Wednesday, December 15, 2010

"Lest we forget . . ."

I mentioned that I am the son of a Holocaust survivor. Someone asked if I could tell my father's story.

As it turns out, my dad (who is now 89 years old) was recently corresponding with one of his cousins (who is five or ten years younger) about how they and their families escaped Germany in the late '30s and early '40s.

I was more or less familiar with my dad's story:

He left his family and home in Nuremberg, Germany, on Friday, August 24th, exactly one week before the German army crossed the Polish border and launched WWII.

"It was the last chance for a Jewish boy approaching his 18th birthday to get to England from our region of Germany via the Kindertransport," my Dad wrote. (As it turns out, no Kindertransport trains left his region after that.)
The deadline for getting my British visa papers to the transport organizers in Germany was a Monday in early August 1939.

We all knew the signs that Germany was preparing to attack Poland: The propaganda made it OBVIOUS! Of course we could not guess the exact date when this would happen, but the signs were familiar from the earlier strikes (Austria, then Sudetenland, then Czechoslovakia!)

So, the critical Monday for being part of the Kindertransport was a week away. I prayed that we could receive the needed papers from England by Wednesday, to be SURE that all was in order. Wednesday's mail brought nothing...

"So, maybe Thursday? PLEASE!!!"

No dice...

Thursday night's prayer: "We are running out of time, Lord! Please, give us the assurance we need that You care: You KNOW that unless we (the Jewish office in Nürnberg) receive and forward the papers on Friday, there is no way that we can make the Monday deadline for getting me on this Kindertransport!!! PLEASE, Please, please...."

We spoke with Edith Abraham at the Jewish congregational office: "Sorry, it has not come. So... you'll be on the next transport, in September..."

But I felt VERY strongly there would be no September Kindertransport from Frankfurt.

That evening I prayed for a miracle, having not the slightest idea how that could possibly happen.

(The clock was ticking, and it was 11:59:59 — if not already 12:00:00+!)

On the Monday after the weekend, Mutti ["Mom" or "Mommy"--JAH] spoke again with Miss Abraham . . . who surprised her with the statement, "ERNEST IS IN!"

I stood near Mutti as she turned towards me and smiled with a tear in her eye, nodding towards me. I said, "PLEASE, let me talk to her!"

So, I took the receiver and heard Edith Abraham repeat: She had called the appropriate office in Frankfurt and confirmed that I would be part of the next Kindertransport to London, scheduled for mid-August.

I questioned her: "Friday evening, you told Mutti that the visa had not arrived. The deadline for getting it to the Frankfurt office was today. So, how could this be? Do you not see the contradiction? I MUST KNOW!!!"

Miss Abraham understood and explained: "I happened to be in the office Saturday morning, when the mail arrived. And I noticed that one of the letters looked like it might be the papers that we have been waiting for. I grabbed it, opened it, and
it was indeed your visa!

"So, congratulations: you don't have to wait until September..."
Dad has commented innumerable times: Miss Abraham, by all rights, "shouldn't" have been in the office on Saturday. After all, Saturday is Shabbat, Sabbath, the day when all Jewish offices everywhere are closed. But she was there to get the message (and forward it)--a message without which, as my father is fond of saying, there might, very likely, be none of his offspring.

What of other family members?

I have a few clues.

One uncle, due to his political views "and, I assume activities" (said my father) forced him to flee from the Nazis before anyone else in my father's extended family. That was in the early 1930s, probably 1934.

Other family members began leaving later in the '30s.

My dad says he was invited to spend a few weeks one summer (I would have to guess it was either in 1936 or 1937) with his great aunt and uncle and their children in Rinteln, not far from Hamlin (famed for its "Pied-piper").

I have only heard my dad tell this story once:
I remember the terrible experience of visiting some friends of [my cousins] the R_____ family whose breadwinner had a small shop. The shop became the object of Nazi vandals. The vandals posted or smeared some anti-Jewish stuff on the store window. The Jewish storekeeper was later caught using his camera to take pictures of the hateful slogan. The result: He was arrested and sent to the Dachau concentration camp near Munich. Although released and returned to his family a few weeks later, he was by then a broken human being.

