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2-Nuremberg Laws, Kristallnacht, & Death of Father
The Nuremberg Laws started on September 15, 1935. What was your reaction when you first heard of their existence?
I really didn't quite understand. I had friends whose parents were not both Jewish, one part was Jewish, one was not. I know we had a maid who was not Jewish and she was maybe 25 years old, and she had to leave. The word "Nuremberg Laws" did not enter my mind until much, much later. What I didn't know, that mixed marriages had advantages and disadvantages. What I knew is that my friend had an uncle who had a non-Jewish girlfriend, and he was in prison for four years. So it was a state of knowing, but not knowing the entire implication. We were too young, too protected, and too politically ignorant to fully comprehend.
Do you think your parents protected you from knowing?
I think parents during that time or during that period protected their children much more than children are protected today, than my children were. And it was just – the 30's, the 20's the 30's, it was just – you didn't speak at the dinner table unless you were spoken to. There was a saying, "Children are to be seen, but not to be heard." It was totally different, it is very hard to put it into words. If an elderly person came into the subway you stood up. I can go onto BART and no one will stand up. It is a different culture, it is a different way of thinking. The world has changed a great deal in 50 years.
Was it also not only a part of the time, maybe a part of the German culture?
No, I think it was the same all over Europe. It wasn't just Germany. It was the same in Poland, it was the same in Denmark. It was very restrictive, very proper. I mean a child was not really considered a person yet. You had to be considerably older to have an opinion and to be a person.
During that time of the rise of Nazism, did you hear any conversations from the Jewish community or people in general when the community started to change?
The Jewish community was headed by Dr. Max Plaut. I believe he had a law degree. Any access that he had to a visa, or to any kind of immigration papers, went to people that he personally selected, or that brought or payed for the favors. The Jewish Committee was in disarray, people came, people left. Dr. Plaut remained in Germany until 1943 or 1944, which was unheard of. He was exchanged against a German, I believe he came from Yugoslavia, and he made it to Palestine in 1944 or '45. He was in some ways respected as the head of the Jewish Community, in other ways he was very much detested. I never had a chance to see him again or to speak to him, and I don’t think I would have spoken to him. Because when we pleaded for one visa for my father, his answers were rather nasty and I would have retaliated somehow.
Do you remember what his answers were?
I don't remember, because I went with my mother, my mother did the talking – I was a "window dressing" so to speak. It was something to the effect, "Pay me for it", which could have meant a great many things in those days. For that I never forgave him.
Do you remember if you had any teachers, or neighbors or close friends that were Hitler supporters?
All the neighbors were Hitler supporters. All the children that used to play with us were Hitler supporters. So from that point on from 1933, they didn't even say good morning, nothing.
So with your friend...
My only friends were Jewish, there was no other possibility for anything else.
When do you think you first started really realizing what the Nuremberg Laws were all about?
Probably '38, '39, because at that point there were sufficient people who went to prison because their behavior was not "in accordance with the law," as the Germans called it. We knew a couple, she was Jewish, he was not, and they had a summer house in the country. And very early on, I think it must have been '39 or '40, he hid his wife in the forest near the summer house, and she survived the war. And I knew about it, or I heard about it in '39 or '40, and it was very strange because they had kids my age, they had been married for ages. It was still, for a teenager, it was difficult to really put into focus, to comprehend.
Leading up to 1938, what were some specific memories you have of anti-Semitism, anti-Semitic acts leading up to Kristallnacht?
Being beaten on the street, having stones thrown at us, somebody was even spitting at us, calling us horrible names. The Jewish cemetery was closed, at least one or two of them, and the dead supposedly reburied but not entirely, and on its place is a shopping center or whatever. The memories were those of being very restricted, having to give up the apartment, moving to another apartment, moving to a furnished room, moving to another furnished room. It was like, like a wall that was closing in, and you didn't really know what you had done to deserve this.
Can you recount one of those moves that you made?
Well, by then we had very little furniture, we had packed most of it in containers, and shipped it to Italy to go to Palestine. The moves were really, more or less, personal belongings because the rooms were furnished. They were designated by the German authorities. It was a room half this size for four people. We had to use a kitchen with everybody in the apartment, it had one bathroom. And the more we moved, every time a new rule came out, people in number 5 had to move to a different street. It was not an improvement. It was an older house, it had no heat, it had nothing personal in it that used to belong to us. The moves themselves were fairly simple but the adjustment was not. Some people kept a very kosher kitchen, some people did not, the conflicts were constant, "You can't use these dishes, you can't use this spoon." When you used the bathroom people would bang on the door if you didn't come out in 30 seconds. It was an existence that was totally changed except for the streets and the outside of the houses and the trees and the gardens, those didn't change, but we had not access to them, we couldn't go into park, we couldn't sit on a bench. So, it was an existence that had two colors, or two pictures, and they differed a great deal. One was very familiar, very accustomed, very normal. And then you came home and you looked at this little room and you couldn't understand how the two fit together because they didn't.
Do you remember how you felt when you saw what was happening? Did feel a sense of danger or threat?
I was very much afraid, because if a building is burning and people stand around it and laugh, it doesn't make sense. I could have seen water or fire brigade, but not laughter, because it wasn't funny. So it was very, very frightening. It was frightening to see mountains of books being burned, and in those days, I did not know the saying by Heinrich Heine, "When they start burning books, it won't be long before they start burning human beings," and that was written 200 years prior. So, it is very hard to tell you what fear is like, fear is when you turn around and walk along a wall and don't look back, and try to go as fast as possible without drawing attention to yourself. That is fear.
That was an everyday part of your life?
Yeah, more or less.
