We considered ourselves German, we were very assimilated. My father was an attorney. He was very civic-oriented. He had a successful law firm, we lived very comfortably.
In 1933, when Hitler came to power, no one took him seriously at first. My father was a World War I veteran who received the Iron Cross. No one could really conceive that Hitler meant the things that he said. He blamed the Jews for getting Germany into World War I. The “International Jews” were blamed for Germany having lost the war, for the difficult period in the 1920s, for inflation, all of these things were put on the Jewish back.
Jews made up less than 1% of the total population. The Nazi propaganda newspaper, “The Sturmer,” depicted Jews as being evil. No one thought in the remotest that the German people would put up with this propaganda. We were Germans, we were good German citizens. They portrayed that all Jews were criminals and were responsible for all of the bad things that happened to Germany. They propagated the idea Judaism was not a religion but a race that conspired against Germany and Germans. The fear that Jewish men would “violate” German women was a theme that Hitler liked to talk about.
In 1933, when Hitler came to power, I was 6 years old. The first thing I recognized was that I lost all of my non-Jewish friends.
I became conscious that stores had signs that said, “Jews are not welcomed here.” Jewish stores were whitewashed with white Jewish stars, people stopped going there.
It was not uncommon to be accosted by gangs. They called us dirty Jews, dreck Juden, (dirty Jews).
German Jews did not wear yarmulkes (religious head coverings) but hats for fear of being accosted by gangs. Even wearing hats was dangerous because we could be identified as being Jewish.
Once when I was 8 or 9 years old, when my brother and I, on one occasion when we went to synagogue, we walked to our uncle’s house afterwards. My brother asked me to take off hat, but I was proud of my hat. We were accosted by a gang and were called dirty Jews. They beat us up pretty good. It was not uncommon in those days to be called a “dirty Jew”.
As a little boy, we were not allowed to go to movies or public parks; there were all kinds of restrictions for Jews.
In 1936, they passed the Nuremberg laws; we were stripped of our German citizenship. There were racial laws that determined if someone was a Jew. My father could no longer work. Jewish doctors could no longer treat non-Jewish patients and lawyers lost their bar privileges. My uncle Felix Manko, who was a doctor, moved to Palestine.
Others took a “let's wait and see what happens” attitude.
Father could still earn money but he could not go to any court. He owned a Buick which in Germany was a status symbol. We were comfortable.
When things got bad, my mother’s mother moved in with us. She moved from Hanau to Frankfurt. Our maid who was with us for many years, who we considered to be part of our family said, “I’m no longer going to work for Jews.”
I went to public school until 1936. Then kids and teachers were barred from attending public schools. I started going to a Jewish school until Kristallnacht.
Kristallnacht began on November 9, 1938
I remember the principal came to our classroom early in the morning. He looked upset. He told us to go directly home, not to speak to anyone, not to stop anywhere, just go home but he didn’t tell us why.
It was half an hour bicycle ride home. On my way home, I passed the synagogue where we worshipped and it was burning! I was 12 years old at the time. There were firefighters there but they only focused on making sure that the building on either side of the synagogue did not catch fire.
I also saw windows smashed of stores that were owned by Jewish merchants. People were being dragged out of the stores and were being beaten.
This happened all over Germany at the same time. Their excuse was that a Polish Jew had assassinated a German official.
I continued home. I was scared, very scared. I waited for my dad but he disappeared, he didn’t come home. We were aware that men were being arrested.
My mother went to the police station. This took courage. Not like it is in America, the police in Germany were not our friends but our enemies. My mother was told he’s probably dead or if he’s not dead, he should be.
In the next two or three days, the police came to our house, my father was a prominent attorney. He was on a list to be arrested. They would just pop in anytime they wanted. Once they came in at 4 AM in the morning. They stood my mother and me against the wall; they didn’t believe that we didn’t know where he was.
In 1936, after we were kicked out of public school, my parents sent my older brother, Rolf who was 14 or 15 years old, to a prep school in Switzerland. He learned English there which later on would become very important for our family.
My parents didn’t think that I would be in jeopardy because I was too young. The Hitlerjugend were picking on older teenagers.