My relatives asked me whether I really wanted to be along on the visit to this man's home, and I agreed to go--but have never lost the memory of seeing and hearing this broken being, alive, but totally unable to stop crying, unable to relate to his family or to visitors, alive, yet a human wreck. Why did they bother to return him home? (He died a week or two after our visit.)
The Jews in Germany knew things were bad, but they didn't think it would get that bad (as bad as it eventually became).

The major turning point, however, was Kristallnacht, November 9, 1938.

As a result of the events that night, "We were driven out of our apartment in Nürnberg and our grandfather lost most of his considerable possessions (large home, furniture, equipment) in Erlangen, just about overnight.

"Our Uncle Max owned a significant share of a celluloid factory in Nürnberg being their chief European salesman by virtue of his command of languages. He lost all that in 1938 [Kristallnacht], but fortunately had foreseen events and moved much of his wealth to Bolivia, South America - and thus was able to provide desperately needed support to branches of the family who joined him in La Paz, including my family."

It was what happened to his grandfather, however, that most impacted my dad. Primarily, I believe, because he accompanied his mother to his grandfather's (his mother's father's) apartment two days after Kristallnacht.

Most terrible for him was seeing the "shiny black Blùthner [or Flügel--he has identified it as one or the other at different times] baby-grand" that his Grosspapa kept on the second floor. "It stood and witnessed the destruction of its environment in Erlangen--and then vanished after Kristallnacht."

More details about Kristallnacht:
On the second [Thursday] in November 1938, I was sent home from school, discovering that Jewish families all over had been visited by Nazi squads overnight -- and MOLESTED....

My brothers came home from school and told gruesome tales they were told by fellow students in their respective classes.

Mutti came home and demanded, "WHERE IS PAPA?" (He came home around 4 or 5 pm, with more tales of what he had seen and learned around town.)

Mutti tried to reach her dad on the phone all afternoon: "No response!?!"

We called friends in Erlangen and finally reached someone who said all Jewish men were under arrest: "Schutzhaft" they called it....

What were we to do that night???? We had no car, no safe destination, no plan for ecape. So, my parents decided to spend the night in our second-floor apartment, hoping that the presence of 11 other non-Jewish families might be more of a deterrence than being "out there" where nobody knew us.

Mutti decided to take the bus to Erlangen in the morning. I asked her permission to come with her.

Mutti had a key to allow us access into her dad's home. The interior had been DESTROYED: Wild, angry hoodlums systematically had gone through the house, using axes to knock through every door, into every piece of furniture, painting, breaking the back of every bookcase, smashing all kitchen stuff, destroying every piece of
clothing in closets, all dishes in the kitchen cabinets, every light fixture... all EXCEPT my Aunt Lilly's wedding gift from her parents: The wonderful small Flügel!

It stood alone in the center of the living room, not a scratch, not a particle of dust, waiting to be carried off in triumph by the leader of the band of criminals who, no doubt, considered themselves 'honorable citizens' of their town.

If someone really so treasured that instrument, I have little doubt they took care of it over the years -- and it may be there to this very day, still waiting to be redeemed by the rightful owner...
Dad has said his grandfather was very special to him.
You have a right to ask, "Why was Großpapa 'SPECIAL to you'?"

Mutti knew him well, and she was much concerned that he should NOT see the devastation that those hoodlums had perpetrated in his home. How could he cope with the anger and grief?

She tried to persuade the Erlanger Polizei to make sure he would be directed to come to us in Nürnberg DIRECTLY from the lockup where he was detained.

Well, they released him without saying anything; he went to his home, saw what had been done, accepted it as DONE -- called us, and then took the next bus to come to us.

His example inspired me for the rest of my life: "DO NOT PANIC -- the Lord watches over you!"
So what happened to Dad's family after Kristallnacht?

