Category Archives: German Jewry

A Return to Hannover

by Ellen Norman Stern (Ambler, PA)

I was in a taxi en route to the Hannover Airport on a bright, chilly April morning in the 1990s, looking forward to a relaxing flight home to the United States after a brief unpleasant visit to Germany.

Suddenly, while still within the Hannover city limits, a street address popped into my head as if it had just waited to emerge. I had a change of heart and asked the driver to take me there. Perhaps I sensed that we were in the right area. More likely, I did not want to leave Hannover without paying a visit to a house I had heard about all my life.

Im Moore 21 turned out to be right within the vicinity. The taxi stopped across the street and I walked over to the dilapidated grey apartment house. Despite a fresh coat of paint, some of its bricks still flaked. They were heavily damaged by Allied bombers during World War II. I had once seen a photo of the building taken right after the war, so I knew repairs had been made to it in the intervening years. It looked genteelly shabby, but judging by the geranium pots on all of its balconies, it was apparently fully occupied.

I paced up and down on the sidewalk and looked up to its four floors. How I longed for a glimpse inside. Of course, there was no such chance. Its main door was locked and no one was around to let me in. But suppose someone had come along with a key? Possibly a current tenant returning home early to find a strange woman standing in the street, staring at the building. What would I have said?

“Excuse me, but my family once lived here. I was born in this building. Now I have come back on a nostalgic visit. Could you please let me in?”

I stood on that sidewalk a little while longer wishing I could unlock the whole era of my family. I needed to have a peek at life before my time. There were so many things I wanted to understand. What were the family’s idiosyncrasies? How did the various members relate to one another? Perhaps understanding would also allow me to know myself. But I will never have the answers I need. None of the people who could give them to me are still alive.

I saw the taxi driver look in my direction. I had told him my plane would leave within two hours. Now was the time to go. Caught up in the present again, I suddenly remembered what day it was. April 12. My father’s birthday. What a co-incidence that I should stand on this spot this day. Here where my father had started his family. In a house to which most likely I would never return. 

Perhaps it was my imagination. Did the driver look at me strangely when I climbed back into his taxi? I did not owe him an explanation but I said it anyway. “I was born in that house.” Let him figure it out for himself, I thought, as he took me to the airport.

Now, many years later, I believe that brief trip to my birth house may have given me the impetus to record my past in order to preserve it for the future.

So often I feel my childhood has been stolen from me. In comparison to the early days of my children and grandchildren, very little about my childhood days was normal.

I am not an important person, but I was born into and have lived through some remarkable historical times. As the years go by, I feel the urge to document what I have witnessed. Perhaps rediscovering my early life will help me to understand myself better. And surely I owe those who preceded me a telling of their story.

Some day my descendants may even want to know more about their roots. I want to share with them whatever I do know and remember.

Born in Germany, Ellen Norman Stern came to the United States as a young girl and grew up in Louisville, Kentucky. She’s the author of numerous books for children and young adults, including biographies of Louis D. Brandeis, Nelson Glueck, Elie Wiesel,, and, most recently, Kurt Weill.

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The Goldschmidt School

by Ellen Norman Stern (Ambler, PA)

On a long-ago afternoon in April 1935, I stood with my mother at the foot of a staircase of an elegant villa in the Berlin suburbs waiting to hear the results of an entrance exam which had been administered there earlier that day. 

The results were announced by a woman standing on the top of the upper staircase.  Dr. Leonore Goldschmidt, owner and principal of the Goldschmidt Schule, an institution serving Jewish children who had been disenfranchised by law from attending German public schools as of April that year.

It was a tense moment for all the parents standing in that hallway. I held tightly onto my mother’s hand as we awaited the principal’s next words. Finally, they came. “Ellen Nussbaum,” announced the woman as both my mother and I held our breath, “unfortunately cannot be accepted because of low test results and would not meet our high scholastic standards.” 

Had I been able to disappear from the scene, I would have prayed to do so. But I had not counted on my mother.

“Wait one moment,” she said, in a tone I knew well. This was the voice getting ready for a fight. “My daughter and all of these children have been through impossible times, times that are frightening to all of us. I know what a good student Ellen has always been. If her results are not satisfactory to you at this moment, I know that my daughter easily measures up to every single pupil here. I can produce all of her earlier grades in public school which will prove my words.”  

After my mother consented to allow tutoring in case I did not measure up, I was finally accepted into the Goldschmidt School that day. It became the beginning of a memorable time in my life, and I did not require tutoring.

The Goldschmidt Sdhool, a private school for Jewish boys and girls, was founded in 1935 by Dr. Goldschmidt, a former teacher, after the passage of the Nuremberg Laws prohibited Jewish children from signing up for and attending German public schools. The school was located in the middle of the Grunewald, a wooded, stylish suburb of Berlin with sufficient outside space for exercise and play.

The house itself may have once been a posh private villa. Now it was divided and furnished into a number of school rooms segregated for boys and girls. During the time I was a student there 400 students were taught by 40 teachers.The quality of education was extremely high; its goal was to prepare students for a future outside of Germany, primarily in England. I learned to read and speak English there. Dr. Goldschmidt’s aim was that most, if not all, of her students would one day be eligible for emigration to English-speaking countries, but primarily to England where she planned to open another school.

Her school was strict and disciplined; all the subjects were taught with great rigor, including the sciences, nature studies, languages, and Jewish studies, and were geared for a life outside of Germany. Most of the teachers were specialists in their fields who had lost their previous jobs when Germany dismissed them because of their religion.

I remember especially a wonderful lady, Professor Bromberg, who taught me Science, to whom I became quite attached because of her warm, understanding personality. 

I have memories of a very personal nature which began almost from the beginning of my Goldschmidt experience.

While in public school. I had lived within walking distance to my school on Bleibtreustrasse in Charlottenburg. Now, at Goldschmidt, I was far removed from my home and needed to use public transportation to the Grunewald. Every morning I walked to the tram station at Fehrbelliner Platz where I caught the street car that traveled to the end of the line. But I was not alone. With me on that daily trip was a young boy, Wolfgang Manasse, who lived a number of blocks from our apartment on Zaehringerstrasse. Every morning, he, along with his elderly nanny Emma and Wolfgang’s dog, Gustl, a golden cocker spaniel, picked me up at my building and walked me to the streetcar stop, a not inconsiderable distance. The same action took place in reverse in the late afternoon when we returned from Goldschmidt School which was located at the corner of Roseneck in the Grunewald.

