WHY SHE BECAME MY HERO!
-an essay by Leslie Zurla
I ‘m from a little town in New Jersey and went to College not far from where we lived. I was there recently to celebrate my college reunion. It was a wonderful experience to share our “pasts” and “presents.”
My trips “back home” are always full of nostalgia and wonderful memories. I was reflecting on the carefree days of my becoming a teenager – totally pre-occupied with “breaking out” the night before class pictures. Elvis Presley dominated the pop music charts along with “The Platters.”
I particularly loved their song, “My Prayer.”
“My prayer is to linger with you…”
I never could quite define who YOU was, but fantasized anyway – especially on warm New Jersey summer nights.
During the reunion week, I was sharing a current project with a college friend. It’s a documentary film called “For The Life of Me.” – an accounting of Peter Vanlaw’s discovery of his true identity. This experience introduced me to a book called “Four Perfect Pebbles”, and I learned of an amazing woman whose experience of becoming a teenager was starkly different from mine, as was her entire life. I was profoundly moved by the comparison.
Marion’s book and her story of survival.
When Marion Blumenthal Lazan was about to become a teenager, she, her mother and brother sailed into New York Harbor and saw the Statue of Liberty for the first time, America’s music featured the tune “Sentimental Journey“. Quite ironic because up to that point their lives were an unimaginable struggle for survival at the mercy of the Nazi’s – Fleeing their homeland, only to be imprisoned in the notorious concentration camp, Bergen-Belsen and ultimately on the horrific death train known as the “Lost Transport.”
Marion Blumenthal Lazan is a Holocaust survivor who has dedicated her life to delivering a message of racial and religious tolerance to audiences all over the world. Telling her story to school children, high school and college students, as well as young adults is something she’s been doing for over twenty years, motivated by the knowledge that she is the last of her generation to speak first hand about the horrors and adversity that she lived through, and the Anti-Semitism that caused it. Her book “FOUR PERFECT PEBBLES” is her story.
When Peter Vanlaw was doing research for his film, “For The Life Of Me,” someone sent him the story of the “LOST TRANSPORT” – a train that left Bergen-Belsen on April 9, 1945 destined for another concentration camp, THERESIENSTADT, located near Prague, Czechoslovakia, where the Nazis had recently installed gas chambers.
With the British Army only days away from liberating Bergen-Belsen, the Nazis didn’t want to be caught with the evidence. The camps had long been infested with typhus and so many of the prisoners were barely surviving. Nevertheless, they loaded three trains, each one carrying approximately 2500 sick and dying Jewish prisoners that the Nazis wanted to get rid of in a hurry. Peter’s uncle Paul and his wife, Kaethe were on the third train, all three bound for the same destination.
But when that third and final train began its journey, direct routes no longer existed because allied troops had already cut off much of the access to the southeast, destroying many miles of railroad tracks in the process.
So, that last train turned to the north east and meandered for two weeks without food, water, or any sanitary facilities, while the engineer continued his desperate search for a safe route to the Czech border.
Yet that engineer had to make periodic stops so that the living prisoners could bury the dead ones, who continued die along the way.
While trying to track down his uncle’s connection with the “Lost Transport”, Peter discovered the name, Marion Blumenthal Lazan, and her book, “Four Perfect Pebbles” – never expecting to find a single living person who had been through the same nightmare trying to survive that journey. That’s when he learned that Marion and her family had also been on the very same death train with his Uncle Paul.
But the train could go no farther than a small German farming village called “Troebitz” before it was stopped and liberated by Russian troops.
Marion, her brother, and mother survived the liberation, but her father, Walter did not, succumbing to the dreaded typhus. Neither did Peter’s uncle Paul nor his aunt Kaethe Rehfisch. All three were buried in the village of Troebitz.
Finally after years of trying, Peter had an opportunity to meet Marion and her husband Nathaniel. It was at a speaking engagement at a Middle School in Redlands California.
Here he was able to witness first hand this wonderful lady’s passion as a Holocaust survivor, and her need to pass on her personal experience to younger generations.
When she was done with her story, the children were so mesmerized that they left their seats to surround her at the podium. Some were so moved that they wanted to touch her and hug her. While others wanted to speak to her and get her autograph, mostly in their personal copies of “FOUR PERFECT PEBBLES.”
Traveling for thousands of miles, around the world, she has reached over 1,000,000 people. All of them hearing her message of love, respect and tolerance to audiences of all ages. Her enduring enthusiasm is fueled by the knowledge that the current generations to whom she is speaking, will be the last to hear of it, first hand from a living survivor.
Marion in her favorite spot, surrounded by school children
I’m so grateful to know of Marion. My journey is not diminished by hers, but my gratitude for it is elevated beyond words.
The knowledge of her perseverance reminds me of the state of grace in which I’ve been living because I have never experienced warfare first hand. The closest I ever came were the air raid drills I experienced growing up in New Jersey – the usual “drop and cover” exercises, but nothing more.
Later, as a college student, I was selected as an exchange student for “The Experiment In International Living”, which gave us the opportunity to live with a family in a foreign country.
I had lived with a family in Ireland and when my stay was over, I sailed back to America on a ship surrounded by international students. When we approached New York Harbor, that last evening, everyone was on deck to see The Statue of Liberty and the glorious skyline behind her.
Statue of Liberty at sunset
I was with some German students. They, like most of the other students, were seeing Her for the first time. I was so overwhelmed with pride and gratitude that night – a feeling I will never forget.
I’ll be returning to New York very soon and intend to take the cruise around Manhattan Island once again. When I see The Statue Of Liberty this time, I will remember the young Marion Blumenthal as she first saw Lady Liberty, and say a prayer for all those who never got the chance.
Now it will have far more meaning than ever because Marion’s story has so deeply touched me that when I think of Marion Blumenthal Lazan, I walk just a bit taller.
To learn how Pete Vanlaw and Marion met, check out his post, “One Amazing Lady”.
“October, 1933, Dr. Adolph NATZLER learned that he was wanted by the Gestapo. But the Catholic nuns, who ran the Mullheim hospital where he was head of orthopedic surgery, feared he would be deported by the Nazis, and hid him and his family within the sprawling facility, giving their world renowned surgeon enough time to safely complete his surgical commitments before fleeing the country with his wife and daughter.”
Adolph Natzler (center) with two of his fencing partners.
I thought I’d exhausted the subject of the Natzlers and moved on to stories of my other relatives’ along with personal stories from a number of our readers.
But then a few a few months ago I got a cryptic email from a stranger named David D. In it he said that he had inherited some of Marlies Natzler’s photos, letters and more, all stored in a garage in West Los Angeles.
He asked if I would be interested in seeing them.
“Yes, of course”, I said, with a level of growing enthusiasm.
Ever since I rediscovered Marlies Natzler, I found more questions about her family’s history than I found answers. So, I jumped at the opportunity.
Marlies Natzler was the only daughter of Adolph and Hedwig Natzler, who I’d known as a child through their close friendship with my parents. By chance I happened to re-establish contact with her some sixty years later and remained in touch until a few years ago when she passed away. By then she was in her mid 90s.
As a history buff, I found her family’s story to be absolutely fascinating. She was the daughter of a world-renowned German/Jewish surgeon, who had developed – you’ll pardon the expression – cutting edge techniques to save the lives and limbs of German soldiers during WWI.
Meanwhile her father had been a close friend of an artist/journalist who had been murdered by the Nazis shortly after Hitler came to power. But the circumstances surrounding his demise have remained murky at best.
In addition, her cousin was the ceramic artist, Otto Natzler, of Otto and Trudy Natzler fame. Like their cousin Adolph, they too were refugees from war torn Europe. But they had established themselves in America as world-class ceramicists, to the degree that their works of art had reached auction prices in the tens of thousands of dollars in recent years.
Otto and Trude Natzler working together in their Los Angeles studio.
You’ll find a lot more about them and their stories by clicking the link above or following the links and the end of this post.
But then things got confusing. When I told him that I’d be very interested in seeing what he had, and asked him where and when, he said HE DIDN’T HAVE THEM. They were at his uncle’s house in West L.A.
David didn’t even live in California, but on the East Coast!
His uncle had been Marlies’s neighbor for a number of years, and stored many of her possessions in his garage when she moved to a smaller house in an Orange County retirement community. As good friends do, David’s uncle hung on to her effects long after she passed away, But it was only after his passing that David began trying to get the garage cleared out in order to sell the house.
He told me that I needed to contact Ms. Demitra T., to set up an appointment. David gave me her contact info. But she had a last name that was practically unpronounceable, and looked like it was made up entirely of consonants!
Nevertheless I fired off a note to her introducing myself and giving her my schedule.
I got her reply two days later, only to say that she’d have to get back to me in a few more days.
After a week or so, she finally did call back. It was to tell me that David’s uncle’s house had been sold, and Marlies’s possessions where no longer there. They’d been moved to yet another garage. This one belonging to a friend of David’s Uncle, by the name of Ray. And now I should contact HIM…!
This was getting a bit nuts. When I finally reached Ray I suggested that we stop playing email tag, and do the rest by phone. He agreed.
Since he lived near the beach, miles away from West L.A., we made arrangements to meet at an intermediate location. I live in the San Fernando Valley, so, that intermediate location turned out to be the synagogue to which he belongs in West L.A.
When I showed up there he’d already been unloading his SUV, and had moved a number of boxes into an anteroom inside. The selection was huge and far more than I could deal with or was even interested in. But he said I should take whatever I wanted. The rest would probably be junked.
As I began sorting out the items, I realized that most of the letters and memorabilia covered Marlies’s later life, after her parents had passed. They held no interest for me because it was her father’s life and his early training to be a doctor in the German Army during WWI that I was really interested in. Plus his friendship with the artist/journalist, Hans Grohmann, and his connection with the actor, Conrad Veidt.
Conrad Veidt having his portrait done by his friend, Hans Grohmann.
That for me was where the intrigue lay; in part due to the murder of Grohmann at the hands of the Nazi SS, and my question as to it possibly being in retaliation for the disobedience of his friend, Conrad.
Conrad Veidt had already been on the Nazis’ death list because he had thumbed his nose at them by taking roles as characters sympathetic to Jews and Jewish causes.
But Veidt was not only a national treasure, he was revered around the world. So they decided that killing him was not such a good idea after all. Yet his indifference to the Nazis demand for allegiance may have inadvertently caused the death of his friend – a hypothesis that I hoped to find support from within these newly discovered Natzler treasures.
I had an “a ha” moment when among the boxes I found Marlies’s diary, which covered the crucial period, when she and her parents fled from Germany in 1933. That’s when her father had been wanted by the Gestapo, shortly after Grohmann was murdered. This could be the missing link I needed to answer so many of the questions that remained.
While I continue to sort through and identify much of the material, I can now reveal what I did find in her diary.
For weeks I laboriously scanned a few pages at a time and then emailed them to my translator. She in turn went through the painful process of translating each page of Marlies’s girlish scrawl, then sending me the results. Until the very end we were hoping to find the crucial passages. But we found NOTHING.
After all that effort we had to accept the reality that we were dealing with a seventeen year old who had yet to finish high school. Sadly she was still a teenager with a teenager’s perspective. World affairs were of little importance to her. Her gushing focus was on her shipboard activities, her teenage crushes and potential shipboard romances, all of which took precedence. With a great sense of humor, my wonderful translator began rating some of her more lurid passages on what she called her “Gorp Meter”.
While there was a very brief mention of the murder of Hans Grohmann, and her observations when her parents met my parents, there was nothing else of significance.
Too bad! My research was back to square #1.
However there is much more to be found for us history buffs in Adolph’s photos, because among the Natzler treasures are two meticulously prepared photo albums of his; plus many loose photos of Adolph’s schooling, and his career in the German army during WWI.
Then there are two prized portraits done by their dear friend, Hans Grohmann that I remember from my childhood. One of Adolph, clearly showing his Heidelberg scar (above his right lip, extending half way to his eye); and one of Marlies as a child. Also a third drawing of just her dolls. Plus numerous letters and picture postcards that have yet to be translated.
Adolph with scar visible, Marlies and her dolls.
Among all the photographs, I fell in love with the picture at the top of this post when I discovered it was Adolph’s University fencing club. This is what German fencing clubs members used to wear. What was the old adage? “Give a German a uniform and ….?” Anyway, this is a classic example. That happens to be Adolph in the center. It’s how he got his Heidelberg scar, which shows up well in Hans Gromann’s portrait of him made many years later.
Meanwhile, watch this site as more is revealed from the Natzler treasures.
View full post »
Cub Scouts ca 1943: Me standing 2nd from left. Jim Henrikson, kneeling left. Ralph Kehle kneeling right.
Here’s a quick recap of Part 1 and where we left off:
What we’ve been dealing with is the the result of a series of questions that my “What’s the Story” guru, STACIE CHAIKEN, suggested I explore as a way of finding a way of creating a story arc for my embryonic film project, which later became “FOR THE LIFE OF ME”.
Her last question in Part 1 was: Did I ever get any clues that our family was Jewish?
But you’ll have to go back to Part 1 to find out, in case you missed it.
Stacie’s next question was:
“Did I ever sense the Jewish part of my family?”
The answer was emphatically, No! I had no frame of reference. Growing up I had no idea of what Judaism was. I’d never been in a Synagogue, or attended a Bar Mitzvah; nor had I any sense of Jewish traditions, its philosophy, or what being Jewish meant.
While I always had some Jewish friends throughout school, it’s ironic looking back now because many more of my friends and acquaintances turned out to be Jewish than I ever realized at the time.
I remember, as a small child, when I met German friends of my parents. Most were nice and many felt it necessary to pinch my cheek. But a few I found coarse with barely intelligible accents. I remember one or two who sprayed spittle on me when they spoke, and more often than not, smelled like cigars. But all of them were always referred to as Germans, Austrians, or Refugees.
Me, Mom and Cecili Balin, daughter of Jewish refugee friends of my parents.
Consequently the word “Jew”, or “Jewish” was never a part of my lexicon and held little significance for me. It was only when I entered college that I began to encounter serious anti-Semitism. That’s when “Jew” or “Jewish” became “loaded “ or emotional words for me, often causing the hair on my neck to tingle when I heard them.
Could that have been a subconscious awareness that I was living a lie? Something I’ve often pondered since my discovery.
As a child, the only German friends of my parents, with whom I felt comfortable, were the Natzlers*, Dr. Adolph, his wife Hedwig, and their daughter, Marlese. But this was comfort born out of familiarity, because our two families got together practically every weekend, either at their house or ours.
Dr. Natzler was a noted orthopedic surgeon both here and in Germany. His wife, Hedwig, who I always called “Tante Natzler”, had been a nurse, .
After her husband died, and my father had just started his own business, manufacturing and selling food items to military commissaries, Hedwig used to help him by packing his line of fudge and English toffee in her little apartment in Hollywood. I often assisted her by folding the boxes in which she packed the fudge.
