THE FOUNTAIN AT THE CROSSROAD
By: Ernest G. Lion
To My Father
With deep appreciation to
Professor of English & Speech,
Director of the Horry County Oral History Project.
Director of the Foreign Language Instructional Center
They have become part of this story.
Without them, it would not have been written.
A writer's problem does not change. He himself changes and the world he lives in changes, but his problem remains the same. It is always how to write true, to project it in such a way that it becomes part of the experience of the person who reads it.
I have had dreams about a dwarf who claimed he was so powerful that he could change the directions in my life. One night he sat across from me. I placed three pillows on his chair, so that we were facing eye to eye. His legs were dangling far above the floor. His face was round. I could not really see his features. He wore a black beret, pulled low upon his brow.
The room was dimly lit, an odd surrounding I have not been in before. If I had left I would not know where I would be. I asked: "Could you change events in my future?" "Your future", he replied, "is not within my reach." He would, he said, attempt to have a look into my past to tell me how he would have avoided certain pitfalls.
He sat attentively for hours, while I told him details of my life. With eyes half closed, he pondered what he learned, then looked out into space in deep thought. He sadly shook his head: "We don't control our lives. We think we do. It's only a deception."
He spoke no more and slowly slid from his perch until his tiny feet had reached the floor again. He waddled wearily away, as though he seemed to know from whence he came. His body then dissolved and his foggy shadow left the room -- through a door that had not been opened.
My father was fighting for Germany in the trenches against the French when I was born. My mother was already 42 years old, and had a difficult time with my birth. She had additional worries, as she was operating her own grocery-and-dry good store, A. Steinweg & Co. There were three sales clerks and one employee, who took care of the rest of the house. It was difficult for her to oversee the entire establishment and to take care of her newborn son as well as my seven-year-old sister Grete.
Back then in Germany, babies were born in hospitals only if a physician was needed because of emergencies. The first cry of a newborn usually echoed from the walls of a home, and the sole assistant was a midwife. Frau Roppel was our town's registered midwife. She offered to go to the registrar’s office to obtain my birth certificate.
"What do you intend to call him?" She asked my mother.
"His name shall be Ernst," she replied weakly.
Frau Roppel returned with my certificate, which stated:
When my mother said she had never had mentioned Georg, Frau Roppel replied: "Georg goes well with Ernst, so I decided to add it to the document."
Later, I would often see Frau Roppel walking, probably to her next case. She always wore her uniform, a long, wide black robe with a black hood. The robe swept behind her from the draft created by her speed. She looked authoritative and somewhat frightening. I never dared to ask her whether she was responsible for my second name. Middle names are not common in Germany;
I often wondered if Georg was the name of a man who had broken her heart.
In 1917, The United States of America entered the war. My father lost half of his left shoulder to a piece of shrapnel fired by the French during the battle at the river Somme. He returned home three months after I was born, a proud veteran who had fought for his fatherland. His pride and patriotism, however, forbade him to accept a monthly pension for his war wound. He refused to talk about his experience in the trenches of the First World War, one that was supposed to end all wars. What he went through there was too upsetting for him to talk about. But he did predict that Germany could not win. Food was scarce and widely rationed. Even the fighting army did not have enough to eat. My father described how, one moonlit night, they looked across into an American trench and through their binoculars saw American soldiers eat chocolate cake. Morale was low, supplies were running out; The U.S., however, was still fresh and ready for battle.
I was two, towing my little red wagon around the first floor of the house, from the living room through the kitchen into the store and back through another way, ignoring all the customers. Our cat was my passenger. Her tail hung from the rear of the wagon, slowly moving from side to side expressing her utmost happiness. At the end of the trip, she refused to get off the wagon. Her loud purring sounded like more—more—more.
Behind the house was an acre of garden. We grew our own potatoes, beans, peas and lettuce. There was a strawberry bed, and at each end of it grew a stalk of rhubarb. A wooden bench, painted green, and hand-built by my father, stood in the shade of a large plum tree. A hired gardener faithfully attended to the entire project. The house itself was spacious. Days were spent in the living room located behind the store. This room also served as an office. It was equipped with a large safe, and an old fashioned crank-up telephone hung on the wall. Our phone number was 185. Connections were made through an operator reached, not by dialing, but by first cranking, then waiting until she answered. A comfortable sofa, dinner table and three chairs made the room livable. We took all our meals there as it was adjoined by the kitchen. Upstairs were three bedrooms, a bath and the formal dining room. Also a music room with an upright Steinway piano, a bookcase, a daybed and a huge old chest, which had been in the family for generations. Three additional bedrooms in the attic, one of which was used by Toni, our "factotum," who served in a wide range of capacities, from cleaning to cooking and the general caring for all our needs. Unfortunately, behind her back, she was just referred to as "the maid." That bothers me, even today. I learned about class-consciousness at an early age; it is pronounced in Germany.
Hansi Jansen was my childhood friend. He was the son of the local photographer who lived down the street from us. Without any previous agreements, Hansi and I met and played what little boys pretend to be: generals in the army, police officers or firemen. We just ran and made the necessary noises that would fit the occasion. Lots of exhausting activity, most of it resulting in an enforced bath before bed.
At the age of six, I entered elementary school. There was a Catholic and an evangelical school in our town, and I was assigned to the latter, because whoever did the thinking in the community decided that the only Jewish child would fit there better. No important matter was given to that occasion. Jews were just as welcome as the rest of the populace; we were simply Germans. Any tiny bit of anti-Semitism was ignored. I got along well with my classmates. The only teacher I remember there was Herr Schümer, a tall, dark and very friendly man who taught most all subjects. I liked him so well that I could still draw his face, had I the talent to do so. Sometimes my father assigned some duties for me after school. After he had checked my homework, I was released to play.
Hansi and I had now become more sophisticated: Instead of pretending to be what we never would be anyway, we one day asked my mother for a few large bed sheets, and used them to put up a tent in our back yard. Inside, we displayed Hansi's older brother’s rock collection, showing the geologically correct name and origin under each item. We advertised our small museum on the front wall of the house: Attention! Only one Pfennig! The interested public came and viewed our magical display. To our surprise, we were busy! But only for a week or so. We ran out of "public" after that, and we had grown tired of the sameness of the situation anyway. Returning the bed sheets to my mother, I put a part of the earned money into the piggy bank, and squandered the rest on candy and gum.
November 11, 1918 was Armistice Day. Germany had lost the war. The Kaiser fled to Holland to live out the rest of his life, abandoning his imperial realm. The country found itself without a government and leaderless, which led to strife and street fighting between dozens of splinter parties in large cities. The rightwing Stahlhelm (steel helmet), consisting of veterans and war rebels fought against communists. Between them, waving their colored banners, marched the Social Democrats, the Christian Democrats, and other newly chartered splinter parties. They sang and shouted their slogans and, in some cases, physically fought each other for attention. The Berliner Illustrierte Zeitung, the most popular picture magazine in Germany, illustrated these events weekly, showing civilians killing their brothers with rifles, smuggled into the country after armistice. The police had become powerless. The riots spread to the smaller communities, and I watched them march by. Their banner read: "Wählt fuer uns, wir können Euch retten!" (Vote for us. We can save you!) Maxie, my dog growled. We had to calm him.
Finally in 1919, the German National Assembly met in the town of Weimar to charter a new government. Friedrich Ebert became the first democratic chancellor of Germany. Henceforth, and even until today, that first postwar regime is known as ‘The Weimar Republic." My father, a social democrat, was pleased. He voted for Ebert. This system of government would last until 1933.
The League of Nations was founded a year later, in 1920. To promote international cooperation and peace around the world, it was proposed by President Woodrow Wilson, but the United States never joined the League. The victorious nations decided to punish the country that had started this terrible war. President Wilson reluctantly drew up his "Fourteen Points," restricting Germany from ever rearming. It was allowed to maintain an army of no more than 100,000 men for interior protection only, and that army or part thereof, was never to cross the Rhine River westward. Reparations were imposed upon the industry so severely that they resulted in high unemployment and widespread poverty. Additional riots flared up. Because plundering and looting became a daily occurrence, my father got a specially trained watchdog to prevent break-ins and burglaries, because grocery stores were the first targets of starving people. The police finally brought order into the chaos.
One of Wilson’s Fourteen Points stated that victorious troops could occupy the industrial Ruhr valley. Subsequently, French and Belgian armies marched in with flares and fanfare to force more personal restrictions on us. While their regular troops moved into former German army barracks, our guest bedroom was confiscated for a French army physician, captain Meville. Both my parents spoke French, which made the relation between us more civilized. Until my sister decided to pour hot water from an upstairs bedroom window unto a French officer. She thought that was funny, but my father was arrested by the French. After a day, Dr. Meville arranged for his release and saved our family from further embarrassment, but my sister was severely punished for her antics.
The Italian inventor Marconi had just perfected his newest invention. Though the radio was available for purchase, the French occupation forces forbade us to listen to it. France and Belgium finally ended their occupation and returned to their respective countries, so we were now free to tune in. As an eight-year-old in 1923, I was fascinated to learn how a needle, when moved across a piece of crystal, could produce music or people talking on the other end.
"The other end?" My dad smiled. "It’s a radio station in Cologne, called Westdeutscher Rundfunk (West German Broadcast Station.) The airwaves carry it through the antenna right into your ear."
Now, instead of books to read, or stories to tell to each other for the evening’s entertainment, we separated the connections of two earphones, creating one half each for the four of us. Pressing that half of the earphone to one ear, father, mother, Grete and I listened to the wonders radio had to offer. Loudspeakers had not yet been invented. Time permitting, we even heard the daily news, which spared us from reading the paper. Such progress!
France and the Nether Countries, Holland, Belgium and Luxembourg, were busy rebuilding the destruction wrought upon them by the German army. The irony was that their infrastructure was destroyed, while the loser, Germany, came away without a scratch. America, on the other hand, began to practice total isolationism. Germany was unable to produce enough goods to trade for foreign currency, and so the government printed more money than it had available for gold coverage. That foolish move resulted in the worst inflation any country ever suffered. The inflation rose, and in the end, one German mark became worth one billion marks. On payday, the worker picked up his earnings in a wheelbarrow, and when he arrived at the store, all these bills did not buy him a loaf of bread. Dr. Hjalmar Schacht, a financial wizard, finally stabilized the currency, when people had to line up for hours at banks, to receive one shiny one-mark coin for each billion marks, they called Reichsmark. Dr. Schacht later became finance minister in Hitler’s government.
Around that time, about 1923, the media reported that an unknown rabble rouser named Adolf Hitler and his uniformed brown-shirted cohorts had marched through the streets of Munich, the capital of Bavaria, calling themselves Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiter Partei (National Socialist Worker's Party.), their headquarters was in Munich. They intended to march to the state governor’s mansion and forcibly take over the state of Bavaria, hoping that their movement would eventually, perhaps rapidly, spread through the entire country. Police, however, interfered with heavy gunfire and sent them sprinting for safety. Hitler, the leader was arrested, tried and sent to Landsberg prison. The event was widely ridiculed, and the public named him a political idiot. He was however admired for his courage, but not for his beliefs. Prison officials afforded him a more spacious cell, allowed his pals to visit him frequently, and provided sufficient material to him to write a book. We shook our heads and said: "How does he ever expect to come to power using that tactic?"
The book he wrote in Landsberg prison was entitled Mein Kampf (My Struggle.) Some read it; most did not understand it; it received no further attention. Although he claimed it to be the bible of his movement, its contents were an embarrassment to any decent German. Had it been more widely read, much of what followed could have been prevented.
* * * *
We were a musical family--at least three of us were. The only tune my tone-deaf father knew was Linke's Glowworm, which he frequently whistled, and totally out of tune. When we begged him to stop, he defiantly snorted, and we would hear the sound of Glowworm slowly disappearing in the distance. My mother had an opera-trained soprano voice, and my sister studied piano at a conservatory. Her goal was to become a teacher. I had inherited a violin from my maternal grandfather, who was a cantor at a synagogue in Breisach. As I was born so late, the only grandparent I knew was my paternal grandmother.
I studied violin for nine years, which enabled my sister and me to play chamber music, mostly piano-violin sonatas by Mozart, Beethoven, Cesar Frank and others. Later I became a member of my school orchestra. My mother often took me to concerts. At thirteen, I attended Yehudi Menhuin's solo performance: He was the sensation of the time, called by the press Das WUNDERKIND. (wonder, or miracle child). Like him, I was thirteen, and like him, I now live in a different country. I obviously never achieved his greatness, but at least we still share the same age.
Elementary school in Germany covered from age six to fourteen. After that, the graduate became an apprentice in whatever endeavor he or she chose. Whoever attempted to attend college had to first go to a Gymnasium for men, a Lyceum for women; those were institutions of higher learning. I left elementary school at ten and was enrolled in the Hindenburg Realgymnasium, located in Dortmund, the nearest large city. It was a private school. Tuition had to be paid by the student’s parents.
We learned French during the first school year, and in the fourth year, at age 13, I began to speak English. Seven years of that type of schooling is roughly the equivalent of two years of college today. Among the teachers I remember best is my English professor, Dr. Exter. In his early forties, he was elegantly dressed, always wearing a blue suit. Low-keyed and serious, but polite, he spoke English fluently and free of any German accent, perhaps influenced by his English wife. Little did I know then, how lucky I was to have him for my English teacher.
1925 was a fairly good time for Germany. The economy had recovered and my parent’s business flourished. I remember our Sunday outings when we walked through immaculately landscaped parks with wide walkways between tall oak trees. We passed large ponds inhabited by white trumpeter swans and other waterfowl. Children rented rowboats, and we could hear their cheerful voices echoing across the water's expanse. The leisurely walks always ended at an open-air restaurant, where we had our evening meal. Sometimes we hired a closed carriage from identical twin brothers, the Peppings, for a drive through the countryside. We never knew which one of the Peppings was driving us.
The following short family history is for the benefit of my remaining relatives and their children, who are now scattered around the world.
My father was born on September 9, 1877 in Willich, which was then a small village on the lower Rhine River, near the Dutch border. He was the son of Herrmann Lion and Caroline Lion, nee Metzger. They had seven children:
ROSETTE (aunt Detta), married Hermann Meyer. They had no children. She survived the Theresienstadt concentration camp
FERNANDE, who died early, and whom I therefore never knew.
CLEMENTINE (Aunt Clem) married Julius Winter. They had two children. All perished.
HELENE remained single. She was a buyer at Gebrueder Kaufmann, a department store in Krefeld. She committed suicide when deportation to concentration camps threatened.
JOHANNA (Aunt Hanna) married Siegfried Mendelsohn, a widower with son Fred from his previous marriage. They operated a department store near Bremen. She made it possible for me to come to America.
LEO, my father. Perished.
ARTUR, his only brother, who was married to Aunt Sally. Died in Theresienstadt. They had two children, Hans and Else. Hans to Australia and Else went to England and cousins Alan and Joan are her offsprings.
Those who survived will reappear from time to time. Please refer to the family tree, when helpful.
Uncle Artur and his family lived in the house of my grandparents. He was a cattle trader by profession. I spent my long summer vacation at their home. I loved it there. There was a large stable for the cows and one horse, a hayloft above, and a spacious shady garden with full-grown fruit trees and a leaf-enclosed garden house to retreat into and perhaps bite into a juicy overripe pear that had just fallen to the ground. My grandmother "Lina," who still lived upstairs in the house, planted those trees. She was the only grandparent I knew. Since German for grandmother is "Oma," this wonderful miniature plantation was always referred to as "Oma’s garden." I helped milk the cows and was especially grateful when my uncle let me ride Boobie, the horse. What a marvelous time I had there each summer during my school years!
Next door lived another Lion family, Albert and Carola Lion. Albert was first cousin to my father. He operated a butcher shop, and they had two children: Ernst and Ruth. In the Jewish religion it is customary to name a male child after a deceased relative. The deceased Ernst was killed in France during the war in 1914. He was my father's cousin and Uncle Albert’s brother; the boy next door and I were named after him. (Cousin Ernest and I often correspond by e-mail. He lives in London, England.)
After six years I received my diploma from the gymnasium. Now ready to enter the serious world, I intended to attend acting school. Although my parents knew I had the talent to qualify, they quickly rejected my idea.
"Just never mind this acting thing," they said. "You will learn a real business trade so that you may follow in our footsteps."
Opposing the will of your parents was unheard of. So in 1930 I began apprenticeship with a well-known department store, featuring elegant clothing for ladies, yard goods, carpets and window decorations. All job applicants had to take a written test to be accepted; to be hired there was an honor and a privilege.
The National Socialist Party gained popularity. Although there were still too many parties striving to govern, the Social Democrats enjoyed the majority in the Reichstag. The Nazis, though, were marching and singing, and during periods before elections, trees, mountainsides and buildings were smeared with their propaganda such as: "Vote Ja for Adolf Hitler." In the late twenties, under Gustav Stresemann's chancellorship, the economy had improved significantly and Hitler did not receive many Ja's. People were satisfied, and his dogma was ignored. To be more effective he switched his rhetoric and now screamed about Germany's shameful loss of the war and about the restrictions put upon her by the allies. He claimed that those were "concocted by Jews." Heinrich Bruening became Chancellor in 1929, Streseman became his foreign minister. Bruening's government, weak and inapt, almost appeared to be unwilling to cope with the turmoil.
All major events in the United States eventually have an effect on Europe. The 1929 economic disaster over there caused by the stock market crash, had a damaging effect on Germany. General dissatisfaction arose due to increased unemployment. Consequently, Hitler's strength grew. His rhetoric became more effective. In his hour-long speeches he blamed the Jews for all that seemed to be amiss in the country. Germany’s population was 66 million, and the total Jewish population was 550,000. We were German citizens and enjoyed the identical rights and privileges with everyone else.
Towards the end of 1932 Hitler's strength in the Reichstag (The German Parliament) grew. Von Papen, a right-wing representative who leaned towards National Socialism, became the equivalent of the American speaker of the house. On January 30th, 1933, Field Marshall Paul von Hindenburg (ret.), then president of Germany, old and intellectually weak appointed Hitler as Chancellor of Germany. Now an Austrian tramp, who had never worked a day in his life, filled the highest post in the government. All opposition parties were banned, labor unions disbanded, and a slow movement towards dictatorship was on its way.
The red flags with black swastikas were flying from all government buildings. Columns of brown shirted Nazis marched and sang and demonstrated, sometimes going overboard and beating up on a Jewish person, but the majority of the population did not favor such brutalities.
Their marching songs were alarming: Wenn das Judenblut vom Messer spritzt dann geht's noch mal so gut. (When Jewish blood runs down our knives, we will be very happy!) We still hoped that this phase would not last long, and that the regime would somehow be voted out of existence. But when could there be another election? There was only one party left: Hitler's. And so our life went on. My parent's business did well and my job was secure, though in back of our minds, an eerie, sinister feeling began to manifest itself.
On April 1st, 1933, two months after they came to power, the SA, in their brown uniforms, placed themselves in front of Jewish businesses, and displayed placards: DIE JUDEN SIND UNSER UNGLUECK. KAUFT NICHT BEIM JUDEN! (Jews are our misfortune. Don’t buy from a Jew!) Many customers defied them. The Nazis took pictures of those who entered our stores. That disturbed my father. He said: "I will not let them embarrass my customers" and closed his store. That put them in a quandary, as they had nothing to boycott any longer. But they remained on their assigned posts. My father put up a sign inviting anyone who wanted to shop for groceries to come to the private side entrance of the house. One of those thugs positioned himself in front of that door as well. My father told the Nazi that he was trespassing and asked him to leave. The Nazi defied him with some ugly remarks and asked him, what he was going to do about it. My father replied:
"If you are not gone within 15 minutes, I'll take a bat and beat the living crap out of you!"
My mother was concerned:
"How could you do that? These are dangerous people!"
"Not yet, they're not," my father replied. "They have been in power for two months only. I don’t see any law they have passed against invasion of privacy. They may be wearing boots, but they are still shaking in them. Were they not, the boy (and that's all he was) would still be standing at our private entrance. Do you see him there? They called him away."
That was typically my father: not afraid of anything or anyone, and reacting strongly when confronted. My father was gentle and polite, but with a true sense of right and wrong, he did not hesitate to punish me if I did wrong. His sense of humor was appreciated by all. He taught me to respect others but never to give in to their disrespect. Sitting with me on a garden bench during cloudless, moonlit nights, he taught me the star system with its names and formations. During the second war, when the British bombed us at night and everyone fled to the basement for protection, he remained outside, looking up. We warned him to seek shelter. He replied: "No, I want to see this." He knew no fear.
I have become like him. Those who know me well will not cross me, for I can change very quickly from Ernest to Leo Lion, my father. I don’t favor the use of bats to beat up people, but my opponents will soon know where I stand!
Sometimes I wish he could be here with me for only a little while. I would show him what has become of me, let him witness some of the technological progress of the past fifty years; the cars, the fast planes, the men and women who have ventured into outer space. And particularly this wonderful country. Yes, I still miss him. Very much.
My mother, however, was the heart of the business, as she had owned the store before she married my father. In fact there were two additional stores, which were managed by her two sisters Elsa and Selma. She closed them when Elsa married Joseph Woltschonok and moved to Elberfeld, and when Selma wedded Julius Hoffmann in Iserlohn. Aunt Selma would later play an important part in my life.
Mother always gave to those in need. Herr Likier, a Jewish coal miner who lived in our neighborhood immigrated from Poland. While he and his children were struggling to survive, the Likiers' two girls were clothed, fed and sheltered at our house for a long time. "We shall give to those in distress, else we don’t deserve what we have," mother often declared.
* * * *
The Nazis first passed the laws, which made it legal in the eyes of the people to persecute us. The most famous was the Nuremberg law, prohibiting sexual relations between Aryans and Jews. That altered our status from religion to race. Jewish professionals such as lawyers and physicians could only administer to Jewish clients. Jewish artists were banned and undesired books were publicly burned. Among the authors were many non-Jews like Thomas and Heinrich Mann for instance. Teachers were dismissed, music by Offenbach, Mendelsohn and all other Jewish composers could no longer be performed. Well-known performers, only recently admired, were suddenly unemployed. The famous left the country. The noted symphony conductor Dr. Wilhelm Steinberg immigrated to Japan and after the war became music director of the Pittsburgh symphony. Many actors and directors, such as Peter Lorre, Billy Wilder and Otto Preminger, who were known internationally as the best movie and stage actors and directors, settled in America and contributed to the entertainment of the American people.
Jewish businesses failed for lack of customers and were sold to Aryan firms. I lost my job at Gebrüder Kaufmann in Dortmund, the department store previously mentioned. The unemployed Jewish artists, actors and musicians formed the Jüdischer Kulturbund, (Jewish Cultural Alliance.) It produced plays for Jewish audiences and formed a symphony orchestra with out-of-work musicians. I applied there and was first hired as property master in the theater. Later I auditioned and, oh, what irony: I became an actor under those dire circumstances!
My parents sold both store and house for much below its value. They moved to Dortmund, where they sold groceries to Jewish families.
My sister Grete and cousins Ernest, Ruth, and Else left for England. Possessing an affidavit (guarantee) from my mother’s cousin, a Dr. Weinberg in New York, I joined the long lines at the American embassy in Cologne, together with the rest of the hopefuls and waited, waited. The U.S. immigration quota for Jews was so low that I would have had a chance to immigrate perhaps only in the early forties. Neither the U.S. nor Canada cared to take us. Diplomatic circles around the world attempted to provide territories for us. Madagascar was suggested, but the British thought that we would cause a revolution once we had settled there. The Belgians refused to let us into their Congo. Meanwhile the Jew-hating German government triumphed loudly over those decisions: "Nobody wants the Jews!" Those with money bought themselves into Cuba, Ecuador and other Central-and-South American countries. For large sums of money, others crossed the borders illegally to France, Belgium or Holland, only to be caught again by the Nazis after those countries were later militarily defeated. We were scrambling to flee. Most were unsuccessful and we began to live a life of fear and uncertainty.
The Jewish artists’ organization threatened to close. The pay I received was not enough to buy a decent meal after my room rent was paid, so I found a job as sales clerk in one of the finest haberdashery stores in the country. The city was Magdeburg in central Germany, the store was called Jelonek, carrying the name of its owner. This was a Jewish outfit, and the reason for its survival was its reputation among its clients, who came from all over Germany because Herr Jelonek designed and sold the finest and most expensive merchandise. He was the leader in style and fashion for elegant men' s clothing. His customers did not care who he was. They bought what he had to offer, and what he offered became a trend.
It was now 1937. Jelonek’s wife had a millinery store (ladies' hats). She was Christian and they had one daughter. He had been a prisoner of war in Russia during the First World War and trekked home through that vast country. He became a devout Communist. Ironically, the merchandise he offered was simply breathtaking to behold, and the prices unaffordable for anyone who walked in from the street. One morning we found the Star of David and the word Jude smeared on his display window. That discouraged some of his clients from entering the store. He had the window cleaned and remained open for business.
On November 9, 1938, news broke in the papers and over the radio, that a Jew named Grynzspan had shot and killed assistant ambassador Vom Rath in front of the German embassy in Paris.
The radio played sad music with intermittent drum rolls all day interspersed with anti-Jewish propaganda. Dr. Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s minister of propaganda, delivered a long speech, threatening severe retaliation. Newspaper headlines screamed: World Judaism Is Trying To Wipe out All Aryan Germans. The people were made to believe that we were out to destroy the world.
At about six o’clock in the evening I stole across town to the rail yard, where I found an empty freight car. I boarded it and slid the door shut. I was not going to be around for the activities that threatened to begin at dark. And they did happen. Loud, roaring crowds swept through the streets, shouting their slogans, the contents of which I could only guess, as I was too far away from town. Once I stuck my head out of the car to see flames shooting up into the sky. It looked like the entire city was on fire. I could hardly imagine what they were doing. At dusk everything quieted down, so I left the rail car and walked into the city. They had burned down the synagogue. Jewish store windows were broken. Clothes, hardware, fine porcelain, groceries, whatever was inside those stores was now scattered around on the sidewalks. Some of it was missing due to looting and plundering. The mob had entered our homes and thrown belongings, even entire pieces of furniture, out of the windows. It was almost impossible to walk around town, as the sidewalks were filled with what was once valuable, useful material which had now become trash. Stars of David were painted on the walls of Jewish establishments, and curtains were waving in the cold November wind through empty window frames. What sounded like snow and ice was broken glass that crunched under the feet of passersby. Civilization had kissed the world goodbye. The world of Mozart and Beethoven, Schiller and Goethe, Kant and Schopenhauer had been replaced with loud, screaming, uneducated, low-class hordes, whose only goal was to destroy-- destroy.--
The town was utterly still. What had happened to those who suffered, I did not know. I was not going to my rented room. I was hungry, and dirty; black grime and bits of straw, contents of the freight car I had been hiding on, stuck to my good suit. I decided to go to my girlfriend’s apartment, where I ate breakfast, but there was no time to take a shower. Only she and her mother were in the apartment. Her father had already been taken away by the police. Someone who saw me enter the house must have made a phone call, for the doorbell rang. Two men in dark suits, both wearing identical broad-brimmed gray felt hats, identified themselves as Gestapo officers. " You must come with us," they ordered harshly. But they did wait for me to get dressed. We rode in an open army-type vehicle to police headquarters, where I was thrown into a jail cell, ordinarily equipped for two. There were twenty Jewish men, some of whom I knew. Not having enough room to sit, we stood so close that we were touching each other. I saw my boss, Jelonek, there, too. His elegant suit was as soiled as mine. Nobody dared to speak, as we did not know what was going to happen to us.