For a year and a half, Wolfgang and I attended Goldschmidt together. We did not attend the same classes, but we became inseparable after school. Every day, we returned on the streetcar to be met by his nanny and Gustl. We spent afternoons and early evenings, sometimes even suppers, together at his house until the three of them walked me home before dark. Wolfgang and I became close and in our unsupervised conversations often pledged we would always remain that way. We never believed anything could part us.

Emma his nanny always wore the regional costume of the Spreewald where she came from. The many layers of petticoats under her black skirts, the tightly-laced colorful vest, and the elongated head covering with its veil trailing halfway down her back never failed to draw the attention of onlookers we met on our way to the tram stop.

Wolfgang, brown-eyed and dark-haired, was handsome, and I enjoyed being with him. We became good friends. Although he could be very serious, he was also a teaser and could make me laugh a lot. We shared many a secret and swore never to separate no matter what the future might bring. We were both the same age – 11 years old – so we were in a world of our own.

I gradually came to know his family. His charming parents were very kind to me, invited me often to their apartment, and treated me like their second child. Similarly to my family, the Manasses hoped to emigrate to America and worked on plans to leave Germany as soon as possible.    

This was a difficult time in my own family, too. During the time I attended Goldschmidt, my father was arrested and incarcerated in Buchenwald for eleven weeks. While there, he was forced to sign over his share of the road machinery business he partnered with a Gentile man. 

My mother, meanwhile, attempted by all means to free my father by getting him a visa for emigration to America from the American consulate in Berlin. I remember many trips to the consulate where she pleaded for a visa for her husband and the belligerent refusals she received there.

I recall one special visit where I was present because no one was at home and my mother did not dare to leave me there alone. When again my mother requested a visa, the American consul haughtily told her, “We do not give out visas to anyone who is not here in person.” To which my mother replied, “How do you expect that to be possible when my husband is in a concentration camp?”

I do not remember the consul’s reply, but I know that afterwards my mother used other means to get the required document. She paid a considerable bribe to an amenable lawyer who passed it on to a friend at the American consulate. This eventually resulted in the coveted visa.

So much went on all around us in Berlin at the time that life seemed to consist of one exciting, but unpleasant, episode after another. The Berlin Olympics in 1936 held the interest of the whole world. However, it also changed everyone’s personal life in the capital to some extent. 

One noticeable result of the Olympics was Germany’s intense desire to make the games a public spectacle, an attempt to show the rest of the world how great Germany was under the new regime of Adolf Hitler and the National Socialist Party.

The Jewish friends who visited our apartment all commented on the appearance of the posters in cafes and stores which read “Jews not welcome.” While international visitors were in Berlin, the signs were withdrawn. As soon as the foreigners left the city, the signs returned.

In August 1939 the Nazi regime ordered that all Jewish names include the following: “Sara” for Jewish females and “Israel” for Jewish males. Omission was heavily punished. So I became Ellen “Sara” Nussbaum and my school was listed as Leonore Sara Goldschmidt School.

On a morning in September 1939, a group of brown-shirted SA storm troopers (Sturm  Abeilung) marched into the Goldschmidt School building and escorted all the students outside. They lined up everyone on the sidewalk in front of the school and made all of us watch the flames curl around Goldschmidt’s façade. The gleeful expression on some SA men’s faces left no one in doubt about the fire’s origin. 

When the last of the school employees came out of the building, crying as they, too, climbed into the open SA truck, all of us, even the youngest student, sensed what was happening:  this was the end of our beloved Goldschmidt School as we had known it.

Born in Germany, Ellen Stern came to the United States as a young girl and grew up in Louisville, Kentucky. She’s the author of numerous books for children and young adults, including biographies of Louis D. Brandeis, Nelson Glueck, Elie Wiesel,, and, most recently, Kurt Weill.

PS – If you’re curious about what happened to Ellen’s childhood friend, Wolfgang, you might want to read “The View from the Rue Constantinople,” a story she wrote about her friend’s fate: https://jewishwritingproject.wordpress.com/2013/07/29/the-view-from-the-rue-constantinople/ 

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On the Other Side

by Ellen Norman Stern (Ambler, PA)

About a dozen relatives and good friends gathered at the Berlin train station that day in early May 1938 to see my mother, me, and our beloved Scottish Terrier, Pips, off on the first leg of our trip to America.

My favorite aunt, Tante Friedel, held her arms tightly around my eleven-year old neck, moaning “I will never see you again” as streams of tears ran down her cheeks. She was my father’s sister and supposedly I resembled her in many ways. It was said that I had inherited her left-handedness, her love of cooking, and her passion for making people feel comfortable. Now I wondered why she was so certain of our future.

Not everyone could hug us goodbye before the conductor blew his whistle, picked up Pips and handed him to a porter inside the coach, and then we boarded the train and started off on our journey, happy to leave Germany and its persecution of Jews as the danger to Jews was growing more intense every week.

After we reached the city of Bremen my mother, Pips, and I checked in for the night at a hotel before our ship departed the following day. The Bremerhof was a posh establishment where my mother had decided to spend our remaining few marks. We registered, ordered dinner, and went upstairs to our room. Shortly afterward, a steward arrived with a silver tray on which we found the dog’s dinner. Also on the tray was a printed card which stated: “Our non-Aryan guests are requested to abstain from visiting the Dining Room.” So we did without dinner that night and looked forward to experiencing the ship’s highly touted cuisine the following day.

We arrived in New York after a calm, relaxing ocean voyage on the “Europa,” Germany’s newest luxury liner. New York was hectic, crowded, and overwhelming. How nice it would be to board the train to Louisville, Kentucky, our final destination, where we would at last be reunited with my father. My poor father, who had survived the horrors of the concentration camp at Buchenwald, had been helped by relatives to find refuge in Louisville and awaited us there.

The Louisville & Nashville Railroad train was fully booked for the overnight trip from New York. We did not have the money for a private Pullman car, but had seats in coach. I sat on one side of the aisle, with Pips at my feet; my mother sat across from me in the remaining free seat. We did not notice the woman located nearby until she rose from her seat and walked back to where my mother sat and addressed my mother. 

My mother smiled, but it was obvious to me she did not understand what the stranger was saying to her.  So I took it upon myself to stand up, faced the woman, and asked her to repeat her remark to my mother.

“I asked her whether she noticed you were sitting next to a colored man and whether you had her permission to sit there.”

Puzzled by her question, I looked back to my seat, saw the quiet older man sitting there and repeated her question to my mother, who was obviously as surprised to hear the woman’s words as I had been. She smiled a sweet little smile, shook her head, and said “Naturally.” Around us, no one spoke or paid any attention to the woman whose face wore a disgusted expression as she returned to her seat.

