Feb 25, 2011
Reinhart discusses his work in the high tech fields and being a professor. He also talks about life during and after World War II in Germany. Wilhelma discusses what life in the U.S. was like for a mother raising her children in a foreign country with limited English language skills. As part of Oregon's sesquicentennial, Cedar Mill Community Library recorded interviews with local immigrants to learn about their experiences coming to and living in America. This is one of our interview from 2009.
Male speaker: Welcome to another in the Cedar Mill Community Library’s series of interviews with local immigrants or descendants of local immigrants in honor of Oregon’s sesquicentennial. Today we will hear from Reinhart Engelmann, an immigrant from Germany who came here to work with semiconductors and other high-tech manufacturing positions. You’ll also hear from his wife, Wilhelma Engelmann. The two of them had very different experiences here in the U.S. with how they related to people in their respective positions. Anyway, I hope you find it as interesting as I do.
0:36 Mark: Hi, my name is Mark Richardson. I’m a librarian with the Cedar Mill Community Library, and we’re going to do some oral interviews today, and I’m going to have the gentleman with me introduce himself here.
Reinhart: My name is Reinhart Engelmann.
Wilhelma: My name is Wilhelma Engelmann.
Reihnart: I was born in Berlin, Germany. I came to the United States the first time in 1961. I just finished my university studies in Munich, and started a job at CPS Laboratories in Stamford, Connecticut, it was in March of 1961. Was of course, was my first position after studying, and so it was something new from that perspective. But of course it was very new from the perspective of being in a different country. I have learned the language in high school and also in language courses in Britain, but I had a hard time understanding the Americans. So that was the first surprise, in a way, able to follow my co-workers, but fortunate to have my friend who also studied in Munich to introduce me. He had already immigrated a few years earlier, first to New Jersey and then he came to Connecticut where I worked and he worked. And that was a good way of introduction into the country because I had somebody who I always could speak to. You don’t anticipate it necessarily because, you know, you are used to Americans after the war, occupied by Americans, you thought it was similar, but it’s a different country, it’s a different language, and so it takes an adjustment period, right? And then of course you are separated from your friends and relatives you left in Germany. Now you might wonder how it came about. I contacted in Munich a somewhat not openly advertised group from the American army. It was called…I think it was called the Special Projects Team in Munich. The phone number was listed under a private name. By word of mouth, from the students mainly, we heard about it, my friend heard about it. He applied for a job in the United States, and of course a job with the Army. Sure enough, after all the paperwork was done, mainly they basically arranged everything, including visa application, and he was offered a job at Fort Monmouth Laboratory, the Army laboratory, in New Jersey. So I finished my studies, and he was of course was writing me letters and how nice it was and so on and so on. But also, I thought it was a good idea to get some experience in the United States before starting my career in Germany. I applied for it, and I got an offer also from that same laboratory. But in the meantime my friend had changed to other companies, CBS in Connecticut, and so he persuaded me to come over to his lab, and so I ended up in Connecticut originally, the first time I came to the United States.
4:56 Mark: What type of lab work is this?
My major is physics, I got a PhD in physics, actually nuclear physics. I had already, during my studies, kind of generated interested in solid state physics so I was looking for a job more in this area…that was a job in semiconductors. It was the early time of the semiconductor revolution basically, so I was fortunate to be able to take part in these early phases of the semiconductor development in the country. I spent my private time mostly with friends that I made, with Germans and Americans. Interestingly I had a very good friend who was Jewish…I had more contact with Jewish people, easier contact, because the culture was similar.
6:17 Mark: Oh, really?
They had more of this family orientation and you know, this traditional friendship type…the Americans are more casual. In Germany it was much more traditional in the sense that it is more formal at the beginning but once you opened up it was a very close friendship, and that is what I missed in the states.
6:49 Mark: Did you go back to Germany at some point and return again?
Of course the plan was to return to Germany in a year, which I didn’t do because a year goes fast. So it became 2 years. But then before I went to Germany, I applied for another position in the United States and then had the reason in the fact that this laboratory was based on—the semiconductor laboratory—was based on the support of another division of CBS—CBS Electronics—and CBS Electronics after maybe 6 months I was with the company was sold to Raytheon by CBS, by the main management, and so our support disappeared. So that eventually got me the idea that maybe I should look for another job since I thought I still need more experience before I go back to Germany. So it happened then that I got an offer from the west coast, and that was so attractive to me, that…I know something about the east coast now, but nothing about the west coast, so I accepted the job, and that was Hewlett-Packard in Palo Alto. So I went back to Germany, but just for a vacation, and then established my home in California. I got into a project on what you would call the original light emitting diode, or LED, which is now everywhere.