Did your family, the community, or you believe that it would ever get better?
I don't know. What they told us was one story, what they really believed themselves was the second story. We just wanted to leave, all the kids. Whether it was the adventure of leaving a country, or moving, or whether it was just wanting to get away from the world outside, I do not know, but all of us wanted to leave.
During this time period how did you manage to maintain some honor and pride in your daily life?
I think honor and pride did not enter the daily life. It was a daily existence, probably without honor and without pride. I took a job in a department store, sewing clothing so we could have a little bit more money, because our accounts were blocked, we had no funds, we got a hundred dollars a month. Honor and pride didn't matter anymore, it was way beyond that. It was a matter of surviving a day at a time, whether honor played a role, or pride, I doubt very much.
Why was your father picked up by the Gestapo in October 1938?
Because he had a Polish passport, and the Polish consulate, refused to stamp the Jewish passports, because in those days you had the name "religion" on a passport, you don't have that now. So, the Germans thought that they'd take all the Poles and push them across the border in Poland. Poland didn't want to let them in and after three days the border was broken. I think out of all Germany, one hundred thousand people were pushed across the border. Whether the Polish consulate did this for anti-Semetic reasons, whether they did it under pressure from the Germans, I do not know. I asked last week, the Polish Consul General in Europe, "what was the reason of not stamping passports belonging to Jews?" And he said, "We do not know". My conclusion from having read and having listened over the past 50 years was that this was an anti-Semetic act on the part of the Polish government.
When your father was gone and you were living now without him, how did your family cope?
We packed all our belongings and sent them to Italy, to go to Palestine. We called him as often as we could, he lived with my aunt, my cousins. And we made applications for the Gestapo to permit him re-entry and the re-entry was supposed to be for four weeks. We got a re-entry permit for him in May of 1939, and it was for four weeks and we managed to extend it twice. My father was with us on September first when Germany invaded Poland, and he was arrested again and treated as a foreigner, but Poland lost the war in less than two weeks and then he was sent to Sachsenhausen and Dachau.
When he was taken away a second time, did you have any hope that he would return?
We thought maybe under the Geneva Conventions he might return, but one did not think that Poland would lose a war that fast. One did know that Poland could not fight the German army, that was taken for granted. But we did not believe that these people would be sent to Dachau.
The first time your father was taken away by the Gestapo you describe in your book that your mother wanted to send him a suitcase or luggage with clothes and provisions for him, and you offered to bring that to the train station. Can you describe the atmosphere of the people there?
Many families were taken completely: mother, father, children. We talked them out of taking the rest of us, they only took my father. I dragged a heavy suitcase onto the subway, off the subway until I found the proper address, and then I had to look for my father. It was physically very hard, and when I finally found my father, the gate was wide open. And I suggested that he just walk out the gate with me. And my father answered, "That would not be honorable." And I accepted that. A law is a law and you have got to obey the law.
Did you think that you should leave?
Well if I made the suggestions, "Why don't you walk out with me?", I thought it would be a possibility. But then after you walk out, how do you hide, what do you do? I didn't think that far.
Did you believe that your entire family would be reunited in Palestine at one point?
I believed at that point that we would be able to get certificates for Palestine, and that all of us would be in Palestine sooner or later. But that was '39. It got increasingly more difficult. My father's brothers had left Berlin in '34 and it was difficult then, but in '39 and '40 it was almost impossible. We thought we would get the papers. But between believing and the reality, they were two different things.
So when your father was gone, who ended up taking the paternal role that he had in the family?
My mother did.
How did your sister deal with this time?
At this point she dealt with it the way my mother and I dealt with it. He would come back, we would get his release, it would be alright. The first time she really reacted was when they brought us the ashes in a cigar box in 1941. She stopped talking. She talked a little bit weeks after, not much, but a little. She went to school, but she had changed. She wouldn't talk about my father. She tried to cope by not speaking, and you couldn't reach her. She went to school, she was a very good student, and evidently in school they didn't notice it. My mother and I, whenever the talk came about my father, we started to cry, she (sister, Karin) did not. In 1941 she was eleven years old and it's hard for me to guess what she was feeling, I do not know.
How were you feeling when you received the ashes?
In the Jewish religion you don't cremate, you bury the bodies. The ashes – my first reaction was these are not my father's ashes, and they probably are not. These are ashes, but any which ashes. I was angry, I cried, if I had had a gun I don't know what I would have done. But I had heard of similar cases of fathers, of friends who did not return from Dachau. So it was not a total surprise, it was a place you could not survive. I think my mother suffered the most, but she did not say much. She cried a great deal.
How did this experience change you?
It changed me – that I resented the fact that I did not have two parents like most other people. It gave me a feeling that anything you did was useless because you had no control. You had no control over your own destiny or the destiny of your family, and you couldn't buy freedom.
Did you ever wish you could retaliate against the oppression of the Nazis?
No. At 16 you don't think in that direction, that came much later. But then we also knew that retaliation would mean that you can take out one German and then you were gone too. So it would really not accomplish a massive change. There was no organized resistance, or no organized dissent to even make you think that way.
How did this lack of control make you feel?
The lack of control, I would say you get used to it. You know what the limits are, you know what the restrictions are, you know how far you could go, and where you had to stop. And you knew what was fair and just and what wasn't. I mean like anybody knows you, know from your parents what your limit is, how far you can go. And I knew that in a larger sense, meaning the world outside. It is frustrating, it is a feeling without any use, you feel useless, you feel that you don't have your own thoughts anymore. You kept asking yourself, "If I do this, am I permitted to do it or not?" Or if i wanted to go to a concert, "would it be alright to go or would it be causing trouble?" It was a different way of thinking.