After a night-long, back-rattling, sitting-up ride, we finally reached the wide countryside nearing the state of Kentucky. As the dawn came up, it was amazing to see such an enormously huge landscape. It seemed ever so much larger than any European piece of land we had crossed on our way from Berlin to Bremen. There were no buildings, only miles and miles of unpopulated land.

At last, our train rolled into the Louisville train station. There, in tears, my parents met each other again after many months of separation. Probably no one standing nearby had the faintest clue of the painful history and reunion they were witnessing in the grimy waiting room that day.

Even Pips recognized his old master; his tail did not stop wagging as my father petted him in a loving gesture of greeting.

A young black man stood near my father. “This is Mac, my driver,” my father said. Mac’s face lit up as we attempted to shake his hand. From my father’s letters from America we had learned he had started a new business that involved travel throughout the country and that he had hired a driver for his new career. We had known that my dad never drove while living in Europe. He  always had a chauffeur. But this was the first that we learned of Mac’s existence in my father’s life. 

The early humid May heat warmed up the Louisville train station. As we stood there talking, I noticed that my little dog had begun to pant. I asked my father whether we could get him some water since Pips was not used to the Kentucky temperatures. My father passed the message on to Mac who wanted to know from which fountain to draw the water. I had no idea what Mac meant until I saw him step toward two identical water coolers, one of which bore the sign “For Colored Only” and the second one labeled “For Whites Only.” When he returned from the “Colored” fountain bearing a cup of water, I had my introduction to segregated water fountains and restrooms.

Mac drove us home to our first American apartment that day. For my mother and me it was the start of a new life. Mac continued working for my father for many years. Sometimes I heard about unusual problems that arose when they traveled through the South. Most of the problems arose when my father had business in towns where he needed to stay  overnight. In some of the towns, black people could not find sleeping accommodations.

“What did you do then?” I asked my father years later when he had retired and no longer stayed out overnight.

“When Mac found no friends or relatives who could house him, I simply said, ‘Drive on, Mac. We will go to the next town where we will find a room for you.’”

My father didn’t want any harm to come to Mac. 

“I was incarcerated in Buchenwald because of my religion,” he would tell me. “How could I put him at risk for being black?”

Born in Germany, Ellen Stern came to the United States as a young girl and grew up in Louisville, Kentucky. She’s the author of numerous books for children and young adults, including biographies of Louis D. Brandeis, Nelson Glueck, Elie Wiesel,, and, most recently, Kurt Weil.

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Have the Hate-filled Times Come Again?

by Ellen Norman Stern (Ambler, PA)

On the night of November 10, 1938 my mother and I stood on the sidewalk of Fasanenstrasse in Berlin and watched flames shoot out of the roof of our beautiful and beloved Temple, the great Reform Synagogue, across the street.

I was eleven years old and could not understand what was happening. Behind us in the street several fire engines manned by their crews rested without attempting to put out the fire. In front of the engines crowds of people just stood and watched, some of them obviously snickering.

No one made any attempt to put out the fire. It was obvious to me even at a young age that this was no accidental fire: it had been set because of hatred.

This was the synagogue in which I had my first introduction to Judaism, where I learned about our holy days, listened to the heavenly music of the choir, and felt the closeness of God even as a young child.

That night I even questioned God: “Dear God. This is Your beautiful house. Why are You allowing these evil people to burn it?  And why did You not punish those just standing around seemingly enjoying the spectacle?”

But I said these thoughts quietly to myself for even my mother just stood there silently not saying a word. Her face wore such a languished look I did not dare to interrupt her sadness.

Finally, she turned to me and said in a quiet voice, “Remember this.” Then she pulled me away from the crowd and led me to the train station nearby. We went home in silence.

I have remembered that night throughout my life. It has become known as “Kristallnacht” (Night of Broken Glass) because aside from the burning of synagogues, other horrendous episodes occurred that day. Jewish shops all over Germany had their storefront windows smashed by unruly mobs, and many Jewish men were arrested and taken to concentration camps.

“Kristallnacht” was the forerunner to the Holocaust.

On Saturday, October 27, 2018, a crazed, heavily armed individual entered the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and murdered eleven elderly congregants while they were praying. His comment upon being wounded by arresting officers (who themselves sustained gunshot injuries) was: “All Jews should be killed.”

These words lie heavily upon our souls. Have the terrible, hate-filled times come again?

Never in the history of the United States have American Jews faced such concentrated venom.

Yet there is a difference. And there is hope.

In Germany, the hate and conflagration was started and fostered by tools of the State. Here, the actions were of a lone, crazed gunman. And here, the State, in the form of Pittsburgh’s police force and elected officials, Pennsylvania and Federal law enforcement officials, along with Pittsburgh’s medical personnel, the American Press, and worldwide reaction to the tragedy, has supported the bereaved Tree of Life congregation.

Despite my great sadness as a child Holocaust survivor, I have faith in the future.

Born in Germany, Ellen Stern came to the United States as a young girl and grew up in Louisville, Kentucky. She’s the author of numerous books for young adult readers, including biographies of Louis D. Brandeis, Nelson Glueck, and Elie Wiesel. Her most recent publication is The French Physician’s Boy, a novel about Philadelphia’s 1793 Yellow Fever epidemic.

 

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Unexpected Departure, 1938

by Helga Harris (Sarasota, FL)

Perhaps due to my age, I was the only member of my family of four who had not been upset about unexpectedly leaving Berlin in April 1938. My parents kept their plans to emigrate a secret from me, fearing that I, a talkative child, might speak out and be heard by a Nazi. My brother, Eric, five years my senior, and I had opposite personalities. He was an introvert. For weeks he had known of the family’s plans and was treated as an adult. … and I …  as an afterthought.

I saw the horrors in the streets of Berlin, especially toward old, religious-looking Jewish men. Some were beaten, punched in the face, pulled by their long curly side-locks, flowing black robes, dragged by their legs through the streets or by the tzitzit of their prayer shawls. It made me shudder and wonder what the future held for Jews in Germany.

When walking in the street it was common to hear thunderous sounds from blocks away of soldiers marching in high brown shiny leather boots, displaying the swastika armband on their brown shirts, and waving flags while marching on the cobblestone pavements. Besides the noise of goose-stepping soldiers, the storm troopers sang their patriotic songs in high decibel. Knowing the Nazis would be within our sight in a few moments, Mutti always quickly pulled me into a building’s doorway in order not to be seen. It was mandatory to salute the flag or be instantly arrested.

“Mutti, when will this stop?” I asked innocently.

