We Were Strangers Once


By Betsy Carter

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For fans of The Nightingale and Brooklyn comes an exquisite and unforgettable novel about friendship, love, and redemption in a circle of immigrants who flee Europe for 1930s-era New York City.

“Carter’s warm and beautiful prose brings us love, tragedy, mystery and hope in a moving celebration of America and the people who have come to it.” — Amy Bloom, New York Times bestselling author of Lucky Us and Away

On the eve of World War II Egon Schneider–a gallant and successful Jewish doctor, son of two world-famous naturalists–escapes Germany to an uncertain future across the sea. Settling into the unfamiliar rhythms of upper Manhattan, he finds solace among a tight-knit group of fellow immigrants, tenacious men and women drawn together as much by their differences as by their memories of the world they left behind.

They each suffer degradations and triumphs large and small: Egon’s terminally acerbic lifelong friend, bestselling author Meyer Leavitt, now wears a sandwich board on a New York street corner; Catrina Harty, the headstrong daughter of a dirt-poor Irish trolley driver, survives heartbreak and loss to forge an unlikely alliance; and Egon himself is forced to abandon his thriving medical practice to become the “Cheese Man” at a Washington Heights grocery. But their spirits remain unbroken, and when their little community is faced with an existential threat, these strangers rise up together in hopes of creating a permanent home. With her uncanny ability to create indelible characters in unforgettable circumstances, bestselling author Betsy Carter has crafted a gorgeous novel that will resonate with anyone who has ever felt adrift and longed for home.


My fellow Americans, we are and always will be a nation of immigrants. We were strangers once, too.

—Barack Obama


In the Old Country


Remember, he’s a busy man. No idle talk. And don’t forget to wear your gloves.”

When Elisabeth looked up from the street, she could make out her mother’s form, still in her dressing gown, standing behind the only unshuttered window on the street. It was early enough that there was no sun, no shadows, nothing except the familiar harsh voice ricocheting off the cobblestones and whisked away by the frigid February wind.

She wanted to shout back, “I don’t have to make idle talk; my work speaks for itself,” but she had long ago given up on that conversation. Besides, this morning she had no time to waste bickering with her mother. All her attention was focused on one thing and one thing only: her meeting with Germany’s most famous naturalist, Professor Rudolph Schneider, who had spent the past five years compiling research on the birds of Europe. Now he was looking for someone to illustrate his work, which was, in a sense, what Elisabeth Arnstein had been doing for most of her twenty-one years.

When she had been a few months shy of eight years old, Elisabeth’s father had become so ill that he’d taken to his bed. After school, she would come home and sit with him. Sometimes she’d get under the covers and lie with her head on his shoulder while he slept. It was early spring, and though he appreciated his daughter’s attention, even craved it, Bernard Arnstein also felt it was unnatural for a girl Elisabeth’s age to be confined to a dark room with a dying man. Knowing what a quick hand and deft mind she had, he’d said to her: “Elisabeth, take your pad and pencils outside and bring back the spring to me.” So every day after school, she would go with her sketchbook to the Stadtwald, the largest forest in Frankfurt, and sit quietly in the brush, drawing the foliage and insects and birds around her. At night she would lay her sheets of sketches at the foot of her father’s bed, and he would ask questions: “What did the starling’s song sound like?” “Were the fawn’s eyes frightened when she came upon you?” “How did the toad’s skin feel in your hand?”

A jeweler by trade, Bernard Arnstein had spent his days peering through a magnifying glass, synchronizing the mechanics of a clock or placing chips of diamond just so around the emerald centerpiece of a ring. Patience was his craft, precision his art, and he was eager to instill both in his only child. “You must make us see the light reflect off the loon’s back, hear the ruffling of the hawk’s feathers. Give them life, Elisabeth, not only pretty colors.” Before he died, he gave her a small package wrapped in brown paper with a note inside: Remember, fresh eyes on the world. The gift was an old prosthetic eye made of hand-blown glass, the onyx-black pupil surrounded by a hand-painted marine-blue iris centered on a porcelain-white background. The eye had been a gift to him from his own father, and he had always kept it on his worktable. As a child, Elisabeth had been afraid to touch it because it looked so real, but after her father died, she kept it in the drawer of her dressing table, and at least once a day she’d hold it in her hand long enough for the cool glass to become warm and the memory of her father’s touch visceral.

