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Today you are a Concordian of 40 years living in Conantum but you began your life growing up in Germany and you experienced and can give us a eye-witness account of what it was like to be a young girl at the time that the Nazis took over. Could you go back to your days growing up in Germany?
I was born and raised in Frankfurt am Main, Germany. My father was a lawyer and I was the youngest of three children. My brother who was 21 months older than I was brain damaged. My sister was five years older. There was never any money problem. We had so many servants that nobody in the household did anything. We had a cook and two servants, a cleaning woman who also did the laundry and the ironing, a gardener, a governess for about two years, and later a tutor who tutored my brother, so for me life was just wonderful. There were no obstacles. I became involved quite early in youth movements. I think you would probably call it the scout movement in this country but in Germany it was something similar to scouts but not exactly the same. This life went on until one day on January 30, 1933 I came home from my piano lessons and had to walk past a large square in Frankfurt, and there was obviously something very exciting going on. People were talking and people were meeting at the square, the square was filled. I asked what was going on and I was told that Hitler had just been coming into power. That really scared me because Hitler was discussed quite frequently and I realized that once he comes to power, our life will change very rapidly. So I remember walking home from this square to my house crying the whole way home. I was 13 years old at this time.
The first few weeks there was no change. But on April 1, 1933, that day was declared a day of boycott of Jews which meant that all Jewish stores had to stay closed, no Jew was allowed to be on the street, and of course, we children were not allowed to go to school that day. This was the first time that I was really singled out as a Jew. I was in a non-Jewish school at that time. I was very popular because I was very good in sports which in Germany was important to be popular, and I was class president for many years, but this was a great shock to me. It was more of a shock to my sister who was six to eight weeks before her final graduation from high school where you have to pass an exam and it is really a big, big step in your life. She was so upset over this that she refused to return to school, so she never finished high school. Because my sister did not want to stay in Germany, she very soon after April 1 moved to France. She was 18 years old and lived in France for the rest of her life. My brother, who as I said was 21 months older than I, because he was brain damaged, very soon after my sister left, was also sent to France. By that time, it was known that Hitler exterminated handicapped people and certainly the brain damage would make him a handicapped young man. He was 14 years old. So he was sent to a very special school in France and from there he was sent to a school in Italy and eventually was exterminated in a camp there.
As I said before, I was in a non-Jewish school where I was very popular and from time to time I decided with some friends to go swimming. So we agreed to meet at the swimming pool at a certain time and I arrived there and there was a big sign, No Jews Allowed. Well, this repeated itself over and over again. We would decide to go to the movies and I would arrive there and the same sign, No Jews Allowed. My non-Jewish friends were scared to say anything because Hitler was in power and you were not allowed to complain about anything, but they obviously felt for me because as I said, I was class president and they continued having me as class president. In some instances they themselves did not go swimming or go to the movies, but occasionally one or two would decide as long as they were there, to go ahead and go in.
In May 1933 every class of that age would go for a week to the country where we had school. It's almost like a camp here where we had science and nature studies and things. By that time life in schools was quite militaristic and that week in the mountains it was more so because we spent a whole week, day and night together, so we had to do a lot of marching. At that time, two of the girls complained that they did not want to have a Jew lead them or tell them what to do, but these two students were so aggressed against by the rest of the class that it was amazing for me to see that I still had so many friends in that class that they would be willing to fight against these two girls who were obviously very strong Nazis. Now we have to remember by that time all boys and all girls of my age had to belong to the Hitler Youth, therefore they really had to be very careful because Hitler Youth, both boys and girls, were trained by their leaders to even tell on their own parents if their parents said or did anything against Hitler. So these girls really took a chance protecting me but nothing ever happened and this went on very smoothly.
The following year when I was 14, one Friday afternoon I was called in by my school principal and she told me to pack all my things and not to return because they wanted the school to be free of Jews. Judenrein is the German word for it. This was a terrible shock for me. It just never occurred to me that I would not finish my schooling in this school but there, of course, was nothing I could do. I was not allowed to tell my schoolmates about it. I had to wait in the principal's office until everybody had left and get my books and I was told not at any time to talk to my friends or any classmates about being kicked out of school.