She looked at me sadly and said, “I don’t know.” Mutti always seemed to know everything. With that realization, my perception of where I lived changed. To this day I cringe when hearing marching music, and I am wary of the display of flags. Nationalism frightens me. In my geography class in Berlin, I became intrigued about that fascinating land, America, “The land of opportunity, where the streets were paved with gold.” I was a cynic, even at such an early age. I didn’t believe the gold part, but dreamed of living in “The Land of Opportunity” and freedom.

I was not made aware of my parents’ plans to leave Berlin and travel to America until a week before our departure. Suddenly, large wooden crates appeared in our living room. It was then that my parents finally explained their agenda. I was happy and excited to escape Hitlerland, but the timing was too abrupt. I questioned myself. How will we live there? I don’t know English. How will people understand me? I’ll feel stupid in school.

My main misgiving was how I would tell my best friend, Ruthchen, that I’m moving to America. We’d been close, like sisters, since kindergarten: half of our lives. How will I say goodbye to her? The most serious question in my mind was: Will I ever see her again?

The difficult job was to convince my parents that I must say Auf Wiedersehen to Ruthchen. In 1938, Jews in Germany were always on alert when outside the safety of their home. (A year later, after Kristallnacht, there were no secure places.) Both families discussed the request and finally agreed for Ruthchen and me to meet; possibly for the last time of our young lives.

After all these years, I can still conjure the image of my dearest friend standing with her mother on the platform of the Berlin train station for the last goodbye. Our mothers had lectured each of us to control our emotions. For young girls, not yet eleven-years-old, that was difficult. We were also instructed not to bring the usual farewell gifts of flowers and chocolates.

It was a cool and sunny day that April in Berlin when we met at the railroad terminal. I remember Ruthchen dressed in a wool pleated navy skirt and hand-knit light blue jacket (to match her big, sparkling eyes), her blond curls escaping from her beanie hat that framed her round, sweet face. I probably wore something similar.

I recall clearly how our mothers were attired. Both wore well-tailored dark wool suits. Each had a fox (the entire animal, from head to tail) draped nonchalantly over their shoulders. The mouth of the animal was fashioned into a clothespin, to which the tail was secured. That look both fascinated and abhorred me. When I was very young, I hoped that the animal with its soulful eyes would loosen the clip somehow and spring from Mutti’s shoulder to freedom. To complete the outfit, they wore Marlene Dietrich type felt fedoras, leather gloves, purses, and clunky, dark oxford shoes. The young matrons did not look out of place: it was the style of affluent women of the 1930s.

For our exodus, my parents decided to separate the family for security reasons. My father and brother were to follow my mother and me by train a week after our departure from Berlin. That was a frightening thought. I wanted us to be together. My imagination went wild with terror. What if Mutti and I got lost? I’d want to be with my father … he could always make me smile. My mother was serious with no sense of humor. Or, what if something happened to Papa and Eric? What would my mother and I do to help? A month ago we heard that Hitler had marched into Austria and occupied that country “peacefully.” What’s next?

The plan was to travel to Belgium and stay with relatives in Antwerp and Brussels for six weeks while waiting for our visas to the U.S. Two sisters–my mother’s first cousins; one family living in Antwerp with her husband and son, the other with her spouse and daughter in Brussels–had moved to Belgium to escape Hitler two years earlier. The sisters, like my mother, were born in the same shtetl and moved to Berlin after WWI. My cousins and I, all the same age, had been very close in Berlin.

Although both cities are in Belgium, the spoken language in Antwerp is Flemish and in Brussels, French. My ten-year-old cousin, Vera, in Brussels, felt superior to Ziggy, in Antwerp. She tormented him for not speaking French and emphasized that Flemish is a non-language. I didn’t like being the third wheel. “Why are you so mean to Ziggy? It’s not his fault that he lives in Antwerp.” “I don’t care. Flemish is a stupid language and he’s stupid, too.” I later learned that in 1941 there was a knock on the door, and Vera’s father was forced out of their house, arrested, and shipped to Auschwitz Concentration Camp, never to be heard from again. The rest of the family somehow survived the war and got to New York five years later. Vera and her mother were never the same free-spirited people again.

My six weeks in Belgium were a wonderful experience of new things and foods that we all had been craving due to years of rationing for Jews in Germany. After leaving Belgium, my parents, Eric, and I, were scheduled to travel to Paris. The land journey would end in Le Havre. There we’d set sail on the magnificent SS Normandie and be on our way to New York. In order for it to appear as if we were on holiday, my father bought round-trip tickets. My brother had studied English for the past three years and offered to teach me rudimentary phrases. I was thrilled.

Brussels and Antwerp were interesting cities, but nothing compared to the splendor of Paris. I loved watching people while sitting in cafes, eating al fresco, and smelling the perfume from the flowers in window boxes that seemed to be everywhere.

I was impressed by French women, who all tended to be slim and wore simple, elegant clothes. They were masters at draping scarves and making every outfit, no matter the price, look unique. It instilled a style I adopted and empowered me to become a dress designer, which I’d been dreaming about. By comparison, I found German and Belgium females were rounder, had no sense of style, and wore too much makeup and jewelry. I learned a lesson from the French: be classic, understated, and you will look like “a million dollars.” I liked that American expression.

Never will I forget the abundance of food of every kind, especially the meats. (Kosher meat had not been available for several years for us in Germany.) I must have had a grin on my face when I finally bit into the juicy hotdog that snapped with every bite and as the liquid ran down my arm. Mutti permitted me to have as many as I wished, knowing that eventually I’d have my fill. Even the mustard was luscious. Eating freshly baked butter-dripping croissants and crunchy warm baguettes every day was unforgettable.

My one regret: I wish I had been older to experience and understand more of the uniqueness of the trip. Even as a young child, I recognized that Paris was more vibrant, artsy, and sophisticated than Brussels, Antwerp, and even cosmopolitan Berlin. More important than the food I craved was the freedom of speaking in public … not worrying about being overheard by the Nazis. Unfortunately that changed after the war started.

I would not have objected to living in Paris, but America was waiting for me. I was ready,

A writer, artist, and fashion designer, Helga Harris has published a memoir, Dear Helga, Dear Ruth, as well as articles in The St. Petersburg Times, The Sarasota Herald Tribune. and The Tampa Tribune. Her stories have appeared in anthologies, including Dolls Remembered, Doorways, and, most recently, We Were There, which was published by the St.Petersburg Holocaust Museum. Her latest memoir is Susie … WAIT! and her first collection of nonfiction short stories is Nothing Is Forever. She is currently co-leader of a writing program at The Lifelong Learning Academy in Sarasota.

