Tag Archives: German Jewry

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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Filed under American Jewry, European Jewry, Family history, German Jewry, history, Jewish identity

Reclaiming My German Citizenship

by Donna Swarthout (Berlin, Germany)

It was last June that my husband Brian and I completed our applications for German citizenship before moving from Bozeman, Montana to Berlin, Germany.  By reclaiming our German citizenship we hoped to come “full circle” as the descendants of German Jews who fled Nazi Germany in the late 1930s.  We are still waiting for the magical moment when we learn that our citizenship has been restored, but we both believe it will be worth the wait.

It was not a magical moment when we told my mother that we were moving to Germany.  The opportunity to connect with my past, become fluent in a language I fell in love with as a child, and to once again be Jewish in Germany meant nothing to her.  How could we bring her grandchildren to the place of horror and persecution from which she and my father had fled?  No answer would suffice.  She did not speak to us for six weeks.

I don’t know what it felt like for my parents and grandparents to be stripped of their German citizenship, to be stateless from 1938 until 1944, and to finally become American citizens.  My maternal grandmother seemed to remain stateless, eventually leaving America for Israel, then Switzerland, and finally going back to her beloved  Germany.  My paternal grandparents were more typical immigrants, creating their own oasis of German culture in the middle of New York’s Washington Heights neighborhood (complete with apfel strudel, kartoffel salat, and lots of wurstchen).

No form of Holocaust reparation is enough, but reclaimed citizenship has more significance for me than any financial restitution our family may receive.  My children and their descendants will have opportunities that my grandparents could never have imagined.  We will have access to Germany’s universal health care system and free system of higher education.  We will automatically become citizens of the European Union which means we can live, work, and study at a university in any EU country under the same conditions as nationals.  We will not have to give up our American citizenship, nor do we want to.

I will take full ownership of my identity when I regain the citizenship that was stripped from both my parents’ families.  As a German American Jew I can embrace each of these three elements of my identity to whatever degree I wish.  Just as I have always struggled with what it means to be Jewish, I will always struggle with what it means to be German.  But I am entitled to my German citizenship, and I may soon have it.

After months of fruitless attempts to track down my citizenship application, I learned in March that the all-efficient German bureaucracy had lost it.  The application contained many documents that I had painstakingly put together to establish my German Jewish identity.  These were my personal historical building blocks that had suddenly vanished.  The official who delivered this disturbing news politely apologized and suggested I file a new application and begin the process all over again.  His cold words hit me like a stamp that says “no one cares.”

Now it is June again, our first school year in Germany is coming to an end, and my oldest son is preparing for his bar mitzvah in Berlin this fall.  Avery’s bar mitzvah will take place on the anniversary of my father’s bar mitzvah in New York City in 1942.  My son and my father will have both taken this step as immigrants, and as German American Jews who belong to a vibrant and thriving Jewish community.

I also have high hopes that the stress and frustration of trying to move my  citizenship application forward are finally behind me.  My application was eventually found and is being processed in Rathaus Schoeneberg, the place where John F. Kennedy gave his famous “Ich bin ein Berliner” speech in 1963.  Kennedy not only said that he was a Berliner, but that “all free men, wherever they may live, are citizens of Berlin.” As we embark on our second year of living in Germany, I feel optimistic that Kennedy’s vision will become a reality for me.

Donna Swarthout came to Berlin with her family to explore her German Jewish heritage and identity and the nature of Jewish life in Germany today.  You can read more about her experiences on her blog Full Circle: www.dswartho.wordpress.com

And you can hear her reading a version of this story on NPR’s Berlin Stories: http://berlinstories.org/2012/06/27/donna-swarthout-on-coming-full-circle/

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Filed under Family history, German Jewry, Jewish identity

Return to Germany

by Sonia Pressman Fuentes (Sarasota, FL)

In 1978, my husband, Roberto, and I began to plan a trip to Greece. Neither of us had ever been there, and we looked forward to exploring its historic ruins and taking a cruise around the Greek Isles.

In the past on foreign trips, I had given a number of talks for the U.S. Information Agency (USIA) as an “American specialist” on the second wave of the women’s rights movement. (I was a founder of NOW–National Organization for Women–and the first woman attorney in the Office of the General Counsel at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission–EEOC.)  So, I called Michael Bennett, my contact at USIA, to see if the agency needed anyone to speak in Greece.

