The Life and Times of Wolf Homburger

Wolf Homburger

Wolf was born in Karlsruhe, Germany on December 18, 1926. In 1939, at age 12, he was sent to England as part of the last Kindertransport, a rescue mission that sent thousands of Jewish children to the United Kingdom where they were placed in foster homes to keep them safe during World War II. He spent the war years attending school at Eastbourne College, which was relocated to the Radley campus near Oxford, and then teaching younger students at a school which had been relocated to northern Wales.

As a young man, he immigrated to the United States where in 1946 he finally reunited with his parents in New York City. He received a Bachelor’s degree in Civil Engineering from The Cooper Union in 1950, and a Master’s of Science in Civil Engineering from UC Berkeley in 1951. Naturalized in 1951, he served in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers from 1951 to 1955, working first as a construction and pavement design engineer and later on active duty with tours in Japan and Korea. In May of 1955, Homburger joined UC Berkeley.

In 1958, Wolf married the late Arlene Levinson, whom he met at an International House alumni event. Both had great affection for I-House and were generous supporters: Homburger’s former resident room, 760, was dedicated in his honor in 2006, while its south patio was named in memory of his late wife.

Besides traffic engineering, he was passionate about music, and he and his wife were committed supporters of Neve Shalom-Wahat al-Salam, a village in Israel where Jewish and Arab families live together in a peace-building effort.

The following article and photos were sent to us by his son, Paul, and was taken from a story written by Wolf for the class entitled Trains of Thought at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute at the University of California, Berkeley. It is a moving biography of how he came to the United States sixty four years ago and his lifelong love for trains as his favorite mode of travel……..

Railway Memories

Written by Wolfgang Homburger

Edited by Wolf’s son Paul Homburger

Kindertransport – May 3-4 1939:

By early 1939, it was obvious that Jewish people had to flee Germany if they could.  That last phrase was the problem: whither could they go?  Some countries were too close to Germany for comfort; many had only small immigration quotas or none at all.  At the behest of the Society of Friends (Quakers), the British government allowed up to 10,000 Jewish and other “threatened” children, from infants to 17-year olds, to come temporarily to its shores, but adults were excluded because they might add to the unemployment problem.  In the UK, the children were either taken in by families or housed in small groups in camps.

My parents reluctantly decided to send us (my two brothers and me) on this “Kindertransport”, as the program became known.  A distant English relative, a wealthy middle-aged bachelor, offered to take care of us.  Thus it came about that, on the morning of May 3, 1939, my two brothers and I found ourselves on a platform in the Frankfurt Hauptbahnhof in a crowd of tearful families.  Parents were bidding farewell to children, whom most of them would never see again. (My parents luckily survived and reached the U.S. in 1941.)   The special train, chartered by a welfare organization, which also provided some escorts, consisted of standard “Reichsbahn” corridor vehicles pulled by a steam express engine.  There were about ten of us in each compartment, some from our home town, others strangers.  When the train stopped at the German-Dutch border, nerves were taut.  Officials in Nazi uniforms inspected our papers and luggage.  Everyone had to open suitcases and backpacks, and show our one-page exit permits – Jewish people had been stripped of German citizenship, and so we were not allowed to have passports. A girl of about 14 was ordered to play a tune on her accordion to prove that she was not smuggling any valuables out of the country.  She barely managed to squeeze some notes out of the instrument.  I seem to remember that the inspectors gave the Hitler salute as they left.

As soon as the train finally crossed into the Netherlands, all the older children, who understood the significance of this event, relaxed and became a little more cheerful.  The train stopped in Rotterdam, and we were taken to a nearby hall and served a dinner.  Then back to the train and on to Hook van Holland, where the night cross-Channel ferry awaited us.  Another chartered train arrived from Berlin, bringing the total number of children to perhaps 600.  The ship arrived in Harwich after the eight-hour crossing in the morning.  On the ship, some of us were assigned berths equipped with bunks and blankets inscribed with the letters LNER.  How strange, I thought, don’t they know how to spell “Liner”?  I later learned that the ship and the blankets belonged to the London & North Eastern Railway!  And it was a train of this company that took us from the dock in Harwich to the Liverpool Street station in London.  There, we were brought into a large hall – with our IDs hanging from our necks like luggage labels – and waited for our names to be called.  Thus ended what was the most significant rail (plus-ship) journey of my life.