We did not have to wait long to find out. They marched us to the railroad station, where we saw a long row of old gray second class coach cars. We climbed the two high wooden steps to reach the compartments Two opposing benches, spanning from window to window, provided space for eight passengers on each side. When the entire train was full, we heard "clicks" that started from far away, got louder as they approached our car, then faded away in the opposite direction: they had locked the doors from the outside! The train started. We sat, facing each other, but were so in shock that we could not talk. We rode like that for hours.
Around noon the train stopped. We were ordered off, and then I saw our destination: Weimar, the city of the charter of the first republic of Germany after the First World War. The city where democratic chancellor Ebert was installed in 1919 to preside over a free Germany. That Germany was free no more, and the other chancellor, who now called himself "Führer," (Leader) was now presiding over a bunch of ruthless criminals who, in one night, had proven they could do with us whatever they pleased.
But why Weimar? We soon discovered the reason, after they marched us for an hour into the woods. We arrived at the large gate of Buchenwald concentration camp. The gate read in large letters: JEDEM DAS SEINE (To each what he deserves). We knew of its existence, but had no idea what to expect. There had been neither water nor food on that train. We marched through that infamous gate, hungry, thirsty, dirty and stunned, men only, wondering what they had done to our women at home. Older men were ready to collapse, and we tried to hold them upright. And so we stood, thousands of us, shivering in the cold. We stood there for hours. Some collapsed, and there was the constant oral abuse: "You are all murderers!" Because, according to them, one Jew had shot a German in Paris. We knew this was all arranged. The destruction they had wrought upon us was not spontaneous but planned and organized. Where were the police during that night of the riots, which later was called Kristallnacht (crystal night) by none other than Dr. Goebbels? The police had stood idly by, or, since I had not witnessed any of it, had probably followed orders and remained in their stations.
Some of the SS guards walked among us, and whenever they pleased, they beat one of us with truncheons or used only their fists. This was done in utter silence except for the thuds caused by the beatings and the moans of those who suffered the injuries. They especially chose older men, beating some to a bloody mess. Dead, bloody, innocent people were lying in the dirt in this filthy concentration camp they called Buchenwald, (Woods of Beeches) not far from Weimar, the town of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, poet and statesman, revered by all, and of Friedrich Schiller, the poet, whose Ode to Joy Beethoven used in his choral symphony, the famous ninth: "Alle Menschen werden Brueder, wo Dein sanfter Fluegel weilt" ( All humans become brethren where your soft wing hovers.) By "your" he meant the muse, called the sparks of God. (Freude schoener Götterfunken, Tochter aus Elysium) Those sparks of God, which once shone upon the daughter of "Elysium," the place of "Utmost Happiness," had now turned into His wrath upon us.
We were housed in barracks, which were called 'blocks", 250 men to each. Beds had straw for mattresses and rose three tiers high. For supper we each received a bowl of soup of unidentifiable contents. Some decided not to eat it, but I forced it down, refusing to go into the night hungry. Lights were turned off a 9 o'clock sharp, after which time no one was allowed to talk. At 5 o'clock the next morning, the lights came back on, defiantly awakening us from the deep sleep we so urgently needed. That sudden wake-up did not suffice in the opinion of our captors: They beat us out of bed with truncheons, all the while screaming anti-Semitic slogans. We were herded naked to use the latrine, which was simply a trench dug below wooden beams. After a lukewarm shower, back to the block to get dressed with newly assigned blue-and-white striped pants, jackets and visorless caps. We wondered what happened to the clothes that we wore when we arrived. The bowl we received the night before was now filled with a dark brown chicory tasting substance they called coffee. We received a thick slab of gray bread, which tasted like sawdust, and a slice of reddish-blue blood-and-tongue sausage. Disgusting as it looked, I ate it. .
We were then ordered to the assembly place for roll call. There were fewer of us than yesterday. Some had been beaten to death, others mistreated so seriously as to be unable to stand. I wondered what had happened to the wounded. Did they have some kind of a hospital? Would they treat them?
We were divided into work groups, which they called commandos, of about fifty men each. Those groups were led away by an inmate wearing a blue cap and jacket with the word "Kapo" stitched below his left shoulder.
Prisoners already there when we arrived were mulling about, oblivious to what was happening to us. Due to yesterday's massive influx of inmates, SS guards were slightly confused. I watched them carefully and found a moment during which I stole away from those who were selected to go to work. I joined the crowd of permanent inmates, hoping to stay in the camp rather than to march away and be used as laborer. A young man with a strong Viennese dialect informed me that they would have to work in a stone quarry. "Besides being forced to carry heavy rocks," he said, "they are also beaten, which will have a demoralizing effect on them."
He was seventeen years old and had been arrested when the Nazis marched into Austria. With no hope to be freed, he had already gotten used to camp life. He was unaware of the fate of his family. Young enough to avoid serious trauma over his situation, he seemed to fare well and indeed had become part of the system.
"What do you suggest I should do now?" I asked.
He told me to follow him. We entered a sizable structure, which smelled of antiseptics.
"Stay in here all day," my new friend said, "and make yourself useful. The doctors can always use additional help to take care of the sick. Act like you belong here, and return every morning. That way you’ll avoid the stone quarry. There is more to eat here, too."
Before we parted, we exchanged names. His was Arthur Fleischer. "Call me Art, if we ever meet again."
The doctors were Jewish inmates from Germany and Austria. They did not ask many questions and put me to work. I returned there every morning to assist the sick and the wounded.
The month of November passed quickly. So far I was fortunate. No guards were nearby to beat me, I did useful work and, considering the somewhat hopeless situation, was better able to withstand the hardship others were forced to endure. In December, some of us were released. Rumor had it that those with papers showing a possibility of leaving Germany would be set free first. They had knowledge of my American affidavit, and so I hoped I would be among this first group.
On the morning of December 15, 1938, I heard my name called over the P.A. system. I was ordered to appear at a certain building, where I was allowed to change back into my own clothes. An SS sergeant shoved release paper in front of me and ordered me to sign them. Was it a coincidence that my release happened on my birthday? (They did have my complete records.) I was instructed to walk to Weimar and board a train to Magdeburg. The printed instructions further stated that I could not take an express train and could only ride in coach class. I could not tell anyone of my experience here, otherwise I would be incarcerated without a chance to ever see freedom again.
To leave the worst for last, I was informed that they expected me to leave Germany within three months’ time.
The walk back to the Weimar train station from the Buchenwald concentration camp took three hours. Others who were let go with me trotted along, and we felt constantly watched. Issued our tickets, we had a comfortable ride without any unpleasant incidents back to where I had been so rudely deprived of my liberty for no apparent reason. That happened on November 10. I suddenly realized that I had lost a month, and wondered what kind of life I had to look forward to.
The news was not good: All Jewish businesses were closed. Insurance companies refused to honor claims for the damage inflicted upon properties, because "such damage was not listed in their policy." And as punishment for all that has happened, Jews were ordered to pay a billion Reichsmark to the German government. They called it "Judensteuer" (Jew-tax). Those who were unable to pay were threatened with confiscation of their property.
I gathered my belongings, paid Mr. Jelonek a visit, only to find him packing suitcases. He and his wife had agreed to divorce. She was Christian and to stay married to him would be fatal to her business. He had forwarded the required sum of money to the Cuban embassy for permission to enter that island.
For a reunion with my parents, I took a train to Dortmund, where my mother’s health was deteriorating due to the upheaval. My father was not allowed to continue selling groceries to the few remaining Jewish families. He had done one thing that pleased me: to avoid being arrested like the rest of us, he had boarded trains during the Kristallnacht, and ridden aimlessly from town to town during the night and the following day, frequently changing trains, taking his meals in station restaurants. He was thus spared the humiliating treatment we had to endure in concentration camps.
I walked around this large city. All establishments: restaurants, stores, shopping centers had affixed signs at their entrances, telling Jews in several themes and variations: JUDEN UNERWÜNSCHT (Jews not wanted inside) KEINE JUDEN! (No Jews!) And the most insulting JUDEN UND HUNDE MÜSSEN DRAUSSEN BLEIBEN. (Jews and dogs must stay outside).
The department of labor assigned me to do street repair. All day I walked behind a horse-drawn huge kettle of boiling tar. I had to fill potholes with that sizzling mass of black goo, then add gravel to bind the concoction. After two days I had taken enough. I acted as if I was unable to do the work, making obvious mistakes. By the end of the day I was fired. Back to the department of labor. Back to another idiotic job, where we were ramming posts into the ground as a foundation for future buildings. I pulled on a cord to make the huge air hammer drive the post ever deeper, similar to what is done now when building beach houses on stilts. That job was more bearable and I stuck with it for a while.
Aunt Selma, my mother’s youngest sister who lived in Iserlohn, a smaller city nearby, arranged a visit for me to meet a young lady there. I consented. The following Sunday I took a train to Iserlohn, to be introduced to Liesel Mosbach and her family: her mother Helene, her father Julius and her younger sister Gretel. They lived above their former delicatessen store, which, like all other Jewish businesses, had been confiscated. Even during my first visit Liesel and I discovered a mutual attraction. Conversation flowed well and without hesitation on either side; we agreed to meet every Sunday.
Liesel’s father, however, suffered a nervous breakdown as a result of the recent changes in all our lives. His physician, who meant well, suggested a hospital. We soon discovered that we should have opposed the doctor’s decision, for the Nazis had decided that all institutionalized, so-called "insane" persons no longer had the right to live and had become a burden to society. They were led into sheds equipped with gasoline engines, which were installed in reverse fashion: the exhaust escaped to the inside of the building. After they were asphyxiated, the bodies were burned and the ashes delivered to the surviving families. No one realized that this activity was the rehearsal for later mass destruction of humans. I felt deeply for that family over the impact Mr. Mosbach's cruelly inflicted death had had upon them; the next time I visited, the three women and I embraced in great sorrow.
Early 1939 I decided to move to Iserlohn. According to the Gestapo I needed proof of employment to justify the move. Aunt Selma came to the rescue again. She referred me to the owners of a local metal factory, Heinrich Husemann and Son. The Husemanns were ardent anti-Nazis. They openly discussed their hatred for those "criminals" with me, and hired me on the spot as a laborer in their small factory. The plant manufactured round doorknobs for export to America and luggage grips made of metal. All seven Christian employees were of like political opinion. They often talked about their dislike of the regime. I was careful not to get involved in their long discourse because I suspected they might have been trying to dupe me into agreeing so as to report me and have me arrested. All statements had to be weighed with` caution. It was a time when everyone "ratted" on everyone else: children on their parents, husbands on their wives and vice versa, friends on friends --- for the ideas of dictatorial National Socialism had been imbedded into peoples’ brains through constant propaganda. The result was the elimination of loyalty and individualism. Slowly, though, I found that I could trust my coworkers, and my employment became reasonably agreeable. At least it was indoors, with pleasant people.
The Jewish Cultural Organization, which had succumbed some time ago, left a vacuum in the search for entertainment among the remaining Jewish population in Dortmund. Walter Andress and I had previously done stand-up comedy, separately and together, he playing the straight man. We decided to write a musical revue, which we called "The Magazine." Other talented people came aboard. Rudie Horn, the organist of the now burned-out Jewish temple, formed a musical band, in which I played violin, and I also took the lead role in the story, using costumes and makeup, to change from a young bon vivant, singing and dancing, elegantly dressed, to an old man. We rehearsed every Saturday and produced a formidable, lighthearted and funny three-act musical. To make sure it contained no anti-government comments, the Gestapo sat in the first row every night. We performed Saturdays and Sundays for many weeks.
All restrictions imposed upon Germany after the first World War were declared void by Hitler; he ignored the part of President Wilson's Fourteen Points that restricted the German Army to 100 000 men to be used for inside protection only. And although Germany was not allowed to march across the Rhine River westward, so as not to threaten France's security, he marched across the river in 1936, while France with its strong armed forces, did nothing. Had France interfered militarily, Hitler would have lost that fight reasonably fast. The power he displayed during that act was all bluff; most of the army vehicles were still horse-drawn. But in 1936, France, unfortunately, was neither in the mood nor militarily well enough equipped to go to war.
Zeiss-Inquard, Hitler’s representative in Austria, had caused sufficient disagreement among its population to give Germany the opportunity to take over that country without any opposition by the Austrian government. Hitler traveled to Vienna and declared that "his country of birth" was now a part of Germany. Österreich (Austria) became Ostmark and, due to the unification, Germany was renamed. Das Grossdeutsche Reich. (The Greater German Reich.) When they occupied Austria in May 1938, we witnessed what the Nazis had intended to do with Jews all along. They dragged them from their homes, spat upon them, beat them, and forced them to kneel and clean the streets with toothbrushes while the uniformed "master race" stood by smirking. They showed these events in movie theaters’ newsreels. Front-page pictures appeared on the subject in all newspapers. Because Austria has, and still is today extremely anti-Semitic, the population did not have to be trained to hate Jews, as was the case in Germany. Here it all happened in an instant.
A while later Hitler's minister of propaganda, Dr. Joseph Goebbels, a clubfooted, most "non-Aryan" example of a human being, claimed mistreatment of the Germans in the Sudetenland, a part of Czechoslovakia. Without further ado, they marched into Sudentenland and annexed it, just stealing it from the Czechs. After they had succeeded with that coup, they were allowed to take the entire country of Czechoslovakia, according to the infamous Munich accord. It was a symbol of appeasement, signed by Germany, Great Britain and Italy. The latter was represented by an ardent admirer of Hitler’s, the dictator Benito Mussolini. Again, no one wanted to go to war over Bohemia and Slovakia, two countries that had been hurriedly united by the allies after the First World War. British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain had himself a low opinion about the Czech people. After his negotiation with Hitler at an elegant hotel along the banks of the Rhine, Chamberlain returned home to England. Standing beside the plane he had disembarked, he triumphantly waved a piece of paper in the air signed by "Herr Hitler." It stated that Hitler had no further territorial claims in Europe. Neville Chamberlain professed this to be one of "My greatest achievement for peace in our the time." That mistaken assumption would later cost him his job. Before then, however, his foreign minister Anthony Eden resigned in protest, and would later become Prime Minister himself.
Now Hitler focused his attention on the Polish Corridor, a strip between the German territories of Pomerania and East Prussia. That strip of land, geographically separated from the actual Polish border, had been awarded to Poland after the first war in 1919 as part of U.S. President Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points. The territorial arrangement afforded Poland access to the Baltic Sea. Long before anyone heard of Adolf Hitler, my father often said this foolish act by the allies could be the reason for another war! Hitler still believed he could march into that corridor and into Poland as well, and accomplish that without a fight, because so far the outside world had proven to be unwilling to oppose him with force. To create a "believable" reason for an altercation with Poland, the Germans took several (non-Jewish!) inmates from their concentration camps, clothed them into Polish army uniforms, shot and killed them and left their bodies well inside German territory. "Poland has attempted to invade Germany!" the news headlines screamed the following morning. This time, however, France and England warned that, should an attempt be made by Germany to invade either the Corridor or Poland in its entirety, they would declare war on Germany. That threat was unheeded by Hitler. He wanted war himself at all cost, to gain Lebensraum (Expansion of territory,) as he had stated so often before.
During the night of September 1, 1939, Germany attacked Poland, which suffered brutal and senseless destruction. They called it Blitzkrieg, (War of Lightening.) Within three weeks Poland was defeated. The two allies declared war on Germany. And that was it! September 1, 1939: the Second World War was on its way.
Laws were imposed upon us restricting the use of radios. To make it easy for the Nazis and embarrassing for the Jews, we had to deliver our radios to the post office department ourselves. They ordered a curfew from 8:00 p.m. until 7:00 a.m. We were issued a cloth Star of David, with Jude (Jew) in yellow letters inscribed in its center, to be worn on our outer garments. We were also issued an identity card. It contained our picture, personal identification, and the letter J imprinted diagonally across the entire inside page. Middle names were added: Israel for males and Sara for females. Leaving town required government permission and was not frequently granted. I could not go to Dortmund any more, our play fell apart, and I was no longer able to see my parents.
My mother died suddenly. Father told me that she had literally talked herself into dying. She had read that American Indians, in their minds, had developed such a practice, and with her strong willpower she succeeded. A permit for burial had to be issued by the Gestapo. It is against the Jewish religion to perform interments on Saturday, the Gestapo spitefully ordered my mother’s burial for Saturday! I was denied the trip to attend her funeral.
* * * *
My work at Husemann’s metal factory was a blessing, compared to what other men had to endure: street repair, road building and other menial labor where they were seen by their former Aryan acquaintances, which proved to be embarrassing. "Our" factory was located in a backyard kind of arrangement. The Husemanns lived in a duplex facing the street; the old ones, Heinrich and his wife, on the right side, and the son Reinhold with his wife on the left. The two houses were separated by a covered entrance wide enough to allow vehicles to pass through. Every morning Reinhold visited me at my workstation for conversation. My job consisted of lifting a wide roll of sheet metal onto a pivot connected to a pressing machine. The metal then was automatically forwarded into a form, and the huge automaton spat out the pressed part into a basket below. My production was taken to another machine for completion. (A marvelous modern invention for 1939!) While my machine functioned by itself until the sheet metal needed to be replaced, Reinhold and I had time to talk about politics, books, music, and we otherwise "philosophized." He was about 45, completely bald, of slender stature, and a heavy smoker. Since I smoked also, he never forgot to give me a pack of cigarettes daily. Upon leaving Friday evening for the weekend, I usually found a food package to enjoy with my girlfriend Liesel and her family.
Reinhold’s father, "taciturn old Heinrich," did not talk much, yet never failed to greet me when he passed by, a bit stooped through age. His gray goatee gave him the look of a distinguished intellectual patriarch. He hated the Nazis. I watched him once, standing in front of his house, when a passer-by greeted him with the Nazi salute "Heil Hitler." He replied with some unrecognizable gibberish, which sounded like a suppressed cough. He once told me:
"I could never bring that bastard’s name across my lips."
Both father and son were devoid of the usual opinion, which was now expressed by the average German. This made me feel reasonably satisfied. They paid me well and treated me with the kind of respect that was not afforded to us any longer by the general public. The Germans, for different reasons, shunned us. Some were genuinely anti-Jewish; others were afraid to communicate with us; a lot did not care either way. For them, things were improving, they had their fun marching and singing and therefore didn't care what happened to us. Generally I thought that most were embarrassed because they avoided looking at us when they saw the Star of David on our clothes. The bolder ones smiled and even greeted us, but not before they had scanned the area for possible spies. Their friendliness was a risk that could get them arrested and sent to a camp without a trial.
It was the general conception of the Germans that the war would soon be over. They had been successful beyond belief in the victory over Poland and felt that this was as far as their Führer would go. France and England, they mused, would withdraw their declaration of war, and peace would return.
Liesel, in the meantime, found a job at a mattress factory. We were engaged and began to pool our earnings for the wedding, which was set for sometime in December, though we were unsure about our future. The secret of maintaining one's sanity under those conditions is to attempt to live as normal a life as one can.
On December 18, 1939, three days after my twenty-fifth birthday, Liesel and I finally had our long anticipated wedding. Neither of us were great believers, but we engaged a Rabbi to perform the ceremony. We had a small party afterwards. We had made arrangements for a separate apartment so as not to continue to live with her mother and sister. The flat consisted of a bedroom and a kitchen. The latter was also our living room. That was all the space we were legally allowed to occupy.
Due to food shortages, ration cards were issued to the general public, yet we received much less than the rest of the population. With Reinhold Husemann’s weekly food package and Liesel’s clever arrangements to scrounge together additional foodstuff, we were satisfied. Some very close friends dropped by late at night and brought what they could spare. We "got by." Meat was a problem, though, and we did not mind eating an occasional portion of horsemeat. We read books for entertainment. (Movie theaters were off limits for Jews.) I fervently read American authors in translation, including "Gone with the Wind." Although impressed with the book, which gave me an introduction to American history, I never reread it in English here in America. Brought up as an ardent reader, I discovered too many other books and for mere lack of time decided to forgo Margaret Mitchell's tome again. I hope to be forgiven for this "unpatriotic" faux pas.
Rumors began to spread: Jews in large cities were assembled and taken away. Nobody knew any details. They just disappeared, never to be heard from again. We received a letter from my wife's cousin, Dr. Erich Mosbach. The doctor had practiced medicine in Meschede, a nearby medium-sized city. His wife was a Christian. Because these marriages were much in the Nazi's disfavor, such couples were constantly harassed.
Erich's letter had originated somewhere in the east and carried no identifiable postmarks, but a clear return address. He wrote that he was an inmate in a labor camp. "I'm practicing medicine on prisoners, with little available medication. I have enough to eat and am fairly well. But I wish you could send a few books. I am drying up intellectually for lack of activity in my spare time."
His letter converted rumors into facts: they were moving Jewish families away. Through some circuitous channels, however, we learned that Erich's wife was allowed to remain. The couple had been forcefully separated.
So we filled a box with paperback books, and though we did not ourselves have enough to eat, we added two loaves of bread. We never knew whether the box arrived, nor did we hear from Dr. Mosbach again. This occurred in the summer of 1941.
Faced with the facts that evacuations were a certainty, we prepared ourselves
One day, two men entered our apartment, showed some vague-looking badges, and demanded we turn over any fur coats or similar articles of clothing. Their explanation: Jews are not permitted to wear fur. They searched our closets, took whatever pleased them, and walked out with their loot. We were powerless. Objections would have led to immediate arrests.
We slipped into 1942 with less food and more restrictions. I decided to take some valuable articles to my friends and employers for safekeeping; the Husemanns agreed to hold them. They assured us that they would return the valuables after "this is all over." Their belief for the eventual defeat of this government was unshakable. Among the items was my old violin, which I had inherited from my maternal grandfather. It was then more than a hundred years old. Looking through the right keyhole one could make out an inscription: Repariert by J.J. Birk, Danzig, 1849 (Repaired by J.J. Birk, Gdansk, 1849.) We gave them all our silverware, picture albums and everything we decided was worth keeping, should we return some day. Reinhold stored everything in his attic.
In August 1942 my father, mother-in-law, and Gretel, my 14-year-old sister-in-law were arrested. They were taken East and were never heard from again. My father was 66 years old then and in good health. Through a well-established underground channel, we later learned that they had been taken to Zamosc, located southeast of Lublin, where they had been shot and buried in pre-dug ditches.
On February 26, 1943, Liesel and I were ordered to report to a school in Dortmund, each with one suitcase. We received special Gestapo passes for the train ride from Iserlohn to Dortmund. When we arrived, we found about a thousand people already assembled. Our names were called and we had to walk to a restaurant, where tables and chairs had been removed to allow room for so many people. We slept on the bare floor. They took our wedding bands and watches, telling us that we would not need them where we were going. During that night, the U.S. Airforce bombed the city. We overheard one of the restaurant employees telling the Gestapo agents about the damage: The main railroad station, the Althoff department store and the Town Theater had been hit.
The following morning we were transported in streetcars to the South Railway Station, as the main station was out of commission. There was a train waiting for us. The carriages were those plump, old-fashioned brownish-maroon wooden freight cars with rounded roofs and tall wheels so narrow that it seemed they could not stay on the tracks. The cars' capacity, marked with white paint on their doors, read "40 Men or 8 Horses," a directive which obviously was meant for army transportation. Well, I observed that forty men with some straw bedding would indeed just about fill one of those cars to capacity.
I found myself inside such a freight car among a hundred men, women and children. The doors were locked; there were no windows to look through. This precaution would keep us from recognizing our route or destination. A few buckets for relief, no food or water. This should be a short ride, I mused.
"You are going to be resettled," we were told. "You are going to a safer place, away from the danger of war." Why would they suddenly want to protect us from danger? Liesel was shoved on this train with me. At least we were together. Just twenty-three, she was a thin, wiry lady, strong and energetic. Her dark eyes expressed the will to endure. I was twenty-four. Where was our future? I was angry for what they were doing to us, but powerless to change it, as we were traveling into uncertainty. They had lied to us all along, and the safer place, away from the danger of war was ridiculous.
We found a safe spot where we could sit on the floor, bracing our backs against the wall. Those in the center had to stand until they fell from weakness. There was not enough space for one hundred people to sit. Family members shouted that their loved ones had collapsed, and those were later pronounced dead. The children cried, thirsty and disoriented. With very few stops, the train was moving along steadily for a day and a night. We knew we were going east, because it was getting colder. The closeness of the bodies provided the only heat. The odor was unbearable. I was getting some sleep, although it was hard to come by. It preserved my strength and numbed the stress for a while.
"They are resettling us for work?" I asked Liesel. "They are already letting us die on the way. What kind of resettlement do you think this could be?"
As my question was merely rhetorical, she had no reply. Her usual desire to engage in lively and animated conversations which, with her strong will, could easily end in friendly disagreements at times, had changed to a bitter quiet. Her mood change worried me. We had already been mistreated and persecuted from the day these monsters came to power in 1933, ten years before. We knew they were losing this war. That gave us more reason to be concerned --afraid -- because the faster they were going downhill, the worse our fate would become.
Screeching brakes, all cars bumping into each other with a loud reverberating metallic clang. We were thrown forward. The train stopped. The doors slid open, rumbling, squeaking.
"Everybody off, quickly! Leave your suit cases on the train!" I stepped onto an open platform; in the distance I saw snow covering high mountains. It was very cold. Just at dusk, I noticed the warm exhalation from my nostrils made a visible vapor in the cold air.
We were surrounded by SS military, their drawn machine guns pointing at us. German shepherd dogs were at the ready to attack, flashing their fangs and leaning hard into their leashes. For the first time I saw what appeared to be prisoners. They wore vertically striped uniforms, pants and jackets, and visorless round flat caps, all light blue and gray. A number marked on the left side of their chests, and below that a red and white inverted triangle, which formed a Star of David. Jews. Unloaders. No one spoke except one; as he came close enough to me to be able to whisper through his teeth without obvious lip movement:
" Keep cool and calm, don’t make waves, don’t be surprised about anything. You are now in Hell!"
As he walked away, his head quickly turned into all directions to make sure that no one saw him speaking to me. I wondered why he chose just me for the target of his message.
Someone shouted: "Women to the left, men to the right! You will be reunited after checking in!"
All the women were led away. My wife looked at me for one last time before she disappeared. It was dark now, and I saw her walk away like a shadow.
* * * * *
We approach an SS officer, single-file. He is elegantly dressed in a leather coat. He inspects each arrival carefully and with a gloved hand points either to the right or to the left. Amazed at the arrogance of these people, I am ordered to the right. Those going to the left, we are later told, go directly into the gas chamber. We are loaded onto military trucks, twenty per vehicle, and driven away. A thirty- minute drive and we arrive at a campsite. Inside a barrack, we are told to undress. Inmates are shaving us of both body and head hair. Then into a shower. From there, in the nude to another building, where I receive my striped uniform, already equipped with my number. To another barrack: "Get dressed, then show your left arm." I approach another prisoner who tattoos the number he sees on my jacket to my left forearm: 104979. He works with a large blue-inked tattoo needle. The process causes no discomfort. Perhaps it would, were it not for the state of excitement. He makes the number very large. I ask him why, he answers:
"What difference does that make? You’ll be dead in three months anyway."
"If I should live through this" I retort, "and I should meet you somewhere after this is over, I’ll wrap this arm with that big number you just created, around your Goddamned neck!"