It was during that time in 1944 when my mother cracked emotionally and had to be institutionalized. But after she was released from the hospital, I never saw Tante Natzler or Marlese again. That’s when I began to sense there were things I wasn’t being told.
I didn’t know until 60 years later, when I found Marlese Natzler again, living in a retirement home, that her father, Adolph, was Jewish, but Hedwig and Marlese were Lutherans.
The following year, in 1945, my father tried to prevent Mom from seeing a Life Magazine expose’ which showed for the first time the horrors of the Nazi Concentration Camps. I thought he was sharing a secret with me that Mom’s brother died in one of them – a place he called “Belsen” – to protect my mother’s emotional fragility by keeping the horrible news from her. But I had no sense of the bigger secret.
I also remember a significant occasion when my father royally chastised me for some anti-Semitic remarks I made to him – parroting phrases I had picked up in school from a friend. I was in the third or fourth grade, and thought those remarks made me sound worldly. But I quickly learned otherwise. While he repeated the word “prejudice”, he connected it with “religious”; a sufficiently general term that allowed him to remain at arms length from any personal association. His membership as a Liberal Free Thinker was his stated motivation for the tirade.
1944. Mom’s in the hospital. I’m in summer camp at Lake Arrowhead, being visited by neighbors, Judy & Sue Stefan.
By the end of summer vacation in 1944, after Mom had recovered sufficiently to come home, a Jewish family moved in a few doors down from us. They were the Finklesteins. They had two children, an older son and a younger daughter. Until then, I never knew that Jews had red hair.
Barry, the boy, was a year older than me – very bright, and very nice. A few years later, when we were together in Junior High School, I tried to get him to come to the movies with us on more than one occasion. But he never could because he always had to go to Hebrew School. It seemed like a terribly cruel thing to do to him, forcing him to learn Hebrew, while depriving him of the fun he could have had with us!!!
Later, when I was in high school during my junior year, I was infatuated with a very cute girl, who had just transferred to North Hollywood High. We dated a couple of times during Spring Break, when we all used to go to Balboa Island for the week.
She was Jewish, and at first I felt I was doing something illicit. But she was so much fun that any misgivings quickly disappeared. On one occasion, we went to the Newport Beach “Fun Zone”, where I won a gold fish for her. We named the prize in her honor and called it, “Gefilte”. We giggled about poor Gefilte for weeks after. But our budding romance went nowhere, because her mother insisted that she only go out with Jewish boys.
I was devastated!
How did I feel about the possibility? & What did I do about it?
For decades I stumbled over these mixed signals. Yet whenever I sensed what the truth might be, it was always easier to return to a state of denial, where I felt more comfortable. Only after my heart attack did I feel compelled to change that, when I finally realized that my parents had been withholding things from me that added up to something bigger.
Yet when I finally learned the truth it was hard for me to accept. It took a while. But very slowly and cautiously I began to tell others about my discovery. As I became more comfortable with my new reality, I began to take part in some Jewish events. First at the University of Judaism, and then meetings at a local Synagogue.
I was apprehensive at first, with the distinct feeling that I was entering unknown territory as “the new kid on the block”. But I was surprised at how quickly I felt at home in those surroundings, as if I’d really belonged there all my life.
My first Seder came two years later. It was while reading from the Haggadah that I was overwhelmed by the realization that on a personal level, humanity and compassion towards people of all persuasions was a key part of the Jewish tradition. And so began my new education into what it meant to be Jewish, not only because of the discoveries of my real family and their stories, but the pride I began to feel learning about the long and proud history that is my heritage.
*For more on the Natzlers, go to https://forthelifeofme-film.com/2013/10/23/searching-natzlers/ and https://forthelifeofme-film.com/2014/07/30/family-friends-friday-natzlers/
“JEW” was a word I often heard from other kids, but rarely from my parents.
Me with the girls next door. They were Catholic.
For any of you reading this, I have to clarify the title since it only relates to me. That’s because it wasn’t until I reached the ripe old age of 52 that I discovered I was a Jew.
But then WHY, you ask, is this bit of self-evaluation and revelation even here?
It was the result of an exercise that my “What’s the Story” guru, Stacie Chaiken, asked me to write as a way of gaining insight into my then unnamed film project, that later became “For the Life of Me”.
That was back around the year 2000 when I was facing a massive undertaking that was still very much in it’s embryonic stage with no beginning middle or end.
But her exercise worked and went a long way to help me get a handle on my own life. So now I hope that by sharing it, some of you may also gain fresh insight into your lives as well, or at least provide you with a new perspective – whether you’re a Jew or not – or actually creating something about your own life…or not.
What does it mean to me to be a Jew?
This is how I answered Stacie’s question:
“Jew” was a word I heard as a child, but seldom from my parents. It was mostly from other kids, usually as a cruel and disparaging remark. But I believe it was pure mimicry – doubtful that few, if any of them even knew what the word meant.
“Blue! Blue! You’re a Jew!” was an early taunt. Later, “dirty Jew”, or …”Jew’d down the price”, I often heard. And there were others, all meant to mock another child with a word that had little if any true meaning to them.
When I was 10, I heard the word, “Kike” for the first time. It came from a new kid on the block. About two years older than me, he was a loud and boisterous guy buy the name of Don. He’d just moved into the neighborhood with his hard drinking, single father, who I quickly learned was a devout anti-Semite and misanthrope, with little tolerance for any minority or anyone who wasn’t pure, all American “White Bread”.
But it was his son, Don, who soon taught me other ugly words like “Sheeny”, “Spik” and “Wop”.
The word “Jew” always seemed to be used in a derogatory sense. As a 10 year old kid I certainly didn’t want to be accused of being one because I didn’t want to be different from any of the other kids,
Growing up during WWII, while having German parents who spoke with a decided accent made it difficult enough. But I always felt thankful when asked if I happened to be Jewish, that I felt safe to say that I wasn’t, since I really didn’t understand what the word, “Jew” meant anyway.
But by the time I reached college, my mother had dropped enough hints that I wasn’t so sure anymore. Yet, in spite of any minor misgivings I might have had, I joined one of the top white Anglo/Saxon fraternities on campus.
Linda and me at a Fraternity party.
While I enjoyed the camaraderie and the parties, I soon found an uncomfortable level of anti-Semitism among many of the members – enough that it almost destroyed our chapter.
It happened when another one of the “Jocks” in the house entered the name of a very popular Jewish football player. He was a guy that all of us Jocks liked, and we wanted to invite him to be a member of our fraternity. But that completely split the house between the Semites and the anti-Semites.
Unfortunately the anti-Semites won on that time warn “slippery slope” canard: “If we let Jerry in, it will set a precedent and we’ll have to let other Jews in as well”.
That pretty well soured me on fraternity life.
While I still didn’t believe that I was a Jew, the idea of anti-Semitism always felt WRONG to me. And since my closest friend was both a “non-org” and Jewish, I began drifting away from my frat brothers. Plus other interests took me farther and farther away from campus life.
Sports Car races at Santa Barbara – me on the pre-grid in my MG.
I was quite comfortable in my denial and never pressed my parents for a definitive answer as to whether there were any Jews in our family – the fact that my mother’s brother died in a concentration camp not withstanding.
Next came Stacie’s follow-up question, a zinger:
Did I ever get any clues that our family was Jewish?
Yes, in retrospect: I wasn’t more than seven or eight years old when my mother dropped a very early clue. I’d been rummaging around in a hallway drawer when I found a napkin ring with the initials “KW”engraved on it. My immediate question was, “Who is KW?”. Mom’s hesitant reply was, “It was your father’s. Kurt Wanlaw was the German spelling of your father’s name” – Vanlaw with a “W” and Curtis with a “K???”
While I thought it sounded a bit hokey, I accepted her answer.
Me and Mom about the time I found the napkin ring.
Later, when I was a 10th grader, I joined a high school social club. It was the era of the McCarthy Witch Hunts and the HUAC trials. As I remember, there was some kind of an informal application that required a parental signature. When I asked Mom to sign it, she had a less than encouraging frown. Did I think “THEY” would check into our background was her reply? It sounded a little absurd, but I assumed she was talking about my parents’ membership in the Unitarian Church. The minister had been accused of being a Communist, and my father was deathly afraid of being tainted.
Later there were a few more clues when I was in college: After I joined the Fraternity, my mother again raised the question whether or not someone would investigate our family’s history? But it seemed like a ridiculous question. Surely she was still paranoid from her emotional breakdown eight years earlier and her more recent radical surgery as a result of her bout with breast cancer.
Then over the next few years it appeared that her book collection expanded with new titles on a variety of Jewish subjects. And her taste in music also began to lean in a distinctly Jewish direction, with predominantly Jewish singers like Richard Tauber, Jan Pierce and Richard Tucker.
But in retrospect, maybe they’d been there all the time, and I just became aware of it.
However, it wasn’t until after I graduated from college that I began to think that maybe there was some connection between my mother’s brother having perished in a concentration camp, and her interest in various forms of Judaica. Yet I never questioned her, in part because I didn’t trust her mental state nor her ability to deal with anything personal. And partially because I really didn’t want to know, figuring, “what I didn’t know wouldn’t hurt me!” If there happened to be some Jewish connection on HER side of the family…fine. That was her business but it didn’t really affect me.
However, I do remember one incident that did alter my perspective. In the summer of 1956, after graduation, Earl G – my close friend and fellow grad – and I made a trip to the east coast, where we spent a couple of weeks. On our return trip we went by way of his former home in the Minneapolis, where we spent a few days with his relatives.
One night we were at a restaurant having dinner with his youngest sister and her husband. They were all Jewish.
I don’t remember how the subject came up, but at the time I was having some very mixed feelings during our dinner conversation. I began questioning in my mind whether I could possibly be Jewish? Or at least Jewish enough to mention it.
Suddenly I blurted out something like, “….there may be some Jews in MY family…!”
Best man at my wedding. 9 months after we had dinner with Earl’s sister and brother-in-law.
Why did I do this? I guess I needed to feel that I was a part of something warm, cozy and family-like. That I needed to belong. Or, maybe I was seriously beginning to question my true identity.
But then just a few weeks after our trip east, I reverted by verifying my supreme naiveté toward any possible Jewish connections in my family.
During our trip, I became friendly with the German racing mechanic, who had been badly injured the previous year, in the crash that killed James Dean.
Back in Los Angeles, he and I and our girl friends went out regularly on a bunch of double dates. So it seemed natural to invite him and his girlfriend to a small get together at my parents house, where I was still living at the time.
I totally convinced myself that this would be a happy event for my father. He would enjoy being able to speak with a couple of recent German émigrés in their native language, and maybe even share some of their experiences from before, during and after the war.
But among other things, my German racing mechanic friend was Schwabish, the German equivalent of a southern Red Neck. Furthermore, he had been in the Luftwaffe as an aircraft mechanic during the war, working on Messerschmitt ME 109 fighter planes. As one would expect, my father’s reaction to him was not exactly warm and fuzzy. Cold and distant would be a better description.
But it wasn’t until years later that I realized just how dumb I was by trying to put those two together. And how naïve I was to expect anything other than a low level of hostility from my father.
More when we get into Part 2 and Stacie’s next questions:
How did I feel about the possibility? and What did I do about it?
Shanghai in 1939 and the Huangpo River.
Shanghai in 1939 and the Huangpoo River.
The “Shanghai Twelve”! That’s what I named a group of very talented European refugees who escaped from China only days before the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.
But who were they? And how and why were they able to escape from Shanghai just before December 7, 1941?
As it turns out, I discovered them while researching my cousin Eva’s own narrow escape from that port in China just days before the Japanese shut it down. That was the next day-December 8, 1941.
My cousin, Eva.
But first a little back story:
When I began researching the incredible life of my cousin, Eva Baruch, I found out that she had escaped from the Nazis by fleeing to Shanghai in 1938, only to escape from them once again, just before the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941.
But I needed to know more.
At that point I knew that when she arrived in Shanghai, she was able to continue her theatrical career there. A career that first began in Berlin when she was just 17. But then I found out that she also worked for a British radio station, which, for whatever reason, got her in trouble with the Nazis, forcing her to flee yet again.
Only this time she fled from China, on one of the last boats out of Shanghai.
But first let’s back up and set the stage for the incredible details I was about to find:
After the British won the Opium War from the Chinese in 1842, they acquired control of the village of Shanghai situated on the Huangpoo River. With worldwide commerce in mind, they fortified the riverbank and made it navigable. They also built docks for ocean going ships.
Geographically Shanghai was in a very favorable location, allowing ocean going cargo ships wide passage to and from the Pacific. This gave the Brits the ability to ensure the easy flow of industrial and agricultural trade in and out of China’s interior.
Now suddenly aware of the monetary value of trade with the Asian nation, other international merchants began carving out their own concessions for their homelands, which like the Brits, allowed them to have their own space in Shanghai, while being allowed to operate under their own laws, free from the Chinese.
The British were first, of course, followed in quick succession by the Americans, and then the French, with more to come later.
Then, after almost 100 years, by the late 1930’s, Shanghai had become both an international enclave, and the fifth largest city in the world. Now called “The Paris of the Orient”, it also included Russians, Germans, Dutch, Italians and Japanese.
And by then it had become the Commercial Banking Center for Eastern Asia.
But with all these international concessions, which allowed each country to live by its own laws, it also became a repository for tens of thousands of expatriates, international posers, scumbags, exiles and fugitives. As a result, by 1938 Shanghai was a boiling cauldron of espionage, political intrigue and murder.
The Bund 1939 – the riverfront where the British made their improvements in 1840.
Since it was one of the last places in the world that did NOT require passports, it also became a safe haven for thousands of European Jews who had fled their homelands, many of whom had their citizenship taken away by the Nazis, and were now STATELESS!
As a microcosm of the world outside, all the players were jockeying for a position of power, trying to expand their spheres of influence within the International Settlement, and beyond.
At the same time, the war in Europe was looming on the horizon.
It was in this melting pot that Eva and her parents found themselves early in 1939. You can read more about Eva’s life in my posts about her.
Sometime shortly after her arrival in Shanghai, she connected with the German Emigrant Theater. Meanwhile, her husband, Josef Schwarcz, quickly found work with the British Consulate. And through him, she also began working for the British radio station, XGDN, broadcasting scripted plays to the German speaking populace in a weekly show called “Free German Theater”.
Then in October, 1941, Eva produced two extremely anti-Nazi radio plays. One was called “Die Moor Soldaten” or Peatbog Soldier’s, about the treatment of political prisoners in one of the early Nazi concentration camps.
Langhoff’s book, “Die Moor Soldaten”
The second was called, “Wien Maerz 1938”, which was a strong indictment about the treatment of the Jews in Vienna at the time of the Nazi invasion of Austria – the Anschluss.
