by Ellen Norman Stern (Willow Grove, PA)
The knock on the door of our Berlin apartment came around five o’clock one dark May morning in 1938.
It was the Gestapo’s favorite time of day to make house calls. Their victims were usually asleep and not many other people saw them at such an hour.
When my mother opened the door two men in dark raincoats stood outside. One of them muttered “Geheime Staatspolizei”, pushed the door open and let himself and his partner in. Their clothing was as anonymous as their faces. Perhaps secret agents are picked for their faces. Only members of a Secret Service look like this, no matter what their country. No one ever remembers their faces afterwards.
It was a time of constant rumors, all of them threatening. Even I, a child, had recently heard of an impending roundup of Jewish men in our Berlin community. There would be a mass raid, a Razzia. Why and what was to happen later no one knew. A pre-dawn knock on the door was dreaded, almost expected that summer. The only speculation was when that knock would come and for whom.
Yet when it came for us, it surprised my father and mother.
Inside the apartment the agents confronted my father in the foyer and announced their orders for his arrest. My father asked permission to take a little of their time: he needed to shave and dress. There was no way of resisting.
Permission granted, one agent remained in the bathroom with him and took up a position by the window facing into the room. The other man stayed in the foyer with his back against the slightly open bathroom door.
I tried to be unobtrusive. From my spot in the small entrance hall I peeked into the bathroom. Inside I saw my father’s face in the mirror over the sink. I thought him calm and accepting. But I noticed how his hands shook while he freshened up.
My father had suffered several recent gall bladder attacks. My mother said it was bad nerves. Conditions in Berlin were more than favorable to nervous tensions that spring in 1938, especially if you were Jewish and in a prosperous business.
My mother went into the kitchen and got ready a dose of his medication. When she came out she held a small bag in her hand and said he must be sure to take it with him. One of the agents remarked drily that there would be little chance for using it.
I saw my mother’s eyes starting to blaze. I cowered as she turned on those the two Gestapo agents. Fearlessly she chastise them for barging in on our peaceful household at such an hour, for taking away an innocent man when everyone knew how wrong that was. How could they face their consciences performing such a mission?
I like to think the Gestapo men remembered that scene. I did, all of my life. It took incredible guts to speak out the way Mimi (my pet name for my mother) did. Mimi remained ladylike, even in her scolding. But she certainly exploded that morning. She had good reason. The Gestapo men knew that, too.
In later years when her health and mental strength failed she was often afraid of things that seemed childish.. But I remembered Mimi’s courage and I recalled how she stood in the hallway of our fashionable apartment, wagging her finger under the nose of one of the Gestapo men, backing him against our bathroom door. Would I have such guts were I put to the test?
That dark morning the man at the door just shrugged his shoulder, while the other one inside the bathroom ignored her. None of that deterred her.
“Where are you taking my husband?” she asked repeatedly until the second man finally answered.
“To the police station.”
The landing outside our apartment door was still dark when they took my father out. My father, wedged between both agents, turned to Mimi.
“I have a cousin in America. His name is Karl Nussbaum, he lives in Louisville (he pronounced it Lewisville), in the state of Kentucky. Try to contact him and see if he can help.”
Mimi dressed quickly, then she helped me with my clothes. We began the rapid walk to the police station a few short blocks away. Just as we arrived breathlessly at the precinct, several police vans pulled out. All the vans were fully loaded. Therazzia had already produced results…
Inside the station Mimi asked again and again about the destination of those departing vehicles.
“Alexanderplatz,” was the desk sergeant’s brusque reply.
She decided we would follow them. My mother held my hand during the long taxi ride that brought us to the center of Berlin. The driver stopped at a large dark, gray forbidding-looking building. Threatening, just like the mood of everything else that morning.
Many years later I saw the dreaded headquarters of the Gestapo in a television newsreel. Even after many decades that view crystalized into the special and horrible aura I once felt. I could not know what went on in that building, what unspeakable and excruciatingly painful acts people experienced there. What I sensed at age ten was that it was an evil place.
The day I entered it with Mimi I saw a warren of dark corridors filled on either side with windowless small brown cubicles. In one such sparse hole in the wall I waited quietly at her side while Mimi faced a heavy-set official behind a desk. The chubby man rustled some papers, pretending to look up my father’s name.
The prisoner Leopold Nussbaum, he informed us, was on his way to an interrogation center, but the family would probably have some news from him within a few days.
Not encouraging information, yet the official was a shade kinder than others we had encountered on our way in. Why that was I couldn’t tell. The way he looked at Mimi was definitely less insolent and arrogant.
On our return trip we stood waiting for the streetcar at its Alexanderplatz stop. Buildings just as dismal and forbidding as the one we had just left surrounded the traffic-filled square. I glanced across the street at another evil-looking dark tall structure. I felt Mimi shudder as she too, looked at it.
