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Good afternoon and welcome to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. My name is Bill Benson and I am the host of the Museum’s public program, First Person. Thank you for joining us. This is our tenth year of the First Person program. Our First Person today is Mr. Gerald Liebenau, whom we shall meet shortly.
This 2009 season of First Person is made possible though the generosity of the Louis and Doris Smith Foundation, to whom we are grateful for again sponsoring First Person.
First Person is a series of weekly conversations with survivors of the Holocaust who share with us their first hand accounts of their experience during the Holocaust. Each person serves as a volunteer at the Museum.
With few exceptions we will have a First Person program each Wednesday through August 26. We also have First Person programs on Tuesdays through July. The Museum’s website at www.ushmm.org provides a list of the upcoming First Person guests.
This year we are offering a new feature associated with the First Person program. Excerpts from our conversations with survivors are available as podcasts on the Museum’s website, and several are already posted. Gerald Liebenau’s will be available within the next several weeks. The First Person podcasts join two other Museum podcast series: Voices on Antisemitism and Voices on Genocide Prevention. The podcasts series are also available at iTunes.
Gerald, or Gerry, Liebenau will share his first person account of his experience during the Holocaust, and as a survivor, for about forty minutes. We will follow that with an opportunity for you to ask Gerry a few questions. Before you are introduced to Gerry, I have a couple of announcements and requests of you.
We ask first, if it is at all possible, please stay seated with us throughout our one-hour program; that way we minimize any disruptions for Gerry as he speaks. Second, if we do have time for questions and answers, and we hope that we do, and if you have a question I ask that you make your question as brief as possible. I will repeat the question so everyone in the room including Gerry hears the question, and then he’ll respond to it.
If you have a cell phone or a pager that has not yet been turned off, we ask that you do that at this time. If you have passes for the Permanent Exhibition today, please know that they are good for the entire afternoon so you can stay with us throughout our one-hour program and still go to the Permanent Exhibition.
The Holocaust was the state-sponsored, systematic persecution and annihilation of European Jewry by Nazi Germany and its collaborators between 1933 and 1945. Jews were the primary victims; six million were murdered. Roma and Sinti, or Gypsies, people with mental and physical disabilities, and Poles were also targeted for destruction or decimation for racial, ethnic, or national reasons. Millions more, including Jehovah’s Witnesses, homosexuals, Soviet prisoners of war, and political dissidents also suffered grievous oppression and death under Nazi tyranny.
More than 60 years after the Holocaust, hatred, antisemitism, and genocide still threaten our world. The life stories of Holocaust survivors transcend the decades and remind us of the constant need to be vigilant citizens and to stop injustice, prejudice, and hatred wherever and whenever they occur.
What you are about to hear from Gerry Liebenau is one individual’s account of the Holocaust. We have prepared a brief slide presentation to help with his introduction.
We begin with this portrait of Gerry Liebenau. Gerry was born to a Jewish family in Berlin Germany—oh, I’m being asked to do a time-out here for a moment… Okay. It wouldn’t be appropriate for me to say that they’d much rather be here with us. [laughter] I don’t know what’s going on over there, but they’d rather be here.
Anyway, let me continue on with our PowerPoint presentation, our slide show. And we begin with this portrait of Gerry, who was born to a Jewish family in Berlin, Germany, in 1925. Gerry’s father was in the textile business in Berlin. In this photo, we see Gerry and his parents on the beach in Estonia in 1929.
Gerry was the eldest of two children. Here we see Gerry, his mother, and his younger sister, Irene. And I think all of you will agree, this is just a tremendous photograph, it really is.
In 1938, five years after the Nazis came to power, Gerry and his family moved to London, England, where they waited for visas to the United States. In February 1939, they emigrated to the US. Here we see Gerry’s original US immigration identification card.
They lived in Pennsylvania and eventually settled in Connecticut. In 1944, after graduating from high school, Gerry joined the United States Army. And we close our slideshow with this photograph of Gerry, returning to the US from his post in Austria in 1946.
Today Gerry and his wife Vivian live in the Washington D.C. area. After the war, Gerry attended Yale University before beginning his career with the federal government, most of which was spent with the CIA. He married his childhood sweetheart, Vivian. They have four children: one son and three daughters. Their son Jonathan teaches at the London School of Economics. Daughter Betsy is the School Readiness Coordinator for Fairfax County, Virginia. Arlene is with the Folk Life division of the Smithsonian Institution. And Janet is a primary school teacher who just earned her Master’s Degree in education this past week, and the Liebenau family had quite a celebration for that event, and that honor, over the Memorial Day weekend. Gerry and Vivian also have four grandchildren, ages 11 through 25.