“No,” he said. “We don’t. But we do have a request for someone in France and Germany. One week in France and two in Germany. Would you be willing to go?”

I was taken aback by Michael’s request. Germany? The land I’d escaped from over forty years ago? The country of Heil Hitler, marching boots, and swastikas? The country soaked in the blood of my people? Could I go there?

I told Michael I’d need time to think about it and then consulted Roberto about USIA’s request.

“Up to you,” he said.

For years I’d had a strong desire to return to my birthplace, to see where I would have spent my life if Hitler and his band of murderers hadn’t come along. But when I had thought about it, I had envisioned a quick trip into Berlin, followed by an immediate departure. USIA, however, was asking me to stay two weeks–something else again.

On past USIA trips, I’d enjoyed sightseeing and local entertainment in my spare time. But how did one enjoy oneself on the site of a charnel house?

I’d always found it challenging, meaningful, and exciting to speak abroad about women’s rights. But were women’s rights relevant in a country where millions of Jews as well as non-Jews had been slaughtered?

I decided to consult local and national Jewish leaders. The first person I called was Rabbi Stephen Pearce of Temple Sinai in Stamford, Connecticut, the Reform temple to which I belonged. A handsome young man in his early thirties, Rabbi Pearce empathized with my reluctance to go, but added, “It’s not just their country. There’s Jewish history in Germany, too.” I hadn’t thought of that.

“If you do decide to go,” Rabbi Pearce continued, “I hope you’ll report to the congregation on your return.”

I agreed to do this if I went but wondered what there’d be to report. After all, the Jewish problem had ended with the war in Germany in 1945, hadn’t it? What would there be to report now–over thirty years later?

I spoke with Jewish leaders in organizations such as B’nai B’rith. The consensus was that Germany was a new land with a new people. Israel was trading with Germany, so who was I to resist?

I decided to go. But because of Rabbi Pearce’s request, I asked USIA to include in my itinerary meetings with Jewish leaders and a visit to a former concentration camp.

Before departing, I called my brother, Hermann, who was 14 years my senior, and asked if he remembered any of the addresses of the places where we’d lived, where my parents had operated their stores, and where we owned an apartment building. To my amazement, he reeled off all the addresses, some of which were now in East Berlin. I resolved to try to find them all, if possible.

On November 2, 1978, I flew to Paris. (Due to his work commitments, Roberto was to join me later.) To my surprise, on the night of my arrival, the Jewish question came up. I was having cocktails with a small group of feminists at the home of the woman who was head of the American Cultural Center. A French woman reporter for the news magazine L’Express mentioned that she had recently interviewed Darquier De Pellepoix, the 80-year-old Frenchman who had been the Vichy government’s commissioner for Jewish affairs.

De Pellepoix, a major French war criminal who had been convicted in absentia but was never punished, lived in Spain. He told the reporter that the genocide of the Jewish people had never happened; that the 75,000 French and stateless Jews he deported from France to death camps had been resettled in the East; and that only lice were gassed at Auschwitz. The following day, his statements were on the front page of L’Express.

The reporter also mentioned that the French had never come to terms with their collaboration with the Nazis. While the NBC-TV film Holocaust had been shown all over Western Europe, it had not yet been shown on French TV. A Frenchwoman had, however, started a private fund-raising appeal so the film could be shown there.

Roberto joined me in Paris, and from there we flew to West Berlin, arriving on the night of November 8. The German assistant to the head of Amerika Haus met us at the airport and told us that by an odd coincidence we had arrived on the eve of the fortieth anniversary of Kristallnacht.

Forty years earlier, Hershl Grynszpan, a 17-year-old Jewish student, had shot and killed Ernst von Rath, an official in the German Embassy in Paris, in retaliation for the treatment his family had received at the hands of the Nazis in Germany. Hitler and Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels used the incident to incite Germans to wreak vengeance against the Jews.

As a result, mob violence began on the night of November 9, 1938, and continued into the next day as the regular German police stood by and crowds of spectators watched. Nazi storm troopers, along with members of the SS and Hitler Youth, beat and murdered Jews, broke into and wrecked Jewish homes, and brutalized Jewish women and children. All over Germany, Austria, and other Nazi-controlled areas, Jewish shops and department stores had their plate glass windows smashed, thus giving the terror its name, the Night of Broken Glass. Ninety-one Jews were killed, 267 synagogues burned (with 177 totally destroyed), 7,500 businesses destroyed, and 25,000 Jewish men rounded up and later sent to concentration camps.