The wooden barracks are called blocks; I am in block 10. Although the Blokälteste, (Block Foreman) is a not a Jew, he is an inmate just like us. The red triangle on his chest indicates his status as a political prisoner. In all probability all he once made a derogatory remark about the regime, and someone reported him. That alone is what makes one an enemy of the state, eligible to go to a concentration camp, never to see freedom again. There is no trial, no defense and no conviction. His name is Emil Meier. He is from my hometown. Could that possibly turn into an advantage for me? But being only one among the masses, and seeing the confusion we all find ourselves in, I quickly dismiss that idea.
We receive a bowl filled with thin, almost inedible, soup. We must eat it outside in the cold. Steam rises from the bowl as the hot, watery slop meets the intense cold blowing down on us from the snow-covered mountains in the distance, which are slowly vanishing in the dusk. Back inside we are assigned to our beds. They are in three tiers. I get a lower bunk. It is dark, late in the evening, the lights go out, and this is the first time in three days I find myself in a prone position. It's March 3rd, 1943.
Before I fall a sleep, I wonder about my wife. Where is she? What have they done to her? No matter the short time we have been married, the pain of separation is immense. What will they do to me, to us? Then I remember the advice this man gave me on the platform --"Keep cool!" -
Though there has not been much freedom for us since 1933, I still can not fathom the idea of being deprived of one’s basic rights, the most significant part of which is freedom. There has been much anger since 1933. Now I am really mad at these bastards. My goal from now on: Survival!
* * * * *
We slept in barracks called "Blocks", 200 beds to a block. Food was as follows. In the morning at 5, a two-inch slab of bread, which contained sawdust, and a thick slice of bologna. Imitation coffee, black. During work a bowl of thin green, watery soup for lunch. This camp was called Auschwitz-Monowitz-Buna. This last word being the name for the synthetic rubber to be produced in the factory we would build. Thus we called the green thin lunch slop Bunasuppe, (Bunasoup.) For dinner, after a day of hard labor, we received another bowl of soup, thicker, with potatoes and whale meat.
Up at 5, eat, roll call; out at 7 to work; return at 6 p.m. Dinner; lights out at 9. Shower once a week. We were not allowed to identify ourselves by name. Only the number on our arms and jackets had meaning. If we met an SS man while walking inside the camp we had to remove our cap. Should he stop to talk to us, we responded with our number. The markings on the left chest of our jackets identified the type of prisoners we were: Jews or Gypsies, or German antisocial, or priests - mostly Catholics who had preached against the regime during church service. That had cost them their freedom because Gestapo agents attended even church services.
The little food we received along with the hard labor caused most of us to lose weight very quickly and become too weak to work. They expected to get three months of production from whereupon the weak ones were taken to Birkenau, the Auschwitz main camp, to be gassed and then burned in crematoria. Those who had been here before we arrived were well informed; it was through them that we learned what was happening there. Birkenau was close enough for us to see the constant smoke that emitted through the chimneys. Plenty of additional labor rolled in daily in cattle cars, to go through the same process: Any arrival too old to work, all children and pregnant women, were gassed and burned immediately. The rest were used for hard labor. This was planned and calculated murder of people on a daily production line - human beings who in normal times had the right to live, be productive, and be an asset to society.
In Auschwitz, three million Jews were killed alone, and the total number of Jews destroyed was six million. Some people will say that is an exaggeration. It is a fact.
Survival in these camps depended on whom you met that could possibly help you, but mostly on dumb luck. You thought your next step would be through the door of a gas chamber, together with a thousand others, then you might encounter someone who saved your life.
On the first morning at roll call we saw an SS guard whose name became a "household" item for us: Untersturmführer (Sergeant) Rackers. He oversaw the multitude of prisoners assembled for roll call. He arrived on his bicycle. His underlings walked among us, counting and reporting the numbers to him; the total had to be correct to the last man. If someone was missing, we stood out there for hours before he was found. It happened once or twice that an escape had occurred, in which case we did not have to go to work. Escapees were found almost always on the second day of their freedom. They were then publicly hanged, and we had to witness this ceremony, when helmeted SS guards solemnly read the verdict, "Death by Hanging." In one such case, a young man who had been returned to the camp shouted Freiheit! (Freedom) as they pulled the chair away from under his feet.
After roll call on that day, March 4th, a day after my arrival, we were separated into work gangs. A Kapo (Commando Leader) led us out of the camp marching like soldiers. When we arrived at the exit gate, we passed another assembly of SS officers, counting us again, row by row. The most ridiculous arrangement was, however, a brass band standing near a large barrack playing march music, so that we were encouraged to "march in unison to our future toil." The musicians were also prisoners. I envied them, for they could probably stay and not have to work. Something else caused envy in me: The highly polished black leather boots of these SS men. This footgear almost became an obsession with me-- so much so that I have to think about it from time to time here, now, after fifty-five years. Is that why I like shoes, and own dozens of pairs?
At work we moved heavy machinery, rolling large pieces of equipment on beams. When the last beam at the rear became free, we had to run and place it under the front of the object to be moved. A simple procedure; instead of using machines to move the equipment, they used us, the slaves. Although more time-consuming, it was cheaper and we were dispensable.
Sunday was a free day. The large building at the exit/entrance of the camp, which obviously housed the band, fascinated me, so once after breakfast I decided to investigate. Approaching it, I heard classical music. I dared to enter, quietly. All musicians were prisoners. The conductor, a young man, turned his head but seemed to accept my presence; I could stay. He later introduced himself simply as Vronek, obviously a Pole, but fluent in German.
I went there every Sunday. At least I could listen to some good music, and Vronek and I became fast friends. After rehearsal we walked back to the camp and talked about many things, as friends do when they trust and like each other.
Due to lack of decent nourishment and hard labor, I lost weight very fast. I was horrified to see the fast loss of flesh and the almost sudden protrusion of rib bones. I refused to do, however, what many others did. They ate the dirty grass others had walked on, they stole each other's food, and a lot of them lost their composure. The result of that kind of behavior was death through dysentery and other accompanying ailments. We found men lying where they had dropped during the night. I saw a known actor, Rolf Wilhelm Feldheim, formerly of the Berlin State Theater. He told me that he could not, would not, live in what he called "these uncivilized surroundings," and he soon made true his threat. I found him lying in the very grass that he had eaten despite my warning. At peace. What a waste. I decided not to care about others who wanted to die because they would pull me down to their level. I was going to look out for myself.
One Sunday Vronek noticed my loss of weight and gave me a loaf of bread.
"Vronek, thank you," I said. "But what am I going to do with an entire loaf? Where should I hide it? They steal it from me."
He suggested I eat some of it and trade the rest for other food, extra soup, or whatever I could get. "There are inmates who do that. If you show the bread, you'll find them."
I did gain a little extra weight that way, but it did not return me to my desired constitution. I became too weak to march out to work. Those who dared to report for work in my condition were pulled out of the line and sent to Birkenau to the gas chambers. I stayed in the camp, loitering near the carpenter shop located next to the latrines. It was warmer there, and many others in my condition spent their days there along with me. We could hide in that vicinity without being detected. Conversation was non-existent. We just huddled and waited to see what would happen next. The weakest were so far gone, they talked to themselves. The rest of the population had a name for us: Muselmaenner, "Moslems." I don't have the slightest explanation for the connection between Moslems and our condition. Although still in possession of my senses, I saw no way out for the long term.
The answer came quickly enough. To determine who should continue to work and who was too weak, the SS periodically called for Selektionen (Selections.) An entire block had to stay in camp. Its occupants were then to undress and walk naked to a nearby empty barrack. Arriving there I saw two SS officers, one obviously a physician, sitting behind a desk, all our files in front of them. Inspecting each of us as we walked by, they made their decision almost haphazardly at times. If you passed without any of their action, you were all right. If they found you were too skinny, they pulled your file according to the number on your arm, you stayed aside, and you boarded a truck to Birkenau to kiss this world good bye. The truck was parked outside, engine running, ready to take the selected. They did not have to dress. They were shoved naked on that truck, which saved the murderers on the other end the time to undress them again.
To my astonishment who should I behold sitting between the two SS men but my friend Vronek. I had not realized what influence he enjoyed. An inmate positioned behind a desk on the same level with his captors? I gave it no further thought, too concerned what would happen to me. My turn came: They looked at me and the left SS guy pulled my file. Vronek lightly touched his wrist and, whispering to him, made him push the file back. I was allowed to join those who could remain in the camp. Too excited and nervous to make any sense of what had happened during these few seconds, during which I went from death to life, I ran back to Block 10 and got dressed. I sat on the side of my bed, breathing heavily. My heart was beating so hard, I thought I was going to die.
Sunday morning after bread and sausage I ventured to the music hall. After rehearsal Vronek and I walked back to the camp. When I thanked him for saving me, he said:
"First, don't be concerned about my relationship with these people. They don't have enough to eat either. I receive a lot of packages from home, with bacon, and other good food, enough to bribe those who can help me. They allowed me to sit there yesterday because I knew it was your turn to be selected. I promised them that I would help you get back on your feet, and they let you go. From now on you will come every evening to the musicians' block. I will have food waiting for you, and you will not be hungry again."
I thanked him. I did not ponder the reason for his generous gesture, though I had known for some time that our friendship was extraordinary. We had things to talk about: home, the past, music, literature, interesting topics. Our intense conversation made us forget that we were prisoners. It was so surprising to have found someone like that under those circumstances and a Pole yet. Poles do not have much use for Jews. But this time it had clicked: We recognized each other as humans first.
On Christmas Eve I came by Vronek's Block. Among other holiday items, I received a large piece of roasted goose. I had gained much weight, and hunger was a thing of the past. The evening soup was of no interest to me, so I gave it away to the first guy who I thought was too skinny to survive. Although the same people gathered around me each evening, I distributed my ration to those who looked to be in the direst need.
Early 1944 Jews from different parts of Europe arrived: Those from Salonika, the second largest city in Greece, were a high-cultured bunch, who spoke only French. I spoke French fluently at the time and could well communicate with them. They were pleasant people who also showed a will to fit in and survive. Other arrivals came from the Carpathian Mountains. We called them Hungarians because they spoke with that dissonant, singsong Magyar accent. They didn't adapt well, knew everything better then we did, got into all kinds of trouble and subsequently suffered enormous beatings for their nosiness. They died like flies because they just did not want to listen to our good advice. Nobody liked them.
I had a visitor one evening who introduced himself to me as Karl Kipp; formerly a tenor in the opera at Hanover, Germany, he wore a pink triangle, which identified him as a homosexual. Vronek had sent him over. He had heard that I had done some acting, as I had recently told stories, mostly funny, to my fellow prisoners. Karl was in charge of the camp laundry. He was putting together a show, he told me, so we met the next day and quickly wrote a revue, which was similar to what Walter Andress and I had done in Dortmund. We got the needed "actors" together and created a successful performance. Of course, some men had to be "converted" to females, but it was great fun for the performers, as well as for the rest of the camp. Everyone enjoyed some entertainment, bad as it probably was under the circumstances.
In January 1944, I ran into an inmate who looked familiar. When I saw him at first, I could not place him, only said "Hello," and kept walking. He returned my greeting. A few days later I saw him again. We suddenly recognized each other: he was Arthur Fleischer, whom I had met at Buchenwald in 1938. He had been the 17-year-old Viennese who led me to the prisoners' hospital and spared me from doing hard labor in the stone quarry. Now he was a Kapo , leading a troop of inmates to work into the IG-Farben-Buna factory.
I must add that Kapos were not well liked, but they were appointed by the camp commander and had no choice but to accept the job. The status saved their lives as well. Some were real bastards, mistreating and beating those under their command. Others were more tolerant, just doing their jobs. They became mildly abusive only when the SS were watching them. The majority of them were German prisoners who lived in another part of the camp, separated from the Jewish population. The camp administration appointed some Jews also, probably choosing Art because he had already been an inmate for six years now.
Art had a job for me. He needed a secretary for a German engineer, so the next morning I marched out with his commando. When we arrived at the point of construction, I was shown into an office. I sat there every day, adding numbers and doing whatever the German Meister (Master, or boss), ordered me to do. He was a polite man. His attitude and behavior toward me suggested his disagreement with our lot, though we never exchanged a sentence of conversation. Here was additional food, lots of bread, which could be exchanged for cigarettes and those in turn traded for sausage and other "delicacies". In the camp I had access to the Zeughaus (Clothes Warehouse) where I could sometimes swipe underwear which I smuggled out of the camp, wearing it on my body, to trade with civilian Poles for food. Bartering was what kept us alive, but we had to have connections and useful objects to be successful with that activity. Our brains were constantly working on "What can I do next? Where can I steal something from someone other than a fellow inmate? I don't want to harm him. He will, in the end profit by it as well, because if I have enough to eat, I can give him my excess, even if it is merely ladle-full of evening soup." I had been the beneficiary of that mind-set once when I arrived, and had learned from it.
My friend Vronek, the musician, heard about my new job. He told me that his girl friend would come to my office every morning to deliver and pick up papers. Describing her to me he explained that she would identify herself with gestures, but he warned me not to speak to her for my own protection. About once a week Vronek gave me some of his compositions, music he had written. I was to put those papers on my body, smuggle them out of the camp, and hand them over to his girlfriend. Astonishing, she had dark hair, blue eyes and a beautifully chiseled face. I weighed now 160 pounds, and my healthy condition allowed me to appreciate the opposite sex again; a chance to have any relationship, however, was nil, impossible, too awkward to think about and, if found out, certain death. But before you died for that reason, they beat you with steel-reinforced leather whips. I have witnessed such executions, and no matter how you had hardened, you went to some quiet corner afterward and puked your guts out.
She handed me some papers in return, written in Polish, which I could not decipher. I could read music, however, and never told Vronek that I knew his "compositions" were reports of what was going on in the camp. Had I ever been caught with the stash on my body, I would have been shot or hanged whichever pleased the guards at the time. Vronek, too, of course, and Art Fleischer as well--down the line we would have gone to our certain demise. It was dangerous, but I did it; first, in appreciation for all the good deeds that had been afforded me; secondly, because I felt that the outside world should know about us; and thirdly, had I refused, my source of additional nourishment would have dried up immediately. And just as quickly I would have turned back into a skinny, starving Muselmann. I had been there once and knew how fast that happens.
There were, as I wrote before, ways to survive: most important was to meet someone who could possibly help you, and the rest was dumb luck, plain and simple. Let me add another means: To stay in the center so that they can't grab you from the side or randomly beat you, which they frequently did when you marched on the outside. Nobody had ever laid a hand on me there. To see those who did suffer under those circumstances was bitter enough. But even there you had to curb your feelings. We became so hardened that we really almost did not care what happened to the next guy. There was too much to consider for one's personal survival. An outsider can not understand this, and the "insider" is really powerless to explain. Humanity there was on the decline as well. It was not easy to readjust to a normal life in that respect after liberation.
With Emil Meier, the foreman of Block 10, who came from my hometown, I sat many an evening and talked about the past. He was violently opposed to the regime that brought him here. His problem was that even here he could not keep his mouth shut. Even here we had informers, who profited by reporting to the SS some statements that were made against the Nazis. Even here we had to watch our tongues. Either say nothing or be absolutely sure with whom you could have political conversations. But why have them at all? Emil did not care, a flaw, which did him in at the end. He talked and ranted openly for all to hear, and one day he disappeared.
Because Art's commando was stationed in Block 4, I had to be transferred there as well. The general population in the camp looked at Block 4 as the Block of the Bonzen. (Big shots, big wigs.) Anyone stationed there was not much liked. True, a lot of Kapos and other influential prisoners were stationed in Block 4. But I had no choice. Art was stationed there, I was transferred there, and to refuse was out of the question: I would have lost that good job. Now this may sound like the French proverb Qui s'excuse, s'accuse, (Apologizers become their own accusers.) For me that was, and still is not the case. I had no choice in the matter and dismissed what anybody thought or said about the population in Block 4. I was safe, had an easy job, and was with people I could communicate with well in my spare time. And I had enough to eat. That was all that mattered: One more step towards survival! I was then reminded about my mother's generosity, when she said: "We have to help where we can." And help I did. For I was now in Vronek's position. Every evening one or two inmates came to my block to receive excess food, not as elaborate as Vronek's, but at least my thick evening soup, which I could spare most of the time.
We never learned much about the details of the war. Some knew more than others, but there was danger in talking about it. We knew, however, that Germany was losing it. What I had feared at first was unfounded: I thought that we would suffer more at their defeat. The deeper their trouble became, the less they bothered us. When they needed additional troops in Russia, they replaced the SS with regular army soldiers; those people had some feelings and most of them left us alone. But then came a period when Ukrainians in German uniforms, became our guards. They were small in stature, with Oriental faces, and like the Austrians their brutality was beyond measure. Once they had been Germany's Soviet enemies, but rather then to become prisoners themselves, they had embraced National Socialism. With their inborn anti-Semitism, they went after us with a vengeance. Too stupid to realize that they were not accepted as Aryans, they were unaware that the Germans would mow them down with machine guns at the end of this tragic mess. But even for them it was "one day at a time."
During the Battle of the Bulge, when Hitler thought he was turning his defeat into victory, our situation worsened again. The SS walked around the camp, heads up high, their faces bearing that triumphant arrogant smirk they had shown in the beginning. I saw them stop prisoners, annoy them verbally, which was their tactic to provoke their own rage, and then kick them again and again until they were rolling on the ground. After that they walked away like the employee who had done a good deed for his company.
When I was so very hungry, I could not sleep because body and mind were constantly craving for food; often I thought if I would ever get to experience real life again, I would immensely enjoy a loaf of fresh rye bread. I would eat it dry. The thought of butter never occurred to me. I imagined the fresh smell as I picked it up at the bakery. These thoughts needed to be curbed, however as luxuries that no one could afford to dwell upon. They increased the yearning and would eventually have led to insanity. To continue life as it existed, I had to accept the reality of the moment, for there was no past and no future. These minutes, this hour, this day were to be taken into consideration only. It was not the will to survive the era. Only this day---only this day. Long-term ideas were to be enjoyed only when food was available. Those who died from starvation probably were unable to cope with reality, to accept it. Of course, lack of food would eventually lead to death anyway. I could not read their minds, but I thought it must have been the reason for their early demise. I saw these bodies and found that they were no better off than I who was alive. They were not even as skinny as I was, yet they died. I learned early that the mind influences the wellbeing of the body.
* * * *
To accept the present, to realize that there is not an iota that can be done to alter it, but to not lose hope, was the key to each day.
I was faced with dismissing the past, ignoring the uncertain future, and only accepting the daily grind of the present. That became the basis of my life. There wasn't much of a routine to develop; the food rations (or lack of them) already existed, the roll calls, the marching out to the plant were unalterable facts. But I needed a place to come back to each night; I needed a home. I had to satisfy the social instinct prevalent in us humans. There was only one item left in the balance of things: It was my bed in the barrack My bed became the safety of my home, and once I had found that nest, I felt more comfortable. I could ignore what I once had, shut it away. Then the evening march from work back to the camp was filled with at least some anticipation of "coming home."
The question often arose: "What has become of me?" And that followed with "What have they made of me? or at least, "What have they tried to change me into?" Had I become the Untermensch (subhuman) they claimed each of us was? I found a danger in accepting that idea. Much later, here in America, I learned about the "Stockholm syndrome": The bank robber takes hostages and they, after days of loss of freedom, accept their status quo. They agree with their captor, believing his crime is reasonable. They become convinced that the felon had legitimacy, and the representative of the law on the outside was wrong trying to talk him into surrendering. Were my captors right? Did I belong here? Was that my future? Was I to face hopelessness from now until the end? And what about the end? It is the natural instinct of thinking man to learn from his life's experience. But there was no time "now" to concentrate on what I could learn from this experience. The "later," because of its uncertainty, was beyond consideration.
Many of my fellow inmates succumbed to the Stockholm syndrome. At times I was tempted to lean toward that theory as well. But that is a consolation which leads into giving up. Accept what they want you to be? Believe that you are worthless? Was their idea right, to change me from a human being into a Stück, a "piece"? I overheard their discussions at times, on the subject of a transport that had arrived, when they actually said: "Eintausend zweihundert Stück waren auf dem Zug." (One thousand two hundred pieces were on that train.) Is that what they thought I was? Ein Stück? "A piece"? Could I allow them to change me into merchandise? I saw great danger in accepting that, and my mind was racing toward denial. I had lost my name. I had to reply with my number when confronted. But that was, I decided, as far as I let them go with me. They were not changing me any further.
"What else do you think we are?" some said bitterly, and they became "pieces." They had nothing to look forward to, not the bed to come home to every night, not the camp as safe haven. What happened to them was very simple. They lacked life's purpose. They neglected themselves, saw no further reason to wash or shower or even eat what was offered. All that was needed for daily survival they denied themselves. And the guards smiled because with each death the destruction of world Jewry became closer.
* * * *
One warm Sunday summer day in August 1944 we relaxed in front of our barracks, enjoying the free day and the clement weather. Here it was often cool and rainy. Today there was no wind and the intense blue sky was cloudless. So rare was the day, that it controlled much of our conversation. Our chatter was the sole audible din in the calm atmosphere.
Early in the afternoon, however, we detected an unfamiliar noise in the far distance. Its humming monotony sounded like a motor-driven machine. But it was not stationary, as we believed at first, because it grew louder: Airplanes? An occasional German fighter plane was sometimes seen on a training mission, and we knew that all other German planes were engaged to fight the fast-approaching Soviet Army. Suddenly we saw hundreds of planes, flying very low in formations of ten four-engine "jumbos," so low that we could recognize the U.S.A. star markings. Americans! They flew right across the camp in the direction of the Buna factory. We knew what was coming. As we could walk to work there in thirty minutes, it would take them a minute to drop their load. We heard the shrill whistle of the falling bombs, followed by a deep rumble. Then we witnessed the tall factory buildings disintegrate into a pile of rubble and rocks. All surroundings turned gray as the huge cloud of dust covered the sunny sky. Half of what we had built was destroyed within a few minutes. We wanted to cheer badly, but had we done so it would have resulted in severe punishment.
And then they returned, not in the same military-like formations; we noticed their attempt to regroup into their former positions. Some of them flew faster to catch up with those they wanted to join. The tone of their engines rose by almost an octave to reach higher speed. We were grateful about their precision to have avoided our camp, and merely damage the targets they came for. But our joy was premature. One of them, a straggler, dropped a bomb he had left over into the camp. Fortunately, it fell onto the roll-call field, and no barracks were damaged. But a few fellow inmates who happened to be walking across the field were killed. The bodies were removed before we were allowed to view the crater.
A thought occurred to me suddenly: As ridiculous as this sounded, considering the situation I found myself in -- perhaps I was lucky not to have been living in one of those large cities that were bombed day after day and night after night? I dared not to discuss that notion with others for fear of being laughed at. Maybe those bombs would have killed me there. As freedom could not have been regained with such thoughts, I soon dismissed them.
On Monday, the day after the attack, we did not move out to work. We guessed that a damage assessment had to be made first, that afterwards it would be decided who was to go to work. But what about those places that had been erased? What would happen to those who could not work there any more? Those prisoners would certainly not be allowed to remain idle. Maybe it was not such a good idea for the U.S. Airforce to have raided the factory. Would they return to bomb more? But this was total war, and we few "dots" in it did not count. We had not counted to the Germans for a long time; what did their enemies, who were actually "our hidden friends," care? For them this was a job, and if they had to run across a few innocents -- so what?
We did not see the Ukrainian guards any longer. (It's not that we missed their barbaric attitude.) They seemed to have been afraid that the Russians would catch them. Only older SS men were guarding us now. We seldom saw them, though, and when they walked through the camp, they did not bother us. I can often judge the attitude of people by their facial expressions; those SS guards were certainly embarrassed over the bombings, and their faces showed -- I could not define it as fear -- at least great concern.
Through secret channels we learned that the rail lines to Auschwitz had also been damaged but were being repaired with great speed. More transports had to be shipped here because "The Jewish Question" had to be solved regardless how bad the war had turned for Germany. Those arrivals remained in Birkenau, so additions to our camp ceased. Half of the factory was damaged beyond repair, so prisoners for labor were not essential any more. Consequently, many of those inmates for whom there was no longer any work, were trucked away, presumably to Birkenau to be put to death. In late autumn, the part of the camp that was occupied by non-Jews was also severely thinned out. All Poles were transported away. Among them was my friend and lifesaver Vronek. The orchestra stopped rehearsing. Their block was shut down, and I did not see him anywhere. I went out to the plant every day, as the part I worked in had not yet been bombed, and I sat in my office waiting for Vronek's girlfriend, but she, too, never showed up again.
The third winter arrived, and those bitter cold waves and ugly winds began to blow down from the snow-covered mountains. An oppressive, wretched condition was setting in; our mood was even more subdued than usual: There was not much conversation, everyone was concerned about our immediate future. We knew that the Soviet Army would eventually arrive. Would they liberate us? Or would we have to die first?
And so I miraculously reached the 15th of December 1944, which was my 29th birthday. My experience had rendered me devoid of emotion. Although the day meant nothing to me, it would turn out to be significant after all.
I was in "my" office. Around 11 in the morning the ear-piercing, dual-toned air raid alarm sounded. There was not much time to reach the safety of the nearest underground shelter, but we made it just a few seconds before we heard that now too familiar whistle of falling bombs. I heard explosions and a crumbling noise of the structure falling directly above. We tumbled all over the place, I ended twenty feet away from my original position. During the second or so it took for my body to be thrown there, no air was available to inhale because of the vacuum created by the exploding bombs. What we inhaled then was almost all dust. At the all-clear siren we found only one narrow remaining passage up and out of the bunker.
We climbed out one at the time, and when I reached daylight, there was total destruction. Nothing was left of that nice cozy office I had just escaped from fifteen minutes before. The synthetic rubber plant had become non-existent for the Germans. The IG-Farben Chemical Company, which had paid the SS a daily sum of money for each of us slaves, had wasted their investment. That, at least, was reason for us to be happy. I celebrated, at least mentally. And what about that mind? I was fortunate that those wheels were still spinning in the right direction. I had won again. I was still alive.
I was certain that this was the last Christmas we were going to spend here. The plant was destroyed and there was hardly any work except for those commandos who marched out for clean-up activities. Did they really think that this mess could be cleaned to a point from where they could start anew? Still, there was that German doggedness: "Never give up." Regardless of prevailing circumstances, a job, once started, must be completed.
Early January 1945 we heard cannon fire and explosions from afar. The Russian conquerors were approaching. A hubbub arose among the prisoners, who were wondering, guessing. I was used to uncertainty, as every day in the past had been filled with it. I tried to make the best of a day and it would in most cases turn out to be tolerable. Other days were not so good. But now, this January 1945 was different. Now there was no longer a routine, nothing to grasp, to hold on to. I did not know what would happen within the hour, and trying to adjust to that confusion is fruitless.
Uncertainty quickly became reality.
The German army was now on the run from the Russians, who approached our camp at Auschwitz. In fact, the fighting was close enough that we not only heard their gunfire, we already saw the flashes of it. And so, on January 18, 1945, the Nazis decided to abandon their killing camp and I went on my first death march inland -- back into Germany. (The crematoria had already been destroyed in late November, by order of Heinrich Himmler.) They could not have killed us first and then escape themselves because the evidence they would have left was too much of an accusation for them.
