Photo Credit: Jewish Press

Coming To America



How long after you were reunited in Germany did you and Benno get married?

“A month minus three days. We met on the 27th of March, and we got married on the 24th of April. We left Stuttgart on the 28th of April, and we came to America on the 20th of May.”

Did you ever consider going to Israel?

“I was never a Zionist. I mean, the way I was brought up. I had this one cousin in Palestine. But the things which were going on that we heard right after the war. People were sitting in camps. Some people came back and told us they are hungry there. Then my cousins wrote those letters. I really didn’t think of going to Israel. If I wouldn’t come to America, I would go to Palestine. But my first choice, if I could, I wanted to come to America.

Once in Los Angeles, did you try to locate other survivors, or did you try to block out the past?

“No, not at all. We came here at the end of 1946. It was the week of Thanksgiving, our first Thanksgiving, and the family made a big shindig out of it, with all those cousins, one-hundred people or so. We were so confused; we didn’t know who’s who.

“And then, after all, you are a refugee, and you are in a strange land, and you don’t know the language. For my husband this was a horrible thing. He thought the worst thing was that he doesn’t speak English and he was so frustrated and ‘Everybody, every street cleaner speaks the language but me.’ So one had to learn so many things. And, of course, to just pull yourself together and start living. Start buying from a spoon and a plate and a bed…

“Very shortly afterwards we met some refugees also. Maybe my cousins introduced me, I don’t remember anymore. Actually, we were the ones who organized the first, at that time was called, the Jewish Survivors of Concentration Camps. And for a while we were very active. In fact, I even have a picture of one time when I delivered a speech in Yiddish. Of course, so many refugees were still in Germany that needed help. There was so much going on in Palestine, and people needed help there.

“For about two or three years we were very active in this organization. I was the recording secretary. We made some very good friends with whom we remain friends until now. Many of them passed away already.

“Then I started working. I worked for two years at the sales office of Max Factor Cosmetics. Benno started working at Neutra’s, and then we, little by little, became very integrated into American society. And we wanted to. We wanted to become Americanized.

“We were forever going to evening school to learn English. Then we’d take courses in this and courses in that. Then the babies came and, needless to say, there was no such thing as babysitting. Your mother’s not going to babysit for you, and your sister’s not going to babysit… So to raise three small children, I was quite busy.

“Benno was in Neutra’s office, which was a very interesting office. We met many people from all walks of life, Americans and non-Americans. Then gradually we felt that just the fact that we are victims of the Holocaust was not enough for us at that time. We gradually, more and more, went back to it. But there was a time we thought we don’t want only to… After all, we just don’t want to dwell only and remain in this parochial thing.

You must have had the thought, “If I get out of this alive, I’m going to…” What was that “going to” be?

“The only thing I remember was I just wanted to have a small, clean, neat room and be able to bathe every day and not be eaten by lice. This I remember. Just as small as it can be, but to be your own… And to be able to get rid of your lice. Benno and I, we retained this sense that material things don’t mean much to us. We never wanted to amass, we never tried beyond our push. We had this sense that we really never needed so much.”

When you first came to Los Angeles, what was your primary concern?

“To live. That was all. To live. To try to become a human being. You know, it is so difficult to say because we were not… In Germany we already had this feeling too. Because suddenly, especially in the United States, I mean you walk down the street and there are no restrictions whatsoever. You can go in and buy anything you want if you have the money, of course. This total freedom…

“Of course, we had to study to become citizens after five years. You know Benno hadn’t worked in his profession for many years, but he had this profession and he wanted to go back to it. At the beginning I thought maybe I’ll go back to school and get some degree. I mean, I am not probably a terribly educated person, but I am not a terribly ignorant person either. But I don’t have any formal degrees. There was a time when I thought to go back to school.

“But I was always taking some classes at junior college: psychology classes, philosophy classes. My philosophy teacher was always joking, ‘You will get one day yet a PHD in philosophy.’ Now, at this stage, I don’t have any of those ambitions. Languages come easy to me, and I speak five languages quite fluently: Polish, English, German, French, Yiddish for sure.

