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1-Introductions and Pre-War
My name is Ilana, my name is Sam, and my name is Michelle, and we are interviewing Lucille Eichengreen for the Urban School of San Francisco's class, Telling Their Stories. Today is April 24th, 2003.
Why and when did your family come to Germany?
It happened right after the First World War. My father was in the Austro-Hungarian army. During the war he was wounded. And many Jews decided around 1918 that it would be easier to make a living in Germany than in Poland. He knew my mother at that time but he was not married. He got to know her older brother who already lived in Germany and had a very successful business so my father moved.
And what year was this?
It was between 1918 and 1920. He came from Vienna where he went to school and then he came north to the city of Cuttbbus near Dresden.
When you were growing up did your parents consider your family as Polish-Jewish or more German?
No, there was nothing German in our home. My parents spoke Polish. I never learned it. And it was very convenient because we couldn't understand. No we were definitely Polish. We were Jewish first, I would guess, and Polish second.
When did you learn Polish and German?
I learned German in school. I spoke it in school, I spoke it at home. I learned German in 1942. No, I learned Polish in 1942 when I lived in Poland. Before that I have no idea.
Did you speak any Yiddish at home?
No. My grandmother spoke Yiddish but she lived in Poland. I could understand her but I could not reply. I only learned Yiddish in 1941-1942.
Did most of the kids in your neighborhood speak German? Any Polish or Yiddish or other languages?
No, there were very few Jews who lived in the same area. It was a middle class neighborhood and everyone spoke German.
Would you say you enjoyed living in Hamburg, Germany?
I don't think I ever gave it much thought. Life was very nice, very comfortable, until 1933. It was pretty much taken for granted.One really realized the difference between before and after in 1934, '35, '36. As a child you take many things for granted. A comfortable life, enough food, enough clothing, vacations. It was a matter of fact and when that changed we became very aware of it.
Just thinking about the things you took for granted and the good that happened then, can you recount happy or fond memories when you were younger?
We would go on a Sunday to a park and the park had ice cream and coffee and cake and children could play. And, there were no remarks made, nobody took any notice whether you were Jewish or not. It was just a happy carefree life. Specifics? I remember trips to Spain, I remember trips to Italy. I remember trips to Yugoslavia and to Poland. If you were 7, 8 and 9 years old you take it pretty much for granted. You do not think about it, you just accept it. It's taken for granted, which later on we found out was not as natural as we thought.
Do you remember visiting family in Poland?
My Grandmother and my aunts lived in Poland, which is now the Ukraine. The family, by and large, spoke Polish. My cousins went to the university in Warsaw. But already at this early age, Jews had to stand in the last row, they couldn't sit down. They became teachers but they remained in Poland, except for one cousin who went to Palestine.
Did anyone in your family ever consider going to Palestine besides that cousin?
Yes, there was family on my father's side that left for Palestine around the turn of the century. My mother's oldest brother left for San Francisco around 1900.
Did you have much contact with your family in America?
No, no contact at all.
Never, no postcards no nothing?
There might have been a letter once a year. My uncle really didn't care for family.
Did your parents care much for family? Did you have contact with them? Were you close with them?
Yes, with cousins, aunts and uncles. We were very close, especially if they didn't live too far away. There was a good contact.
You would visit them?
We would visit. We would go to Poland every three years or so and see the family. I had one cousin and an aunt and an uncle in Germany and my mother's oldest brother in Dresden which was several hours away. My father had two brothers in Berlin. The contact was constant and very close.
What did your parents do for a living?
My father imported and exported wine, wholesale. He did not have a store. I remember the cellars and the huge barrels of wine which had to age and then were filled off into bottles and sold. It must have been a very comfortable living because we never worried about money.
Did any of your other friends have money concerns?
Some did, but the majority did not. I had several friends whose fathers practiced medicine or law, so there were no money concerns. But I had also some friends who lived in a very slum-like area and could not pay the tuition in a private school, and did not bring lunch to school, so we gave them some of our lunch. There were kids that were not well-off, but it was not the rule, it was the exception.
Did you ever feel a sense of sadness when seeing some of your friends living in these slum-like areas?