Thinly clad we trotted through deep snow. Our striped prisoner's garb was too thin to withstand the cold winds, and we were wearing wooden shoes, some a size too large. We lacked socks. All this contributed to the greatest discomfort I have experienced. Walking in deep snow, those who fell, even if they only tripped, were immediately shot. The popping of revolvers was echoing through the snowy night. With each pistol fire we knew that another life was lost. But we didn't care any longer. We had seen so much death, beating and starvation, that now everyone was out for himself.
We walked a night and a day until we reached Gleiwitz. There they loaded us onto open coal cars, and each received just one slice of bread. We ate snow to satisfy our thirst. We rode four days and five nights through parts of Czechoslovakia. Only the strong survived. Those who died were simply thrown overboard. Not having had anything substantial to eat began to have an effect on all of us. I was fortunate: because of my previous access of food above the meager rations my body had a reserve to live off. But how long would that last when there was nothing to eat at all?
We finally arrived -- somewhere. After the unloading I recognized where I was. I had been there before, in 1938: Buchenwald! Those familiar woods and buildings, that infamous gate with the arrogant inscription: Jedem das Seine (To each what he deserves.) They did not escape my attention.
Yet this place was different from the way I remembered it. The camp was overloaded with prisoners. There was hardly anything to eat. We slept on shelves, five in a row, and so close that when one had to turn, the rest had to follow. Each morning we just threw out those who had died during the night, but not before the distribution of rations. We first took the bread of the deceased, then we removed the bodies. It was anticipated that the remaining population of Auschwitz would eventually have to be evacuated. With that in mind, they had erected a crude extension to receive us. They called it Das kleine Lager, (The Small Camp.) The food distribution was in turmoil. Many times I had to reach out and scream to get my part of the ration. (Today, when I watch the investors at the New York Stock exchange gesticulate and scream simply for their purpose of selling or buying shares of stock to make a profit, I am reminded of our anxiety to gain just a bite of bread. "Our profit" was an animal need to survive.) Our latrine was too close to the quarters. Epidemic conditions were a constant threat. Had I only been on the roll call field on that summer day in August, when that one bomb fell and killed a few inmates. Had I only been there! I wouldn't have to scream and beg for food here. I would be dead and peaceful. These thoughts I remember vividly as I am writing.
After a few days a large number of names were called over the public address system. I was among them, and we were ordered to report to a railside. There were boxcars again indicating that another transport was imminent. What I observed there was quite unusual.
I saw a Jewish inmate with a full-grown and a well-kept head of hair. He wore no striped prisoners’ garb but instead blue pants and a heavy winter jacket. He was obviously in charge here, even daring to argue with the SS. Though not further interested, I noticed that he was, in fact, speaking in our favor. He wanted straw for bedding on those cars, which finally arrived and was thrown inside. I wondered who he was, and what gave him the power to succeed -- as a prisoner? The markings on his jacket showed that he was a Jew.
The ride on this train took us southward. The doors of the cattle cars were left open, and we saw city after city severely destroyed by the Royal Air Force, which bombed at night, and the U.S. Air Force, which did the remaining damage in bright daylight. These maneuvers had already begun in 1941 after the United States had entered the war. Night after night, day after day they came and bombed, relentlessly. I remember passing the city of Wuerttemberg. Amid all the destruction and mayhem there still were signs: WIR KAPITULIEREN NIE! (WE WILL NEVER CAPITULATE!) That was Goebbels’ famous slogan. Not one building was left standing, and yet they were not giving up.
This took place in February 1945. My health was fast deteriorating for lack of food. Once I passed out from hunger and clearly felt myself falling into a deep sleep, more severe than I have ever experienced since. I remember vividly how I slipped peacefully and without pain into a coma, an experience I truly remember of having almost died. Then someone stuck a raw potato into my mouth. I chewed some of it and its juices slowly revived me. It took a long time to regain total consciousness.
After a few days our train stopped at a sidetrack. We had seen the name of the town when the train passed through the local station before coming to a halt: Spaichingen, in the south of Germany, near the French border. We were ordered off and walked just a short distance to a camp, an abandoned factory they had converted into sleeping quarters for us.
The camp was an experience of sheer brutality: They beat us while we worked all day standing knee-deep in water. Each morning we marched to work through the town where people, mostly women, were hanging out of their windows, seeming to enjoy watching us. Since I had not bathed for a month or so, body lice had laid their eggs around my shoulders; I watched them hatch and crawl all over me, ugly and green. We observed American fighter planes swooping down upon trains and dropping small bombs on them until the entire length of the train had disintegrated. For a while, the burning cars were still rolling along, like fiery snakes.
On the side of one barrack I saw naked bodies of those who had died from starvation, stacked like cords of wood, criss-cross, so that the pile would not collapse. Most were as thin as a piece of firewood-- and that's what they eventually would become. When there were enough of them to fill a truck, they were taken to a local undertaker. One day I volunteered to help loading them, and I rode along to unload them at their destination. There was always the hope of getting some additional food when on the outside. But I gained nothing except another experience. When we arrived at the funeral parlor we had to throw them off the truck, where they landed against a cellar door below street level, out of view from passers-by. The door must have been the entrance to a crematory. As I am writing this I remember the hollow thuds these meatless bodies made as they tumbled down the wooden steps to land against the door below. I then rode back to the camp on the empty truck. Escape? Not a chance! Guards accompanied us on motorcycles. And if there had been a chance to run away, where to go? The townspeople would turn us in or, even kill us, considering the way we looked and the health hazard we would create for them.
I had stepped on a nail and the sole of my left foot was infected. At the prisoner’s hospital, I met the same man I had seen at the train in Buchenwald, the same comparatively well dressed prisoner who had argued with the SS. He was the Doctor here. I then realized his status was privileged, and why he wanted to better our lives with at least a bit of straw.
He first warned me not to touch anything, as I was infected with lice. He examined my foot, cleaned it with alcohol, applied iodine and said: "This is not serious enough for you to be hospitalized. You have to return to work"
My sharp ear allows me to distinguish dialects. He sounded as if he came from my area, so I proceeded to ask him where he used to live. When, somewhat disinterested in this entire exchange, he casually mentioned his hometown, I realized that he was my wife’s cousin, Dr. Erich Mosbach, the very person to whom we had mailed a package with books and a loaf of bread a few years earlier.
This news altered my situation significantly. I was cleaned, deloused, and admitted to his small hospital under the trumped up excuse of some illness. He had plenty to eat, even cigarettes, and I was somehow saved for the time being. But our life then was a "One day at the time" affair. If you had lived through another day--what would tomorrow bring?
A few days later Erich excitedly entered the room and informed me that I had to leave his hospital because they would soon take all occupants to the gas chamber in Dachau, a camp near Munich. I thanked him and returned to work.
Early in March 1945, the French army approached, and it was again time for the Nazis to abandon camp. But this time they had nowhere to send us. They walked us for days, first southward from Spaichingen toward Lake Constance, then southeast towards the Allg¬ u Alps. I was growing weaker, and in addition had developed typhus. Dr. Mosbach, who watched me closely, administered aspirin. For lack of water I swallowed those pills whole.
We stopped in a town called Füssen, where we slept in the Movie Theater, on the floor between the benches. The following morning, as we walked on Main Street, we passed a fountain. Its clear water was invitingly tumbling down, and I was terribly thirsty because of the high fever I had developed. Not caring, I broke out of the line to get a drink, but as soon as my face touched the clear cool water, the rifle butt of one of the guards pushed me away and back in line.
This fountain stood at a crossroad. We turned right, marched across a bridge and then up a steep hill. We had now left Germany and arrived in Austria.
The following evening, at dusk, I told Erich that it would now be time for me to die. I just could not continue on any longer. I refused to walk another step. I felt if I would lie down and close my eyes I would surely pass on - - - - what a relief that would be! We were in a walkway area to a house. There was a wrought-iron gate, which stood open. My right hand reached for one of the black iron studs: I held on to it and slowly let myself slide onto the ground, hoping never have to get up again. Erich became furious and said: "I will not have wasted these aspirins on you. You will not die. I just simply won’t let you, in my presence! The only alternative you have is to run away. And by the way, it is high time for you to do that, because my stash of aspirin has about depleted."
During a rest period on a highway near some woods, I crawled up closer to the wooded area that was situated higher on an embankment. We were ordered to reassemble with the familiar sound of a shrill whistle. Instead of walking down toward the road, however, I ran in the opposite direction and found safety among that stand of trees high above the road. I heard them march away, and no one came looking for me. The feeling of freedom was mildly inexplicable after so many years. There was no euphoria, however; I was too lethargic for strong emotions. So what next? I stayed there a few hours until dark and got some much-deserved sleep. But thirst woke me. I found an empty tin can and, as it had begun to rain, gathered enough water to have a few sips. The feeling of hunger had completely eluded my brain, but I learned quickly that to be thirsty is almost unbearable and can drive one to insanity.
As darkness set in I decided to walk, breaking off a strong tree limb for additional support. In desperation I dared to rap on the door of a farmhouse. The owners let me in, and gave me some milk and a slice of bread. In the center of their room was a large round stove, covered with shiny green tiles; an upholstered bench traced the circumference of the oven. The warmth I felt on my back, slowly penetrating the rest of the body, was so unusual, so welcome. I just drank the milk and had a few bites of the bread. My stomach, however, must have grown so small that I was unable to force anything down. There was no man present, only women and one little girl, who constantly stared at me, perhaps not believing that I was human. Then they urged me to leave, as this was still German territory. We heard cannon fire all around and they told me if I were discovered in their house, all of us would be shot. They were the first nice Germans I encountered. Probably kind only, because they were facing an uncertain future themselves, or had already realized that they had been duped by their leaders, who wanted them to believe that they were the master race. For only a few years earlier, they had marched and sung: "Denn heute gehört uns Deutschland, und morgen die ganze Welt." ("Today, Germany belongs to us, and tomorrow, the whole world will be ours.") And today, the small parts of Germany that still belonged to them were crumbling beneath their feet.
The next doorbell I rang was that of a Catholic priest, who still wore his white collar and black frock. When he saw my prison garb and looked over my condition, he waved me away as a signal not to come near him. Compassionless, he suggested I walk a short distance down the road where I would find a town that had been captured by the Americans on the previous day. I still remember his disgusted looks, as if he was saying to me, Go away, I want nothing to do with you. And I still hear the loud slamming of his door. A priest. A man of God.
A short while later, it must have been late at night, I heard hammering. The road bent to the left after I had walked down a steep hill and I crossed a bridge. Suddenly I recognized a soldier. He approached me, and asked: " Was machst Du hier?" ("What are you doing here"?) By the round helmet he was wearing I knew he was not German, but American. Trying to muster all my English, which I had forgotten in the excitement, I urged him to use a flashlight to look me over. The last thing I heard him yell out was: "Jesus Christ, somebody come here and help me with this man!"
He referred to me as "a man"!
I was unable to walk one more step. They carried me upstairs into a restaurant and offered me chocolate, which I refused to eat, still retained enough sense to realize that had I done so I would have died. I sipped a little bit of the whiskey they held up to me but then asked for water. I drank so much that I had to throw up. Then I passed out.
The next morning I found myself in a local hospital. This was too exciting a time for me to even think what had become of Dr. Mosbach, who had gone with the other prisoners down the road after he had talked me into running away. I did not think at the time of all the coincidences: Had he not written to us in 1942 and asked us to send a few books to his camp, had we not prepared the package and even added a loaf of bread, I would never have known about him. Before we received his letter, no one had ever mentioned his name. Had all this not happened the way I report it here, I could not be writing about it. I would be one of the six million.--
With eyes half-opened and almost too weak to turn my head, I checked out my surroundings. I found myself at the far end of a row of low beds, close to a window. The rest of the beds were to my right, occupied by about a dozen male patients. It appeared as though somebody had merely placed mattresses on the floor. I noticed that I had not been cleaned; Lice were still crawling around on my body. I imagined that, because I had been brought in late at night, the nurses or whoever received me had just placed me here in desperation, not knowing what to do with a man half starved to death. Unaware of my will to survive, they might have thought that I would die overnight. Then they would not have to bother about me the next morning. After all, eighty-five pounds of a man whose actual weight is nearly double that, is a frightening, perhaps even a disgusting sight. Beyond hunger pains, I hoped that somebody would bring me something to drink. I felt feverishly hot, a sign of what later turned out to be typhus, and had developed double pneumonia. A nun, clad in black, a tight wimple covering her head, handed me a bowl of hot cereal and a glass of skim milk, totally without gesture or comment. Well, I thought, I'm used to that attitude-- but doesn't anything ever change? I could eat only half of the cereal. After the meal, they still left me lying there in my filth. I did not much care, though, and I fell into another profound sleep.
The booming of a voice interrupted my slumber. It emanated from the hall outside the room. I understood each word this man was nearly screaming out. He cursed the nurses, who, I was not aware until then, were Catholic nuns. His language did not befit their piousness: "Sie sind noch dümmer wie Kühe. Wie konnten Sie den Mann da herein legen?
("You are dumber than cows! How could you just put this man in there?")
Although too exhausted to concentrate on his continued belligerence, I sensed that his ongoing comments referred to me. Two sisters then entered and lifted me onto a gurney. I ended in a deep bathtub filled with hot water to which they had added chemicals for a delousing process. I must have dozed off intermittently and had completely fallen asleep at the end, because I do not remember how I arrived in a wonderfully sweet-smelling private room. All white bed linen, and as clean as I had not felt in months, maybe years. The room was on the top floor, through the only window I glimpsed the snow-covered roof of another hospital wing. It was the end of April. I had no idea where I had finally arrived--the name of the town or of the hospital, nor did I really care. My thirst stilled, sleep was what I craved and took advantage of.
The door to the room was located behind my head. It opened, and someone entered. That was a troublesome criterion for me. I had to protect myself against possible beatings. That fear did not leave me for a couple of years after liberation: I would not sit with my back to a door, even in places where I lived and knew I was safe. I was not entirely aware of freedom for some time.
A tall man, somewhat rotund but not obese, stepped to my bedside and shook my hand. He wore a dark blue suit. The first well dressed civilian man I have seen in years, I thought.
"Ich bin Dr. Holzer. Und wie heissen Sie?" ("I am Dr. Holzer, and what might be your name?")
I had now met the chief of the Catholic Hospital in Fuessen in the Allgäu Alps. I told him briefly who I was and where I had been, but without getting into details because I was much too exhausted for an extended conversation. After I advised him that I was a German citizen, he promised me that I would be taken care of and should have no further concerns, that he would do his utmost for my recovery. He withdrew his big hand quickly, apparently aware that his firm clasp was hurting my thin, bony hand.
On my way to the bathroom I became aware of my body's deterioration. To walk the short distance, I held on to the wall to keep from falling. I could not negotiate a six-inch step without pulling my body up by holding onto an object -- any object. If there was nothing to grab, then I could not negotiate the step. I looked at myself in the bathroom mirror. I was clean now, but what I saw caused even me to doubt whether I could survive. I broke down and cried. This bathroom, guaranteeing privacy, was a safe place to do that. No German would ever see me weep over what he had done.
* * * * *
In my isolation I saw only nuns, who waited on my needs. The meals were quite meager, as there was not much food available yet. Although this region of Germany did not produce potatoes, there was an abundance of cheese and pasta, mainly noodles. After my constant hunger was finally stilled, I thought, " Noodles are beginning to grow out of my ears." "Ungrateful little bastard," I chided myself." A few days ago you would have killed for a slice of bread!"
Dr. Holzer visited me every day, and seemed pleased over my progress. I gained weight and walked around the hospital. Everyone was friendly and courteous, because the word had spread about my recent ordeal. There were many foreign refugees, but the fact that I was a German caused everyone to be more pleasant. I considered that an injustice because others hospitalized there, were war victims as well. German class differences: it's like an ingrown toenail. A priest came to my bedside and talked to me for a while. I appreciated that there was no prayer, since he respected my religion. I got to know the sisters by their names, Sister Bertholde even took me to Sunday Mass.
"I know you are not one of ours," she facetiously exclaimed, "but you come and sit with me, hear some music and see something different. It will heal your soul."
I wasn't overwhelmed, but it was something to do, as I had not yet regained the desire to read. And I was eager to hear music again. In the hospital there was no music other than the religious chants of the sisters' daily prayers echoing through the building several times each day. After a while I learned to mark the time of the day by those sounds.
Sister Elisabeth wore a white wimple because she was a novice. She came into my room one morning and almost shouted: "Herr Lion, heute ist der achte Mai, und der Krieg ist vorüber!
("Mister Lion, today is May the eighth, and the war is over!")
Sister Elisabeth was beautiful and young, not older than eighteen or nineteen. She was assigned to take care of me almost exclusively. I wondered what gave such a good-looking girl the idea to enter this life of restriction and loneliness. I did not have to wonder much longer: When another nun began to serve me after a week, I asked her about sister Elisabeth, but she refused to answer, and soon I found out that the young sister had broken her vow and run away over night. I was sad because she had been good to me. But good for her, if that's what she wanted. Since I did not have to worry about the source of my next meal and had no other immediate concerns, I began to think about people in my daily life. Could I afford to do that? Wasn't there a surprise around the corner waiting to cause another terrible spell of fear?
One afternoon an American soldier came to my bedside. He told me he was Jewish, had heard about me, and wanted to visit. He brought cornflakes and milk, even a teaspoon of sugar. This was something I had never eaten before, ever, even in long-forgotten good times. What a delicacy!
I had not smoked during the entire period of incarceration. When I had cigarettes there, I traded them for food. My friendly GI brought out a pack of Old Gold and offered me on, which. I pulled from its tight wedge. He lit it for me and left the rest of the pack. From that day on I smoked about three packs of cigarettes daily until the first Sunday in January of 1964. Had I not quit that day, I would not be sitting here writing. But that time there was no outside force involved. That time I quit smoking by myself! Cold Turkey. Don't ever underestimate the will power of someone who has gone through a school of hell.
Then the mayor of the town paid me a visit. People speak a dialect down in the Alps near Austria, which I could not understand at first. Even his name escaped me. He had arranged for clothing, he informed me: a suit, an overcoat, and all the necessary paraphernalia arrived the following morning. I was asked to see the mayor's office upon my release from the hospital to discuss my living quarters and finances. My immediate concerns were thus taken care of. But why did they run their legs off to please me? They were ashamed, embarrassed. Some openly apologized to me. That made me feel even worse, because I could see that in many cases, it was a sham, not genuine. It was as if they were obligated to assist.
One exception was the school superintendent, who visited me several times in the hospital. I do not remember his name. His expression of regret was honest: I liked him, and he surely had no reason to visit me. I was told that he had walked out of town the night the U.S Army approached and met them while waving a white flag, then boarded the lead tank to guide them into town. That he did not tell me about this deed proved that he was not out for recognition, but was a long-time opponent of the former government. There still were some good people around; he was one of them.
Around the first week of June I had gained enough strength to be released from the hospital. Dr. Holzer gave me the addresses of both his office and his home and invited me to see him once a week for the next month. I went to see the mayor, who had already arranged for me a place to live in a comfortable rooming house. In the office of disbursement, I was handed enough money to live on for a week and was told to show up weekly for further payments.
As I walked through the town, I remembered that I had come through here on the last day of my incarceration. I recognized the movie house where the guards had let us sleep between the rows of seats, and the fountain statue at the end of Main Street where other streets intersected, forming a traffic circle. It became my symbol. I called it 'The Fountain at the Crossroad.' That was the fountain from which I had tried to drink and an SS man shoved me away with the butt of his rifle. He didn't let me get a drop.
There was the bridge I crossed from the opposite side during the night I had been discovered by the Americans. I walked across and at the end was a small hotel, Gasthof Zur Traube, The guesthouse to the grape (?) (Traube is a referral to wine). They had taken me up there prior to sending me to the hospital. I wondered what had become of my striped prisoner's uniform. But then I reasoned that they must have discarded it, together with all those lice. Below the bridge flowed the Lech River, I was told. And so I finally pieced it all together: I had arrived in Füssen am Lech. Across the bridge, facing the restaurant, the road took a sharp right turn uphill, and after a quarter a mile, I arrived at the Austrian border, which was closed to anyone without a passport. Further up the road I saw an embankment at the roadside reminiscent of the topography from where I had escaped. Only a little over a month had passed. It seemed so long ago. That was as far as I could retrace my road to liberation. The Austrian province on the other side was the Tyrol, and the next town was Reutte. From the Allg¬ u Alps in Germany to the Tyrolian Alps in Austria - that's the way we had come. That's where they wanted to do away with us, and did, I assume, with those who went on after my escape. I turned around and walked back to my rooming house. My hair had not entirely grown back, and people seemed to recognize me as a former concentration camp inmate. Consequently I had the sidewalk all to myself. Everyone made room for me. Some stepped directly onto the street. I wondered whether it was out of disgust or fear or respect. But I was pleased, because of the way I felt at that time about Germans - - any German -- I wanted them as far away from me as possible.
I made a few acquaintances, among them a man who tried to convince me to run for mayor of Füssen at election time. Politics for me were out of the question. Others told me that this man represented the Communist Party. I asked him not to approach me again.
Something positive would have to present itself for me soon. I needed something to do to avoid accepting those German alms. To take their money on a long-term basis would have meant that I was going to live off the town, idling my time away, which is against my principle. I am not one to take and to have to constantly express appreciation for the gifts. The city paid me weekly, though monetary value meant nothing to me. I had a place to stay, but how long could this go on? I had no means of identification. One local government could not communicate with another. The British occupied my place of birth, and telephone service from Bavaria to Westphalia, where I hailed from, had not been reestablished. On good faith the town issued me temporary identification papers.
I saw Dr. Holzer for one last time, because there was no further need for medical attention. I was whole again, but without fulfillment--something I discussed with him. My last visit with him became somewhat emotional for us both. I thanked him for his help, which he had provided free of charge. He told me about a hotel in the mountains, which was in walking distance. The American Army, for the purpose of establishing an officers' club, had confiscated it. It was a good hour's walk up-hill on a dirt road wide enough for barely two vehicles. A 4x6 Army truck and a jeep could only pass if the jeep had to wait in the ditch. This happened once during my trek, and I was eating dust. To my right the terrain rose steeply, and the left presented a deep ravine-like cliff. Both sides were covered thickly with large pine trees and the smell of pine needles was refreshing, wholesome, and healthy. The road ended on a plateau. To my right was a large wooden hotel, designed like an alpine chalet. It faced a beautiful lake, so expansive that its far shoreline was no longer visible. The entire scenery was surrounded by mountains. It was around noon that day in the middle of June 1945. The weather was cool, the sky was clear; the surface of the lake lay there like a mirror for lack of a breeze. The only sound was that of a mocking bird, aping whatever came to its ears. Not a soul could be seen. Was there no one? Or were they eating lunch? Should I knock? The answer came soon. From the front porch emerged an officer, a First Lieutenant. I introduced myself, and he did so himself. I was surprised by his friendliness. He was Lieutenant Emmett M. Chandler, and in charge of the club, he told me.
"And what is the purpose of your presence here?" he asked, somewhat authoritatively.
"I am looking for a job." But before giving him a chance to dismiss me, I quickly told him about my background, and to stress the importance for my request, I showed him the number on my arm. I hated to do that, but I thought it would save further explanations, which I still was unable to avoid. He studied the number 104979 intently and I had to explain that I received the tattoo at Auschwitz in March 1943. Now satisfied, he commended me on my ability to speak English, and I felt I had a chance here. He invited me inside. We entered a large kitchen, full of activity by civilian personnel. Lt. Chandler first asked me whether I was hungry. Though I was, I declined to accept food. As a job applicant I did not want to impose. Get the job first, then eat. He introduced me to Maria, who seemed to be in charge. A German, she was attractively plump, with a round face, dark hair and brown eyes. With a pleasant smile she admitted that she could take me on. The Lieutenant then invited me to his office, and there we had a more extensive conversation. I had a place to stay downtown, but could not commute, I told him.
He hired me. I was to help in the kitchen or wherever Maria needed me, and in return I was offered room and board and a salary in German Reichsmark. A driver took me back to town in a jeep to pick up the few belongings from my room. We stopped briefly at city hall. I thanked the mayor for his support, shook hands with him, and told him that I would not be in further need of his assistance. I was polite because he had helped me, but I was also very happy that I did not need him any longer. No matter what my job up there would turn out to be, I would stay there, because now I was working for Americans!
Although they got no information from me, it did not take the German crew very long to find out about my past. They became somewhat resentful, or at least reserved. I took Maria aside and told her that I did not want any trouble with anyone. I just wanted to do my job, as I had no other place to go to any longer. I asked whether I should peel potatoes, but they did not want to assign me to such a menial job. This special consideration toward me would have to cease. So I decided to take matters in my own hands, sat down and began to peel potatoes and scrape carrots. There was only one young lady to serve meals to about twenty-five diners. So it was decided that I should help her. I was given a GI shirt and tie, a pair of white pants and a white linen jacket, and on the second night I became a waiter. The dining officers were glad to be able to converse with me. They told me how difficult it was to try to communicate with non-English speaking personnel. I worked all three meals, and helped out in the kitchen if needed. The officers were especially pleased because I remembered their names. They appreciated being addressed as Lt. Lifton, Lt. Chandler, Lt.Brown, Col. Brown, Major Brown, Capts. Heller and Martin and Col. Borden. Especially the three Browns liked it when I never mixed up their ranks. These fine gentlemen became friends, and we had long conversations when I was off duty.
The walls of the dining hall were paneled with very light wood. To make the room more attractive, I borrowed a blowtorch and lightly scorched the wood to produce a darker, deeper color. During my first two weeks I undertook other changes to make the place more attractive. One day, Lt. Chandler called me into his office.
"Ernest, except for Maria, who takes care of the kitchen, we don't have anyone in charge here. I am offering you the job of manager here at the 317th Infantry Officers' Club at Alat See (Lake Alat.) I accepted, of course.
I hired an extra waitress, which freed me to pursue my new assignment. The place needed better management, indeed. Bookkeeping chores were nonexistent, and subsequently there had been no control over received merchandise, existing inventory, paid salaries, or even proper housekeeping assignments. Once all that was installed, the place was almost running by itself. I did take Maria out of the kitchen for most of her day and used her as my assistant. She was intelligent, cooperative and pleasant to work with.
Two officers arrived each night from downtown to eat dinner. It was puzzling to me that they wore U.S. Infantry officer's uniforms but displayed no ranks. They introduced themselves as "Mr." Lenz and "Mr." Motel. (The word Motel was not known in the English language in 1947, and it seemed to me that this gentleman had created his name. What might have been his real name? Moses? What were these guys doing here calling themselves "Mister"? My curiosity got the best of me. I approached Lt. Chandler about it and he solved the puzzle:
They were Special Agents of the 317th Infantry Counter Intelligence Corps. They wore U.S. Army officer's uniforms without displaying rank insignias, and were addressed as "Mister." No one knew their actual ranks. They were secret service agents. During the next few days I made it a point to introduce myself to them while they were lounging after dinner. Both were quite friendly. Before they left, Mr. Lenz asked me to accompany them outside on their way to their jeep.
"May I call you Ernest?" he inquired. When I consented, he continued to spea.k. The other one did not say a word.
"Ernest, we know all about you already. We are very sorry for what has happened to you, and also glad that you have decided to work for the American Army. We would appreciate if you could come to visit us during one of your trips to town. They gave me the location of their office, shook hands with me and with "We'll see you tomorrow night," they boarded their jeep and took to the steep downhill road back to Füssen.
The next morning I went downtown and decided to pay them a visit.