Elisabeth continued her habit of going to the Stadtwald, where she mostly drew the birds. She became so attuned to their songs and habits that she could distinguish the high-pitched tsee-tsewit of a swallow from the sneezy tsiwick of a woodcock. She never tired of watching over their eggs, or waiting for the mature birds to come back from their hunt and drop dinner down the throats of their chicks. Sometimes a wren or a starling would stop at her feet and peck at her shoes. They would stare at her with their keen black eyes, and she would feel certain that something had transpired between them. She felt her father in the birds’ presence. She was certain they hovered as if they were keeping watch and guiding her. How else to explain why they would stand still before her long enough that she could sketch their forms and memorize their plumage?

It was a childish habit, she knew, but this morning as she walked toward the streetcar, she checked the sunless sky for a bird, any sign of one. There was nothing. All right, she said to herself, it will be Professor Schneider and me: I hope he’s prepared. Defiance was an old friend. It stuck with her when schoolmates taunted and called her birdbrain, and saw her through her mother’s relentless chiding: “The birds will not put food on your table or keep you warm at night.” Every evening, when she returned from the Stadtwald, her mother would grab her hands. “Wash that filth from your fingers. Your hands are like a common ditchdigger’s.”

Elisabeth would examine the dusty colors on her fingers: the rosy gray of a pine grosbeak’s rump, crimson from the crested head of a great spotted woodpecker, a yellow smudge from a wagtail’s belly: her treasures of the day.

“Dirt is dirt. You and your father, you live with your heads in the clouds.” Her mother never tired of pointing out the ways in which Elisabeth and her father were tethered, as if she were still trying to insinuate herself between them, even after his death.

Surely the professor shared Elisabeth’s passion.

The wind picked up. For all the time she’d spent pinning her hair into a bun this morning, she could feel strands of it coming undone. She pulled her shawl tighter around her head. She had heard that the professor from Heidelberg was an elegant man, even something of a dandy. Then she remembered her mother’s warning: Don’t forget to wear your gloves. She dismissed this concern. Surely the professor had better things to worry about than her poor hands.

After a twenty-minute ride on the streetcar, she got out at Schweizer Strasse and faced a row of old stone houses with pointed roofs and smoke coming out of their chimneys. They were redbrick storybook houses, the kind of places that Hansel and Gretel might have called home. She rapped on number 916, the one with the cast-iron doorknocker in the shape of an eagle’s head and was greeted by a chubby-faced woman with cheeks the color of last night’s claret. “How do you do,” the woman said. “You must be Fräulein Arnstein. May I take your coat? Please, sit here by the fire, you must be freezing on a morning like this.”

The woman disappeared through a heavy oak door, closing it behind her. Elisabeth sat on an overstuffed chair before the fire, her portfolio in her lap. There was a worn rug at her feet, and on the walls, some of the framed original illustrations from the professor’s book, The Wildlife of Central Europe. Published five years earlier, in 1885, it had become an instant classic, and Elisabeth had memorized every illustration in it, drawn by the professor’s coauthor, an older gentleman who’d passed away shortly before the book was published. Now she rose to study the drawings up close. The colors were gorgeous, even transcendent, and the drawings were perfectly composed, but the details were muddy, and the quills on the porcupine didn’t look remotely real. These are beautiful, she thought, but where’s the life? Mine are better.