I had known the principal before this happened and she acted very differently this time. Her manner was very stiff and obviously she had been told by somebody that this is what she had to do. She did not say it in a very friendly tone, it was quite cold. She certainly had been more friendly before than she was at that moment. I could feel that she was not very happy about having to tell me this, but I could also feel that she was scared not to tell me this. This is one thing that of course happened that everybody was threatened if they did anything good for Jews. This atmosphere went through our lives.
At this time we still had the servants, but very soon after there was a decree that no non-Jewish servants were allowed to live in a Jewish home, and since some of the people were living with us, they had to be let go. Slowly one after the other had to be let go because by the time I was 15, no Jewish family was allowed to have anybody non-Jewish working for them within the house. I remember at that time, it was the first time in my life that I had to make my own bed. To me that was rather difficult because I just didn't know how to make my own bed because it was always made by a servant. My great solace was my belonging to the youth movement which was a Jewish group. We met weekly, and every Sunday we would go out for hikes either into the mountains or the forests. Not infrequently we met with Nazi youth groups and occasionally had fist fights. I mean actually fought. It was even sometimes our girls troop against a boys Nazi troop. We were never really badly hurt but occasionally came home rather bruised and roughed up. This did not stop us from going out because we felt it was important for us to have our weekly outings. At the age of 12, I myself became a troop leader and had seven and eight-year old girls in my troop and at that time I felt very scared to go out with them because I felt responsible for these kids. So whenever we went on an outing I made sure that I went with at least one other troop of people my age so that if anything happened the younger kids could be protected. We wore our scout uniform which was different from the Hitler Youth so it was obvious either you were Hitler Youth or you were Jewish.
On vacations we always had camps. I remember on one occasion we were set up to go to a camp and all arrangements had been made, and these camps were usually for several troops together, and we got to the camp site and again there was a big sign, No Jews Allowed, so we didn't know what to do. All the kids had said goodbye to their parents and we were supposed to be gone for a week. It so happened that my parents were on vacation that week and had taken my brother and sister with them and all our servants were away, that was when we still had servants, so I suggested let's all move into my house and have our camp there, and this is what we did. We went out and bought the groceries and we did the cooking, we did everything and nobody would have known that we had done this except when my parents came back and the servants came back, so much toilet paper was missing that they realized that something was going on that was not expected. So I had to admit that yes, there were about 25 of us living in the house. For some reason we didn't think about buying toilet paper. They understood but I was grounded for a few days.
After I was kicked out of the school, I was forced to go to the Jewish school which at that time I absolutely refused. So my parents sent me to Italy where my brother was in school. Now they did not tell me that I was supposed to go to that school. All they told me was that I was to visit my brother over Easter vacation which I did. When it was time for me to go home, I had gotten a telephone call from my parents and they had decided they wanted me to stay in this school. I was absolutely horrified because even though I loved it there, this was done without my knowledge and I felt cheated. So I decided to run away and run back to Germany because to me I was a German, my father was a German, my mother was a German, and we all thought that Hitler could not possibly last, but my parents were worried that I might get into trouble because of the fights I had been in. They thought this was a good way to get me out of Germany. Anyway I decided I'm going to run away. That evening the director of the school who was a wonderful guy called me, and we stood on the roof garden overlooking the small village and the Mediterranean on a beautiful evening, and the director said to me, "I know you well enough to know that you're planning to run away. Have you ever thought what it would do to this school if they find out that one of their students ran away? This would ruin our school." So I made a compromise with him. I agreed to stay through that semester until June and then he would see to it that my parents would let me come home. So I stayed in that school for the semester. Most of the students were Jewish but it was not a Jewish school. It was the best schooling I ever had in Europe. In the German school, I was taught to spit back what I was told. In other words there was no independent thinking. In fact, under Hitler you were almost forbidden to think independently. This school was really based on our figuring out things; it was a problem solving experience rather than a rote memory experience. In Italy the difference of learning was so exciting. There were only seven kids in my class to start with and we were competing, and I was the only girl which made it more exciting for me. I suddenly realized there was a different way of schooling. I just thought this was great but since I had made the decision to go home after the term, I did go back to Germany.
