Tag Archives: Germany

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 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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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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An Appreciative Smile

by Sheldon P Hersh (Lawrence, NY)

He stopped rather suddenly at the door pausing to take in the room’s layout and carefully eyeing its contents. Visibly on edge, he began to fidget nervously as though preparing himself for some  unforeseen danger that could possibly be lurking nearby. After all, he had managed to survive the war when so many had not. His short stature belied an inner strength and tenacity that had helped keep him alive during the most difficult of times. He had seen and experienced things that few could ever imagine and survival meant being constantly on guard–taking nothing, absolutely nothing, for granted. Although those horrific days have long since passed, he continued to feel ill at ease whenever finding himself in new and unfamiliar surroundings. Such indeed was the case today during this initial visit to the ear doctor’s office. Noting that all seemed to be quiet and in proper order, he took a deep breath, cautiously moved inward, and, as instructed, sat himself down on the waiting chair.

“Doctor, something tells me that you are a religious person. Are you orthodox by any chance?” he inquired just as I made my way into the room.

Hardly a question I would have expected from a first-time patient. It was the tone of his voice, however, laced with an equal mix of criticism and bewilderment, that caught me off guard. Sitting here before me, I thought, is a patient unlike any I had encountered before. Very few individuals would take the liberty to speak in this manner, especially before formal introductions were made and a doctor-patient relationship established. I could not think of any other patient or acquaintance, for that matter, with the temerity to ask such a question before meeting someone for the very first time. Yes, he certainly was different and only later on would I learn how remarkably different.

“Well, tell me, doctor, am I right? Are you religious?”

Not knowing how to respond to his persistent questioning, I quickly organized my thoughts and replied, “What is it exactly that makes you say that?”

Grinning proudly, he answered, “Well, every room in this office has a mezuzah, and not a one is covered with any paint. That tells me that the mezuzahs are routinely removed and probably checked every so often. Only religious people would bother doing such a thing. Isn’t that so doctor? Isn’t that what religious people would normally do?”

I nodded in silence, uncertain as to where this was all heading.

“What brings you here today? What seems to be the problem?”

“Oh nothing too bad,” he began.  “Just some ringing in my ears and I think my hearing may not be as sharp as it used to be.”

His distinctive accent, animated expressions and mannerisms were remarkably similar to what I had been exposed to while growing up. “I see you come from central Poland,” I remarked while removing a hefty amount of wax from his right ear.

But before I had a chance to attend to his left ear, he  turned abruptly in my direction. His face now sported a wide quizzical smile accentuated by the glitter of a solitary gold tooth.

“You are absolutely correct,” he exclaimed somewhat begrudgingly.  “But how could you possibly know? What tells you that I was raised in central Poland?”

It felt as though we were playing a long and difficult game of tennis and I had finally succeeded in gaining the advantage.

“My parents were also from central Poland, and they spoke with the same accent and often used the same expressions as you.”

In short order, we compared notes, discussed wartime experiences, and soon discovered that both he and my father were prisoners in the Flossenburg concentration camp. They were both liberated by American forces while on the same death march. For the first time since entering the office, he was at a loss for words. Just as the word ‘Mister’ left my lips, and before I could even mention his family name, I was cut short and reprimanded.

“By the way, doctor, from here on in, I want you to call me David. We have a lot in common, you and I. You must call me David.”

I had completely lost track of time. The door to the examination room suddenly opened and my receptionist entered advising me that a number of patients were still waiting to be seen and were beginning to complain about the long wait.

“Mr. …, I mean David, we have to end at this point. Forgive me but there are others waiting. Perhaps we can continue our conversation at a later time?”

He rose, took my hand, and declared, “I will be back doctor. I promise you I will be back.”  David was to  keep his promise in more ways than one can imagine.

There were times when David made appointments much like any other patient, but on other occasions he would arrive unannounced, usually when I was just about ready to leave for home.  During these latter visits, there would be a firm knock on the door and there stood David stating that he came to talk.

“We must talk. So few people want to listen. Nobody wants to hear about our lives back in Poland. No one wants to know what happened to us during the war. But I sense you have an interest in hearing about all that we Jews were forced to endure during that dark bleak period in our history.”