She allowed herself to sit with that smug feeling as she warmed her hands at the fire. There was no need to put on her white gloves, as her mother had warned. Gloves or no gloves, the professor would find her work agreeable. The woman reappeared. “The professor will see you now. Come this way.” They walked down a long, dark, uncarpeted hallway. Elisabeth was aware of how her shoes clacked against the bare wood, but she had to walk fast to keep up with the woman in front of her. When they reached the office, she pushed open the door, revealing a bright and immaculate room. The stone walls were bare and painted white. The professor sat behind a long table with stacks of paper in front of him and a notebook page half-filled with his cursive handwriting. In the same cheerful voice she’d used before, the red-cheeked woman announced, “Fräulein Arnstein is here to see you, Doctor.” Without looking up, Dr. Schneider said, “Thank you, Annette, you may go now.”

Although there was a chair facing his table, the doctor did not invite Elisabeth to sit. Unruffled, she stood and placed her portfolio on the empty chair, removing her sketches and watercolors.

“What tortures you so that you pick at your nails?” he asked, still staring down at his papers.

Reflexively, Elisabeth pulled her hands away and held them behind her back, a habit left over from childhood, when her mother prepared to use the wooden brush with its wiry bristles to clean them. Her mother would grab Elisabeth’s forearms and thrust her clenched fists into a basin of hot water and soap. A frail child, Elisabeth was no match for her mother’s strength and willful spite. The bristles tore at her tender skin and drew blood. After so many scrubbings, her nails were ringed with spidery scars, and her hands were as red and dry as those of a charwoman. The nail-picking was a habit that grew out of daydreaming. Her thoughts elsewhere, she’d pick at her nails as a way to process what she was seeing or thinking. Even during the times she stopped, her mother found some way to scour her hands. Sometimes they were so sore it hurt to hold a paintbrush or pick up a pencil.

No man had ever been this forward with her, and, without thinking, Elisabeth answered, “What tortures me so much is the impudence of strangers.”

Taken aback by her candor, Dr. Schneider started to laugh. He was in his late thirties, with curly salt-and-pepper hair and a distracted affect. But in laughter he was present, as if an intimate part of him had escaped despite his efforts to contain it. His hazel eyes fixed on Elisabeth’s. She could feel heat rush through her body and droplets of sweat collect behind her neck. Then he looked back down at the papers on his desk. “I work all the time,” he said. “I have a book to finish, and another to start. This is no job for anyone looking for a holiday in the countryside.”

“My work is my holiday,” she said. “It’s what I do. It’s all I do.”

He shoved his chair away from the table and stood up. “So, let’s see how you spend your vacation.” He was a tall man with slightly stooped shoulders, as if he was used to hunkering down. She spread her pictures on the carpet in front of the table, and she was touched by how carefully he tiptoed around them, making sure not to step on any of the corners. Elisabeth stood to the side, her hands folded under her arms, trying to read his expression as he studied her work. His face was impassive. He stopped at each sheet for several minutes, never once looking up. When he finished circling the drawings, he turned to her. “It would be an honor to work with you. When can you begin?”

Elisabeth looked at her father’s pocket watch, which she wore on a gold chain around her neck. “I believe I began about twenty-two minutes ago.”

Later, Rudolph claimed that even before he saw her, he felt her, “like static in the air.” When he did face her, what he saw was a young girl, fresh and childlike in all aspects except for her thick brown hair, swept into an unkempt bun. And her small hands, of course: raw and scarred, with jagged nails. He wanted to cover them with his own and rub them until the wounds were healed.

He thought her drawings were beautiful. No, beautiful was not an adequate word for what they were. They evoked wonder and sadness in him: wonder for how animated and lifelike they were; sadness for the void of loneliness they must have filled in the young girl who drew them. As she readied herself to leave, he worried that, despite his offer, he might never see her again, and said, “I have an instinct for all kinds of natures, particularly human nature, and it tells me that ours will harmonize.”

Annette led the girl back down the long hallway and through the oak door. “He liked you,” she said as she helped Elisabeth on with her coat. “He doesn’t usually give people that much time.”

Elisabeth smiled. “We start work tomorrow.”

