Henry Kissinger Spent His First Years in America in a New York Apartment

On a quiet street in Washington Heights, tucked among a collection of yellow-brick apartment houses, a dry cleaner and an Indian restaurant, is an unremarkable building where Henry Kissinger spent his early days in the United States.

The Art Deco building was the Kissinger family’s first long-term home after they arrived in New York City in 1938 as refugees from Nazi Germany. After a short stint living with relatives and staying in a different apartment nearby, the family settled into the 850-square-foot rental on Fort Washington Avenue in 1940. Mr. Kissinger’s mother, Paula, lived in the building until her death in 1998.

Mr. Kissinger, the former secretary of state who reshaped the United States’ approach to the Cold War, died in Connecticut on Wednesday at the age of 100.

By Thursday morning, news of his death had reached the building on Fort Washington Avenue. The neighbors old enough to remember the Kissingers had long since moved away, according to the current resident of the apartment, Alexei Gonzales. Mr. Gonzales said that he had lived in the apartment for 11 years, but had not known that the Kissingers had lived there until about seven years ago.

“I knew that he grew up in this neighborhood,” Mr. Gonzales, 44, said, adding, “That’s neat, that somebody that well known was here.”

Niall Ferguson, a historian, noted in his biography of Mr. Kissinger that the family, which included Henry, his parents and his younger brother, Walter, had lived in a five-bedroom apartment in Germany, but had to make do with two bedrooms in New York. The boys, both teenagers, slept in the living room.

“I can’t imagine how I did it,” Mr. Kissinger is quoted as saying in the book. “We had no privacy.”

Mr. Kissinger’s father, Louis, suffered from poor health, and his mother became the main breadwinner, starting a catering business.

When the Kissingers arrived in Washington Heights at the end of the 1930s, roughly a third of the neighborhood was Jewish, mostly from Austria and Germany, said Leah Garrett, the director of the Jewish Studies Center at Hunter College.

“It was often called Frankfurt on the Hudson,” she said.

By 2021, nearly 68 percent of Washington Heights residents identified as Hispanic, according to the Furman Center for Real Estate and Urban Policy at New York University.

Today, the experience of growing up in Washington Heights is different than it was for Mr. Kissinger, said Shaun Abreu, the City Council member who represents the area directly to the south and grew up about 20 blocks from the Kissinger family’s apartment.

Mr. Abreu’s parents were immigrants, like the Kissingers, but they were from the Dominican Republic. The family was evicted when Mr. Abreu was 9 after his parents fell behind on rent, and he was held back in the fourth grade.

Mr. Kissinger graduated from George Washington High School, as did Mr. Abreu, and went on to Harvard. The high school was once referred to as a “country club,” and featured amenities like a swimming pool, but by the time Mr. Abreu was a student, the pool was used for storage. Mr. Abreu took evening courses to supplement his education and gain admission to Columbia University.

“I think that struggles in school and struggles in housing security are things that are very quintessential in growing up in Washington Heights,” Mr. Abreu said.

Regardless of the neighborhood’s evolving demographics, Mr. Gonzales said that his apartment remained largely unchanged — he suspects that the crown moldings date back to the Kissingers’ time — but said it was cramped quarters for a family.

“It would have been really tight,” he said.

When Mr. Gonzales has guests, he noted, they often sleep in the living room.

Kitty Bennett contributed research.


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