Tag Archives: Oral History

Leaving Home Behind

By Elizabeth Perry

Tom Lewinsohn and his family did not try to leave their home in Berlin until January 1941, after Tom’s father received a tip from a policeman that their family would soon be deported. Very few places were open to Jewish refugees by 1941, so Tom and his family fled to one of the few places still open to them – Shanghai. For many German Jews, especially those emigrating after Kristallnacht in 1938, Shanghai was one of the very few places that did not limit Jewish immigration. According to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum website, there were 17,000 Jewish refugees in Shanghai by 1939.

Most of the testimony I have transcribed thus far featured the experiences of those that survived the war in Europe in concentration camps, but some of the testimonies feature survivors that escaped Germany before they were deported. Many of them followed a long, tangled route to safety. Klaus Frank and his father were arrested after Kristallnacht and sent to Sachsenhausen, but his family managed to pay for their release, and afterwards they made it to the Dominican Republic. Reggie Goldberg’s family managed to board a French ship to Cuba, but like the famous St. Louis, they were turned back. The family later obtained fake papers and escaped on a flight to the United States from Portugal.

Having studied the Holocaust, and taught it to high school students, one of the questions I often hear is why more of the Jews in Europe, particularly Germany, did not leave. In retrospect it seems like an easy choice, but in reality this was a very difficult decision. These families had often lived in their hometowns for generations, they had homes, businesses, friends, and extended family nearby. Most did not have the money to emigrate. How many could actually imagine what the Nazis planned? Reggie remembers that her father was convinced it would blow over, up until the day that Reggie was picked up at school by the police and sent to a ghetto in Poland with her parents. Klaus’ father dismissed Hitler in 1933, figuring that he “wouldn’t last the next week.” Tom’s father fought in World War I and received the Iron Cross – all his friends told him that no one would touch him because of his service. There were many logical reasons why they didn’t want to leave, and not least of those was the fact that they would be leaving their lives behind. Tom remembers that they left their apartment in the middle of the night, taking only what they could pack and carry with them.

Compounding these problems was the fact that, particularly after 1938, it was difficult to find a place to go. After the war, Tom found out that his father, who worked as a doctor, tried to obtain papers for his family to go to England. He received a reply stating that England did not need any more doctors. Only a few places, like Shanghai, were still available for Jewish refugees, and these were difficult to reach. For most, by the time they realized what was happening, it was already too late.

“Wait ’til Hitler Comes”

By Elizabeth Perry

A unique aspect of the interviews that I am helping transcribe is that they devote a lot of time to discussing the pre-war and post-war experiences of Holocaust survivors. One of the most interesting parts of hearing this information is the pre-war details, particularly the diversity of these experiences. This makes the testimony a great resource for researchers studying everyday life. Some survivors recalled having a very Orthodox upbringing, and had very little interaction with non-Jews, whereas others remember attending public school, listening to other students learn the Catechism, and their parents having non-Jewish guests over for dinner.

The level of anti-Semitism the survivors remember also varies. One survivor played on a soccer team that competed against non-Jewish schools, and he remembered that if they won, it usually meant a fight afterwards. Another said that when he played outside with other Jewish children, they had few options because the gentile children would chase them away if they saw them. A few others recall very little discrimination, particularly those whose families were not Orthodox. Many survivors remember anti-Semitism only becoming prevalent just before the war started. One survivor remembered that, when she was a child, a non-Jewish friend of hers became angry with her and told her, “Wait ’til Hitler comes! He’s going to send all the Jews to Palestine!” The survivor remembers that she had no idea what the girl was talking about.

Eastern Europe 2010 406

Synagogue in Krakow, Poland

Some survivors stress that anti-Semitism in places like Poland did not end with the war. When one survivor went back to her hometown with her sister after being liberated, they were not welcomed. A non-Jewish woman she knew before the war saw her and remarked in surprise, “You’re still alive?” All of the survivors interviewed did not, of course, go back to their hometowns, moving instead to the United States. Most of them mentioned that they did not want to go back because, among other reasons, they felt that they were not wanted. I visited Krakow in 2010, and our guide took us on a tour of four historic synagogues in the city. Only one of them was active, our guide told us, because Krakow simply did not have the Jewish population to support that many synagogues.   