Augsburgerstrasse was the main street of Füssen. I walked to the end of that street. A highway started at that point displaying a sign: TO AUGSBURG, showing the number of kilometers it would take to get there. The very last house within the town used to be the residence of the mayor. Behind a gated front yard stood an impressively large residence of brick painted white, and a prominent sign over the door read:
COUNTER INTELLIGENCE CORPS
Not familiar with the casual and somewhat insincere American expression "Drop by and visit," I decided to take these two gentlemen up on their invitation. After all, it had been worded quite elaborately. Mr. Lenz opened the door after only one ring. He politely invited me in. A long hallway led to two large rooms equipped with desks and other office paraphernalia. He offered me a chair in one of the offices. It then occurred to me that he did not quite know what to do with me. His attempt to make conversation became an utter failure. Enter the second gentleman with the odd name, Mr. Motel. They seemed to be the only occupants. His appearance eased the situation somewhat, though I began to feel like an intruder. They were not as friendly as they had been when they invited me. Mr. Motel then decided to show me the rest of the ground floor, perhaps to have me on my feet again, so he could lead me back to the front door for a quick dismissal. I saw a kitchen, living room and a dining room. From there we turned right, and my assumption was correct: we approached the front door again. "Thank you for coming," he said, and I found myself out on the street. It was puzzling, embarrassing. They had invited me!
Back at Alatsee, I told Lt. Chandler about the incident. He laughed and gave me a lesson in American courtesy.
After you have been with somebody casually, and the person, in parting, tells you to "come and visit," don't take him up on it. It's only a courtesy without any meaning.
Strange people, these Americans, I mused. Well, I thought, what can you expect? They also drink iced tea in the winter. That idea had floored me from the time when Lt. Chandler, who hailed from Mobile, Alabama, told me to have plenty of iced tea available at meal times.
During the following months Lenz and Motel did become friendlier and allowed me to visit their office more frequently. We talked about the past, future politics and exchanged opinions as to where the world, still in turmoil after this terrible war, would be leading us. Their ideas were interesting because I had been out of touch with the real world for so long. Listening to them I gained a more realistic view of the future. In exchange, and surely for their benefit, I gave them a view into the past, that made their heads spin. They thought they knew about it a great deal, because, after all, they were intelligence officers. I hoped they were intelligent enough to accept as truth what I related to them. At times I was doubtful, especially when I told them facts, which were then (and still are now) incomprehensible to a normal person. One was leaning his head upon his fist like the "Thinker," and the other just shook his head much too frequently. These two guys became important to me in that their ways provided a road sign into reality for me. They urged me to go to America as soon as the opportunity would arise. They told me about their country, and I told them about mine as it once had been. But they seemed to know a lot about that already.
My officers' club was running smoothly and without great effort on my part: All guests seemed to appreciate my service and innovations, a sense of mutual satisfaction existed, and Lt. Chandler and I became close friends. Since I had never driven an automobile, he taught me to drive a jeep. From my experience of "the Middle Ages," I moved into the Twentieth Century. Emmett M. Chandler also had a pilot's license and loved to fly. How he had arranged it was a mystery, but he had found an operable German airplane, a Fieseler Storch . (Fieseler, the inventor, was Dutch.) This was a prototype of a vertical take-off aircraft. He took me to see it, and told me that it was in maneuverable condition, though its appearance suggested quite the opposite. Upon his invitation I consented to accompany him up, hiding my concern from him. To have come such a long way and to be found by curious onlookers in unrecognizable bits and pieces on the ground after we crashed was not my favorite way of ending it all. I displayed courage and climbed aboard. The entire inside was the cockpit. To get the thing up, he pulled down on a chain, and we flew! It was noisy and bumpy. We landed safely, and as I disembarked I had taken another step into the Twentieth Century. Had he asked me to fly with him again, I would have been quite busy running his officers club.
"Ernest, do you want to come with us? We are being deployed to Murnau in Upper Bavaria. This club is closing. We would like to have you come along with us."
I asked Lt. Chandler for a night's time to decide. The following morning I expressed willingness to come along. Rather than going downtown and back to the Germans, I preferred to stay with the Americans. My condition, however, was that I would have the option to return to Fuessen anytime I wanted and be transported there by his regiment. I was now wearing a full U.S. Army uniform, but without rank. Conditions were not very strict at the time, and they got away with having me along, dressed in that fashion. I was happy about it, of course. Nothing could be finer than to run around looking like an American, especially since my pride in being a German was next to nil.
In October 1945, the 317th Infantry Regiment, in fact the entire 80th U.S. Army, commanded by General Harmon, moved to Murnau. General Harmon arrived there in high style, as he had confiscated Hermann Goering's private train. I would have burned the damned thing. He and his staff were riding around on it everywhere.
We moved into a large castle after the nobility who owned it were simply asked to leave. They were very upset. When I saw my assigned quarters, however, I was not upset at all: A bedroom, a private bath, and a living room with a concert piano. The building was huge. But there was not enough space to establish another officer's club. I was without a job, but protected by "my" regiment, and helped patrol the town in a jeep. There was an enlisted men's club in town. The sergeant in charge and I became friends, and I gave him advice about operating his establishment more efficiently. I ate there frequently. We stayed in Murnau for about a month until a political situation developed in Czechoslovakia. It involved the Soviet Union, which occupied the eastern part of the country up to and including its capital, Prague. We were told that there existed the danger that Russia could overrun the up-to-now unoccupied free western part of Czechoslovakia. It was necessary, therefore, that American troops move into that western part. Our regiment was to be part of that friendly occupation, which was to serve as a buffer zone to keep the Russians from invading the entire country. High-ranking officers told us that the situation was extremely delicate, if not downright dangerous. Some were talking about the possibility of a fight which, I reasoned, could then turn into an armed confrontation between east and west. A third World War would be the result. But we dismissed that idea because we knew that the Russians if militarily confronted would, in soldier's parlance, "chicken out." The Soviet Union was still too emaciated as a result of the Second World War. Why start a third one, and lose it?
Again I consented to go along. Our destination was the city of Pilsen. Again I asked, and was assured, that to be taken back to Germany at any time upon my request.
The trip from Murnau, Germany, to Pilsen, Czechoslovakia, took the better part of 12 hours. We went to Nuremberg first, after which we crossed the border into the country of our destination. To see a whole regiment on the move was an exciting sight to behold. The never-ending convoy moved slowly forward like a long gray-brown serpent. Nothing goes over 40 miles per hour, because jeeps may not be driven above that speed limit, so the entire convoy had to adjust to that speed. We sat on the backs of 4x6 army trucks, which had been equipped with (hard) benches. The trucks were covered with tent-like tarps. Passersby could not see us. I sat at the rear, breathing in the engine's exhaust, but also having a view of the scenery; I could take in an intermittent breath of fresh air as well. Our bodies were thrown forward and sideways with every move of the vehicle. Although C-Rations were our only nourishment, water was available in abundance on each truck for the twelve occupants. Conversation was held to a minimum because there was no common interest between strangers who had inadvertently been thrown together.
And so I crossed into a foreign country. A country I had been through once before not too long ago as a prisoner without hope, on an open coal tender traveling to nowhere, ending in Buchenwald again, and not in control of my life. Will these memories, fresh as they may be now, be with me always? I began to wonder why I was taking these chances. I thought about Emmett Chandler, the good lieutenant from Mobile, whom I was allowed to call by his first name only when we were unobserved. Would he abide by his promise to get me back to Germany should things change? There was the danger that the Russians could be overrunning this entire country. I did not want to get swept up by those anti-Semitic hordes.
I had decided to stay with the Americans. I did not want to be with Germans. I felt safe and believed that they would be true to their word.
We approached the outskirts of Pilsen. Industrial sights: The Skoda steel works. Skoda was a prominent European automobile manufacturer that produced a popular and durable quality car. The other, much more important industry for Pilsen was-- and still is-- its beer production.
And finally we rode into the city. The people were lined up on both sides of the streets and applauded and cheered. Some folks were crying. The combination of tears and cheers was an assuring indication that we were not looked upon as conquerors, but rather received as their protectors. We learned later how significant our presence was for them.
First there was something important for all of us. The bumpy ride over, we were looking forward to some hot chow and to bed down into comfortable quarters again.
The following morning I was asked to meet with Lieutenant Chandler and Captain Brown, the commanding officer. I was ordered not to wear civilian clothes here. Furthermore, I was not to reveal anything about myself, that is, not to tell anyone, civilians and military alike, who I was or where I came from. They were thus protecting themselves for allowing me to come along, which was actually illegal should I be questioned by local authorities while wearing a suit; and it was against army regulations to have a "foreigner" in their midst wearing army clothes. Both officers assured me, however, that I was needed. A new officer's club was to be established, but only to function as a lounge without meals served. That was an easy job for me, once the location, an abandoned school, and the initial details had been worked out. With local help to do the work, I was almost ashamed to accept my pay. Within a few days, the new lounge-type club was established.
I settled down and thought no further about the immediate future. Why worry, I thought? I had nothing, wherever I was. But what I did have was control of my life. I was free to make decisions, something I had to slowly learn again.
The Czechoslovakian Composer Bedrich Smetana, who wrote a tone poem entitled "My Country," is better known for his opera "The Bartered Bride," which he composed in 1866. It was to be performed, in Czech, at the Pilsen Opera house. I invited Lt. Chandler to attend the performance with me. Two other officers with greater interest in music than Chandler consented to accompany us. The house was filled to capacity, a rarity for a matinee performance. We had wonderful seats at orchestra center. The three officers sat to my left. To my right I noticed a very beautiful young lady, about late twenties, accompanied by a slightly older woman, perhaps her mother. Both were well dressed and by their animated conversation, of which I did not, unfortunately, understand anything, they seemed to anticipate the program with pleasure. In deference to many Americans attending, the program contained the English translation of the libretto, which absolved me from giving music lessons to my American friends, hoping though they would read it before curtain time.
Well into the first act, however, my elbow was nudging Chandler's side, as he had fallen asleep. His head had dropped to one side, and he was snoring rather noisily. Lt. Fuller, who sat on Chandler's other side, used his elbow on him as well. Our combined effort managed to keep things from getting out of hand. One snore - one push did the trick, but this activity which we had to apply throughout the three acts prevented us from enjoying the lovely melodic comic opera. With our combined effort we strived to prevent the impression that Americans have no culture.
"Are you enjoying the performance?" The young lady to my right asked me in perfect English. During the intermission she and I engaged in further small talk, and at the end of the performance I asked her for a date, which she consented to. Her name was Blanka Kratka. Before we parted, and upon my inquiry, she assured me that she was unmarried. I had no intention to be victimized by a jealous husband. I had to be especially careful, because I was in the country illegally.
Blanka and I became close friends. We met often for afternoon coffee in one of the many café houses that are so common in Europe. She expressed her gratitude over the presence of the American troops as a bulwark to the Russian threat in the east. Many other citizens agreed with her, and it was profoundly hoped that the Americans would stay until the Soviet troops had returned to Russia. American troops were not regarded as an occupation force.
Autumn was approaching early September. The area is situated far to the east, and colder temperatures settle in quite early. The older lady who had accompanied Blanka to the opera was indeed her mother. They lived together. There was no one else in the apartment when I came to visit. I did get lost on my way to their place. I approached a police officer to inquire about the address, but there developed an impasse between us because of language problems. Due to my ignorance of the Czech language I addressed him in English, but he did not understand. I pondered for a moment. There was only one more way to do this: German. When I asked directions in German, I knew he understood me, because his face showed extreme hatred. Rather than answering, he spat on the curb and walked away.
I found Miss Kratka's apartment nevertheless. We had a splendid time, enjoying a leisurely dinner and long talks about art, literature, music and politics.
* * * *
Early November 1945 came disturbing news. The 317th was to be re-deployed back to the United States. I had no intention to work for any other American outfit here in Czechoslovakia, and asked to be driven back to Füssen, Germany. Lt. Chandler had, he thought, a better idea.
"We will try to take you with us to the States," he declared.
"I believe you will not be able to manage that without proper immigration papers," I replied. "Who over there would give me an affidavit consenting to guarantee my welfare, should I become a burden to the government?" I inquired.
Emmett was smart, but in some ways his mind was simple and straightforward, qualities that produced impulsive thoughts and actions on his part. They liked me. I was to go to America with them, no ifs, ands or buts. These officers were serious. They had signed a petition concerning the matter and were going to send it by messenger to the nearest American consulate. It was driven to a mail-accumulation point, then sent by Army mail direct to the U.S. Consulate. German mail service was thus avoided.
For a time I believed that they could be successful. At other times I reasoned that this was a naive endeavor, which would be denied.
On December 31st, 1945, both the Russians and the Americans agreed to move out of Czechoslovakia, making the country independent and leave it without foreign interference. Blanka Kratka had heard about it.
"Ernest, you have to tell all influential Americans that this is not going to work. After your army leaves, the Russians will sweep in and occupy our entire country," she exclaimed with tears running uncontrollably down her cheeks.
To console her I assured her that I would make an attempt to relay her message. But as an "appendage" to this army, a helpless foreigner, who did not even know what was going to happen to him tomorrow, who did not even possess a birth certificate, I had no influence on anyone concerning this or any other matter. I agreed with Blanka because I am well versed about the attitude of dictators. I was convinced that the Soviet Union, which was out to control the world, would not depart from this country like "good fellows." I mentioned my fear briefly to some of my U.S friends, who dismissed it, saying that the people here tend to be overemotional. Overemotional my eye, I thought.
I was still waiting for a decision by the U.S. Consul in Munich with regards to my American adventure. All this, my being here with them, working for them, being liked by them, was already enough of an American adventure for me. Should I be allowed to accompany them to their country after all, that would be an immeasurable adventure, indeed!
"We have to have a serious talk," I said and sat down with Emmett Chandler to discuss the petition, which was pending for much too long. It was now one week before Christmas 1945. I had to make a decision. He agreed that if the petition would not be granted by Christmas, I would be driven back to Füssen on December 26th. Two days after this encounter he approached me, waving a letter in the air, and he was not smiling. I was not very disappointed, however, because I knew their request was legally impossible to be granted.
I packed my belongings and loaded them onto a small tarp-covered trailer. On the morning of December 26, 1945, I started my trip back to Germany. A driver was furnished and our jeep laboriously pulled the trailer for ten hours back to Germany. It was already dark when we arrived in Füssen. I asked that we stop at the Counter Intelligence office. Since I had no other place to go, I decided to ask there for a night to stay. I was still wearing an American uniform. The driver helped me unload my belongings and we placed them on the doorstep. My GI driver assured me he had a place to stay before returning to Pilsen. Somewhat excited and not knowing what to expect, I rang the doorbell. Lights went on, the door opened, and a slight, medium- built young officer answered the door. His name was Charles Wellner. I was allowed to enter along with my luggage, which I interpreted as advantageous. We went into the living room, refreshments were offered, and I began to tell Mr. Wellner why I was there. He wanted to know more than I had told him, and the evening developed into a two-hour interrogation. Though he was suspicious, which he certainly had a right to be, he remained quite friendly. Finally, I was allowed to stay.
"I will try my best to get you a job with the U.S. Army again. We will talk tomorrow." Those were his last words for the day. At 11:00 P.M. I was dead tired. The floor under my feet was still moving after the long jeep ride. I was glad that he had allowed me to stay, and that was all I worried about for this day.
I was the guest of the CIC Headquarters for three more days. Charley Wellner now began to confide in me. He told me that he had been born in Belgium, and his parents had taken him to America when he was a young boy. They were Jewish. On my second day he had a job lined up for me. He had made an appointment for me with the Military Governor, a Colonel Zimmerman. His office was located at City Hall, across from the water fountain at the crossroads.
Now wearing civilian clothes, I entered the Colonel's office. This was the job he offered me:
" I want you to walk around town and talk to the people. Sort out the important things they discuss, either directly with you or among themselves, such as politics, personal opinions, their attitude to the Americans and America in general, and report the information back to me an a daily basis."
Halfway through his long explanation I had already decided that this guy was nuts. People already knew me in this town. If I would accept this "job" and they found out what I was doing, they would kill me! Colonel Zimmerman didn't seem to care, but I did. Look at the word "information": I was to become an "informer." He was somewhat taken aback by my refusal to accept his offer. He thought that I was hard up for employment. But I had doubled my money in Czechoslovakia, because there had been a currency adjustment during my stay. Finances were the least of my worries. I could have stayed in a hotel for a while, but I wanted another job with the Army. I could not be idle.
"Col. Zimmerman, I do appreciate your offer, but I can not accept it at the present time."
"Why not?" He asked
"It just doesn't suit me."
I left his office without further clarifying my reason for not accepting.
* * * *
It was about lunchtime when I left the Military Governor's office. I decided to get a bite to eat. On my way to the town café I picked up the daily paper. There it was, exactly what Blanka Kratka and her countrymen and women had feared: Both Russia and the U.S. had agreed to move out of Czechoslovakia at midnight, December 31st, 1945. The American Army did leave, and on January 1st, 1946, the Soviet Army took over the entire country, to enslave it until the collapse of the Soviet Union in1989.
I wondered whether the United States knew that was going to happen. Did they let it happen to avoid another war? Or was the diplomatic corps of the U.S so naive to believe that Russia was abiding by her agreement? My thought was then, and still is today, that the Allies let this deeply freedom-loving country go down the drain to avoid military altercations. Perhaps they were right. The American people would not have tolerated another war for a country they and many others, considered to be insignificant in the essence of things. In my opinion it was a political blunder. Why did the Americans send an entire regiment there to hold back the Russians, and then move to let it happen anyway? It did not make sense!
Just think! I thought. Had I not left there five days ago, I would have been swept into that Communistic falsehood. With its known anti-Semitism it would have been a jump from the frying pan into the fire.
* * * *
After lunch I took another walk up the hill to Alatsee. I had heard that the U.S. Air Force had established an officers' club there. Perhaps they needed a manager? I knew the place inside and out, because I had managed it for the infantry.
1st Lt. Robert O. Kuehl of the 355th Fighter Group of the United States Airforce hired me on the spot as civilian manager of the officers' rest home. I called Mr. Wellner at CIC, thanked him for his hospitality, and informed him that a driver was going to get my already packed belongings. Lucky me. I had slipped in again.
* * * *
March 18, 1946
To Whom It May Concern:
I considered that to be an impersonal recommendation.
True, I did my job well and they were satisfied with my performance. But they were a bunch of arrogant flyboys who lacked common courtesy, which they practiced only among themselves. I thought they were condescending. Part of it was my fault as well, for. I was so used to the wonderful camaraderie I had experienced while working for the infantry.
About the middle of February 1946, I received a call from Charley Wellner at CIC. He advised me that he would send up a driver for me. He had something to talk over with me. I arranged for an afternoon off, and we met downtown at his office.
"Mr. Lion, we have checked your background, and what you told us about your past, which we already believed from the start. It has now completely checked out to be true."
That was a wrong approach for me. He had, he said, believed me, and then checked further for possible untruths that I may have told him. As an agent that was his prerogative. In fact, he would have been remiss had he not done so. Yet why did he have to reveal that to me? It was insulting. I kept my composure. He continued, "We have found a cousin of yours by the same name, a sergeant Ernest Lion, who is in the British Army Intelligence somewhere in West Germany. He has confirmed your past, and expressed to us that he was happy to hear that you have survived. He has gone back to England in the meantime."
Wrong move again, Mr. Wellner, I thought. At the time he found Cousin Ernest, why did he not have the courtesy to inform me then, thus giving me a chance to communicate with one of my relatives? The phone worked then too. Of course, he was not obligated to do that. I still kept my composure, but it was about to burst.
"Mr. Lion, we have come to the conclusion that a man with your experience and background has no business running an officers' club. You should be working for us in the capacity of an investigator and interpreter."
That was as far as I let him go. I rose from my chair, so as to look down on him, which creates a superior position. "Mr. Wellner, with all due respect to your position, and YOUR background, I do not think I should be told that I have no business running my officers' club, and that I should, instead work for your organization. I thank you for your consideration. I do not want to create animosity between us, but I can not accept your offer under the circumstances."
For too long people in uniform had told me what to do and how to behave. And for too long now I had had to obey. But that regime was no more. No more could I accept any of that nonsense now that I was free.
I thought that he would throw me out of his office, now that I had mouthed off at him. He seemed to realize his wrong approach though, and my reaction had actually caused him to be pleasant. He rose from his chair and shook my hand:
"Sir, I can fully understand, but if you should change your mind, the job in this office is still yours."
Snow had fallen during the night. I was wearing army boots and decided to take a walk through the brisk winter air, back to my place of employment. Inhaling the cold fresh air laden with the smell of pines, I felt elated to have stood up to what I considered sheer condescending Army crap, poured down on a civilian, and a free one at that!
So far I had not received any mail, that it was a surprise to find a letter addressed to me at general delivery. Once, when times were normal, a long time ago, it was a given to receive mail. So much had happened since, that this first letter, just for me, caused such a great deal of excitement that I hesitated to open it for a while.
It was from my sister at Hemel-Hempstead, England.
"Dear Ernest," she wrote, "Our cousin Ernest, who has returned to London after his service in the British Army, has informed me that you have survived. I have written to Aunt Hanna, who now lives in Washington, D.C., the Capital of the United States. You will hear from her soon. I hope you are well.
The composition of her letter did not surprise me. Cold as usual, she did not seem to be glad that I had survived. She just mentioned that I did, which showed her negative attitude she has displayed all her life. If I had not survived, she would have had no reason to write. She also graciously informed me about the capital of the United States. Her old way, claiming that she thought she had always been smarter than anyone else had. Even after this war with its terrible experiences for everyone, I decided right then that I still did not like her. Nothing had changed.
But at least there was a letter from a relative, and I was thankful that Ernest, who had heard from Mr. Wellner of CIC that I was living, had followed up and told the family about it after his return to England.
* * * *
At the 355th Fighter Group Rest Home, things deteriorated. My relationship with the Air Force gradually worsened: Managing the place gave me no pleasure, so I felt I had to make a change. Was Wellner serious when he told me a few weeks ago that I would have a job with his office anytime I felt like it? He saw how angry I was after he told me that I must work for him.
"Mr. Wellner, this is Ernest Lion. I'll come right to the point, Sir. If that job in your office is still open for me, I would very much like to talk about it with you."
"Yes it is. I'll send a driver up tomorrow morning at 10."
Click. The line went dead. Yahoo! I was in again!
Invited by CIC to live in their building, I gratefully accepted the privilege.
I was to be the liaison officer between the CIC and the German police, also I was to keep relations open between our office and the French Security Department across the border in Reutte, Austria, and to issue passes to German civilians who intended to cross that border.
Now I knew why they wanted me so badly: I spoke three languages.
My new transportation was a 1941 BMW convertible two-seater they had found buried in the back yard of a physician who was now in jail for alleged war crimes.
The German-Austrian border was a point of contention. Many Germans crossed it illegally, laboriously trudging over the snow-covered alpine mountains, where they were hard to detect. There was a great deal of black market activity going on. Food was more plentiful in Austria and the individual Austrians were looking for German money, which the local Austrian government did not want. The government also was fighting against the disappearance of their food supplies into Germany. The French Occupation Forces did not want the Germans entering their territory illegally. I was ordered to go across the border to have a conference with the French Security office, which was the equivalent to the U.S. Counter Intelligence Agency. "Securité de L'Armée Francaise," it read above the door of a rather dilapidated office building. The sign itself was unattractive, one side of it flapping in the brisk wind. I arranged with two of their officers to perform a mutual raid at a point in those alpine mountain areas most frequented by illegal traffickers. Each party was to appear at an agreed-upon time with a military platoon to surprise the crossing individuals and take them back to Germany. There was to be no punishment or fine. It was only to scare them, and if this action could be repeated, we thought that the traffic would eventually abate by itself.
To secure a motorized platoon of soldiers I had to involve the Military Government, which willingly went along with the plan. One very early morning we snaked up into the Tyrolean Alps to meet with the French. We saw many Germans doing their illegal thing, but had to wait for the French to act. We waited for two hours, but no Frenchman ever showed. After that we decided they were unreliable, and the entire project was dropped.
One morning, a lady came into my office. Her name was Frau Schiegel. She appeared to be about middle sixties and was somewhat corpulent. Her left eye looked out of kilter and it seemed that she was blind in that eye. She spoke with a distinct Austrian dialect, and was in fact an Austrian citizen, living in Lechbruck, Germany, a small town, not far from Füssen.
Mrs. Schiegel opened right up to me, telling me how intensely she hated the Germans. I kept my distance, because I was now in a business that did not allow trusting people until all the facts had been investigated and were to be found accurate. Besides, if there were anyone to dislike more than a German, it would be an Austrian. I did not have to go too far back into my past to remember that.
I wanted her to come to the point of her visit."Frau Schiegel, was ist nun eigentlich der Grund Ihres Besuches hier?" ("What is really the reason for your visit here?") I finally asked her.
She knew, she said, of five or six farmers in her village who had German army vehicles, such as trucks and other military material hidden on their properties, in their fields, their barns, and even buried somewhere. I drove to Lechbruck the following day and walked around inconspicuously, in civilian clothes. After some time I detected the back of a German army truck which stuck out of the ground. That gave me enough reason to alert my office. We made arrangements, again with the Military Government, for five or six jeeps and drivers and additional GI's equipped with rifles, only to make an impression. The war was over, and there was to be no more shooting. Once we arrived we cordoned off the town and made the farmers dig up their loot. We found six army trucks and several of the German Volkswagen-type army vehicles they used for the same purpose the Americans use for jeeps. That was a successful raid. The vehicles were eventually destroyed, an action beyond my jurisdiction. I found them, and that was all I had to do.
Frau Schiegel became a good friend. She lived with her sister and a young Austrian girl who seemed to be their maid. I spent many weekends with them in Lechbruck. She claimed to be a seeress, a fortuneteller, reading palms and making predictions from a special deck of tarot cards. She knew I was eventually going to America and predicted a great future for me. (Easy to do, if the facts were known already: Anyone with my past would meet with a "great future" over there.) I played along, had a good time, and had somewhere to go on weekends, instead of sitting around with those stuffy CIC agents. I brought enough food from our kitchen to enjoy a decent dinner on Saturday nights.
A letter arrived from the United States, from Mrs. Johanna Mendelsohn, writing from Washington, D.C. That was, of course, my Aunt Hanna, my father's youngest sister, who had bought herself into Cuba to avoid persecution. Her stepson, Fred, who had been in the States all along, must have had arranged her admittance.
She was obviously glad that I was alive and suggested that I should come to the United States. She offered to give the affidavit, guaranteeing that I would not become a burden to her country. I replied immediately, telling her that nothing better could happen to me than to get out of this godforsaken place, a place that held no future for me.
What follows was not written because I was leaving this office, rather he was returning home, and because his recommendation could be valuable in speeding up my immigration. I was grateful for his friendly gesture:
COUNTER INTELLIGENCE CORPS
UNITED STATES FORCES EUROPEAN THEATER
REGION IV (MUNICH)
30 May 1946
TO: Whom it may concern
This is to certify that Mr. Ernst LION has been employed by this office, in the capacity of secretary and confidential investigator, since February 1946.
Mr. LION has performed his duties in a very commendable manner, and his services have been a valuable assistance to the Counter Intelligence Corps Detachment of the U.S. Army.
In view of Subject's excellent record, and in view of his background of deep suffering and persecution under the nazi regime, it is sincerely recommended that he be given every consideration and assistance by U.S. authorities to facilitate his immigration to the United States.