And I’m pleased to let you know that the Liebenau clan, to a very large extent, is here with us today. Besides Gerry’s wife Vivian—and Vivian, if you wouldn’t mind letting folks know you’re here, that would be great—and next to Vivian we have their son Jonathan and his wife Golberna, and then we have Arlene, and Janet, and Betsy, all there in the front row, so, we are really delighted to have all of you with us today.
Gerry has been associated with this Museum since before it opened sixteen years ago, and he volunteered for many years with the Museum’s Visitor Services. He also does translation work for the Museum, and as an example, he translated documents for the Varian Fry exhibit, which memorialized Varian Fry’s clandestine efforts that helped rescue some 2,000 persons from Nazi-controlled Vichy France, including distinguished intellectuals and artists such as Mark Chagall and Heinrich Mann.
In addition to his work translating for this Museum, Gerry also spent ten years translating works of the renowned Austrian psychiatrist, Alfred Adler that had not previously been translated. Gerry and Vivian love to sail, and have done so for many years. While they recently sold their boat, they note that one of their children has a boat, so they’re able to continue their love of sailing.
And with that I’d like to ask you to join me in welcoming our First Person, Mr. Gerry Liebenau.
Thank you. Thank you for coming.
Gerry, thank you so much for joining us and for your willingness to be our First Person today. We have a lot to cover, so why don’t we get started. Gerry, you were born in 1925, before Hitler and the Nazis came to power. Tell us, as a way of beginning, about those early years, those years before the Nazis’ rise to power: what your life was like, what your family’s life was like, and your community in those early years.
I was born in a part of Berlin that was kind of a working class neighborhood. My home was in a large apartment building on the fourth or fifth floor with no window to a street but towards an inner courtyard. My playtime was spent in a large park that was across the street from where I lived, and I did what all other kids do. I played, in Germany it was cowboys and Indians. We loved the cowboys and we loved the Indians. You couldn’t lose whatever side you were on. [laughter]
My family was, at that time, getting started in the business that my father finally went into. My father was a World War I veteran. He fought for four years for the Germans, and he was a heavy machine gunner. So it turned out I was a heavy machine gunner in World War II—that must be in the family. Much of his thinking and his feelings were associated with the fact that he was a German. He was thoroughly German. I mean his father was, his grandfather was, and goodness knows how far back. They were all very much Germans.
My mother on the other hand, she came from Estonia, which is why I was on that beach, visiting my grandparents. She studied piano, first at St. Petersburg, which is what it was then called, and still is, and then went to Berlin to study further.
They met during World War I. My father was in the occupation army of Estonia, and he attended Jewish services one Friday night in the city of Tallinn, which was then called Reval, and my future grandfather invited him to dinner. At that point he fell in love with my mother.
What happened afterward is kind of murky, but my mother ended up, after the war, in Berlin, and said she bumped into him in Alexanderplatz, which is probably like meeting somebody on Times Square. And from then on that was the beginning of their life.
And in the intervening years, though, they didn’t have any correspondence, a relationship?
I do have at least one postcard, still from my father, from the field, to my mother. And I only assume they must have been in touch. I can’t believe two people could meet like that without having made some kind of connection before that.
It’s a great story, though, absolutely.
Yeah. My father’s family was practically nonexistent. He lost his parents shortly after the war—I think his father died during the war. And my mother, however, had no family at all in Berlin. Her family was still in Estonia.
We had a very close-knit family. I grew up in a home where people celebrated every birthday. My family now will tell you that’s a tradition in my home; we always celebrate birthdays. I was shown pictures of what my birthday table looked like when I was one year old, because I couldn’t possibly see anything, but it was a whole city, with trains and planes and zeppelins and balloons and God knows what else. It was the kind of home where people really loved their children, and devoted a lot of their time to them.
That’s why I can say my childhood was very pleasant. My parents had a modest income, enough so they could go visit their in-laws, and I did go to the beach. Later on, I learned on that they also went skiing in Czechoslovakia. So it was a very normal life. And what I’m going to say, which is what this whole story is about: evil is something you really don’t know it’s coming until it’s got you.
This was a time when the Nazi party had begun its tremendous propaganda effort to convince the German people that their main enemies were the Communists, and they had to fight them, and they fought them. And in my neighborhood one of the earliest things I experienced was street fighting. Down the block, the Nazis would come marching down one side, and the Communists on the other, and then they would meet and have a big brawl.