Transcript Detective

IMG_1362Jessica Rockhold, Director of School Programs and Teacher Education at the MCHE, looked up at me from her desk. “You have a word?” she asked. Usually the reason I go find her is so she can help me figure out a word that I can’t decipher. “Well…” I said. “It’s actually a sentence.” We sat down next to the boom box and I played the five-second indecipherable sentence. I rewound it and played it again. We stared at each other and Jessica started to laugh. The only words we could make out were Czechoslovakia somewhere in the middle of the sentence and Stuttgart at the end. It was, ironically, the English in between that we couldn’t make out. Eventually we figured out the words and entered them in the transcription.

Before I started working at this internship, I became quite familiar with transcribing from a series of German letters as part of the online project at trugundschein.org. The palaeography skills I used for the letters are quite different from the skills I am learning now. With the letters, I had to study the old German script, and once I knew how the letters were formed, I could read the whole collection with few difficulties. With the interviews, I have to learn a new “script” each time I start with a new interview. Each person has their own cadence, different accents, and different ways of pronouncing certain sounds. While the letters are almost entirely in neat, full sentences, the interviewees pause, start and restart sentences, and change direction mid-sentence or even mid-word.

Sometimes working on these transcripts makes me feel like a detective. Unlike the letters, when the interviewee mentions a Polish town, I don’t have the spelling available, and so I need to find the town to confirm the spelling. Sometimes, if it’s an option, we can simply contact the interviewee. Other times the interviewees will drop words in German (or Yiddish, or Hungarian, or Polish, or Hebrew). Have I mentioned that Google Translate is quite useful? My background in 1930s German history has also been very useful because of the many Holocaust-related terms mentioned in the interviews. I am now well acquainted with how much knowledge and work goes into creating accessible documents for researchers. Unfortunately, despite all of our successes, some spots simply have to be labeled [UNCLEAR] in the transcript.

Welcome to the Midwest Center for Holocaust Education

By Elizabeth Perry

In 1975, Holocaust survivor Jack Mandelbaum was outside his home in Kansas City playing basketball with his family. A neighbor of theirs came over to chat – he was a nice guy, Jack remembered. He knew that Jack had been in a concentration camp, and he asked, “What kind of sports did you play in the concentration camp?” Jack looked back at him and said, “The sport was that the Nazis were trying to kill me and I was trying to stay alive.”

IMG_1363Jack had never spoken in depth about his experience during the war, but at that moment he realized that people did not know anything about what had really happened. Fearing that no one was being educated about the truth, Jack partnered with fellow survivor Isak Federman to found the Midwest Center for Holocaust Education (MCHE) at the Jewish Community Campus in Overland Park.

IMG_1365The Center’s goal is to “teach the  history of the Holocaust, applying its lessons to counter indifference, intolerance, and genocide.” To accomplish this goal, the Center has lesson planning resources for various ages, sponsors special exhibits, and maintains a resource center for teachers and researchers, including a collection of dozens of Holocaust survivor testimonies. The MCHE and their website provide an excellent resource for anyone researching or teaching the Holocaust.

My name is Elizabeth Perry and I am a master’s student in history at UMKC with a concentration in modern Germany. I first encountered the MCHE when I visited a traveling exhibit they helped organize, Deadly Medicine: Creating the Master Race, at the Kansas City National Archives. I am proud to help them continue providing resources and education about the Holocaust. One of the MCHE’s current projects is to provide eyewitness testimony online, and my task is to check transcriptions against the recorded testimony so that we can make post the transcripts to the MCHE website. This is how I learned Jack’s story, which reminded me that if this history is not taught and these stories are not told, then they could easily be lost. I am looking forward to learning more of these compelling stories and helping to make them available to the public.