In commemoration of the seventieth anniversary of the end of World War II, I'll be sharing a few stories from or about the ordinary people who were the witnesses of this global cataclysm. My parents' generation, people born in the mid 1920s, grew up in the war years. Many of them served their country either in active service or civilian war work. In these blogs, we will hear British, American, Jewish, German and Italian voices. The stories of the living witnesses form an irreplaceable oral history and their voices need to be heard. They share tales of tragedy and trauma, heroism and hope--and also of romance, not because war is romantic but because they were young and war or no, it was their time for romance. It is easy for us to ignore the voices of the very old. Some of those who we interview live in institutions--society's strategy for protecting ourselves from the Messengers--old age, sickness and death. Soon enough, these witnesses will be gone. The intention of these blogs is that their stories not die with them.
In 1921, a young Jewish couple, known as Leo and Minda Last, came from Poland to the German city of Essen in search of opportunity. Situated in the Ruhr Valley, Germany's industrial heartland, Essen was a major city, known for steel, coal and iron. At the time there were about 5,000 Jews in Essen. Many were prominent members of the local community--bankers, doctors, lawyers, engineers, and clothing merchants. There were philanthropists, art collectors and art patrons among the wealthier German Jews. The East European Jews, more recently arrived, were traders, miners and factory workers. Leo himself worked as a salesman.
Essen had one of the largest and most beautiful synagogues in Germany, styled after the Jerusalem temple. Desecrated during Krystallnacht, the synagogue survived the heavy allied bombing of Essen and is now maintained as a memorial.
In the final days of 1922, Minda gave birth to a dainty and beautiful baby girl, who they named Frances. The little girl was born into turbulent times. Only days after her birth, a chain of events was set in motion in the Ruhr valley that was to change her life--and the lives of millions around the world--dramatically. In January of 1922, French troops entered the Ruhr valley. The occupation of the Ruhr, known in Germany as the Ruhrkampf, was in response to Germany's failure to pay the huge reparations required under the treaty of Versailles. Hyperinflation accelerated until a wheelbarrow of money was needed to buy a loaf of bread. The stage was set for the dramatic rise of the Nazi party and the transformation of the Weimar republic into a totalitarian dictatorship.
Frances, her parents and later her brother lived in a small one bedroom apartment. Frances' parents each had a bed and Frances herself slept on a board between the two beds. The apartment did not have its own bathroom and two tenants shared a toilet. Once a week, the family got out the tin tub, heated some water, and everybody had a bath using the same water. Finally, when Frances was twelve, her parents bought a couch. From then on she slept on the couch in the living room. "But I could not always use the couch. My Uncle had a non-Jewish girlfriend. So they could not go to a hotel to be together. Instead, they used my couch." Frances' nursemaid slept on a couch in the kitchen.
Frances brother, David, known as Dollie, was born on her fifth birthday. As he grew up, the lively boy was a handful for his parents to manage in a small apartment. Eventually, when he was eight, Dollie was sent to stay with relatives in Poland for a year. On his return at the age of nine, he started working in a bookstore. To everyone's amazement, he would answer the telephone, take orders and then deliver the books on his bicycle, from one end of Essen to the other. His precocious skills foreshadowed a successful business career.
Frances was ten and her brother five when President Hindenberg appointed Hitler Chancellor. The lives of Jews in the Ruhr valley immediately changed for the worse. There was strong support for Nazism in Essen. With Hitler in power, Essen's Jews were immediately subjected to all kinds of brutality--arbitrary arrests, beatings and murders.The notorious Brownshirts enforced a boycott of Jewish-owned stores and scores of Jewish merchants were taken to concentration camps. A pall of fear descended upon the Jewish community as antisemitism revealed itself in its full ugliness.
"We were always so worried about the boys," Frances emphasizes. "A German girl had only to complain about a Jewish boy, and he would be killed, even if he had done nothing. Maybe she wanted to have a date with him and he turned her down. Even then she could accuse him of touching her. And he would be killed. Every time our boys went out, we were so worried, and so glad to see them come home. But if a German boy wanted to get a date with us Jewish girls, there would be trouble if we turned him down. We would say, 'But I am Jewish.' And he would say, 'Never mind.' And what could we say?"
There were other changes too. The young Frances used to enjoy listening to Gypsy music on the radio, Now Gypsy music was verboten. If you wanted to hear it, you had to listen in secret and at great risk. Foreign radio stations were also verboten and newspapers were censored, making it increasingly difficult and dangerous to get any information other than Nazi propaganda.
The Lasts lived one block from Gerlingplatz, the market square, one of the well-loved places in Essen. But on June 21st 1933, just weeks after Hitler came to power, Frances witnessed an event that was to change her perception of Gerlingplatz forever. Books by Jewish and Socialist authors were gathered into a huge pyre in the centre of the square. The sensitive Jewish girl watched in horror as books by Albert Einstein, Sigmund Freud, Bertolt Brecht and many others were consigned to the flames.
Soon Frances began noticing that food was increasingly scarce. The money that should be spent on feeding the population was instead being put into Hitler's rearmament efforts. "He took the food from us and hoarded it underground for the army," said Frances, "But you could not say anything. If you went into the grocery store and saw something funny, like ersatz bread, you could not say anything or you would be arrested and never seen again."
