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Eyewitness to History: Henry Weil

Henry Weil was born in 1935, in Vienna, Austria. After Nazi Germany annexed Austria in March 1938, antisemitic legislation and violence prompted Henry’s father to make plans for the family to emigrate. In 1939, the family was forced out of their apartment, and a week later they began their journey to safety. The Weils made their way to Paris and then England, fearing bombings and air raids along the way. Henry and his parents left for the United States on the SS Aquitania on September 9, 1939. Later, Henry learned that half of his extended family had been murdered in the Holocaust.


Bill Benson: Welcome. Thank you for joining us for First Person:Conversations with Holocaust Survivors.

I'm Bill Benson, and I have hosted First Person since it began at the Museum in 2000.

Each month we share first-hand accounts of survival during the Holocaust.

Each of our First Person guests serves as a volunteer at the Museum.

We are honored to have Holocaust survivor Henry Weil share his first-hand account of the Holocaust with us today.

Henry, thank you so much for agreeing to be our First Person today.

Henry Weil: Thank you very much Bill, and thank you to the entire audience for allowing me to join you today. I am honored and privileged to be able to do so.

It is so important for us to continue to talk about the Holocaust and the horrors that so many of us experienced.

Bill Benson: Well Henry, thank you again for joining us today. We have a lot for you to cover so we'll go ahead and move into it.

Henry, you were born in Vienna, Austria on September 22nd, 1935 almost three years before Hitler -- excuse me, almost three years after Hitler came to power in neighboring Germany.

Please tell us about your parents, Hugo and Marishka, and what you know of their life in Austria in the early 1930s.

Henry Weil: Yes. We lived in Vienna, Austria in what is known as The 9th District, which was a very nice part of the city.

We were very comfortable living there. There's a photograph of my father and my mother, and as you can see they're nicely dressed.

We weren't wealthy but we were comfortable.

We had a very, very nice life. We had an extended family.

I had aunts and uncles there and cousins, and we were together very, very frequently usually on weekends when we all got together for various activities. 

It was a very, very nice life. We were very happy living in Vienna until March of 1938 when the Anschluss occurred, that is the occupation of Austria by the Nazis.

Bill Benson: And Henry before we move on to the Anschluss, a few more questions of you.

Neither of your parents were from Vienna. 

How did they end up in Vienna, and how'd they meet?

Henry Weil: Well my mother was born in Budapest, Hungary, my father in Prague in what was then Czechoslovakia.

Their families moved them to Vienna early on, maybe in the early '20s. I don't know exactly what the reason was, but I assumed that there were living conditions in those areas where they were living were not good for Jews and they thought that they would have a much better life in Vienna, which they did.

My father worked for his uncle in a store where they sold leather goods and jewelry, and there's a photograph of Phillip Weil's store.

That is the store where my father worked and that is his uncle, Philip.

And so it was a very nice life as I said before, thank you.   Bill Benson: And you were born 10 years after your parents were married and you were very close to your cousins who lived nearby.

Tell us what you remember about, you know, the time you had with your cousins and your extended family from that era.

Henry Weil: Sure.

My mother's sister had two daughters, Mary and Ilse.

They lived not too far from where we were in Vienna.

And my mother's brother Ernest, my Uncle Ernie, had two children, Ann and Tom.

And on weekends often we were together, playing either at my apartment house or in the park nearby or their neighborhoods and so we were very, very close and really enjoyed our lives in  in Vienna.

Bill Benson: Was your family religiously observant?

Henry Weil: Observant yes.

I mean, they were not what is known as ultra-Orthodox but they were -- they believed very, very strongly in their religion and attended synagogues on a regular basis.


Bill Benson: And before we move on, to continue the discussion about the Anschluss, tell us what you remember or you know from your parents about the neighborhood where you lived prior to the Anschluss.

Henry Weil: It was as I said very nice neighborhood. 

This is a photograph of a park nearby.

You can see my picture there, dressed very nicely and the neighborhood was very, very nice.

It was also interesting that a very famous psychoanalyst by the name of Sigmund Freud, who I'm sure you've heard of, lived about a block away, and as it were, my father would play cards with Sigmund Freud. Once my father told me years later that some of his friends who were, you know, participating in those card games thought that Sigmund Freud was crazy. That's what they said.