We had missed the march commemorating that night but were in time to see the exhibition at the Jewish Community Center, the Jüdische Gemeinde Zu Berlin, on Fasanenstrasse 79/80. The Center was a modern building in the heart of West Berlin. As we approached, we noticed what appeared to be the ruins of another building cemented onto the front of the Center. We wondered about the significance of this.

The Center was thronged with people from the march. The exhibition consisted of pictures of Berlin’s magnificent synagogues as they had looked before the Nazi desecration, the shambles that had remained after they had been bombed and ransacked, and how those that had been reconstructed looked today. One of the “before” pictures showed Kaiser Wilhelm visiting one of these synagogues in an earlier period. One of the “after” pictures showed the remains of the synagogue that had stood on the site of the Center. It was two pieces of those remains that were attached to the front of the building.

A poster announced that the following Friday there would be a joint synagogue service in which a rabbi, a priest, and a minister would participate. This would be the first joint Jewish-Christian service in a Berlin synagogue in recent history.

We left the Center and walked around the city. I felt as if I had stepped back in time to the ’20s and ’30s. It seemed so much like the Berlin of the past about which my parents had spoken.

Both West and East Berlin were a curious commingling of past and present for me. One day in East Berlin, as I was crossing the street, I saw two uniformed men coming to get me. I cringed until I realized they weren’t Gestapo, just two East Berlin policemen crossing the street.

Despite such experiences, I loved being in Berlin–staying at the Hotel Frühling am Zoo on Kurfürstandamm 17, walking on streets on which my parents had walked and seeing street names that had resounded throughout my childhood: Alexanderplatz…Kottbusser Damm…Koepenicker Strasse…Gipsstrasse…and Unter den Linden.

A friend in the States had recommended a West Berlin restaurant named Xantener Eck. We went there one night for dinner. In Germany, if there is no empty table, the maitre d’ seats you at one that is partially occupied. On this night, we were seated with two men in their early forties who, we later learned, were printers.

As we poured over the menus, one of them recommended several entrees to us in halting English. With his English and my German, we were able to converse. When he learned I was Jewish, he immediately said, “I feel no guilt. I was born in 1937.” He then embarked upon a tirade against Jews and Israel and referred to the head of the Jewish Center we had just visited as a Fascist. “Why does he have to be a Jew first and a German second?” he asked. “If I were a member of a proud people like the Jews, I would not take money from Germany, as Israel has done, as individual Jews have done, and as the Center continues to do.

“All people are equal: Jews and Christians, whites and Blacks, Israelis, and Arabs. Why does the Jew think he’s better than everyone else?”

I shifted uneasily in my seat.

“And look what they’ve done to the Arabs in Israel,” he continued. “Two thousand years ago, Celts lived on the land where my house stands today. Their descendants now live in France. They don’t come back here and say they have a right to my house. What gives Jews the right to do this?”

His companion had paradoxical views. On the one hand, he seemed to share his friend’s sentiments, if not his vehemence. But he also asked me whether I’d had any special feelings as a Jew returning to Germany. When I told him I had, he said, “You know, my father was involved during the Nazi regime. I have to live with that.”

We spent several hours at dinner, during which we shared drinks and reminiscences with these men. When we left, we exchanged business cards, and they promised to visit if they ever came to the States. One of them came close to hugging me when we parted.

I was in a state of utter depression as we walked the foggy streets of West Berlin after this encounter. “Those men really liked me, Roberto,” I said. “And yet, it wouldn’t take too much for them to come for me again.”

The discussion in the restaurant brought home to me the fact that what had happened in Germany was still there in some of its people.

A day or two later, I shared the experience with a law professor and his feminist wife while having breakfast in their home. The professor said that he resented the burden of guilt that had been laid on Germans, but his wife did not echo his sentiments. His students did not like being reminded of this guilt, he said. They did not want to be made to feel responsible for events that took place before they were born.

We visited the Center again, this time for a meeting with the assistant to the director. I asked him about the conflict between the Germans’ desire to forget and the Center’s commitment to remind them. “Do they want to get rid of the past?” he asked. “Or do they want to continue it? It is in the interest of Germany not to forget. It has nothing to do with guilt or responsibility. Germany must cleanse itself of these things. It must be different in the future from what it was in the past. How can this be done without history, without knowing why it happened and how it happened?”

