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Eyewitness to History: Frank Liebermann

Frank Liebermann was born in Gleiwitz, Germany, in 1929. Frank experienced rampant antisemitism as a young boy in Nazi Germany. He was not allowed to play in parks or swim in local pools and soon became a target for bullying by his non-Jewish classmates. Frank and his family were able to immigrate to the United States in 1938, just before Kristallnacht. 


Welcome. Thank you for joining us for First  Person Conversations with Holocaust Survivors.   My name is Bill Benson. I have hosted the Museum's  First Person program since it began in 2000. Thank   you for joining us today. Through these monthly  conversations we bring you first-hand accounts   of survival of the Holocaust. Each of our  First Person guests serves as a volunteer at the Museum. We're honored to have Holocaust   survivor Frank Liebermann share his individual  personal account of the Holocaust with us. During   Frank, welcome. Thanks for agreeing  to be our First Person today. Frank: Glad to be here. Bill: Frank, we have so much to  hear from you today so we'll start   right away. You were born in Germany in 1929 just  four years before Hitler came to power in 1933.   Will you tell us about your family and your  early life in your hometown of Gleiwitz? Frank: Gleiwitz was located between the place  where my parents came from. Now it was between   Beuthen where my father's family lived and Oppeln  where my mother's parents and siblings lived. Bill: And here we see your parents, right? Frank: Yes, this is in Spindlermuehle   which is a resort place which was  about three hours from Gleiwitz   and my parents loved to go there. They had both  skiing in winter and hiking during the summer. Bill: Tell us, tell us more about  your parents, Frank, please. Frank: My father was a physician,   an ear, nose, throat surgeon. My  mother came from a family which had lived in Oppeln for well over 150 years,  and they had a family business which   celebrated its hundredth anniversary  in 1933. The sign there is J.J. Orgler. It had upholstery materials on the right, and belt, drive belts on the left, Treibriemen.  And of course leather for various areas of,   from shoemakers to people who  made fancy equipment out of it. Bill: And as you said, the business in 1933  celebrated its 100th anniversary in the family.   That's incredible. How about your, how about  your other side of your family, your paternal   grandparents? Frank: My father's parents  had a small hardware store   where my grandfather was the  salesperson and my grandmother was   bookkeeper. They sold basic hardware and also  baby furniture and baby carriages, et cetera. Bill: I notice you have a, being a kid, you've  got a bandage on your knee there in that photo.  Frank: I probably, I probably fell playing tag  or doing something of that kind. Nothing serious. Bill: It sounds like you spent a good deal of time   with your grandparents on  both sides. You knew them. Frank: Well, my parents bought  a small car mainly to visit both parents and stay in touch because Gleiwitz  had a streetcar network where you could get   along anywhere and there were very, very few cars.  That's the reason I frequently rode my bicycle and went around, around town by foot. Bill: And this was the family car here? Frank: This is my grandparents' Steyr   which was particularly nice because it held a lot  of people and we used it for various excursions. Bill: And that's, that's you with your  maternal grandmother in that picture right?  Frank: Yes. Yes. Bill: Yeah. Frank,   tell us some. about some of the  activities that you and your family did. Frank: Well, I said we did  skiing. We liked hiking.   And one of the excursions  with that Steyr was to take go to local forests and look for mushrooms because  my grandmother loved to cook with mushrooms,   and you've probably heard that some can be quite  poisonous. So my grandparents and my mother's   siblings were quite adept at knowing what to  pick and I still remember that at the end of the   picking, we put everything on a table and  anyone could veto a mushroom which looked maybe   borderline or whether, where they weren't sure.  So with many meals we never had any problems. Bill: But you didn't have to argue for or  against a particular mushroom. It was just   the right to say, "Not that one." Frank: Exactly. Everybody had veto power. Bill: Veto power. And you love  mushrooms to this day I believe. Frank: Yes I do. (Laughter) Bill: In 1933 the Nazi regime began to enact  antisemitic laws limiting the participation   of Jews in German public life. But in  Gleiwitz where you lived you were in a   unique situation because of post-World War I  border agreements between Poland and Germany.   The two countries had signed a treaty that  protected minorities in this border region for a   15-year period. Tell us how this treaty affected  your family in those first years of Nazi rule. Frank: This treaty was signed when Poland was  really re-established. It used to be a country   and then became part of Russia and Austria,  and when it was re-established, the borders   had a lot of people from, who spoke other  languages. So there was a 15-year period   where people could move and were guaranteed  not to be harassed on either side of the border   until they chose where they really wanted  to live. That was after the plebiscite. Bill: So, so essentially there was this  agreement that for a 15-year period minorities,   Jews, and others would be protected from  discrimination for that 15-year period,   but eventually that 15-year period,  you knew this, was going to end. Frank: It was in the summer of 1936   and my parents and several friends decided it'd be  a good idea to be out of the country during that   time to see if there would be any violence. So we  took a vacation in Denmark, and when we came back   a lot of things had changed. We knew it was coming  so one of the things that I remember vividly   was that I was told I had to learn how to swim  because we might have to take an ocean voyage. Bill: Meaning your parents are already  thinking about the possibility of moving.   Frank, during that period before the treaty  ended, in the rest of Germany, of course,   the very harsh antisemitic laws were in  effect. What was your life like during   that period? Was it relatively peaceful or,  or what during that period before it ended? Frank: It was relatively peaceful.  We did change to an all-Jewish   school in three, the elementary school, in  three classrooms within a school building. There were also, we knew what was going to happen   that we'd be restricted from going  to parks, playgrounds and we made it,   we made preparations for its coming but  didn't know exactly how severe it would be. Bill: Right. And one of the things you shared  with me is during that period, kosher butchers   were allowed to keep their shops open in that part  of Germany where you were located. What, what did,   tell us what your community did to support that  kosher butcher that you had in your community. Frank: Well there were about 1200 families,  and in order, and there was just one congregation. In order to support  those people who wanted to be kosher,   everybody decided that they would use a  kosher butcher whether they were kosher or not   in order to keep them in  business and help out their neighbors. Bill: You know Frank, the parallel in my head  is if suddenly we were told the Civil Rights Act   of 1965 would expire tomorrow that, that you could  go back to doing what happened prior to that,   that's the situation you sort of faced. So  when that treaty ended, how did it affect you? Frank: A lot of things changed. When we  came back, there was a lot of graffiti on   the store windows of Jewish shops. There  was a "Stuermer" display. Bill: And that was a publication, right? Frank: "Der Stuermer" was Goebbel's propaganda  newspaper which showed Jews as having been   particularly ugly, almost rather satirical figures  and were basically universal propaganda. Also there was almost complete censorship. You weren't  allowed to listen to foreign radio stations   and there were a lot of laws restricting movements  and what you could do. Also bank accounts were   frozen that you could only withdraw whatever  was considered necessary for your livelihood. Also there was a Brown Shirt stationed  in front of our apartment house where my   father also had his office threatening people  with loss of jobs and all kinds of things   if they wanted to go to the office. My  father also lost his ability to collect   insurance. Germany always had socialized  medicine which meant that the government   deducts a tax and you're entitled to  go for any treatment when it's needed.   So if you couldn't collect it, he basically  knew that he couldn't make a living. Bill: So between blocking people from going  to his practice, taking away his ability to   collect insurance, his hospital privileges,  basically put him out of business as a physician. Frank: Correct. Bill: Frank, during, once the treaty passed,  of course, along with all those other brutal   restrictions, there were also laws that  affected education of Jewish children.   Jewish students were restricted to the numbers  that could attend German public schools   and you described a moment  ago that you were attending   essentially a Jewish school inside a larger  school. What changed for you from, from in   school once those rules took effect? And I think  we have a picture of your first day of school. Frank: Yes. Those cones that everybody's  holding were filled with candy   in order to make school sweet. Bill: Which of course some, now is not  going to be very sweet for you. Tell us,   tell us what it was like for you  to go to school at that point. Frank: Well, of course Jews lost all  rights and protection of the police.   Therefore it was important to be safe primarily to stay away from groups.  Individually we were hard to recognize, but   for instance, going to school we were  told to come five minutes after school   started and were dismissed five minutes early  so that we could disperse and get home safely. We basically had a good education, the  classes were fairly large because we had   to do with limited space. One of the  things which I do remember was that   the most critical time and dangerous time  was doing a forced recess around lunchtime   where we found it was where boys were on one  side, girls were on the other and we found it to   be relatively safest to be just between them near  our teachers to have some degree of protection. Bill: Frank, thank you for that. You  mentioned a little while ago that   in anticipation of maybe taking an ocean  journey you learned to swim. As the laws became   more restrictive and harsher, your parents began  to think about and look for ways to leave Germany   including your mother took a trip to Palestine.  Tell us why she went there and, and what happened. Frank: Basically she went there  with her brother in order to   investigate what the possibilities  were and found out that there was a doctor for about every hundred people.   So she came back and pretty much eliminated  Israel, or rather Palestine, as a place to go   because my father enjoyed his practice of medicine  and that's when we thought of going elsewhere   preferably the United States if we could get an  affidavit in order to be able to emigrate there. Bill: So Frank because of what you just said your  father did end up making a trip to the United   States in January of 1938 to see if it would  be possible for the family to immigrate there.   But the immigration process was  very complicated in the 1930s.   Discriminatory quotas limited how many  people could immigrate to the United States   from various countries. Different quotas,  different countries. For all potential immigrants   the bureaucratic process was onerous. It required  large amounts of paperwork and most notably   visa applicants had to get the affidavit that you  spoke of. Frank: With that affidavit, he went  to the American consulate in Berlin   and got a number to be  called up for a physical and the actual visa which, by the way,  was going to be good for 120 days   if and when we got it. We waited for a couple of months and nothing happened.  And my father called a friend and said,   "Is there anything that I can do to expedite  this because I'm really getting anxious. I   can't make a living and things are getting much  worse." So he suggested getting a box of candy   for the secretary to the consul,  a certain Fraulein Schmidt.   He proceeded to get, get a nice big box of  candy and a month later still nothing happened. He called his friend again and said,  "Didn't you put a hundred marks into it?" Bill: In other words, put money,  money into the box of chocolates. Frank: Into the box of candy. So she got another  box of candy and about two weeks later we were   called to the consulate to take a physical in  order to get the final approval of the visa.   At that point my father took the  next boat to the United States and   took, got a first, the cheapest  first-class ticket because at that time   they still had rules that if you were visiting the  United States you could take a fairly substantial   spending allowance which you could  then take into the United States. Bill: That was if you sailed  on a German ship, right? Frank: Correct. Bill: Right, right. Frank: The North German Lloyd. Bill: Frank, what, what motivated your parents  to make the decision that your father would go   in advance without the two of you? So  you two, you and your mom, stayed behind. Frank: Well, the requirements to practice  medicine is to take the state boards   in, in the field and he picked Ohio because  they passed fifty percent of the applicants   which was a fairly high percentage.  So he left early in order to save   money. Again it was a depression, he  couldn't work, and he had to live off this   spending allowance. He rented a room in Cleveland  for five dollars a week and used the medical   school of Western Reserve University as a lot,  for the library because he had taken English during his college days and was  proficient enough to read, read well and get a head start. While it was just you and   your mother, your mother was having to make all  the preparations for moving so would you talk a   little bit about that? And I do want you to tell  us about the incident where you broke your arm. Frank: We had a garden plot on the edge of town  which about half a dozen families, the same people   who, by the way, went to Denmark during this  time, which we could use as a playground and   had a cherry tree and a pear tree and it was  kind of a recreational area at the edge of town.   