Bill Benson: In March 1938, Nazi Germany annexed Austria, which we know as the Anschluss and you mentioned it a few moments ago.

When German troops crossed the border into Austria on March 12th, they received enthusiastic support from most of the country's population.

We have some film footage of Vienna from around the time of the Anschluss that we're going to show.

We see Nazi flags hanging throughout the city.

It looks celebratory. 

You can see that some of the crowd is enthusiastic. And here we see footage from a parade with soldiers marching through the streets. Although you were very young Henry, just two and a half at that time, tell us what you can about the Anschluss.

Henry Weil: What I remember as a young child is this. 

First of all, let me just say that the Anschluss occurred with -- it took place maybe within a day or two with no resistance whatsoever.

The Austrians were very, very happy to have the German -- the Third Reich coming in and it was just amazing how quickly that went.

It may have been in part due to the fact that Adolf Hitler himself was born in Austria.

But what I do remember is being in my apartment one day, and when I heard drums beating and I heard soldiers marching and I went over to the window and I looked out, and there were the German troops were marching directly in front of my apartment house. I thought it was kind of fun. I thought it was a parade, but my mother on the other hand was just absolutely hysterical.

And that's when my parents, I believe, decided that things were not getting any better, they were only getting worse day by day, and it was time to make arrangements to try to get the necessary documentation to be able to escape the horrors which were to follow and that's exactly what they did.

Bill Benson: And of course to talk a little bit about that if you could,immediately following the Anschluss, antisemitic policies resulted in restrictions being imposed upon Jews, as well as public humiliation and antisemitic violence.

But what can you tell us about some of those restrictions and these threats that were occurring to daily life for Jews in Austria and Vienna at that time?

Henry Weil: Life changed drastically from what it was before the Anschluss to where we were restricted.

We could not go to the playgrounds, we were not allowed to go to the parks.

As I understand it that, I didn't go to the movie theaters, but I do recall my parents telling me that that was no longer permitted. 

So there were many, many restrictions and things just got worse it seems day by day by day, and my parents felt that it was just absolutely essential to try to escape.

Bill Benson: At that time Henry, one of your cousins that you grew up with was a little older than you and took on an important task for the family.

Can you tell us about that?

Henry Weil: Sure. I had a cousin Mary who was a few years older than I. 

She was the daughter of my Aunt Hilda and my Uncle Sam.

They lived not too far.

And because she had blonde hair and blue eyes, she was chosen by the family to go out at night and buy whatever groceries she could and bring them home for the extended family.

And she was just absolutely petrified.

She told me many years later as a matter of fact many years later when she arrived in America, she converted.

And I said to her once, "Mary, why did you do that?" She said, "I was just so petrified walking down the streets and having those Germans looking at me and staring at me.

I just never wanted to go through that again.

I never wanted to be Jewish again."

By the way, my cousin Mary was sent by her parents to England to live out the war.

Her younger sister Ilse was part of what is known as the Kindertransport and also sent to England.

They were reunited with their parents once the war was over.

Bill Benson: Henry, we have here a photograph that shows Jews being forced to scrub pavement in Vienna soon after the Anschluss.

Tell us what really stands out for you in this photograph.

Henry Weil: Well as you can see, the people seem to be very happy in doing whatever destruction they could do.

As I recall my parents telling me that the people, well, that they were just horrible.

And what's so sad is you see people, the bystanders, with smiles on their face just delighted on what they're watching.

It was just so shocking, and that's unfortunately true today. When people see horrific things being done, they are innocent bystanders and they don't do anything or say anything.

Very, very sad to see.

Bill Benson: A very powerful photo for the reasons you just described.

Bill Benson: Because of your age -- you were just two and a half years old at the time -- did you have any sense of the dangers to your family?

And how did your parents try to protect you from the dangers that were around you?

Henry Weil: My parents did protect me. I was too young to really appreciate the dangers and the horrors of what was going on all around me, and so my parents shielded me from all of that.

And they continued to do so even after we came to America, and I really wasn't provided with any real significant information until I was a little older, in middle school and high school before my parents really started to talk to me about what had happened.

So the answer is they did shield me.

Thank you.

Bill Benson: They did shield you. Henry, the Jewish community in Vienna recognized the dangers that they were facing, and many scrambled to leave and find safe haven.

