Part 3 (written 2004)
(Continued from last week)
Our School Years
My brother Herman was 14 months older than I. We were both born in Bad Homburg, a town near Frankfurt am Main, Herman in 1926 and I in 1927. He entered the local public school in 1932, and I in 1933. Although there was an active Jewish community, and an Orthodox synagogue, there was no Jewish School.
Our school years, until 1935, were distinguished only by the fact that my teacher already then belonged to the Nazi storm troopers (Brown Shirts). He wore his uniform to class, and felt it necessary to demonstrate his hatred for the Jews with almost daily punishments and beatings. I was the only Jewish kid in my class.
By 1935, our parents decided that the situation had deteriorated to a point that a change had to be made. We were taken out of the local school and for one year we traveled to Frankfurt every day by streetcar. It was a trip of over an hour each way. Since so much time was taken up by our travel back and forth to school each day, and also because anti-Semitism was getting worse in Bad Homburg and Dornholzhausen (where Opa had his warehouse), our family moved to Frankfurt in 1936. Opa also moved his business to Frankfurt at the same time.
In Frankfurt, we attended the Israelitische Volkschule, which was the four-year grade school of the Orthodox Frankfurt community. We continued on to the Samson Rafael Hirsch Realschule (high school), which Herman entered in 1936, and I in 1937. Both schools taught Jewish and secular subjects.
Kristallnacht, November 1938
After the death of our paternal grandfather, Herman, in 1925, the running of the hotel and restaurant in Schmitten (my father’s birthplace in the Taunus mountains) had been taken over by Opa’s brother, Wilhelm. Already in the mid-30s, anti-Semitism had gotten so bad in Schmitten that the family had to move to Frankfurt, where Uncle Wilhelm opened a kosher restaurant on the Zeil (a main commercial street). Their living quarters were right behind the restaurant and connected to it. On Kristallnacht (night of the broken glass), November 9, 1938, the restaurant and the apartment were broken into and everything was smashed to pieces to such an extent that the family had to move out immediately. The family of four came to live with us in our apartment, which, being in a quiet residential area, had not been touched by the Nazis.
That night while everybody was sleeping in this temporary arrangement, we heard a loud crash. Several policemen and Storm Troopers were kicking at the door to wake everybody up. They ordered all men, 16 years old and above, to come with them. Our cousin Max, Herman and I were under 16; therefore, only Uncle Wilhelm and Opa quickly got dressed and left.
The next morning, having heard nothing, we left for school as usual.
We always went to school by bicycle to avoid being caught and beaten by the Hitler Youth. We got as far as the Uhr-Türmchen (a well-known Frankfurt landmark), where we stopped because of what we saw in front of us. A block away we saw one of the Orthodox synagogues, known generally by its location, Friedberger Anlage, engulfed in flames. The fire department trucks were standing there only to make sure that no neighboring buildings would catch fire. We stood there, not knowing what the situation with our school was and what we should do, when a man came over to us and told us that we had better go home.
We subsequently found out that all the synagogues, except one, were burned to the ground that day, including the Boerneplatz Synagogue, which our family had always attended. The school buildings, although not burned, were closed by the authorities.
When we got home and reported what we had seen, everybody realized what was going on and that most likely uncle Wilhelm and Opa would not be returning that day or any time soon. It had become known in the meantime that all the arrested men (and there were thousands of them) were being held in the Festhalle, a very large building (similar to Madison Square Garden) used for exhibitions, sports functions etc. Oma decided that since the men had neither been able to take their coats nor any food, that she would take a taxi, to take coats and food to them. November in Germany is much colder than November in New Jersey. Oma asked me to come along. When we arrived there, we saw a huge crowd of screaming Nazis in the parking lot in front of the building. When they saw us coming out of the taxi, they started throwing stones and screaming anti-Semitic curses and slogans. Fortunately, the driver had waited and urged us to get back in, which we did, and drove home without having accomplished our mission.
After a few days, all the men in the Festhalle were transported to the Buchenwald concentration camp.
Subsequently, it became known that under certain conditions release could be obtained for specific men from Buchenwald. One had to prove that the prisoner had been a front-line soldier in the First World War, as well as to guarantee emigration within six months. Also an agreement had to be given to “sell” the business and cash in all insurances policies promptly. The proceeds of the insurance policies had to be turned over to the German state. Oma took Opa’s World War I records and decorations to the police, and upon the purchase of a Cuban landing pass for him only, was able to obtain Opa’s release.
Opa returned home just four weeks after having been arrested. It was a Friday night, and I remember it as if it were yesterday. Opa was exhausted, dirty, hungry and thirsty, his clothes, to the extent he still had them, were torn and filthy, but he was happy to be home. For many years Opa could not talk about what happened in Buchenwald. The conditions and the treatment the Jews had received in the Festhalle were inhumane, but were nothing when compared with what happened to them in Buchenwald. Since children might eventually read what I write here, I will refrain from going into descriptive details.
He settled his affairs, “sold” his business for pennies on the dollar, and on May 13, 1939 departed from Hamburg on the M/S St. Louis. Oma and the boys stayed in Frankfurt since the landing pass for Cuba had been made available only to Opa and not to the family.
The vessel arrived in Cuba on May 27, only to find out that the Cuban government would not recognize the landing passes, which had been issued (sold) by an official of the Cuban Government, and would only allow those passengers to debark who already had families in Cuba. These were only about 30 or 40 people out of 936 Jews onboard. Actually, the landing passes had not been sold by the Cuban government at all, but by the director general of immigration Manuel Benitez Gonzalez, who kept the money for his personal gain at $160 per certificate.
(To be continued next week)
By Norbert Strauss