A Mug of Tea for Peace – Crewe – May 8-9, 1945:

Cafe on the train platform at Crewe

The armistice ending the European part of World War II came into force at midnight of May 8-9. 1945.  At the time I was a teacher at a boys’ boarding school which had been evacuated from the potential dangers of the Essex coast to the vicinity of Portmadoc in the Snowdonia region of Wales.  The summer term had just started, but one of the boys had been ill and had not yet returned from his home in southern England. I was dispatched to London to meet him and escort him to the school.  Not very far from the school was a rather unique railway station, where the westernmost single-track branch lines of the Great Western Railway (GWR) and the London Midland & Scottish (LMS) happened to meet, but there was no other reason for a station.  The name of the stop – Afonwen – was locally known as “If and When”.

Given the somewhat chaotic situation – everyone wanted to go to London to celebrate – trains were not running “on time”, but more or less at random.  I chose the LMS and took a local train to the busy junction at Crewe, arriving there at about 11 pm, but could not board the next London express which was so crowded that people got on and off through the windows as well as the doors.

There was a small café on the wide platform, and it was here that, as the clock moved from 11:59 to midnight, I joined a group of strangers to toast the moment of the end of fighting with mugs of tea and milk.  Thus began VE Day.  Some time later, an express appeared from the north; I was able to squeeze into a car, drowsed in the corridor, and reached London about 5 am.  There the streets were filled with crowds, some celebrating with spirituous libations, and others sleeping on the “pavements” (English for sidewalks), waiting for the Underground to open.

Later that day, I met the pupil as arranged.  I decided that we should travel back to Wales via the GWR route that avoided Crewe, and we arrived at the school just as they were cleaning up after a great victory party.

Arriving in the New World – April 12, 1946:

Wolf reunited with his father in the late 1940s in upstate New York

This was mostly a ship journey, but eventually I arrived in New York by train.  My guardian had learned that the Royal Navy was returning some ships, lend-leased from the US Navy, across the Atlantic, and that passengers who could get to the port of embarkation on time were welcome to travel on one of these.  I was able to board a landing craft carrier of about 1000 tons displacement.  Accommodations were spartan (triple bunks), but since there were only 30 passengers in space for 300, this did not trouble us.  Nor was the fare a problem; we were only asked to pay 4 shillings (about 40¢) per day for food, or $5.20 for the 13-day crossing, but this rose to $6.80 when we floated in the middle of the Atlantic for four days while repairs were being made to the ship’s boiler. The destination was Norfolk, Virginia.  I was then to take a ferry across the mouth of Chesapeake Bay to Cape Charles, where it connected with the New York express of the Pennsylvania Railroad.  My first impression of the US was rather negative.  In the UK, we had met a number of GI’s who had told us about the class-less society in the US.  “We don’t have all these Earls and Lords that you have; everyone is equal.”  I quickly learned otherwise.  As I entered the Norfolk ferry terminal, I was jolted into a state of puzzlement by signs that read “Whites Only” or “Coloreds Only” at every snack bar, entrance to toilets, and water fountain.  In Germany the signs had read “Juden unerwünscht” (“Jews not welcome”); was I back where I started?

The overnight train trip was uneventful.  We left Cape Charles behind a steam locomotive, and arrived at Pennsylvania Station behind an electric one (steam traction was prohibited in the Hudson River Tunnel).  There were no more signs separating “Whites” from “Coloreds,” which was a great relief.

I was so excited to see my parents again after almost seven years, that I took no notice of the station at that time.  During my sojourn in Manhattan for the following four years, I got to know it.  It was – and is even more so – a poor example of a portal to one of the largest cities of the world.  There was a large central hall, which has long since been demolished, with the platforms hidden below.  The platforms were, and still are, narrow, dark, and uninviting.  Closely-spaced columns to hold up the entire building prevent us from appreciating the scope of the station and the appearance of the trains.  Even so, the station was impressive when compared to –

Arriving in California — June 15, 1950:

As soon as possible after graduating from college, I took Mr. Greeley’s advice and caught the train to California.  By now, steam locomotives had been replaced by diesel ones, and railroad companies invested in shiny new passenger coaches and locomotives.  In the late 1940s, three of them – the Burlington, Denver & Rio Grande, and the Western Pacific formed a partnership to buy a fleet of new trains and inaugurate the California Zephyr between Chicago, Denver, Salt Lake City, and Oakland.  About five of the coaches in each 13-car train had  “vistadomes” which offered wide-ranging views.  Trains were scheduled to pass through the Rockies and the Feather River Canyon in daytime, and cover the less interesting plains of Nebraska and the Nevada desert at night.  The trains were highly successful until airlines became viable competitors in the early 1960s.