In the year and a half after the Anschluss, more than a hundred thousand people managed to flee Vienna.

So many families were trying to emigrate at the same time that it prompted a global refugees crisis.

The immigration process to the United States in the late 1930s was complicated, requiring individuals to acquire large amounts of paperwork.

Among other things, visa applicants had to get affidavits.

Will you explain to us what an affidavit was and tell us about your father's efforts to try to secure one for your family so that you could leave?

Henry Weil: Sure.

My father would go every day to the consulate, to the American consulate, to try to obtain the necessary documentation that was required to be able to leave Austria.

One document in particular that was required was an affidavit of support. Now there was a gentleman in Boston -- we didn't know anybody that would provide us with such an affidavit, but there was a gentleman in Boston whose name is Mr. Rice.

There's a photograph of the affidavit on the screen.

Mr. Rice, who didn't know us, we did not know him, provided this affidavit of financial support for my family.

You can see there about midway down, Mr. Rice was earning at that time 26 dollars a week. Now 26 dollars a week by today's economy would be somewhat more but still not a lot of money.

And here's a man who out of the goodness of his heart provided such an affidavit.

If it wasn't for Mr. Rice, I wouldn't be sitting here today talking with you and what's interesting is that Mr. Rice -- I don't know how this affidavit even came into being because he didn't know us, as I said. I can only assume that maybe he provided such an affidavit for other families as well by sending blank affidavits to the American consulate and having them fill out the names.

I just don't knowbecause there were very, very small quotas and we were a group of lucky ones who were able to get those documents including this affidavit of support.

Bill Benson: And from this affidavit document, we can see that Mr. Rice was, as you said, he earned 26 dollars a week, he was 27, he was married, he had a one-year-old child, and he lists the reason why your father wanted to come to the United States as quote, the German government's attitude towards the Jewish people in Germany, end quote.

And he was also -- Mr. Rice was also in the leather industry and lists his occupation as that in New York.

But tell us your thoughts about, you know, what he wrote there about the reason for your leaving.

Henry Weil: Well obviously, Mr. Rice is correct.

I mean the the reason for our wanting to leave was the persecution of the Jewish people in Austria and it's interesting, we didn't really -- well, my mother had a brother, my Uncle Joe, who had come to America several years after the end of the First World War.

He was already living in New York.

That may have been the compelling reason for why my parents selected America as their first choice.

And thank G-d.

I'm so happy that they did.

I'm delighted, I'm very happy that they selected America.

I'm happy, had a nice life here.

But other than that, I just don't know what prompted them because there's so many survivors here at the Holocaust Museum who tell me that they just got on a boat, they didn't know where they were going.

Some of them wound up in Shanghai, in South America.

I met a gentleman in Aruba one day who was from Berlin.

I mean, it was just -- you did what you had to do.

Bill Benson: Wherever you could get a place willing to take you.

And your father was successful.

He was able to get this affidavit and then get a visa to travel to the United States but then there's a problem with the visa.

Tell us about this.

Henry Weil: There was a hitch.

My father, after weeks and months went by, gets the affidavit.

And when he looks at the documents, it only has his name. 

Doesn't have my mother's name, doesn't have my name. So my father goes back, gets in lines again and goes through essentially the process from the beginning until he's able to convince whoever was handling these matters to include my mother's name and my name.

They had originally told him, "Hugo, you're the only name that is required. Your wife and your son will be able to travel with you."

But my father, thank goodness, was very detail-oriented and he didn't accept that.

So he finally got that.

That caused further delay.

Bill Benson: I think as your father described it to you, the way you described to me, your father said it was a nightmare, the whole process making those arrangements.

So what can you tell us about what you remember or know of the length of time it took from when your father and mother decided to take action and you were finally able to get the affidavit and the visas?

Henry Weil: I'm not exactly sure of when they put this process into motion, but I assume somehow I connected with my having observed these German troops marching in front of our apartment building and I don't know exactly when that was whether it was closer to the Anschluss or closer to Kristallnacht, which is the "Night of the Broken Glass" which happened in November of 1938.

I'm not exactly sure when the process started, but what I do know is it took not only days and weeks but months, because from the beginning, we didn't leave Austria until very late August or the first week of September of 1939 which was just days before World War II started in Europe.