"He was a madman," Frances went on. "I heard his speeches on the radio. Only a madman could talk that way. But nobody dared voice opposition. If you did, even your own children would denounce you."
On 15th September 1935, the Nuremberg Laws were enacted and Frances' life took a further turn for the worse. "Jews had no civil rights. You could not go the library, or the theatre,or a restaurant, or sit the park. My father could not work." Jews were fired from their jobs and Jewish children were forced out of school and all placed in one Jewish school. Frances was the first to use this opportunity to break down the class distinction between wealthy, assimilated German Jews and poor Polish Jews. She made friends both among children of wealthy families and among those from the poorest neigbourhoods. Frances became close friends with the daughter of one of Essen's most prominent Jewish families. A chauffeur would pick Frances up and bring her to her friend's handsome villa. The friend had three rooms for her use-- a bedroom, playroom and a big library where she had her music lessons. There the girls played happily until it was time for the chauffeur to bring Frances home. One day, the girl's mother wanted to see where Frances lived. The arrival of the elegant lady caused quite a stir in the neighbourhood. But the wealthy woman showed no trace of snobbery as she sat on the couch and chatted courteously with Frances' mother.
Frances had a cousin, Brunhilde, who had a non-Jewish mother. Brunhilde was an enthusiastic member of Bund Deutscher Mädel, the girl's wing of Hitler Youth. Proudly sporting her blue skirt, white blouse and neckerchief, she was a strong believer in Nazi ideology. Eventually, Brunhilde's father was deported to a concentration camp. His wife chose to go with him, and Brunhilde, the exemplary Nazi, was sent there too. In spring of 1945, they were told to dig their own graves. But while they were busy with this macabre task, the Allies liberated the camp and their lives were saved "And this happened to my cousin, the Nazi!" Frances exclaimed.
While her cousin pursued Nazism, Frances herself was secretly studying Marx and Engels as a member of a radical Zionist youth group. All her friends were preparing go to kibbutzim in Palestine with Youth Aliya--a programme run by the Zionist movement to rescue Jewish children from Germany. Frances desperately wanted to go too. But Minda and Leo had other plans. They intended to bring their family to America. Frances' hopes soared again when she received a special scholarship to finish school in Heidelberg for two years and then go to college in Jerusalem. She would not be going alone, either. A friend of hers had won the same scholarship. "He was an incredible young man, like a saint, very wise." Frances was bitterly disappointed that her parents would not allow her to go to Heidelberg. Her friend, however, did go. Tragically, he was killed soon after he arrived in Heidelberg.
The blackest chapter in the story of Frances' experiences under the Third Reich ocurred in 1938, when she became one of the earliest victims of Nazi human experimentation. Devoid of real scientific value and completely unethical, these so-called experiments were little more than exercises in sadism and dehumanisation. Early that year, Frances became ill. Insisting that her parents would be unable to feed her properly, the Nazi doctor admitted Frances to hospital. "I was sick for only two weeks with an upset stomach, but they kept me in hospital for three months. Three months! I was confined to my room, which I shared with a sixty three year old German woman, who never spoke. I was not allowed out of bed, even to go to the bathroom. Every day five doctors and nurses were doing experiments on me from morning to night. When I insisted that I was not sick and wanted to go home, they told me I was lying. They had huge jars of fluid, which they injected into my arms every morning. Then they would pump my stomach. That was a horrible experience as you are absolutely convinced you are choking! I had a friend who was half Jewish. He had a large house where they hid political dissidents in the basement. He came to see me almost every day and took me for a walk in the garden. Without him, I don't know how I would have survived that terrible time."
Meanwhile, Frances parents had her passport and US visa prepared and were ready to leave for America. This was still the time when the Nazi plan was to expel and plunder the Jews. The Final Solution--extermination--was to come later. Many of Essen's Jews left at this time, relinquishing all their possessions. Because the Lasts were Polish citizens, they were able to leave. After repeated pleas, they finally extricated Frances from her traumatic hospital experience. The family left Germany in May of 1938, six months before Kristallnacht. They settled in New York, where Frances lived until her spiritual quest drew her to Boulder, Colorado. To compensate the adventurous and independent girl for the loss of her chance to go to Palestine, her parents allowed her to hitch-hike to Montreal with a friend!
One of Frances' Polish cousins opened a dental practice in Vienna. One week after he opened the practice, Hitler annexed Austria. Stormtroopers marched into the dental office and made him destroy every piece of dental equipment--years' worth of hard work and saving on the part of his family. Desperate, he wrote to the Lasts, begging them to bring him to America. "I felt so terrible that we could not save him. But we did not have the means. But I should have gone there myself and married him. Maybe I could have saved him." In our previous blog, we spoke of moral injury. Forced into ' choiceless choices' that made them complicit in their own destruction, the Jews of the Holocaust suffered severe moral injuries. Frances' inability to save her cousin's life was one such injury.
Frances has led a long life full of healing endeavours and spiritual experiences.Today she lives in a shared nursing home room. At night, she lies awake thinking of her experiences of Nazi Germany, her friend who was killed and her cousin whom she could not save--wondering what she might have done differently. Her sorrow reminds us all that we must never forget. For what we forget, we are doomed to repeat.