Slate clouds hung low in the sky, and overhead, crows circled, filling the icy air with their harsh caws. She amused herself with the thought that only a person who believed her father was among them could find promise in a day such as this.

For the next couple of years, Elisabeth and Rudolph worked side by side on a comprehensive study of European birds, European Ornithology. In that time, they became lovers, and they wed within a year of their meeting, settling into a spacious third-floor flat in the Sachsenhausen quarter on the south bank of the Main River so they could be near the Stadtwald. It was a large apartment with arched windows and a terrace overlooking the river. There they lived with a grand piano in the living room and an ebony table in the dining room. Most mornings they rose after dawn. If it was warm enough, they’d take their coffee and bread with butter and jam on the terrace, then head out to the Stadtwald, where Rudolph worked on his notes and Elisabeth sketched. They’d return home at noon for the lunch Annette had waiting for them and then retire to the library, where shelves were stuffed with books about plant and animal biology and the walls were covered with Elisabeth’s elaborately crafted drawings. Her art had become so precise that she could reproduce a dandelion with such clarity and detail that you’d believe its seeds would scatter if you blew on it. No one could capture the iridescence of a raven’s throat or map the circuitry of veins through a sawfly’s wing as she did. By the time she was twenty-six, several of her drawings were featured at an exhibition in the Städel Museum.

For ten years, they followed the same routine: Rudolph would work at his oversize mahogany desk, writing his text, and Elisabeth would sit nearby at a tilted drafting table and continue with her drawing. So they passed their days, never more than a few feet from each other. European Ornithology, which identified more than four hundred species of birds, was published in 1900, and Rudolph and Elisabeth Schneider were becoming known as the Audubons of Europe.

Though they had many acquaintances, the only company they craved was each other’s. They talked about everything and were constantly surprised by one another, she by how much he knew of the world, he by her quick wit and beauty. Private jokes and a made-up language of their own made their world even more insular. When a Catholic family opened up an overpriced dress store down the street and called it The Golden Goddess, Elisabeth dubbed it The Naked Madonna. They had nicknames for each other: She was Gerda, he was Günther, and everyone in their orb was given a name beginning with G (Gerhard, the neighbor’s cat; Gottfried, the postman; Gretchen, the effeminate mayor of Frankfurt). They used these G names over and over again, yet each time one said Gerda or Günther they would laugh as if for the first time. When Elisabeth started to pick at her nails, Rudolph would place his hand on hers and say, “Here, pick mine instead.” She in one room, he in another: They would hum the same song simultaneously.

For all the hours spent together, they never lost their hunger for each other. Yet despite all the times he’d take off his glasses and she’d put down her pen, gripped with such longing that they often would not make it to the bedroom, they did not conceive a child until early 1902, eleven years after they’d married. When they discovered that Elisabeth was pregnant, they teased each other about what good collaborators they’d become, but in truth, neither had given much thought to having a child. They nicknamed their unborn baby “the surprise.” By this time, Elisabeth was thirty-three and Rudolph nearly fifty.

Their “surprise” turned out to be a boy. At first, they thought to give him a G name, but Rudolph insisted that it wouldn’t be fair to start a baby out as a joke, and Elisabeth decided to name him after her father’s father, which is how Egon escaped being Günther or Gregor. They made him a perfect nursery: Elisabeth painted the walls a golden yellow and put pale orange curtains on the windows so that when the morning light shone through them, everything in the room looked as if it were lit by the sun itself.

They scrutinized Egon the way they would any new species. Rudolph made notes on his development, and Elisabeth sketched in exquisite detail the veins on his eyelids and the flecks of his fingernails. If love meant caring for and obsessing over one’s latest creation, then this was a beloved child. But long before his arrival, Elisabeth and Rudolph had created their own ecosystem, thriving on each other for nourishment and breathing only each other’s air. In this way Egon would remain outside their universe, a well-observed child but a child apart.