9:16 Mark: How long were you there?
I stayed there three years, and then I really made the decision to return to Germany.
9:25 Mark: So how did you two meet?
We met before at the families, right in the ‘50s. My sister and my wife were good friends. So that’s how it came about. But before I started working in Germany, I joined my wife, not yet my wife at the time, on a trip to India. During the trip we decided to get married, and afterwards we got married and we settled in Germany, in Ulm…by the way, the birthplace of Albert Einstein. I worked there for a telephone company that doesn’t exist anymore, went into bankruptcy, but was something like a GE, in Germany. I worked there for 5 years…from ’67 to ’73, something like that. About a year before that, I got a letter from my former boss in California, at Hewlett-Packard, if I don’t know anybody who could join his group. The fact that I don’t, but I might be interested in coming back. So he immediately wrote me back, yes, I’ll take you every time. The government had required that any position needs to be filled by Americans, except if you can fill it, but you have to prove that you can fill it by an American, hire somebody from abroad. And only then if you had a job you could get a visa. But now the Labor Department had to prove it and they disapproved it first time around. Hewlett-Packard reapplied, and the second round it was approved. Apparently they did some more advertising and proved that they couldn’t get the person they wanted. We got the visa, and we went. By that time we had already two children.
12:15 Mark: So you went back to California?
Then we went to California, in ’73. We had a 4-year-old boy and one that was not just a year old…
Wilhelma: Just 8 months…
12:31 Mark: At what point did you work your way up to Oregon?
I came back to Hewlett-Packard. I worked there 12 years, until Hewlett-Packard changed its business model and became from an instruments components company a computer company, and this is what I was not so interested in, the emphasis was on computers, I decided to leave the company. We moved to New Jersey in ’85 and I actually worked for a German company, Siemens. They had established a laboratory in Princeton, New Jersey, and were looking for semiconductor people, and so I joined that group. Until they decided that’s not a good idea to do this in the United States, they should rather do this in Munich, and plus the lab…so that was in ’89. I worked in ’89 for a short time in Munich at Siemens as a consultant, and got a job in early ’90, January ’90 I started in Oregon, at the Oregon [indecipherable] Institute as a professor. It was for me some other career change, but it was a very interesting and good experience. In ’96, I’m basically retired.
14:28 Mark: This would have been other differences between Germany and the U.S.?
Reinhart: There are quite a few differences, I guess.
Wilhelma: It’s I think a little bit different for him than it is for me because I was born in Belgrade, Yugoslavia. During the war we moved quite a bit around, to Czechoslovakia and eventually to Germany. So Germany is for me the second country I settled down, and I went to school in Germany. So coming to the United States, it was an experience. I actually liked California. Culturally it was quite different, when you’re used to European architecture, it’s complete different architecture, especially in the ‘70s. I did like the relationship with other people here, because you connected much easier, especially with children. I have to take the children to school, and nursery school, and carpools and play groups and all those things you learn. I enjoy it much more here in the country than in raising children in Germany.
Reinhart: The culture in some way is very shallow, is our expression. In other ways it’s, however, a superficial view. Because if you look deeper, you have your orchestras and your theaters, which are very, very good, in major cities like Portland.
16:42 Mark: So it sounds like maybe you both had a little different experiences.
Reinhart: On the east coast, people there are not as open as on the west coast.
Wilhelma: The sides are complete different experience than mine was! I had much more friends on the east coast. I also…meeting parents in school makes a big difference. You get easier contact, you get to know people, and it’s different.
Reinhart: The basic thing is that Americans are easier to get contact with and I think that is what my wife likes so much. In Germany, it’s very difficult. To start out, you have to take an initiative, so to speak. My experience is that there was not only a culture shock, different countries—Germany, United States—but also a culture shock because you went from a [indecipherable] environment to a working environment.
17:59 Mark: So as far as the schools go, when your kids went through school, were there big differences that you noticed between the U.S. school system and Germany?
Wilhelma: Yeah. Nursery school and preschool, we did not even have in Germany. It started with 6 or 7 years of age, the school. So this makes a different situation because here the children already knew their alphabet and all kinds of preconceptions of school. But it went from then, I think in Germany, it went faster, exact and precise learning about things. It advances quicker than here once first grade starts.
