A Homeless Ernest Wertheim Makes Lasting Connections On His First Day In California [Book Excerpt]

A Homeless Ernest Wertheim Makes Lasting Connections On His First Day In California [Book Excerpt]

Wertheim in 1941, taken by his future wife, Margit.

Ernest Wertheim in 1941, taken by his future wife, Margit.

Editor’s note: When Ernest Wertheim arrived in the United Sates, he first landed in New York and traveled to the Philadelphia area, being hosted by established Jewish families. But he needed to work, and the most promising job he was offered that fit his landscaping design training would not be available for several months. Then he was invited to San Francisco to work for a woman who would be able to launch him in California. Here’s an excerpt that shows how precarious his position was once he arrived in a part of the country where he knew no one.


We arrived at the Greyhound station at Fifth and Mission in downtown San Francisco. When I got out of the bus, the loudspeaker was on, and I heard an impassioned voice speaking in German. It was Hitler. He spoke of the strength of the Nazi Party and the recovery of a nation on his sixth anniversary as the leader of Germany. It was January 30, 1939. There I was, more than 6,000 miles from Berlin, listening to Hitler’s menacing voice.

Had I listened more, I would have been even more wounded, hearing his unveiled threats against Europe’s Jews.

In the course of my life I have very often been a prophet, and have usually been ridiculed for it. During the time of my struggle for power it was in the first instance only the Jewish race that received my prophecies with laughter when I said that I would one day take over the leadership of the State, and with it that of the whole nation, and that I would then among other things settle the Jewish problem. Their laughter was uproarious, but I think that for some time now they have been laughing on the other side of their face. Today I will once more be a prophet: if the international Jewish financiers in and outside of Europe should succeed in plunging the nations once more into a world war, then the results will not be the Bolshevizing of the Earth, and thus the victory of Jewry, but the annihilation of the Jewish race in Europe!:

I found a pay phone, inserted a nickel and called Ms. Aronstein. A ma answered the phone and informed me she was sick. I was very disappointed and told him I would call back the next day.

The man replied, “No, I’m sorry. Ms. Aronstein has had a nervous breakdown. She will most likely need at least three months to recover.”

Hanging up the phone, I found a bench and sat down, feeling like I, too, would have a nervous breakdown or maybe a heart attach. What had I done? I had just crossed this huge, strange country with next to no money but with all my hopes based on this one contact. Now it was a dead end.

This was it, I thought, the end of the line. Then I remembered what my mother once told me, “When all goes wrong, step outside, and take a deep breath.”

I put my suitcase into storage and stepped out into the fresh San Francisco morning air. I noticed that the entire block between Mission and Market had shops with flowers and other plants. There were small and large shops, each representing a nursery company. The thought occurred to me that perhaps they would have a job opening.

In Germany, a person would rarely approach a stranger and ask for a job. I was very reluctant to ask for help at this moment, despite my situation, yet I couldn’t walk away from the familiarity of the flower market. I walked to the end of the block, turned around, and walked back, again, and again, enough to graze a trail in the cement. After an hour and a half, one of the flower shop owners stepped out from his stand and stopped me.

“Are you looking for someone?” he asked. I told him my predicament and my profession. The man introduced himself as Harry Perlstein, the owner of the Nursery Exchange in Half Moon Bay. (He went on to develop one of the largest greenhouse production nurseries in Northern California.) After listening to me for a short while, he offered me a cup of coffee and a blueberry muffin and then said, “Why don’t you go talk to someone on the staff at they Strybing Arboretum. Perhaps they’ll have a job for you.” He gave me directions to Golden Gate Park. With a sliver of hope, I walked up an down – more up than down it seemed – the hilly streets of San Francisco, a few miles to the Arboretum.

I was always most comfortable around plants and trees. At the entrance to the Arboretum, which at the time was just across the street from the Japanese Tea Garden, I asked one of the gardeners where I would find Mr. Eric Walther, the director, the name Mr. Perlstein had given me. I was directed to a small wooden structure, which was Mr. Walther’s office, although it looked more like a tool shed. Evidently, funds were very limited, and there was no money to build an office structure.

Mr. Walther listened to my story. He was the garden’s first director and head served in this position since 1937 (he would remain at the helm until his retirement in 1957). He had a wonderful training in horticulture and botany, and he was most interested in my training. When I asked him about getting a job at the Arboretum, he told me he would love to hire me, which gave me hope.

“But I’m sorry,” he said, “I can only offer a position to you after you have been in the city of San Francisco for one year. That’s when you will have established residency.”

My heart sank again. He recommended I see a nurseryman named Victor Reiter, Jr. “His office and home are about 12 blocks from here at 1195 Stanyan Street.”

I thanked him for the lead. Mr. Walther then asked if I’d like to tour the gardens. I learned he was obsessed with horticulture, loved cats, and had a very healthy ego – what I characterized then as a typical German. He was experimenting with a variety of plants from many parts of the world. He pointed out the rhododendron dell next to the California Academy of Sciences. “I’m sure they look family to you. Several came from Germany. Look, they’re just starting to bloom.”

I nodded. Indeed they were blooming, earlier here than in Germany, encouraged by the California climate. Mr. Walter promised he would call Victor Reiter to let him know I was coming. I thanked him again and went on my way.

Mr. Reiter graciously welcomed me and showed me around his home, his extensive garden, and his commercial nursery behind his home. Mr. Reiter’s father had built the house on Stanyan Street. They had acquired three extra parcels of land from the Sutro family, which they developed into a marvelous garden and nursery. It contained a rare red flowering New Zealand Christmas tree and an even rarer Magnolia campbelli (Campbell’s magnolia tree). His specialty was hybridizing new plants, especially fuchsias. Victor was one of the original members of the California Horticultural Society, which began shortly after the Big Freeze of 1933, one of the coldest on record.

He told me more about the Society while feeding me coffee and cookies. On my empty stomach, a cookie never tasted so good.

Victor did not need help in the nursery and didn’t know of any jobs locally. “I would suggest you try Los Angeles,” he said. “Because of the movie industry, the Depression is lifting more rapidly in Southern California than it is in the north.”

I didn’t have the money for a bus to go south, and it was a much longer walk to Los Angeles than it was from the Flower Mart downtown to Golden Gate Park. It was good advice I couldn’t take, but Victor encouraged me to keep in touch and someday, perhaps, join the Horticultural Society.

By the time I said goodbye and found myself back on the sidewalk, it was evening. I didn’t have enough money for a hotel. I could have stayed with Victor overnight, but I was too proud to admit that I had no place to go. I wanted to impress him so he would give me a job. As a cool fog fell over the city and the light began to fade, my situation seemed rather bleak.

I then remembered the rhododendrons in Golden Gate Park. I started walking back that way, picturing myself with George Salomon as we played fort beneath the bushy plants in the Salomons’ garden outside of Hamburg. I found the rhododendron with the largest legs and the most space beneath its leave and branches. Then I gathered pine needles and laid them on the ground inside to make a soft bed. I used Uncle Wilhelm’s wonderful overcoat as a blanket. Exhausted, I slept very well in my rhododendron shelter.

Ernst Wortheim July 2015 Chasing Spring by Ernest WertheimYou can buy Chasing Spring in either black and white or in full color.
• Black/white: Lulu.com.
• Color: Contact Jacquie Courtwright
(who owns Alden Lane Nursery) at
925-447-0280 or [email protected].

Read all our coverage of Ernest Wertheim’s memoir: