Born May 27, 1929, in Bad Kreuznach, Germany
The Hilsenraths lived in Bad Kreuznach, a city in western Germany with a Jewish community that dated back to the 13th century. Susan was the eldest of three children. Her father owned a thriving linen store, and her mother took care of Susan and her two brothers.
1933–39: After the Nazis came to power, the Hilsenraths, like other Jewish families, began to feel the effects of increased antisemitism. Susan was forced to leave the public school, along with the other Jewish children. Even walking on the streets could be dangerous because the neighborhood children often threw rocks at her. Susan’s father had to close his business and sell fruit door-to-door to support his family. On November 9–10, 1938—Kristallnacht (“The Night of Broken Glass”)—Nazi thugs smashed the windows and furnishings of the Hilsenrath home. Months later, Susan and her brother Joseph were smuggled into France.
1940–45: In May 1940, the German army invaded France. Susan and Joseph were evacuated from a children’s home in Paris to Versailles, where they were temporarily housed in Louis XIV’s magnificent palace. Soon German soldiers arrived and the children fled with their guardians to the unoccupied part of the country controlled directly by the Vichy government. With the help of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS), Susan and Joseph received permission to immigrate to the United States. After crossing the Pyrenees into Spain, the two sailed from Lisbon, Portugal, and arrived in New York in September 1941.
Susan and Joseph were reunited with their parents and younger brother in the United States. They settled in Washington, D.C.
I volunteer in the Education Department of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum because, during my career, I was a teacher for 27 years. It gives me great pleasure to teach middle school students and high school students about the Holocaust. Giving tours to the different police departments in our area and new FBI agents is also a very rewarding experience for me. Taking visually impaired visitors through the Permanent Exhibit is a great privilege.
Why do I volunteer at the USHMM? People ask me, “How can you go there over and over again?” My response is, “How can I not go?” I experienced some of this horror. I am compelled by my conscience, and I am honored to join the educational movement this Museum represents. While guiding our visitors through the Permanent Exhibit, I teach them about the crimes against humanity that occurred in Europe between 1933 and 1945. As we start in the Hall of Witness, our visitors begin to realize that they will be witnesses to that part of the world’s history. When we have finished our tour, our visitors understand that we all must learn from our past errors, that we all must remember what happened and that we all must ensure that such an inhuman assault as the Holocaust never recurs.
I have told my children and my grandchildren, and I trust they will tell my great-grandchildren, that they should rejoice in the fact that they are living in a democratic society and that they should be resolute in making sure that no dictatorship ever usurps their liberties. I strive to make the Museum’s visitors understand as well.
First Person series Conversation with a Holocaust survivor [2006 season].
Interview Describes fleeing from Germany to France while posing as a non-Jewish child [1996 interview].