The Museum’s Behind Every Name a Story project gives voice to the experiences of survivors during the Holocaust.
One Family’s Holocaust Story
Written by Reuben Babich
This is the story of my future in-laws, Selma and Karl Simon, and their family from Cloppenburg, Germany. In May 1939, Karl Simon, who was 55 years old, his wife Selma, who was 45 years old, their daughter Edith (my future wife), 17 years old, and their daughter Ilse, 11 years old, all boarded the ship the St. Louis in Hamburg.
After November 9–10, 1938, which was called Kristallnacht or the “Night of Broken Glass,” Edith’s father, Karl, was interned in a camp for about two months. The arrested men were told to leave Germany as soon as possible when released or risk arrest again. At that time, England agreed to take unaccompanied Jewish children from Germany, Czechoslovakia, and Austria and succeeded in taking in 10,000 children. Edith’s parents applied for the Kindertransport for their three older children, but held Edith back at the last minute. The two middle sisters, Ruth, 14, and Hildegard, 12, arrived in England in December of 1938 and were sent to Harrogate in northern England.
The rest of the Simon family was on the ship St. Louis, bound for Cuba. When Cuba refused them entry and America also would not accept them, England, France, the Netherlands, and Belgium agreed to accept the passengers. Most of the passengers wanted to go to England, especially the Simons, since they already had two daughters there. The Simons, however, were refused entry. Karl Simon had relatives in the Netherlands, so upon debarkation in Antwerp, Belgium, they traveled to Holland where Edith was able to leave on one of the last Kindertransports from Amsterdam in July 1939. She arrived in England on July 28, 1939.
Germany invaded Poland on September 1, 1939, and on September 3, 1939, England declared war on Germany. That was the end of all the Kindertransports from Germany. Edith stayed in Coventry, England, until November 1940 when she sailed to America, sponsored by an aunt and uncle who were living in Jacksonville, Florida. A year and a half later, Edith moved to Freeport, Illinois.
Karl, Selma, and Ilse Simon were in the Netherlands when Germany invaded it in May 1940. The Jews were rounded up and sent to Westerbork, a holding camp in northeastern Netherlands where for a period, almost every week, 1,000 Jews were selected for deportation on trains going to the camps in the East—very few returned. The Simons were put on a transport in May 1943 and were sent to Sobibor and gassed upon arrival, according to Dutch Red Cross records.
While in Westerbork, Selma Simon wrote to her daughters, Ruth and Hilda in England. The last letter was written four or five days before they were deported to Poland in which, sadly, Selma said, “We hope to see you soon.” Young Ilse reported that she was almost as tall as her mother.
One may ask how it was possible to write letters to each other then. Well, the Simons had friends in Switzerland to whom Selma sent the letters that were forwarded to the girls in England and vice versa.
Now I want to tell my story and the story of Edith Simon, my wife. I entered the US Army in October 1942 when I was 19 years old. In 1944, I was assigned to a medical outfit at the 61st General Hospital at Camp Grant in Rockford, Illinois, about 40 miles from Freeport, where Edith lived. I was a musician and played both the saxophone and the clarinet and soon joined a dance band of 12 musicians. We played on Saturday nights for the soldiers at USO-sponsored dances. On Sunday, April 30, 1944, I was scheduled to walk guard duty, a job I didn’t like very much! Two days earlier, a sergeant had asked me to play in the band on Saturday night. I told him that if I had to walk guard duty the following day, I wanted to go to the dance on Saturday night. I was able to go then to the dance on April 29, 1944, with the idea that I would dance with whoever was available.
Among the ladies at the dance, I saw a beautiful blue-eyed, blonde girl. The girls wore necklaces with their names and hers said “Edith Simon.” My very first words to her were “Are you a Yiddishe maidel (a Jewish girl)?” to which she replied “yes” and asked me the same question, “Are you a Yiddishe boy?” I said “yes,” and that was the beginning of our romance. I danced with only one girl that night! The next day while walking guard duty, I was dreaming about her. I had asked for her telephone number at the dance, and the next day I called her—and for the next four weeks, I hitchhiked 40 miles every night to visit her.
Decoration Day, which is now called Memorial Day, came four weeks later, and it was a three-day weekend for most of the troops. I convinced Edith to come with me to Brooklyn to meet my parents. When we arrived, I discovered that my parents were in the Catskill Mountains for the weekend. So Edith and I went to the bus station and headed for the Catskills. Edith’s thick German accent, which, by the way, she never lost, became part of our family lore. Upon meeting Edith, my mother’s first question to her was “Are you a Nazi spy?” After the weekend, I returned to base and Edith to Freeport. I received orders to ship out on June 6, 1944, D-Day in Normandy. We landed in England on July 4, 1944. My outfit, the 61st General Hospital, was stationed in the Cotswolds Mountains area between Oxford and London. Edith and I wrote to one another every single day.
When the war ended on May 6, 1945 (VE Day), we all looked forward to returning home. I knew we would be arriving in the States in July 1945, and I wrote to Edith to come to Brooklyn where we would get married. I arrived on July 21, and on Monday, July 23 Edith and I went to Manhattan and got a marriage license. We were married in a little shul (synagogue) across the street from my house on July 24. We remained married for 60 years. Edith died on October 16, 2005. We have three daughters, five grandchildren, and 12 great-grandchildren.
Edith and I took a trip to Europe in 1972 and visited the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam. Among various documents we saw there was a book that listed the dates and names of the people who were put on the weekly transports that ended in Auschwitz, Dachau, Sobibor, and elsewhere. We noted sadly the date of May 18, 1943, when the names of Karl, Selma, and Ilse Simon were listed among those deported to Sobibor. We were told that they died within three days of that date.