Playing tag I broke my arm. Of course I was fiercely independent, I didn't tell  anybody. I just said, "I want to go home"   and rode my bicycle. And  of course one couldn't call an ambulance or anything like that because  that, you probably wouldn't get serviced. Bill: Right. Frank: Therefore I was able to ride with one  arm. My mother immediately called the orthopedist   in the local hospital whom she  knew because with professional   events they had dinner with them, and she  thought that was most likely place to go.   When she called him he said, "Sorry I don't  treat Jewish patients. I can't help you." She   frantically called various other places  and did find somebody in Beuthen which, where my father had grown up who said,  "Take a taxi and go to the back entrance   of the Catholic orphanage in Beuthen. I'll  see you there and I'll take care of it,   but be sure to go through the back entrance  because I don't want to be seen with you."   He did set my arm and gave my mother  instructions what to tell my pediatrician when she took the bandage off after about six weeks  and gave me physical therapy and my arm is in fine shape. In fact it bends  even better than my right arm. Bill: Frank that, that little incident you  just described speaks volumes. Something as   straightforward as a broken arm in a child,  it was that difficult to get care for you.   You can imagine what it was like for other, other  Jews who had any kind of severe illness or anything.   Thank you for sharing that. As a child, what gave  you strength to get through those difficult days? Frank: My parents gave me a lot  of independence. In other words,   cars were not a danger so that I pretty much  went to see friends, go to the playground,   do things by myself. And you develop instincts  of what you could do and what you couldn't do,   and I must have had the right  instincts because I managed very well. Bill: So Frank, here you are with your  mom. She is having to try to figure out   what she could take with her to the United  States, to arrange that, which was an ordeal.   I would like you to say just briefly what that  involved because I think it's extraordinary what   it meant to take anything out. You had to pay an  extraordinary tax. And I want you to tell us about   how your grandparents reacted to you and your  mom and dad moving to the United States and   when when you last saw your grandparents. Frank: Well first of all, the rules at  that time were still relatively lenient   that you could take anything along that was,  that you had been using and rather if   you paid a hundred percent tax on its value.  Now since money was frozen, it really did, we used it in order to try to make life as  inexpensive when we got to the United States   as possible. My mother arranged for a  lift which is like a container today   in which we were able to take basic  furniture, my father's office furniture like instruments. She even was able to buy a new audiometer  which is a machine which tested   hearing loss. It was one of the things  I liked to play with in the office   because you could turn it on and off various  frequencies in order to test the whole range.   It was a brand new invention at the time that he  used very well when he got to the United States. Bill: So your mom is, she's trying to make  sure she can take things that are going to   be essential to the family and essential to your  father getting started in his practice. We have... Frank: Correct. She also arranged  for the packing. Friends, by the way,   offered to pay, rather, to pack my bicycle  which I was very fond of, and said that they   can put it in a small box to make it, to take  as little room on the lift as possible. So they brought it to us and when the  lift came, a customs inspector checked everything off to see that it  was properly taxed and then sealed it   and it was shipped off to the United States. Bill: Frank... Frank: This was the beginning of October. Bill: We have a a photograph here of you with  your mother and your maternal grandparents.   This I believe was taken the last  time you saw your grandparents.   What, what do you recall of what that  was like for you and for your mom? Frank: Well, my grandfather was quite upset  that my father was taking his only daughter   to a place where, to a place that's very far  away but did understand the circumstances.   We stopped there. This is already  a suit that I got for immigration.   It came with a pair of shorts which were usually  what kids wore and also a pair of knickerbockers   of the English style which  went pretty far down. And   this was kind of a goodbye photograph and my  mother's brother accompanied us to the ship. The ship was able to sail.   