“Unexpected Departure, 1938” is an excerpt from her most recent memoir, There’s A Witch In My Room.

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The Ring

by Ellen Norman Stern (Willow Grove, PA)

I will never forget Thursday, May 26, 1938, the day my mother, our beloved Scottish Terrier named Peeps, and I stood on the pier of the North German Lloyd shipping company in Bremerhaven, waiting to board the ocean liner SS Europa for our departure to the United States. The Europa was the largest ship built in Germany during the 1930s.

Prior to forever leaving German soil, we were required to undergo a final physical examination; Germany had to ensure that emigrants were not taking valuables out of the country. My mother carried only the maximum amount allowed: a ten-mark note, worth about $2.50 at the time. Being eleven years old, I was not permitted to leave with any funds. It was late afternoon when we were ordered into a tent that stood only a few feet away from where the Europa was moored. Those travelers who were not emigrating did not enter the tent nor endure its indignities. Inside, two elderly white-clad matrons with gray braids and large swastikas prominently pinned to their ample bosoms, ordered us to undress from the waist down. Then, as we were bent over two chairs, the attendants inspected our orifices for hidden treasures. Finding nothing, they instructed us to get dressed. As we prepared to exit, one of the grumpy ogres pointed to my mother’s left hand with its plain gold wedding band and commanded, “Hand it over!”

It took only a second for my mother to slip the ring from her finger. What she did after that, shocked not only me, but even more so, the matrons. Thinking, but not vocalizing, “If I can’t have it, neither will you. I’ll be damned if I’m going to allow you to take my wedding ring!”

My mother, with the band tightly clutched in her hand, sprinted toward the water’s edge a few steps away. She tossed the ring into the narrow strip of water separating the ship from the pier. Just as quickly, she zoomed back to scoop up Peeps and me from the tent, dragging us to the queueing spot where other passengers had begun boarding.

After reaching the top of the embarkation ladder, but before taking my first step into the huge vessel’s interior, I turned for a final glimpse backward. The looks of incredulity, frozen on the horrified faces of the two inspectors now standing on the pier outside the tent, were beyond description. Pulling Peeps’ white patent leather leash up the last step behind my mother, I was so overcome by what my mother had done that I slowed to what could have become a fatal stop.

The unbelievable daring and courage she showed by throwing her ring into the harbor still stunned me. We could have easily been caught and then, what would have happened to us? We might have been arrested and prevented from boarding because of her disobedience.

A few hours later, after stowing Peeps into the dog kennel on the top deck and finding our belongings in our cabin, my mother and I went above to witness the ship’s departure. It was getting dark and would soon be time for the Europa’s high-speed steam turbine engines to start up. Simultaneously, we heard the ship’s orchestra begin playing the tear-jerking, traditional German farewell folk song “Muss i denn, muss i denn zum Staedtele hinaus?” (Why must I leave this small town?)

Standing at the railing beside my mother, I saw she had tears running down her face.

“Mom,” I asked, “aren’t you glad we are finally getting out of here?”

“My dear child,” she replied, “I am and we have every reason for being grateful. But you must remember that I have lived through much better times than ours and it is these I am remembering at this moment. The good and happy times. And now I am looking forward to being in the new country and being reunited with your father.”

My mother’s first request after reaching the United States and settling in Louisville was for my father to buy her a new wedding ring. After all, she needed to show she was a married woman. I cherish her replacement ring, and after almost eighty years, I still proudly remember the incredible moment of defiance when my mother tossed her original wedding band into the water to prevent it from falling into Nazi hands.

Born in Germany, Ellen Stern came to the United States as a young girl and grew up in Louisville, Kentucky. She’s the author of numerous books for young adult readers, including biographies of Louis D. Brandeis, Nelson Glueck, and Elie Wiesel. Her most recent publication is The French Physician’s Boy, a novel about Philadelphia’s 1793 Yellow Fever epidemic.

Editor’s Note: Ellen Norman Stern shared a different version of this story, “Ring of Defiance,” with The Jewish Writing Project in 2012. We’ve included a link here to show how a writer’s memories can fuel different stories, and how our retelling of these stories can differ from draft to draft over the years, depending on what we find most worth telling at the time: (https://jewishwritingproject.wordpress.com/2012/10/22/ring-of-defiance/).

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The Watch

by Ellen Norman Stern (Willow Grove, PA)

It sat under a glass bell in my china closet for many years, a slim gold watch meant to be worn on a man’s waistband. Whenever I looked at it, I remembered its original owner, my father’s older brother, my uncle Max.

Recently, a ray of sunlight landed on the contents of my china cabinet and fell directly on Uncle Max’s watch in its glass housing. Almost instantly I thought of its history: it had survived three concentration camps during its existence.

I was very fond of chubby, jolly Uncle Max, who called me “Kindchen” (little child) when I was young. I thought that he had forgotten my real name before I understood he meant the term as an endearment.

“What can I bring you the next time, Kindchen?” he’d say at the end of many a Sunday afternoon at Berlin’s Café Dobrin where he and my father met and I was invited to come along.

While the two men drank their coffee and talked, I walked over to the magazine rack where newspapers and magazines on long wooden handles were hung for the customers to read.

My favorite publication at that time was a magazine entitled “Simplicissimus.” It was a satiric political magazine of which I understood nothing except that I laughed at the cartoons it featured, all of them making fun of the political situation then current in Germany.

Suddenly, I remembered an evening long ago in in 1937 in our Berlin apartment. Uncle Max was visiting, and he and my father sat chatting in the upholstered lemon-wood chairs of our living room. Finally, Uncle Max pulled out the watch from his waistband and said: “I must leave. Tomorrow will be a busy day. And Elsa will be worrying about me being out this late.”

Elsa was Uncle Max’s gentile live-in girlfriend.

“But again, Leo,” he said, shaking his finger at my father, “Let me tell you. We have nothing to worry about. It is mainly foreigners they are arresting. Our family has lived in Germany for many generations. We are honorable, productive members of this country. Why would anyone want to do us harm? All these rumors about the Nazis coming after us are surely exaggerated.”

With these cheerful words Uncle Max put on his coat and left us.

I glanced at my father before the door closed. He was smiling. What a wonderful feeling it was to have so much optimism around us!

Early the following morning the telephone rang, and my mother picked it up. When she hung up, her normally rosy face was ashen as she turned to my father and me.

“That was Elsa…calling from a public phone. She could hardly speak, she was crying so hard. She said the package she expected last night had not been delivered. She was beside herself.”

My mother held on to a chair. All of us knew instantly: Uncle Max had been arrested.