“How long must it take?” I asked. “After all, this happened forty years ago.”

“Forty years is not a long time in the history of mankind,” he reminded me.

Germany was riven with the tension between the collective obligation to remember and the personal need to forget.

We rented a car and spent days looking for the addresses in both East and West Berlin that Hermann had given me. I knew that Berlin had been reduced to rubble during the war and that I might not be able to locate any of the streets I was looking for, much less the buildings. But that was not the case. We found all the locations for which we were looking. The buildings had, however, all been demolished and rebuilt–except one–the apartment house where I was born at 83-A Linienstrasse in East Berlin. It was still standing, un-bombed, intact. There were lights on in some of the apartments. I went inside, knocked on a door at random, and a woman came out.

“Is there anyone here who might remember a family named Pressman that used to live here in 1928?” I asked.

“No,” she answered. The oldest resident had moved into the building in 1947. There was no one to remember us.

A friend in the States had given me an introduction to a woman who had lived in Berlin for many years. I visited her, and we had a wonderful time together. We talked, as women do, about our lives, our husbands, our hopes for our children. We hugged, and I turned to leave. She wouldn’t have done it to me, would she? I walked out her door. Why not? Why would I have been the exception?

We left Berlin and spent the rest of our trip driving through the German countryside and into the other cities where I lectured on the women’s rights revolution in the United States: Dusseldorf, Heidelberg, Freiburg, and Munich. I looked at the people; they looked just like anyone else. What had happened to their ancestors? What madness had seized them?

In Freiburg, we stayed at a picturesque hotel high up in the mountains. When I awoke in the morning and drew the curtains aside, an incredibly lovely panorama was spread out before me. As far as the eye could see, there were undulating valleys with picture postcard houses nestled among them. The beauty of it in the midst of the horror that had been struck me.

It was in Freiburg that I met with Margrit Seewald, a German program specialist with the US Embassy in Bonn who had coordinated many aspects of my programs in Germany although we had not met previously.  The Embassy had asked her to travel to Freiburg for my program there, and she, Roberto, and I spent some lovely times together there.

Then it was on to Heidelberg. At the end of my talk there, a woman came up to me and said, “You have made me feel so good personally that you, a Jew, came back to Germany–and that you came back to talk about women’s rights. I hope you’ll come again.”

In Munich, at Café Kreutzkamm on Maffeistrasse, I had lunch with two women who were leaders of Jewish women’s organizations: one was chairperson of an organization which was named Ruth and the other was with WIZO (Women’s International Zionist Organization).

“How can you live here” I asked, “next to Dachau?”

The younger woman, in her 50’s, had, with forged papers, survived the Holocaust by passing as a Christian. “Everyone has his or her own story; we each have a certain degree of schizophrenia,” she said. She felt guilty about living in Germany and read every available book on the Holocaust, but she had not encouraged her son to identify with Judaism. He considered himself “European,” she said.

The older woman, in her 70’s, had, with her husband, spent part of the war years in a Jewish ghetto in Austria. They had returned to Germany because German was the only language he knew. “I don’t think about it [the Holocaust],” she said. “I work with German women in organizations. They would be hurt if they felt I was different, and I don’t want to be different. When so many people stretch their hands out to you, you forget. Germany’s no different from any other country. After all, the Swiss prepared the poison gas for the concentration camps.”

She had told her children and grandchildren about the Holocaust. Her son-in-law told his children about the camps once and never mentioned them again. He had enrolled them in an exclusive private school, where they were the only Jews. There, they were being educated as “cosmopolitans.” She was nonetheless pleased when her young grandson came to visit, donned his yarmulke–skullcap–and accompanied her to the synagogue. She was optimistic about the future of Jews in Germany.

In Munich, I was interviewed and taped by Dr. Michaela Ulich, a feminist who was preparing an American Studies program for German high school students. And so, I, who had to flee Germany for my life in 1933, would, through the medium of tape, have a chance to talk to the young people of Germany.

We left Munich and talk of the future and drove on Dachaustrasse into the past–to Dachau, the first of Hitler’s camps. Dachau was full of tourists, most of whom were young Germans. In the midst of the crowd, one couple stood out–a man and woman in their late 50’s, walking arm in arm. Wherever I looked–at the gate with its ironic Arbeit Macht Frei–Work Makes You Free–sign, at the museum, on the grounds where the barracks had stood, at the gas chamber (which had never been used), and at the crematoria (which had)–they were everywhere. Finally, I could stand it no longer. I walked over to them and said, “What is it with you people? Wherever I look, there you are.”