19:06 Mark: When you were up in Berlin during the occupation…it must have been some interesting experiences…
Reinhart: No, no. I was born in Berlin and I lived there for 9 years until ’43. The war started in ’39, so there were 4 years still in Berlin. Bombing by the allied forces of Berlin became so severe that all the schools were closed, and children were sent to the countryside. We were fortunate to have our grandfather in Bavaria, who had retired as a high school principal and settled in a small village near the Bavarian “ocean,” which is a lake (laughs), the biggest lake inside Germany. It’s called Königssee. From my third grade on, I was in Bavaria, and I had only two grades. I started school at 7 years [old], and then had two grades in Berlin and the third grade in Bavaria, and then collapse…Bavaria was occupied the latest out of Germany by the Americans, and I had no schooling for some time. So we had the experience of occupation and the hard times…I mean it was during the end of the war, and then the first few years after the war the times are very hard because…I mean, everything was bombed, the major cities were all bombed. The transportation hardly was not functioning very well.
Wilhelma: The main thing is that the male population was so reduced. There were no teachers, or not enough teachers, and also farming, anything was reduced because women went into workforce….
Reinhart: The women did all the clean-up work. In Berlin, for instance, was known as [German word]…I don’t know how you translate this…(laughs)
Wilhelma: The rubble, cleaning of the rubble.
Reinhart: Because men were…
Wilhelma: There were still men in…
22:25 Mark: In prison?
Wilhelma: …in Russia…
22:31 Mark: right
Wilhelma: …prisoner of war.
Reinhart: Most of the men were not allowed to work because they were in the Nazi party, so it was very, very hard even for the schools to get teachers. They relaxed this a little bit that they didn’t check on refugees. Refugee teachers always got a job even though they were, you know, in the Nazi party. It was a hard time, we didn’t have any books…everything we had to write from the blackboard, the teacher would, you know, write the book on the blackboard…because all the Nazi books couldn’t be used.
Wilhelma: There was no paper. This is the most curious thing here [indecipherable] the paper if you don’t control it. I remember the time when Mother cut off the rim of newspapers so they had something to write on in school. Of course, used still the slate to write on because there was no paper.
23:53 Mark: So when you were in the U.S. did you ever experience a lot of prejudice or anything like that while you were here?
Reinhart: I used to go when I came to the U.S in ’61 from my apartment or my room, I had a room with a family. It was close enough to my working place, so I walked at the beginning, didn’t have a car yet. And you know, people would pick me up because it was not…at that time nobody walked, at least in Connecticut. One day a guy picked me up and he noticed pretty quickly I’m German, and he was Jewish. He kind of, you know, wanted to tell me how nice he is against me, whereas the Germans, they were bad to him for the [indecipherable] of people. It was the only thing that I remember having…in general I was surprised how easy you were accepted. And as I mentioned, later I had Jewish friends, which, you know, we were very close and never had any problems.
Wilhelma: And for me it was actually very pleasant here because we were refugees for Germans and did not accept us very much. It took many years til we were accepted. So when we came here to the states I was one of many, and everybody accepted everybody. This culture mixed already, and it was much easier.
Reinhart: That is a very good point. Americans are a culture mix already, and so I think it makes this…prejudices are not as strong. In Germany, interestingly enough, within Germany, the discrimination is very high, or has been very high. For instance, when I moved from Berlin to Bavaria, I was discriminated against. She mentioned, as a refugee from Yugoslavia, she was…
Wilhelma: My family had German background and so I knew the language fairly well. It was a different dialect and old German we spoke, but I could speak German. When I came here, I had to learn English here in the country. I had English at school, but I have not a good ear for language, and it was very hard for me to learn English in school. But here I had to. [indecipherable] with my children and going to the library. Though people accepted you and tried to help you, and with the carpool and things, showing the watch and what time (laughs) and so it worked, actually, surprisingly well.
Reinhart: She made friends with a neighbor who spoke very clear English and that helped her a lot.
27:57 Mark: Do you see a lot of changes in Germany when you go back? It must be quite a bit different.
Wilhelma: Oh yes, especially if you walk through the city and do window shopping. Almost everything in the windows is written in English. So many words, English words used. They try to speak English as much as possible. English just became so universal with all younger people.
Reinhart: I always try to translate computer language into German and then I notice that the Germans just take the English expressions. (laughs) That’s very funny.
28:58 Mark: I think that’s it for today. That’s all the questions I have so I appreciate you both coming in.