I also found, early in my life, that there was something going on which I could only remember as being noteworthy, but had no idea what it was about. Kleistpark had a large courthouse, a justice building with enormous steps, and one day I was playing my usual game with my pals when a lot of people turned out. And when we followed them to see what was going on, we saw that the Storm Troopers had lined up on both sides of these high rising steps, and others were gathered on the bottom. And soon after that, the doors opened, and a large number of dark suited men, with briefcases, started walking down the steps.
It was the first of the Nuremberg Laws to dismiss all lawyers from government service; since that was all government service anyhow, every lawyer disappeared. That was the first thing I saw—I couldn’t quite make out what it was all about.
But you had actually witnessed that, Gerry. You were there to see that.
Yes, I was there, and these other things which must have made an impression on me. And while I say my life was idyllic, it was wonderful, there were things going on that obviously I wasn’t too aware of.
Before we turn back to that, a couple of other questions for you. Tell us just a little bit about your father’s occupation. You said that he was in the textile business.
Before the war, my father actually studied to be a window dresser. He worked in some of the largest department stores in Berlin, and anyone who’s been to Berlin they know, there’s big Macy-like stores. So he had good training and he was quite good at it. He was quite artistic.
When he came back from the war, he decided that it was not a business for an old man to be in. He was looking way ahead, thinking that that’s too cold in the winter, and too hot in the summer, and you have to bend too many times. So he decided he would go into the business, he would join his father-in-law, his sister’s husband. And in the textile business he then did enough to learn how to do the business and eventually opened his own business and that’s how he became a businessman.
Ironically, when he came to the United States, he didn’t speak any English, that’s in 1939. And not knowing any English, he had nothing left but to be a window decorator, and he literally worked in the windows until the last day of his life. He came home one night and went to bed and died, age 75. He was quite mistaken about old men not being able to do certain things.
Gerry he was, when you were growing up, in your early years, he was also, I think you described him as a ardent sports man, and belonged to a rowing club. And that becomes an important part of your life.
We spent our weekends literally in a rowing club. It was located on the Spree, which is the river that flows right through Berlin. And it was a Jewish club, but there were many clubs like that, there were several other Jewish clubs and there was this club. And they raced with others and we were kids played there, that was the playground before the weekend. The women would sit around and drink tea and talk. And the men were busy with their boats.
It was a wonderful place to be. The first time I ever climbed into a Ford, one of the earliest T-model Fords, one of the guys had left it there and we kids made sure that we learned all about automobiles. My father’s mode of transportation was a motorcycle with a side-car. The side-car was amazing; it held not only my mother, my sister, and a maid, or me, and then somebody who sat in back of my father. So there were five of us sitting in this little motorcycle, but he managed very well.
That’s quite an image to hold, isn’t it?
He also had a boat. He had a two-seater, a double-skull, and my mother rode, and he rode and I was coxswain, or made believe I was. I was sitting in the back there, actually they didn’t need me but I was there.
So our life was fine, you know, we had a very normal life. And all around us the world was falling apart. I mean, newspapers were full of antisemitic outrages, they couldn’t say enough bad about us—we were the ones that brought about all the destitution, lost the war for them, and God knows what else we did—but we as kids didn’t know much about this.
Gerry as you kids didn’t know much about this, but for your parents as the Nazis’ power increased and their hold, their stranglehold, on the country grew, what was life like for your parents? Was your father able to continue his work? What was going on for your folks?
My father was a tough guy. I mean he not only survived World War I, which itself is a miracle—I have a soldier book with every battle his unit fought, and I went through all the history books I could find to see what happened, unbelievable things happened—he managed, he managed to keep his business going. He had some customers outside of Germany, in England, which helped him eventually, and he was, from my observation he was fine.
Was actually happened was, things got a little bit more unsettled. Talk at the club now was more and more about emigration. People left, people sent letters back, people were talking about how do you get out? And the more they talked, the longer they waited, it was more and more difficult to leave.
My uncle, who had two sons, sent his two sons to London so they could open a textile business there. It was easy to leave in 1934, ’35. By the time ’38 and ’39 came along, it was almost impossible to get out.
Just an aside, but it figures in an important way a little bit later, your father was an avid stamp collector, and amassed quite a collection, as I understand it. And we’ll come back to that, I think, a little bit later.