(Signed) Charles Wellner
Counter Intelligence Corps
Mr. Lenz, whom I had first met at the Infantry Officer's Club just after my liberation, had returned to the office a few weeks previously. He replaced Charles Wellner. Also an agent named Ansbacher, a former German Jew, who spoke better German than English, and whom I thought was not suited for the job, moved in with his German girlfriend and did not perform his duties as expected. I did not care to stay under the same roof with this German woman and moved into a small pension, a rooming house with breakfast and dinner, similar to today's Bed and Breakfast establishments. I continued to eat lunch at the officers club.
Lenz came into my office one day, carrying a paper roll almost as long as the width of the room. To unfurl it, we had to move my desk to a far corner. Once securely fastened to the floor, it revealed a map of the United States printed by the Nazis. Convinced they would win the war and would then occupy the United States, they had divided it into two sections. The Mississippi River was the dividing line between the Japanese in the west and the German occupation in the east. I do not remember the details of this map, only that it provoked conflicting feelings: we shuddered at what could have happened, had they won that war, yet we smiled happily -- for obvious reasons. Those were maps of the Nazi's future plans. For the reader to understand the significance of intelligence services on both sides, I might add that each leading American tank commander had a map to facilitate an entry into a defeated German city. It showed directions, street names and government buildings in details, far better than the AAA hands out to a casual traveler today.
* * * *
This is an affidavit, given by Walter Lion of Los Angeles, California. It guarantees that I would never become a burden to the government of the United States:
UNITED STATES OF AMERICA
AMERICAN CONSUL GERNERAL
In the matter of
ERNST GEORG LION
Applicant for Visa
STATE OF CALIFORNIA
COUNTY OF LOS ANGELES
Comes now Walter Lion, citizen of the United States of America, and legally residing at 3754 Degnan Blvd., Los Angeles 16, California; and states that the alien above is now residing in Fuessen/Lech, Bavaria, US Occupational Zone, Germany; that he is a victim of Nazi terrorism having been put in different concentration camps and having been liberated by the American Forces; that he is the only survivor of his family; his father was killed by S.S. troops in Zamos, Poland, and his wife was arrested and brought into concentration camp with him, and she has never been heard of since.
That Ernst Georg Lion is a second-degree cousin of your affiant.
That your affiant is ready, willing and able to support Ernst Georg Lion.
* * * *
There followed a lengthy statement of Walter Lion's assets of approximately $149,000, and of his willingness to support me, should I ever become a burden to the Government of the United States.
Walter was a first cousin of my father's. After selling "Lion Stores" in Krefeld, Germany, he had smuggled all his assets into Holland before the war. He and his wife Mary went to the United States and established Lion Stores in Los Angeles.
Aunt Hanna wrote that her assets did not suffice to guarantee independence for me, and that Walter was glad to supply his papers for my immigration. While in Germany, I had never met Walter. He was one of the richer relatives with whom we had no contact. Even among relatives, there existed that darn class difference. It made no difference to me now. I had a document that allowed me to go to America.
I was still not sure what happened to my wife Liesel after we arrived in Auschwitz. In all probability she had been gassed and cremated, but the uncertainty of so many survivors strewn across Europe at this time could present the possibility that she could have survived. Perhaps she was in Russia? Who knew?
I began to imagine a scenario, in which I had arrived in America, had remarried there, and one fine day the doorbell rang, and there stood Liesel, claiming to be my wife. Walter Lion's affidavit took me a step further towards my immigration, and I had to think about moving on. I therefore approached the city court in Iserlohn, our last residence, and applied for a legal declaration of death.
It is herewith decreed that the missing Liesel Lion, nee Mosbach, born August 3rd, 1921 in Iserlohn is declared deceased.
The time of her death will be May the eighth, 1945.
* * * *
Now I needed proof of my identity in form of a birth certificate. My office was helpful again.
From the motor pool I received a large Opel "Kapitän" touring car. We removed the rear seats and placed twelve 5-gallon cans of gasoline in their stead. My former home was in the British Occupation Zone, and I carried a letter guaranteeing entry into that zone for the purpose explained above. With enough food and other essential supplies for two days, I left during the first week of September 1946 for Dortmund and Brambauer to secure my birth certificate needed for the preparation of my immigration papers.
September 3rd, the day I left, it had begun to snow. In this alpine region, winter begins at the end of August and lasts until early May. It is not unusual to have snow during the entire season. I drove as far as I could, and every time I had filled my tank with the reserve gas, I simply threw the empty can into the ditch, a common practice at that time.
Near Siegen, Germany, I crossed into the British Occupation Zone, and was admitted without problems. The city of Dortmund was still full of bomb craters. Nearly nothing had been rebuilt.
I went to Brambauer and was told that the local authority where I could secure my birth certificate was now located in the former Catholic school. The Nazis had changed all Jewish birth certificates, adding "Israel" to those of males and "Sarah" to the female papers, so instead of "Georg," my paper read" Ernst Israel Lion." I made the clerk change the paper back to my real name.
Then I drove to Iserlohn, the city of my last residence before we were transported to Auschwitz. I visited Reinhold Husemann, the owner of the metal factory, where I had worked. He knew of my impending arrival, and had taken all the belongings he had kept for me -- my violin, the silverware, some prayer books, etc.-- to the local police department, because he did not want to be accused of having Jewish property in his possession. The police handed these items over to me without further questioning. I bade a friendly farewell to Reinhold, whose father Heinrich had died while I was "away," thanked him for all the kindness he had shown my family and me and then drove to Krefeld. I had heard that my Aunt Detta, father's oldest sister, had survived the Theresienstadt concentration camp. She had returned to her house, which had been taken away from her by the Nazis. She was now in her early eighties. I stayed with her for a few days. It was a sad reunion, and we reminisced about old times and she cried over all those we had lost. I had hardened to the point, however, where I was unable to shed a tear. She and I and Aunt Hanna in the US were now the only remnants of our formerly large clan.
* * * *
When I returned to Füssen, my boss had already received my preliminary immigration papers, their sender requesting his signature. They had originated from the American Consulate in Munich. Rather than return them by mail, it was decided that I was to be taken to Munich to meet the Consul and hand him the documents in person. They hoped that would speed up my emigration.
Not long after that we drove to Munich to meet this gentleman by appointment. The consulate was located in one of the few remaining whole buildings. The rest of the city was almost entirely razed. We saw homeless, insufficiently clad Germans bending over garbage cans. The entire scenery was eerie and had taken on a character of hopelessness. For them, not for me. They had started it, and they perhaps deserved to eat their own garbage, At least many of them. I had no time to sort out the good from the evil.
We met the American Consul General, a tall, balding gentleman. He was very gracious, studied the papers and assured me that he would personally see to it that I would leave for the United States as soon as possible.
* * * *
My papers were being processed somewhere, and I was anxiously biding my time.
Frau Therese Kunkel owned the guesthouse (pension) I had chosen to stay in after I moved out of the CIC building. I slept there, had breakfast and dinner and she and her daughter took good care of me. Herr Kunkel was one of the two local mail carriers. I was allowed to use their entire house, and in my spare time I sometimes tinkered on their upright piano in the parlor. My life was now ideal. I had a good job, was useful to the U.S. Army, and on weekends I stayed over with Frau Schiegel in Lechbruck. I merely had to use extreme caution not to reveal anything about my activity at CIC to any of the Germans. Most everyone in town considered me to be an American already, which made it easy to keep my distance.
I attended courses at the CIC training station in Oberammergau, the town famous for its passion plays. There I learned how to be a better secret agent. It was interesting work. I loved to drive through the magnificent alpine scenery along its serpentine roads, which wound around the snow-covered peaks. Higher up, the snow never melts. It glitters and reflects in the sun from afar but becomes disappointingly dirty at close range, until new snow falls again to cover the soot. Snowfall may occur even on cool summer days up there. From my bedroom window I had a view to the Jungfrau, the highest mountain in Germany. I saw snow through all seasons. Such peace greeted me when I awoke. And such turmoil only 8000 feet below-- where the people were.
Oddly, the goal of our organization turned sharply from watching Germans towards checking Communism and the Soviet Union. There were Russians in town. They occupied a house not far from our office. They thrived on secrecy, and we had never been able to discover what they were up to. I was not much interested in them, because I still wanted to do as much damage to the Germans as I possibly could during the short time I had left before I could go to America. I spent a lot of late evenings at the German police station but derived no satisfaction from that either. We made occasional raids on small hotels to stir up American enlisted men who were sleeping with German women for merely a bar of soap or a piece of chocolate. We arrested the ladies, took them to the hospital to have them checked for possible VD. I reported the soldiers so that they, too, could get checked. This, to me, was not the kind of intelligence work I wanted to pursue for too long.
I drove to Augsburg one day to see the medieval city of about 200,000 population. It was not bombed, and its buildings, thousands of years old, had been saved, perhaps for another century or more. The city was a major commercial and banking center during the 15th and 16th century. One very famous name was Johannes Fugger (pronounced Fouger) a financier who lived during the 14th century. His son, Jakob, who died in 1469, extended the business significantly. They were philanthropists and they created one section of the city where indigent families could occupy small apartment-type buildings. They live there rent-free, in perpetuity, from the interest of the Fugger fortune. The section of the town is called "Die Fuggerei." (Fougerei)
At the end of that section I found a narrow alley, whose name had been returned to what it was called before the Nazi time: "Judengasse." Alley of the Jews. Even then they lived separately by choice, but they were equal.
On my way back to Füssen I picked up an American Wave. (Female soldier) She was walking on the highway, in my direction. I was driving a jeep, and she gladly accepted the ride I offered her. Except for her dusty boots, her uniform was sparkling. She was a PFC, and on her way to Füssen, I politely interrogated her as to her military unit, why she was walking alone and where she was going. The more I probed, the more evasive her answers became. I also discovered that she spoke with an ever so slight German accent. When we arrived at our office, I asked her in for a cup of coffee, which she gladly accepted. The piece of cake I offered her was more than welcome and she accepted a second helping. After my questioning intensified, she admitted that she was German, the uniform was stolen, she had no place to stay, and she had been living off the U.S. Army for quite some time. We arrested her for impersonating an American soldier and turned her over to German authorities who locked her up for an impending trial by a German judge. When I reported to city hall as a witness for the trial, I was informed, to my dismay, that she had been released because she was pregnant and therefore could not be held. She had slipped through my fingers and was probably somewhere again practicing her vagrancy routine. Poor girl: I felt sorry for her, but in retrospect I thought her act was amusing.
* * * *
The permanent alpine snow had reached the low plateau. Winter had arrived late that year, in October, and would stay until April or even May of 1947. My fervent hope was that I would be in America then.
The last Christmas in Germany I spent at Mrs. Schiegel's home in Lechbruck. They made it as festive as they could, but my thoughts were already far from there. Because of my experience in Germany I began to give more serious emphasis to life. Murphy's law, which is feared by everyone, had taken hold of me. Everything I had planned and all that was planned for me was to be going wrong, I imagined. My mind created scenarios where all my anticipation could misfire. And even if it did not, which was the case, I imagined new fears. I knew it was an idiosyncrasy, a leftover from the still too fresh memories of persecution. I fought this attitude as best I could, but even to this day I have not fully recovered from it. Its frequency has ebbed significantly, but I am still unable to experience total trust in promises given. In my mind, friends easily abandon me and I then prepare to be left alone and without them. They don't, though, and those who do were not real friends anyway. I wonder why I do that to myself, even now?
At the end of January, a large manila envelope arrived from the United States Consulate in Munich. It contained all the papers needed to travel to the United States of America.
CERTIFICATE OF IDENTITY IN LIEU OF PASSPORT
One journey only to U.S.A. January 27, 1947
This is to certify that Ernst Georg Lion., born at Germany (sic) Brambauer Westphalia on 15th of December 1915 male singel (sic) (widowed)
(given and maiden name of wife)Intends to immigrate to
The United States of America.
His occupation is Actor and Investigator
Subscribed and sworn to before me this 28th of January 1945
Signed: Wallace Clark
UNITED STATES LINES S/S MARINE FLASHER
SAILING DATE 27 Feb, 1947
Accommodation C IV
Mr.: Lion, Ernst
* * * *
From Bremen to New York
Lion, Ernst G. M, 31, C IV Berth 16 Fare: $134
Head Tax 8
Total Amount received $ 142
Walter Lion of Los Angeles had paid for the fare to New York. All I had to do now is to wait for instructions how to get to Bremen for my departure. I also received three dollars in cash from an organization called Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, with instructions to safeguard that money for my arrival in America. It was guaranteed that I would be sailing in about a month.
I thought that I had a choice of destinations, either to Washington, D.C., or to Los Angeles, California. I wrote a letter of appreciation to Walter Lion and asked him how he felt about my coming to live in Los Angeles, promising that I would be independent in a very short time. His reply was that Washington would be far more advantageous for me. I later learned that he had had disappointments with other relatives whom he had allowed to join him there. I could well understand him. But since he did not know me, it would perhaps be his loss. Was that an arrogant thought on my part? I don't think so. From my childhood I was taught never to be a burden to anyone. And I never have been.
I was ordered to report to an UNNRA camp in Munich on the 17th of February (United Nations Refugee Agency?) I don't recall what the second "N" stood for.
I also learned that by decree of President Harry S. Truman, all concentration camp survivors who had an affidavit to enter the United States could do so regardless of the immigration quota. When I inquired about the kind of ship the Marine Flasher was, I was further informed that for the purpose of transporting those survivors, the United States Navy had converted three former 17,000-ton troop ships into passenger vessels and turned them over to the Merchant Marine. The time was fast approaching and I was anxious to board the ship.
Among my meager luggage was that valuable, approximately 200-year-old violin. It had survived three wars: 1870-1871, 1914-1918, and 1939-1945, and whoever had played it, including myself, had brought joy to some saddened soul. It deserved to come to America. And the other few tokens, which were saved for me by the Husemans, the good anti-Nazis. I paid a few good bye visits to friends, to all the policemen I had worked with who had grown fond of me, and vice-versa, and to Frau Schiegel in Lechbruck especially. She took my dachshund Trolly. Parting with him was not easy, but the idea of going overseas for good overshadowed all emotions. Mrs. Schiegel gave me two small plastic rectangular containers. Into each of them she had placed a German Pfennig, (penny) a cube of bread and some rice, her wish that I would never be hungry or poor. I still have them in my house today, one on my TV set and the other in my bedroom. I also went to the hospital to say good bye to the Catholic sisters who fed me when I was starving. There I found Dr. Holzer in his office. My arms did not reach all around him when we hugged. He was so proud to have saved me from starvation, and it was difficult for me to express my appreciation to him. So many people were responsible for saving me, some on purpose, others inadvertently; Dr. Holzer was the last. Looking back at all that had passed, it was, and still is, hard to determine who was the most important. Vronek, the Polish musician? Art Fleischer, the Viennese boy? Or perhaps the unknown prisoner who stuck a raw potato into my mouth when I already felt death creeping through my bones, slowly flowing to my brain? And then there was Dr. Erich Mosbach, my poor wife's cousin, "The Good Doctor." He certainly stands on the top rung of the ladder. All those flashed by while I had my short arms around Dr. Holzer's big torso.
As I left Dr. Holzer's office and walked along the river, I thought about my future. A new life was awaiting me on the other side of the ocean. After all these terrible times I was traveling to an unknown future in an unknown country, but with great anticipation; and so I found a certain satisfaction in quoting St. Paul to myself, I hoped not too presumptuously:
"I have fought the good fight, I have finished the course, I have kept the faith."
And I hoped that I would not have to fight such battles against deceit again. I did not wish to have to run any more such races against time, and I hoped my faith would not be so severely tried again. I left the ashes of those I loved in the ground of a land I no longer loved, and I hoped that my new country would seem worthwhile for me and that all those I would meet there would have a smile and a friendly "Hello."
I do not recall that I was extremely excited. Like everything else, events were going to fall into their place. I had become so attuned to diving into situations that turned out good or bad, one way or the other, I just continued to dive, dive, and dive. During my incarceration these situations just came about without any decision on my part. Even now, as I had decided to leave, I lived from one day to the next, thinking, "no big deal. Let's just wait and see what turns up on the other side." The uncertainty felt like I was walking through a constant fog, denying me the view to that other side.
I had kept the large Opel touring car I took to the English Zone, and had used it on the job. It was green and big and I felt like I was riding on a cloud. Special Agent Lenz drove me to Munich, so he could take it back to Füssen after he had dropped me off at the UNNRA camp. This was the 16th day of February 1947. He was driving. I took one more look as Main Street disappeared behind me for the last time. There I had walked as a prisoner. The water spouted freely from the fountain at the crossroad, but I was not thirsty anymore.
* * * *
The UNNRA camp was depressing and demeaning. We had to sleep on straw beds, almost on the cement floor. Sanitary conditions, though bearable, were quite primitive, and the food lines were long. The occupants had been there for months, waiting for a ship to take them to America. All were Jews, but none were from Germany. There were Poles, Lithuanians and other eastern Jews, whose dissonant languages sounded like an orchestra of amateur musicians. Yet there was harmony among us, because of the aspiration that we would soon leave here and go somewhere else, where a friend or a relative would greet us, and where, most assuredly, a better life could be found.
Because of my various jobs with the United States Army, I had avoided lingering in these camps, and had merely three days before a train was to take us to Bremen.
Horror struck me at the platform: The train consisted of boxcars. It was a freight train! The UNNRA representatives apologized when we complained. For us it was too reminiscent of times past, and I overheard some who said they would not ride like that now or ever again. There was a lack of passenger cars, we were told. We had no choice but to accept what was offered. After all, if we refused to get on, we would not go at all. Still, there were real beds, and only 25 persons rode per car. I kept outwardly calm, but I was boiling over the unconcerned attitude of bureaucrats, again treating us like dirt. Only to get out of this awful country!
We left late in the afternoon and arrived in Bremen about noon the following day. There was good food served on the way, and those who catered it at several stations seemed to be overly friendly, which somehow served as a consolation. The cars were equipped with heaters, and soon we forgot about the rides most of us had endured on our ways to Auschwitz, Treblinka, Sobibor, and all those places we would never forget.
Upon arrival we were transported by buses to former German army barracks, modernized, clean and reasonably comfortable. We were allowed to leave to see the town. What town? It had been bombed to smithereens, and the scenery was flat and barren. There was no city. I returned to the barracks, where a band entertained us and some musicians played solo pieces for us. We thought we were treated royally. What they actually were doing was preparing us for a ride on a converted troopship with lack of privacy. By then I had calmed down. Everyone was friendly, and with our expectation to go where we had chosen, we succumbed to these minor inconveniences. No pun intended, but we were, and least would be, all "on the same boat."
The morning of the 26th of February, buses took us to the train station. The city of Bremen is not on the ocean, so we had to go to Bremerhafen (Bremerhaven) to board our ship. A line of old-fashioned coach cars with their large number 2 on each side, indicating that one would ride in second class awaited us. After we boarded I again heard that familiar click -- click -- click as they went along the platform and locked each car from both sides. The Nazis had done that in 1938 when they took us to Buchenwald after the Chrystal Night (Kristall Nacht) But this click locked the cars so that no unauthorized person could bum a ride to Bremerhaven, and, if clever enough, even to America. During the twenty-minute ride, I saw U.S. soldiers guarding the track, placed every 100 yards, shouldering bayoneted M 1 rifles.
From the train, we walked directly on board the Marine Flasher, also under heavy guard. Each boarding pass was thoroughly examined before we could proceed to our quarters.
We were about 300 passengers, all male. The small "converted" troop ship was almost filled to capacity with that number of people. The conversion was undertaken to make our trip comfortable, but I did not see much of a change from the time troops were ferried across. Large rooms, three-tiered bunks accommodated about 24 passengers. My berth was at the top. I walked around and found toilets in the round, stalls open, but designed so that no occupant was able to see others. In the center of this perfectly round room was a round water fountain for hand washing. From that point, you could see everyone in the round, of course, but decency forbade you to look. The floor had a rippled pattern to prevent slipping. Everything was of steel and had the appearance of dirty wrought iron. Due to the high ceiling there was a constant deep thumping echo when you walked. The entire appearance still had the character of a troop ship, far removed from the idea of "conversion." Showers had been converted to individual stalls, which meant standing in line to wait your turn. Wash basins were in a long row, each with a mirror above for shaving.
On another part of the ship I found reasonably comfortable groups of chairs, and around the corner off the deck, there was a small library. I knew where I would spend most of my time, and with very few others around me.
There was a large dining hall adjacent to the long kitchen counters, where food was dispensed, mess hall-style. But the food was wholesome and tasty. Breakfast usually consisted of grapefruit, scrambled eggs, toast and coffee. Both lunch and dinner were well prepared. I do not recall specific menus. Though we stood in line to receive our food, there was no rush and the serving personnel were friendly. I never saw the infamous S.O.S., the obscene abbreviation for chipped beef on toast with white country gravy, served for breakfast in the armed forces. And the ship's crew was extremely polite, greeting and treating us as their equals. This was to be a pleasant trip, I thought, but we had not yet left. Departure time was announced for 7:00 a.m. the next day, February 27.
The American crew were members of the Merchant Marine The captain welcomed us over the P.A system, but most passengers did not understand what he said. I tried to translate as best as I could, but the languages of my fellow travelers were out of my speaking range.
I met Mr. John Ford, the ship's purser. Looking much older than the late forties he claimed to be, he was of medium stature, very slim, with a strong face featuring a tight-lipped mouth. Only his eyes revealed friendliness. He had been going to sea all of his life, he told me, yet with every storm there would be seasickness for him.
"Why did you chose this job if it makes you sick on every trip?" I asked him.
"Because I love ships," he replied.
Such a man could be good for me, I decided, and so I played my best trumps, which resulted in daily conversations with him.
"What are you going to do when you get to the States?" he asked.
"Well, I shall arrive there with merely three dollars to my name, which does not give me much of a choice."
And then I remembered the grocery store my parents had operated, which I did not like much. I continued, "What I am going to try to avoid, is working in a grocery store," elaborating on the circumstances for him to grasp the context.
"Three dollars? Is that all you have?"
Then I showed him the substantial supply of German Reichsmark bank notes. I was under the impression that that money would be exchangeable over there. He looked at it, and his face showed a mixture of seriousness intermingled with a rather sardonic smile.
"This, my friend, is worth nothing where you are going."
At the time of my departure, Germany did not yet have a government. It was governed by the four powers, wherever they ruled territorially. The money still showed the eagle with the swastika, because the Deutshe Mark (D Mark) would be issued only in 1949, when Konrad Adenauer became the first chancellor of West Germany. Adenauer, an ardent anti-Nazi had himself been arrested and thrown into a concentration camp while he was Lord Mayor of Cologne. He was chancellor until 1963. It may be of interest to the reader why Bonn became the capital of West Germany: Mr. Adenauer's residence was across the Rhine river in Bad Godesberg, and the story goes that he would accept the job only if he could take the short daily trip across the river to his office. There may not be any truth to it, but it was characteristic of the outspoken frankness of this feisty man who led West Germany back to normalcy amidst the difficult political and economical situation. Many former "mild" Nazis received important positions in the post-war government, but I was glad to see that a man of the real opposition was chosen to fill the job as chancellor. He was on the side of all who had suffered. In the early '50s, he agreed to set aside funds to be paid to Jews that had been incarcerated in concentration camps.
Upon the advice of purser Ford, I dumped a hefty sum of German money into the salty waters of the North Sea. Now possessing merely three dollars, I hid and guarded the three crisp bills with the greatest of care. But considering where I had been, versus where I was going, being poor never occurred to me. I felt rich somehow.
Promptly at seven o'clock the next morning, the 27th of February 1947, the Marine Flasher pushed away from the pier of the Bremerhaven port, after three deep loud horn blasts. I was surprised that this small ship could produce such a powerful sound. I was mentally prepared for the passage through the English Channel, the stormiest sea on the face of this earth. But we sailed calmly along the continental coastline. Always suspicious of being duped again, we were told that we would first go to Antwerp, the largest Belgian port, to pick up another hundred passengers. That explained the four empty rooms of 24 beds each.
Three days in Antwerp without going ashore. We had our temporary passports for entry into the United States, so touching Belgian soil would have complicated things. The new passengers were of the same creed as we, and had the same goal: to get out of Europe, the continent with the bad medicine. I saw one young man getting down on his knees, kissing the dirty floor of the ship. It only then occurred to me that we were already on American ground while traveling there. If I would want to kiss any ground at all, I decided it would not be the floor of this boat. I lack sentimentality to perform such an act. Perhaps in time I could learn to love my new country, but then I would rather kiss her citizens, females preferred, instead of its dirty ground. Groundkissers are audience seekers.
Now we were on our way, literally. To go through the English Channel in March is a sight to see for those who don't get seasick. I stood up on deck and tightly gripped a metal bar behind me to avoid being swept overboard. This 17,000-ton ship rolled from side to side; it rolled so far back and forth that I was lying on my back one way and falling completely forward during the opposite move. Waves twice as tall as the ship itself came rolling toward me, parts of them splashing on deck, and when the ship rolled back, I was saved from drowning. The very tops of the waves were crowned with white foam. It looked like a claw, a huge talon, ready to tear into the vessel. I will always remember this natural wonder that I would never see again. I crossed the Channel in later years between Calais and Dover, but in the summer when it is not so stormy. That February crossing was so gigantic! And it kept me from getting seasick! When I finally went below, what I saw there among the passengers was beyond description and better left to the reader's imagination.
The rest of the voyage was uneventful, except for one big storm in the mid-Atlantic. The crew frantically tied down all loose items aboard. Mr. Ford, the purser, was nowhere to be seen for a day. He had been seasick, he told me after he reappeared. I had not been ill at all. Perhaps I should apply for a job aboard such a ship, I facetiously thought. But a member of the American Merchant Marine had to be a citizen. Darn.
After sixteen days, on March 14, we passed the Statue of Liberty. The boat stopped just outside of the port of New York. We gathered around one of the passengers who had a radio, and we listened to a New York radio station. Nothing but commercials, which were as silly and noise polluting then as they are now.
We were lined up on deck and two physicians, a man and a woman, mustered us fairly fast. We were already cleared healthwise on the other side, so there was not much for them to do. It seemed to be routine.
I followed everyone off the ship into a huge hall on the pier, where Customs officers checked our luggage. I had to present my violin and the officer tape-measured the neck of the instrument. When I inquired for the reason, he explained:
"The neck of a Stradivarius violin is two centimeters longer. If this would be such an instrument, we would have to charge you a heap of customs, because you would be worth about a million dollars. No such luck, young man."
No such luck, indeed. How would I have paid the customs with my three dollars? How lucky I was to come to America and not be a millionaire! Darn again.
Outside, a representative of H.I.A.S., the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, took me to Pennsylvania Station on 33rd Avenue to board a train to Washington, D.C. She informed me that my Aunt Hanna, who would receive me there upon arrival, had paid for the train trip. She handed me the ticket, and I told her I would be all right without her further assistance, and that I could get to the train by myself. I wanted her to go away. I did not like the idea of being chaperoned. I looked bad enough in that out-of-date green suit and with that stupid violin and the old suitcase, and I did not need to appear to be helpless, being guided around. That woman was even wearing a nametag! She was happy to leave as well, obviously pleased to get rid of me. An unspoken mutual agreement.
While waiting for the train and track number to be announced, I bought a hot dog, a Coke and a Time Magazine. I paid for all three items from a one-dollar bill and had some change left over. Studying the coins, I wondered why a five-cent piece was larger than a ten-cent piece. I guessed that I would have a lot to learn here.