“The Volksgerichtshof, ” she volunteered without my asking.
In later years I learned more about the People’s Court and its use by the Nazi regime. Mimi might have known even then what kind of place it was. Few prisoners left it without an order for their execution, if they left the building alive at all.
The long ride home on the streetcar was bleak. Mimi looked discouraged and fearful and did not let go of my hand. My feelings, of course, were a reflection of hers. She was quiet and sad, and barely spoke. It was May, yet everything around us was still gray and cold. It started to drizzle. Times were suddenly desperate. I had a dreadful sense of foreboding.
In the days following my father’s arrest Mimi searched for the address of the cousin she was supposed to contact. There was a problem. Nowhere in my father’s papers could she find the address. But she did what had to be done. She wrote the letter and explained carefully and discreetly the urgent need for my father to leave Germany quickly. To accomplish that a relative in the United States of America had to grant him an affidavit. This document had to declare that my father would not become a financial burden to the state, but, if necessary, would be supported by his relative. The affidavit listing the sponsor’s assets was one of the requirements of the American consulate in Germany before it granted the desired visa that allowed exit from Germany and entry into the United States.
When she finished her appeal Mimi simply addressed the envelope to Mr. Karl Nussbaum, in care of His Excellency the Mayor of the City of Louisville in Kentucky, The United States of America.
It was a summer hotter than most Berliners remembered. The usually moderate climate had reversed itself. I suffered a heat stroke by just playing in the schoolyard. I lay on my bed in the dark with cold compresses on my forehead and hoped the room would stop spinning.
I thought of my father constantly. My throat tightened with fear when I did. We had not the slightest knowledge of his location or the circumstances of his whereabouts. I did not dare to talk about him to Mimi. She did not let on how worried she was. Perhaps we both hoped that by avoiding a discussion it would not -could not- possibly be as bad as we feared.
After two long dreadful weeks a postcard arrived. “I am healthy. Do not worry.”
Eight more weeks of silence followed. But there were rumors. My God, what dreadful rumors.
Some of them were uttered by the men who came to our apartment every night. Their presence was another baffling phenomenon that summer. No one explained it to me. Children were silent observers of a time which most adults did not understand. Perhaps it was assumed the less children knew, the safer were the grownups around them. Who knew what dangerous information could be leaked by a child who overheard conversations he was not meant to hear? I already knew, that Jewish people did not venture out in daylight unless they had to.
The strangers, different ones every night, came to sleep in our apartment. They slept on pillows, spare mattresses, and blankets, on the grey-carpeted Chippendale dining room floor, under the grand piano in the fruit-wood music room, or just on the carpet in the front hall. By sleeping away from their own homes and spending their nights in strange places these Jewish men felt secure. Our apartment was “safe”. Safe because its family head had already been “visited” and was now in the clutches of the Gestapo. Why would the authorities return and strike for a second time?
The feeling of being watched was constant and ominous. One afternoon the telephone rang. Mimi took the call. She said nothing, but her face showed great concentration as she listened to the caller.
Suddenly she spoke into the telephone with sharp, clipped tones.
“Herr Schmidt, I recognize your voice. Don’t dare to threaten me again. And if you attempt to show your face near me I will report you to the police precinct.”
When she hung up I saw that she trembled.
“It was that lout, the son of the concierge downstairs. That vulture. He thought he could frighten me. ”
The unemployed, sharp-eyed young man apparently surmised that we might be leaving the country before long. He had done odd jobs in our apartment and knew we had unusual and beautiful furniture. With a disguised voice he had claimed to be a government official and told Mimi that it was against the law to sell or remove any of it and that we would be prosecuted if we tried. He stated that every piece had to be left in place were we to move away.
At another time during those difficult days our doorbell rang for the delivery of a large and fancy food basket. It contained delicacies that had been hard to find in the strictly-rationed Berlin food markets for some time. A note in the basket read, “To Frau Trude, from your admirer, Herr Z.”
I did not know any “Mr.Z”, nor did I think Mimi did. And why would he send us such a splendid gift? There was never a definite revelation, yet I felt Mimi strongly suspected who the donor was. In later years she confided that it must have been the fat man behind the desk at Gestapo headquarters. “He felt sorry for me,” she said. “But he also appreciated my situation. Perhaps he even liked it when I spoke back to him and told him what I really thought.”
In Louisville, Karl Nussbaum met with his buddies every Thursday evening for a night of cold cuts and beer, and a round of their beloved “Skat” card game at Cunningham’s, the popular delicatessen restaurant that catered to the “heimatlich” tastes of its German-born clientele.
Karl Nussbaum was a wealthy businessman. During the long years since his arrival in Kentucky as a penniless escapee from World War I German military service his original scrap iron yard had expanded into a big business. His other ventures included the purchase of a whiskey distillery. He and his Gentile wife, Marie Louise, had raised a family of three sons and a daughter. All the sons and the husband of his daughter were engaged in the father’s enterprises. All were stalwart pillars of their Christian church communities. Karl himself, though he never officially left his Judaism behind, took pride in being the donor of substantial gifts to many Christian endeavors.