The next day, the reviews in the Shanghai Herald were superlative, though anonymous. One of them said, “This radio play, unlike any before it, may open the eyes of all those who did not want to believe the cruelties. For all of us who love freedom and human rights, the final words of the broadcast resound”:
“It is one enemy before whom all of us tremble. But one freedom (that) will make ALL of us FREE.”
The Nazis didn’t appreciate this kind of response and decided it was time do something about this Jewess who was stirring up trouble. Eva was barely 22 years old at the time.
By a stroke of good fortune, her husband was able secure passage on probably the last allied ship to leave Shanghai before the Japanese closed down the port. It was a U.S. troop transport named the SS Cape Fairweather.
Originally bound for Manila, it left Shanghai on Dec. 3, 1941, but it was later diverted to Singapore and ultimately Melbourne, Australia
When I contacted the Australian National Archives to get more information about Eva and Joseph’s arrival, I found the ship’s manifest. That’s when I was surprised to learn that it wasn’t just Eva and her husband who escaped on that ship. There were ten other escapees on board as well.
USS Cape Fairweather
But who were they, and why were they there?
The who was simple because they were all listed on the manifest. But the WHY was much more difficult.
With more research I learned that they were all actors, writers, directors, producers and/or journalists, most having unique talents, and most, if not all with some connection to the British Ministry of Information.
At that time the prevailing attitude of the Jewish leaders was that you should be inconspicuous, lay low, don’t make waves. And above all, don’t get involved in any kind of anti-German or anti-Nazi propaganda.
But Eva and her shipmates were doing just the opposite.
As a group they were all politically leftist, and extremely anti-Fascist. And some already had the bitter experience of being prisoners in Nazi concentration camps. So, by teaming up with the British, they were given the perfect opportunities to do what they knew best, using the media to keep their world apprised of the horrors of the Nazi onslaught in Europe.
It was a perfect symbiotic relationship because it also gave the British a more direct way to communicate with the European refugees, while reaching their regular Shanghai audience as well, especially now that they were at war with Germany.
But now the Japanese were tightening their noose around Shanghai and could do much more harm.
And it looked like they were poised to do so.
Then in October 1941, Eva’s two anti-Nazi radio plays were the final straw. With the word out that the Shanghai Gestapo wanted to round up all of those involved, the Brits decided that the group must go. Their work was done. It was time to transport the twelve of them to a safer haven.
Records indicate that most of them had some connection with the British Ministry of Information. And many through the British radio station XGDN, and Eva’s weekly radio theater. For some the connection was obvious. But for others, we can only speculate, since NONE of them were CREDITED either on the air, or in print – for obvious security reasons.
While some of the group had already established their reputations before arriving in Shanghai, others only began to get noticed during their exile there, or later in Australia. Then there were the others who made barely a ripple at all.
But they all appear on the following list of the “Shanghai Twelve”, including what we know about them – starting with the least known first.
While I’ve indicated some of the possible connections with the BMI, I’ll leave the rest up to you.
- Roman Zieher – Born in Lemberg Poland, he is simply listed as a Doctor of Medicine with no published connection to the BMI. But we do know that he was born in Poland, then became an Austrian citizen before fleeing to Shanghai. Later, in Australia, he established a successful practice in North Melbourne connected with the Omeo Hospital there.
- Hans Karl Rosenberg – an actor, but again, with no published connection with BMI,. However, it’s quite possible that he was in some of Eva’s radio shows. Otherwise, he was only credited as having appeared with the Jewish Kulturbund in Shanghai. With no known theatrical activity in Australia, he returned to Germany in 1950 where he passed away a short time later.
- Ernst Platz – Born in Cologne, Germany, but was listed as “Stateless” when he arrived in Shanghai. Neither he nor his wife left much in the way of information other than his having been a journalist. However, when he applied for Australian citizenship in 1948, he listed his occupation in Melbourne as, “Researcher for the Office of Jewish Information to Combat Fascism and Nazism”. Again, no known connection with the BMI but it’s quite possible that he applied his ability as a researcher for Eva’s weekly radio plays.
- Frieda Platz –Ernst’ wife, simply listed herself as a housewife, with no other known activity.
- Egon Varro – Born in Berlin, he was a poet and journalist. Already imprisoned by the Nazis in Sachenhausen in 1938 for his anti-Nazi newspaper columns, he reached Shanghai in 1939, where he wrote for such Jewish weeklies as the “Shanghai Woche”. He was friends with A. J. Storfer and probably wrote for his Gelbe Post as well. In Australia he re-established himself as a poet and journalist, where he continued his editorials. He remained there until his death in 1976. Since his association with the BMI was known, it’s possible that he worked with Storfer at XGDN, helping to edit his scripts, and/or Eva’s.
- Eva Schwarcz – Born in Berlin, she was married to Josef Schwarcz until their divorce in 1946. When she arrived in Melbourne in 1941, she listed herself as married and a housewife. But before she fled to Shanghai, while still a teenager, in her two years in Berlin Theater, she had already acted in eight major productions, and then continued on stage in Shanghai, while adding radio and an unfinished motion picture to her resume.
- Josef Schwarcz – Born in Vienna, he listed himself simply as an artist in 1948. By then he was divorced from Eva, and also listed himself as Single. But before his exile, he had a successful career in German theater in Berlin as a Scenic Painter. We already know he was employed by the British Consulate, a euphemism for the BMI.
- Karl Bodan – Born in Vienna, by 1939 he could already look back on three decades’ worth of theatrical experience as an actor and director. Then at seven more productions in Shanghai, with at least three of them written by Mark Siegelberg. I also believe that Bodan and his wife were actors in Eva’s radio plays, and that Bodan may well have directed one or both of her anti-Nazi shows at XGDN.
- Olga Bodan – Born in Prague, and Bodan’s wife, she had previously sung on stage as a soprano in Austria, probably in the Vienna Opera. In Shanghai she appears to have performed in just about all of her husband’s stage productions, plus Eva’s radio shows. In 1948, when trying to get a fresh start in Australia, Karl was working as a hairdresser, while Olga listed her occupation as a “tobacconist”. There they remained for many years and became celebrated in the mid 1950s, together as Directors of the popular “Little Theater”.
- Mark Siegelberg – Born in Luck, Russia, he was a true scholar. He studied in Bern, Switzerland, and Vienna, and received his doctorate in both political science and law.
Already a prolific writer and later a play-write, in the 1920s and 30’s he wrote for various Austrian newspapers. Between 1934-38 he was the editor for the Viennese paper, Die Stunde. But in 1938-39, he was imprisoned by the Nazis in Dachau and then Buchenwald for being outspoken against the regime. Probably given the choice of remaining in a concentration camp, or getting out of the country, he chose Shanghai, arriving STATELESS in 1939. But on the way, he wrote a novel, “A Jew #13877 In Protective Custody”. And then he began working for the British Ministry of Information. The perfect opportunity because between 1939 and 1941, he wrote at least six plays for the theater. One, “Die Masken Fallen” (the Fallen Mask), based on his treatment by the Nazis, premiered at the British Consulate in Shanghai in 1940, to critical acclaim. A year later, a radio play was performed by Eva’s group, but written anonymously. It was called “Wien Marz 1938”, and received similar critical acclaim, comparing the two. Undoubtedly this was Siegelberg’s radio version of his stage play. When he reached Australia in 1942, to make ends meet, he worked as a furniture salesman while working part time as an actor. As his reputation grew, the rest of his plays reached the stage. In 1954 he became the editor of “Neue Welt”, which was published for Jewish immigrants. He returned to Vienna in 1968, where he lived until his death in 1986.
- Amalie Siegelberg – Born in Brunn, Czechoslovakia. Mark’s wife, who simply said she was a housewife. Otherwise, no more information
- Adolf Joseph Storfer – Born in Botoshani, Romania. Like Siegelberg, Storfer studied both political science and law and later became a journalist for a newspaper in Frankfurt. But even before WWI, he had become enamored with the works and philosophy of Sigmund Freud. By 1925 he was publishing the works of Freud and other psychoanalytical writers. Then in 1932 he went bankrupt and became a self-employed journalist. In Vienna, he was well known among the leftist, liberal, intellectual elite. But fearing the Nazi invasion (Anschluss) in 1938, he fled to Shanghai were he established what was considered by many to be the best German-language newspapers for exiles, Die Gelbe Post. But according to my friend and Shanghai historian, Ralph Hirsch, “…after fifteen months, his health ruined by continuous overwork and two ferociously humid Shanghai summers, Storfer had to sell his journal and its assets.” To make ends meet, he took a part-time job as a newscaster at the BMI’s radio station, XGDN, which by July 1941 became full time. He had hoped that once he was in Australia, the British would continue to help support him. But tragically and ironically, they no longer needed his services, nor the rest of the Shanghai Twelve for that matter. Unable to find work, he became destitute and could only find a job in a sawmill. He died of lymphoma in 1944.
A.J. Storfer and his “Gelbe Post”.
After such an incredible life, this terse obit appeared in the classified section of the Canberra Times on Wed. Jan. 17, 1945. It was all that was said about him after his death:
DEATH OF ANTI-FASCIST AUTHOR
A talented European writer, Dr.
Adolph Joseph Storfer, died in ob-
scurity recently in Melbourne.
He fled from Vienna before Hitler’s
storm-troopers arrived and then went
to Shanghai, where he founded (an)
anti-Fascist newspaper. This was
suppressed by the Japanese and he
was forced to flee to Australia,
where he arrived in December, 1941.
And so ends the saga of the “Shanghai Twelve”.
A little garden
Fragrant and full of roses
The path is narrow
And a little boy walks along it.
A little boy, a sweet boy
Like that growing blossom
When the blossom come to bloom,
The little boy will be no more. — Franta Bass, 9/04/1930 – 10/28/1944
It wasn’t until months after our visit to Theresienstadt that I even became aware of Friedl Dicker-Brandeis, the person, and Friedl Dicker-Brandeis, the heroine to the imprisoned children she helped there. A dear friend and former docent at the Los Angeles Museum of Tolerance, happened to mention a soon to open exhibit of her work at the museum and that of the children who became her students. How did I miss it when we were there, right in the midst of the work of all those children; the ones that she influenced with her teaching?
Curious as to how I overlooked such a heroic and influential woman, I went home and checked the photos I’d taken in the museum at the Terezin ghetto. And there she was.
The panel that I totally missed…!
Apparently I’d been so emotionally overwhelmed by my discovery of Petr Ginz, that I totally missed Dicker-Brandeis and possibly a whole lot more.
Only after I visited her exhibit at the Museum of Tolerance did I learn about the artist and teacher, Friedl Dicker-Brandeis, who was as much a heroine to the children of Theresienstadt as Petr was a hero.
Friedl (Frederika) Dicker was born in Vienna on July 30, 1898, into a poor Jewish family. Her father was a shop-assistant; her mother, Karolina, died in 1902. As a four year old child losing her mother, and never achieving motherhood as an adult, she was able to compensate for it by becoming a mother to hundreds of young prisoners who were her students in the ghetto at Theresienstadt.
Her early art education began when she attended classes at the Bauhaus, while it was still located in Weimar, Germany. In 1915, after a course in photography and her early experiences in a street puppet theater, Friedl joined the textile department of the School of Art and Crafts. From that point on her thirst to learn everything she could get her hands on in the world of art was astonishing.
One of her more traditional portraits.
Because her training was so broad, during the next fifteen years she designed a Montessori kindergarten, a tennis club, and completed numerous other architectural jobs. Then, while working on various interior design projects, she also created stage sets and costumes. Meanwhile, she taught art to children at several private schools.
However, in 1934, during the right wing coups in Vienna, she was arrested for Communist activities. After being imprisoned for a short time, she fled to Prague, which was then considered a stronghold of democracy in Nazi-infested Austria.
In Prague she became a Czech citizen and continued her work designing for the theatre, while painting, teaching and creating textiles.
It was this move to Prague that changed the course of Friedl’s life. Marrying her cousin, an accountant, Pavel Brandeis, she became a Czech citizen, and also began to develop her gifts as a painter.
From 1934 to 1938, she also began working with the children of German political refugees. It was here that she began to apply techniques that she had learned from her Bauhaus training under such Bauhaus luminaries as Johannes Itten and Paul Klee – a philosophy based on the aesthetics of empathy. The idea was to see your subject both inside and out, and become one with it. To empathize with it.
Itten once said, “Color is life; for a world without color seems dead”. And Klee proposed that a drawing is simply a line going for a walk.
This philosophy would become the core of her own work and the guiding principle by which she taught art to children. As a result, she formed an intense bond with her young students, who often said that her mere presence and maternal warmth were enough to create a positive atmosphere.
Her guiding principle would soon be fully tested in Theresienstadt.
Lady in a Car: 1940
On Dec 17th, 1942, while she and her husband, Pavel were living in Harnov, Czechoslovakia, they were deported to the ghetto at Theresienstadt.
Instructions for the Jewish deportees specified that they could only bring 50 kilos, or roughly 110 lbs of personal belongings with them.
What a daunting task that must have been. Choosing what to pack while having no idea of what was going to become of them. As a result most deportees packed clothing, household articles, valuables, photo albums, etc.
But, Friedl Dicker-Brandeis had a different idea. She filled the bulk of her quota with art supplies. Not just for her own artistic needs, but to ensure that she would have the necessary materials to teach art to the hundreds of traumatized children she knew she would find when she reached Terezin. It was a choice that was just a natural part of who she was.
Obviously her survival instincts were different from the rest of us. By choosing to give of herself to others – to donate her time, her talents and her indomitable spirit – she displayed an extremely rare quality, especially under those circumstances.
Conditions in the camp were appalling. For the young children it was especially traumatic; suddenly finding themselves in a prison after being forced from the warmth and security of their own homes and families.
And now they were thrust into a terrifying new reality which they could barely understand.
From the time they arrived in the ghetto, the children were driven apart from their parents and loved ones. Ultimately, they were sent to live alone in overcrowded children’s “dormitories”. Even brothers and sisters were segregated because boys had to live separately from girls.
Surrounded by starvation, illness and brutality, living in these appalling conditions put an enormous strain on the ability of those children just to survive. Desperately in need of some form of stability or structure within the camp, that urgency became Friedl’s motivation.
By using her enormous enthusiasm and energy, art became her therapeutic tool, which she applied while teaching over 600 children. Yet with only the limited art supplies that she brought with her, she was able to have her students explore various media such as collage, watercolor painting, paper weaving, and drawing.
A painting entitled “It’s Not in the Ghetto”, by Dorit Weiser.
But her lessons were not designed merely to teach her students different techniques. For Friedl art represented freedom, and that freedom became the means she used to teach her young students to dig into their feelings and emotions; to use them as a source for their creations; giving them a freedom that allowed them a way to distance themselves from the grim reality of their surroundings; to live briefly outside the boundaries of their prison, and the horror and degradation that always remained.