During that time, tell us a little bit about your education. One of the things you said to me, at some point the family decided to move to another neighborhood, and your performance in school, by your own words, really began to deteriorate.
My family decided to move, I guess when my sister came along, which is usually when people decide to move, the family gets bigger, needs more space. But they moved into a better neighborhood. It was only about two miles further west but it was clearly a neighborhood where there were parks, and there was a different kind of population living there.
It’s kind of like thinking you want to move out of your old neighborhood because it’s getting too rough so you move into another neighborhood assuming it’ll get better there. But nothing really was better. It looked better. It seemed better. We had a balcony; we could sit outside and watch the sun go down—again, the fourth floor, fifth floor of a big apartment building.
I want to mention something else we did a lot. We went to the zoo a lot. I was a zoo man; I mean, take me to a zoo and I loved every animal. Eventually I got to know them. One day I was at the zoo, I must have been about twelve years old, and a crowd of people were standing in front of some cages. And I made my way through them and took a look to see what was there, expecting to see some new animal. But it was a family of Africans: a man, a woman, a child—behind bars, like animals.
And it bothered me. It bothered me to see that. I had no idea what was bothering me, but you don’t treat people like that. And in fact when I grew up and I look back at my life and I start writing about one of these things, I researched this out. I went to the Library of Congress, tried to find out whether that was actually taking place. I found books on Berlin, on zoos, and saw nothing.
Then my son-in-law came to me and said, “You know, I know where this happened.” And he gave me a book by a man named Hans Massaquoi, the son of an African diplomat who lived in Hamburg and married a German woman. The boy was black, but he was normal, he was a German as much as anyone was. He played soccer and he spoke German fluently, spoke no other language, and he visited the zoo, and he saw the same thing I did, and described it in his book in great detail.
And to him it was a totally different experience. It was the first time that he saw himself as black, because it didn’t seem to come to him until he saw these people, that family of Africans. And the next thing that happened was very alarming. The people watching the scene thought that he was one of their children and started chasing him so he could get back into the cage. That was described in his book.
Which incidentally is one sale in the Museum’s bookstore, I believe. Gerry, tell us a little bit about what happened to you at school, as things got worse and worse.
I can remember my school years as being fairly normal. I was not in any way persecuted; nobody chased me, not until much later. In my early years, I was just a kid in school. I have all of my report cards. My father saved them all with a little note attached for his grandchildren, so my children would know that I was not really such a bad student at all. They were pretty awful. It was not only that, but the deteriorated in time. My attendance was poor, my participation in class was declining significantly, and I can only ascribe that to the fact that my family life was becoming tenser.
My father started to study English. By the way a lot of the talk by the women at the club was what kind of things that could learn, what kind of trades they could take, or learn, so when they emigrated they would have some work they could do. And the most popular of all of the discussions always was, the man goes as a houseman and the woman goes as a cook, or he goes to cook and she becomes a maid, so they could stay together and live somewhere, which they thought was a wonderful way to—these were all people with a good bit of money, these were not poor people. They all lived their lives as housewives and the men were working.
So it was an increasingly tense time, but my school was fine, my school really, in fact, an amusing thing, many years—in fact until about last year the name didn’t mean anything—but the name of my teacher, when I moved into another school, was called Zorn, not the Jim Zorn of the Redskins, but the same name, Z-o-r-n. My life just doesn’t stop; things keep coming back to me.
Gerry at some point you would be forced, along with all other Jewish kids, to leave the German school system, and you would go to an all-Jewish school, and I think you told me that was the first time you really felt totally immersed in the Jewish community.
There are certain things in my life I can’t really explain. The Nuremberg Laws, which were the ones that decided what to do with these Jews, had certain types of things that happened during different periods of time. First the lawyers had to leave; then the doctors couldn’t operate on any non-Jews, and then it wasn’t until 1938, November 1938, that the Nuremberg Laws decreed that Jewish students could no longer attend public schools. But I went to a Jewish school in 1936. That Jewish school had existed for some time and my parents must have felt that something was bothering me to the point where they needed to take me out of the public school.
The Jewish school was another experience for me. It was the first time I was in a totally Jewish environment, although my family attended synagogue and went to services and I did go to also. But those were occasional immersions into a Jewish community. But this school was totally Jewish.
And yet it wasn’t, in the sense that there was no “Jewish studies.” It was a school; they taught geography and languages, mathematics, which I was always weak in, and it was otherwise very normal life. I didn’t have to raise my hand and hail Hitler, and I didn’t have to sing the German national anthem, that was the main change. And I sort of liked that, because it was always a little bit difficult for me to go through these exercises.
