Tag Archives: German Jewry

A Return to Hannover

by Ellen Norman Stern (Ambler, PA)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Goldschmidt School

by Ellen Norman Stern (Ambler, PA)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Have the Hate-filled Times Come Again?

by Ellen Norman Stern (Ambler, PA)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Kristallnacht” was the forerunner to the Holocaust.

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

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

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

Yet there is a difference. And there is hope.

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

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

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


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Unexpected Departure, 1938

by Helga Harris (Sarasota, FL)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Ring

by Ellen Norman Stern (Willow Grove, PA)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The 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.




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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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.”


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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