Well, David pushed the right button, and we spent many hours discussing his personal experiences during the Holocaust, Jewish life in Poland, and his views on religion.

He spoke emotionally of his family back in Poland, all of whom were strictly observant, God-fearing Jews. “How could it be that they all perished and I alone survived?” he would occasionally whisper when lost in thought. Although he had long since strayed from organized religion, David loved to describe Jewish customs and tradition in great detail. He spoke tenderly of a way of life that suddenly was no more, a life that had gone up in smoke along with the victims.

After an hour or so of conversation, he would check his wristwatch, finish his sentence, and then declare, “I’m sure you have had a long day and want to get home to your family so we will end here.”

In spite of the late hour, I knew only too well that he wanted to stay longer, but in spite of my best efforts I could no longer conceal my impatience. On many an occasion, he would call me either at the office or at home asking if I had a minute or two to spare. There was something that he wanted to share–a story, a thought, or perhaps a recollection. Once he began, he found it difficult to stop. He had a mission to complete, and complete it he would.

During one particular office visit, David entered excitedly and informed me that in six weeks he would be returning to Germany. “I have been working with some German officials about commemorating the death march we spoke about earlier. A number of survivors along with family members will be going back to revisit the route by marching from the camp to where we were finally liberated. Doctor, I think it would be worthwhile if you were to come along and see firsthand where your father spent the last months of the war. Come with us to Germany. There are a number of survivors who are returning with their wives and children and wish to retrace the death march perhaps for the last time. You will be able to speak to people who may remember your father. And, by the way, don’t worry. There will be plenty of kosher food. As a matter of fact the inn where we will all be staying is to be entirely kosher. Many of us are no longer religious but keeping kosher would be the proper thing to do while in Germany.” How could I possibly say no?

It is difficult to describe the survivors’ reactions as they retraced their steps as free men. Some would stop at particular locations revealing all that had transpired at one site or another. Talk of death and suffering permeated every discussion. There were some, however, who remained silent–their teary eyes making it clear to all that certain recollections were to be kept within.

We paid homage to those who died while on the march stopping at a number of makeshift burial sites where nameless corpses were laid to rest soon after liberation. The haunting words of the Kaddish could be heard at each stop. This special prayer for the dead was recited in unison by the entire group. It mattered little whether one had forsaken religion or still happened to observe. The words of the Kaddish touched everyone’s heart and literally singed our souls. Thanks to David, I had the opportunity to visit the camp where my father had been brutalized and tormented. At the end of the march, I stood at the place where he had likely been liberated, rubbing his eyes in disbelief as American servicemen fast approached. And for that I shall forever be indebted to David.

David was always on a mission of some sort traveling back and forth to Poland and Germany, either seeking to right a wrong or fighting to keep the few remaining vestiges of Jewish life from disappearing.  He would arrive at the office seeking medical advice or simply wanting to sit down and talk for a while. David’s visits were becoming somewhat less frequent and I assumed he was involved in some new Holocaust related venture. And then sadly, two days before Christmas, I received a phone call from a friend of David’s family informing me of his death. Apart from the day, time and place, no other details were given. I rearranged my schedule and set out for Manhattan in the early morning hours on Christmas eve.

I approached the rabbi who had officiated at the service and asked who would be saying the Kaddish for David during the next twelve months.

“I’m not certain,” declared the Rabbi. “I did not know him very well. There are no sons and I know of no one in the family who is likely to do so.”

I remembered the very first time I met David and how curious he had been about my religious observance. What is there to think about, I thought. Before the Rabbi could offer a solution, I immediately volunteered to say the Kaddish. Given the choice, David would have preferred that  the Kaddish be recited by someone with a familiar face and an appreciation of all that he had endured during the Holocaust.  And so I say the Kaddish every day.

Just as I begin to recite the prayer, I sense David’s presence and can make out the defining features of his face. His customary smirk has now been replaced by a soft appreciative smile.  David seems finally at peace.

Sheldon P. Hersh, an Ear, Nose and Throat Physician with a practice in the New York metropolitan area, is the author of Our Frozen Tears(http://tinyurl.com/kuzlscb), as well as the co-author of The Bugs Are Burning, a book on the Holocaust.

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