The train passed poor housing developments, where laundry was hanging out to dry from open windows, old dirty gray rail cars stood abandoned on rusty tracks which seemed to have been unused for ages. Each time the wind blew in the right direction, dark black smoke from the coal-fired engine passed by my car window. Past New Jersey, the scenery became more pleasant as the train went into Delaware. We stopped in Dover, where I had my first geography lesson when I read: "Delaware's Capital."
The trip took about four hours. Aunt Hanna and a few of her friends, who introduced themselves but whose names escaped me immediately, were waiting on the platform at Union Station in Washington, D.C. Greetings were calm and unemotional, just as I liked it. Lions don't go in for such stuff. Whomever we love will know it without big to-dos. A Mr. Herbert Cohnheim was driving us to Aunt Hanna's apartment, but first he took a quick trip over to Pennsylvania Avenue to show me the White House. I was tired. The car, besides its forward movement, was undulating to the left, then to the right. Sixteen days on the Marine Flasher were still, as they say, in my legs, but influenced by the brain.
I was astonished at how calm I was to be in America. One battle had ended. I hoped that the new struggle would be well worth its while.
* * * *
My first full day here was a Saturday. The doorbell did not stop ringing. Aunt Hanna's friends dropped by, and all brought gifts: Chocolate, other food, and a grocery shopping bag filled with used underwear, laundered, of course.
All were German Jews who had immigrated in the late '30s, just before the war. Some of them were veterans, who had fought with the U.S.army against Germany. They all spoke German with me and with one another. I wondered why they did not speak English until Aunt Hanna informed them that I spoke English, at which time they switched. But then they began to speak very loudly and slowly to me, thinking that I would not understand. The chatter was uninterrupted and I did not get a word in edgewise, except my constant "thank you" for their gifts. Just as well, because I did not feel like talking too much.
"Folks, folks, listen to me!" shouted Herbert Cohnheim. "Ernest speaks English. I mean he speaks English, so stop your shouting already." I was polite, but small talk with people I do not know well does not appeal to me.
Things quieted down and then we had a civilized conversation. After everyone left, we looked at what they had brought and decided that it was not much help; but they meant well. What I urgently needed was a new suit, a coat, some pants and shirts and other accessories. I was not going to sit idly around. I wanted to get a job and be productive, and for that I needed to be presentable. What I was wearing was ready for the junk pile, but still better than that striped prisoner's outfit 2 years ago in '45.
Herbert Cohnheim lived downstairs with his wife, Grete. They became helpful friends. My aunt gave him money, and he took me downtown and we bought a double-breasted gray suit, a leather jacket and several other items. I assured Aunt Hanna that I would pay her back as soon as I had a way to make a living.
That happened five days later. On March 20th, I walked into a branch of a local grocery chain, Giant Food. The store was in Bethesda, Maryland, and was number ten in the chain, located on the extension of Washington's Wisconsin Avenue. The company had been established in 1936. To reach the store I had to take a streetcar and two buses, a trip that took more than an hour. I was not enthused to find employment in the grocery business, as I explained earlier, but
Beggars are not choosers."
Chuck Levister, the store manager, was expecting me, as this entire thing had been pre-arranged by someone.
"What is your name?" he asked.
We shook hands, and at that moment my name changed to "Ernie."
I gave him a brief history of myself and told him that I had just arrived in America six days ago. He commended me on my English. Leading me to the side of the store, to the delicatessen department, he introduced me to Sam Ginsburg, the delicatessen manager.
Since the measurement system is different here, Sam explained pounds and ounces to me and he also showed me the operation of the automatic scale. Then I was ready to sell luncheon meats and hot dogs (loose) to customers. Sugar was still rationed, and we gave out five-pound bags in exchange for ration cards.
I worked six days, 60 hours a week There was to be no day off, except Sundays, when the store was closed. My pay was $30 a week.
Because of the complicated transportation, I hardly got any sleep during the long days: Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays we worked from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. But I was young (31).
Since I had a job, I could pay Aunt Hanna for room and board and repay her for her kindness to have clothed me. She had been quite affluent in Germany, but had used all her money to buy herself into Cuba to avoid persecution in Germany. She now had to work.
Thirty Dollars went a long way then, at a time when the price a loaf of bread was seven cents. With a little cash it was possible to open a bank account, which I did in the second week of employment, at Riggs National Bank. The entire outfit of clothes I described above cost just slightly over a hundred dollars.
Bethesda is a neighborhood of famous and prominent people. Sam pointed out a customer. "That is Mrs. Black. She shops here almost every day. Lives right around the corner on Wilson Lane. You may better remember her as Shirley Temple." I waited on her many times. She did not appreciate much fuss, preferred to be called Mrs. Black. She was always friendly, pleasant and smiling.
On the second day, a well-dressed gentleman approached my counter. He introduced himself: "My name is Sidney Danneman. "I am the deli and meat buyer." He told me that this company was rapidly expanding, and that I could find a good future here, as promotions happen strictly from within.
"Mr. Danneman, I'm pleased to meet you, and I will try my best."
"Please call me Sidney. We go by first-names-only in this company, with the exception of the founder, who is Mr. Cohen.
All the names mentioned, except Levister of course, suggested that this was a Jewish outfit. I was told that this Mr. Cohen had stated that he wanted to hire people who had been in concentration camps: "If they want to work here, give 'em a job, any job. If they don't work out let 'em go. I want to help, but we are not in the charity business."
Of course not; if they work us these long hours, who's talking about charity? I ground my teeth and stuck it out.
Three weeks later, this Danneman fellow came by again.
He looked at me and said, "I see you are still here. It looks like you want to stay."
(Did I have a choice?)
He pulled a little black memo book from the inside pocket of his elegant suit, asked me for my name, wrote it in there, and asked me how much money I was making. When I told him $30, he gave me a $5 dollar raise on the spot. I am sure that he had inquired around as to my performance and attitude before he approached me. Five dollars on a thirty dollar salary is more than a 10 percent increase! I could only imagine they did that because they did not want me to quit and go somewhere else. (They did that on a few other occasions during my long career with them.)
Newly acquired friends invited me to a concert at Constitution Hall. The building was, and still is, owned by the Daughters of the American Revolution, the DAR for short. We heard Isaac Stern, who played Mendelsohn's Violin Concerto, accompanied by the National Symphony Orchestra. Stern was then a young man, in fact, five years my junior, but oh, what a virtuoso he was already!
I looked around the audience during intermission. There were no blacks -- Negroes they were called then. They had no right to go anywhere, but Constitution Hall was especially taboo for them. The hoity-toity "Daughters" were the most prejudiced of all. I wondered how they felt about Jews. When I mentioned my concerns on the way home, I was advised not to think along those lines. That's the way it was, and that's the way it will be, my friends told me. How could I not think that way? But I kept quiet and had to watch my Ps and Qs, at least until I became a citizen. Constitution Hall became a focal point for me. It is where I attended many concerts to see and hear Fritz Kreisler, Tossy Spivakovski, and Misha Elman, among others. It was moving to see those fine musicians again in my new country.
In May of that year, we became unionized. Our workweek was reduced to 52 hours, and my salary was $54 plus four hours time-and-a-half overtime pay. That meant I had an afternoon off. The first Wednesday afternoon I did not know what to do with my free time. During one of those afternoons I went to the Navy Department to get my first papers, entitled Intention to Become an American Citizen. What the Department of the Navy had to do with immigration was puzzling to me, for there was a Department of Immigration and Naturalization at that time.
As a refugee I was invited to speak on WMAL, the Washington affiliate of the ABC Radio Network, for the support of the United Jewish Appeal. The station wrote the entire broadcast. I still have a copy of it. It was so badly written that I refused to be re-invited. Besides, I had to talk too much about my European experience, which was their point for using me, understandably, but I don't like to talk about that so often, especially not at that time, when everything was still so fresh.
When I talked, most everyone asked me where I was from. I had a British accent, left over from Dr.Exter, my English teacher. That was mixed with a German lilt, though I did not have a pronounced German accent. Men found it "curious" and women said it was "cute," and I considered it bothersome to hear these comments. As an attempt to remedy that I signed up for a course of radio broadcasting at Mrs. Keith's Academy of Broadcasting on 16th Street. My teacher, name withheld to protect the guilty, was a tall, dark beauty and I fell head-over-heels in love with her. The feeling was not unrequited. We dated for a while and I left the school sounding more like an American, appreciative of her teaching ability and thinking highly of her in other ways.
That was at the end of 1947. I applied at a classical music radio station for a job as an announcer. They were paying so poorly however, that I decided to stay where I was. There, I had already advanced to the post of managing a department and made about $80 a week. $45 was what the radio station was offering.
Not wanting to leave a stone unturned to escape this grocery situation, I mustered enough courage to apply for a job at OSS, which was the forerunner of today's CIA. I took along all the papers I had accumulated from my employment with Counter Intelligence Corps, including Charles Wellner's recommendation. I was surprised to even get as far as the personnel office. The gentleman was polite but regretted that I could not be accepted unless I was a United States citizen. He suggested that I join the US Army. I would then become a citizen immediately and could return to the CIC service overseas. Could I just imagine, I asked myself, to have to go through basic training and to come out as a private on the other end, and then some bare-knuckled master sergeant decides to make me a cook? I thanked the man for his kindness. The grocery business became more attractive all the time.
Herbert Cohnheim made the most sense of everyone I had met so far. He worked for the D.C. Street Car System. Starting as an operator, he had advanced into the parts department at the car barn down on M Street in Georgetown, right at the foot of the Francis Scott Key Bridge, which was one of the spans across the Potomac River into Virginia. I liked those sleek green one-man-operated streetcars. For fifteen cents, the operator issued a ticket with a transfer slip that allowed travel all over town. It was clean, non-polluting transportation. But it was time for me to get an automobile. Aunt Hanna loaned me the money and Herbert helped me to choose a used car. The last automobiles in the U.S. had been produced in 1941, after which the industry was converted to war production. A few new autos were manufactured in 1946, but you needed money to bribe the sales people to get one. There were not enough cars to satisfy the demand. I bought a 1936 Chevrolet from an individual for $500. After I passed my driver's test, I put the car through the very strict D.C. inspection station, where it passed. No more long public transportation rides, I was free to go anywhere. In appreciation for her kindness to have loaned me the money, I picked my Aunt up almost every night from her place of work so that she did not have to take the streetcar.
The Cohnheims, Herbert and Grete, invited Aunt Hanna and me for dinner. We went down to the first floor. Herbert opened the door.
"Come in, come in. Glad you made it."
"Well we didn't have to come a long way," I said.
There was another couple, who was introduced to me as the Neumanns. Everyone else knew them, of course.
Herbert, my favorite, was tall, mid-fifties and slightly balding. Like everyone else, he spoke English with an accent, but at least he made no mistakes. His voice sounded kind of hollow, much like he was inhaling his words rather then rounding them out in a forward thrust. His speech, therefore, sounded muffled and nasal, but it was not unpleasant because of his good personality and the sense he made with everything he said.
Aunt Hanna and I had already conversed in English when I had visited her in Bremen prior to the war, when we were practicing English with the anticipation of going to America. But then there were Grete, Herbert's wife, and this Mrs. Neumann, whose husband I do not remember at all. Mrs. Neumann wanted ginger "Öl" (German for oil), and Grete had a problem with the word "hospital," constantly saying ""housepital." Aunt Hanna and I stole secret glances, and when I showed amusement, her face turned admonishingly stern and she shook her head.
Otherwise the evening proceeded pleasantly. The dinner was good, but the discussions were quite bland.
That evening we made plans to take a weekend trip to the Skyline Drive of the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. Herbert offered to drive us there in his big 1941 De Soto, a Chrysler product.
The Skyline Drive begins at Front Royal, Virginia and could be reached via US Route 50, a two-lane highway. We had made hotel reservations at New Market, VA. There were no interstate highways yet, so a trip from Washington, D.C. to New Market off the Skyline Drive took five hours. To go there, as we would today, and enjoy a fine day and return home the same day, was not possible. It was a two-day affair, and I was looking forward to taking my first trip in this country.
Skyline Drive and its connecting Blue Ridge Parkway were only a few years old then. They had been part of President Roosevelt's W.P.A. program, which provided work for the masses of unemployed due to the Stock Market crash in 1929. The lodge was located away from the small town of Newmarket, in the midst of beautiful woods. There was a swimming pool, and hiking trails that started right at the back yard. Dinner was included in the rate. It was served piping hot: a big round slice of Virginia ham, mashed potatoes and gravy. And then there was something new to me, the refugee: Corn on the cob. This, I thought, was pig food, and I refused to eat it. Besides I found it highly unappetizing to see my friends applying these things to their mouths, their lips curled around them, and to hear the crunching sound as their teeth stripped the kernels from the cob. It did sound like pigs slopping their food. It was almost funny. Maybe I'd try this at home once, but in a restaurant? Hundreds of people holding this round roll to their mouths like long yellow harmonicas? Baah!
Corn (maize) in either form was not consumed in Europe. I love corn on the cob now, but even today, after more then fifty years I would not eat it in a better restaurant, should it ever be offered there..
We returned home Sunday night, refreshed from a wonderful weekend in the country. My first. I was grateful to Herbert for inviting me.
I paid back all the money I owed to my aunt. I paid her weekly for room and board from the start, sleeping on an Army cot in the back bedroom. Because of the stifling heat, the window had to remain open and sometimes it was so hot that I preferred to sleep on the floor. Every morning around 2:00, people parked their cars below my window and had loud discussions, and I had to get up early to go to work. The evening meal my aunt served was often poorly prepared. Most every night I drove from work all the way to H Street, SE to pick her up from her place of work. Mr. Berger, her employer operated a cheap lady's clothing store, catering on credit to predominantly black customers. I felt bad for her, that she had lost all her money and led such a despondent life. But then I had to think about myself. I had to get ahead. She had got along fine before I came, she had helped me a lot, but I felt now that she was taking advantage of me. She had made no improvements for my basic comfort. I still slept on that cot; evening meals were haphazardly thrown together and often nearly inedible. I had to get away from her. She was using me, taking my good money and giving me not much in return for it. The move, once it would come about, had to be planned carefully, because she did not deserve to be hurt. I could not simply walk out. She had done too much for me, and was, after all one of the few remaining blood relatives.
* * * *
Harry Truman was to pursue his first legitimate election as President of the United States, after assuming the office of the Presidency upon the death of Franklin Roosevelt in April 1945.
Mr. Berger, Aunt Hanna's employer, had invited me to his house in Friendship Heights, an exclusive neighborhood of Washington. On that first Tuesday in November 1948, election day, we sat in front of a large wooden cabinet. On its left side was a tiny seven-inch television screen. We squinted to recognize the black and white picture.
For months now, the media had unanimously predicted that Truman’s opposition, Republican Governor Thomas Dewey of New York, was to win the election. "By a Landslide!" The headlines screamed, and the radio commentators yodeled. Among them was a radio commentator with the German name: Kaltenborn. He spoke with a distinct German accent. He was a bone in my throat, because at the time I despised anything even slightly reminiscent of Germany and Germans, wherever they appeared, even if they were Americans.
We sat and squinted and waited most all of the night, wringing our hands impatiently. We wanted Truman to win. There were no Republicans in that house.
Of course, Harry Truman won the election. The next morning, on his way back to Washington, he stopped at the railroad station in St. Louis, Missouri and said: "At 10:00 o’clock last night I had a glass of milk and a sandwich and I went to bed." He held up a newspaper headline that read in large script: Truman wins the election! He mimicked Kaltenborn's staccato-type, monotonous German accent: "Mis-ter Tru-man has lost the elec-tion, and Mis-ter Dewey will be our next president," much to the amusement of those present. The press was eating crow, in fact some of the members asked President Truman, when they could expect it to be served, but Harry Truman urged everyone to get on the bandwagon with him instead of fretting about the past. I wished I had had the right to vote then!
Some people said: If Harry Truman can be President, so can be my neighbor. History has proven that they were all wrong. I can say this about him:
Some are great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon them.
* * * *
A Chevrolet dealer gave me $175 for my 1938 Chevy, as a trade-in for a new 1949 Chevrolet two-door club coupe. Blue and sleek (for 1949), it cost $1,550. I paid him $375 cash and took a loan, which was then called "Chattel Mortgage," for a thousand dollars at Riggs National Bank.
I had gotten away from my aunt quite amicably. When we discussed my anticipated separation, I explained to her that I needed to be by myself and nearer to my place of work. Our relationship remained friendly.
I found a room with a private bath at 4817 45th Street northwest in Friendship Heights. My landlady was Miss Hoke, who worked for the Internal Revenue Service. I rented her master bedroom for $40 a month.
I now had only a fifteen-minute drive to my store. I ate all three meals out in restaurants, and thus lived quite a regulated life.
My sister wrote from England, inquiring about the procedure to come to the United States on a permanent basis, and about how I could assist her. I investigated and was told that I had enough money banked and a lucrative enough job to post an affidavit for her admittance.
She arrived without fanfare. We never lived together. Her experience as a nurse opened doors to doctors' offices, where she found employment. The physicians, though, had a hard time with her because she openly disagreed with the way they treated their patients and with the medicines they prescribed. Thus she was fired several times. She finally settled down after I read her some rules about this country -- namely that it was free, but also very ethical. That was a fact she seemed to have overlooked. She thought she knew everything and was opinionated and overbearingly condescending. My relatives in England called her "The Queen of Sheba."
My favorite restaurant in Washington was the Old Europe on upper Wisconsin Avenue. (It still exists.) Albert and Ida Lichtenstein and their two sons, Otto and Hans, had left Germany in the late thirties. They went to Guyaquil, Ecuador, to live out the war. They then entered the United States.
Albert and Otto managed the restaurant, and Hans was the chef. It did not take long for them to reach fame among the diners. The place attracted members of the U.S. Senate and the House of Representatives, and soon people were making reservations weeks ahead of their intended dining date. Mr. Hildebrand played German songs in the evening, and the guests sang along. That was an activity I did not care for, but the food was outstanding. I ate there frequently, and soon the Lichtensteins and I became close friends. They offered me a job, but I declined. I did help out behind the bar during weekends, voluntarily, and never accepted any money, though they frequently offered to pay me. I wanted to be their friend only, and the feeling was reciprocated.
In the early spring of 1950, I took my Chevy to Miami Beach. The trip took two and a half days. Interstate highways had not yet been built. Motels had begun to spring up along the highways, but they were primitive wood-cabin-type structures. At least travelers had a place to sleep and wash up.
The Hotel Norman was luxurious for the time. IT had a "sport's manager" who watched the guests, keeping track of the length of time they could stay in the sun. After a certain time we had to return to a shady area so as not to get burned.
On our way back home to Washington, my car began to make annoying humming noises from its rear end. The transmission held until I returned.
"Mr. Lion, the pinion bearing in the transmission of your car is broken. Unfortunately you have already driven more than 12,000 miles, and your warranty has expired. You would be responsible for the repair."
"How long can I drive this car safely without a serious problem?" I asked.
"About two weeks, if you don't go very far," he replied.
My friends and coworkers commiserated with me, regretting, as I did, that I would have such a large expense with a fairly new car.
General Motors, Chevrolet Division
A 1949 Chevrolet coupé, which I purchased six months ago at Bethesda-Chevy Chase Motors, had the following defects:
After four weeks, the gearshift lever fell into my lap while I was driving. The horn ring has already broken in half. And now, after 12,000 miles, when this vehicle is out of warranty, the transmission is defective.
Remember your slogan: Chevrolet, America's best seller, America's best buy?
"Well here's a fellow who went out to try
He bought the Best Seller and got the worst buy!"
After two weeks I received a reply from the Baltimore Division of General Motors, asking me to return to the dealer, where all repairs would be made free of charge.
Ah, the power of the written word. I had merely told them what was wrong with the automobile and never asked them to make it good. It instilled some pride in me, to live in a country where people are treated fairly.
My company transferred me to other stores, promoting me several times. In 1949 I was a department manager in a store in Maryland. The grocery manager was Jim Terry, and his helper was a burly strong black man named Charley Ford. The only time I saw Jim Terry work was when he received his weekly order. Jim and Charley then played throw and catch, and I have never since witnessed such procedure of transporting merchandise. No matter how big and how heavy the cases of beans, peas, or whatever item, Jim tossed them to Charley through the aisles, and Charley caught them without ever missing a single one. But that was the only time of the week Jim Terry ever did a lick of work. Charley Ford did it all, being glad he had a job. Jim and I discussed that once, and he told me: "If you want to get somewhere in life, you have to delegate."
He was district manager during the riots after Dr. Martin Luther King's assassination. His ability to keep all our stores from being destroyed earned him a good reputation in the upper echelon of the company. A few months later he was promoted to Vice President of Store Operations.
To improve my English I listened a lot to the radio, and also read books constantly. I went to the movies one night to see "The Fountainhead." It starred Gary Cooper and Patricia Neal. I was so taken by the film's dialogue that I bought the book by Ayn Rand. I was aware of the contents of the book, but it was still so good to take in that wonderful language. I then got into "Atlas Shrugged" by the same author. She was quite a rebel with that one. She perhaps intentionally overdid it, but she gave us something to think about at least.
Towards the end of 1951 it was time for me to make arrangements to become a citizen. The five-year waiting period would end after March 1952. Albert Lichtenstein, the owner of the Old Europe Restaurant, had a friend at the United States Department of Immigration and Naturalization. Albert arranged for me to meet this gentleman at the restaurant. A friendly young man in his middle thirties, he did not have any authoritative demeanor. He asked me whether I was ready to answer a few questions, which if properly answered would qualify me to take part at a swearing-in ceremony later in the year.
While enjoying a leisurely lunch, he asked me to name the three branches of the Government. "Executive, Legislative and Judicial," was my reply.
"And how many judges are there in the Supreme Court?" was his second question
"Nine, sir" I said.
We continued to eat, but no further questions were posed. After dessert he shook my hand. "Congratulations, Mr. Lion, you are now eligible to become a citizen of the United States."
I participated at an impressive ceremony at the United States Court House in Washington, D.C. Several hundred of us were assembled to be sworn in as citizens. A United States Senator spoke to us. Much to my surprise he never mentioned how happy or thankful we should be. His main theme was how thankful the United States was to have us as their citizens.
Since it is a violation to copy, print or photograph a citizenship certificate, I add here part of its contents.
Be it known , that at a term of the United States District Court
For the District of Columbia
Held pursuant to law at -------------------Washington--------------
On November 18, 1952, The court having found that
ERNEST GEORGE LION
Then residing at 4817 45th Street, N.W., Washington, D.C.
Intends to reside permanently in the United States (When so required by the Naturalization Laws of the United States) had in all other respects complied with the applicable revisions of such naturalization laws, and was entitled to be admitted citizenship, thereupon ordered that such person be and (s)he was admitted as a citizen of the United States of America.
In testimony whereof the seal of the court is hereunto affixed this 18th day of November in the year of our Lord nineteen hundred and -----Fifty-two---- and for our Independence the one hundred and --Seventy-seventh.
By Helen N. Nelson, Deputy District Clerk
* * * *
On October 9, 1953, I married Inge Winter, née Zehden. Her family had left Germany 1938 and gone to Ecuador. When her husband died in 1951, she and her son Tom, then eight years old, came to America. Related by marriage to the Lichtensteins of the Old Europe restaurant, she settled in Washington, D.C. She had worked for UNICEF in Guyaquil, Ecuador, and thus found employment at the International Monetary Fund. She spoke English, German, French, Spanish and Portuguese, a skill that was helpful with her job. We moved into an apartment in the northwest section of Washington, D.C.
Tom and I adjusted quickly. We found it awkward, however, when we had to introduce ourselves as Mr. and Mrs. Lion and him as Tommy Winter, so we agreed that I should adopt him. He became Thomas A. Lion, and has, to this day, been a good son to me. I now had a "ready-made" family.
In 1954 we moved to Arlington, Virginia.
Since I was a United States citizen, Inge had only a three-year waiting period before she could be naturalized. The procedure took place at the United States Court House in Alexandria, Virginia. It was not nearly as festive as my swearing-in ceremony in 1952, but we celebrated anyway.
As we worked hard to establish ourselves, the theme "Holocaust" was nearly forgotten. Though we had both been born in Germany, not a single German word was uttered in our household, or anywhere else for that matter. We swore we would never touch European soil again. We practiced what we thought was justified isolationism from any European country because anti-Semitism had been prevalent during the war wherever we pointed to on a map.
I received a letter from the United Restitution Organization (U.R.O.) in New York City, informing me that I would be eligible for financial restitution as a Holocaust survivor. I was not eligible for the category "interruption of education." I had already been old enough to have the equivalent of two years of college before the Nazis banned us from the schools.
For wrongful deprivation of personal liberty (Freiheitsberaubung) and for loss of personal property, the postwar German government gave me $5,400.
For my work as a slave laborer at Buna-Monowitz in Auschwitz, the I.G. Farben Company awarded me $1,800.
What about my parents' property, the house, the store, furniture etc., I inquired? That, they said, was my father's property, but since he was no longer alive. (They killed him!) I had no claim to it. My wife talked me out of my attempt to throw the $5,400 in their faces, whispering that it would serve as a down payment on a house.
. We bought that first house on North Edison Street in Arlington in 1957, and became what was then considered to be the typical American family -- a home with a tree-shaded back yard and a white picket fence, two cars and a dog.
My wife's parents decided to leave Ecuador as well and return to Germany, where they settled into an old age home in Dortmund. They were still German citizens and upon their return received a considerable sum of money and enjoyed many additional privileges. It did not bother them in the least to go back to what I usually referred to as "that country." They spoke only German, however, and that was probably a contributing factor in their move.
In 1960, Inge's father died in Germany, and her mother came to America to live with us. In our spare time we looked for a larger house, though I liked the little house we owned, with its beautiful trees. We were its third owners. It was built in 1946. I could have lived there forever, an American citizen with a house in America, free to do what I pleased. What more would I want?
Every other annual meeting of the International Monetary Fund takes place in a foreign country. The 1962 meeting was to be in Vienna, Austria, and my wife was chosen to attend. She mentioned that she would like to meet me afterwards somewhere in Europe, where we could take a sightseeing trip together. She had rediscovered a classmate of hers, Lore Loebell, and Lore's husband Fred, whom she would like to meet again after the conference. I refused to go, until she threatened that she would not go, either, unless I meet her afterwards. That would have jeopardized her job, so I gave in to a very stubborn Virgo. Three of my five weeks' vacation was all I could spare to take at one time because I had stores to look after, and no replacement was available for any more time.
When I entered the customs office at Frankfurt-am-Main Airport, I was literally shaking. Soon a customs officer approached me and asked me whether somebody was waiting for me. Inge was waving upstairs behind a glass partition, so I pointed up there, saying yes. He then took my suitcase and told me to return after I had met my wife, while he would check the luggage. His courtesy calmed me considerably.
Now I was beginning to eat my words. I had returned to "that country." What consoled me was that I was carrying an American passport and therefore was not one of "them" anymore.
We took a bus tour offered by the German Railroad (Deutsche Bundesbahn) along a sightseeing road south (Romantische Strasse) through Rothenburg ob der Tauber, Dinkelsbühl and Donauwörth right to Neuschwanstein. There we toured two of King Ludwig's castles in the area, where I had worked for the United States Army Counter Intelligence Corps after my liberation. We went to Füssen and stayed at the hotel owned by Herrn Bletschacher, whom I had had arrested and thrown into jail for being a Mitläufer, a (run-along) Nazi. He was polite, charming, and had forgotten about old times, so we enjoyed many extras and privileges other guests did not. The fact that we were Americans was a feather in his cap for the reputation of his establishment.
