When I meet someone new, it often goes something like this:
1. Where are you from?… New Jersey.
2. No—I mean where are you really from—I notice a slight accent—I mean where were you born? Answer: Germany.
3. When did you come here?—1951. How old were you?—12 .
4. If the person is Jewish and is not sure if I am Jewish, what usually follows is, "Ohh," with a hesitation and a slight moving away. They become leery. I have come to recognize to understand this distancing. In the Jewish community, Germany still has a history to deal with and so I have come to learn that I must use words and references that quickly identify me as being Jewish. It is very important to me to be identified as Jewish and not German. This generally leads to the next question.
5. Where were you during the war? And then, always,
6. How did you survive?
Sometimes the question is very casual and if I don't know the person, I just answer, "We were very lucky."
Sometimes, however, the question comes out of a genuine interest to understand, as well as a real surprise that some Jews really did survive in Germany without being in concentration camps or in hiding for the duration of the war.
When I was asked to speak tonight for Yom Hashoah, about my experience, I said, "Sure." After all, I have spoken to schools as part of Holocaust education programs. My friends certainly know my history. But each and every time the telling is hard and the stomach gets tied into knots. However I know my story is unusual since I have never met anyone else who survived. So here goes.
My parents were married in 1930 and neither family was happy with the marriage. My father was Gentile and his family were certainly not pleased. Even though this was before the Nazies were in power, anti-Semitism existed.
My mother was Jewish, so her family certainly had their fears about her marrying a non-Jew. Although some of her family was observant, her own parents were assimilated Jews. My grandfather was a Zionist who emigrated to Israel in 1936. His brothers who felt that his fears of the Nazis were exaggerated held the mistaken belief that Jews would be safe in Germany . They all ultimately perished.
During the early years of the Hitler regime, my mother told of the difficulties that she as a Jewish woman encountered. She could not go to the movies or out to any public places or events. She was limited to staying in the house and was only able to shop in certain stores that catered to Jewish customers. Most of all, she remembers the fears about her aunts and uncles who were being deported. She always remembered that while she was in the hospital giving birth to me, no one came to visit. When she started to ask questions, she was reassured by the nurses and cautioned not to get herself upset lest it would affect her or her baby. I was born on November 11th, 1938, and Kristallnacht, or the Night of Broken Glass, was November 10th. Jewish homes and storefront windows had been broken and it really signaled the beginning of strong anti-Jewish actions.
My grandparents and her brother had emigrated to Israel in 1936, and her sister left for Sweden on one of the last ships out of Germany, in 1937. As I said before, no one else of her family survived.
My parents had their conflicts as a result of their mixed marriage. His brothers and mother did not welcome my mother in their homes. Of course my mother's restrictions frustrated my father, and he often pursued some of his own friends and interests, leaving her alone with her children, feeling alone, angry, and scared. My sister, who is seven years older than I, remembers their frequent fights and my mother crying much of the time.
After my father entered the military, my mother, sister and I were really left to our own devices. Money was very tight and her restrictions, limitations and fears increased constantly. Kiel, where I was born, was a small town at the end of a canal which connects the Baltic and North Sea. It is a ship and submarine building town in Northern Germany. Mom grew up in Kiel, and according to her, everyone knew her. She recalled being called to the Gestapo for questioning. But since no one had brought any complaints against her, and she had not broken any rules, such as shopping. in non-Jewish stores or going out beyond the curfew, she was released and told to go home.
I had the usual bouts of childhood disease and remember my father coming home on furlough. I remember not wanting him to leave and his losing his patience and giving me a severe spanking on the Railroad Station Platform. Parenting in those days was very different than it is today, and my father was a typical German father who believed in spare the rod and spoil the child.
My own memories really begin around the time of 1943-1944. As the bombings increased, the children in Germany were being evacuated. My sister had been sent with her school into the safety of the countryside, but her headmistress called saying that she could not stay because the Gestapo was visiting the school and her being Jewish was too dangerous.
We were bombed out in 1944, and I was hospitalized with a severe concussion. Here again my mother talked of telling the doctor that we were Jews, and that his response was, "She's a child and I'm a doctor and that's all that matters." After we were released from the hospital we fled into the countryside and found shelter at a farm, but again only for a short while until the farmer realized we were Jews and had to leave.
After our return to Kiel, my mother worked in a forced labor camp, a fish factory, but was able to come home at night. At that time one of my father's brothers helped us replace blown out windows in an abandoned apartment where we were able to stay. My father also came home on furlough and helped gather the few remaining pieces of furniture from our bombed out apartment.