Of her few students who survived the Holocaust, one was Helga Kinsky nee Pollak. She recalls how under Friedl’s guidance, “We didn’t illustrate the misery and horror that surrounded us, but rather a different world that Friedl transported us to. She painted flowers and had us paint what we imagined we’d see looking out of windows. Her’s was a totally different approach. She didn’t make us draw Terezin!”
Another surviving student, Eva Dorian, said of her beloved teacher, “I believe what she wanted from us was not directly linked to drawing, but rather to the expression of different feelings; to liberate us from our fears. These were not normal lessons, but lessons in uninhibited meditation”.
But there was no way that Friedl’s use of art as therapy -by merely using paints and paper – could change the horrifying reality that awaited the majority of those poor Jewish children.
When Friedl’s husband, Pavel, was deported to Auschwitz in late September 1944, she voluntarily signed up for the next transport; so desperate was she to be reunited with him.1
Then on October 6th, 1944, Friedl Dicker Brandeis and 60 of her students were finally sent on transport number EO 167 to Auschwitz Birkenau. Most of them probably perished shortly after their arrival.
Yet, even at the very end, she did not give up hope herself, nor allow her students to do so. Instead, as one of the first teachers to use art as therapy, she showed them how to find artistic freedom and beauty, while helping to give meaning to their young lives, for as long as they were still able.
Fortunately for the rest of the world, much of her children’s precious artwork, along with many of her own beautiful drawings and paintings, didn’t disappear. Hoping that they would be found someday, she hid 5,000 pieces of art in the same two suitcases they had arrived in, when they were merely raw art supplies, two years earlier.
Although Friedl herself did not sign most of the work she produced in Theresienstadt, she made sure that her students did sign their names, and ages on all of their creations, as a testimony to their identity. A way of documenting their existence. Sadly that’s all that remains of most of Friedl’s 600 students. Apart from their ages and names, the majority of them will remain forever unknown, murdered in the gas chambers of Auschwitz Birkenau, starved to death in Theresienstadt or dying from the inhuman conditions in other concentration camps.
Sadly, her own works of art are seen far less often. Because of a hot temper and lack of self-confidence, she destroyed much of it herself.
Theater” – Sonia Spitz
And before her deportation, when she was forced to move into ever smaller apartments, she gave many of her paintings and drawings to friends, students or relatives…or she just left them with neighbors.
During most of the time at Terezin she was engaged in teaching children. Only in the summer of 1944, when the trains to the death camps were temporarily suspended – while the Nazis were creating a hoax for the Red Cross and the rest of the world – did she dedicate herself completely to painting. “I am painting with all possible intensity,” she wrote to her sister-in-law Maria Brandeis in August 1944, two months before her death.
But many of her projects were never completed and remained as sketches; and many are simply variations of the same composition. Yet her themes continued to be landscapes, flowers, people, street scenes, nudes, abstract compositions, and sketches for theater productions. She merely continued to ignore the ghetto’s environment. As a result, one will not find any trains, crowds, soup lines, dead bodies, or darkness in her work.
“Butterfly” – Margit Koretz
Of her last works of art, over one hundred and thirty of them are now at the Simon Wiesenthal Center, Los Angeles. But they were only discovered in the 1980s, along with hundreds of her letters, dating from 1938 to 1942.
As a result, it took more than forty years before her work began to get publicized and shown in exhibits in different parts of the world. And only then did Friedl Dicker-Brandeis begin to gain the recognition that she so richly deserved, as an artist, teacher and incredible human being.
1. Ironically, Pavel Brandeis survived the Holocaust.
“Work Makes One Free”
Penned up inside this ghetto
But I have found my people here.
The dandelions call to me
And the white chestnut candles in the court,
Only I never saw another butterfly,
That butterfly was the last one.
Butterflies don’t live in here,
In the ghetto
—Pavel Friedmann, 1/07/1921 – 9/29/1944
When I visited the ghetto/concentration camp known as Theresienstadt in 2004 with my wife and son, I was apprehensive as to what I was about to see. Our visit was part of a regular tour out of Prague, consisting of about a dozen people.
But when our bus arrived, we were in a small town. Not the usual foreboding concentration camp with the “Arbeit Macht Frei” signs. That I soon learned would come later, because Theresienstadt was like no other camp. It was actually a small city, built as a fortress garrison by the Czech’s in the previous century.
The ghetto Museum
The first place we were taken was a large building, that was originally the boy’s dormitory, but was now a museum. Here I would have my first encounter with the tragic yet inspirational story of Petr Ginz, a bright, young and very talented Czech teenager, who literally dedicated his life to helping the other child/prisoners survive the daily horrors surrounding them. He did this by providing the opportunity for them to tap into their creative selves and help them find hope that someday their lives would return to normal.
I began my visit by looking at the displays of their artwork – which one doesn’t expect in a concentration camp. Prominently posted was a picture of Petr and a copy of the newsletter he created along with some of his art.
As I continued reading his fascinating bio, suddenly I was overcome with emotion at the realization that he never survived because at age sixteen he was exterminated by the Nazis in the gas chambers of Auschwitz.
That really hit me hard! The realization of how traumatic daily life must have been for those poor children. The sheer horror of so much death and destruction around them. Now all those young lives were suddenly reflected in the exploits of this one young boy. That’s when my feelings really got to me, at the realization that most of these children did not survive either.
Petr with sister Eva, 1934
Yet I was so inspired by this incredible teenager that I had to learn more about young Petr:
By 14 he had written five novels and penned a diary about the Nazi occupation of Prague. By 16 he had produced over 150 drawings and paintings. His imagination enabled him to go places and see things in his mind’s eye that others could not.
Petr’s “Moon Landscape”
For example, he drew the Moon’s landscape in Terezin long before there were any astronauts or space travel to the moon. No photographs of its surface existed. Yet, here was Petr thinking about outer space, while being terrorized, starved and imprisoned in a place where his freedom had been taken from him. Proof that no one can ever take away a person’s imagination.
His drawing of the moon’s landscape truly confirms his yearning to reach a place far away from earth – away from this place which was threatening his life – where he could finally see the earth and still be safe and secure.
He also used his imagination and intellect to resist the Nazis in another way. This he did, along with the other boys in “Home #One-Barrack L417”, by producing a secret, weekly, underground newsletter called VEDEM, which means “We Lead”.
Petr was the creator and editor of Vedem and a frequent contributor. He coaxed the other boys for their submissions, and if there were not enough articles, he would write them himself under a pseudonym.
Vedem published items such as opinion pieces, artwork, poems, reflections about the past and future, quotes, descriptive pieces about individuals and about Terezin. The quality of the writing was impressive and reflected the boys’ emotions: humour, friendship, and sadness, as well as helplessness about their situation. And yet there was always hope that their lives would improve.
Done by hand, only one copy of each issue was made.
Through its stories and art work, Petr was able to convey his boundless determination to maintain his free will and independence and not surrender it to the Nazis.
While Vedem was published from July 1942 to September 1944, only ONE copy of each issue was made, and it had to be done under the utmost secrecy. Otherwise had the Nazis found out, the reprisals would have been swift….and deadly.
Ironically, most of Petr’s story would have remained unknown had it not been for the 2003 Columbia space shuttle tragedy.
So, it seems a fitting twist of fate that because of Petr’s fantasizing about the mysteries of the universe decades before man ever set foot on the moon, that his art would finally make it to the stars. And then only because an Israeli astronaut carried Petr’s drawing, “Moon Landscape”with him into space.
The publicity surrounding the flight and its explosion led to the discovery of Petr’s diary, his short stories, and much of his artwork which were all found in an attic in Prague.
Here’s how it happened:
Israeli Astronaut Col. Ilan Ramon
Ilan Ramon was a colonel in the Israeli Air Force, and the first Israeli astronaut. The Holocaust had great significance for him as a Jew, an Israeli and the son of an Auschwitz survivor – his mother. While his grandfather and other members of his family perished in the death camps.
Invevitably, he contacted Yad Vashem and requested a Holocaust related item to take with him into space on the shuttle Columbia.
Yad Vashem chose Petr’s “Moon Landscape“.
It would have been Petr’s 75th birthday when the disaster occurred. Yet, in one of those strange turn of events, it helped bring Petr’s work to the outside world.
It happened in Prague during the evening TV news, when the story about the shuttle tragedy came up and Petr’s name was mentioned. Hearing it, a man, living in the city, recalled some old books he’d discovered in the attic of an old house that he’d recently acquired, that once belonged to a close friend of the Ginz family.
The books didn’t look like much. Handmade from cheap, repurposed paper, they were flimsy and fragile. Yet for whatever reason he never threw them away.
Only when he heard the news broadcast and the mention of Petr’s name did he realize that those flimsy, fragile, faded pages were actually Petr’s books, his diaries and his art. As a result he contacted the Yad Veshem Holocaust Museum in Israel and sold all of it to them.
Eventually the diaries reached Petr’s sister, Eva, who carefully and lovingly edited and published her brother’s accounts of life in Prague and in Theresienstadt.
Looking back at Petr’s journey, he was able to find a level of peace and serenity through his own imagination, by putting himself on the moon, as far away as he could get from the death and starvation surrounding him on Earth.
Then decades later, by taking Petr’s illustration with him into space, Ilan Ramon believed that he was realizing Petr’s dream of space travel. But then the final irony that it took yet another tragic event, with the spacecraft’s catastrophic explosion on 1 February 2003, for Petr and his drawing to become famous.
A short time later the Czech Republic published a postage stamp in memory of Ilan Ramon, the Columbia’s crew, and of Petr.
Then in remembrance, an asteroid was named in Petr’s honor – 50413 Petrginz.
Finally in 2007, sister Eva’s efforts were realized when The Diary of Petr Ginz was published.
And ultimately, in 2013, a 67 minute documentary was released here in the U.S., titled, “The Last Flight of Petr Ginz.
For a look and discussion of Petr’s art, go to http://www.petrginz.com/?page_id=717
For more about Theresienstatd, got to my blog, THERESIENSTADT – PARADISE OF DEATH CAMP?
This is a guest post written by my friend and colleague, Leslie Zurla. She was inspired to write it after seeing this simple picture – four people standing on a wood pile. But this one included my mother and her brother, taken circa 1916 somewhere in Germany. That this simple photo could inspire such feelings….that’s what I find beautiful about it.
Paul & Lily Rehfisch on the left. The woman and boy are unknown.
“Try to remember the kind of September
When life was slow and oh so mellow
Try to remember the kind of September
When grass was green and grain so yellow
Try to remember the kind of September
When you were a young and a callow fellow
Try to remember and if you remember
I first heard this beautiful lyric when I was not much older than Paul1 and Lily Rehfisch2 , the two on the left in the old photo. The tune is from THE FANTASTICKS, which became the longest running show in New York. It was conceived by Harvey Schmidt and Tom Jones, while they were still students at the University of Texas in the early 50’s. This “class project” had its modest premier as a workshop at Barnard College in 1959, and the rest is history.
Whimsical, poignant, and romantic, THE FANTASTICKS is an allegorical story that focuses on two young lovers, their meddling fathers, and the journey we all must take through adolescent thrills – the growing pains of hurt and betrayal; the highs of passion; the challenges of distance and the agonies of heartbreak – before we can discover how to truly love.
My friends and I were in the throes of passion about…well, everything, and the FANTASTICKS was our “go to” refuge.
We couldn’t wait to go to NYC and get cancellation tickets, so we could see it again…and again.
Although Paul and Lily’s youth took place generations before mine, and a world away, I can feel the beautiful energy and dreams of this brother and sister as they entered their adulthood, probably just as awkwardly as I did.
I was introduced to them through an amazing documentary called FOR THE LIFE OF ME – The story of Peter Vanlaw’s discovery of his true heritage, when in his 50’s he discovered he was a Jew.
The stories he found about the family he never knew he had in pre and post war Germany are profound.
Lily Refisch was Peter’s mother and Paul, the uncle he never knew.
His film actually began as a “class project.” which grew from a writing class Peter was participating in. Hence I used the parallel of THE FANTASTICKS which had similar beginnings.
For a brief time, Paul and Lily experienced the wonderful adventures of cheeky youth. Lily was quite the coquette and enjoyed taking 16mm films, showing off her charm with her cousin Bari in all the hottest places – and Paul, though not as flamboyant as Lily, was a charmer, with a smile that could melt an iceberg. They had that beautiful belief of “happily ever after”.
But sadly for them it was only for a brief time. The devastation, destruction and unthinkable atrocities of Hitler’s Germany stole their lives in so many ways. Their stories and many others are told in FOR THE LIFE OF ME.
I’ve gotten to know so many of his relatives, not only through the film, but the time line photos as well, so brilliantly displayed on the website.
I have great affection for them and I want to honor them by helping find distribution for this film.
The profundity of it has touched me deeply. Now, more than ever I’m convinced that the civility of all relationships and the future of humanity depends on our knowledge of the Past.
Only then can our collective consciousness hope to combat the hatred and ignorance that’s out there!
“Try to remember, and if you remember…then follow…”
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I count eight people who in one way or another changed my life. Had I not discovered at age 52 that I was really a Jew, I would never have had the pleasure of finding so many wonderful friends. Each one added valuable insight and information that helped me uncover the mosaic of my family’s history. Some were in my life only briefly, some for longer and with some I continue to remain in contact. But all of them have had a lasting impact
Ironically, it all began with my mother. A few months after I turned fifty I had a heart attack.
During my recovery I had to have her ejected from my hospital room when she suddenly became emotionally unstable, crying that is was all her fault. But it took two more years for me to find out what “IT” was all about. That was a major turning point in my life because it was the day she could no longer hold back her long held family secrets, finally revealing to me that we were Jewish. ( The Day I Learned I was a Jew)
Then a few weeks later I had another emotional incident, when my parents introduced me to my cousin, Helen Shapiro. Having grown up with no siblings, and no known living relatives, she was a revelation.
My cousin, Helen Shapiro
Helen and her husband, Colin were visiting from London, and wanted to meet my father, since her grandfather was Dad’s brother. But she had no knowledge that Dad existed until a short time before they left England. (Anatomy of a Family Feud)
Meeting Helen was a viscerally jarring experience because I could no longer hide behind my denial. She was the living breathing proof the I really was a Jew. Afterwards, Helen and I spent a few hour together discussing our family’s mutual secrets. Then a short time later, she sent me a copy of our families’ genealogical history, tracing it back to the 17th century – a monumental step in finding out who my ancestors were.
That was nearly thirty years ago. Since then we’ve remained great friends, continuing to stay in touch via email, with occasional visits to either side of the pond. We’ve gone to two of their three son’s Bar Mitzvahs, while Helen and Colin have also visited us on a number of occasions. But the most memorable one for me was in 2007 when Helen, Colin and their three sons came to visit us, joined by her sister, Linda Fishman, her husband, Anton and their daughter, Charlotte. That was the first time I was truly surrounded by family.
For the first time, my family.