I went back to Germany and had to go to the Jewish school. I did this for about a half of a year and was so miserable that I quit school at the age of 15. I just decided I had no future as far as schooling was in Germany. By that time it was obvious that Jews could not go to university. My father wanted me to be a lawyer. I knew there was no way I could study law in a German university. Remember I refused to leave Germany. So I quit school. I just from one day to the next said I'm no longer going back to school. My parents were very unhappy because of course they wanted me to finish school but there was nothing they could do. I was sent to Berlin for a year to live with a Jewish family and be like a companion to the wife because they had no children. They happened to have chickens, they had cats and they lived in the country, so I spent the year there. While I was there or already before, I had heard of the idea of starting a special program for Jews to train young Jewish boys and girls in agriculture in order to have a trade to leave Germany and until then all these training places were training people to go to Palestine. We were anti-Zionists so no way were we going to go to Israel, however the original plan for all the students in that place was to go to Brazil. I wanted in the worst way to go to this place because many of my friends were there. It was the type of place that I really felt I could be very happy in, but my parents were very much against it because they could not stomach the daughter of a lawyer becoming a peasant. Again this time I was sent to France where my sister lived because she just had a baby and so I was convinced that it would be good for me to take care of the baby so that my sister could continue working as a photographer. So I stayed there for five months and had a miserable time because I did not want to be in France. I wanted to be in this place which was called Gross Breesen. So I finally convinced my parents to let me come back to Germany and finally they agreed to let me go to Gross Breesen. In 1937 when I was 17 years old I did go to Gross Breesen. It was not easy. Here we had real heavy agriculture and had to get up at 4:00 in the morning to milk the cows, take care of the horses, take care of the chickens, do a lot of housework. There were 130 students in this place, 100 boys and 30 girls. We were a Jewish island within Germany. We almost forgot that we were surrounded by Nazi Germany because we had our own life. We had our own friends, we had our own teachers, and we worked very, very hard. We also studied some agriculture like soil chemistry. We learned Portuguese because the plan was to go to Brazil, and we really, really became what my father always called the peasants.
Then one day in October 1938 I had a letter from my mother saying to me that because their anniversary was on November 11, she would like me to surprise my father and come back home. She sent me the money for the train trip and then a few days later I had a letter from my father saying that he wanted me to surprise my mother, sending me the money for the train trip. I wrote both of them separately, sorry, I can't get off, and on November 8 arrived surprising both of them. This was the day before Kristallnacht. Of course, I didn't know that. The next day in the late morning we were all home. My uncle, my father's brother was there too, and the doorbell rang and three SS men walked in. One of them identified himself by name saying to my father that he lost a court case against my father and started beating him up in front of us, really beating him up. Then they took him and my uncle away and we did not know where. My mother and I were left in the house terribly, terribly upset of course. Later that afternoon these three SS men and two more came back to the house. We had to stand with our face against the wall and they ransacked the house. They went through every drawer, they went through every book, threw everything on the floor, they were looking for weapons which were illegal for Jews to have and communist material. They found books written by Jews but they did not find any communist material, however at that time my mother and I did not know whether we were going to get through this alive or not. They finally, after almost two hours, walked out leaving the house in shambles. At that time we realized we could no longer stay in Germany, but my mother found out fairly soon after, that my father was in Buchenwald which is the concentration camp, and because he had been an officer in World War I and he had the iron cross, she sent the papers to that camp.