The man responded in Yiddish. He was a German Jew who had been imprisoned in Auschwitz at the age of fourteen for five years. He now lived in Israel with his Israeli wife and children. He had come to Germany to testify at the war crimes trial of a former official at Auschwitz and had done so the day before. Now, he was showing his wife a camp such as the one in which he had been interned. Tears welled up in her eyes as he told us that on one occasion he had been beaten six times with a whip such as was exhibited at Dachau; he had thereafter been unable to sit for two weeks.

He pointed to the chimney of the crematorium and told us that on his first day at Auschwitz, one of the officials had directed his attention to the smoke coming out of the chimney and said, “Tomorrow the smoke coming out will be you.”

Roberto asked to see the number on his arm.

“Do you still think about it?” I asked.

“Think about it?” he said. “I wake up in the middle of the night saying this number.” Like Primo Levi, he “felt the tattooed number on . . .  [my] arm burning like a sore.” [Primo Levi, Survival in Auschwitz, The Reawakening (Two Memoirs), trans. Stuart Woolf (New York: Summit, 1985), 370.]

I asked him how he could identify the camp official at whose trial he had testified when he hadn’t seen him in forty years. The passage of time was not an obstacle for him. “That is a face I will never forget,” he said.

We left Germany and returned to the States.  Shortly thereafter, I received a postcard from Margrit Seewald, who wrote:  “Those last moments in Freiburg when I walked down the steps and you stood there at the top have impressed themselves hard-edge in my mind. It occurred to me that my life could’ve been yours, and yours mine.”

Perhaps.

Sonia Pressman Fuentes, one of the founders of the second wave of the women’s movement, was born in Berlin, Germany, but came to the U.S. in 1934 with her parents and brother to escape the Holocaust.  She is a writer, public speaker, feminist activist, and retired attorney who lives in Sarasota, FL.

This excerpt from her memoir, Eat First–You Don’t Know What They’ll Give You: The Adventures of an Immigrant Family and Their Feminist Daughter, is reprinted with permission of the author. Copyright 1999 by Sonia Pressman Fuentes

For more information about Fuentes and her book, visit: http://www.erraticimpact.com/fuentes.

You can reach her at: spfuentes@comcast.net.

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The School on Bleibtreustrasse

by Ellen Norman Stern (Willow Grove, PA)

In the spring of 1934, a new stage of my life began: I started school.

Because the German school year began in the spring and I had a July birthday, I was six, going on seven, when my mother first walked me the short distance to the public school on Bleibtreustrasse in Berlin-Charlottenburg.

To sweeten the occasion, my mother’s friends, the Winbecks in Hannover, sent a Schultuete, a large cone-shaped bag of candy, for me.  It was a sweet occasion, and I was happily excited over it.

My best friend at the time was Ursula Kurzweg, the daughter of our concierge. Every day we walked together to and from school where our first grade teacher, Herr Klausewitz, an elderly gentleman near retirement, treated us in an easy-going manner and instilled in us the history of Germany during Bismark’s time.

I enjoyed that year for yet another reason.

At recess, when everyone was allowed into the courtyard for “fresh air,” I had the almost daily chance to see my first cousin, Hans Gottschalk, who attended the boys’ school next door to mine. Hans was three years older than me–almost an adult in my eyes–and I had strong feelings of affection for him. He waved to me over the fence whenever he saw me. This not only made me happy but improved my status with the other girls in my class who were impressed that I rated the attention of an older boy. Of course, I never let on that he was my cousin.

The following year, though, things changed considerably at the school on Bleibtreustrasse

A new teacher, Fraeulein Schulz, who walked with a heavy limp, brought in an entirely different atmosphere of strict discipline. I was affected as soon as she noticed that I used my left hand to write the cursive script we were learning. It became her special project to convert me to right handedness. She tried to do this by hitting my left hand with a ruler whenever she saw me writing. I ducked behind the desk of the girl in front of me when it came time to practice writing, but Fraeulein Schulz and her long wooden ruler waited to pounce on me at every chance.