Dad passed away in 1994, and my mother followed in 1998. A short time later I discovered almost 2000′ of 16m film in their garage, shot mostly by my mother, plus six family photo albums that she also left behind.
Then one day I happened to find a catalog in the mail from the nearby University of Judaism. As I was browsing through it, more out of curiosity than with any specific subject in mind, I stumbled onto a class titled, “The Jewish Documentary”. But what really caught my eye was in the class description, promoting the appearance of one of the guest speakers, a woman who only discovered at age eighteen that her family was Jewish. Her name was Lisa Lewenz. Ironically she was a woman with whom I would have the least contact, yet her own film,“A Letter without Words”, would become the genesis for mine.
I signed up for the class, but as fate would have it, Lisa had a scheduling conflict and wasn’t able to appear. So we never saw her nor her film. However, undaunted, I was able to reach her by phone at her New York home, and get a copy of it.
We spoke half a dozen times, which was when I learned that she was an artist, and sculptor in addition to being a film maker. But it was her own discovery of her Jewish heritage, plus her discovery of hundreds of feet of a deceased relative’s motion picture film hiding in her family’s garage, which paralleled what I found in my parents’ garage and later became the motivation to make my own film.
But I lost contact with Lisa shortly after 9/11. She had suffered a severe arm injury, not from the actual attack, but as a volunteer giving aid to some of those who were.
Then a year or so later I discovered Stacie Chaiken, again in a Uof J catalog. She had created a class called, “What’s the Story”. As an actress and writer, Stacie had already written and acted in her own one woman play called, “Looking for Louis”, about her search for the true story behind her recently deceased uncle. Out of that experience, she developed an on going series of classes to help others with their own family stories, and how to find their own ways to tell them.
This is Stacie
But her class at UofJ was limited to four meetings, which barely scratched the surface for our own explorations. As a result, we decided to continue by meeting in our homes. That was 2001. I’m happy to say that we’ve continued to meet ever since.
Stacie has also been very involved in humanitarian causes with the emphasis on genocide prevention. She worked with the Shoa Foundation at USC for a number of years, spent months in Rwanda organizing their 20th anniversary commemoration of the end of their own genocide’ plus she has made a number of trips to Israel working with theater groups to promote harmony between Muslims and Jews. Out that came her latest play, “The Dig” which is slated to open this spring.
While Lisa’s film was the genesis for mine, Stacie has given me the focus and motivation that helped me put it all together. But to reach that lofty goal, I found myself in the midst of serious genealogical research, attempting to discover the stories behind those nameless faces in my parents’ photo albums.
That’s when I found my new BFF living in Berlin. It was Lars Menk, world renowned within genealogical circles, as a specialist in the research of Jewish Family histories and the author of, “A Dictionary of German-Jewish Surnames”. With his lofty reputation, I thought Lars would be in-accessible. Yet when I found it necessary to contact him regarding some bit of family ephemera, I found him to be a warm, affable and a fascinating individual with interests way beyond genealogy.
As a result we became internet pen pals, not only discussing the frustrations of the day, but finding common interest in literature, history, politics and you name it. At the same time Lars has been an invaluable guide, pointing me toward priceless resources, while admonishing me to stop using Google Translate in my attempts to communicate with them.
He has often surprised me with pages of valuable family information that I never even asked for. I’m so grateful to have Lars as a friend, because he’s provided me with another layer of historical richness that couldn’t have been achieved otherwise.
I’d been in periodic contact with Ralph Hirsch ever since I found the Jewish Genealogical Society web site. But it was when I began researching my cousin Eva’s story, that he really became my “Go to Guy”.
Born in Berlin, Germany in 1930, in 1940, at age 10, he fled to Shanghai with his family to escape Nazi persecution, just as Eva had done. Remaining in China throughout the war, he emigrated to the United States in 1947, and served in the U.S. Air Force during the Korean War. Years. Later, after moving back to Germany, Ralph co-founded the international network, “Council on the Jewish Exile in Shanghai” (CJES). He was certainly the right guy being a vital link to other writers, film producers, university scholars and journalists.
Tea with Ralph Hirsch in Hannover.
I had the great pleasure of meeting Ralph and his wife, Angelica in a park in Hannover, during one of our trips to Germany. The last time I heard from him, he was then living in Celle, Germany. I sincerely hope he’s still with us.
Coincidentally, Celle, Germany was also the location of the notorious Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, and so becomes a natural segue to my relationship with a fabulous woman by the name of Marion Blumenthal Lazan, who I’m honored to call my friend. She is a true survivor of the Holocaust, having lived through internment in Bergen-Belsen and the “Lost Transport”.
Marion has been telling her story to high school and college students, as well as young adults all over the world for over twenty years. She continues to be motivated by the knowledge that she is the last of her generation to speak first hand about the horrors and adversity that she lived through, and about the anti-Semitism that caused it – that the current generations to whom she is speaking, will be the last to hear of it first hand from a living survivor.
Marion surrounded by adoring school children.
I found Marion when I was researching my uncle Paul’s story, which eerily parallels her own. Fleeing from Germany, to Holland, to the transit camp at Westerbork, to Bergen-Belsen and finally ending in the German village of Troebitz by way of the Lost Transport.
The first time we talked on the phone, her voice sounded so familiar that it felt like she was a member of my own family. From then on we became phone pals. And she may well be family since Marion is a Blumenthal, just like my grandmother, Gertrude was. Plus she grew up in a village that was only 50 miles from Hannover, where my grandmother lived.
After years of trying to meet in person, we finally got the chance just last spring, when she spoke to 500 students at Cope Middle School, in Redlands, CA. And once again, I felt like I was with a member of my own family.
But I would never have finished the film nor would I have begun blogging had it not been for Bob Sallin. I’ve known Bob for years since both of us worked the in world of TV commercial production, although we had never actually worked together. Then a few years ago a mutual friend convinced the two of us to meet for lunch. The timing was perfect because I’d just had a not too satisfying screening of my film for my two English cousins, Helen and Linda, while they were visiting us.
Even though they were seeing their grandparents’ history depicted on screen, they seemed quite confused by it. That’s when i knew I was in trouble. And thankfully that’s when Bob got interested in the project, and came to my rescue as my creative partner.
With a fresh eye, Bob immediately saw the flaws in the structure and was almost ruthless in throwing out sections of the film that didn’t work, while restructuring the continuity and focus. At the same time he convinced me renew my quest for details in order to add another story,which I had abandoned earlier for lack of sufficient information . It was Eva’s story, which could actually be a stand alone movie.
Bob Sallin, my creative partner.
Bob was also ruthless in rewriting the script, Since I was doing most of it, I began to realize that under his tutelage I was finding a renewed confidence in my own ability to write – at least enough to get me blogging.
Finally, after a three year collaboration, we had a compete film which we were then able to show in private screenings with very favorable results.
Bob has had an incredible career as a producer, director and writer, while moving between motion pictures, television and advertising. A couple of high points in his massive list of credits are as the producer for Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan, starring Ricardo Montalban, and as the director of “Picasso Summer” starring Albert Finney and Yvette Mimieux. But that barely scratches the surface.
And now my latest association is with yet another person who I’ve known from the world of TV commercials, Leslie Zurla. She’s originally a New Yorker, beginning her career in little theater. But then she joined the ranks of those of us producing TV commercials, working on both sides, with the production companies, and with the ad agencies.
Leslie: There’s nothing she’s incapable of.
Les was also an advisor at the renowned Jazz Bakery, spending many years on the board of directors. As an accomplished artist in her own right, now retired, she teaches art at the Westside Jewish Community Center, using her unique style to inspire fledgeling artists, both young and old.
Last spring she joined me when we began a concerted effort to raise the funds to properly finish “For the Life of Me” and pay for all the necessary licensing, clearances and music rights to allow us to show the film in public, and enter it in film festivals and on TV.
I’m very lucky to have her as a collaborator because Leslie is destined to become #9.
The Weinlaub Brothers, Willi and Kurt
To recap where we left off at the end of Act 1, Lily’s recent return from her six week sabbatical back home to Hannover was not a happy one. First she was greeted with the news that Kurt had lost what remained of their savings because of some bad investments he’d made.
Then she learned that her trip back to Hannover did not sit well with her mother-in-law, Gertrude, who accused her of turning her back on her favorite son, just when he needed her support the most.
Gertrude Weinlaub, my grandmother, and the Matriarch of the family.
Then another stinging rebuke: During her absence, Gertrude began a letter writing campaign to my father, urging him to come back home to Germany, because she was not well and needed him by her side. To make it worthwhile, she promised to have his brother, Willi, create a new position for him in the family business.
Playing on Kurt’s frustrations with his career and the economy in America, Gertrude continued to correspond with her son long after Lily returned from her vacation, driving another wedge into the breach between mother and daughter-in-law.
Ultimately fate intervened. Kentucky Needlecraft was no longer able to sustain itself in the luxury bedding business, finally closing its doors forever. At that point it didn’t take much for Kurt to make the fateful decision to accept his mother’s invitation and return to Hannover, hoping to gain a fresh start in the Weinlaub’s family business.
But Lily protested vehemently, fearing the power that his mother held over him, while asking the obvious question, “How could the market for luxury bedding be any better in Germany than it was in America?” But Kurt prevailed, and so they returned home to Hannover.
Act 2, Scene 1 – Hannover, Germany, June 1, 1932
The Weinlaubs: Adolph, Gertrude, Liesel and Willi.
While Gertrude is overjoyed having her favorite son back, brother Willi is far less enthusiastic, considering the desperate state of the economy and the fact that he has little choice in overriding his mother’s decision.
To further exacerbate the relationship, Kurt and Lily accept Gertrude’s warm invitation, and upon their arrival immediately move in with his parents at Goebenstrasse #3.
Not a wise choice because living with his parents proves to be untenable. Both of them are unhappy with the way Lily is being treated by Kurt’s family. It takes less than a month before they move out. and into their own apartment in another part of town.
Although out from under his family’s immediate scrutiny, the damage is done.
Meanwhile, at the Weinlaub’s factory, Kurt is totally dissatisfied with the position his brother has given him, finding it menial to the point of being insulting. Meager scraps after his lofty experience running the Los Angeles sales office of Kentucky Needle Craft.
Finally the inevitable. After barely seven moths since Kurt and Lily arrived back in Hannover; Kurt makes another fateful decision, this time to walk away from his father’s business all together.
Act 2, Scene 2 – Berlin, December 24, 1932
Kurt’s new business card as a manufacturer’s rep in Berlin.
On the day before Christmas, Kurt and Lily leave Hannover behind and move to Berlin.
Kurt immediately moves into a new business of his own, as a manufacturer’s sales rep, with an office in the Mariendorf section of Berlin. Obviously this has been planned for sometime with the help of Lily’s influential uncle Siegfried Baruch,
The Baruchs, Siegfreid, Bari, Eva and Kaete.
Lily is ecstatic because not only is she away from the scorn of her Mother-in-Law, but she’s back with her favorite uncle and his family – the family with whom she lived six years earlier, when she was in nursing school in Berlin.
Siegfried is a very successful publisher in Berlin, along with his son, Bari. His wife, Kaete, is a well known actress in Berlin theater, while young Eva is destined to become a successful actress with her own career and an incredible story to tell years later.
But Kurt’s rapid departure devastates Gertrude, who is now under a doctor’s care complaining of migraine headaches.
Adolf Hitler, the new Chancellor.
Then barely a month later in January, 1933, Hitler is appointed Chancellor of Germany, followed in rapid succession at the end of February with the burning of the Reichstag; then the Enabling Act in March, allowing Hitler sole authority to change the Constitution and rule by decree; followed a week later when the Nazis organize a national boycott of Jewish businesses, allowing NS thugs to beat up Jews on the street and for universities to fire Jewish professors without provocation.
But then the biggest shock of all comes four days later, on April 4, 1933, when Gertrude ends her own life – committing suicide by taking poison.
Gertrude alone in the Weinlaub’s Hartz Mountain retreat.
The repercussions within the Weinlaub family are enormous and immediate, with much finger pointing, and accusations upon counter accusations. But the brunt of it comes down on my parents. For Kurt choosing to depart from his family after such a short time, and for Lily having been the cause of it in the first place.
I’m sure Willi resented his brother’s return as an intrusion into his domain, and a potential threat to his authority, since Kurt had already rejected the business six years earlier. But when his mother committed suicide, he must have lost his composure, accusing Kurt of being the major cause of it by coming back from America in the first place. And with the German economy in a rapid decline, Kurt was an un-necessary drain on the firms shrinking profits. So, I don’t think Kurt’s departure bothered Willi very much. But the death of his mother was another matter.
On the other hand, Kurt, in his frustration over his menial new role in the company, is known to have called Willi an imbecile and not fit to run the Weinlaub’s business in the first place.
The hostility between Kurt and his brother began almost from time he arrived back in Hannover. Add to it Gertrude’s relentless level of disdain toward Lily for her solo trip home a year earlier, and Kurt’s sudden departure from the family’s business made it impossible to heal the ever widening breach between them.
We’ll never know how much Gertrude’s health and her inability to deal with the turmoil within her family played a part in her demise – much of which she brought on herself.
Or, how much of it was actually driven by the fear that Hitler’s swift domination of Germany created, with Nazi thugs blocking entrances to Jewish business and Jewish blood splattered on the streets, creating a growing threat to their very lives and their livelihood.
With all these events happening almost simultaneously, more than likely it was both.
But the scars left on Lily’s psyche were severe. Despite all the conflicting evidence, she never felt free from the accusations aimed at her, and continued to carry the burden of guilt for Gertrude’s death, for the rest of her life.
In the meantime, with the Nazi’s vicious assault on the Jews, it took no further prodding for Kurt to see how dangerous it was to remain in Germany. Fortunately he kept his return visa to the U.S. which was still valid. But there were only a few days left on it before it would become void and he had to act quickly.
Yet ever the pragmatist, he knew that before he could happily return to America, his first order of business was to patch-up the shattered remnants of a relationship between him and his family. To do this he had to show his loyalty to the them by defusing the intense anger that remained between him and his brother
So, on the way to the port of Bremen, and the ship that would take my parents back to the U.S., he made a quick detour to Hannover, in an attempt to salvage his standing within his family.
Adolph and Gertrude’s home at #3 Goebenstrasse.
By making an appearance and offering to do what he could for his departed mother, I’m certain that he was also hoping to protect his future share of his inheritance from the Weinlaub estate – a conclusion I drew from finding his old letters, years later,
Scene 3: Sherman Oaks, CA, circa 2001.
Learning from my cousins, Helen and Linda, that the brothers had denied each others’ existence to all of us for all these years, what came later was a total shock when I found the ultimate irony within his effects, after my father died,
While going through his letters, I discovered that Willi and Kurt had been secretly corresponding to one another as far back as 1938. That means they began writing barely five years after all the family bitterness surrounding their mother’s suicide. Yet for whatever reasons, they chose to keep each other’s identity secret from their children/grand-children.