Bill Benson: So I think all together, the way you've described, I think it took about 18 months.

Almost a year and a half.

And so after a year and a half of trying to leave Vienna, in August 1939 as you just said, your family -- but before they were able to leave, you were forced out of your apartment.

Tell us about that incident and how the family was able to find shelter.

Here you were so close to trying to leave Vienna.

Henry Weil: Sure.

When my father finally was able to obtain the necessary documentation and the affidavit from Mr. Rice, we were told that we would be heading to Southampton, England where there would be a  ship waiting to bring us to America.

We were put out of our apartment within the first few days of September or the last couple of days of August, I'm not sure exactly, but we couldn't leave the city for whatever reason.

I'm not sure.

Fortunately my father had a friend that he had made a number of years before who was now actually a German soldier and he, this friend, offered to allow my mother, my father, and myself to stay with him and his family in his home for a few days before it was safe for us to leave the city.

What an act of kindness that was.

This is a man that took us in at great risk not only to himself but to his entire family if he had been caught doing this but ultimately, we were able...

Bill Benson: And at that time he was a member of the German Army?

Henry Weil: I'm sorry?

Bill Benson: And at the time he was a member of the German Army doing that?

Henry Weil: Yes, he was a member of the German Army but he was a friend of my father's and he took pity on us. Bill Benson: And when you got through that and were able to finally leave, besides each other, what did your family take with you when you left Vienna?

Henry Weil: Very little. Essentially the clothes on our back. 

But there is an inventory document that's being shown on the screen.

I think it shows my father's -- my father was a big opera buff, and it shows my father's opera glasses, it shows my mother's iron, and I think some few dollars, maybe ten or 20 dollars in currency.

But other than that, that was it. That was the inventory.

Bill Benson: That was it, all that you had with you.

Well, what can you tell us about actually leaving Vienna now that you were able to do it with the affidavit, the visas, and you're on your way?

How did you leave?

What do you remember of it?

Henry Weil: Once we were released to leave, we had to travel on our way to Southampton through Paris, France. When we arrived in Paris we were met with air raids every night.

We were there for almost a week.

I don't remember the exact length of time but it was close to a week, and we spent most of that time, every night, in an air raid shelter.

One of the things that I do remember is my father had picked me up to run to the shelter and on the way he lost one of his shoes, didn't stop to pick up his shoe just kept running, and went  with me and my mother to the air raid shelter.

Many nights when we were headed to the air raid shelter, the air raid shelter was already full, you know, filled to capacity, and we were not allowed to enter so we had to ride in the Metro all night waiting until the air raids would stop.

And this went on, as I say, for several days, close to approximately a week which caused further delay. 

Bill Benson: Where did you go from Paris, and what do you know about that part of your journey?

Henry Weil: Once we were able to leave Paris as I said, we were headed to Southampton, England. Our first place where we first stopped was in La Havre, France which was on the channel, on the English Channel.

We crossed the English Channel, arrived in Southampton, and lo and behold, the ship that we had been told would be bringing us to America had already left port because of the long delays that my father encountered in obtaining the necessary documentation and the further delay in being held up in Paris and the air raid shelters, the ship had already left.

We had no idea what was going to happen with us.

Fortunately for us, that ship that we were scheduled to depart on was sunk by German U-boats.

Sunk by German U-boats.

Bill Benson: So just by the fortune of delay you missed that.

Henry Weil: Fortune of delay, our lives were saved in two different aspects, leaving Austria and missing that ship. Fortunately there was another ship that we were placed on, the Aquitania, and we were able to come to America on the Aquitania.

Bill Benson: So here you are on the Aquitania and fortunately the ship, the one that left after the U-Boat got the one that you were supposed to have been on, but your dangers from U-boats were not over for you.

Tell us about that and then about your journey to New York itself.

Henry Weil: That is an article that appeared in the New York Daily Mirror, and I believe the date is September the 17th, 1939. We arrived in New York Harbor the day before on September the 16th, 1939 and about midway down on the right is a photograph of three boys wearing life vests.

That's me in the middle and the other boys are the Weiner brothers from Germany.

And what's so interesting is, is that we are required to wear those life vests for the entire journey. 