Gerry, by 1937 your family was so concerned about conditions and the family’s safety that they began to make their plans to leave Germany. Tell us about those efforts to try to get out and then, of course, in 1938 your father made a move to London, if you’ll us about all of that.
The sequence of dates at this point leave me a little bit blundering. I have an enormous amount of information, mostly gleaned from my father, who had copies of every letter he ever sent to anybody, and his letters were long, pages long, describing how he felt and what the new life was like. And all these things were very interesting, but I couldn’t figure out exactly when he began to make this move to leave.
It so happened, at some point—and the most important part about leaving was to have, and we wanted to go to the United States, you needed an affidavit for the United States. An affidavit would affirm that these people would never become a ward of the state. And I became a ward of the state all my life. But otherwise it was that which was important.
And my mother couldn’t remember, but thought or heard that she had an uncle living in the United States. She sends a letter to her father, who’s then in Tallinn, Estonia, and asked him about it: “do you have a brother living in the United States?” And he came back, “Yes I do.” His name is Miller, or it changed from Orkinitzki to Miller. Now how can you find an Orkinitski when his name is Miller?
But he gave us the address, and he lived in Scranton, Pennsylvania. So we sent a letter to Scranton, Pennsylvania in hopes that something will happen, and sure enough, they sent us an affidavit. It was luck for us. I mean these things come together in ways that you can’t explain.
His son [had] just graduated from law school. I mean Morris Miller had a second hand store. He was as poor as they come, and yet his son went to college and became a lawyer. So it must have been the lawyer who penned that affidavit. And when it came to us and the judge looked at it, and, well actually we took them to the US Consul in Berlin, looked at it and said, “My God, he can’t support you with this income that he has,” and sent us back.
So we sent another letter to Uncle Morris Miller and said, “We need more.” And he found a friend, a guy who owned some movie theaters in the city of Scranton and he gave an affidavit that obviously was much more substantial, and with that we were finally allowed to emigrate.
Gerry, just to interrupt you for a second, just so we all understand—so the issue was, the affidavit had to show that there was enough financial support for you, and your uncle by himself didn’t pass muster in the eyes of the judge.
So somebody else had to step in and kind of back that up a little bit, is that right?
That’s what happened.
The affidavit was only one part of the procedure. The next thing was getting the visa to enter the United States. Part of the visa was a numbers game. You were given a number; when your number came up, that’s when you got your visa. So here it was already September, October of 1938, and we still didn’t have a visa.
My father in the meanwhile was endangered. I mean he knew he was on a list and he was to be arrested. And he did what I think was the right thing to do, he went to London. He went to London because he was a business man, he had customers in London, and the German government needed foreign currency. They were desperate to get money, any way they could, and they saw that as an opportunity to find that money.
Another one of those things that can’t be explained: why did they give him a visa to exit and enter London when they knew he wasn’t going to come back? I mean he was Jewish; he was no fool. There were people in this place in the government, in Germany, who did not follow the Nazi lines, who simply felt that if the law said you gotta do this, then you do it. And the laws were still on the books, that is, you still have to encourage trade, particularly with England. And that’s the only way I can explain it.
So he was in London, left in September. My mother was all alone. But before he left, he obviously made certain arrangements. He saw to it—he went to a moving firm, a moving company, and he arranged for them to come to our house on a certain date and collect our furniture and put it into a lift van, one of those huge cargo boxes. I remember the day they came. We were about to leave ourselves—but I’m skipping something very important.
Yes you are.
I’m skipping November 10, 1938. All of this was going on when suddenly the Kristallnacht came, the "Night of Crystals", when a mass movement took place in all of Germany which was erupted and the target was the Jews. And not only did they smash all of the windows of every store that was Jewish, but they also set every synagogue on fire that they could get away with.
That fire-setting was instant. This was not an uprising that happened to come at a certain point. It was caused by the killing of a German embassy official in Paris, by a Polish refugee whose parents were about to be taken into a concentration camp, or had been taken. And there’s another murky story that goes with it, but it was a very unimportant official and this guy simply took a gun and shot him.
That night, or after, this whole thing erupted, and there’s no way to explain that except to say that it was well-planned in advance.
My father has a letter from the rabbi of the synagogue that we attended. The synagogue was opened in 1930. It was a beautiful place, was huge. And it was modern; it was as nice as they come. And in this letter he described what happened to that synagogue that night.