Well, I felt pity for them because they were dressed differently, they looked differently and they spoke more of a slang rather than a clear language. I noticed the difference in school as a child, but it didn't bother me, it was just accepted. My father used to say, "There will always going to be people who are richer than you are and people that are poorer than you are," and I accepted that.
Did your mother practice any profession?
My mother was educated in a town that was called Lemburg, it's now Lvov. She spoke Polish, German, Yiddish and French. When she was about 22 or 23 she learned to make hats, but she never worked professionally.
Did you spend a lot of time with her at home?
Yes, she was at home, she did not work. But the school day was very long. We would go in the evening and pick up my father at his office. Yes we spent a lot of time with our mother.
Why did your mother learn to speak French? Was that common among people there?
Yes, the educated people in Poland spoke German as a matter of course, and French because it was the thing to do.
What do you mean they "spoke German as a matter of course?"
It was the Austro-Hungarian Empire so you had to be bilingual – Polish and German, or German and Polish depending on the government. And French, I would say the middle class spoke French, the upper middle class.
Did you ever learn any French?
When I went to school my first foreign language was English, the second one was French, and the third one was Latin.
How did you spend your time with her?
She was five years younger than I was, so she for the most part had her friends, and I had mine. There was really very little time spent that we would spend together. I used to read to her occasionally. We shared the same room. We walked to school together. But our friends were just five years apart in age and we did not share the same friends.
Growing up did you ever feel like a caretaker for her, like just help her out when she was growing up?
No I did not because we had help around the house. We had a maid, we had a nurse for the children and I did not come to that point until the war.
You mentioned that you were frightened the first day of school. Can you explain that further?
I was not frightened the first day, I was frightened right after Hitler came to power. Because the streets changed, the children changed, everything changed. I started school in 1930, so till '33 nothing happened. It was just a normal walk to school, normal people. And after Hitler came to power, it took less than 90 days. People would call us names and throw stones. And that was frightening.
Can you describe what school life was like before Hitler's rise to power?
It was a very old-fashioned school. The teachers, to me, were ancient, but they were over 50, all of them. It was an Orthodox school in terms of religion, and religion was taught. You had to learn modern Hebrew, you had to be able to translate the Torah, you had to know Hebrew, in addition to everything else. We took it as a matter of fact, we didn't question it. I questioned it when my kids went to school.
No, no private school. I don't know what I would do today, but this was 1970 when I said "no private school." Because, in a sense, a private school, it's different, it has privileges that a public school does not have. And you are really not exposed to the population at large, you are exposed to people of more or less your background, and I didn't want that for my children.
Were you a good student in school?
In the beginning, yes, I was good, I mean average A's and B's. And then as the pressure from outside increased – and we were beaten up and we were harassed, and our parents told us "it's a passing phase, it will normalize" – we worried. And my grades really were terrible at that point. And my parents got private tutors for English, for arithmetic, for German, for just about every subject. And my grades improved, but I just didn't concentrate, I couldn't.
Were your parents very much involved in your education?
Yes, they were.
Do you recall any friends that you met during school?
No, I'm still in touch with 3 or 4 of them that started first grade with me. They live partly in Israel, there is one in New York. We have very little in common, we have led very different lives. But we are still in touch. I remember their birthday parties. I remember getting dressed up and bringing a present and playing games. But seeing them now and talking to them now, our lives are very different and have been very different, for the most part. Not each and every one, but for the most part.
Can you recall as a child, any activities you enjoyed doing by yourself or with friends?
We liked to go swimming. We belonged to an athletic club for young people. We played various games, board games and other things. We took walks or went to the park when we got permission to go away from home. Nothing very specific, if you put a group of two or three girls together, young girls, they mostly chatter, it's not an organized playtime.
When you were going to places like pools and this club you talked about – though this was before the rise of Hitler – were there any sort of clubs you couldn't join because you were Jewish?
Well, I belonged to Bar Kochbah which was a Jewish club. I could have belonged to a non-Jewish club, but somehow I never did. When we went swimming, the pool was accessible to everybody, I don’t think there was a distinction made between Jews and non Jews. But going to a private Jewish school, my friends were for the most part Jewish.