We did not know where he was. We had no news whether he was even alive.

Before long we had our own frightful news. Around six o’clock on a May morning of 1938, two black-clad Gestapo men rang our apartment doorbell and arrested my father. He was sent to the concentration camp of Buchenwald.

While leaving our apartment door that frightening morning of his arrest, my father managed these words to my mother: “I have a cousin in America. He lives in a city called Louisville, but I have no address. See if you can find him and ask him to help us.”

The incredible next step was “beshert.” My mother’s letter to the mayor of Louisville reached the American cousin via a miraculous route. Our relative and his friend, the mayor, met once a week over a card game!

Shortly afterward a most desirable document arrived at our Berlin address containing an affidavit for my father to come to the United States. The document assured that he would never become a burden of the country since the cousin declared himself liable for his upkeep.

Once he reached the United States my father was able to send for my mother and me.

On May 26, 1939 at Berlin’s Anhalter Bahnhof, one of the main train stations, we said goodbye to the rest of the family amidst tears. Everyone sensed we would not meet again.

During the autumn of 1939, the German invasion of Poland started the war in Europe. News of the loved ones we had left behind in Germany stopped. In Louisville my mother and I sat crying after every evening’s newscast, feeling we would never see our family again. My mother hoped her mother and sister would survive. My father wished his only sister and three brothers would make it through the war.

Eventually, with the income from my parents’ menial jobs and the help of our American cousin, we were able to purchase a house of our own in Louisville, a lovely home at 1638 Edenside across from Tyler Park. We moved in on December 7, 1941, Pearl Harbor Day, a very important date in American history.

It would be a long time before the end of World War Two. The days seemed even longer without news of our family members.

On a quiet August Sunday afternoon in 1945 my parents and I were relaxing at home when suddenly my mother screamed from the living room where she sat reading.

“Leo, Ellen, come here and bring a magnifying glass. It’s in one of the kitchen drawers,” she yelled in an urgent voice. “Look at this!“ She pointed to the newspaper she was holding, the “Aufbau,” a publication aimed at German Jewish refugees living in the U.S. Her trembling hand pointed to the paper’s front page, to a photograph of a ship. “It’s Max! Your brother Max. He’s leaning over the railing of this ship.”

And there he was……Uncle Max on board an ocean liner named “Henry Gibbons.”

We looked over her shoulder and saw the following article beneath the photograph:

On June 12, 1944, the Fort Ontario Emergency Refugee Shelter was established in Oswego, New York, by order of President Franklin D. Roosevelt to be operated by the War Relocation Authority. Named “Safe Haven” It is the first and only refugee center established in the United States.

By August of 1944, the shelter has already received 982 refugees of predominantly Jewish descent and of various national backgrounds, especially Yugoslavian, Austrian, Polish, German and Czechoslovakian.

The refugees had undergone great trauma, and, as a result, needed to recuperate. Nearly 100 of the refugees had been imprisoned in Buchenwald or Dachau. Many of them had been refugees for 7 or 8 years, and almost all had suffered through food shortages, disease, torture and trauma. They arrived in the United States as part of a convoy of American ships traveling the Atlantic Ocean under wartime conditions. The largest ship among the convoy was the ocean liner “Henry Gibbons.”

The next day, a Monday, my father telephoned the “Aufbau” in New York and was able to consult a list of passengers arriving on the “Henry Gibbons.” The name of Max Nussbaum was on the list!

I saw tears run down my father’s face as he received the news. It was the first time I had seen him cry since the day he came home to us from Buchenwald.

The next outgoing call on our phone went to the ticket office of the Louisville-Nashville railroad. Within days my parents and I sat up in the coach section of the Oswego-bound train for the day-long, warm journey toward Canada.

We had wired the proper authorities at Ft. Ontario of our planned visit and requested permission for it. We had no idea what to expect of “Safe Haven,” so when our taxi left us off it was a shock to see a former army post still surrounded by its original barbed wire-topped fences that kept its inmates from leaving and its visitors from entering.

After sufficient clearance, Uncle Max was allowed to greet us in a front office and from there to lead us to his cell.

When he first walked toward us, I was shocked. The man I remembered from Berlin days was now completely bald with a black beret covering his head. He had lost much weight and was dressed in a loose-fitting dark garment. To me he looked more like a religious friar than my jolly, chubby uncle. In fact, had he worn a white outfit, he would have resembled Pope Francis.

He took us to his barrack where he invited us to sit down for a snack of tea and the cookies my father had bought him, even knowing Max was diabetic.

He had photographs of his parents on a shelf over his cot. On a folded man’s handkerchief next to the pictures I saw his watch.

“How did you get the watch past everyone, Uncle Max?” I asked him.

His face seemed to gain more color. “You shouldn’t ask that question, Kindchen,” he answered. “You wouldn’t like the answer.”

Uncle Max and my father sat on his cot as he told us his story. My mother and I made do with the two collapsible chairs in the barrack.

“… The Americans liberated us at Dachau on April 29, 1945. I think it was the Rainbow Division of the Seventh Army. They told us to get away as quickly as we could, to walk southward, and walk we did, toward Italy,” he continued his narrative. “Gradually, some dropped out from fatigue, others just fell down and had no more strength. They were left behind. Several of us walked through most of Italy. We stopped only when we found a cave where we could sleep at night. At times we walked alone and were stopped by Italian carabinieri who wanted to arrest us. I spoke no Italian, so I pretended to be a deaf-mute and it worked. Especially since I looked like a beggar.

“I did not know that the Americans had a plan for us after liberating us from Dachau. But President Roosevelt had ordered for many of us who were homeless and had no place to return to be sent to this place here in America until the war was over. Most of us were gathered in Naples. I guess that’s why the American soldiers who liberated us told us to walk toward Italy. In a little town called Aversa an abandoned insane asylum had stood empty for some time. That’s where they took us to wait until we could be brought to America. And that’s where we stayed for over a year until enough of us refugees had been gathered for the sailing. From Aversa they took us to Naples where we boarded the “Henry Gibbons” and the seventeen days’ sail.

“And now this is the third time I am in a camp. Why”

We listened to his plaintive question and attempted to make plans for my uncle’s future, which turned out to be in Bogota, Colombia, where my cousin Kurt (Uncle Max’s nephew), furnished an apartment for him and took him in as a “silent partner” in his business. “Senor Max” spoke not a word of Spanish but sat behind a desk in the “officinal,” beloved by all the staff who could not communicate with him but were gratified by his smiles to their attempts at communication.

