War turns would-be strangers into the closest of friends. When Peter Engler and his family fled to Shanghai from Nazi Germany in 1939, he was friends with Fritz and Stella Adler.
The Adlers — though they were single when Engler first met them — were Jewish refugees from Austria who made their way to China’s largest city to escape the Holocaust. Peter’s own family life was complicated, so he spent lots of time with them. He said the couple were like surrogate parents and had a significant role in the person he would become. Fritz bought what Peter referred to as “soccer boots,” as well as an air rifle he still owns today.
But when Peter was 14, after a decade in Shanghai, his family left, eventually relocating to Canada. The Adlers moved to Australia, along with their infant daughter, Margaret. Suddenly half a world away, they soon lost touch.
Now a resident of Berkeley Heights, Peter tried to locate his old friends using the services of a genealogist, but he hit only dead ends. Ultimately he came upon their death certificates — though by then he had assumed they had already died — but he couldn’t find any information about Margaret’s whereabouts. He often wondered if Fritz and Stella had told their daughter about their close relationship, or something to indicate that he was as important to them as they were to him.
The almost-70-year-old mystery will come to a close on Jan. 23, in the opening episode of the new PBS series “We’ll Meet Again.” The premise of the six-part series, hosted by former Today show host Ann Curry, is to reunite people who were thrown together and then torn apart during dramatic times in history. Engler’s is one of two stories chronicled in the opening episode, “Children of WWII.”
Over breakfast at Goodman’s Deli in Berkeley Heights on a recent Sunday morning, Peter and his wife Dina, whose family survived the war in Switzerland, described the filming of the show and its dramatic ending. Peter is soft spoken and thoughtful, his eyes sometimes tearing behind round, horn-rimmed glasses. At other times, the eyes seem to smile, especially when he’s offering his dry wit, as when he said of his age, “I’m pushing 84, and it’s starting to push back.”
The film crew spent about a week in Berkeley Heights in March of last year, and the days were very long. “It was so intense,” said Dina. “When Peter agreed to it we had no idea it would be such a big deal. It was hours and hours.”
Added Peter, “I had a microphone attached to my underwear for a whole week.”
When they finished shooting in Berkeley Heights, Peter and the film crew met with an archivist at the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee in Manhattan; a genealogist in Yonkers, N.Y.; and the research staff at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. There they found a Gestapo document which gave him new information about his paternal grandparents, including the date they were taken from Vienna to “someplace in Poland I never heard of. We never knew that,” Peter said.
He speaks at length about Shanghai — the fact that because his father was a chemist, he could find work there with a dental firm that needed his expertise making alloys for gold teeth, a sign of affluence among the Chinese at the time. That they were lucky to live in a house with toilets that flushed, even in Shanghai’s Jewish ghetto, and that he was never hungry.
Back at his home, Peter, who retired in 2002 as associate professor emeritus of biomedical engineering at NJIT, shared boxes of memorabilia with NJJN, including old photos of classmates from Shanghai, and one Stella had sent to him after the Adlers moved to Australia. He even gave an impromptu performance with the accordion Fritz had given to him for his bar mitzvah, celebrated in Shanghai. He says he still plays it from time to time, although not all the parts work properly anymore.
He admitted that he and his best friend at the time, Gunter, “adored” and were “infatuated” with Stella. “She had a wonderful way with kids,” he said. “I can remember to this day she would describe to me and Gunter how to ride a motorcycle. I think we didn’t believe that she knew all this, but she could spend hours just describing this and she captivated us.”
Engler found the show’s process intriguing, and said he has no regrets about participating, although he said he’s apprehensive about what will appear in the program, as he has only seen a brief clip. And both Englers had only positive things to say about Curry. “This lady has a skill of making you say things,” said Peter. “She brought back memories that I can’t believe.”
Said Dina, “She’s such a nice person, very warm, and you kind of open up to her because she’s so nice and not aggressive.”
It was at Goodman’s Deli where, after the week of filming, the crew announced that (spoiler alert!) they had found Margaret. Now Margaret Hudson, his old friends’ daughter was still living in Australia. Looking back, Peter realizes that the producers had found Margaret before the crew arrived in New Jersey. “Doing all the searching was to get my reactions when they showed me the documents,” he said.
In June, the producers flew Margaret and the Englers to San Francisco. The day of the reunion Curry and Peter walked onto a pier. “Halfway down the pier she stopped and said, ‘Margaret is waiting for you.’ [Margaret] was sitting on a bench at the end. It was very melodramatic and theatrical,” he said.
“On my way, I was thinking, ‘What the hell is the first thing I’m going to say to her?’ And she beat me to it. I was going to say, ‘Long time, no see,’ or something like that. Her first words were, ‘It’s been a lifetime.’”
Not only did Margaret know exactly who Peter was, but her parents had given her a letter the teenage Peter wrote to her when she was born in Shanghai, in which he offered “some general instructions of the life under the sun,” and referred to himself as her “faithful adviser.” He had no recollection of having written it. Margaret also confirmed one detail he had wondered about for years: Stella did, in fact, ride a motorcycle.
Despite the built-in drama, Peter said meeting Margaret “was, in a way, a disappointment.”
“I had hoped that I would see in Margaret some reflection of her parents to bring back some connection to her parents,” he said. “It was kind of silly to expect that.”
But after the taping was done, Margaret and the Englers spent several days together in San Francisco. Peter said they made a commitment to try to get to know each other better and plan to continue corresponding via email.
Last month, on Margaret’s 69th birthday, Engler called her and, without saying a word, played “Happy Birthday” on the accordion her father had bought him 70 years ago in Shanghai.
“It was not necessary to identify myself,” he said.