We rented a Volkswagen Beetle and visited Frau Schiegel in Lechbruck and many other old friends. Crossing back and forth, what should we pass but the Fountain at the Crossroads. Sandblasted, all war dirt removed, it appeared fresh and new. I felt that it was bathed of the Nazi doctrine; like many Germans, it had undergone a process of denazification. Each time we passed by, the old haunt returned, when I walked there as a starving prisoner, trying to drink from it, but was prevented by the rifle butt of that SS man. I hoped he was rotting in hell.
We took a train to Munich and boarded a plane to Paris.
We stayed in Paris for five days and took advantage of those days, doing things that are for tourists. After a taxi ride up to Montmartre, we saw l'Église Sacre Coeur, then walked all the way back downtown, which took an entire day. We each ruined a pair of shoes in the constant rain. One evening we attended a show at the Moulin Rouge nightclub. When we saw Notre Dame cathedral, its spirals glistening in the morning sunshine, I was thankful that the Nazis did not have time to destroy this beautiful city.
Then we returned to Germany on the elegant TTE, the Trans-Europe Express, first-class, from Paris to Liege, Belgium, then to Aachen, Germany At each stop the border police came to see our passports. They had already boarded the train in the previous country to prevent long stops at each border, as used to be the case when countries were not as friendly towards each other as they had become after the war. Everything appeared to be so much easier now. "Please," and "Thank you," and "Have a good trip" were a far cry from the sternness of the soldiers of the Third Reich who were always ready to arrest you if they did not like your looks. I saw some future for Europe, yet not for me to be in it!
At the station in Dortmund, Fred Loebell waited for us and handed a bouquet of flowers to Inge. We stayed at the Hotel Römischer Kaiser (Roman Emperor). For three days we enjoyed our time with Inge's former schoolmate, but then it was time to go home.
My thoughts? In Germany I sometimes felt like spitting on the street. They could have their Europe. Would I return? Maybe, but not too soon.
In 1964 Inge went to Tokyo, Japan, for the International Monetary Fund. I was unable to accompany her because we had purchased a new home in Vienna, Virginia, and I supervised the move there. We kept our first home in Arlington as a rental, and soon bought a third one in that area as well. We realized that on salaries alone, though they were good, one could not get far financially. Real estate built a good bridge for our future.
I often thought to myself how glad I was to be out of "that country." We had accomplished a lot during eleven years of marriage.
We soon realized that the move to Vienna, Virginia, was a miscalculation. The house was good, but the neighborhood left a lot to be desired. Too many little children, too much noise and the new neighbors were meeting after work in the street with martini glasses in hand. Not our kind of crowd. Bland folks without interests other than their careers. We were most unhappy there. Unfortunately we did not listen to our then 19-year-old son Tom, who had warned us not to move there. We were now looking for acreage with the idea that once it was found we would build.
* * * *
He was rather rotund, only five feet and two inches tall. To offset his baldness, he wore a large moustache. Not an attractive man, he had an opinion about many things, even those which were quite unfamiliar to him. Everyone called him Shortie. Some didn’t even know his last name, which was Faw. Shortie Faw.—" Roger."
Roger and I had started employment at about the same time in 1947, and although he was one of the most efficient delicatessen managers in the company, that was as far as he wanted to go. He refused any promotion.
"I just want to stay and do what I do. Please leave me alone, thank you," was his constant reply when approached for a transfer or a promotion. In some ways he was right. The further you had advanced, the more you had to endure company politics. Roger was too blunt. He did not possess the diplomacy it takes to withstand those intrigues.
One day I visited the store where Roger worked. I mentioned our predicament to him, how unhappy we were with our new surroundings.
"Come to Accokeek," he said. "Ann and I have a house there on seven acres. You could buy a building lot. The smallest would be five acres."
I was unfamiliar with the area. He described the way to the little community on the Potomac River in southern Maryland, located across from George Washington's Mount Vernon Estate across the river in Virginia. We went there the following Sunday, and after a few additional visits, bought a six acre lot.
Roger introduced us to a local builder, and six months later we proudly moved into our new home. The year was 1967. The area is called The Moyaone Reserve. It has a scenic easement in perpetuity with the United States Department of Interior for the preservation of wildlife. None of the properties may be subdivided. And so we had more privacy and more natural beauty than we had ever dreamed we would own. Imagine a 700-foot driveway, where nobody knew there was a house at the end of it, a two-and-a half-acre front lawn, and the remaining four acres all wooded. Roger and his wife Anne lived a quarter of a mile up the road from us. Now I finally got to know more about Roger than our business involvement. Though we were quite apart culturally, Roger and I-- he was sort of a "redneck"-- we did have a lot more in common than the grocery business: Woods, nature, wildlife, dogs and horses.
Obviously Roger was instrumental in getting us out of that much despised and frustrating Virginia rat race. We were thankful to him.
In 1969 Tom married Diane Johnson of Long Island, whom he had met at George Washington University. We attended a grandiose wedding ceremony and party arranged by Diane's parents. The bride's parents, Carl and Rose Johnson, had reserved a special wedding establishment. The celebration was catered magnificently. Delicious food was served, champagne was flowing, a band played, and we danced into the night. As the happy couple was dancing, some of the guests handed them money as wedding presents, and each time Tom and Diane passed by me, he handed me the money for safe-keeping, as they were flying to Europe on their honeymoon. On our way back to the hotel, I had several thousand dollars hidden on my body, walking fearfully through the night in New York City.
My own marriage, however, was about to end tragically
During the years my wife had lived in Ecuador, she had contacted an intestinal disease because of the unsanitary conditions in that country: meat, for instance, was sold on the open market, unrefrigerated. Flies then settled on the meat and the danger of amoebas developing in the bloodstream of the purchasers was great. She was suffering badly, but with proper diets and prescribed medication she managed to keep fairly well. At the end of January 1971, she underwent an operation to ease her condition. While in the hospital, however, she worsened and underwent two additional operations as the surgeons desperately tried to save her life. But at 2:15 p.m. on March 2nd, at the age of 50, she died. We suspected negligence by the surgeon, but had no proof. Three days prior to her death, my mother-in-law, who still lived with us, and aware of her daughter's certain death, had committed suicide. How far-reaching really was the persecution of Jews by the now defunct Nazis? Were not both Inge and her mother indirect victims of it? I firmly believe so.
Within one week I arranged for two funerals. After both had been interred, I closed the house, made certain that all animals were taken care of, and left for New York City, just to escape. I did not want to be alone in that house. To this day I do not remember where I stayed or what I did in New York during those days. I returned home and decided to go back to work, which I considered to be the best medicine to overcome the tremendous shock and grief. On weekends, Tom and Diane visited me. They still lived in an apartment in Virginia. They did enjoy their weekends in the country, and gave me company as well.
I volunteered to become a founding member of the newly erected Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., and thus had the great fortune to attend its opening concert. Leonard Bernstein conducted his Mass with the Israeli Symphony Orchestra. The center became my escape to culture, allowing me to get away from the rather unsophisticated business I made my living with.
Roger Faw miraculously entered my life again. He invited me to join the Accokeek Lions Club. The Lions' emphasis on sight conservation pleased me, and I went to work in that club with vehemence.
I also took several trips to Florida and became enthralled with its West Coast. About 1973, I decided to retire there. I was 58 years old. Most people in our strenuous business get out at 55 if they can afford it. My superiors heard about my intention. They explained how much more economically advantageous it would be if I'd stay. In addition, I was offered a more challenging position, combined with substantial financial improvement. To feel needed pleased me. I also realized that I was too young to waste my time idling in the Florida sun.
My Aunt Hanna was still around and came to visit quite often. She was in her 80s and decided to retire to a Jewish old age home in Rockville, Maryland. To avoid forfeiture of all her money to the home, I managed some of her accounts and brought money to her when she needed it. She managed the library in the home until at the age of 93 she passed on, whereupon I turned over her remaining funds to her stepson Fred.
My sister had left the clan in the early 50, declaring that she wanted nothing to do with any of us. We were relieved to see her go, and I do not know where she is, except that she married a certain Mr. Connelly, whom I have never met. Albert Lichtenstein of the Old Europe Restaurant told to me once that he had asked both her and her husband to leave his place before they could finish their dinner. They had behaved so badly that some other guests threatened to leave. She must have found a "soul-nut."
With Aunt Hanna's death, then, I was the last of the Lions remaining of that branch of the family tree. There was the other line, the cousins Ernest and Ruth, but I am concentrating on our side of the tree at this time. So few of us came to the shores of this country to live a normal life. It was easier for those who had arrived before the war. But for us who were incarcerated and had lost so many loved ones and so much time, a real normal life was impossible to live. That war had changed us considerably, each in his or her own way. My outlook on life became more serious and perhaps unnecessarily, I was often looking for ulterior motives in others' intentions concerning me.
Through publications like Herman Wouk's War and Remembrance and William L. Shirer's The Nightmare Years, the American public became more aware of the Holocaust. Now there was nowhere to hide for people like us, who so desperately wanted to remain in the background and mute about those terrible times. Settled in, I had become more of an American then I ever had been a German, and I hated it to hear people ask: "How was it?" Do I ask them if they have a couple of weeks to listen to me, or ask them politely to please leave me alone? The latter is still is the preferable approach for me. I am like my father, who never talked about his experience as a soldier during the First World War.
I greatly admired the U.S veterans who fought in the second war, and always silently thanked them for their bravery, without which I could not be here. That was another reason why I did not want to talk about my past. After all, D-Day and the Battle of the Bulge had been no picnic either!
In1977 I took four of my five weeks' vacation and, eating my own words again, I took a trip back to "that country." Inge's friends, the Loebells of Dortmund, had invited me to take a sightseeing trip with them. Something had changed when I arrived there: I was totally accepted as an American, and no one mentioned that I once had been German. They sensed my pride of citizenship and respected me for it. I also felt they were proud to introduce me as "their American friend." Both sides were aware of the irony of this behavior, but neither side ever discussed it. It was a front we maintained with some success during my visit.
* * * *
My granddaughter Suzanne Lion was born Christmas Day 1978.
Roger Faw was elected president of our Lions Club and asked me to be his secretary. We worked well together and had a successful year.
In 1979 Roger told me that he and his wife Ann had bought a mobile home in the area of Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, and invited me to accompany them to spend Labor Day on the beach. I had driven through Myrtle Beach once in the early 70s on my way to Florida, but was otherwise totally ignorant about the area.
The place, called Oceanside Village, was in walking distance of the beach. Roger suggested that I should be thinking of retiring there and of buying such a place for that purpose. I asked him to show me more of the area, because a mobile home was not in my retirement plans. I had to live in a real house.
I became somewhat intrigued with the Myrtle Beach area, and drove there each month for a long weekend to look around, anticipating possible retirement there. I already had made a few friends, who had invited me to celebrate New Year's Eve, 1979-1980. I stayed at Roger Faw's mobile home at Oceanside Village. During the night from the 29th to the 30th of December I became violently ill with a high temperature. I swallowed two aspirins every two hours during the night from Friday to Saturday and in the morning intended to go to the emergency room of a hospital, but discovered an open medical center on the way, something we were not used to in the larger city. After a short wait, I was led into the doctor's office. A tall, lanky gentleman introduced himself as Asbury Williams. I was impressed that he eliminated his title. He took a fingertip-type blood test and found that I had a severe blood infection. He administered an injection, gave me some medication, and told me that I would be walking on the beach the next day.
"All due respect to your profession, dear doctor," I said, " I think this will take a bit longer than 24 hours."
He was not a talkative man, and did not elaborate, but told me not to go home until after the first of January, and see my doctor upon returning. I did walk on the beach the following day and my doctor at home told me to make sure to link up with this Surfside Beach doctor, should I move there.
I have been here twenty years now. Doctor Williams is still my primary physician, and he has saved my life on at least two occasions. He knows when to stop ministering to me and has always found the specialists who could continue to restore my health. He is a caring man, and it is a great comfort to me to have him available at any time, less than a mile from my home. Not only as a doctor, but also as a friend. We do talk more now.
I attended the New Year's Eve party with my new friends in North Myrtle Beach. The home it took place in was one of the best-built houses I had seen since my own home in Maryland. Since I had become somewhat of an expert in judging the quality of custom-built houses, I took down the name and address of the contractor, and upon my return in late January met Herbert Brown of H.L. Brown Construction Company. I asked him to show me a few of the houses he had built and to introduce me to their owners. I decided that "Brownie" would build my new home, wherever I would decide to settle in this beach area. To be certain that I would not make a mistake, I drove down each month to rethink whether it would be right for me to make that last important move. In June of 1980, still employed but ready to retire, I bought a building lot on the corner of Hollywood Drive and Seventh Avenue north in Surfside Beach.
That month, after 33 years, I retired from Giant Food, Inc. of Washington, D.C.
My house in Accokeek had already been on the market since the end of January. Because few people wanted to live on that many acres, it took until well into July to finally sell the place. I arranged for settlement not before the middle of August, when I would be ready to have my furniture put into storage in South Carolina and move there. I rented Roger and Anne Faw's mobile home at Oceanside Village while ground was broken for my new home.
At Oceanside village I met quite a few Giant employees who had bought this type of home for recreation, some with the intention to also eventually move down to retire.
I had visited several Lions clubs in the area to find a suitable club to transfer to. On January 1st, 1981, I transferred to the Myrtle Beach Lions Club and was elected secretary the following year.
I also went to Charleston and subscribed to their local symphony.
Before I bought the building lot, I had introduced myself to my future next-door neighbors. They were friendly and seemed to be glad that the lot next-door to them was going to be occupied by only a single man with a dog. They invited me to a Sunday luncheon in their home. To my surprise it was given to introduce me to all the nearby neighbors. I was also invited to a pre-Christmas party at the home of Mr. and Mrs. Campbell, the parents of the future South Carolina governor. After that visit it began to dawn on me that there was an ulterior motive in all these invitation; I was always asked what denomination of church I was affiliated with. I rectified that very quickly, telling them that I was Jewish. Further such invitations ceased. I was, however, respected, and the friendliness and neighborliness did not suffer due to my religious belief. I am still residing there with compatible neighbors, among them the Mayor of Surfside Beach.
In 1982 I attended my first International Lions club convention in Atlanta, Georgia.
While there I was appointed district chairman for Leader Dogs for the Blind. In July I flew to Detroit to visit the Leader Dog compound in Rochester, Michigan. They blindfolded me and gave me a chance to be led by one of the dogs in training. I was so taken by the organization that I devoted most of my time to it. I have raised over a half a million dollars in eleven years.
At a Lions club meeting in Surfside Beach I met Kathy Krchnar, coordinator for the prevention of substance abuse for the Horry County school system. I invited her to speak to my club as well. We talked a bit before the meeting, and she saw the tattooed number on my arm. Like many others, she became interested and asked questions. Oddly, I found her attitude not to be intrusive, and we became good friends. During the years, Kathy has become the best friend I have here. When she married her second husband, Bryan Hill, she honored me by asking me to walk her down the aisle and give her away. She is true and trustworthy and has consented to act as my power-of-attorney and the executor of my will. I am fortunate that I can rely on Kathy, should any emergency arise. We are like family, and I feel like a grandfather to her daughter Emily.
In 1985 I decided to run for Lions District Governor for 1986-1987 (July to June). I was elected in New Orleans and also became chairman of the council of governors. I made many friends in the state, and had a successful year I even chartered the Little River Lions Club, which was an extra feather in my cap. At the end of my administration I flew to Taipei, Taiwan, to attend my fifth international convention. Being in the Orient, I decided to go to Japan to retrace the trip my late wife took when she was there with the International Monetary Fund.
I remained a member of the Myrtle Beach Lions Club until July 1999. It was a wonderful experience to do volunteer work for sight conservation and to assist those unable to help themselves. My 29 years as a Lion has been an opportunity to give back to the public in gratitude for the success I have had in America.
I am often reminded of my mother: "If you are well off, you must always help those who are not." I still see the Likier children staying at our house when their parents could not provide for them.
* * * *
I had a word processor type of computer for quite a while. Always the curious one, I decided to get into the "real thing."
Now that I was connected to the Internet I needed lessons. I had heard of Coastal Carolina University's Extended Learning Program and signed up for an introductory course on the Internet. The most able instructor was the director of the Computer Assisted Instruction Lab of the university, Abdallah Haddad. It was slow going at first, but I worked at home on the written material he provided, and I have become much better in the meantime.
In August 1997 I came down with cancer of the prostate. It had already left that gland and invaded the rest of my body. Dr. Williams referred me to Dr. Timothy Quillen, who practices urology in Conway. After several excruciating tests, Dr. Quillen decided to inject me quarterly with Lupron. Under his care my health situation improved significantly. During that time I had a visit from a long-time friend from Germany: Elisabeth Lohr, whom I had met in the early eighties. We intended to travel, as we usually do when we meet either here or in Europe, but my condition did not allow us to do that. I was glad she was here. She stood by me in my trying time.
Without further elaboration, it needs to be said that I may have a chance to live another three to five years without the reoccurrence of my problem, but I am also assured that, should the medication become ineffective, other methods could be applied. Every three months, when I visit him to receive the injection, Dr. Quillen tells me not to worry. I am following his advice. I have no time to waste and to dwell on what could happen to me. I am concentrating on what I can make happen for myself and for others. And if chemicals make me perform in a normal manner, Amen to that! I need a book to read, music to listen to and things to learn. I need to know what I am going to do when I open my eyes in the morning. I have had some bad times, but have no inclination now to anticipate bad times that may never happen.
I decided to take further advantage of what Coastal Carolina had to offer. I had always wanted to write and have, in fact, written some poetry in the early seventies. But I wanted to write about my experience before, during and after the war. Several attempts without outside help were discouraging to me.
In January 1998 I signed up for a creative writing course through the Extended Learning Program. It was given by Suzanne Thompson, who is also the director of the Foreign Language Instructional Center of the university.
The first day was mainly a day of introductions. I do not particularly care to talk too much about the Holocaust, but since I intended to learn to write about it, I decided to tell the assembled students and the teacher that I am a survivor. The first piece I wrote was not too good. Miss Thompson thought I had written too much about history, and did not include enough of my personal experience. That did not discourage me: I wanted to learn, and learn I did. She was a good instructor, straightforward when she had to be, and complimentary when she liked what I wrote.
I had called her "Miss Thompson" for the first four or five lessons, after which she told me to call her Suzanne. All the other students did that from the beginning, but I have too much respect. I had not gone to school in a long time and thought it would be discourteous to call a teacher by her first name. I wrote a few good pieces in her class, and will always be grateful to Suzanne for her guidance and thoughtful instructions. She is a "born teacher."
She told me that she was studying German. At the end of the course I offered to meet with her and speak German, but did not hear from her for some time. One fine day I sent her an email, suggesting again that we meet and speak German. It was as important to me as it would be to her. She could learn more, and I could refresh my German after 52 years in the United States. We meet often, speak German exclusively during our meetings, and have both improved, each in our ways. We've become friends in the process.
Before I came to the United States I spoke French fluently, but during the years here, I have forgotten most of the vocabulary. I was told about a French round table that meets weekly at Barnes and Noble, and went to visit there one Friday afternoon. While there I met Randall Wells, an English professor at Coastal Carolina University. He gave a lecture in French. At the end Randall told me that he recalled me from his years as a member of a Lions Club, in Conway. He also remembered an article he had read about me in the Myrtle Beach Sun News. It was written by Blanche Floyd, who with her husband J.K. had been a guest at a party I gave on the occasion of my fiftieth year in the United States.
I told Randall about a representative of Steven Spielberg's Shoah program who had recently interviewed me at my house for seven hours about my Holocaust experience. Spielberg's intention is to interview and film all Holocaust survivors around the world. The seven hour interrogation was only preliminary to their return the following week to videotape me, expecting me to tell all again and reply to another interviewer's questions.
The young lady claimed to have conducted some forty of such interviews and acted quite knowledgeable about the subject. So much so, that at times she professed to know more about concentration camps than I, a former inmate! I had insisted on audiotaping the procedure for my satisfaction. Her questions were systematically read from a printed form. Several times, and without reason, she asked me to turn off the tape recorder. The entire meeting began to annoy me not only because of her unreasonable attitude, but also about all details I was forced to reveal to a total stranger during that very long period of seven hours. I remained polite. After all, she was a guest in my house. I decided that I would not allow them to return for the completion of this procedure.
I had developed an intense dislike towards this woman and the entire program she represented. She became quite condescending. The following day I politely wrote her not to return, apologizing for the inconvenience I may have caused her.
She did not reply to me. Rather, she decided to talk to my son in Virginia about it. Tom told her: "If my father does not want you to return, I'd advise you to stay away, but it would be best to communicate with him directly."
I never heard from them again. My daughter-in-law Diane recently told me that she had seen part of one of those interviews before seeing a movie. This program was not slated for the general public, and excerpts from it should not have been shown as an advertisement in a public movie theater.
Randall Wells, Director of the Horry County Oral History Project, suggested I loan him the tapes. He would have them listened to and transcribed, and the result could be incorporated into the Kimbel Library at Coastal. It turned out, however, that the tapes were inaudible, thus useless for his purpose.
In the meantime I decided that I would write my autobiography, that someone could edit it, and we would then bind it and I'd donate it to the Kimbel Library at CCU. I thought that to be a much better idea, because even if the tapes had been audible, there was too much unusable "stuff" on them.
I don't have to go any further, because this is the story!
I have two very capable editors. Randall himself, and Suzanne Thompson. Without them there would be no autobiography. I am grateful to both for the hours they have spent blue-pencilling these pages.
* * * *
The international Lions club convention for 1998 was held in Birmingham, England. I signed up to go on a pre-convention European tour with a group of Lion friends. Before joining them I went to Germany to spend some time with my friend Elisabeth Lohr. We took a four-day conducted trip to Berlin. After that, we spent time with her three sons' families. I also thought that I could now pay a visit to a former concentration camp. I chose Buchenwald near Weimar, now easily accessible due the reunification of the two Germanys.
I had Elisabeth's promise to accompany me there. Without her I would not have had the courage to face all that.
We drove to Weimar. The city itself is a great sightseeing attraction. There was the charter of the first German Republic after the First World War, with Friedrich Ebert as the first chancellor. It was where the great statesman and poet Goethe lived. Among his works he gave us Faust. It was where Friedrich Schiller lived, though for a shorter time. He gave us the poem Die Glocke (The Bell) part of which Ludwig van Beethoven used in his last, the Ninth Choral Symphony:
Alle Menschen werden Brüder wo dein sanfter Flügel weilt.
All humans turn to brothers, where your soft wings hover.
And right there, where these peace-loving men once walked, was where the beasts had chosen to splatter the earth with the blood of innocent people.
The former concentration camp Buchenwald is now a museum. All the barracks have been torn down, but their numbers are still displayed in front of large rectangular fields of black basalt stones. The original gate has been restored and placed at the entrance. It still displays their cruel words:
J e d e m d a s S e i n e
To each what he deserves.
The day of our visit was a Sunday, and the place was crowded with visitors, including an abundance of young people of college age. Tour guides were available everywhere, and everywhere we heard them tell horror stories. We went to the reception building. At first, and as usual, I hesitated to identify myself there as a survivor and a former inmate (twice!) of this camp. But Elisabeth pushed me to the front desk, whispering to me:
"Wenn du schon einmal hier bist, dann kannst du dich auch zu erkennen geben. Sei nicht lächerlich.!" ( If you are here already, you may as well identify yourself. Don't be ridiculous!)
And so I stepped forward and did just that.
The receptionist called the office of the Archives. There we met Frau Sabine Stein. I gave her as many details about my internment here as I could remember. She consulted the microchip records in order to find anything about me; I doubted that she would, but after some time she returned with a list of names, mine included. It showed the date I was returned there on our way from Auschwitz. (Copy attached.)
I saw volume after volume of books of Jews who had not survived. Mrs. Stein made copies of all those named Lion. (Copies attached.)
After that Elisabeth and I walked around a short time. We visited the room where operations had been performed on live inmates, who were placed on a bed constructed of tiles, showing openings for the blood to flow into receptacles beneath. Primitive surgical instruments were displayed in a glass case on the opposite wall.
The next room showed four ovens for cremation.
One of the former SS buildings contained pictures and information about all the SS criminals who had operated the camp, their whereabouts, their possible jail sentences and the time of their deaths.
I found the "Small Camp," (Das kleine Lager) It was especially constructed to house us as we returned there after the Russians took Auschwitz. It was overgrown with woods and had become unrecognizable.
We drove back to Weimar. I was not too upset about the visit, mainly because of my good and true companion. She kept me in check. She is a cool lady, a retired teacher, and if she was upset, she did not show it to protect me. As a small child toward the end of the war, she had endured her share of bad times, too. That made her somewhat stronger as well.
After I returned home to America, my interest in the International Lions organization began to wane. Its progress had slowed, its membership had declined and citizens seemed to have no interest in joining. In all fairness, that situation does exist with other service organizations as well. Society has turned to a "me first" criterion. The extraordinarily good economy we are experiencing makes people want to spend more time spending their money than volunteering to help.
* * * *
Needing more activity, I asked Suzanne Thompson whether she could perhaps use me at the Foreign Language Instructional Center of CCU. I thought that I could help students to perfect their German studies and would otherwise do anything that needed to be done there. I was pleased when she accepted my offer.
I hope that a few students have improved their German studies because of my help. I have learned much during the nearly five months I have worked there.
Unfortunately due to deteriorating health I was advised by Dr. Williams to resign.
* * * *
A CLOSING THOUGHT
It's not always easy being me. I don't let on, but sometimes I get depressed because I have now lived the longest time of my life, and only have a few years left to live. It is not that I mind dying. I already experienced that feeling when I decided to lie down and let death come easy, rather than to continue to suffer. No, it is because I have missed so much when life nearly stopped and I was allowed no free will. When I was not even permitted to take a drink from the Fountain at the Crossroad. Now there is not enough time left to do things for myself, not to mention for others.
Before I began to write this I rarely talked to anyone about myself. What was the point? So many other survivors have led similar yet different lives. Some have written about it. They would not want to read this. I wrote it for those who are interested in my story.
Writing this was not easy. All the minute details, all the deceased family and friends have now reappeared, all the German audacity, the sarcastic attitude they displayed toward us, the scheming and planning for our destruction; and our ignorance about it until we were faced with its finality. All the humiliation and the utter helplessness. All those lives lost, innocent people walking into death traps, mistaking them for showers, and ending as a pile of garbage ready for incineration, but not before their hair and gold teeth were removed. And all the destroyed existences and all the wasted time for those few who survived.
Today is the thirtieth of August 1999. Almost exactly sixty years ago, on September 1, 1939, Hitler's army marched into Poland. France and England declared war on Germany, and the Second World War began. The world has never been the same.
Something good has happened to me as a result. At the end of that terrible conflagration, I could come to the United States of America. Here, I have lived as a free man.
I imagine the human brain. I envision the substance of this wonderful organ having stored my experiences for these long years somewhere in its crevices. While writing, all details reappeared; my thoughts poured them out and assisted me in bringing them to paper. It has been an overpowering experience -- at times causing fright and great anger. I have spared nothing and have embellished nothing. Often I had to interrupt the effort for days until the sleepless nights had passed and I could find new strength again, until the blurred vision had cleared and reassured me that I had nothing to fear as the American I have become.
These events had been locked away for decades. I have re-examined them and conclude that my life, after all, has been worth living.