Writing to his cousin, my dad said that, after Kristallnacht, he was "astounded — and SCARED!"
My Mother threatened to take us three boys and LEAVE if our Dad persisted in his attempt to 'outlast' Hitler and the Nazis, as he appeared determined to try and do! She wanted us to have a FUTURE. . . . Of course, so did our Dad. The question was really: 'How do we do that?'
Again, continuing with the story as my dad told it in a letter to his cousin:
When I read in your last letter that your mother told your dad that she was leaving with the 3 boys, it reminded me of what my mother told me many years ago. She told my father that if he wanted to stay in Germany , feel free to do so, but that she and Walter were getting out of here. It seems to me that the ladies had more foresight than the men.
Dad's cousin replied,
I think that a lot of Jewish men who fought in the first world war, like your father and mine, just thought that this could not happen to them, that they were excluded from these things. In addition, my father really was not prepared to live in Cuba and then in the U.S.A. He did not speak the English language, and as a "Geschaeftsfuehrer" in Berlin he had no ability to make a living in the "Ausland." It so happened that we were on the very last transport out of Berlin on October 19, 1941. The next one never made it to freedom.
My dad replied:
As I recall, [my parents and two brothers] left for Italy [and thence to Chile and Bolivia] at the end of December 1939. The 'marital debate' over emigration was settled in 1939.
And as for his Grosspapa? Dad said his parents left him in the Jewish Altersheim [retirement home] in Nürnberg when they fled the country in December 1939.
I believe our grandfather . . . died of malnutrition (starvation) in the "model for seniors" concentration camp Theresienstadt a couple of months or so after being deported there from the Altersheim.

I can "see" his picture even now, with his hat, standing next to his special friend Max Goldschmidt and all the other Jewish men from the Erlangen Gemeinde [community], assembled in the yard of the local police lock-up the morning after Kristallnacht. He was such a wonderful example to them — and to ALL of us!
--I have posted this here "lest we forget."

One additional item: In case you can read German, my sister found on the web a family story written by one of my dad's [second cousins once removed(??)] named Sigmund Sachs. You can find amazing details about my dad's extended family--especially about his mother's side of the family--beginning at the bottom of p. 17 with the story of Onkel [Uncle] Max, a highly successful salesman.

My father has often spoken of him. Onkel Max knew seven languages and became the international salesman for the Celluloidwarenfabrik Gebr. Wolff GmbH, Fürther Straße of Nürnberg. Eventually he bought the company. It was he who helped my father's parents and brothers escape to Bolivia during the War.

Sachs wrote (in English translation from my sister, p. 18 in the referenced paper):
He was always fair and helped many as was needed. Later he helped over 50 friends and their families . . . not only that he helped them make it out of Germany, he also sent the visas and affidavits and took them all into his home in La Paz Bolivia until they could manage their lives on their own.

They all called him "Our Maxel." He had only one dream--to go back to Germany. But this dream never came true. He died in La Paz.

He was married to his one Nürnberger Christian friend.

None of us who survived will ever forget him.
--Sounds very much how my father has described him.

Further down the page (on p. 18), Sachs also describes Dad's grandfather ("Onkel Iwan") and Onkel Iwan's four daughters--my grandmother and her three sisters, Ida (my grandmother), Frieda, Nelly and Lilly.

Kinda weird to read one's own family history written by someone else!

Ah! While I'm at it.

My sister did a great job of translating another portion of Sachs' story that has broader interest, I think, especially when it comes to the history of the Holocaust.

He writes (again, in English translation thanks to my sister):
Everything seemed to be wonderful [in the early 1900s] and then suddenly difficult times came for Germany but particularly for the Jews.

Germany had a terrible inflation, as in many lands, and that was the time when we first heard the name of Hitler.

That was the start of the fight against the German Jews.

Nürnberg was the stronghold of antisemitism. The worst was the disgusting magazine with the name "Der Stürmer" (The Stormer) from Streicher. This Jewish-hater made all the Jews responsible for all the difficulties we were experiencing.

At the beginning we didn't take things seriously but it got worse from day to day. Those were the years of 1923-1928. And now we were experiencing antisemitism all over the place. The time came when we were ashamed to be Jewish believers.

Fights in the beerhalls and on the streets belonged to daily experiences. The first uniformed Nazis were all over in the streets on their trucks and screamed, "Jews Die! Jews get out! Jews are our misfortune!" etc.
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