Do you remember any special occasions that stuck in your mind?
Well, we went to the fair once a year in November, December, had a lot of junk food and sweets and games and roller coasters, and that was great fun. During the High Holidays when the prayer for the dead was recited, children who had parents went outside, so we played in the courtyard and made an awful lot of noise. Occasionally we would go to a bakery and pick out a piece of cake. But money was very carefully distributed once a week, I think it was on Sundays, and it started out with something like a quarter and it increased in terms of five cents a year, or something like that. So you didn't have much money, but you didn't have need for money.
When do you think you first began to understand what anti-Semitism meant?
I had an idea between '35 and '38 that we were unwanted, that we were not fit to be socialized with. My uncle's picture appeared in the Der Stuermer which was an anti-Jewish publication that was hung out in neighborhoods in a glass case. I really understood fully what it meant when I walked to school on November 10th and I saw the burning synagogue and the uniformed Germans laughing. Then I think, for the first time it really – the word had a meaning, the word had a face, before it didn't.
And how did it feel to finally confront it's face?
It was very frightening, to see a synagogue burning, to see people laughing and to see books burning, is very frightening. That was 1938, I was 13 years old and it was a feeling that is not to be described.
Was there a sense of feeling threatened?
Very much threatened. We did not dare continue our walk to school, we did not dare go any closer, we did not dare asking what's going on, we just turned around and ran home. We knew that something was terribly wrong, but we didn't know what or why.
What did your parents say when you asked them about what was going on in Germany?
My parents answered, more or less, that this was a passing phase, and not to worry, and that things would turn normal again. But going to school and seeing that children left for abroad and never came back – some teachers left – and seeing really no improvement in the atmosphere – being told to be quiet on the streetcar, or being told not going to the park and sitting down on a bench – it did not seem to us like a passing phase. From '33 to '38, that's five years, and for a child that is just too long. So the children, more or less, asked: "Why can't we leave?" or "Why can't we go to England, or the United States." It was, more or less, a feeling that you wanted to leave. You didn't realize the difficulties of leaving, you didn't know the economics that you would have to build up a new life, you did not realize that you might have to speak a different language. It was just the wish to leave.
Did you talk about the desire to leave with Karin often?
No, no, she was five years younger, and it did not make the same impression.
How was she dealing with the increasing anti-Semitism?
She grew up with it. By the time she got to school it was 1935, so she really did not remember anything else. She was born in 1930, and to her this was the way it was. There was no before, no after.
So contrasting with how you coped with it, since you had seen life beforehand and she really hadn't, was it challenging to deal with it in the same respect, because your experiences were so different?
I don't know whether I dealt with the circumstances very well, but there always was an inch of optimism, "Maybe, maybe." We still thought at that time, that somehow there would be a change, whether there would be a change by going across a border to France, or by having a new government or having the population change their opinions. I'm really not sure what a child thought because children in those years were not as articulate as children are now.
Why do you think your family was so hopeful?
Because they held foreign passport. They had the protection of an embassy. And they thought, in a sense, that they were untouchable, which they were up to a point. Why they were so hopeful? Maybe they believed it, or maybe it was just for our sake, I do not know, I never got a chance to ask.
I remember from your book that your father offered you the chance to take the transport to England. Could you describe that further?
I was in 1939 – in January – a very frightened child. I would not have gone to England by myself. My cousin went, but he had an uncle in England. I had no family in England, and I just couldn't conceive of the idea of leaving the family and going by myself. What would I have gained had I gone? I would have had a somewhat easier life. The English did not send the children to school, they made maids or apprentices out of them. At age 14 they had to leave school. Most of them did not have an easy life, but they had a life. Most of them didn't see their parents again. And as you have seen probably last night on KQED – the Kindertransport – you hear now that these children – which are close to 80 now – have a trauma and resentment and they are beginning to cope with the past now. They demand compensation from the German government for having gone to England. They state that they suffered as much as anybody else, but they retained their lives. The children that remained in Europe did not, a million children disappeared. So, why didn't I go to England. I just couldn't go by myself, I was afraid.