My paternal grandparents were born in Poland and had a large family. My maternal grandparents were from Poland; Hannah Flaumenhaft from Galitzia, and my grandfather, Israel Melinger from Tarnow. They had twelve children and three died at a young age.
My grandmother died in 1940 of natural causes and my grandfather died of hardening of the arteries. Uncle Elias Melinger and Aunt Fanny Flaumenhaft left Germany for Israel just before the war broke out along with their son Gideon.
Uncle Gustaf and Aunt Regina Schiffman had four girls: Hannah, Sabine, Judith, and Lotte. The four girls survived, but their parents did not.
Aunt Marie never married and died during the war. Uncle Max and Aunt Paula Ganger had four children, Joseph, Ruth, Sonia, and Leah. Everyone in the family perished.
Uncle Nathan and Aunt Selma Jakubowitz had children: Harry and Ruth. All perished. Uncle Nathan and Aunt Lottie Haltrecht had two children: daughter Henny and son Henry. Only Henry survived.
Uncle Samuel and Giselle Flaumenhaft had three children: sons Leo and Paul and daughter Henny. Only Henny survived. Uncle Heini and Aunt Hedwig had two children: Hilda and Alfred. Uncle Heine and Hilda survived.
I was born in Berlin, Germany on February 27, 1924. Both my parents were from Poland. My mother, Rachel Kleinfinger was born in Warsaw in April of 1896. My father, Solomon Kleinfinger, was born in Galicia in May of the same year. I was an only child. My father had a large family and all were born in Poland.
He was the only one who left the country. While in Germany he met and married my mother. I never really knew my father because he died at age 29 of an unknown illness when I was only 2 years old. My mother was sent to Auschwitz in February 1943. My father died of an unknown illness when I was two years old. Only my husband left the country.
My grandparents on my mother’s side were born in Galicia, Poland. Both Israel Melinger and Channah Flaumenhaft moved to Germany because of the anti-Semitism in Poland. They married there and had twelve children. Three of the children died at a very young age.
Both of my grandparents were very orthodox (strict in the observance of Talmudic law and in personal devotions). At home my grandfather spent a great deal of time standing in the corner and davening (praying). Otherwise, he was always at Shul, working as a Shame (caretaker), which was an unpaid job.
My grandmother owned a small shop, and since the children helped out during the day, no one received a decent public school education. Many of my uncles were in the tailoring business, and my mother worked as a seamstress for my Uncle Samuel. She was hardly ever home but I have fond memories of my grandmother taking care of me.
I always went to a Jewish school and received an excellent education there. We learned a lot about the Torah and the history of the Jews. At home, I always enjoyed the Jewish rituals, including the lighting of candles and the festivals, because it kept our family together and gave meaning to life.
I loved the holidays, especially Pesach (Passover, commemorating the exodus of the Jews from Egypt) and Purim
(deliverance of the Jews
from Persia and the plot for wholesale slaughter by Haman). All the relatives came to our home for the annual Seders
(Jewish ritual feast marking the beginning of the Passover holiday) and I loved having everyone there.
I always looked forward to Friday nights because they were so festive. We would light the candles and sing songs. My grandmother would set the table so beautifully and then we would all go to services. We would do nothing more until Sunday, not even turn on lights or write. It gave me such a special feeling.
Once Hitler came into power in 1933 our lives changed drastically. German Jews had to wear yellow stars on their arms. Non-Jews would chase and tease me endlessly. I remember one boy stuck his foot out and tripped me just because I was Jewish, and my leg was badly hurt. Everything was forbidden for Jews. We couldn’t even sit down on a park bench. Before the Nazis came, all the public pools offered swimming lessons to everyone. But afterwards the signs went up, “JEWS NOT ALLOWED.” So I never learned how to swim.
When my father was still alive the three of us lived in a small two-bedroom apartment along with my grandparents, two uncles, and an aunt. In our second apartment there was my mother, my grandparents, an aunt and uncle and their two children.
One evening when I was 13 or 14, the Nazis came in the middle of the night. They rounded up all Jewish males of Polish descent to send them back to Poland. I remember my grandmother sat up quickly in bed and fell backward unconscious, having suffered a small stroke. I was so frightened, especially when my mother started talking back to the Gestapo and arguing with them. I thought for sure they would take her, too!
She kept saying, “Why? Just because we’re Jewish? We’ve done nothing!” But they ended up deporting most of my uncles. One of my aunts hated being alone after her husband had been taken, and asked if I would come live with her. I stayed for a few nights, but I was just too terrified to sleep and had to leave a few days later.
One night when I was about 14, the windows of every store owned by Jews were broken and the stores ransacked. It had been organized by Hitler and was called “Kristallnacht.” It was terrifying. Afterwards, Jews weren’t allowed to own stores or businesses.
Just before the war broke out, my cousin and I lived on a farm where we were trained to live on a kibbutz (a collective agricultural settlement in modern Israel) in Israel. Many of us lived and worked together during this period of training called Hachshara.