About three or four days after my father was taken we got a telephone call from my father's secretary at his law office asking my mother to come to the office immediately. My mother was by that time so broken up there was no way for her to do this. We didn't know why she was asked, so I agreed to go. So I went to my father's office and the secretary took me into his room, opened a drawer and there was a pistol. She handed me the pistol and said you've got to get rid of this because any Jew found with a pistol was immediately shot. So she gave me a paper bag. There was nowhere I could get rid of the pistol so I walked from downtown to a park where there was a lake with this pistol in my hand in the bag. I don't know how I lived through this because the fear was so great. I thought everybody who saw me must know that there is something wrong. But I just kept walking and I went to the park. I found a very secluded spot and I dumped the pistol into the lake. I am a very lucky person. I have to say over and over that nothing worse happened to me. I think I was in more danger this hour than I had ever been before because anybody could have stopped me and asked what's in that bag? But I'm here to tell you about it and talk about it.
Kristallnacht was the night all the Jewish shops were shattered. When they came for my father, we didn't know it yet. My father was on the Jewish Council of Frankfurt and it seems they came to the Jewish Council first to take them away, so when they came for my father we had no idea what was going on. We thought it was just because of this man who had lost a court case against my father that he got some friends together and said let's beat up this guy and take him. That's what we thought, but later of course we found out that this was nationwide, not only in Frankfurt, not only in our house but everybody. We soon were told that all men 18 and over were taken. Then there were rumors that they would take girls too. So whenever I went out with my bicycle, I didn't want to take public transportation, I had my toothbrush with me and things that I felt that I needed because I never knew if I was going to be picked up by somebody. This was before every Jew had to wear the star. The only thing we had to do was our names were changed, every woman's middle name became Sarah and every man's middle name became Israel. So if I was asked my name I would have had to say Carola Sarah Rosenthal which would have identified me as a Jew. I never was stopped but you never knew.
The papers about my father that my mother sent to Buchenwald were in the hope that he would be released. In fact he was. Most of the people who had been taken this Kristallnacht and you know every Jewish man 18 and over was taken that day or night to a concentration camp, but my father was released several weeks earlier than most other people and we were quite sure it was on the basis of this. He was taken on November 9 and he came home on December 9, 1938 and the first thing he said to me was "We have to leave Germany. I will not leave until you go." He did not want to leave me behind because again being worried that I might get into trouble. So I had to find a way to get out of Germany as fast as possible. I had friends in Holland and I had friends in England. By that time we had our quota number and we knew we would get our visa for America by May 1940, but this was 1938-1939 and no way could we wait in Germany until May 1940. So I decided I was going to England if that came first or I was going to Holland if I heard from Holland first. Fortunately it was England that I heard from first because the place I wanted to go to in Holland was later run over by the Nazis and everybody exterminated. So again my luck, I'm here. So I went to England and lived with a family as a companion to the wife who was Swedish and quite old. The husband was out a good deal and the children did not live at home, so it was my duty to take care of this woman who was a vegetarian which was very hard on me because I love my meat.
In early September 1939 this friend of mine and I decided we would go off on a hitchhiking trip. Hitchhiking is something I had done all over Germany, loved doing it. It was an exciting way to see the country. So the family I stayed with were going away for a few days so we decided this was a good chance for us to go. We had never seen Wales and we wanted to go to Wales, so we hitchhiked and we were in the middle of nowhere when the person from whom we got a ride had turned on the radio. It was announced that Poland was invaded and that most likely war was about to start and that every enemy alien, which we were, had to stay within five miles of where they were registered. Here we were far, far from that so we asked the driver to stop. We crossed the road and we hitchhiked back to where we lived. She stayed with a different family and because there was nobody in the home where I was, I was scared because one, of course, expected the Germans to bomb England immediately. I asked the family where my friend stayed could I please stay with them and they said no, I was too old to be chicken like that, so I had to live several days and nights alone in this house never knowing whether there was going to be an air raid or not. At this time I was 19 years old.
