First Person with Susan Taube
|mp3 61.28 MB »|
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 today. This is our tenth year of First Person. Our first person today is Mrs. Susan Taube, whom we will meet shortly. This 2009 season of First Person is made possible through the generosity of the Louis and Dora Smith Foundation to whom we are again grateful for sponsoring First Person.
First Person is s series of weekly conversations with survivors of the Holocaust who share with us their personal accounts of their experience during the Holocaust. Each First Person guest presently serves as a volunteer here at the Museum. We will have a First Person guest each Wednesday through the end of August and we now have First Person programs on Tuesdays through the end of July. The Museum’s website at www.ushmm.org , that’s 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. Susan Taube’s will be posted 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 are also available at iTunes.
Susan Taube will share with us her first person account of her experience during the Holocaust and as a survivor for about 40 minutes. We will follow that, we hope if time allows, with an opportunity for you to ask Susan a few questions. Before you are introduced to her I have a couple of announcements and requests of you.
First, if possible, please stay seated with us throughout our one-hour program; particularly because we have such a large audience today that way we minimize any disruptions for Susan as she speaks. If we do have time for questions and answers I ask that you make your question be brief. I will repeat the question so everyone in the room including Susan hears the question, and then she’ll respond to it.
If you have a cell phone or a pager that has not yet been turned off, we ask that you turn it off now. If you have passes for the Permanent Exhibition today, please know that they are good through the end of the afternoon so you can stay with us throughout our one-hour program and then go to the Permanent Exhibition.
In 2008 the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum began providing information to Holocaust survivors and their families from the International Tracing Service or ITS Archive. Located in Germany, the Archive was the largest closed Holocaust archive in the world containing information on approximately 17.5 million victims of the Nazis, both Jews and non- Jews. After years of effort the Archive has been opened to the Museum and the ITS material has been transferred in digital form to the Museum in a series of installments. As you will see shortly, new information about Susan Taube has become available from the ITS Archive. More information on the ITS collection can be found at the Museum’s website or by visiting the Museum’s Benjamin and Vladka Meed Registry of Holocaust Survivors located in the Wexner Learning Center on the 2nd floor.
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 Susan Taube is one person’s account of the Holocaust. We have prepared a brief slide presentation to help with her introduction. We begin with this portrait of Susan Taube, born Susan Strauss. Susan grew up in the small town of Vacha, in Germany where her family had lived for more than 400 years. On this map of Europe the arrow points to Germany. In this photo we see Susan's home and her family's business in Vacha. The Strauss home is on the right hand side with the storefront.
Susan and her mother, Bertha Strauss, pose together in a field near their home in Vacha. This photograph is a close-up portrait of Susan, on the right, and her friend Rita Bergwerk. Soon after the Nazis took power, many of Susan's friends stopped playing with her. In November 1938 the Nazis unleashed a wave of pogroms throughout Germany known as Kristallnacht, or the "Night of Broken Glass."
This photograph shows Germans passing the broken window of a Jewish-owned business that was destroyed during Kristallnacht on Nov 10, 1938. In Vacha, local party members damaged the family home and imprisoned Susan's father in the Buchenwald concentration camp. And here we see this photograph of Jewish men who had been imprisoned during Kristallnacht at Buchenwald. This next photograph is of Jewish men rounded up and imprisoned at Buchenwald.
In 1939, Susan, her sister, mother and grandmother moved to Berlin. Susan and her family were deported to the Riga ghetto in January 1942. The arrow on this map points to Riga. On this document recently uncovered in the ITS Archive Susan, her sister and her grandmother appear on a deportation list from Berlin to Riga. The first arrow, in the upper left hand side points to Susan's name, the second to her sister Brunhilde and the third to her grandmother Jatte. On the right hand side of the document Susan's identification number and address in Berlin are listed and we’ve circled that.
Eventually, Susan and her mother were placed in the Kaiserwald concentration camp, and the arrow on this map points to the location of Kaiserwald, and there they were forced to do forced labor. In the fall of 1944 as the Soviet army approached, Susan and her family were deported to the Stutthof concentration camp and our arrow points to Stutthof. Here we have a photograph of the Stutthof the concentration camp.
This document, also recently uncovered in the ITS Archive shows Susan's name on a transport list to the Stuthoff concentration camp. Susan's name is circled and her prisoner number 61856 appears on the left side. The names of four of Susan's friends also appear on this transport list. Here we see a picture of Susan with her four friends, Susan is pictured in the middle. The circled women were her friends and they are identified on the deportation list with arrows.
After the war, Susan married and immigrated with her husband, Herman Taube, and their family to the United States. In the photograph, we see Susan, Herman and their children pose in the family store in Baltimore.
Today Susan lives in the Washington D.C area with her husband Herman, who is also a survivor and was a First Person guest in April. Susan and Herman ran their own small business, the store we see in this photograph, in Baltimore for many years before moving to Washington D.C. 37 years ago. Susan has co-authored several books with Herman who is a noted author and poet and I might mention many of Herman’s works are available in the Museum bookstore.
Susan and Herman have 4 children, 8 grandchildren, and 4 great grandchildren, two of whom were born just this past year. I am pleased to say that Susan is joined today by her husband Herman. Herman, if you wouldn’t mind a wave. [applause] As well as their daughter Judy and their grandson Ben, and Judy and Ben I think are in the back back there, but if you would wave we would appreciate that. [applause]
I might mention also that Judy also works here at the Museum in Visitor Services. Susan is active with the Holocaust survivors association and volunteers weekly here at the Museum. You will find her here on Tuesdays when she helps staff the Membership and Donor desk, although today is an exception. Please drop by and visit with Susan if you are here on another Tuesday. Susan also speaks frequently on behalf of the Museum to different groups that come to the Museum. Just as an example she recently spoke to a German group that promotes reconciliation. And with that I’d like to ask you to join me in welcoming our first person, Mrs. Susan Taube. [applause]
Good afternoon. First, I want to thank you all for spending an hour to listen to my experience during the Holocaust. I am a survivor, as you know. I lost all my family, except my father who made it to America just before the war. I am starting off with my childhood back home in Vacha, last you hear my family lived there for 400 years and I was born in 1926 and life was normal until Hitler came to power in 1933 and things changed very quickly for all the Jewish people in that little town The little town had a population of 5,000, a population of 5,000 people and among them were 20 Jewish families only about 40 children, different ages, and that was the Jewish community there. We had a synagogue, we had a rabbi and like I said everything changed very quickly in 1933.
My parents owned a dry goods store where you could buy anything from a stick pin, to a baby carriage, to a sewing machine. I guess they made a nice living. I wouldn’t know much about it because I was a child. We didn’t starve, let’s put it this way. I started school when I was 6 years old, that was in 1932, entered the public school, which was called the Volksschule. And I had many friends and we played together and we all had a good time and again like I said in 1933, things changed. I was completely isolated from the rest of the children. They were forbidden to play with me or whatever. My seating place was by the door. I was the first one to come into the door and the last one to leave through the door so nobody god forbid would touch me or talk to me or whatever.
I endured that school for 4 years and things didn’t get better but I must have been a pretty good student because from this school I went to a middle school which was called a gymnasium where we learned already languages. But, the same situation was there also. I was there for 2 years and I guess my parents felt, I don’t know what my situation was, my mental situation, but they decided to take me out of that school and send me to Frankfurt am Maim to a Jewish school. So I left my parents house when I was 12 years old and moved to Frankfurt am Maim.
Susan, tell us how far away that was from your family.
Frankfurt am Maim, about 150 kilometers.
So it was a good journey.
Oh yeah, yeah by train. We always went by train. And well the school, well it was for me it was very good. I had friends, I made friends there, it was a very good school. But, the situation was already…people started to immigrate, people left Germany. It wasn’t a free life anymore. I was there in 1938 during Kristallnacht. What happened there, I don’t know if anybody knows the reasons supposedly that happened? Months earlier in 1938 everybody who wasn’t a German citizen, Jewish German citizen, who came from Poland or Russia or from whatever, were collected and sent out of the country. They had to leave very quickly. They couldn’t take anything with them and were dumped at the border of Poland.
There was a young man in Paris who was studying there and he found out that his parents were among these deportees and he got very angry and I guess he wanted to bring the attention of the world to the situation of these people so he decided to go to the German Embassy in Paris and wanted to kill the Ambassador. But he didn’t make it to the Ambassador, he just made it to the Secretary. He shot him, he wounded him, and he lingered for three days and within these three days the German government prepared this pogrom which was called Kristallnacht. As I said I was in Frankfurt am Maim at that time and we woke up during the morning. We had kind of a foreboding that something would happen.
We woke up and were ready to go to school and we saw the synagogue we attended burning. It was not far from us so we could see the smoke and the fire. Soon enough we found out that all the synagogues were on fire. We just stayed home. We didn’t know what to do, naturally. Around mid-morning there came a horde of people to the door. They didn’t knock on the door or anything, just broke down the door, came in with scissors, shovels and whatever was and demolished the whole apartment. There wasn’t a dish left that we could eat from, a pillow that we could lay on. Everything was disturbed. Plants were thrown out of the windows. It was terrible.
They went from one place to the other, they destroyed all of the apartments and also all the Jewish owned businesses that were still there in business, were demolished. That’s why they called it Kristallnacht. The windows were smashed and insides were destroyed. Punishment was put upon the Jews. They had to pay a big amount of money to repair all these things on their own. Also at the same time that the money was taken we had to deliver jewelry, whatever we had had to be given to the government.
Susan, I am going to take you back for just a moment. You mentioned that the Jews had to pay for the damage done by the thugs and hoodlums. But, even before that your family’s store had experienced vandalism and in the beginning insurance would cover it but after awhile they said, “You have to pay for it. Your family has to pay for it out of pocket.”
When it happened once or twice insurance paid of it but then later on when it happened over and over again my parents had to pay their own repair. Also during that time they put on the walls they put “Juden Raus,” “Jews are our downfall.” It was painted on the property on the display windows, etc. Naturally we had no more customers coming in so what my father did, he went like a peddler over the smaller villages where it was mostly agriculture around that place so he went and did business this way.
Riding his bike I believe?
On a bicycle, he was riding on a bicycle. Since our school was not burned down, but it was destroyed Most of the teachers, our male teachers were arrested. Also during Kristallnacht during the evening all men between the ages of 16 and 65 had to report to the police stations for their own protection and they were shipped then to different concentration camps. It was Buchenwald, Sachsenhausen, and Dachau at that time where the people were sent to.
Since I couldn’t go back to school I went back to my hometown and when I came there my mother told me they were looking for my father who was hiding in the attic of the house for three days. The police man came and since it was a small town and everybody knew each other he came to my mother and said, “Look I have to bring in a body. If he will not give himself up I have to take you in. I have to bring in a body.” So my father gave himself up and he was in Buchenwald for four weeks and he was among the first ones to come out of there because he was a World War I veteran. And he was fighting in the German army during World War I.
So his reward for having served in the German army was to let him get out ahead?
My mother had to send 10 marks for the train ticket so he could come home. He came home and he said, “We have to get out of here. You have no idea what these people can do. They are inhuman. It’s horrible.”
Actually, my parents in 1935, going back a little bit, came the Nuremburg Laws where most of the professional people lost their jobs. A musician couldn’t play in an orchestra anymore, professors were dismissed from universities, teachers from schools. All professional people lost their jobs. So it became very very hard for anybody to make a living. Doctors could only treat Jewish patients, no other people. They couldn’t work in the hospitals anymore. So it became a difficult time for everybody.
At that time my parents really tried to find where to immigrate to and they looked for relatives in America. Naturally, everybody wanted to go to America. But we didn’t have- my parents were only children, they had no sisters or brothers so it was very difficult to find somebody. Finally, finally a very distant cousin was found and they vouched for my father. You had to give an affidavit that you don’t fall to the burden of the government, that the people who vouch for you will be able to help you when you come to the States.
And this distant cousin was in the United States?
The cousin was in the United States, right. There was Palestine, but to Palestine was under the English, what was it?
Mandate, right. So you had to bring your own money and it was a lot of money you had to bring in and I guess my parents didn’t have that much. After all we were five people, my grandmother lived with us at that time also.
So when the affidavit came to Berlin my father called up and well they let him know that it came and they gave him a number. When he called up to find out how long it would take until this number would be active they told him it can take three to four years. Well that was before Kristallnacht so it the meantime Kristallnacht happened and my father was arrested and he was dismissed, but under the condition that he will leave the country right away. He cannot live there because I guess they didn’t want people to know what really is going on.
So he took a little suitcase with what he could carry and he went over the border to Belgium. A lot of refugees left Germany this way and the Jewish community in Belgium helped a lot to, you know, feed the people and give them living quarters and whatever. But he had no money, nothing. So after he left, when he left about two, four weeks later his invitation to Berlin came, that he should come and have his physical and he can get his papers to immigrate to America. Well, since he was in Belgium and he couldn’t come back the papers had to be sent to Belgium and that prolonged the whole immigration effort 6-8 months. And he made it out just before Germany invaded Belgium and Holland. He made it out in February of 1940.
Susan, did you know that he made it out at that time?
You did. So you were corresponding with him? Tell us a little bit about sending, your mom was sending things to your father.
The war broke out in September of 1939 so he was really lucky to get out. To help support my father a little bit we bought postal stamps in the post office and we sent him postal stamps which he could cash in there for money. Also to send him a pair of shoes you had to send single ones. You had to send one shoe one week then another shoe another week and things like this. You never could send a big package. It would be confiscated. Anyhow he made it out to America, thank god.
We moved in the meantime in 1939. My mother, my grandmother, moved to Berlin. Had to sell, was forced to sell the house. Also, in 1938 after Kristallnacht all passports were confiscated. Nobody had a passport anywhere and we received new IDs which were called a kennkarte, a kennkarte had a J in it, Jude and that was our ID if you wanted to go anyplace. If you wanted to immigrate at that time from Germany you had to ask for a new passport and when you asked for that passport you had to relinquish all of your, what was called Fluchtsteuer in other words you are fleeing Germany you have to pay to have the privilege to get out of Germany. So, most of the assets were taken away at that time.
Susan, you moved to Berlin so that you could be close to the US consulate in the hope that you would be able to get out and join your father. And of course that was not to be. During that time in Berlin until you were deported, how did your mother support the family?
All assets were confiscated after Kristallnacht. We had no control of whatever was there in the banks or whatever. We received a certain amount of money that we could pay for food and rent or whatever was necessary. But only a certain amount, and we couldn’t take anything extra. My mother had to sell the house, she was forced to sell the house and like I said also during Kristallnacht a name was added to our names for the women it was “Sara” and for the men it was “Israel.” So every time you signed a document it had to be the first name, the middle name, and your last name. This was showing the whatever the official people we were Jews.
When we came to Berlin, a lot of people at that time moved from smaller places to Berlin. We moved to Berlin with the hope that my father would be able to get us out because the consulate was in Berlin. That was all before America went into the war in 1941. She sold the house, she moved to Berlin. I don’t know how she did it because at that time I was with my sister in Frankfurt. We received, since already the smaller towns were all concentrating in big cities, we received a room in an apartment where the owner was an older gentleman who was a writer for a German newspaper but also lost his job during the Nuremburg laws. And another elderly lady lived there. We received one bedroom, a communal living room, communal bathroom, and communal kitchen and that was our living quarters for four people, six people in the same apartment.
I came to Berlin. By that time I was almost 14 years old. There was no more school for me. All the schools were closed already at that time, even the Jewish schools and I had to go to work. This all was organized by the Jewish community. What happened, my first job was I had to go and work in an old age home where we took care of the elderly people because the regular nurses, etc. had to work for the war machinery already. The war was going on and the factories were going and they needed people because a lot of them had to go into the army, so the Jewish people had to take their jobs and we as teenagers worked in these places where we supported social service actually. So that was for the old people. Eventually, when these people got sick and were taken out to hospitals or whatever they never returned. And eventually this place was closed and our next job was a day care center where the parents who worked in these factories dropped off the children in the morning. We had to be there 6 o’clock in the morning and stayed there all day until the last child was picked up in the evening.
Susan, I know we have so much to cover and I am going to ask you if you wouldn’t mind, you of course would eventually then be deported with your family to Riga in Latvia. Tell us about the deportation and what it was like when you got to Riga.
Okay. Deportations started like this. Where we lived that man had a daughter who had just gotten married and he tried to get in touch with her. No answer. He tried, he tried, no answer. He was an elderly gentleman he couldn’t go where she lived. After about 10 days he received a card from Poland, Litzmannstadt, Poland, “Dear Father, due to circumstances beyond our control we were told that the German citizens who live here in Poland will be going into the Reich. We were resettled here to Poland. Don’t worry about us. You will hear from us again.” So that was the only note he had from that couple. Then deportation became very organized. Eventually, also in the meantime I was taken away from the children’s home and had to work also in a factory where they made receivers for U-boats. Again, from the early morning until at night and the Jewish workers were completely separate from everybody else. A watchdog was over us, no sabotage. In case you sabotage anything you know what’s waiting for you. It was a long day and far away from home. We had to take public transportation to be there.
Anyhow, deportations started like I told you and then it became organized. My friend who you saw on that picture with me, they received a note, a postcard, “Dear Mr. and Mrs. so and so due to again these circumstances we are resettling our citizens from the east to the Reich. You will be resettled to the places which they vacate so you be ready at this and this time. You can take with you what you can carry and if you want to take bigger items you will bring them to a certain place and it will be shipped to your new destination.”
Okay. I went to her. I said good bye to her. I gave her a self addressed envelope with a stamp and said, “Wherever you are you put it in the mailbox. When our time comes maybe we come to the same place and we will see each other again hopefully.” Well they left and I never heard from her. Then it started like organized. When our time came in January, we received our card in the beginning of January of 1942. And be ready by the end of the month. They gave us a whole month actually. “By the 25th of January you will be resettled to the east.” Again with the same message “You can take what you can carry. The rest you bring to a place.”
Well, my mother used to sew a little bit and she and an nice sewing machine so she took that and we took our pots and pans and blankets and whatever we had and we took it, what used to be the Jewish school. We dropped it off there. We wanted to know where it’s going and they said, “Don’t worry. Just put your name on there. It will be shipped to your new destination.” Well, naturally we never saw anything of that again. We were picked up on the 27th, I think it was the 27th of January. Two Gestapo men came it was Friday night. They sat down with us, “We need to take away your bank books and whatever you have still, your jewelry, or whatever you have left here. We’ll write it all down and give you a receipt.” They left us enough money to take public transportation to go to the one synagogue that was still standing because it was between two houses and they couldn’t burn it down. Naturally it was demolished inside.
So we took our knapsack and two little suitcases and whatever we could put on our bodies and we marched with the stadtbahn [street car] they took us to the synagogue and we got there. People were already there. Eventually the synagogue filled up, about 1,000 people were there. There was no place to sit or whatever, we just sat on the floor and we waited our time. There was no food available. We had to bring our own food with us, whatever we had. Water, I don’t remember, I think they supplied water. The next day one by one we were called to a big table where the Gestapo was sitting. They took our names and addresses again. They confiscated our last ID which was the kennkarte. They said, “You don’t need this anymore. New ones will be issued to you.” So everything was left there. [They said] “You will be resettled to the city of Riga, Latvia.” Okay, Riga, Latvia.
Sunday morning we all had to assemble in from of the synagogue. There were trucks there if you couldn’t walk to the train station which was Grunewald. It was I don’t know about an hour walk. You can go on the trucks and we will take you there, but we walked and we came to the station and the trucks came to the station too and we didn’t see a train what we saw were the cattle cars, what you see here in the Museum. The cattle cars were opened, the doors were opened and about 80-90 people were pushed into each cattle car. Along the walls were benches made out of straw and the floor was covered with straw and that was our seating and laying or whatever arrangement for 90 people. No food, no water, except what we had with us, nothing at all. Two buckets on each side for our physical needs and that’s it. When this car was full it was shut from the outside sealed and off we went.
It was a very cold winter, an extremely cold winter. Naturally, you are sitting next to each other keeping warm, but it was awful. The train trip, I think it took about two days, three days, I don’t remember exactly. I know we arrived in Riga on the 29th or 30th of January. Once we arrived the doors opened up and there was the SS and the dogs and the trucks and “Out Out Out!” And people could hardly moved, they were frozen stiff but, “Out Out Out!” They were hitting with I don’t know what they had. Again they assembled us in front of the train, “If you can walk it’s about 5 kilometers to your destination. If not you can go on the truck and we will take you there. You can leave all your belongings here and it will all be taken to you at your destination.” Well, whatever we left there we never saw again and the people who went on the truck we never saw again either.
We marched. By that time it was kind of dusk already and we came to a place that was surrounded by double chicken wires all around. They pushed us in a house, no light, no water, nothing. We didn’t know where we are, what’s happening. I mean completely blank. So the next morning when it got daylight we got out and when we went out we saw clothes laying around, everything in ice, everything was frozen in ice. Red spots in the ice. Later on we found out this was the ghetto of the Latvian Jewish population who were assembled there for 3 months and just the month before we arrived they were resettled to mass graves. 29,000 people, so.
Susan, the scene you described when you woke up in the morning you said everything was coated in ice. There was food left on plates from the people that were forced out, the Latvian Jews before you with everything the plates, everything in the house was covered in ice.
Plates…frozen, frozen…frozen with ice
And what were you made to do almost immediately once you…
I think it was the second day right away we had to go to work. So there was a man who was in charge, he was put in charge of the house and the able-bodied people had to assemble in front of the house and we were sent to the city and in the city we received the ice picks and shovels and whatever to loosen the ice from the sidewalks so the population of Riga could walk on the sidewalks. We were not allowed to walk on the sidewalks. Also by that time we had the Jewish star. This we received in Berlin already. So that was our job.
In the morning we got a little piece of bread and when we came back I think we got another piece of bread but there was no way that we had a warm meal or anything like that because there was no facility to warm anything even. For water we picked up the snow and we drank the snow. This lasted about 4 weeks. But eventually the water, after awhile we had water in the building and it was cleaned up.
After this was finished I got a job in the Luftwaffe the military air force officers were in Riga for the Eastern front. So my job was to clean there, help in the kitchen, and sort out potatoes. Well, different jobs which was actually good. It was kind of a reprieve from all of the things what happened before. Also, the air force wasn’t the Gestapo and the SS. They were a little bit more human. I had food there so whatever food was allowed in the ghetto my mother could eat and my sister could eat. My grandmother was taken away from us already on February 4, when the ghetto became very overcrowded because in the meantime transports came from all over Germany. We weren’t the only ones. And the ghetto filled up. So one day they told everybody to get out and sorted out and there were the trucks again and left right, left right. And all the other people left….
Did you…did you think Susan…Susan, when your grandmother was taken did you think at that time she was being relocated?
I don’t think we had any thoughts at all on what was happening. I don’t think so. I don’t remember. I just remember we couldn’t go back in the house we originally went. We were pushed in another house so whatever little bit we still had from Berlin was also lost. We had nothing anymore, just what was on our body. So, I worked for the Luftwaffe and for quite awhile. Then came from one workplace to another for the Wehrmacht for other things but one summer in 1943 it was they took young people and we had to go out of the ghetto to a place called Walgunde where we dug peat moss. Peat mosses were used for burning in the ovens. They had big tile ovens in that part of the world. So one oven heats a whole apartment and that was used for heating there, besides wood. Coal wasn’t available. Wood.
Digging peat moss is heavy labor isn’t it?
That’s heavy labor, but this men did. Men did that and we just had to…that was put on a conveyor belt and we had to take it off. Anyhow, there was a whole operation there. It wasn’t bad actually. It was summertime and we kind of felt a little freer because we had no SS over our head. We had just the people who worked with us and so we also had food. We could…we were in the country. We could get food a little bit. So it wasn’t bad, but it didn’t last long.
1943. That was 1943. So 1943, happened the Warsaw ghetto uprising and I guess the Germans got a little bit scared that things can happen someplace else too and it did happen. And, so the ghetto was liquidated. Liquidated very slowly and people were sent to concentration camp Kaiserwald.
Kaiserwald was already no more houses, but barracks and bridges, stripped clothing, shaved hair, and very little food, and hard work. Again, I have to say I was lucky. I stayed there only for 2 weeks, but at that time I was separated from my mother and sister. My mother and sister were sent someplace else and I was sent someplace else. My new place was called Meteor. My mother’s place was called Armeebekleidungsamt in other words they brought back the uniforms, the torn uniforms or whatever and they had to repair it there.
My job was a factory where they brought back the pontoon boats, where they build bridges over. Rubber boats where bridges were built over. And when they were shot up they came to this place and we had to repair it. Meteor used to be a Jewish factory where they made tires for cars, galoshes, and anything made from rubber. So they used this facility for that kind of work.
Susan, you had told me that the work you were forced to do there, repairing the rubber pontoon boats was horrible work.
Yeah. It was horrible work because it was very dirty work. When you opened up these boats you could find anything what you find in the river in these boats too, frogs, snakes, whatever you had. So this had to be cleaned out completely. The glue that we used to fix the boats was a synthetic glue and it was very dangerous. People started to cough and they got sick. So what they did, because it was work that had to be done and we were trained for it, they supplied milk. They gave us a cup of milk a day. I myself was lucky. Once the boats were sealed and ready to go back in action, they had to be painted first. So they picked three women to paint these boats. It was myself and two other ladies. They were put in a big room with windows and that’s where we did the job to paint the boats. What was good about this kind of work? It was first of all easier. Second, also there was also the office of the overseer, the military overseer and the engineer who oversee this and from there we could find out what’s happening in the world.
So we found out that the German army is not doing so good and their always on a very successful retreat from Russia. That was already after Stalingrad and we were hoping that they would move a little faster and time would come that we would be liberated. But, it took a long time. In the meantime, also the Germans invented the V-2 rocket and they bombarded London with that. With that rocket even our overseers who knew the war was not, couldn’t be won anymore, were hopeful that Germany would still win that war.
Came 1944, we did that work and 1944 without any questions, without anything, the SS came and picked us up and took us back to Kaiserwald. The Russian army at that time was about 40 kilometers away from Riga. We were really, really hoping that they would come, but they didn’t. Back in Kaiserwald we were there about 2 or 3 days that’s all and then we were all taken to the boat in the harbor in Riga, about 6,000 people put on a boat and shipped to concentration camp, extermination camp Stutthof in Germany.
The travel took about, I arrived about 2 or 3 days, I don’t remember. There was no food, water, nothing. We stood just, we didn’t lay down. We stood like sardines, couldn’t go on deck. They wouldn’t let us out for fresh air, nothing. Why were so many people there? They came all these people from the sub camps came and were put on that boat and brought back to Germany.
One of my best friends, she was also separated from her parents. They went to one place to work and she was with us. And when she saw that these people from the workplace come to the boat she was looking for her parents then she found out that anybody over 30 years was not allowed to come to that boat and was eliminated. So she never saw her parents again. Anyway, she got very depressed.
Susan, from Stutthof you would be then sent to another place yet, Sophienwalde.
In Stutthof we were two weeks. Well you know what concentration camp is? You have to get up at 4 o’clock in the morning. You stay on appell. Five lines, five deep and you are staying there and you are counted for hours. One SS mädel came you counted, she didn’t hit the right count. Next one came, not the right count and in the meantime all the dead people had to be taken out and counted. It was terrible. Once they dismissed you, you received a piece of bread and something in a jar a black coffee or something we don’t know what it was. During the noontime, one bowl of soup and that was our nourishment. I must say we were lucky. One day while we stood on appell they counted out 500 women and they marched us to the entrance of the concentration camp and from there we went to the train station, put on a train and were taken to a place called Sophienwalde where we had to….
We arrived in Sophienwalde out of the train and marched to a camp. When we came to the camp again it was surrounded by chicken wire and there were little huts made out of plywood. In each of these huts 15 women were pushed. Only straw on the floor, nothing else. The next morning we had to go to work. Our work consisted of- this place was supposed to be a military proving ground so we received…Anyhow, they cut down the trees and we had to remove the roots from the trees so they could pave the street for the heavy military transports to come there.
So you had to dig up the roots? They cut down the trees?
Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. They were put on lorries and pushed to a certain place and that was our work. In the meantime we were full of lice and actually from the concentration camp we had only one pair of…one dress to wear, one pair of underwear and that was our…and wooden shoes. That was all we had. We received each 2 blankets they are 2 small, thin blankets, military blankets. And since I was with my girlfriend we used one to put on the floor over the straw, one we used for the pillow, and the other two to cover ourselves. Eventually we made also capes from it to keep warm when it got colder.
So that was our work until it got colder and also I was a bricklayer when this kind of work was finished. I became a bricklayer to build housing for the military. And all this ended around November when it got very cold and we could work this kind of work anymore. We were just sitting around, doing nothing. These little huts had no heat, nothing. So one day we were picked up and they put us in one of these unfinished houses where just in the basement was sand, no floor, no nothing. We were housed there for awhile. Then came the end of January. The end of January came and the commandant came to us and said, “You know we have to leave here. The Russians are coming closer. We cannot stay here. Whoever can walk we have to walk about 10 days back to Stutthof. You sign up and walk and the rest of us you stay here and somebody will take care of you.”