To my horror, my cousin was picked up one day and deported back to Poland where she perished along with her family. By that time, German Jews were dying in German concentration camps and Polish Jews were being shipped to camps in Poland.
I remember that later on that day the director approached me to advise it was lunchtime and that I should go to the dining room to eat. I was so happy because I knew then that I was safe.
Shortly after that I was able to escape from Germany. It was August 1939 and I was 15. I just barely survived because the war broke out less than a month later. Someone from England had organized a train called the Kindertransport to take Jewish children far away from the Nazis. Jews wanting to leave Germany had to have a sponsor from another country, but my mother had no one and was forced to stay behind. She took me to the station and as I stood waiting to board, I cried my heart out knowing I would never see her again.
The passengers on that train were all Jewish refugee children from Germany, Austria, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia. The Kindertransport took us to Whittingham, a school in Scotland, where we lived in a huge house like a castle. It was a beautiful school in the country and had been donated by a nobleman who was the nephew of Lord Balfour.
We were to continue training to live on an Israeli kibbutz (a collective agricultural settlement in modern Israel). I shared a room with three other girls. We spent half the day in school and the other half working on things such as laundry, cooking, sewing, working the land, and dairy work (milking cows and making butter). As it turned out, only a limited number of transports were going to Israel, and I decided not to go.
After two years in Scotland I moved to London at 17 and worked in a Jewish home cleaning and cooking. Then I became a messenger in a blueprint company and then a seamstress in a dress shop. My meager salary went for monthly rent and buying books, due to my lifelong love of reading.
The Jewish community in London was running a home for young Jewish people, and I became part of a cleaning staff. Since Germany was fighting England when the war broke out, we were all considered enemy aliens, even the children, and we had to stay close to home. One day my friends and I wandered off and met a Jewish family who took a special interest in me. They felt so bad for my mother, being a widow and unable to leave Germany, that they decided to become her sponsor. Proceedings were started and I was able to receive letters from her for several months through the Red Cross. She wrote that she had filled out all the forms, passed the required test, and was close to escaping.
Then the war broke out, the mail stopped, and it was too late. I had no idea what had happened to her or to my other relatives. Later on in London, lists of the deceased were distributed. Even then I didn’t find my mother’s name, but finally a relative had overheard my mother was killed in Auschwitz. The one piece of good news I had was that she had remarried in the concentration camp.
I also learned that my grandmother died of natural causes about a year after I left Germany. Many of my aunts, uncles, and cousins perished in the Holocaust. One of those families ended up in the same camp, and everyone perished except their daughter, Henny. She had suffered tuberculosis of the spine for a year in a body cast and was barely surviving. Then strangely enough she met my cousin Hilda’s father in the same camp. She later told me that he was so sweet to her he would always save a portion for her of what little food he received. They both survived the camp and were married in Israel.
The London government required everyone to do something to help the war effort, and I worked in a factory making uniforms. Following that I had several jobs. I worked as a nurse in a hospital that was nearly destroyed by a raid. The hospital managed to remain open, and at one time I was assigned to the Tuberculosis Sanatorium, where no precautions to prevent the spread of the disease were taken by patients or staff.
During that time I met my husband, Rudolf, who had been working as a waiter. My friends and I had gone to the movies and then to a club for Hungarian Jewish refugees. A tall, very handsome man kept staring at me and followed us out the door. We began dating and were married in London that same year, when I was only 20.
Rudy’s parents and sister had already come to Michigan, so eight years after arriving in England he and I traveled by boat for ten days to Ellis Island and were picked up by his father. That boat ride cost us all our money. The seas were terribly rough, and I was sick the whole time. We arrived in Detroit, Michigan in November 1947.
Once there we moved into a tiny two-room apartment and then to a larger one on Gladstone at Dexter and Clairemont. I found myself a job sewing furs at Ceresnie Furs until Eva was born in 1949. Rita followed in 1951, and after we bought our house in Detroit on Archdale, Steve was born in 1953.
By 1958, I had developed terrible varicose veins and went to Ann Arbor, Michigan to have them removed. There they found something suspicious on my lung. Tests taken at Herman Kiefer Hospital were positive, and at 34, I was diagnosed with tuberculosis. It was devastating for me. Although Rudy and the children came every Sunday, Rudy was the only visitor allowed near me, and I had to wave at my children from far away. Steve hadn’t even started kindergarten. Although the recovery time was normally one year, Rudy’s uncle in Israel was a doctor and wrote such an impressive letter that they released me after six months.
While living on Archdale I learned all about gardening, and enjoyed it so much that I would tend to them every morning. The neighbors were very friendly but we were about the only Jewish family in the neighborhood. In order to expose my children to a more Jewish environment we moved to Oak Park in 1963 and stayed until 1985, when we moved into an apartment in Franklin, Michigan.
I took care of my children for ten years before returning to work. The Jewish Vocational Services found me a job at Tall Girls, Inc. where I was bookkeeper and receptionist for twenty-five years.