While my mother worked, my sister took care of me during the day and our lives in many ways were like that of our neighbors. There was no food, no clothing, no water, heat, nor sleep. I only remember wearing what we would call warmup suits all the time. Since the threat of air raids was constant, one never undressed because if the sirens came on, signaling an attack, we had to run to the shelter. The shelter we used had just recently been extended with a new emergency exit and a children's wing at the end near the door. This was to be used specifically for mothers and children. One night a bomb had fallen outside the shelter and people were screaming to get in. When the door was opened, gas from the exploded bomb seeped into the shelter asphyxiating everyone in the children's wing. Since my sister and I had come to the shelter on our own, without mom, we had been told to go the the new children's wing. However, my sister, who whiled away the time making figures out of the clay dirt available at the emergency exit. insisted that we stick to that end of the shelter. She also said that since our mother was used to us being by the emergency exit, that she would look for us there if she was let go from the fish factory. My sister's love of modeling saved our lives in that we all escaped through the emergency exit which had only been completed the week before. I still remember the sea of empty carriages parked before the entrance.
Other memories are like all war memories. Fear, bombings, sounds of sirens, burned out buildings and rubble. And running. Running, running, always running, and I remember just not wanting to run anymore. Our skin was covered with scabs and blisters from phosphate bombs.
As far as a sense of having a Jewish identity is concerned, I remember that towards the end of the war, my mother was getting dressed and I said to her, "When we win the war..." She stopped and stood absolutely still, held my face in her hands. and said, "If the Germans win the war, we will all perish." That was my first sense of being Jewish and that being Jewish was different and dangerous.
As I said before, Kiel was heavily bombed out during the was because it was a ship and submarine building town. Also is was strategically situated at the Baltic end of the canal which links it through Hamburg and then Bremen into the North Sea and of course England, France and the Atlantic Ocean. As a result, it was a primary target and 80% destroyed. I recall at the end of the war that the munitions dump was blown us before the Allied Forces arrived. People crying in the shelter when the announcement came that Germany was defeated and that Hitler was dead. And then the soldiers, American and English coming in with candy, gum, chocolate, stockings, and cigarettes.
Slowly, with the aid of the Red Cross and HIAS we were put in touch with my family in Israel and the US, who sent not only mail, but also M&Ms, and care packages with milk, flour, and clothing.
After the war, many camp survivors came to Kiel. It was then that we learned first hand of the horrors of Auschwitz, Bergen Belsen, and other camps. They were emaciated and needed help and time to heal and recover. HIAS, and the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee was involved in helping. From them I also learned for the first time about Jewish things such as food, language and holidays, because of course there was none of that during the war whatsoever.
My father, who had been captured by the Russians and been a prisoner of war in Siberia, returned to Kiel in 1949. I had yearned for his return and had the fantasy that now that the war was over and he was home, all would be well. That was not the way it turned out. My parents had grown apart and divorced in 1951.
My mother, sister, and I emigrated to the US through the Displaced Persons Quota in 1951.
My first memory of the US was arriving in New York harbor early on a June morning and seeing the Statue of Liberty. A ferry came by and my thoughts were that I wanted to be just like those people on that ferry.
We were meant to go to Cincinnati but my aunt agreed to be responsible for us to keep us here in New York.
I entered school in the 7th grade, and learned English from a girl who spoke Yiddish, and therefore understood German. She translated whole sentences for me, and I repeated what she said. I also learned, as I said at the beginning, that America and particularly the Jewish community was understandably afraid, angry, and rejecting of anything German. I had been the "Dirty Jew" in Germany and suddenly found myself in danger of being identified as German in New York.
Growing up without any knowledge or training in things Jewish, still leaves a void in me. It's a lack of history, without memories of holidays, family, and tradition. They simply aren't there.
There is also a sense of guilt which many survivors struggle with. I know we were meant to be on the next transport when the war ended. But fortunately the war ended before that happened. The struggle to accept the Gentile part of my heritage is still ongoing. I know that according to Jewish Law I am a Jew because my mother is Jewish, but I also know that many in the Jewish community do not trust the Germans. I share that distrust. However I am a little of both, and that isn't always easy.
So, there is no clear answer as to how I survived. Perhaps it was because I am a mischling, a designation made up by the Germans to describe a child of a mixed marriage. Or because my father was in the military and did not divorce my mother, or perhaps as my mother said, "The laws were carried out by people and not all people are evil.
Perhaps it was just plain mazel...
I only know that I survived, and I have come to be okay with that.
I had wanted to marry someone who was a full fledged Yankee with a large family. Instead, I married a wonderful man who is also a German Jew, who came to New York with his mother before the war. While we have different memories, there is a common thread that I think helps us understand one another in a profound kind of way.
We have two daughters, one of whom married a non-Jew, but all of our grandchildren were raised and identify as Jews, and that is very important to us.
I only wish them a world that is different than the one I grew up in.
I wish them peace and freedom from persecution.