You made it to the United States and you and  your mother were reunited with your father in   late October of 1938 and your family settled  in Ohio. Tell us what the adjustment was like   for your family, and for you particularly, to  establish yourself in a new country a new life. Frank: Again I considered it  an adventure. My mother told   me everything would be better when  we got to the United States and after a rather perilous sea voyage where she was  sick and wasn't able to get out of the cabin for   four days, because in October that was the hurricane  season and we had a very, very rough voyage, but I considered everything an adventure. Bill: And we have we have a  photograph I think coming up that   that sort of summarizes for you  what your adjustment was like. That's what we'd call an  all-American picture, isn't it? Frank: Actually my father picked  us up in New York and after the   two-day sightseeing trip in New York, where  for five, for five cents you can could get on   the Fifth Avenue bus and go through Central Park,  the Empire State Building, and a lot of New York,   we proceeded to Cleveland where he was studying  and where we stayed for about three months because he was booked to do his state boards in December. Bill: In December. So Frank before you move  on to that, of course, you hadn't been in the   United States very long you were in Cleveland  for a very short while when you were home and   your parents were out, and a phone call  came from Germany. Tell us about this. Frank: My parents went out for the first time.  I believe it was a Wednesday in order to get a   special of the midweek sale of a movie, I don't  know whether it was 10 cents or 25, but that was their   first going out. And they asked a neighbor  to kind of look in on me every half hour. At about nine o'clock that night the phone rang. I  answered and it was a person-to-person phone call   for my mother from my grandparents. That was probably the longest hour of my life  because I knew something was definitely wrong   since nine o'clock at night was three  o'clock in the morning in Germany and they called person-to-person which  there were two classes at that time   when phoning was very expensive. You could call  station-to-station where the person answered   and whoever it was, it was connected. If you  really wanted to get a particular person,   you called person-to-person which was about  two, three times as much but obviously   the news wasn't going to be good. Finally  my parents came back at about 10 o'clock   and heard the news from my grandparents  that the business had been confiscated,   that two of my mother's brothers were  imprisoned, and that the business and that things were in shambles. And this was what's  known as Kristallnacht or "Night of Broken Glass"   when hundreds of synagogues were burned down,   stores were confiscated, and that I  consider is the beginning of the Holocaust. Bill: And that was the night of  November 9th through 10th, 1938   just literally about two weeks after you arrived  in the United States. That must have been so,   just so terrifying for your mom and dad to, to  know that that was going on with the rest of   the family in Germany. You would, as you said,  you remained in Cleveland while your father is   preparing for his boards so you started school  while you were in Cleveland. What was that like   for you? I mean, first of all, you're in  not only a new culture but a new language. Frank: Well I had been tutored for about  four months when we definitely decided to,   that we were able to leave for the United States.  I'd been tutored in English so I knew some English   and as a prequel at that time there were no TESL  or programs for speakers of other languages,   so they simply put us back about a year. And I  was very happy to have a very, very friendly and   helpful third grade teacher, Miss Manuel, who  spent some time after, after school to help me   and to figure out what I knew and what I  didn't know and where I needed help and where   in some cases I was ahead depending on the curriculum. Frank, your father, now  he picked Ohio because they passed fifty percent,   one half, of those who took the state  boards but your father fortunately was   one of those who did pass when he took it, so  you then, your father, it was time for him to   rebuild his medical practice in Ohio.  So tell us what that was like for your father   to begin to rebuild his practice. I think  you moved to Dayton, Ohio to do that. Frank: Right, he moved to Dayton because there  was no Jewish ear, nose, throat surgeon and it was suggested that that would be a good place.   He did open his practice  on Valentine's Day 1939 and that's when we started our new life. Bill: But it was a rocky start there for a moment  with his practice. Please tell us about that. Frank: All right. At that time the key to  legitimacy was to join, to be accepted in   the medical society. He immediately put in  an application for it and the result was that   they decided to have an emergency meeting on a  Friday night where they passed an ex-post-facto   law requiring citizenship for  any new, for any new members. The process of becoming a citizen  takes five years, so that obviously   was meant to do a roadblock for  his resettlement in Dayton. Now one of my favorite sayings  is "When you get a lemon,   try to make lemonade." As it happened  somebody called the Dayton Herald or the, the Journal Herald, I think the two had merged,  which was the Republican morning newspaper. And the reporter came in, rather called,  that he wants to see his credentials.   