Well the able bodied and still who had some will to live they signed up and we started marching and the other ones stayed behind and we never saw them again. We marched every day. I don’t know how many kilometers, until dusk, until it got dark. At night they pushed us in a barn and if they found some food for us they gave it to us, sometimes potatoes, sometimes a piece of bread. But most of the time we just ate the grass from the ground and whatever we could find. And every day we marched for about 10 days until…we never made it to Stutthof but we made it to a place called Lauenberg because in the meantime the Russians came already closer and Lauenberg was a camp with barracks where English POWs were housed for awhile. It was pretty clean when we got there. Again at that time came sub camps from everywhere who couldn’t make it back to Stutthof, concentrating in that place called Lauenberg. We were there for about 3-4 weeks, I don’t remember exactly how long. Again, food was very meager, hardly anything. If they could find a dead horse they made a soup from it. Bread was…I told somebody it tasted more like saw mill than from wood…comes from wood than from flour. I don’t know how we survived. I don’t know. Typhus broke out there very much. People died left and right. It was terrible.
Again, comes March 9th. We heard already shooting, very close by. “We cannot stay here. The Russians are coming. We have to take you away from here. Are you ready to go?” So we went. I don’t know who stayed behind, some people stayed behind. I don’t know what happened to them. We marched again a whole night in rain, it was raining at that time and in the morning we were pushed in a barn in a place called Chinov. A barn full of people, dead, alive, we don’t know what happened there. I mean full, full of people. And they pushed us in there, closed the door and we thought this is the end of us.
But it wasn’t to be so about an hour or something later we heard big, big booms and the Russian army opened the doors for us and that was it for us. So the doors were opened, so what do you do, where do you go? No place to go. First of all they told us “You cannot go west because we are fighting. You have to go east.” But the first thing we did we went out to look for food. There was like a village where the German people were ready to evacuate because they knew the Russians were coming. And they tried to go to the west but it wasn’t meant to be for them anymore. We went on the wagons and whatever food we could find we ate. I ate sauerkraut which was delicious. I don’t know how I survived until today. But, people died even after that because they overate. Their stomachs couldn’t take it anymore. And a lot, a lot of people died afterwards.
Susan, in the little bit of time that we have left, and we won’t have time for question and answers, unfortunately, but Susan will stay behind for a few minutes afterwards if anybody would like to come up and meet her and ask her some questions so please absolutely know that you are welcome to do that. Susan, in the little bit of time that we have left tell us how you met Herman. I think the audience would like to hear that. Tell us about that if you would and then we’ll wrap up our program.
Well, after we were liberated and we had no place to go we had to work for the Russians. First, they took us to a farm where we had to clear the fields and planted potatoes etc. etc. I’ll make it a little shorter…When this work was finished…anyhow it wasn’t bad. We had food and they cleaned us up and we weren’t under the gun anymore so we felt free. When this work was finished we were sent to a place called Koszalin where we got an apartment and our job was there to…..that was a German city but the German population fled and we had to clean out the houses. Whatever was not nailed down was taken to a warehouse and shipped to Russia.
We had an apartment but we had no food for ourselves to cook so we went to a communal kitchen which was across the street from that apartment. In that kitchen the cook or the manager was a soldier from Romania. A Jewish soldier from Romania in the Russian uniform. We ate there and our meals were mostly potatoes in the morning, potatoes at noontime and potatoes at night. We looked very good after a few days.
One day, a young man, a young doctor came, the medic came to look for medication. There was a big magazine the Germans had there of medication and he came. He was running a hospital not far away from this city in a place called Plote. And he needed medication so he came to that warehouse to find medication and he happened to go into that kitchen and than man told him, “Here are survivors if you’d like to meet them.” “Yes, why not?”
So we met, he met and also we had a friend who was very sick…She had high fever and some kind of skin problem she was very, very sick. So I asked him if he would like to take a look at her and maybe he had some medication for her. Well she had a contagious sickness and right away he told everybody to leave, “Get out of the apartment.” [He] got some medicine for her. Eventually she recuperated and she lives in Boston now.
And we met and so I took him there and he took me back and back and forth and back and forth and anyhow somehow one day he asked…his unit was shipped to East Germany. He asked me if I wanted to go with him. I said, “Sure anything to get out of here.” [laughs] He was very handsome… don’t no, no don’t mistake me. No mistake he was very handsome, very generous, very good looking, very, very nice. And I went with him and eventually, you know young people, things happen. We fell in love, and I went with him. We went to Halle Merstenburg, we got married.
What happened afterwards, well then the war came to an end and he was dismissed from the army. He came from Poland and he thought you know after the war, everyone suffered so much, even the Polish people, we might be able to settle in Poland. Vacha, I didn’t want to go back. There was nothing for me. Anyhow, it was also occupied by the Russians. So I said, “Sure, why not. We’ll go back to Poland.” So we went back to Plote where he had that hospital and we had a very nice house there. We had chickens, and goats, and dogs, and whatever. And it was nice for awhile, then happened in 1946 came the pogrom in Kielce where survivors of concentration camps returned to their hometown. The mistake was they all concentrated in one place, in one house. At night, we don’t know who it was, I guess it was some Polish people who came in and killed them all. That was our….to get out of there.