We had to sleep in those life vests because we were being chased by German U-boats such as the U-boats that had torpedoed the ship that we were originally scheduled to depart on.

And there's another photograph on that page, the ladder that was placed on the deck with a notification, "in case of a torpedo, this way out," which we were told was if we were being struck by a torpedo, we were to ascend that ladder to a higher deck which would put us in asafer place.

Fortunately that was not required. 

We were able to zigzag across the Atlantic.

It took -- I think we left on the second or third of September and I think we arrived on the night on the 16th -- we left on the 9th of September and we arrived on the 16th of September, so it was about a week, the journey.

The reason it took so long was because we were zigzagging the entire time that we were sailing because we had to try to outmaneuver these U-boats that were chasing us.

Bill Benson: Did your parents later ever say how terrifying that must have been to know that you were basically being hunted by U-boats and you're out there in the middle of the ocean?

Henry Weil: They certainly did, and they also told me that, I was obviously oblivious to what was going on,they told me as I recall that there was a rocking horse, a wooden rocking horse, on our deck and they told me that I spent most of my time on the rocking horse totally oblivious to what was going on.

But they were obviously very, very frightened about the journey.

Bill Benson: Can only imagine. Well, tell us about arriving in New York City.

Henry Weil: Sure. On September the 16th, 1939, thank G-d we arrived in New York Harbor and you'll see in a moment the photograph of us being on the top deck of the ship.

And there's the Statue of Liberty in the background.

And everybody is just so happy to be in America.

I've a vague recollection of people screaming, "America, America!" 

And what's so interesting is that the Statue of Liberty, which is significant to anyone and all Americans, has particular significance to me.

And when I'm in New York from time to time, I'm in Lower Manhattan, I see the Statue of Liberty, I still become very, very emotional when I see that because it means so much to me to have  seen that.

We're taken from the harbor directly over to Ellis Island which at that time was an immigration center where we had to be processed. As I recall that was an overnight event, and once we completed that process we were allowed to enter the United States.

Now as I said earlier, we came with essentially nothing, but fortunately my mother's older sister, my Aunt Hilda, she had left Vienna a few months before we did and she and her husband and family had already settled in New York, so we were able to stay with them for that short period of time until my father could find work.

Bill Benson: So here you are just four years old. Your family settled in New York and your parents -- your father lands a job and they were able to start to get themselves established tell us about that.

Henry Weil: My green card.

That's correct, and you'll notice that my name is not Henry, it's Heinz.

And anecdotally I'll tell you that my mother tells me that she went to the supermarket when she arrived here, and she saw Heinz products like ketchup, mustard, baked beans, and she told me that that would not be a fitting name for her son so they started to call me Henry, and that name has stuck with me all these years.

I think the real reason probably was that Heinz is too Germanic and they didn't want to have that name for their son, but it was an interesting story, in any event.

Bill Benson: It was definitely a plausible one, right?

Henry Weil: Exactly. So as I was saying, my father, once we arrived in New York and were living with aunt and uncle, heard that there was some work in Philadelphia in leather because my father had been in the leather  industry in Europe, so he went to Philadelphia to work and he spent the entire week, the weekdays I should say, in Philadelphia, came back to New York on the weekends.

And that went on for some period of time until he found that there was a real robust leather industry in Wilmington, Delaware and that's where we went.

He moved the family to Wilmington, Delaware which is where I grew up.

Bill Benson: And what were those early days like for you making adjustments?

You were, you know, as you said, four years old when you arrived. Next year you were in kindergarten.

What was it like for you?

Henry Weil: For me, it was fairly easy and pleasant. I started school right away.

I didn't speak any English when I started, obviously.

I only spoke German, but I picked it up as a young child much, much quicker than my parents.

And I went all through grammar school in Wilmington.

At that particular time my parents had to attend night school.

They had to learn the English language, they had to learn something about American history that would qualify them to be able to take the exam for American citizenship which they did, and they were just so delighted to be in America.

So, so happy to be in America.

I went all through grade school there, I went to junior high, high school, ultimately went to the University of Delaware and graduated from Delaware.

Bill Benson: Henry, I was going to ask you, when you arrived in September 1939 of course the United States would not be in the war until after Pearl Harbor in December 1941.

Do you remember if during that time your family, your parents, were in touch with family and friends still back in Austria?

