Jewish memoir finding resonance with all immigrants

Ruth Gasten’s friends joke about her addiction to National Public Radio. But it’s a habit with a history, connecting the German immigrant to her first days in the United States.

The 77-year-old traces her love for NPR back to her childhood in Chicago, where a bout of scarlet fever forced her to stay home from school. The array of programming on the radio kept her company while her parents found work.

“The radio became my companion,” Gasten said. “It didn’t matter what language was spoken. I enjoyed the music and soap operas, and I loved the Italian hour. And I am still addicted to NPR today.”

It’s one of the things the Livermore resident learned about herself while writing “An Accidental American: Memories of an Immigrant Childhood,” published in 2010.

BAGasten

The longtime educator, who has taught parenting and self-esteem classes in the East Bay, immigrated to Chicago with her parents in January 1939 when she was 6 years old. She later moved to Madison, Wis., and settled in Livermore in 1962.

Now Gasten is bringing her story to local classrooms and Congregation Beth Emek in Livermore, her family’s synagogue of more than 40 years.

When she meets with students, holding a copy of “An Accidental American,” Gasten is peppered with questions. Usually the class has read some of her book, heightening their curiosity.

They ask if she had any friends, why she was called a Nazi and how her family was treated once Hitler came to power. She explains to them the ways in which her small town changed and recounts how her family’s home was the target of vandalism.

“I wrote this book because I wanted young people to know what happened in Germany in the 1930s,” Gasten said. “It’s not that I want them to hate the Germans. I want these stories told so young people can learn from the past and speak out if they see ethnic, religious and racial prejudice creating problems in our country. A lot of good people in Germany didn’t speak out. Maybe if they had, Hitler wouldn’t have done what he did.”

To draw parallels between Germany in the 1930s and the present, Gasten gives students topics such as bullying and friendship to discuss in small groups. She asks if any have ever had friends who stopped hanging out with them, or what items they would choose to take if they had just two weeks to leave their homes.

The conversation doesn’t end once Gasten leaves the classroom. After her visit, students often send “the most eloquent letters,” she said. Many describe their own experience as a member of an immigrant family, adjusting to life in the U.S.

Her book also resonates with older readers. Gasten has appeared before several book clubs, including those organized by local churches, the Rotary Club and Daughters of the American Revolution.

“The fact that I talk a lot about the struggles and travails of coming to the United States, and the problems I faced when settling into the country, appeals to adults,” Gasten said. “A woman from Bangladesh told me I wrote the story of her life.”

“An Accidental American” opens with a poignant sentence: “Hitler and I entered the world scene in the same year — 1933. He came to power, and I was born to Joseph Stern, a cattle dealer, and his wife, Hannah, who lived in the tiny town of Neider-Ohmen, Germany, population 1,400.”

Even as a young girl, Gasten could sense the atmosphere shifting in her quaint town. Her neighbors were not as friendly, and Nazis would report Germans who associated with Jews. Joseph Stern was taken to Buchenwald a few days after Kristallnacht.

With her family’s escape imminent, Hannah Stern successfully pleaded with a commandant for her husband’s release. The three began their journey aboard the

SS Deutschland, an ocean liner bound for the U.S.

Gasten said her story of immigration is not much different from other families’. There were adjustments and hardships, but she stayed positive. In writing the book, she learned not only about herself, but also her parents.

“It was a good connecting experience,” Gasten said.

“An Accidental American: Memories of an Immigrant Childhood” by Ruth Stern Gasten (182 pages, Xlibris, $19.99)