Uncle Max died in Bogota and was buried in the Jewish cemetery there. During his next visit to the United States, my cousin gave me the watch to keep for its family value.

I have since passed it on to my older son as a reminder of one segment of our family’s story. The watch is still ticking.

Born in Germany, Ellen Stern came to the United States as a young girl and grew up in Louisville, Kentucky. She’s the author of numerous books for young adult readers, including biographies of Louis D. Brandeis, Nelson Glueck, and Elie Wiesel. Her most recent publication is The French Physician’s Boy, a novel about Philadelphia’s 1793 Yellow Fever epidemic.

 

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The Fate of Cousins Who I Never Knew

by William Levine (Belmont, MA)

On July 1, 1941 my mother was a popular 17-year-old girl in the insular world of Atlanta’s Jewish community. No doubt she was looking forward to being pursued by her favorite crushes from Georgia Tech’s Jewish frat in the carefree summer of 1941. Mom had also assimilated enough of Dixie culture to be a true Southern Belle, helped by her enrollment in the prestigious citywide Girls High School. Most likely on July 4th, Mom took in the pyrotechnics show in Atlanta that ushered in the day as a Federal holiday.

On July 1, 1941, my mother’s 2nd through 4th cousins, twice removed, the Seligson family of Riga, Latvia, were doomed as the Nazis occupied Latvia’s capital city and rained down hell on its Jews. The Seligsons also most likely witnessed a fiery display on the 4th of July as fellow Latvians burned down Riga’s Chor Synagogue.

On December 8, 1941 my mom most likely listened to President Roosevelt’s “Day of Infamy” speech via a handsome radio in her well-appointed living room in the affluent Ansley Park section of Atlanta.

December 8th was also a “day of infamy” for the Seligson family, if they were still alive. On that day they may have been among the thousands of Jews killed by the Nazis in the Rumbula Forest just outside of Riga. If so, their last seconds on earth were spent lying in an open pit atop dead Jews and bracing to be shot in the back of the head. By the end of the day the three generations of Seligsons in Riga were gone, murdered on either November 30th or December 8th 1941.

Mom died in 2006 without knowing that she had relatives who had died in the Holocaust.   Of course, I also did not know either, as I relied on her for family history. We had discussed her family and WW II casualties, and Mom said that a distant cousin in the Navy had been killed in action. But she had no inkling of any Holocaust victims.  In 2016, however, my view of a family luckily unscathed by genocide changed.

I received an e-mail from a reader who had viewed my piece in Family Tree magazine describing how a distant minor-celebrity cousin, the late Bert Parks, had led me to my previously unknown Latvian ancestry via a notation in his Wikipedia page. Cousin Bert, the late host of the Miss America pageant, had not given me an introduction to a beauty wearing a tiara, but rather had given me a something better: a clue to my family’s history.

My token fan, Jan, said that she too was related to Bert Parks, so we might be distant cousins.   Shortly after hearing from her, I learned that Jan was my fifth cousin, a discovery based on her family tree spanning eight generations on my mother’s maternal side. I spent several hours perusing the tree’s numerous branches. It seemed like I was related to half the Jews in Atlanta. But a few perusals later I found that I was also distantly related to eight Seligsons, with the notations by their names: murdered by Nazis or died 1941.  This realization added personal sadness to the horror, outrage and revulsion that I felt when I thought about so many Jews who had been swept up in the evil of the Holocaust and strengthened my need to honor their memory.

My eight Seligson cousins personalize the Holocaust for me. Now that I know about the fate of my Latvian cousins, I am more profoundly saddened and thus more connected to the river of blood that flowed into the death pit outside Riga in the Fall of 1941, where, presumably, an iota of DNA found in the pit would match mine.

But thank goodness there is a counter-balance to the sadness that came with my discovery of the Seligson’s slaughter. It comes with the discovery of hundreds of living relatives (family tree verified) descended from these eight Holocaust victims. As a lucky American, I have the opportunity to make sure that future generations remember my Riga relatives who got caught in a cyclone of hate. This past year at Yad Vashem, I felt writing a check in memory of my relatives who died in the Holocaust was more meaningful than previous perfunctory donations. Next year my pledge will honor all my cousins by name, including my nine year-old cousin, Miriam Seligson (1932-1941).

I now want to visit Riga. Should I get there, I will first visit the Riga Ghetto and Latvian Holocaust Museum. This museum is laid out within the confines of the Riga ghetto, which was the way station for the Seligsons for five months before they were herded into the pit in the forest to be murdered. Then I would like to go to the Jewish Memorial at Rumbula. This is where the Seligsons’ bodies lie trashed in a pit. I will pay my respects, as well as the respects from my mom, the happy go lucky Georgia girl of 1941.

William Levine is a retired IT professional and an active freelance writer residing in Belmont, MA.  He  has a growing interest in genealogy.

 

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Finding Babette, My Great-Grandmother

by Ellen Norman Stern (Willow Grove, PA)

This is a story about my maternal great-grandmother, Babette Muhr, whose life has interested me ever since I learned about her from the few memories that my own grandmother passed on to me.

I was fascinated to discover that Babette lived with the “Wundermann,” a famous holy man known as “The Baal Shem of Michelstadt.” For years, I tried to find the truth of this story, and ended up learning more about Rebbe Seckel Loew Wormser (the Baal Shem’s given name) than I did about Babette.

Few people knew the rebbe as well as the little orphan girl named Babette Muhr, who cried herself to sleep in the horse-drawn carriage travelling the 5-6 hours from her small home town of Reichelsheim, Germany to her new home in Michelstadt, near Frankfurt. Having recently lost her father and mother, the young girl was escorted by well-meaning townspeople who considered it a mitzvah to deliver the child to her new home. But wrap-around blankets and comforting arms gave little solace to the grieving child who did not want to leave her hometown and feared the new world ahead of her. The pitch-dark road leading to Michelstadt caused her to shiver with fright.

The legends surrounding the almost mystical rebbe describe him as poor and barely able to sustain his own large family of five children.  My grandmother called him a “Wundermann” for his many so-called miracles known to reach across the borders of Europe. His great heart always made room for those in need of help. At times his house was filled with almost 70 students from many parts of Germany, but it was always large enough to also accommodate orphans whom he fed with his limited means. The orphans lived with him and his large family, and there must have often been times when the rebetzin wondered how much thinner she could make the soup and still provide proper nourishment for the large brood in her dining room.

Little Babette learned many new facts about her new family within a few days after her arrival. One was that her new “father” was a vegetarian who would not touch any food that came from an animal, not even milk, eggs, or butter. On weekdays he lived on soup and coffee. On the Sabbath, he added a little more food to this meager diet. It was a lifelong vow of abstinence he had adopted during his student days in Frankfurt. Of course, in a household run on such sparse funds as that of the rebbe, meat was a great luxury.