So I finally decided I was going to move to London, which I did and I took a job as a maid. For the daughter of a lawyer who was raised with servants around her this was a very, very painful experience, but I knew I could not leave England until May or June 1940 and I had to earn my living so I did take that job. It was a very difficult period. My parents had gone to France where my sister lived. I was alone in England, a foreign language, living with strangers, but I knew the end would come in sight, and indeed the end of May, I got my visa and on June 1, I was on the boat to America. I had had a ticket for first class on the Holland America line but at that time Holland was invaded and the ship I had a ticket on was sunk, so I was switched to the Cunard line and by that time of course, war was going strong. In fact while we were at sea France was invaded and Italy entered the war. So this was a convoy and several times during this trip of 13 days, we were bombed by air raids which meant we had to be with life jackets underneath. We could hear the ack, ack of the anti-aircraft but we never knew whether we were going to be hit or not. Instead of going to New York, this ship went to Montreal because on the way back it was made into a troop ship, a Canadian troop ship. The ship on the way back was sunk and everybody was lost. Here again, my luck, I'm here.
From Montreal we were all taken by bus to New York where I had an uncle and aunt. By that time a group from this agricultural training had come to America because Brazil, even though originally agreeing to have us all, decided they did not want to have that many Jews so we had to divide up. Some went to Australia, some went to Palestine, some went to Argentina and 36 of us ended up in Virginia on a farm that was given to us by a Jewish owner of a big department store. His name was Thalheimer. In fact they talk now of the Thalheimer's list after the Schindler's List because Mr. Thalheimer bought this farm and divided it into 30 parcels and gave each of the boys, there were 30 boys and six girls, a piece of land because as land owners they did not need a quota number, they could get their visa immediately. This is how he got these 30 young men out of Germany. It did not work for girls. Only boys were allowed to be land owners. I don't understand why. But the six of us had ways like I did. I had an uncle in Milwaukee who gave me an affidavit, that's how I could come. I also had the uncle in New York but I got the affidavit from the uncle who was a doctor in Milwaukee. So the six girls had come on our own, but the boys were really saved by this Mr. Thalheimer otherwise they would have no way to get out of Germany.
So we lived in Virginia about 60 miles from Richmond. It was a tobacco farm. We earned a dollar a week, four dollars a month. We worked very hard but we were safe and we were free. While I was on the boat coming over to America, I was told that France was being invaded. My parents were in France at that time. In fact my father was again interned in France as a German. I didn't know that at that time but found out later, and my mother who lived with my sister in Paris had to flee Paris. My sister left first and my mother left with a woman who had an apartment in the same building who had had a stroke and therefore could not drive her car. My mother who had never driven a car drove that car out of Paris into Spain with the woman telling her exactly what to do. From time to time they were strafed by German attacks, had to get out of the car and climb under the car to save themselves, but they made it. When she arrived in this country neither she nor I had heard from my father. All we knew by that time that he was in a camp and nobody thought he would get out of this camp alive because that part of France was invaded by the Nazis. Indeed it so happened that when the Nazis invaded that camp, they opened the gates and said, "Save yourself if you can," and so they could just walk out. My father who was almost 60 at that time walked day and day until he got to the Spanish border. We had friends in Oporto, Portugal. They sent him the money to get from the Spanish border to Portugal where he took the ship to America. My parents and I were then together. They moved to Richmond which was the closest city. My father could not work as a lawyer any more because at 60 he could not start to go to law school and get a degree here. So he went to evening school and got a degree in accounting while my mother who had taken a training course as a masseuse was working as a masseuse. Now we have to remember that my mother until about 1935-36 had never done any housework, nothing, we were taken care of by others. Here she was working hard as a masseuse. My father even though he went to evening school took care of the house. He did the cooking and cleaning. He was very proud of himself that he could do this but it sure was a great change of life for them as I guess it was for all of us.
My sister survived the war. She had fled from Paris and kept going south and ended up in a beautiful place in the French Alps called Megeve. She was married and the first child is the one I had taken care of in ‘36. Then she had another child in ‘39 and when she was pregnant with her third child, she was told that her husband was killed in the war. So when she came to Megeve, she had two small children, was pregnant with a third and no husband. As soon as she got to Megeve, she got baptized and became a Catholic and was known as a Catholic. She could not have survived if she had stayed Jewish. She became a very good children's photographer and eventually remarried and at some point or other, we had all three of her children living with us here because they all had great problems, emotional problems for obvious reasons. My sister died six years ago in a nursing home in Megeve. She had Alzheimer's. My mother had Alzheimer's and my grandmother had Alzheimer's. In those days it wasn't called Alzheimer's. but now we know that is what it was.