He came in on Saturday morning,   spoke to my father probably for about half an  hour to get his background and said, "Thank you." The next morning the Dayton Journal Herald had an  editorial captioned, "Freedom of Opportunity in   the United States" in which they described what  had gone on, the fact that the meeting was on a   Friday night which was restricted to some Jewish  physicians and that this law had been passed. And Monday morning, my father had 11 new patients. Bill: As a result of that editorial  appearing in the newspaper. Frank: As a result of that editorial. Bill: And that was the start of... Frank: And I have been a great  supporter of a good free press. Bill: I can see why. Frank, as we  get towards the end of the program,   several other things are really important for  you to share with us. As you described your,   your father was unsuccessful in getting other  family members out of Germany. Please tell us   what happened to your family members and then  about his, what he did to bring people out of   Germany after the war which is just remarkable,  but first tell us about the rest of your family. Frank: Unfortunately none of  them really made it. My mother's   two twin brothers were both on an Italian ship  on the way to Shanghai which was one place where   one could still go. At the time when the  Nazis invaded France and Italy decided to   declare war, and therefore the ship  couldn't get through the Panama Canal. Bill: Suez Canal, right. Frank: And they went back and we never knew the  exact history except that a few years ago when   the archives came out, I did find out that  the two brothers, Heinz's wife, and daughter   all ended up in Auschwitz. My grandparents  on both sides went to Theresienstadt.   My father's father died almost immediately  when he got there, and the other ones were transported out in 1944. We didn't know this until after World  War, until the war was over because   again, you just didn't hear anything. Therefore  my father couldn't do anything for his family   but by that time he would, by the  end of the war, there were many, many   displaced persons in various camps who couldn't  get back to the places where they came from. And he was a volunteer head of the Jewish  Family Service in Dayton and gave, I think, 107 affidavits of guarantees that people  wouldn't be on welfare during 1945 and through 1948 when the crisis really was the  most severe. And as a result was a very proud   recipient of the international HIAS anniversary  reward, award together with President Truman. Bill: So President Truman and your  father were recipients of this award. Frank: There were five. Bill: Five and they were two of them. And,  and Frank, just so our audience understands,   107 people came to United States  successfully because your father made that   commitment, financial commitment to support them  if need be and gave them the affidavits. That's   just remarkable. How did the effects of harassment   that you experienced as a child,  how do they affect you today?" Frank: I'm very sensitive to any injustice and I guess it gives me an outlook  that if everybody does well,   we all do well and it's helpful for our, for our country and the world and I believe in supporting the general welfare wherever I can. Bill: Frank, I have just one more question for  you today and that is: in the face of rising   global antisemitism, tell us why you  continue to share your first-hand account   of what you went through, what you  experienced during the Holocaust. Frank:   I think it's important and I kind of repeat that if  everybody does well, we all do well   and I try to fight tribalism and injustice because  it makes, it's just good for the general welfare.   That's why I support the Museum. I also like to  say that the Museum is a wonderful institution   because it fights injustice and calls attention to  it and I just think it's a wonderful institution. Bill: Frank, thank you so much for being willing  to be our First Person today. You have shared with   us as much as you could in this one hour and there  was so much more for you to say, but you have   given us such a powerful look at what it meant to  try to, when you made the decision that you wanted   to get out of Germany how difficult the barriers,  the hurdles that existed and, and just thank G-d   that you and your mom and dad were successful,  and thank you for sharing that with us.

This conversation has been edited in length for educational and classroom use. View the full First Person: Conversations with Holocaust Survivors program here.