Susan, and from there of course you would come to the United States and we heard a little bit about that. Susan, because of time, moved over a few details. I’ll just throw in one additional detail. It wasn’t just as simple as Herman taking her with him. It involved bribing Russian guards with vodka and a whole bunch of kind of clandestine efforts…
Watches, watches, watches.
Watches…and spirit her out of there. One last question before we close. You reunited, connected with your father again. Will you tell us how that happened?
Well as I said we left Poland and we became what you call “the wandering Jew.” We went from Poland to Stettin. Stettin we were picked up by a certain organization and taken to a DP camp in Germany, but along the way I prepared a letter for my father. I kept his address in America in my head the whole time and I had a letter prepared. I met an American soldier along the way and asked him, “Would he mail that letter for me?” And he did. Well we didn’t have an address yet so I couldn’t have any response from my father. Anyhow, once we settle in Plote, when we settled in Plote, I wrote to him again and this letter he received and then we heard from him.
But the first letter came to the place, the address I had in my head and these people told the post man that my father moved and they don’t know where he is. So it wasn’t forwarded, but the second letter when it came to them they knew already what was happening and they knew where my father was so the forwarded the letter to him. And that’s how I got in touch with my father.
Once we were in the DP camp in Zeilsheim, Germany and since that was a DP camp where most of the refugees and survivors came. I was a German Jewish…born in Germany, I received a small apartment, in a house. We received two rooms where we could stay. Then my father sent he papers right away and we left Germany in April 1947, we left Germany. And here we are. We came to Baltimore. It wasn’t that easy either, but we adjusted. My husband went to night school. I knew a little bit of English because I learned it in school in Germany. He got a job in a Jewish bakery where he cut bagels at night for 2 dollars a night and a loaf of stale bread be brought home. We lived also at that time in a house where more people lived than a family, a family house. But eventually my father bought a house and we moved in with my father.
We were with my father for about 2 years. In the meantime I had the children. I came with children. We for awhile we lived in New York and he worked for a Jewish organization in New York, but this was a very difficult life for all of us because he worked night time and I was by myself always.
We decided to move back to Baltimore and at that time most of these refugees bought ma and pa grocery stores. We did the same thing. In 1968 we lost everything during the riots. Again, we came out naked almost because not enough insurance to cover our loss. He got a job with an organization in New York, well that was….again even back to the job he had originally in New York, but he was transferred to Minneapolis, it was for the same job. In the meantime, I moved to Washington because also he had Washington and Minneapolis, two places he had to cover. So we moved to Silver Spring and he lived part of it in Minneapolis. I lived here but that was no way either. So he quit his job and got another job with the Federation and this is where he was for over 20 years. And I worked for Hecht Company, Macy’s now. We raised five children. All went to colleges. Now we have beautiful children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren and we love them dearly.
Susan, I am going to turn back to Susan in just a moment to close our program. I would like to remind you that we have a First Person program every Wednesday through the end of August and every Tuesday through the end of July. Our next First Person program is tomorrow, June 10, when our first person will be Mrs. Jacqueline Birn who was born in Paris. In May 1940 after Germany invaded France, Jacqueline and her family fled Paris but after the armistice was signed they returned to Paris. After massive round ups of Parisian Jews began the French underground helped Jacqueline’s family leave Paris for Vichy France but they [were] stopped at the border. Rather than being sent to an internment camp they were able to go into hiding in a small village and survived the Holocaust. So we invite you to come back to another First Person program.
Also, remind you that podcasts of these conversations with survivors will be, as with Susan’s, will be available on the Museum’s website as well as iTunes. It is our tradition at First Person, that our first person has the last word. So with that I’d like to turn back to Susan to close today’s program.
Well the last word. First of all, I thank you all for coming. Sharing my life story with you this afternoon was not my desire to share my anger and anguish of my lost family. Okay, the millions of my people among them one million and a half children. I share with you my life story for one reason only to share with you one of the darkest chapters in man’s history. It started with the killing of 6 million Jews and ended with the killing and maiming of more than 50 million people, men, women, and children. Humanity had deserted us, civilization had failed us but we never lost faith in a better world to come. Holocaust spread hate against the free world, against our country and freedom loving people. Evil forces again deal with hate and even penetrate the western world. We see daily explosions of terror against peaceful, innocent people. This Museum and we survivors are dedicated not only to keep memory alive, but serve as a warning to all who enter this sanctuary of memory. Speak up! Do not allow the forces of hate to spread through our country. World leadership failed us during the dark period of the Holocaust. We say to our leaders, “Never again!” We appeal to our visitors to this Museum, give your children a sense of joy, and your children a sense to be and have respect for the American veterans who are fighting for our freedom wherever they are. Never again. May God bless you all.