Interviewed July 3, 1986
Concord residents interviewd include, Peter Benes, Carla Montague, Krist Andersen, Anna Recco, Nancy Mazzeo, and Frances Faieta.
Concord Oral History Program
Renee Garrelick, Interviewer.
I'm Peter Benes of Harrington Avenue. I arrived in 1942 on board an empty troop liner that the Cunard line converted from military to civilian use to bring political refugees of mixed nationalities from England.
My grand uncle, Eduard Benes, was the president of Czechoslovakia from 1936-1938 before the Nazis took it over as part of the larger Third Reich after the Munich agreement.
My family and I followed my grand uncle into exile in England. My father was a newspaper reporter covering the League of Nations in Geneva and came to America as past of a diplomatic and trade delegation for the exiled government, that had a consulate in the United States. In 1948, when Czechoslovakia became a Communist country, my family's political refugee status became permanent.
I remember the trip over here from England in mid-November accompanied by my parents and older brother and sister. It lasted 22 days. We were part of a convoy of about 50 ships that included cargo vessels and oil tankers along with the troop transports. And because it was wartime the route taken was a circuitous one. We were attacked three or four times and our boat was hit twice.
At the end of the harrowing voyage, there was the Statue of Liberty. We were all looking for her, it was such a big deal. I was eight years old and the biggest thing in my life then was that Statue of Liberty and getting a superman comic book which I devoured.
I sought political freedom and a better way of life when I came with my parents in 1956 from a divided Germany having escaped earlier from the Soviet takeover of my native Leipzig.
The boat that I left on from Bremerhaven was filled with refugees from Eastern bloc countries entering as part of a special refugee quota passed during the Eisenhower Administration. Medical exams for the 1,000 people aboard the transporter were given in Germany.
I was 16 when I first passed the Statue of Liberty. It was an early morning sunrise when I first saw her. Everyone standing on the boat was very excited. She gave me a comforting feeling, that I was here, I made it, I had arrived. She seemed so personal to me.
I first saw the Statue of Liberty in 1914 and I will never forget her. Arriving from Loiten, Norway with my mother, paternal grandparents and four older brothers and sisters, we joined my father, a farmer, who was already in Concord. To this five year old boy, with an immigrant's tag to be processed through Ellis Island, the very size of the statue meant that I was entering a land of giants.
I thank God day and night for my chance to come to the United States. In 1921 at age 20 I left Pesaro, Italy eager to escape its poverty. I came to Concord to live with my aunt Theresa Fricelli on Belknap Street, in an Italian neighborhood behind the Concord depot.
The 12-day trip ended at Ellis Island, but since I had been examined before leaving and was young and healthy, I don't remember fearing the medical exams given. I do remember a lot of confusion among the new arrivals unable to speak English and the sight of the Statue of Liberty that early morning in October. I remember feeling so very happy.
Old Bedford Road.
I was 10 years old in 1904 when accompanied by my mother and a younger brother, I joined my father and two sisters at Sag Harbor, Long Island. I remember that the name of the boat was "Rex d'Italia" and the journey took two weeks.
The weather was frequently bad. There was a priest aboard who said mass every morning, and everyone prayed a lot of the time.
And while the Statue of Liberty may have been a main attraction for some, for me it meant reuniting my family that like so many others of the time, could not all arrive together.
I passed the Statue of Liberty twice in my life and was able to appreciate the great lady the second time around. In 1913, at age 3, I arrived from Pianella, Italy with my mother and grandfather to join my father and uncle who worked as gardeners on the Higginson estate in Lincoln.
When my mother became homesick to see relatives in Italy, she returned with her 4 children in 1921. I was 11 years old then and it was a rough ocean voyage back. Living conditions were primitive compared to the U.S.
Lucky for us my father realized the immigration laws were becoming stricter and he got us out in 1924 before the new immigration law went into effect. Otherwise we could have been stuck there.
On the boat over when the Statue of Liberty came into view, there was great excitement. Everyone was screaming and hollering, "Viva la Amerika, Viva la libertad!"
Note: This interview is also referred to as, "Seeing the Statue of Liberty for the First Time."