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The Pittner Family: An American Immigrant Story

Eugene Pittner emigrated from Germany aboard the SS United States in 1955 with his wife Emma, their eleven-year-old son Michael, fifteen-year-old son Winfried, and sixteen-year-old son Norbert.

The Pittner family, 1955. Photo courtesy of Michael Pittner.

Standing at the gangplank with mouths wide open from amazement of the size of the ship, we were photographed and later received the pictures onboard. Not only was the SS United States beautiful on the outside, but also the interior was wonderful to see, too luxurious for our way of life then.

Michael (our eleven-year-old “pain in the ass”) went on a voyage of discovery throughout the ship. After a short time he knew it from the bottom to the top, he has “taken ownership of it.” We were to leave the Le Havre Port shortly after midnight and, because we were so tired from the many exciting events of the day and the long train trip, we wanted to take a little nap. But we fell so fast asleep that we had not noticed the departure and therefore left old Europe without any fanfare (at least for us).

After breakfast the next morning, we went right on deck. The sea was a bit rough, the sky covered with clouds, and the ship rolled a little, but still one could see in the distance the last European islands disappear.

We ate the finest food for lunch; the head steward — a person from Hamburg — had chosen the food for us because we didn’t know the different names on the menu. There were such chunks of meat on each plate that one portion alone would have made a lunch for all of the residents of the little village in Germany from which we came!

That evening, we looked up the “passenger list,” a book, really, which was printed for each trip. In addition to the alphabetic listing of passenger names and the rank explanations of ship officers, it also was a roadmap for the common areas of all kinds, explaining the varied horns, bells and whistles, the daily programs and all sorts of interesting technical information about the ship itself.

Each day onboard was similar to the one before: games, promenade, swimming, and cinema. As the sun rose over the horizon on our last morning on the ship, we could see islands, fireboats, and in between wisps of fog, the famous Statue of Liberty. Skyscrapers (something we had never seen before, except in books) loomed over the New York skyline and we passed many piers. On the Hudson River we even passed the British steamer Queen Mary. We pulled up along Pier 86 at around 8:00 am.

Being new immigrants, we were the last to be processed by passport control. When we were finally were able to disembark, our luggage was ready to be picked up on the pier and we were able to complete the customs process in short order. Seeing the SS United States one last time was a little bittersweet, because that wonderful ocean liner had been our “home” for five days.

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