He was called by the janitor, or the caretaker, of the building, who was not Jewish, and was said to him, “Rabbi, our synagogue’s on fire.” And he rushed to the scene and he saw how the firemen had come down and were hosing down the neighboring buildings. No one tried to put out the fire. Now that’s not possible unless it’s well-planned and orders had gone out to every fire station in Germany that when the synagogue was aflame, you do not put out the fire.
That’s so much against the nature of a fireman—I don’t care what his nationality is—that it had to be a very stern order, and there were undoubtedly Gestapo people all around making sure that this was going to be done that way.
The synagogue burned down, pretty much. It only was eight years old then, when it was burned down.
After the war, I was in Berlin, I was stationed in Vienna and I was able to get to Berlin. I went back to that synagogue, and lo and behold, not a building was standing in the entire neighborhood. The bombings that Berlin was subjected to were devastating, not a building—and the synagogue was no longer the one hole in the block, it was the place that still had more walls left than any other building on the whole street. I thought somebody must have watched the scene.
Anyhow, in all of this, my personal encounter with this night, Kristallnacht, November 10, was when I went to school, I passed an artist’s supply store, a large artist’s supply store, with big windows, and I used to stop every time I passed by it because it had the kind of things a schoolboy really likes to have—you know, the crayons, and the pencils, and the pens, and all the other things that go with artists’ supplies.
And it was shattered. All the windows were gone, and the whole place was robbed clean. There was nothing left. None of the things I wanted were left in that store. That hit me hard, because now, for the first time, this whole thing became personal, and I knew things were not good.
My mother was the hero of the day. I mean, she had never been a head of a household. I don’t think she knew how to write a bank book, she didn’t know how to cash checks, and all of a sudden she had to do all those things and get us ready to leave the country, because by now we had also gotten our permission from the British.
Don’t ask me how all these things happened. We were going to visit my father, who was a business man in London, so why shouldn’t the family go visit the father?
And sure enough they gave us all visas to go to London—for a limited number of weeks; this was not one of those permanent, you can come and stay. But they gave it to us. They must have known this was not going to happen, that we would leave after four weeks. But we had it.
And we managed to leave on the day that we had planned to. And my father, again, must have made all these arrangements. He must have seen something like this. He must have had tickets that we could use, because my mother wasn’t going to buy tickets; I don’t think she knew how. And the same with the furniture. The furniture was unloaded just about the day that we were leaving, so we were not sleeping in an empty house, and it was transported to Scranton, Pennsylvania.
I mean, why? These people were robbing Jewish homes every time they were emptied, and my house they took the furniture and shipped it off. They could have taken it down the street and sold it. And yet they didn’t. The furniture ended up where it was supposed to go.
So Gerry, you and your family would go to London, but your belongings would go directly on to Scranton, Pennsylvania, yeah. Tell us about going to England—your journey to England, and getting there.
England was—all these things are wonderful for kids. I mean you take a kid out of his home and you take him somewhere on a train ride and boy, there’s nothing that makes him happier. My sister was younger, five years younger than I am, so maybe she didn’t have all these experiences.
But it was great—get on the train. Except on this train, as we were going to the Dutch border, it stopped at the border, and we were told to leave the train. We all had to get out of the train, and my mother almost went berserk. I mean here she was, in charge of all of us, and they took us off the train, put us into a hotel. And we thought that was the end. I don’t think I slept, I don’t think my mother slept. My sister might have slept.
But the next morning they told us to get back on the train and we went to London. Just like that. There are things that happen in life for which there are no explanation.
In London my father greeted us. He was the most happy man you’ve ever seen, the happiest man you’ve ever seen. And we lived in a very small—he had a very small apartment, just big enough for himself and they took my sister in. Me, I was settled in someone else’s home.
A Jewish organization in London saw to it that refugees who were coming into London would have an organization that would support them. And they did. They provided me with a suit and shoes and what I needed, and then saw to it that I got to a family of very orthodox Jews who provided me with a bedroom and sleeping facilities, and I was in a totally different environment from what I’d ever experienced, but it was fine. It was very nice.
I went to school. I didn’t know a word of English, and I don’t know what I did in that school or what I learned. But it was not unhappy, you know, so you don’t talk the same language as these other people do. Somehow you get away with that.
But you wouldn’t be there very long.
No, I was there only for about two months.
And then a number came up, that mysterious number. My parents would go to the consulate, the US Consulate, every day, or every other day, and one day they got their number. And I had just enough time to become Bar Mitzvahed.