The letters were extremely cordial and very business-like, as if they were business associates, not brothers. And oddly enough, they always wrote in English.
The earlier ones were simply updates about wives, children and life in their adopted countries. Willi, his wife, Liesel and daughter Edith fled to England in 1935, one year after I was born, and two years after my parents returned to America.
But their lives and ours were far different. While we were safe in America, Willy and his family were living in London, truly in the middle of a ravaged war zone. First Willi had to live through a period internment in a British prison camp for German nationals. Then the three of them had to live through the “London Blitz”. .
There were no letters during the war years, but in 1945, all of them having survived, they began writing again. But now it was updates relating the tragic loss of many friends and close relatives. Yet considering that the war had only ended seven months earlier, I found it very disturbing to read how dispassionate my father’s responses were.
Kurt’s 1st letter to Willi after WWII.
Ever the master of the understatement, my father seemed to show little regard for Willi’s wife and daughter having survived the Blitz, while they continued living in a bombed out city. And then how carefully he slipped in the question of whether or not his brother had filed a claim for the Weinlaub’s estate. It was both his tone and his timing that has always bothered me.
I have to assume through his dispassionate and business like demeanor that the old bitterness was still there. But necessity required that he remain civil to protect his inheritance.
Then as time went on they continued to write one another, mainly reviewing the progress of the lawyers, or the lack thereof, while their claim was moving through the courts. The legal wrangling went on for fourteen years, with the inevitable result that the lawyers got the all proceeds and the brothers got nothing.
An older Willi Weinlaub.
While they continued to write sporadically, Willi’s later letters spoke of their travels around the world, even visiting the U.S. on one occasion. But Willi never asked to see my father again, nor did my father ever invite him to do so.
The last time they saw one another was in 1933, when my father made that detour to his parents home, before his final trip back to America.
The final letter my father received was in 1981 from Willi’s wife Liesel, informing him that his brother had succumbed after a long illness. And so it was that the two brothers continued their long term resentment and never saw one another again.
feud | fyood |
noun: a state of prolonged mutual hostility, typically between two families
Take a fistful of jealously, add a share of resentment, some greed and mistrust, then inject a mother’s suicide, wrap it all in a cloak of secrecy and you have the makings of a full blown family feud. And that’s exactly what I discovered when at age 50, I suddenly learned the truth behind my father’s firmly entrenched secrets, beginning with the fact that our family was Jewish.
This wasn’t a Hatfield vs McCoys kind of feud with guns and shooting and such. Rather it was a full blown feud maintained in total secrecy, where both sides wrapped a cone of absolute silence around themselves, denying each others existence.
But it’s a complicated relationship. So, let me set the scene to make it easier to understand.
Looking at it like a two act play, these were the players:
MY MOTHER……..Lily Weinlaub/Lily Vanlaw ne Rehfisch,the inadvertent protagonist in this drama.
MY FATHER……..Kurt Weinlaub/Curtis Vanlaw
MY UNCLE……..Wilhelm (Willi) Weinlaub, Dad’s older brother, and his chief source of resentment.
MY AUNT……..Liesel Weinlaub ne Jaeger, Willi’s wife and one time friend of Lily’s.
MY GRANDFATHER……..Adolph Weinlaub, their father and the owner/operator of the Oppenheimer Co., G.m.b.H. Daunensteppinfabrik,.
MY GRANDMOTHER……..Gertrude Weinlaub, Adolph’s wife, their mother and Matriarch.*
The secondary players:
MY COUSIN……..Helen Shapiro – Willi’s grandaughter
The time: circa 1925
The location: Hannover, Germany – A comfortable two story house at #3 Goebenstrasse, an upper middle class neighborhood. Behind the house we see Papa Adolph’s modest three story brick factory building, which just happens to be in the Weinlaub’s back yard.
Weinlaub’s Home The Factory
This is Oppenheimer & Co.; Adolph Weinlaub’s luxury eiderdown bedding business.,
Being the eldest of the two Weinlaub brothers, Willi is being groomed to take over his father’s business.
Long apprenticeships being the norm in Germany in those days, Willi serves his training period working for his father. Getting to work is quite simple and only requires him to walk out the back door of the family’s comfortable home, and take a few steps across the small backyard to Adolph’s three story factory.
Meanwhile, Kurt is also expected to enter the family business, but on a lesser level. However, to learn the business he must endure his long apprenticeship 275 miles away in the city of Stettin, then on the eastern border of Germany, in the Provence of Pomerania near the Baltic Sea.
Two views of Stettin circa 1920
He serves his apprenticeship working for a cousin of Adolph’s, Max Weinlaub, who has a similar luxury bedding business in that distant city. Now it’s on the Eastern border of Poland, known as “Szczecin”.
By 1926 Kurt is fed up with his prospects of entering the family business, and the way he’s being treated. He’s essentially living in exile, while his brother just walks out the back door to work.
The time is the early 1940s. The location is California’s San Fernando Valley and the new house of the Vanlaws ne Weinlaub. Kurt Weinlaub has changed his name to Curtis A. Vanlaw, while his son, Peter (me) has grown up only knowing that surname
At this point, the two Weinlaub brothers have already maintained their feud for over a decade, surrounded by their cones of silence.
I’m now about age six when Lily (my mother) speaking in very hushed tones, tells me that Dad has a brother named Willi, who lives in England. But because he doesn’t like his brother, he never mentions him, or wants anything to do with him.
Me and Mom 1943
With a child’s logic, I believe that Willi is a very bad person. Otherwise why would Dad dislike him so much? So, from then on, I carry a picture in my mind of dad’s brother as a shadowy ne’er-do-well skulking around the back alleys of London, scavenging food out of trashcans.
But in 1988 that all changed when I learned that Willi not only had a successful business, but a family as well with two grand daughters. And one of them was coming to L.A. to meet my folks. That’s when I first met Dad’s niece, Helen Shapiro.
My cousin, Helen.
Now let’s move on to learn more about the deep, dark family secrets that created the feud in the first place:
It came as great surprise to me that Dad had a niece in the first place.
But then I was surprised again when Helen told me that she had only learned that her grandfather had a brother shortly before she left England for her visit here. In other words, she grew up never knowing that my father existed.
While Helen and I had a brief opportunity to discuss our family’s secrets before she returned to England, we couldn’t get much beyond confirming that her grandfather, Willi Weinlaub had never talked about his brother, Kurt, just like my father had refused to talk about his brother, Willi with me.
That really piqued my curiosity. What on earth could fuel so much animosity for such a long time?
Unfortunately, it took a matter of years for me to learn what I now believe to be the real story behind their feud.
When we left Kurt in Scene 1, he was fed up with the prospect of returning to his father’s business in Hannover. The separation from his family is a galling reminder that it is Willi and not Kurt who will take over Adolph’s luxury bedding business.
My mother once told me that Kurt also resented Willi because he felt he was better qualified to run it, but he was a victim of tradition.
Finally, in 1926 Kurt gives up his stake in his father’s business, and sets off to make it on his own in America. It doesn’t take long for him to get hired by a New York firm in the same line of business. The company is called Kentucky Needlecraft. As a salesman for them, Kurt is an overnight success, and within two years is rewarded with a promotion to the job of manager for the company’s brand new Los Angeles sales office.
But before making the move, he returns to Hannover to marry my mother.
Kurt & Lily’s wedding July, 1929
Then as newlyweds, after a brief honeymoon in the Hartz Mountains, they sail back to New York and spend the next couple of weeks driving across country to their new home in Hollywood, California.
They live quite comfortably for the next four months.
Stylish Kurt & Lily
But on October 29, 1929 the world is stunned by the stock market crash, and the country begins its long slide into the Depression.
As jobs disappear, the money for luxury goods dries up and within a short time Kurt’s company has to close its new L.A. office, transferring him back to New York.
Fortunately, his company allows him six weeks to return to the main office, as long as he does some selling for them along the way.
But Lily is terribly depressed by Kurt’s job loss and their precarious life style . However, by treating their return to New York as a chance to really see America, her optimism seems to revive.
But it doesn’t last. Within days of their return to New York, Lily becomes terribly homesick, and makes a solo voyage back home to Germany for an extended two month vacation.
Lily enjoying her return trip home to Hannover.
When she finally returns to Kurt, she’s greeted with the news that he has lost what remained of their savings as a result of some bad investment advise. Then she also learns that her trip back to Hannover did not sit well with her mother in law, Gertrude.
Gertrude is blaming my mother for turning her back on her favorite son, by deserting him in order take a trip back home to Hannover, just when he needs her support the most.
Gertrude, my grandmother
Then another stinging rebuke. During my mother’s absence, Gertrude has started a letter writing campaign, urging Kurt to come back home to Germany and enter the family business. She promises that she will urge Willi to create a new position for him, if he returns.
It doesn’t take long, because Kentucky Needlecraft ultimately declares bankruptcy. As a result, Kurt feels that he has no other choice. So, against my mother’s vehement pleas not to do it, they pack up and return once again to Hannover.
End of Act 1. (Look for Act 2 in my next Blog)
*Adolph’s wife was the former Gertrude Blumenthal. Her father, Emil, originally bought the business from the Oppenheimer family, and hired Adolph as his assistant. Then Adolph married the bosses daughter, and later bought out his father in law.
….or Pete & Linda’s Excellent Adventure!
P&L strolling in Soho.
Reporting about a recent week in my life is not a subject I normally blog about. But it was a special week crammed with memorable events and marvelous people. Within the span of nine days I experienced enough truly positive adventures that I now feel compelled to share them with you.
It all started with an obscure note on my Linkedin page, a page I rarely look at. It was from an unknown source, asking if I’d be interested in a speaking gig. It turned out to be the result of a recommendation from my dear friend, Marion Blumenthal Lazan, that had reached a speakers’ placement agency. They were trying to contact me to ask if I’d be interested in a speaking engagement at boarding school in Connecticut. For a west coast guy, that seemed pretty extreme.
Later I phoned Marion and learned that she had spoken there before on numerous occasions. But she was unable to do so this year. So, she recommended me as her replacement. I would be speaking at a boarding school called Suffield Academy, located in Suffield, CT, about 12 miles from Hartford. An east coast friend then explained, only partially in jest, that any school with a name that ends in academy adds $100,000 to the yearly tuition, implying that this is a school where our one per centers house their kids. But more on that later.
Marion w/school kids, and her book, “Four Perfect Pebbles.”
I was facing two totally dissimilar events that were happening only days apart, but which made the trip appear to be worthwhile. First, my friend, Earl Gandel, had been after me for years to come back East to his home in Bridgehampton, and participate in a vintage sports car rally; an event that he puts on every year. Since it would take place two days before the Suffield gig, this time I said, “Yes!
But I have to put the blame squarely in Marion’s lap because it was her recommendation that launched this odyssey which evolved into something above and beyond anything I’d ever done before. As an 80 year old, I suddenly found myself on the Speaker Circuit.
Then a TV group in Brooklyn, NY found me during our Indiegogo campaign and wanted to interview me about my film for an episode of their show called “Movie Talk”. Fortunately that could take place anytime I was in the vicinity.
Then, finally after I committed to Earl’s sports car rally and the speaking engagement at Suffield, he found yet another place for me to speak. It was to be at a synagogue in Sag Harbor, about fifteen minutes away from Bridgehampton, and would take place two days before his sports car event. As in Suffield, I would be showing my film, and answering questions about it afterwards.
So, all of a sudden, here we were with four east coast commitments; in Brooklyn, Bridgehampton, Sag Harbor and Suffield, CT. But it was the perfect opportunity to bring my son, Tim and our daughter-in-law, Diana. We’d been promising them another trip that the four of us could take together, and this was it.
What made it extra special was that Diana had lived and worked in NYC for ten years or more, and really knew her way around the island. Plus, the two of them had been back there twice within the last four years.
Diana’s shot of Tim, me and Linda on our way to NYC.
So, off we went, on a noon flight out of LAX on the last Sunday in September, bound for JFK. It was warm and muggy when we arrived, and close to midnight when we got to our designated hotel. Described as a “Hip/Luxury, four star hotel in Soho, unfortunately it wasn’t quite that lofty. While it turned out to be very hip and very designy, luxurious it was not and had a lot of serious issues. But that’s for another blog, suffice to say that we had to change rooms, which were even more costly, before doing anything else.1
Monday was a free day, which we spent following Diana’s lead. First the 9/11 Memorial, then a walking tour of the Hi-Line. After a lovely mid-town lunch, we cabbed it to Central Park, where Tim treated all of us to a Pedal-Cab tour of the park, put on by a pair of young tour guides from Mali, both of whom delighted us with their exceptional knowledge of the history surrounding the park, spoken with their lilting African accents.
Our pedal cab tour of Central Park
The weather continued hot and muggy on Tuesday, the day of my TV interview. After breakfast at our Soho hotel, (the restaurant was excellent and the one saving grace to an otherwise problematic stay) we headed to Brooklyn looking for the studio. But first we had to stop off at Juniors, the storied restaurant/deli known for its Cheese Cake, which of course we had to sample.
Once we located the studio, and figured out how to get in, I was handed a bunch of informational paper work to fillout, before our two lady co-hosts arrived. Once that was done, I was ushered to the set where I met the two ladies hosting the “Movie Talk Show”, Lesley Gonzalez and Carrie Wesolowski.
Upper rt. – Pops Gaskin, Lower lft. – Aaron & Tonya.
The show it self went well.2 But it was the cast and crew that really made an impression on the four of us. Besides being incredibly warm and friendly, this was a group that was made up of some very talented people, many of whom have their own shows. It felt like I was part of a “Little Theater” group where everyone doubles and even triples on everyone else’s shows. For example, Tonya, our floor manager, has a design show; “Pops”Gaskin, one of our cameramen, is a relative of Harriet Tubmann, and has his own show on “Black History”. Our co-host, Lesley Gonzalez, also schedules the interviewees for MTS, works in the booth on two or three other shows, co-hosts yet another show, while making and serving lunch for our entire crew, and anyone else who happens to drop by.
The four of us came away from the experience absolutely loving these people.
After we returned to Manhatten, I had a short rest and a quick shower. Then we took another cab ride, this time uptown to Broadway and the Booth Theater to see the popular hit, “Hand to God”. The show was wonderful and as good as its reviews. As a result, after starting in “Off/Off Broadway, it moved up to “Off Broadway”, then Broadway, and now, after the first of the year, it’s moving to London and the West End Theaters.
“Hand to God” at the Booth Theater on Broadway
Next morning was Wednesday and we were off to Jamaica Station and a two hour train ride on the creaky old LIRR, bound for Bridgehampton. As we neared our destination, the weather changed from warm and muggy to cold and rainy.
Earl was already there waiting to bring the four of us to his Bridgehampton house, where we would stay for the next four days with him and his wife, Cathie.