And so it was that, around noon, the Zephyr came through Altamont Pass to what is now Fremont, and paralleling the just opened freeway segment through East Oakland to Third Street.  It was startling to see this long (about 1100 ft) train rumbling down the middle of a city street. I had gone with my luggage to the end of the car when the train stopped.  Looking out, I could not see anything resembling a station, and assumed that the train had stopped at a traffic signal.  The attendant told me to get off, and pointed to a small building a block away: “That’s the station.” Because of its length, the train was blocking two cross streets.  There was no sign directing arriving passengers to taxis or buses.  After a few minutes, with much bell ringing and horn tooting, the train continued on Third Street to its final stop in the Port area where buses awaited the San Francisco passengers.  What an inglorious end for such a splendid train after a journey of 2500 miles!

Blown Cover: Switzerland – 1956:

I used to have a nightmare of being back in Germany, and being recognized and denounced as ‘Jewish’ because I spoke English. So, I decided to pretend to be a native and speak only German on my first post-war trip to a German-speaking country .  This turned out to be Switzerland, which I was crossing from Zürich airport to Stresa in the Italian Alps.  The route was via Bern and the Lötschberg Tunnel.  After Bern, I was in a compartment with an American couple.  I kept to myself, a little smug that I was bilingual and pretending not to understand their conversation about the scenery which I remembered well from my 1936 trip.   Suddenly, the lady leaned toward me and asked: “Have you come directly from San Francisco?”  My cover was blown.  I asked her how she had guessed this.  She pointed to my suitcase in the rack over my seat.  From its handle dangled an identifying label with PALACE HOTEL – SAN FRANCISCO inscribed upon it.

And Now, Fast Forward to Germany – Fall of 2006:

Punctuality is not “über alles” on Deutsche Bahn:

A friend and I were traveling from Berlin to Karlsruhe with a stopover in a village east of Hannover to visit my cousin.  The nearest railway station is Sehnde on a secondary line, reached from Berlin by ICE (German equivalent of TGV) train via Hildesheim.  To continue to Karlsruhe, the best route is back to Hildesheim and then on the same ICE route to our destination.

Part 1 of this trip was routine.  The ICE leaves from the brand-new, superb Berlin Hauptbahnhof* every hour.  At Hildesheim the transfer involves going from track 3 to track 7 via a footbridge, which is equipped with an elevator only at the express tracks 2 and 3.  At track 7 one must carry ones bags down or up a long stairway,  but we had plenty of time to do this.

Part 2, however, proved more exciting.  The timetable allowed only 7 minutes at Hildesheim for the move from track 7 back to track 3.  At Sehnde  – an unstaffed station – my cousin became a little nervous when the local train did not arrive punctually.  It was not that crucial for us, since the ICE service is  hourly.  However, when the diesel rail cars finally showed up 5 minutes late, Angelika talked to the train conductor about our short connecting time.  His response was whatever the German is for “not to worry”.  He phoned ahead to Hildesheim, reported our situation, including how much luggage we had (one heavy suitcase and a “carry-on bag” each), and probably, that we were senior citizens.  As the train reached Hildesheim, we could see the ICE already waiting at its platform.  Two railroad personnel greeted us, grabbed our luggage, and led the way up the stairs, across other tracks on the footbridge, and down to the ICE.  Once we were safely in the coach where our seats had been reserved, the train left – about 5 minutes late!  Since the ICE network has several hubs where schedules connect precisely, other ICEs must have been delayed a couple of  minutes at Frankfurt and Mannheim, awaiting our arrival.

Epilogue – May 20, 2009:

After traveling by rented car through the Cotswolds and North Wales with my son, Paul, and daughter-in-law, Donna, we turned in the car in Chester and took the train to London.  It was pulled by a hybrid locomotive, that uses diesel on unelectrified lines and switches to electricity when catenary wires appear — all at speeds up to 120 mph.  The first stop was in Crewe.  Memories of VE Day came flooding back.  I believe the train stopped on the same platform that I had briefly inhabited in 1945.  At any rate, looking out our window, just across from our seats was a café!

Wolf, your memory will live on in the many lives you touched.

YOU made a difference!

One Response to “The Life and Times of Wolf Homburger”

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