Henry Weil: Yes.

My father had several siblings.

One of his sisters was his sister Wilma, and I do recall my father, and I went along with him, would go to the post office with boxes of non-perishable goods that he would be sending to his sister Wilma.

My father never received any response.

We don't know whether sister Wilma received the packages or didn't receive the packages, but that didn't deter him.

He kept on sending those packages whenever he could, so that's what happened.

And of course later, my father received a telegram telling him that his entire family had been killed in the concentration camps.

And there's another interesting story that I can tell you, that many years later when I was driving a car -- my parents never drove a car.

We had a car in the family, but I was the family driver.

And I was driving them through a small community in New Jersey known as Vineland, New Jersey.

Vineland, New Jersey happened to have a number of small farms, it was a farming community.

And for some reason some survivors of the Holocaust who were able to escape wound up in Vineland and were operating these farms.

And I was driving through, my father saw a sign, fresh eggs for sale, so he asked me to stop the car and I did.

And he went into the farmhouse to purchase some eggs.

And for some reason, it took him a long time.

He didn't come out for quite a while, and when he came out, he was really very, very upset.

He was crying.

And this is a remarkable coincidence.

The woman who was operating the farm told my father that she was one of his sister's cell mates in a concentration camp and proceeded to tell him that a German guard or an officer or soldier, I don't know what his position was in the camp, gave my father's sister a poison pill to take just before she was to be taken to the gas chamber.

An act of, I suppose you could call it a charitable act, so that she wouldn't die of asphyxiation.

She would have a more peaceful death.

Bill Benson: Henry, I just really have one more question for you today.

As we face rising antisemitism, related conspiracy theories, and Holocaust denial, please tell us what we can and should learn from you, from what you experienced --you and your family -- during the Holocaust.

Henry Weil: I have really not had too much -- I mean, I have not any -- can't recall but maybe two instances of antisemitism that were directed at me and let me tell you briefly what they were.

When I first graduated from law school, I applied for a job with an insurance company here in Washington and I was having an interview with the claims manager.   Had a very nice chat and he says, "I'd like to hire you but I have to make a phone call."

I said, "Sure."

I'm sitting right across the table from him. He picks up the phone, calls the main headquarters of the company. He says, "I'd like to hire this young man. I think he'd do a good job, but he's Jewish. Can I hire him?"

I was dumbfounded. I was sitting there.

This is like in 1950--1961 or '62.

He says, "Good news. I was given permission to hire you."

I said, "Well, thank you very much."

And I worked there for a few years. The second incident that I personally encountered was when I was a trial lawyer and I was trying a case in suburban Maryland, and I had my client on the witness stand.

She had been in an accident, she had a back injury and I questioned, I put a question to her, "Could you please explain the degree of pain that you encountered as a result of this accident?"

And her response was: "it was like a Jew sticking a knife in your back and twisting it."

This is in front of a jury, a judge and jury. My initial reaction was to just pick up my my papers, my file, and leave the courtroom, but better judgment told me not to do that. 

I might be disciplined by the bar, I may even get disbarred.

You can't just abandon the client.

So what I did is, I approached her after the case was completed.

I said, "Ma'am, can you explain something to me.

When someone sticks a knife in your back and twists it, tell me what the difference in the degree of pain is whether it's a  Jew or a non-Jew?"

Well I guess she was dumbfounded at that point.

She didn't respond.

I just walked away.

But to answer the question, I mean, it's so, so terrible to see what's happening in this -- we never, I never dreamed that we would confront any antisemitism in the United States.

And I feel very, very bad for my children and my grandchildren having to live in this atmosphere.

It's just unbelievable, it's so, so sad.

What I would say is,you know, and I'll just add before I go on, is we have some of the survivors here who were in the concentration camps who endured horrific, horrific times in those camps.

For them to be here and have survived that and now having to confront antisemitism at the present time in this country is just unimaginable, how they must feel.

Bill Benson: Well, Henry, we are just so grateful to you for your willingness to be our First Person to spend this time with us, share the experience that you went through, your parents went through, and of course, the rest of your extended family. So thank you for spending time as our First Person today.

Henry Weil: Thank you very much.

This conversation has been edited in length for educational and classroom use. View Henry Weil's complete First Person: Conversations with Holocaust Survivors program.