So you tried to forget those years during the War?

“We neither tried to forget it but not to live it day in and day out. You just can’t. And then there was a time we wanted to talk a little bit about it, a little bit more than others were willing to hear.”

Why do you think the Americans shut out those conversations?

“Well, it might have been out of pity. You know, you cannot, why should you dwell on those horrible times. And of course, you came here and now you have a new life, and now you have to look forward, and you are a young person. Besides, I don’t know if it was the mode or not, but now looking back, maybe the Jewish community did have a sense of guilt that more wasn’t done that could have been done. I don’t know.”

You mentioned that when you were in Germany, the Germans didn’t talk about the concentration camps. Do you think the German civilians knew what was going on?

“Well, I only suspect that they must have known because there were so many people involved in it. And those people were coming back home. For instance, that German, the one who was the employee of the railway – that night with this woman and the child – he was from Munich. He was not an SS man and he never maybe saw a concentration camp; I don’t know. But being in Krakow, he did know what is going on with the Jewish people. Then of course I myself told him, so the man knew. So when he went back, let’s say he was going back at Christmas, he had a furlough to go home for Christmas, so didn’t he tell his wife? Didn’t she tell somebody?

“So I am talking of a man who was not directly involved. But what about those that were coming out of the concentration camps and going home to enjoy themselves and brought the wife, suddenly those diamonds and jewels, and the fur coats. Where did they take them from?

And do you expect they didn’t talk about it? And also the Poles. The Poles knew everything because it was not hidden from the Poles. The Poles were making jokes, I mean even the Poles with whom I was working. So how could they not know.”

“Yet with all their sufferings, which were legitimate sufferings, still, ‘ What’s happening to the Jews it’s a good thing for us that it’s happening to them.’ You know it’s difficult to explain but that’s precisely what I heard all the time. And frankly speaking, even now, from reading that I know more about the suffering of the Poles than I may have realized when I was in Poland, I really sometimes wonder that under the circumstances that they took so much, I would say, delight – delight in a sense – in the fact that the Jews are being killed. You call it “zufriedenheit.’ It’s a German expression which means satisfaction of a revenge. That’s what the Poles had in spite of their suffering. I just hear it; you heard it all the time. And that was, that was really so shocking.

Are you religious now?

“I don’t know. You see, I used to be a very religious person before the Holocaust. When I was a young girl, I grew up in an orthodox home and a very Jewish Orthodox, and everything was so clear. There was no question… Otherwise, what sense would life have if you didn’t believe in G-d. What is the whole thing all about.

What are your feelings about Germans whom you meet today?

“I feel bitter. I have an uncomfortable feeling. Uncomfortable because he is German, and I am distrustful. Also, it bothers me that sometimes if you get to speak to the person and let’s say he wasn’t alive during that period – after all, we’re speaking about 40 years past – and secondly that he is strongly opposed to what was happening and he is trying for reconciliation. It also bothers me that he almost puts you in a position to be grateful to him for his stand. Do you understand what I am saying?

“I tried to tell it once to Dr. Yehuda Bauer, he’s an Israeli historian. He wrote a couple of books about the Holocaust, and he is, I think he was the Dean of Contemporary Jewish Studies at the Hebrew University when we were in Jerusalem at that time. There was a seminar about antisemitism, and I went over to him and, for whatever it’s worth, I said to him that really if you want to study the Holocaust and understand it psychologically, what should be studied is the German psyche. Never mind the Jewish psyche and how we reacted to it. We were the passive recipients of it. We didn’t create it; we didn’t dream it up. And I always insist every time when I see anywhere written or in conjunction with the Jews, that the Germans dehumanized the Jews, I don’t think the Jews were dehumanized.

What are your thoughts on the second-generation Germans?

“I’m not so magnanimous, and I’m not so generous to say, ‘What, is he responsible for what happened?’ We Jews seem to be responsible forever for whatever happened anywhere and at any time, no matter how long ago.”

Is it possible to come to terms with the past?

“You have no choice. It is always with you. But it is like a chronic condition: You learn to live with it.”

The End


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