At some point during the school year she adopted a new stance. Obviously she had entered a rejuvenating period in her life by fixating on the persona of Adolf Hitler. She trained us to become part of her new purpose in life. Every morning when she limped into the classroom each of us had to stand at attention, raise our arm and return Fraeulein Schulz’s greeting of “Heil Hitler.” With her big swastika emblem pinned to her bosom, and her arm outstretched in salute, this teacher introduced us to the new world of Nazi Germany.

That year during the Jewish High Holy Days, when all the Jewish girls were absent from school, our teacher instructed the rest of the class to no longer speak to us when we came back. She threatened punishment should anyone disobey her orders.

So, I had no idea why my friend Ursula Kurzweg suddenly ignored me and would no longer walk to and from school with me. Only when I managed to ask why she was mad at me, especially since we hadn’t had a fight, did she reveal Fraeulein Schulz’s command not to be caught speaking to the Jews in class.

I now believe it was during this episode of being ostracized that I first realized I was Jewish. Prior to the second school year, the subject did not touch me, or perhaps I did not think about it. My mother taught me it was wrong to sew or write on Saturdays because it was Shabbes, a day of rest. Other than that, few Jewish holidays were observed in my parents’ home. Even my religious maternal grandfather was part of a very liberal assimilated trend of German Judaism. He and the rest of the family thought of themselves as German citizens who were Jewish, with the emphasis on their nationality.

But the ostracism of Jewish children at school brought to me an awareness that I was different, perhaps less worthy than the others. It started me on a habit of being apologetic for just about everything I did. I certainly did not recognize that the feeling might have been exactly what the Nazi thought-machine hoped to foster. How could I at that age?

By laying down her own personal rules, Fraeulein Schulz did more damage than many a Nuremberg law. In the name of the Third Reich, Fraeulein Schulz inflicted psychic injuries on me and my Jewish classmates for which I blame her to this day. And for which, I trust, she still sizzles in that hot part of the netherworld where she deserves to spend eternity.

It has taken a great part of my life to overcome the demeaning attitude of being Jewish that was laid upon me in grade school.

I feel extremely happy that my grandchildren are free of such negative feelings, are well into their religious experience, and are proud to be Jewish.

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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Blind Luck

by Beth Finke (Chicago, Illinois)

Every Wednesday, my Seeing-Eye dog, Hanni, leads me to the Chicago Cultural Center to teach a memoir-writing class for senior citizens.

Eighteen women with great names–Myrna, Sybil, Eldoris, Bea–who grew up on the South Side, in the suburbs, in Italy, in West Rogers Park. Some earned Masters degrees. One finished her undergraduate degree at seventy-three. Many were teachers. A few taught in the Chicago Public Schools. Their stories are fascinating.

Each week I assign these writers a topic. They go home, write 500-word essays, and then bring them back the next week to read aloud. After weeks, months, years of hearing their stories, I’ve come to know a lot of them pretty well.

The oldest student in class this session is Hannah. She’s eighty-eight years old.

Hannah grew up in Germany. Her family was Jewish. A determined and adventurous woman, Hannah escaped on her own in 1940. She was only twenty when she arrived alone in the US. Others in her family didn’t make it out in time.

“I’ll tell you this,” she says. “I’ve always been very, very lucky.”

Economic news lately prompted me to ask these writers to put something down on paper about the Great Depression.

“I’m wondering how it compares to what you see going on now.”

Many of them returned with essays about their parents’ views of the Great Depression. Hannah was one of the only ones old enough to have lived through it.

The story she read aloud was so moving that after class I contacted my “connections” at Chicago Public Radio and asked them if they’d be interested in recording Hannah’s story.

WBEZ said yes. The producer had planned on using Hannah’s story for a three or four minute segment, but ended up spending more than an hour in the studio interviewing her. Hannah’s radio piece ended up being five or six minutes long.

Here’s a description of the interview from the Chicago Public Radio website:

“In part two of our look back at the Great Depression through the stories of those who were there, we hear from Hannah Bradman – a Jewish woman who came of age in Germany at this time.”

It’s a privilege to know Hannah.

You can listen to her story online athttp://www.wbez.org/Content.aspx?audioID=29833 and you’ll see – that is, hear – what I mean.

Beth Fink is the author of Hanni and Beth: Safe & Sound, winner of the ASPCA’s Henry Bergh Children’s Book Award.

For more information about Beth, you can visit her website:www.bethfinke.com

Or take a look at her blog:www.bethfinke.wordpress.com

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