Jay Sommer, New Rochelle
photo by Toshi Tasaki
Jay Sommer is the 86-year-old author of an autobiography, whose title he took from the sonnet inscribed at the base of the Statue of Liberty, Journey to the Golden Door. Born Martin Steinberger in 1927 in Mukachevo, Czechoslovakia, Sommer and his two brothers were raised primarily by their mother, whom he credits for his survival. She divorced his father, who had seven children from a previous marriage. “My mother taught me to do everything with passion,” he says. “Even when I pray, I like to do it with all my heart and soul.”
His mother died of tuberculosis when he was 14. Alone, he found his way to Budapest and landed work as a bicycle mechanic. Before long, Germany occupied Hungary and he was forced into a labor camp. At the Csepel ammunitions factory, where he dug trenches, prisoners were beaten routinely. “On the one hand, you lose your sense of humanity and, on the other, you’re amazed by the potential of inhumanity,” he says. “That has been omnipresent with me.”
Because Csepel was a military installation, it was a target for the Allied Forces. “We were bombed around the clock,” he says. “Jews were not allowed to hide in the bomb shelter, so it was not unusual on any given day to lose a dozen friends. To this day, when I hear the sound of a siren, my heart begins to pound.”
Sommer was desperate to escape, and so was his friend, Imre, a bold “Budapest boy” who came up with a plan for himself and the “naive village boy,” Sommer. “We were prepared to pay with our lives for even the remote possibility of freedom.” One day, they slipped into the changing rooms, tore off the Star of David sewn on their uniforms, and hopped onto a truck that brought in non-Jewish laborers. “I held my breath, hoping no one would recognize us.”
For the next six months, he lived in hiding as a fugitive “in constant fear.” Pretending to be a non-Jew, he eventually was able to get a job as a farmhand. “I spoke Yiddish and Ukranian at home, but my mother had insisted I learn Hungarian as well, and it led to my survival.”
In 1945, the Russian army arrived in Budapest. “They came at me with a bayonet until I yelled out I was a Jew and a Jewish Russian officer saved my life.” Sommer’s liberation was short-lived and his plans to locate his family were curtailed. For another six months, he was forced into serving as an interpreter for a Russian lieutenant in the Red Army who believed Sommer was trying to steal his girlfriend because he once saw them speaking. “The lieutenant did not want to be there either,” he says. “He was an unhappy man who constantly belittled me. One day, he set his gun on his desk and said, ‘Look at this gun. Your life is in my hands and, if I decide, you will not see the blue sky tomorrow.’”
Upon his desertion from the army, Sommer discovered that his seven half-brothers and -sisters had been killed in concentration camps. His younger brother, Samuel, had been shot on his way to Auschwitz when he attempted to escape. Only his older brother, Harry, survived. “I was stunned by the experience and did not become fully aware of the impact of the tragedy until later. There are components that come to me to this day.” And he declares, “God didn’t make the Holocaust. People did.”
In 1945, Sommer, then 19, eventually arrived at a displaced persons’ camp in Cremona in Northern Italy. Despite Italy’s status as a former Axis power, Sommer is grateful that Italy opened its borders to refugees. In the camp, his love of teaching germinated while working with refugee children. “Having only a fourth-grade education, I resorted to telling them stories, teaching them songs, and playing athletic games. Spending time with these young souls, miraculously saved from Hitler’s henchmen, gave me justification for being there. I loved children and I wanted to give them something that I was deprived of, like correcting the past.”
He wanted to immigrate to the United States but needed a sponsor. In 1948, after a two-year search, Max Newman, one of his friend’s uncles, agreed to sponsor him, but they needed the visa to match Sommer’s fake Christian papers, the only ones he had. And because the moniker “Jay Sommer” was inscribed on the bogus visa he got his hands on, his name was forever changed.
“I never thought I’d get to America, but there I was on a dilapidated ship, the Marina Perch.” Sommer went on to earn two master’s degrees, one in Russian and another in Spanish literature, as well as all the credits toward a doctorate, attending school at night for 21 consecutive years. For 25 years, he taught foreign languages at New Rochelle High School. In 1981, he was named National Teacher of the Year, an honor bestowed at the White House, after which he served on President Reagan’s National Commission on Excellence in Education.
“Besides defying my past, the rewards I got from teaching are immeasurable. Children gave me more than I could ever give them. To be in the company of young people invariably places you in their world. To this day, I run into students I’ve had and it gives me sustenance. It was also gratifying to give back to this precious country.”
Sommer and his wife of 61 years, Shirley, a retired English teacher, live in New Rochelle and have a son, a published poet with three children of his own, who live in St. Louis, Missouri. “I was very careful about what I told Jason about my past. I wanted to make sure I did not darken his life with my darkness.”