The Gandel’s house where we stayed in Bridgehampton.
Thursday Linda and Diana professed a desire for Long Island Lobster. So, the six of us headed to Hampton Bays, and “Out of the Blue” for seafood; Earl and I in his ’49 Triumph, and the rest in Cathie’s Volvo.
1.Linda & me 2. Earl & Cathie 3.Diana & Linda.
That evening was my screening and Q&A at Temple Adas Israel in Sag Harbor. A wonderful experience for me, and enthusiastically supported by a small but extremely vocal group of its members, who continued their questions for almost an hour after we screened my film.
But I was exceptionally impressed by our host, Rabbi Dan Geffen. Barely a year out of school, this is his first Rabbinical post in a Synagogue; which is the oldest one in Long Island. But Rabbi Dan is also a computer geek, a gamer and was both our projectionist and audio visual engineer. Along with his wife, Lu, who turns out to be a lovely blond Valley girl from Encino, he exudes the enthusiasm of a kid with a new toy. For me it was another delightful experience.
Steve Rosen – Moderator and me L. Lu Geffen, R. Rabbi Dan Geffen
Friday was cold and rainy, and started abruptly at 6:00am, when a siren began blasting out of nowhere and nearly blew us out of bed. It came from the fire station literally next door to us, and turns out to be the traditional method of alerting the local volunteer fireman that there is a fire in town. Finally, when we got our shattered nerves together, it turned out to be the perfect day for a breather, and a bit of relaxation. But sadly, Diana had to leave us and return to L.A. for work.
Meanwhile, we had a lovely lunch in Sag Harbor at the Dockside Bar & Grill, then dinner at the Bridgehampton Museum to celebrate the 100th anniversary of auto racing in their small town. It was also the kick off event for their vintage sports car rally the next morning.
But Saturday remained cold and rainy, with additional wind gusts to add to our discomfort. Neverthelss, we pressed on. I was slated to drive a vintage MG TF-1500, a car slightly newer than the old MG TD that I used to race back in the day.
Lower lft: Clipping of Earl w/the starter’s flag from the BH paper. Upper rt, another clipping of Howard Kroplick and his “Black Beast”, a 1909 Alco-6 Racer. Also me and the TF-1500.
My son Tim was my navigator, armed fortunately with his iPhone, his Google maps and his uncanny ability to cope with them in a moving car. So, off we went undaunted, but cold as hell. While I had some mechanical issues with our old MG, it held up well enough to get us through a beautiful four hour tour of the Hamptons, Sag Harbor, and what’s left of the old Bridgehampton race track, that has since been turned into a golf course. And in spite of the fact neither of us had ever seen or driven those roads before, we finally finished, albeit in eleventh place out of the thirteen cars that completed the event. All right….at least we finished!
Sadly we had to leave Earl and Cathie the next morning, to get to our final destination – the one that started this entire odyssey – Suffield Academy. While on a map, it looks fairly simple to get to, going from Bridgehampton, NY to Suffield, CT, is actualy a bit more complicated. Timewise, the shortest route required flying south west to Philadelphia. Then changing planes and flying north east to Hartford, where we would be picked up and driven to the school, a short five miles away. Earl graciously drove us to the airport at Islip, where we began the first leg of our trip to Suffield.
Similar but ours was U.S. Air.
That flight was uneventful except for having a bunch of Harlem Globe Trotters on the plane with us. It was a small Canadian Bombardier Dash-8 100, a turbo prop that barely holds 39 passengers.
Our second leg from Philly to Hartford’s Bradley Airport was thankfully brief. Then as promised, we were picked up in the baggage area by Sara Yeager, the Dean of Students. She apparently does this quite regularly, choosing to pickup guests herself, rather than leaving it to some underling.
1. Sara Yeager and our Golf Cart. 2. Headmaster’s House, 3.Grounds surrounding Headmaster’s & Guest House
After a short drive to the school’s very picturesque campus, she dropped us off at their guest house, which is situated on grounds near the Headmaster’s House. Space here is very ample. They graciously left us with a golf cart on which to get around the spacious campus. The plan was to meet Sarah at the dining hall for dinner.
The dining hall is huge, and the food is served cafeteria style. But there is nothing industrial or mass produced about the food in any way. On the contrary, the selections are ample and the food is really tasty and well prepared. Many of the students work there, as all of them are required to have a campus job of some kind. So, why not eat well while you’re doing it?
Joining us at our table was a young history teacher, Beth Krasemann. She explained that within the fall semester she introduces her students to a seven week course on the Holocaust.
We meet w/Charles Cahn, Headmaster The very ample Dining Hall
Later we were joined by the school’s young Headmaster, Charles Cahn, who quickly made me realize how wrong my earlier impression had been, before we got there. Still thinking of it as a boarding school for all the One Percenters’ kids, and a tuition of at least 100K, I couldn’t have been farther from the truth! The school is non-denominational and their students come from all over the world. The yearly tuition is barely half of what I thought, and there are relatively few children there from America’s top one percent.
1. Garrett, our student tour guide. 2. The Gym. 3. Indoor pool. 4. Crew Training Room. 5. Periodic Table display w/real items. 5. Wall displaying Periodic Table
The next morning we were given a tour of the campus, which was a chance to see for ourselves just how astounding this place is.
The curriculum and facilities are absolutely first rate, whether it be curriculum, classroom, athletic facilities or food, everything is beyond reproach. Nothing feels skimpy, as if they tried to take short cuts. It’s an absolutely amazing place.
Founded in 1833, it has a long tradition as an Eastern Prep School. But less than two decades ago it put on a new face, and began appealing to 9th thru 12th graders around the world. The school also changed its philosophy contrary to the traditional “sink or swim”environment of other schools. Instead, they chose to become very nurturing with the faculty members going out of their way to see that each student is given serious and ample support.
Otherwise the students live an extremely disciplined life style. They are not coddled, and it’s definitely not an easy school in which to get an education. Suffield has very strict rules:
Classes are six days a week, from 8:00am to 3:00pm, with an hour for lunch. At 3:00pm the students are expected to attend the athletic endeavor of their choice. But they must choose three of them for the year. Fortunately the school has a broad range of choices and gorgeous facilities.
1. Living Wall outside a classroom
2. First bit of Fall on campus
Dinner is served at 6:00pm; then Study Hall which begins at 7:00pm until 10:00pm. Students MUST study during that period. To make sure, they are supervised by a faculty member. Then lights out at 10:pm. No TV or internet after that, when access is shut off. In addition, Boys must wear coats and ties to class, and all students must have a school job during the day, in addition to everything else.
Charles Cahn had explained to me that their’s is not the ideal business model, because they have a huge faculty to student ratio, with over 100 faculty members to service a population of 400 students. That’s 40%. Faculty members are expected to perform double and even triple duty which means that most, if not all are a combination of teachers/administrators and/or coaches. Most of them live on campus. Many of them are married to other faculty members; many are graduates of Suffield, and many of their children attend the school as well.
Even though we were on the campus for barely 24 hours, I found the students to be charming and outgoing, expressing a pride in their surroundings, and a deep fondness for their fellow students. The mood was infectious.
The Chapel, me and part of our audience.
So much for the school itself. Our final event was held in the Chapel, a Baptist Church that doubles as a place of worship for the people of Suffield. It’s a gorgeous venue and reminds me of something I’ve seen in a movie.
So, it was within these spectacular surroundings that we had our final screening and q&a; the event that was the genesis of this whole trip. Since the entire student body is expected to attend, along with as many faculty as possible, it turned out to be the largest audience I’ve ever had, around 500 people in attendance. Nevertheless, it was a huge success and an exciting finale to an otherwise incredibly rewarding week.
1 If you’re interested in learning more about our “not so luxurious hotel” in SoHo, you can email me at email@example.com. I’d be more than happy to share the details with you.
2 The show is scheduled to air on November 13, 2015. Check their website for show times, channels and further updates:
1st Lt. Mike/Murray Zanger, USMC
The story behind the search for Mike Zanger has intrigued me ever since I heard it from his niece, Marcy Hanigan, back in 2011. Like so many stories that came out of WWII, it had a hero’s death, a family’s heartbreak, and the need for closure.
But hers was like no other I’d ever heard because this one also had a level of serendipity that I’ve seldom – if ever – observed:
It all happened because of a passionate researcher who spent over 30 years tracing the death of a fighter pilot, who had crashed in the South Pacific near the end of WWII. And then spent the last 10 years vainly trying to find any of the pilot’s kin who wanted to hear about it.
I met Marcy through a mutual friend, Dr. David Scully, who was eager to have us get together because he knew both of our stories, and now he was determined that we share our own astounding discoveries with each other.
I’ll get to the serendipity part in a moment. But first a little history:
Goldie/Grace and Mike behind their parents.
Moszek Zanger was born in 1920 in Grodzisk, Poland. He had two older sisters, Alice and Goldie, or Grace.
Still an infant when his family immigrated to the Bronx, New York, he grew up there and attended college at CCNY.
Now an American, his family and friends called him “Mike” or “Murray”.
Zanger’s middle sister, Grace, was also Marcy’s mother, and was very close to him until he left home and joined the Navy, where he learned to fly before transferring to the Marine Corps, early in WWII.
Grace and brother, Mike Mike during his Naval flight training
As a U.S. Marine Corps officer, he found himself in a unique position. There were precious few Jewish officers in either the Navy or Marine Corp at the time. And even fewer who were Polish-born fighter pilots. A very rare combination indeed.
Grace in Front. L-R: Susan, Andrea, Marcy.
In Dec. 1944 Mike’s family was notified that he was M.I.A. Then in Oct. 1945, months after VJ Day, they learned the circumstances of his having to bail out and subsequent capture by the Japanese.
But it wasn’t until March 1946, when they received that tragic news that Mike had been killed trying to escape.
Then, as if that wasn’t devastating enough, the Zangers also learned that their entire family – those who had remained behind in Grodzisk, Poland, had all perished in Treblinka, at the hands of the Nazis.
Grace took all of this tragic news very hard. Hearing the fate of the loved ones she knew as a child in Grodzisk was major blow. But then learning that her dear brother Mike was also dead was traumatic almost beyond her ability to cope.
She said very little about him after that, only confirming that he was shot trying to escape. As a result Marcy and her two sisters, Andrea and Susan, only knew that he was lost in the Pacific and died a prisoner of war. Nothing more.
According to Marcy, Grace was so devastated by the news that she never really recovered. Then, sadly, in 2009, at age 92, she passed away.
Even after her passing, any attempts at closure met with precious little success and the whole Zanger story could have easily ended right there. But Grace’s passing prompted the sisters to investigate what they didn’t know about their family’s Polish-immigrant history on their own.
L-R: Marcy, Susan and Andrea researching their family history.
That’s when events took a serendipitous turn. As they began their research, Marcy’s middle sister, Susan, was asked by her husband, a former Marine and Vietnam vet himself, if she ever knew what happened to her Marine Corps uncle, and was his body ever recovered after the war? Her answer was, “No”.
But with a renewed incentive, Susan did what anyone else would do in the this age of computers. She ran an online search for Moszek Zanger.
What she found and when she found it were absolutely astounding:
Within days after their mother’s passing, on a website called Pacificwrecks.com, Susan discovered a highly detailed report about her uncle. The author was a man by the name of Henry Sakaida, but it was written back in 1997, twelve years earlier.
The website where Susan finally found her uncle’s story had been created in 1995 by Justin Taylan, who had grown up fascinated by his grandfather’s exploits as an Army photographer in the Pacific, during the war.
Justin Taylan of PacificWrecks.com
As a result, Justin made numerous trips to many island crash sites, to retrace his grandfather’s wartime footsteps. There he made many discoveries of the details surrounding the remaining relics from the war in the Pacific, which led to the creation of PacificWrecks.com.
People from all over the world have contributed information to it, including veterans, and their relatives, plus historians, travelers, and authors like Henry Sakaida.
Susan soon learned that Sakaida was not just an author and historian, but an avid researcher, with a fascination for the wartime exploits of Japanese pilots, many of whom he had interviewed in person for his numerous books.
So it wasn’t too much of a stretch for him to learn of the existence of Lt. Zanger through a couple of ex-Zero pilots who actually met him while he was a POW. But coming up with all the details took Sakaida another 30 years.
While it took Henry that long to finally find out what happened to Zanger’s body, he also spent ten years vainly searching for any living relatives who might be interested in what he learned.
Sadly, Zanger’s nieces still believed that his remains were lost forever somewhere in the South Pacific. None of them were aware that their uncle was actually buried nearby in another part of Los Angeles, less than 20 miles from Marcy’s house.
The Military had taken his body and had it reinterred at a Jewish Cemetery sometime in 1946.
1st Lt. Murray Zanger, USMC
Through his research, Sakaida already knew where he was buried. But by then he was so determined to share the truth with any one of Zanger’s family that on two occasions he left Post-It notes on Mike’s tombstone — at the Home of Peace Memorial Park in Los Angeles, California.
But it was Andrea, Marcy’s older sister, who was determined to find Sakaida. Not an easy task. However, when she finally traced him to the town of Rosemead, a suburb of Los Angeles, she could only turn up the name of a Nursery, that he had recently sold, but nothing more. Her only alternative was to leave a message for him to call. Happily, it reached Sakaida and two days later he phoned them.
Ironically, after his fruitless ten year search for Zanger’s next of kin, they had tracked him down instead.
As a forensic historian, it was in 1981, when he had been researching information for a new book, “Siege of Rabaul”(1., that Sakaida first heard of an American aviator called “Zanga” from a Japanese pilot who had seen Zanger in captivity.
Henry Sakaida, author, researcher and historian.
Hoping to include “the Zanger Incident” in his book, for the next thirty years Sakaida took on the lonely task of requesting military and government documents, pouring over files and papers and interviewing other Japanese pilots.
Researched down to the very last detail, in addition to Zanger’s personal history, he traced his F4U Corsair’s history from the time it was built to its demise, including contract numbers, delivery dates, plus much much more.
Click on the link below and you can see his report for yourself
Here are some highlights…..
After it was built, FG-1 Corsair 14417,(2. was shipped to the Pacific, and designated for the Marine Corps. Then it was flown to Guadalcanal and assigned to the aircraft pool as of October 26, 1944, when it was assigned to squadron VMF-222 “Flying Deuces” and to 1st Lt. Mike Zanger.
Flying Deuces patch Vought F4U Corsair
On Dec. 5, 1944, Zanger was part of a formation of F4Us that took off on a mission over Rabaul, on the island of New Britain. Near the target, the formation made a left turn over the southern coastline when Zanger and his wing man suffered a mid-air collision. While the other pilot was able to regain control of his damaged Corsair, Zanger’s lost a wing and he had to bailout. He landed without injury near Ataliklikun Bay, but was later captured by the Japanese.
F4U Corsair over Rabaul, all guns ablaze.
