In New York in five years I lived in three different foster homes. I did not believe that I would ever see my parents again. Our family was reunited in New York in 1946. We started again with nothing except the Jewish beliefs and values that the Nazis could never take from us.
I lived through the nightmare that was Kristallnacht when I was seven years old. That our family was still in Nazi Germany almost six years after Hitler came to power was not through choice. Although he had served in the German army in World War 1, my father was not one of those German-born Jews who thought nothing would happen to us. He was the owner of a small department store in the city of Halle an der Saale, famous as the birthplace of the composer Georg Friedrich Handel and the birthplace of the infamous Reinhard Heydrich, the despised architect of the programme to exterminate the Jews. My father felt the danger of the Nazis, as posters shouting ‘Juden Verboten’ appeared in store windows, cinemas and public parks all over our city, books by Jewish writers were publicly burned and his customers abandoned him.
He was wrong in believing that I and my sister Ruth, a year older, were unaware of the tension in our home as Nazi antisemitism steadily increased and friends who were opponents of Hitler were arrested. He thought of us as little dolls, oblivious to the fear uniformed Nazis created as they paraded down our streets requiring all to salute and shout ‘Heil Hitler’ when they passed. He shrugged off as Nazi stupidity the time an SS man scooped me up – a fair, blue eyed girl – and congratulated my terrified mother on having such a beautiful Aryan child.
Father was right though in recognising the dangers for Jews in Germany. In 1934 he applied for a visa to Palestine. But as a businessman he had low priority and four years later we were still waiting. Though our name reached the top of the list of people entitled to the visa, we were continually bypassed in favour of Jews in imminent danger of arrest. On 29 October 1938, the Nazis arrested all Polish Jews living in Germany and sent them back to Poland. It was the first mass deportation of Jews and included my beloved grandfather, who had lived with us, as well as more than a dozen others of our family.
Ten days later six uniformed Nazis came for my father. I stood at my bedroom door and watched as they stormed through our apartment. They overturned furniture, emptied linen, clothes and kitchen cupboards, trampling on the contents. In a frenzied attack in grandfather’s room, they tore apart his sacred Hebrew texts and desecrated his holy Sefer Torah. In the morning Nazis ordered mother to sweep up shards of glass from our shattered store windows that littered the pavement. During the Nazi rampage that was Kristallnacht they torched the synagogue that grandfather had established decades ago, while firemen watched until nothing was left of the temple where I had begun cheder (Hebrew school).
In the afternoon mother walked to our local police station and was told that my father was in Buchenwald. If she could produce a visa, they said, he would be freed. Germany was to become Judenrein, free of Jews. It took her six weeks. The week my father left for France with his forged visa, we were evicted from our flat. The Nazis had created an arbitrary list of homes in which Jews were permitted to reside, forcing Jews to share living quarters. Ours was not on the list. Mother sent Ruth, my 2-year-old sister Lea and me to Leipzig to live with her father, although he was already sharing his flat with five other Jewish families. It took her another six months to procure a second illegal visa. We flew to Paris at the end of June 1939 with one suitcase each and a total of 40 Deutschmarks, all the Nazis permitted us to take out of the country.
The reunion of our family was short-lived. When war broke out in September of 1939, the French interned my father as a German national. Now destitute, mother sent my sisters and me to a home for displaced Jewish children run by the Jewish welfare organisation, OSE. My most abiding memory of the year in the home was the continuous bombing in the weeks before the Nazis took Paris. Just before the city fell, the children were hastily evacuated to other OSE homes in central France. Now living under the collaborationist Vichy government, our future was uncertain. The present consisted of severe shortages of food and fuel.
The children were always hungry; in the winter we shivered in unheated quarters. In 1941 the United States issued a rare visa for several hundred Jewish children trapped in French concentration camps. When the French Resistance could not spirit the children out of the camps, the visa was given to the OSE. At the last minute Ruth and I took the place of two children who had suddenly become ill and were forbidden to travel. I remember nothing of the long, hazardous train journey through France and Spain, nor of sailing across the U-boat infested Atlantic Ocean. In New York in five years I lived in three different foster homes. I did not believe that I would ever see my parents again. I don’t know when I realised that I could remember nothing of the years in Nazi Germany, except flying out of the country. Nor could I recall much of my two years in France. But the guilt I felt for securing a place of safety at the expense of a sick child never left me.
My parents and Lea did survive. With the help of the French Resistance Lea was hidden first in a Catholic convent and then on an isolated farm. My mother and father survived three French concentration camps, twice miraculously spared from deportation to Auschwitz. My father struggled as a forced labourer on the Nazi project to strengthen the seawall in Calais where they expected the Allied invasion to take place, until he managed an almost unheard of escape from this camp. Our family was reunited in New York in 1946. We started again with nothing except the Jewish beliefs and values that the Nazis could never take from us. I worked, earned a university degree and became a journalist. But for years I was plagued by my inability to remember what had happened to me during the first 11 years of my life. In my forties, I finally asked my mother to tell me all that had taken place. The story of our family’s survival is recounted in my book, Shattered Crystals. I now speak in schools, synagogues and to civic groups about this history and accompany young people to Poland on the annual March of the Living.