Little Egon, with his father’s lean architecture and his mother’s wide blue eyes, had a pleasing temperament. From the time he took his first steps at thirteen months, he’d rock back and forth and sideways in rhythm to whatever music was playing. His “dancing” made his parents laugh and clap, and later, his piano playing made them sit up and listen. He spent his childhood figuring out other ways to hold their interest. While his father wrote, his mother took him to the Stadtwald and taught him about the birds. Before he said his first words, he knew how to kiss the back of his hand to make a squeaking sound that would catch the attention of chickadees and warblers. When he was old enough to hold a colored pencil, he’d sit with Elisabeth after school and draw animals. By the time he was seven, he could articulate the hook of a crane’s hind toe and draw a goat’s eye well enough that she framed his best pictures and hung them next to her own. She called him “Mein schön vogel junge,” her beautiful bird boy.

On infrequent weekends, Egon and his father would hike in the woods. Egon greeted these outings with a mixture of dread and excitement. His father would instruct him: “Follow me and be very quiet.” Rudolph would clasp his hands behind his back and walk several paces ahead, keeping his eyes focused on the tree branches or the shrubs beside their trail. He could go a whole afternoon without speaking, except when they passed a grasshopper or happened to spot a white-tailed deer. Then he would become animated, reciting the Latin name of the insect or animal and waiting for Egon to repeat it.

One afternoon, they came upon a baby turtledove that had fallen from its nest. Rudolph bent down and whispered, “Sweet thing, how far away from home you are.” He scooped the bird up with a handkerchief and held it in both hands, the way a child would hold a ladybug. “Don’t worry, little one, we’ll make you whole again and soon you’ll fly away.”

It was the first time Egon had heard his father use this tender tone with anyone other than his mother. In his longing to have his father address him that way, he began greeting whatever animal or insect they happened to encounter in the same kindly manner. “Hello, Mr. Dragonfly. Would you like a blade of grass for lunch today?”

His father would assume the tiny squeaky voice of a dragonfly and answer, “Thank you, I’m not a grass eater, but if you would be so good as to fetch me a plump mosquito, that would suit me fine.”

Though it was an intimacy channeled through birds and insects, it was intimacy nonetheless. When they came upon a praying mantis with an injured leg or a dove with a broken wing, they’d collect the animal in a hat and bring it home to Elisabeth. Caring for the wounded animals was what they did as a family, and since Egon was an only child, the creatures’ companionship took up the sibling slack.

When Egon was eight, he and his father took a train to Berlin to see the 1910 Automobile Exposition. Rudolph was intrigued by modern inventions and shared his wonder about the new autos: “I hear they can go thirty miles an hour, some as fast as forty. That’s faster than a goshawk. Someday you’ll be driving one of these things.”

It was the first time Egon had left Frankfurt. Everything about the train was foreign to him: the plush maroon velvet seats; the brass hooks and railing; the shades you could roll up and down by pulling on a rope. The Main River and familiar cathedrals faded from his view as new rivers and strange buildings filled his window. “I don’t understand why anyone would ever leave Frankfurt,” he said to his father. “I never will.”

His father smiled without looking at him and said, “Of course, you’re homesick for your mutti. It’s good for you to experience something new. The whole world isn’t walks in the Stadtwald with your old parents.” But to Egon it was.

The exhibition hall was cavernous and filled with dozens of automobiles that looked like something out of the comic strips. But what really caught Egon’s eye was the brand-new Daimler model in the center ring of the hall. The way the lights bounced off that cerulean car reminded him of stars on a clear night. An odd thought jumped into his head: That car crackled and dazzled like the current between his parents. The same kind of light shone on them when his father pressed his mother’s shoulder as he passed her in the hall and called her mein schatz, or when she’d lean down and kiss his hair as he sat writing.