After I realized I did not want to live on a dollar a week and I felt I really needed to help my parents financially, I moved to Washington and got a job as a nursemaid. The couple I worked for taking care of the baby kept telling me that this was ridiculous that I could do much better but I didn't know where to turn. They suggested that since my parents lived in Virginia I should go to the Department of Education to the vocational guidance in Richmond which I did. They gave me two days of testing and at the end said you're going to go into university and I laughed. I had no money. I had absolutely no money. They said well, don't worry about that, we will pay for four years of your tuition, all you have to do is get yourself into a university and work for your room and board. Well, only in America could that have happened. I didn't know anything about American universities but I had heard about the University of Chicago so I said, all right I'll get myself into the University of Chicago. They said, oh, no, when we say you can go to any university, we mean any university in the south, not in the north. I knew I did not want to be in the south so I asked how far north can I go and still be in the south. They said Washington D.C., so I ended up at George Washington University where I eventually met my husband, married and had 51 wonderful years of happy marriage.
Frankfurt, the city where I grew up, had a nice plan. Each year they invited a group of young people who had grown up in Frankfurt and had to leave because they were Jewish. They paid all expenses, the travel, the hotel and everything, because they wanted us to know what Frankfurt was like now. I was one of these invitees and so in 1992 I went to Frankfurt. My husband absolutely refused to go with me. He did not want to have anything to do with Germany even though he was not German. He was Russian. But I decided this was something I really wanted to do and when I got there, I was asked whether I would be willing to talk to school groups about my experiences growing up in Germany under Hitler as a Jew. I felt it was my mission to do that indeed. So I talked to several high schools, always great interest, people were really, really unhappy about what had happened. The guilt even in these kids came through and they were especially nice, I felt. The hardest for me was when I was asked to talk at the school where I was kicked out of. At first I thought I could not do it. I just could not walk back into that school and then I said to myself, I have to, this is absolutely necessary that these kids in that school that they were so proud of knew what had happened several years before that. So I did go in, tears streaming as I walked in. It looked different. It used to be an all girls school, now it was coeducational. Boys in blue jeans, girls in blue jeans, I was horrified. All this would have been unthinkable when I went to school there. I did give my talk and in this school as well as several of the others where I talked there were children, high school students, sitting in front of me crying. And the questions they asked were really deep, sensitive questions. But it was very difficult. After I talked at that school which was the last day before I left, I had to wait for the last day, I then walked from my school to the house where I had grown up and walked into the house. I couldn't have done it earlier. I was just emotionally not ready. I'm very glad I did it. I also visited the Jewish museum in Frankfurt the last day. What I found striking as a guest of the mayor is we all had to wear our name tags and with the name tags it said, "Guest of the Mayor of Frankfurt." So many, many times I was stopped on the street by strangers, how come you are a guest of the mayor? Each time I explained I'm Jewish and I grew up in Frankfurt and the mayor is inviting every year a group of Jews to come back and see Frankfurt now. I expected several times that people would turn away from me. Nobody did. The questions were remarkable. The sensitivity was remarkable. I really, really was surprised how well I was received. I really did not expect that.
I recently shared my experiences with Steven Spielberg, the producer of Schindler's List. He had given $30 million for this project, money that he had earned from Schindler's List and his staff interviews Jews, I thought just in this country but they told me it was international. They are interviewing people internationally about their experiences growing up or living in Germany.
These are extraordinary memories and I'm most appreciative that you've opened up that window to the past. You're the first Concordian to have lived through that time period in Germany.
Well, I feel very strongly when my generation is six feet under, it will be gone. If we do not share with everybody what we experienced, it will be gone and I think it is too valuable a thing not to share with others. All I can say and hope is that my children and my grandchildren and my great-grandchildren, whatever, will never have to experience what I experienced.