Babette discovered very quickly that she would be exempted from his vegetarian diet. From the first day, she sat on a small chair next to her host while he cut up tiny pieces of meat from the family’s ration and fed them to the little girl. He was most concerned she had the proper food to grow on.

The rebbe had a running business that kept his family alive. He manufactured amulets designed with inscriptions to heal diseases. These “kemenot,” made of paper or parchment, included either the name of the Lord God or of an angel like “Rafael” who could heal specific diseases. The amulets were meant to be hung around the neck of the patient and promised speedy healing, especially when combined with prayers.

The twenty-odd Jewish families who made up Michelstadt during the rebbe’s lifetime (1768 to 1847) were well-to-do and did not appreciate his activities, especially those concerning the so-called “miracles” for which he was famous, which in many cases involved the healing of mentally ill patients. He had emissaries travelling in Germany and parts of Europe who took and delivered orders for the amulets and, in turn, collected the payment, which was due the rebbe.

It was around that time that his fellow Michelstadt neighbors rebelled against the rebbe’s extreme piety and his kabbalistic practices. Their complaints to the town authorities resulted in his arrest in his synagogue and a two-day stay in the local jail. These intrigues prevented the rebbe’s elevation to the post of Chief Rabbi in his hometown, handing that job to a competitor, and depriving him of an income.

After his wife of twenty years, Adelheid, died in 1809, the rebbe left Michelstadt and moved to Mannheim where he accumulated much fame as a healer. While there he healed a woman hospitalized for incurable insanity after local physicians had given up on her care. Her name was Benzinger and she had a 17-year-old daughter. While still in Mannheim, the rebbe became engaged to the daughter whose mother he had cured. He returned to Michelstadt, married the young lady, and reopened his yeshiva. It must have been during this second marriage that Babette joined their household and was raised by a woman not much older than her.

My grandmother said Babette lived in the home of the rebbe until she herself was married. Many years later, during a trip to Germany, my husband and I visited the town of Michelstadt, for I was always curious about the place that had sprouted so many family legends. We walked around the rebbe’s house, which is still occupied, but we could not get in because the lawyer’s office, which now rents it, was closed for the day. I looked up to the upstairs windows and tried to imagine Babette’s thoughts as she viewed her world when she lived there.

As I write these words, I am holding a photocopy of a marriage certificate which I recently received from the archivist of the town of Michelstadt. According to the certificate, a couple named Meier Oppenheimer and his wife, Babette Muhr, appeared before the mayor of the German town of Rimbach on September 6 in the year 1859 where he signed a document confirming their wedding performed three days before by the rabbi of that same town. It was their daughter, Bertha Oppenheimer Salomon, born in Fuerth, Germany in 1867, who became my grandmother.

Born in Germany, Ellen Stern came to the United States as a young girl and grew up in Louisville, Kentucky. She’s the author of numerous books for young adult readers, including biographies of Louis D. Brandeis, Nelson Glueck, and Elie Wiesel. Her most recent publication is The French Physician’s Boy, a novel about Philadelphia’s 1793 Yellow Fever epidemic.

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The Old Man and the Tortoise

by Ellen Norman Stern (Willow Grove, PA) 

Whenever I think of Olivaer Platz, I remember the old man and his tortoise. A picture of him remains in my mind and brings up a complete memory of a time and a place.

Olivaer Platz was a small public park in the midst of Berlin when I was growing up in the 1930s. It was located near the major artery of Kurfuerstendamm, and it attracted many people. All around the park were shops popular with customers of all ages.

I remember my favorite, Café Heil, where I was occasionally treated to the small meat pastry I loved whenever one of my parents had coffee and cake there, met friends, or just read the assorted newspapers and magazines available to the patrons. There was an ice cream parlor in the same block, too, whose various flavors of ice cream sandwiches were in enormous demand in warmer weather.

In the afternoons I remember seeing older adults reading their newspapers on the benches in Olivaer Platz. It was only a few squares from our home in Mommsenstrasse 66, and I was occasionally taken there to play in the children’s section.

I went primarily to shoot marbles. The object of the game was to propel the marble with one’s thumb in order to hit an opponent’s marble. If the hit was successful, the other child’s marble became yours. I had a collection of colorful glass balls on which I prided myself. Not being very skillful, however, I was often unsuccessful at the game, lost my own marbles, and came home crying.

One day my mother and I arrived at Olivaer Platz and found that one of its park benches had been painted yellow with an orange-colored letter J drawn on it. The bench clearly stood out from the others. Nearby was a sign proclaiming that due to a new ordinance Jews were no longer allowed to sit on the regular benches and were subject to arrest if they disregarded the law. The yellow bench was now the Jews’ bench.

After that my mother, whom I called “Mimi,” no longer took me to the park, except for walking through it en route to the Kurfuerstendamm. She would not sit on the yellow bench. And she could not—and would not—stand around waiting for me to finish my marble game.

I still remember that bench, primarily because of one old man. I saw him only twice. Each time he fascinated me, not because he sat on a bench that had changed its color, but because of what he did when he sat on the bench.

I watched him closely as he carried a shabby leather briefcase to the bench, sat himself down, and opened the briefcase. Out came a large, dark-brownish tortoise. The old man gently placed it on the ground in front of him, presumably to give the tortoise a little air.

I assumed the tortoise was his beloved pet, possibly his only family. It was certainly a sad time for all of us. How pathetic that lonely old man was I could not fathom then. I only knew I felt sorry for him.

But in years to come, the memory of the old man sitting on the yellow park bench with his tortoise became a symbol to me.

In my mind all of the degradation and isolation heaped upon the Jewish people by the Nazi regime crystallized into the figure of that solitary old gentleman, with his reptile friend, sitting alone on a yellow bench.

(Author’s Note: It was not until September 1, 1941 that a new Nazis law required all Jews over the age of ten to wear a yellow star affixed to their clothing identifying them as Jews. The yellow star was intended to humiliate Jews, as well as make them visible targets vulnerable to attack. Not wearing the insignia carried the death penalty.)

Born in Germany, Ellen Stern came to the United States as a young girl and grew up in Louisville, Kentucky. She’s the author of numerous books for young adult readers, including biographies of Louis D. Brandeis, Nelson Glueck, and Elie Wiesel. Her most recent publication is The French Physician’s Boy, a novel about Philadelphia’s 1793 Yellow Fever epidemic.

 

 

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