My mother’s mother was now living with us. She was a short lady, but very feisty. She told the police to get out of our home, they just laughed at her.
In 1936, the week my uncle Felix left for Palestine, my father applied for a visa to the United States. Visas were hard to get, and the United States set a tight quota on how many could come in. My parents applied in 1936. Right before Kristallnacht, in November 1938, we received a letter to go for a physical.
The physical was scheduled for December 1938, but my father had been arrested. A friend of my father who also was a lawyer had been released from the Dachau concentration camp. He called us to tell us that he had seen my father there. They were looking for him but didn’t know that they themselves had already arrested him.
My mother went to Gestapo headquarters with the letter showing they had applied for a visa and my father’s Iron Cross, hoping they would release him and they could get out.
At Gestapo headquarters, luckily, my mother ran into a Gestapo who had been a client of my father before Hitler assumed power. He respected my father and said he would try to arrange for him to be released. He said that we would have to leave Germany in 48 hours. He stuck his neck out for us.
I have a memory of two or three nights, before the physical, the light went on in my bedroom. My father was standing there. He looked different. He looked shrunken and he was crying. That picture haunts me. I never saw my father look like that before. He had lost weight, he looked tired and haggard. He was always proud of his hair and now his hair was shaved off. He had been in Dachau for two months.
The exam was to take place in Stuttgart not Frankfurt. The American doctor, who looked at my father, did not grant a visa, he said we could not get family support for us in America. It was a ploy to reject us. The American counsel himself came out. He said that if we could get our sponsor to place $10,000 in an American bank and that if the funds would be available at the end of the day, then he would issue the visa. This $10,000 would be for our use when we came to the United States.
Ellis Island at the time was shut down in 1930. Our sponsor was my father’s uncle; he came to the United States in 1900 and settled in Lemmon, South Dakota! He came to New York but could not find a job then. He headed west and got as far as South Dakota. He sold dry goods to ranchers and farmers; he had a dry goods store.
He did not have $10,000. My parents called him; it was a transoceanic call then. He said he would try to do his very best. My brother was in Switzerland, he could get a visa as a minor. My father said about his own situation, “I won’t go back to Dachau, I won’t do it.”
My father went into the men’s room. My mother said to me, “Go with your father.” I was 12. I went in; I saw that my father had opened the window. When he saw me, he stepped away from the window. He had given up. He later told me, he could not face going back to the camp. My mother told me that my father said that he realized that even if she received a visa, she would not leave without him.
The $10,000 was raised!
Lemmon, South Dakota had a population of 10,000 people. My great-uncle, Isidore Freymark, was a prominent man in a small town. He went to the local banker; he said it was a matter of life and death for his family, the clock running! He put up his store as collateral. The banker put $10,000 in the account and wired it. He saved our lives!
The visa was issued that evening. We took the train back to Frankfurt. We went to Holland and met my uncle who had moved there. Uncle Max moved to Amsterdam, Holland. He had opened up a small bicycle store there.
My uncle had the same “Ostrich in the sand attitude, it won’t come to Holland.” In Holland, waiting for brother, and getting our wits together. We left Europe in December 1938 and arrived in America in January 1939.
Later in my life, I traveled to Lemmon, South Dakota where I met my great-uncle Isidore. He took me to meet the banker. We became very emotional, to see what he had done to save our lives. My dad never touched any of the money.
We traveled from Holland to Darlington, England where my mother’s brother lived, Arthur Smith, formerly Schmidt. He was put into an internment camp because he was a German.
We took a ship, the SS Manhattan, to America in January 1939. The Atlantic Ocean in January was stormy, there was frozen ocean spray, the deck was cold and slippery. When we passed the Statue of Liberty, everyone cried. It took about six or seven days, I turned twelve years old in February. I was very moved seeing the Statue of Liberty, my brother was seasick.
We arrived in New York; my father’s sister had a daughter, Ilse, who was fourteen older than me. She traveled all through Europe, met a man from Detroit, and married. Rosa Haas was my aunt’s married name. She met us at the ship, Cousin Ilse Haas Doner. The first thing, she told me was you have to change your first name and get a haircut.