And this is interesting, if there are any Jews in this audience, the perception of English Jews about what happens to American Jews is one of those things that’s also more of funny [thing] than anything else. They thought they don’t know anything about Judaism in the United States, that the only ones who know anything about it are the ones in London.
And therefore it was necessary for me to become Bar Mitzvahed, which is a rite of passage at the age of thirteen, so they made sure that I could do that. It wasn’t difficult because all I had to recite was two lines in Hebrew, which I could learn—even me, I could learn them. And then when the day came, I was Bar Mitzvahed. That’s it.
When I came to the States, of course, I had to go through this all again because they didn’t think they don’t know enough in England about it. [laughter] So I was well impregnated with that ritual.
Gerry, tell us what role your father’s stamp collection played here.
My father was an avid stamp collector. I mean that was his psychological escape route. He’d sit by himself every night and he’d put stamps in albums. And he had a good collection; it was worth quite a bit of money. And I don’t know whether he came on this idea, and I wonder about this sometimes, he used a very good clandestine method to get his stamps out of the country—some of them, not many of them.
He knew somebody, actually it was a distant relative, who was in the album-making business: book covers. As you know, albums, particularly stamp albums, have got these thick covers. We had him open it up and put the stamps inside and glue it back together, put a few pictures in the album, send it off to people you knew in the United States—
So it looked like a photo album, but it had stamps hidden inside the cover.
Hidden inside the cover! They don’t come any better, and I know.
And he was actually then able to sell some of these stamps?
He sold some of these stamps. It was not a fortune but it was enough to give him whatever he needed for the time being. And it was a real life saver, these stamps that he collected.
So you eventually would make your way, two months after arriving in England, you would get to the United States. Gerry, before we—and we would like to have a little time for some questions with our audience—tell us, if we can fast-forward a bit: you arrive in the United States, it’s 1939, war has not broken out yet in Europe, much less the involvement of the United States.
Your family would settle into their new life in the United States and then several years later, as you finished high school, you met Vivian, your high school sweetheart, and you would get drafted. Tell us what happened once you were drafted. I know we’re moving ahead quite a bit here.
My military service itself was one of those miracles. I was, after 1944, living in Connecticut at that time, in New London. I was sent to the Camp Blanding, which was the Connecticut Guards training camp. Unfortunately it was the middle of summer. The place was a hellhole if there ever was one. I couldn’t believe human beings could live in this heat.
I spent my whole training, which was probably two months, or something like that, in Blanding. I was sent overseas, and I landed in Naples, and again ended up in the Replacement Depot, which was outside of Caserta, a town which was near Naples. It was the middle of winter and it was never so cold. So I went from the heat to the cold, and both were miserable.
And I was a heavy-machine gunner. The word was that heavy-machine gunners have about fifteen seconds to live—as soon as they open fire, everybody shoots with them, and they don’t have a chance to get away. That was not good news for me, so one day a guy came to me and said, “Would you like to jump out of an airplane and kill Germans behind the lines?” And I figured it takes longer to fall out of an airplane than fifteen seconds, and I tripled my life expectancy. [laughter]
I was whisked from a tent that was really miserable to a seaside villa which was an OSS station. I thought I’d died and ended up in heaven. I mean here were maids and cooks and I had nothing to do but go to the beach. My training was itself kind of ludicrous. If it hadn’t been for the guy who built a tree house in the back of his yards for his kids, we wouldn’t have any place to jump off. So there we jumped off the tree house. It wasn’t very difficult.
As luck would have it, we ended up—my training ended before my mission began, but it was quite an outfit. The things that they did would take me longer than you have time to listen to, fantastic things we did. And I was in a way lucky but I missed a great adventure there.
And the OSS, the Office of Strategic Services, was the forerunner of the CIA, right?
Yes, it was.
Yes. I might mention that as Gerry was inducted, he asked for a one-week deferment from his induction date so he could go to his high school prom with Vivian, and was turned down, and so missed his high school prom.
She had another date, though! [laughter]
Gerry why don’t we, if you don’t mind, why don’t we turn to our audience for a few questions, and then there’s one in particular I want to ask you about before we wrap up. But, do we have some questions? Yes ma’am. And I’ll repeat it after you ask it.
Oh, the comment is, you have a wonderful sense of humor and I think everyone will agree with that, and your age.
I was born in 1925, I’m now 83. [applause] I don’t know what you’re applauding. [laughter]
I’ll applaud when I get there. Any…
This lady here.
