frustrations you felt along your journey? What was the hardest part of finding Margaret?
Peter: I can’t think of any frustrations. It was an emotionally taxing experience, required to relive my youth 70 years earlier under somewhat unusual circumstances. But not frustrating.
PBS: Now that you’ve reunited, what’s next for you and Margaret?
That question can be answered by the Forces of Karma, which prevent what is not destined, but compel what is to be.
I sense and hope that we have formed a bond, and I hope that we can cultivate and nourish that bond. Margaret and her husband Ray do quite a bit of traveling, although her trip to the reunion in San Francisco was her first visit to the U.S., and I hope that they can make it possible for them to come to the U.S. some day. I am an 83-year-old very senior citizen and am not all that keen on traveling and never was, possibly because of all the involuntary traveling I was required to do as a child. Just the thought of sitting in an aluminum tube for 17 hours to get from NYC to Sydney, Australia fills up my bladder.
I do have two close friends in Australia, one an elementary and high school classmate and Boy Scout comrade from Shanghai, and the other a classmate from McGill University in Montreal. So I do have three compelling incentives to make that trip.
PBS: What would you say to anyone else trying to make this kind of search? What advice or tips would you offer? Were there any lessons that you learned regarding the search process that might help others?
Peter: The sources of information for our search were the Jewish Joint Distribution Committee in Manhattan, the Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. and a professional genealogist in Yonkers, NY. All three are sources of archives of refugees, and the information gleaned can be painful.
For example, at the Holocaust Museum I was presented with a document thatidentified the date and destination that my paternal grandparents were deported to from Vienna to be put to death by the Nazis. I knew, of course, that all four of my grandparents perished in the Holocaust but I did not know where my paternal grandparents ended up. Being made aware of this was not an expected or comforting experience. I do not deplore being informed, but it was not a happy experience.
So my advice to others is, if you are looking for refugees, be prepared that you might get collateral information that you were not looking for, but which might be painful. However, I did meet the daughter of two individuals to whom I was very close, and who I regarded as my surrogate parents. So I, as an only child, did gain a surrogate sister, and that is a happy experience.
"My advice to others is, if you are looking for refugees, be prepared that you might get collateral information that you were not looking for, but which might be painful."
PBS: Your family decided to leave China after the war when “Chairman Mao’s communists were poised to take Shanghai.” What was that moment in your life like knowing you would be leaving Fritz, Stella and Margaret after 10 years together.
Peter: These were extremely turbulent times. I was 15 years old, an adolescent not yet able to think of the consequences of one’s decisions. And a decision I was required to make.
In early 1949 it was clear that Chiang Kai-Shek’s Kuomintang Party was on its way out and that Mao Tse Tung’s Communist party would soon be running the country. All of us refugees were looking for a way out. The most desirable destination was, of course, the U.S. But to be granted a U.S. immigration visa one’s country of birth determined which “Quota” one belonged to. Germany was a “large” quota and individuals born in Germany would be high on the list of potentially eligible U.S. immigrants, so my mom and I were likely to be allowed to immigrate to the U.S.
However my dad, who grew up in Vienna and considered himself to be a Viennese, was born in Romania. The Romanian quota was very small. It would be years, if ever, that he might be allowed to immigrate. On top of that one needed to have a close friend or relative living in the U.S. who would sign an “affidavit” that they financially support their guests should they run into financial difficulties. We had no such relative or friend.
The next popular destination was Israel, which was created in the fall of 1948. My dad predicted even then, that Israel was too unstable. I can recall my dad pointing out on a map that Israel’s borders were deliberately designed to make the region unstable - as it turned out to be and still is. The third destination was Australia, where the Adlers moved to, and that was just too far and isolated from the rest of the civilized world. A very small group of individuals even chose to return to Germany. This was out of the question for my parents.
My dad had earned a Ph.D in chemistry from the University of Vienna. As such he somehow established contact with a very large German chemical company, I believe it was I.G. Farben, the manufacturer of Xyklon B gas used in the concentration camp gas chambers. I am fairly certain that my dad was not aware of that. The company made my dad an offer to create or run a soap factory in or near Shanghai if that would be possible under the Communist regime.
Thus my parents proposed to me, a 15-year-old adolescent who was unlikely to assess the consequences of his decision, that my dad remain in Shanghai to see what the outcome would be when the Mao regime took over, and that my mom and I take advantage of a chartered refugee flight to Israel to visit her sister there who had moved from Berlin to then Palestine as a very young woman years earlier. If things worked out my mom and I would return to Shanghai and we would begin a new life there.
I was desperately anxious to get the hell out of Shanghai, and to do so on an airplane was irresistible for a youngster. I enthusiastically agreed to the plan not even taking into account when I would see my dad again and where I might continue my high school.
I write all this to stress the turmoil that I was exposed to. I cannot remember parting with my dear friends Fritz and Stella and their infant daughter, and cannot even remember whether they left a few weeks before or after my mom and I did. I just cannot remember saying goodbye.
PBS: We watch your search turn from Shanghai to Australia. Have you thought about visiting - or revisiting - those places?
Peter: In 2005 Guenter Cohn, my very close childhood friend in Shanghai, his wife Jutta, Dina and I went back to China. We took a standard tour beginning in Beijing, then boarded a riverboat on the Yangtze River to Shanghai. Once there, we parted company with the rest of the tourists and toured the Ghetto on our own.
For me that was a gut-wrenching experience. The house that we lived in was exactly the same as it was 60 years earlier. Grasping the banister leading from the ground floor to the first floor where our room was triggered memories, not all of them happy ones. Even the creak of the stair steps was unchanged. It was a very emotionally challenging trip.
"Grasping the banister leading from the ground floor to the first floor where our room was triggered memories, not all of them happy ones. Even the creak of the stair steps was unchanged. It was a very emotionally challenging trip."
PBS: When you reunite with Margaret, she presents you with a letter that you wrote to her when she was born. How did you feel learning that Fritz and Stella had kept your letter for so long, and what was it like for you to be able to read it again with Margaret?
Peter: Ah, that letter! I have it in front of me. I knew of its existence but had not read it until that dramatic theatrical reunion at the end of a pier in San Francisco Bay surrounded by cameramen and Ann Curry.
When I first read it, on camera, my immediate reaction was that it was written by a caring but arrogant and preachy individual. Having just reread it I still consider the adjectives valid.
That Fritz and Stella kept that letter for Margaret does not surprise me at all. I always felt, and still do, that the esteem and affection that I had for Fritz and Stella was mutual. And I would have loved to be a fly on the wall when Margaret’s parents talked about me, which I am confident they did. Yet that topic never came up when we spent almost a week with Margaret in San Francisco on our own without any minders, producers, cameramen etc.
Yet one more reason to find a way to make it possible to reunite with Margaret a second time.
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