Egon was reminded of that exposition four years later, when he was in gymnasium. By then he was twelve, tall and graceful, with riveting blue eyes and his father’s thick curly hair. After school one day, before summer recess, a girl named Leni Freedburg asked him to go for a walk with her in the Stadtwald. She was fourteen, two years older than Egon, with breasts so pointy it was rumored among the boys that if you bumped into her, they would leave puncture wounds. She was attractive, with long blond hair, a full bottom lip, and a straight nose; only her eyes, a little farther apart than they ought to have been, kept her from being a real beauty. Egon said yes to Leni’s offer because he was polite, and because she was the first girl to show any interest in him.

They walked in the woods and he pointed out the birds and insects. After he showed her a butterfly pupa, Leni turned to him and stroked his black hair, saying, “You carry so much in that pretty head of yours.”

He smiled. “These are the things my parents have taught me.”

She smiled and stood on her tiptoes. “I imagine this is something your parents haven’t taught you.” She wrapped her arms around his neck and kissed him on the mouth. At first, all he could feel were her breasts, not sharp at all but warm and soft as rabbits. He was so preoccupied with them that it took him a while to open his mouth and let in her sharp citrusy taste. The kissing, her tongue in his mouth, the breasts against his ribs, would have been enough. But Leni, perhaps sensing that she’d unearthed a wellspring, took Egon’s trembling hand, ran it under her shirt, and placed it on her bosom. Tears of gratitude filled his eyes as he gently petted and stroked the yielding rabbits.

With his hand wedged deep in the promised land of Leni Freedburg’s breasts, he remembered the auto exhibition in Berlin and how the dazzling Daimler had reminded him of what passed between his parents. Now, that same warmth and energy coursed through him as well. God bless Leni Freedburg. With her generous nature and rabbit breasts, she had delivered him from his otherness, at least for a few moments.

By the middle of the summer of 1914, while Egon was indulging in Leni Freedburg, the rest of the country was reveling in war against Russia, France, and Belgium. Convinced that a victory would free them from the rule of greedy bankers and industrialists, the eager warriors at the top of the German government roused the country out of its dozy complacency. Even Egon was swept up in the patriotic fervor, wishing he were a couple of years older so he could enlist in the army. Elisabeth did not share his elation and told him, “I am so glad you’re too young for all this nonsense.”

Late in August, right before Egon was ready to go back to school, he and his mother found a nest of sparrow eggs on a low branch of a chestnut tree near where they’d been drawing. For the next week, they came every day, waiting for the spotted eggs to hatch. When they finally did, the chicks, each no bigger than a plum, were naked, helpless, and blind, and Egon and Elisabeth hovered nearby, as did the male and female sparrows.

One morning, Egon noticed a goshawk concealed in a nearby bush. Before he could nudge his mother, the hawk swooped down and gripped the male sparrow in its toes. The flapping of the hawk’s wings sounded like sheets in the wind as it tore into the sparrow’s throat and eviscerated him with its sharp talons. The female flew wildly around her chicks. Her harsh chattering sounded more like grief than anything Egon had ever heard. He saw his mother’s face darken as she put her pencils and pad on the grass and wrapped her fingers around the pocket watch that she wore on a gold chain. That was when she told Egon about her father, and how she always looked for him in the birds. “It’s more that I feel him than I see him,” she said. From then on, the birds became his family as well.

After three years, the war that had ignited Germany’s spirit was grinding down. “Don’t stare,” his mother told Egon the first time they saw a man wearing a black patch over the place where his nose had been. It was hard not to look at first, but over time the sight of men with empty eye sockets and missing limbs became commonplace even in the Stadtwald, where some returning soldiers with nowhere else to go took refuge.


On Sale
Sep 12, 2017
Page Count
336 pages

Betsy Carter

About the Author

The daughter of German immigrants, Betsy Carter is the author of the novels Swim to Me, The Orange Blossom Special, The Puzzle King, and We Were Strangers Once, as well as her bestselling memoir, Nothing to Fall Back On. She is also the creator and editor of NewYork Woman Magazine, and has worked at many other magazines, including Newsweek, Harper’s Bazaar, and Esquire.

Learn more about this author