GERALD LIEBENAU: Thank you.
Thank you very much. That was a nice statement about why the audience would applaud you. I’m going to ask a question. Gerry you showed me something just truly remarkable, and I know you’d like to share with the audience, and that was a very detailed phonebook from Berlin.
It’s hard to explain why Jews didn’t leave earlier from Germany. After all, they knew what was going on. This was no secret. Hitler said it in his book: he was going to wipe out all the Jews. And the newspapers were repeating this same theme over and over again.
The Jewish community in 1930, when Hitler was not yet in power but while his party was very much vying to gain the majority in Parliament, the Jewish community then put out what can only be called a telephone book, listing every Jew in Berlin. Didn’t ask anyone if they wanted to be listed; they simply said, “That’s what we’re going to do. We had several reasons for doing so. One: we wanted to make sure the community was in touch with each other.”
So, this is a phonebook, I mean what community, I mean, who do you see, where do you go to? They’re all here—my family, my cousin’s family, my uncle’s family. By the way I lost half that family. My uncle was lost, his wife, my aunt and her baby, and several others disappeared. I was a very lucky guy.
So this book here had an introduction, why they wanted to make sure that this was—they wanted to impress the German government with the importance of the Jewish community and how much they contributed to the welfare of that community. And so in the introduction it says, “We Jews not only live in Germany, we are Germans, because our forebears were German-born on German soil. With all our powers and all our sentiment, we are rooted in the German people. As much as the enemies of the Jews wish to belie our German heritage, it exists and we live by it every day.”
You wonder, looking back, what were they doing there? A, the provided the Nazis, the Gestapo, with a wonderful guide on how to find everybody—
Addresses, phone numbers—
Phone numbers, everything was listed. The only thing they had to do was reorganize the little bits so when they got into one section of town they had all the people who lived there, but that wasn’t too difficult with all the help they had, even without a computer.
And that was the attitude, and that was why Germans Jews didn’t leave. It was too difficult. They lost their—it was their country, and the only ones who didn’t understand that were the Nazis.
But there were lots of Germans who did help. I didn’t tell this story because I forgot. My mother was told by the caretaker of our building—apartment building, five floors high, I don’t know how many people lived in it—that the Nazis had come for my father. By that time, he’d left. And she said, “There’s nobody in that apartment. Don’t bother going up.” And they didn’t go up. Because if they had gone up, they would have found us, and they might not have been too choosey as to who they would take down.
These things happened, and it’s just like we got our visa, just like my father got his furniture out, and all these things that shouldn’t have happened if this were a regime that didn’t have any good people among them. So there were.
Gerry, I think we’re going to bring our program to a close in just a couple of moments. I’m going to turn back to Gerry to wrap up our program in just a moment but I’d like to first thank all of you for being with us today, thank Gerry for his willingness to share his story—we obviously could only just touch on the surface of it, we didn’t hear anything about his postwar experience, which as you said we could probably spend a great deal of time talking about that as well. And I’m sure as you think about it there’ll be many questions that you’ll have and in fact—Gerry will you stay behind for a few minutes afterward?
So when Gerry steps down off the stage if any of you want to come up and meet him, ask him some questions, please feel free to do that. I want to remind you that we’ll have a First Person program every Wednesday through the end of August, as well as Tuesdays through July. So our next First Person program is tomorrow, May 27, when our First Person is Mrs. Manya Friedman.
Manya is from Poland, was in her early teens when Germany overran Poland. She and her family were forced into a ghetto, after which she became a slave laborer as several notorious camps, including Gleiwitz and Ravensbrück. Just before the war ended she was rescued by the Swedish Red Cross.
I want to remind you that you’ll be able to access excerpts from this conversation, as well as the full program, on the Museum’s website, and our podcast series will be available through the Museum’s website as well, as well as on iTunes.
It’s our tradition at First Person that our First Person has the last word. And so with that I’d like to turn back to Gerry to close us out today.
I want to say that when I began working in this museum about sixteen years ago, I argued vehemently that we should have a survivor speak to people, that the people should be able to come up to any of us and just say, “Talk to me about what happened.”
But it took a long time to organize this and I’m so happy that it’s here now, it’s been going on for ten years, and that my plea to have the words come out, and people learn what happened, and what kind of survivors there are. There are those—I mean, like, people in Poland, overnight taken away and they never knew what happened. We saw so much of this coming, and we didn’t react like we should have, except for this book here, which wasn’t much good.
Thank you for coming.