Among the “regulars” at Cunninghams were several men who had known Karl for many years. One of them was Louisville’s current mayor, Joseph Scholtz.
One Thursday evening during that summer of 1938 the mayor was greeting his friends before sitting down to supper. Seeing Karl Nussbaum suddenly reminded him of something. He pulled out an envelope from the pocket of his seersucker jacket.
“Oh, Karl,” he said, “here is something for you. It arrived at my City Hall office this week.”
Mimi’s letter had reached its destination.
That letter to Louisville bore fruit. Some time during that summer an amazing document arrived at our house. It was an affidavit of many pages vouching for the financial security of Leopold Nussbaum, his spouse and child once they had reached American shores.
After thanking God and the American relatives, Mimi paid numerous highly frustrating visits to the American consulate near Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate. I went along because as a Jewish child I was no longer allowed to go to school and was too young to be left at home alone.
The daily lines of applicants seeking quota numbers for American visas were incredibly long. It was obvious that the staff members of the consulate enjoyed feeling superior to all the pathetic souls seeking admission to the U.S. They made incredible difficulties for them.
Mimi had to apply for my father who was still in the concentration camp. This caused more obstacles. The person seeking a visa had to apply in person or his case would be deferred. In desperation Mimi hired an immigration lawyer to handle the situation. His enormous fee must have included an “inducement” to his personal connection at the consulate.
My father was incarcerated at Buchenwald for eleven weeks. Upon his release he came home to us in Berlin. He was allowed to stay exactly forty-eight hours.
My father was a different man after he came home. He looked so sad, defeated, and distant, I hesitated to go near him. Not the warm, affectionate father I had known before. No longer the man who took me, his only child, with him on Sunday mornings to meet his male friends at Berlin’s famous coffeehouses and treated me to special puff pastry delicacies at Kempinsky or the Cafe Dobrin. Now he was tired and for his two days and nights at home sat in our apartment silent, smoking and thinking.
He was so tired. “It’s from hacking out all those rocks,” he murmured to Mimi, speaking softly so I would not hear. He had worked in the stone quarries while at Buchenwald, had been forced to cut, move and carry heavy stones and rubble. He was a businessman and not used to such hard physical work. The food he had been given was minimal. At that time I did not understand why the camp authorities demanded such tasks from him, why he was treated the way he was.
What he had really endured he never told us.
During his time in Buchenwald he had relinquished the ownership of his business to the state. He told Mimi he was released from camp because he had signed a statement that he would leave Germany within forty-eight hours. But his captors had a departing message for him: “Don’t for a moment think you will ever escape us. No matter where you end up, we will find you. Then we will finish the job we started here.”
During his last day at home my father sat in his favorite chair in the dining room smoking one cigarette after another as he watched the man from the shipping firm pack his personal belongings. Several suitcases stood open on the thick grey carpeting where unfamiliar visitors had slept only a few nights before. On the dining table neat stacks of shirts, pajamas, and underwear lay next to my father’s papers, photographs, and medications. As he distributed the clothing neatly among the cases the mover glanced at the silver-covered porcelain coffee and tea set on the buffet. He picked up one of the silver pitchers and carefully wrapped some heavy underwear around it. Then he positioned it inside one of the suitcases.
“No, no, that set isn’t going,” I heard Mimi protest.
“Might as well send it along while I have the room here, Madame,” the burly man replied. He paid no further attention to her and continued to wrap the rest of the pieces and place them in the baggage. When he was done with the packing, he secured all the suitcases with the moving firm’s official seal. “Ready to go,” he announced. “They’ll travel on the ship with him and no one will bother to open them.”
Within only a few weeks after that a government order came through forbidding emigrating “non-Aryans” from taking gold or silver possessions out of Germany. To this day Mimi’s tea set has kept its special place in our family. When I married my parents gave it to me. When I look at it (and whenever I polish it) I remember the packer who must have known something we did not when he wrapped up my father’s winter underwear. And now, so many years later, I am still grateful to him.
At the end of his 48-hours with us my father left Germany thanks to a train ticket to Antwerp Mimi had been fortunate to obtain. From there he embarked on the S.S. Europa for the trans-Atlantic crossing and a new life.
It was only many, many years later that I understood how close he and Mimi and I had come to the destruction that so tragically annihilated the rest of our family.
And sometimes when I think about the way fate turned out for us I remember the letter Mimi wrote in those dark days. There is no doubt in my mind that letter was “beshert.” It saved our lives.
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.
“The Letter” is an excerpt from Ellen Stern’s unpublished memoir, Surviving: A Family Journal, and is reprinted here with permission of the author.