Zanger had a survival pack that included a one-man rubber dinghy. Sakaida believes he inflated it and set off in an attempt to escape. But the raft was painted yellow and easily seen from the shore.
Subsequently captured by a Japanese navy patrol boat, Zanger was imprisoned at Tobera Airfield. He remained there in squalid conditions for roughly 6-7 months, shackled in chains in a hut at the airfield, which was still being bombed and strafed by Allied aircraft.
The F4U Corsair was a powerful and heavily armed fighter plane. When combined with the pilots who flew them, they were a formidable foe for the Japanese airmen, who considered them the toughest and the most highly respected of all their American opponents.
Three Japanese Navy Zero pilots heard that an American Corsair pilot had been recently captured and was now a prisoner. Curious about their enemy, and possibly with the idea of extracting some retribution, the three pilots went to Tobera to see him. But when they met Zanger, all three were so impressed that they never harmed him.
One of Mike’s last post cards home.
Military reports noted that in late June or July, 1945, Zanger was shot and killed trying to escape captivity. But Sakaida contends that this doesn’t stand up to scrutiny and was more likely a cover story – that he was actually beaten to death.
The Japanese were cruel to their prisoners. So, it’s doubtful that Zanger would have been physically capable of escaping the guards and making a run for it. At the time, his health would have deteriorated badly from his many months in captivity, his malnourishment and no medical treatment.
In the autopsy report that Sakaida discovered, it indicated that Zanger “had lots of fractures and broken bones but NO gunshot wounds, which led him to believe that Zanger was bludgeoned to death – not shot.”
But this is where the story takes an improbable turn. To help the family find closure, Sakaida suggested that he and Zanger’s nieces all take a trip half way around the world to Rabaul, Papua New Guinea, and search for Zanger’s plane. And he would underwrite the adventure.
And so they did in April 2012.
L-R: Andrea, Marcy and Susan, at the Vudal River near Ataliklikun Bay, where Zanger was captured.
Justin Taylan found the coordinates of the Corsair’s crash site and helped plan the expedition. Familiar with Pacific Islanders and the local etiquette in Papua New Guniea, he suggested the group arrive with items to give the villagers.
“We brought a whole bunch of Frisbees, little toys and candles for the kids,” said Sakaida. “And we asked permission to enter the peoples’ property to search. An earlier governmental group hadn’t and people didn’t like that”
Taylan, Sakaida, and Ray Nishihira, Susan’s husband, were the first to scout the crash site but they were put off by what they found. While part of the plane was visible, it was buried in years of mud, muck, and rainwater, not to mention the swarms of marauding mosquitos that were attacking them. Wisely, they decided to let the site dry out a bit.
But when they returned to the site three days later, this time with the three sisters, they were stunned by what they found.
The Villagers were clearing the wreckage.
“Villagers from the settlement of Vudal had cleared a lot of space to work. They also opened up the whole area and put flowers around”, Sakaida said. “There were 20 or 30 adults and 40 schoolkids there to help. Everybody was pitching in.”
Hanigan described them as some of the kindest and most humane people she ever met.
However, to bring total closure to the search and make this trip a success, they had to prove that this was really Mike Zanger’s plane. But this wouldn’t be easy because most Corsairs were built by Vought, while Zanger’s plane was one of the few built by Goodyear. So, it was imperative that they find a Goodyear stamp somewhere on the plane’s wreckage. But they’d have to find a tiny imprint that was smaller than a dime, which made the work both grueling and precise.
In order to illustrate what they were looking for, Andrea took a marking pen and drew the Goodyear logo on her backpack – it was a capital “G” with a smaller capital “A” inside of it.
Hanigan said what happened next was a moment she will never forget: “The documents in Pacific Wrecks said our uncle’s plane had crashed at 2:30 in the afternoon and at exactly 2:30 that afternoon, we found the identifying mark. It was really magical.” (3.
The moment when the villagers found the proof.
She and her sisters wept at the sight of it and the realization that they were really there, in the presence of their uncle’s plane. Now they were actually touching the pieces he had touched.
According to Hanigan, despite having never met her Uncle, she still felt his presence through the memory of their mother, which in many ways made the journey for her, since she was the one who had been so close to her brother and so devastated by his death.
“I think she would have been moved to tears over this,” she said. “It would have meant so much to her. She would have been real proud of us. I know that.“
So, here they were, half way around the world on a beautiful island in the Pacific, finally finding closure to the real story of their Uncle Mike.
After their success, a group photo of all the participants.
(1. For more information on Henry Sakaida and his books.
(2. FG-1 is the Navy’s ID for the few Goodyear built Corsairs, while F4U was the far more familiar designation for the iconic airplane built by Vought.
(3. Had Zanger’s plane not been one of the very few built by Goodyear, it would have been practically impossible to ID it as his, adding yet another bit of serendipity to the story.
A Letter from the Shoah Foundation?
It was an uneventful day back in 2002 , until I happened to go out to our mail box. That’s when I noticed a strange envelope postmarked “the Netherlands”, stuck in between the usual collection of bills, magazines and direct mail advertising. Inside was a letter written in Dutch. I could only decipher a portion, but it said it had something to do with the Shoah Foundation. When I finally had it translated, it looked like a bit of good news: I might be eligible for some form of WWII reparations because my Uncle Paul Rehfisch’s name appeared on a document called the “Puttkammer List”.
Steven Spielberg, the founder of the Shoah Foundation.
But before I could proceed I had to fill out a multipage form to support my eligibility as an heir to whatever kind of claim this was, based on something my Uncle Paul signed almost 60 years ago. Coincidentally, when the letter arrived, I’d already been researching his tragic story. ( “The Lost Transport”).
But I still didn’t know what this “Puttkammer List” was all about. So, to find some answers, as I’d often done in the past, I turned to the Jewish Genealogical Society. The replies came back immediately.
From JewishGen followers, I learned that this infamous list was created during WWII by a Dutch banking lawyer by the name of Erich Puttkammer. As an artist in blackmail, he’d been rewarded handsomely for playing a very cruel joke on Dutch Jews through his collaboration with the Nazis.
Already the masters of extortion with a world wide network under the supervision of Adolph Eichmann, the Nazis found that they could raise vast sums of money to underwrite their massive war effort by demanding huge payments from wealthy victims – mainly Jews – under the guise of offering them or their loved ones protection from deportation…or worse.
Puttkammer, through his banking connections, easily tapped into this racket. Using a scam of the highest order, he was able to leverage their fears of deportation to a fate unknown. His technique was to get them a place on his list by selling them tickets with an official stamp called a “Sperre” that would ostensibly block any orders the Nazis might have to transport them out of the country.
At the same time I found a letter that my Uncle Paul had written to his father while he was still in Germany. From it, I could sense the fear and desperation he already felt, since he had written it right after Kristallnacht. By then his plans to leave were already made. But only after the daunting task of getting through the Nazi’s bureaucratic red tape.
Sanctuary under the Threat of War
As a safe haven, he’d chosen to flee from his home in Berlin to the relative safety of Amsterdam. Because the Netherlands had remained neutral during WWI, many German Jews, including Paul, thought the country would be able to sustain the same non-belligerent status again, even as the threat of another war was looming.
Paul Rehfisch in Berlin, 1937
Facing the realization that time was running out for him to get out of Germany, here is what Paul wrote to his father just before his departure:
“Dec. 7, 1938
Kaethe and I want to get out as soon as possible, and can barely afford to sacrifice a day. Therefore I want you to please be aware that we cannot spend much time with you in Hannover, after what I’ve experienced trying to make our departure possible …”
But the Nazis prevailed, and 18 months later they invaded the Netherlands, and within a short time they began their systematic round up of Dutch Jews. As a result, hoping to delay any deportation by the German invaders, Paul bought into the cruel hoax, and ended up on what became known as “The Puttkammer List”
Answers from JewishGen
With additional information from JewishGen and other sources, here’s what I began to piece together about Puttkammer, the man and his scam:
Erich August Paul Puttkammer was born in Luppisch, Poland on September 30th 1891. He studied law in Germany but later moved to Amsterdam when the opportunity arose to take a lucrative position at the “Rotterdamsche Bankvereeniging”, or more simply, ROBAVER Bank. Whether he was ever a German citizen is unknown, but he became a Dutch citizen in June 1939.
Having developed many strong ties with the Nazis, Puttkammer gained a veneer of credibility for himself and the “Sperre”, his official stamp. Meanwhile, the bank gave him a separate office with his own secretarial staff. This became the place where he received his “Jewish “customers.”, who by then were desperate.
As a result they would listen to any kind of assurance for a delay that offered to bring them one day closer to the end of the war. Here in the privacy of his office he would propose to them a place on his list in return for payment of 30,000 guilders per person – equal to roughly $18,000 U.S. That was Puttkammer’s price to buy protection from deportation…at least for a little while. In a kind of cruel jest, the head of the Dutch Gestapo dubbed him, “Puttkammer Our Lord.”
10 Million Guilders Stolen from Jews
According to Dutch records, by the end of the war he managed to extort at least 10 million guilders from his “Jewish customers”, which were added to the Nazi’s war chest. That’s equal to over 6 million dollars U.S.
Since many of his Jewish prospects were already sucked dry financially by other Nazi demands, Puttkammer was amenable to other forms of payment such as gold, jewelry, diamonds, paintings or anything else of value.
Puttkammer did well for himself and continued to get paid for his “work” by the ROBAVER bank throughout the German occupation. His compensation, which included his spacious office with staff, also allowed him anything else he could skim from the loot he transferred to the Nazis.
L-R: Kaethe’s father, Max Wolfe, Kaethe & Paul Rehfisch.
Beginning in 1941, roughly 1300 Puttkammer-stamps were issued to those Jews who could afford to pay the exorbitant fee. But of course this was all a pretext for the Nazis to squeeze every last bit of money and valuables from those who could still pay.
But in reality the list was useless. While it may have delayed the inevitable for some, it exempted no one from being arrested and deported. The Nazis had quotas to fill, and therefore paid little attention to a dumb Dutch stamp.
#11 Jan van Eijck Straat. The Wolfe’s lived upstairs, the Rehfisch’s downstairs.
Although Paul succeeded in delaying his arrest and deportation for longer than many – in part because he and his father in-law, Max Wolfe, were members of the Joodse Rad, the Jewish Governing Council; the Rehfisch’s and Wolfe’s were arrested on June 20, 1943. And like those both before and after them, were transported to the transit camp at Westerbork.
Amsterdam to Westerbork
Every Tuesday at Westerbork, a complete trainload of deportees would leave the camp headed for Bergen Belsen and points east. But Paul, his wife Kaethe, and her parents remained there, officially still on Dutch soil – for another eight months, until they too were finally herded off to Bergen Belsen.
As a cruel bit of irony, one could say that Paul’s place on Erich Puttkammer’s list bought him an additional eight months in Holland before he was officially deported out of the country.
After the war Erich Puttkammer was arrested for war crimes. But because of insufficient evidence, he was released on June 7th 1946.
An article about Puttkammer appeared in the 1947 isssue “Der Spiegel”, the German quarterly. It was subtitled: “Herr Putkammer and his Stamp – Attorney & Supplier to the Concentration Camps”
A footnote: After filling out and submitting the lengthy insurance claim forms sent by the Shoah Foundation, they turned down my claim!
A young Walter Wicclair.
As incredible as it may sound, I didn’t learn that my family was Jewish until I was 51 years old. That secret was sustained while I was growing up as an only child, knowing only my parents, and with little knowledge about any relatives living or dead. Forget about their history because there was precious little information forthcoming from my parents.
But after their passing, I decided to get my feet wet, and see what I could learn about any of them. Fortunately I made the right choice by beginning online with JewishGen. That was back in 2000.
After some poking around, I found JewishGen’s Family Finder databases, and started with a search for my paternal ancestors, the Weinlaubs. I immediately found and contacted three other researchers looking for information regarding the Weinlaub surname.
The response was quick. I connected with a college professor from Kansas who had an aunt named Weinlaub, and thought that there had to be a family connection.
Through his own research, he’d acquired a hand typed Weinlaub genealogy. But since it didn’t connect with any Weinlaubs that he knew of, he sent me a copy, hoping that maybe I’d have better luck. And I did. But first a little back story.
The year was 1943 when my father began to talk about a friend of his, a fellow German immigrant who had—what was to me—a silly sounding name. It was Walter Wicclair. Dad and I used to laugh about it because it always made us think of chocolate éclair.
Walter Wicclair as Mephisto in “Urfaust”, 1937
The following year I met Walter for the first time when Dad took me along to visit his friend. But, surprise, surprise! He wasn’t silly at all. In fact, he was quite serious, although he was very nice to me. I also remember that he and Dad were involved in a deep conversation, apparently talking about people they knew.
Now, moving ahead four decades, I was shocked when I received that genealogy, because it had been written for Walter Wicclair’s youngest son, Mark, and revealed Walter’s true identity. His real name was Walter Weinlaub, and he was actually Dad’s first cousin. Walter’s father was my grandfather’s brother, and Dad’s uncle. See copies of Marta’s Genealogy Charts here and here.Since I had no other relatives that I was aware of, I was hoping that maybe Walter might be one. So, on the way home I asked my father if Walter happened to be related to us. Apparently my question irritated him because his immediate reply was a sharp, “No!” But then, after a few moments of reflection, he softened and quietly added, “Well…maybe a very distant cousin.”
In addition, that typed page turned out to be an astounding piece of my family’s history. Not only did I learn that my grandfather had two brothers, but I also learned that Dad’s friend Walter, who turned out to be his first cousin, had also been a well known German actor. He had changed his name to Wicclair, after he fled from the Nazi’s in 1939.
That revelation proved just how close the relationship actually was between Walter and my Dad, and the lengths to which my father went to keep me from learning that our family was Jewish.
The carefully prepared genealogy had originally been created in 1969 for Walter’s son, Mark, by Marta Mierendorff, who was a close friend of Walter’s and had collaborated with him on a number of theatrical books and plays.
A clip from Marta’s genealogy goes on to give the following details:
Walter’s father was Robert Weinlaub—one of three brothers. (The other two brothers were my grandfather, Adolph Weinlaub, and Simon Weinlaub.)
Adolph (Weinlaub) was the proprietor (owner) of the Oppenheimer Luxury Eiderdown Bedding Manufacturing Company, in Hannover. He had two sons, Willi and Kurt. Willi lives in London, and Kurt lives in Sherman Oaks, Calif., and changed his name. (Kurt is my father.)
Simon was a businessman living in Liegnitz/Schlesien, Germany (now part of Poland). (Sadly that was pre-World War II information, and we know nothing more about him.)
As an addendum to her document to Walter’s son Mark, Marta also wrote that Walter was born in 1901 in his father’s hotel in Kreuzburg, Germany. The hotel was originally known as der Weisser Adler or the White Eagle, but then changed to the more humble, Weinlaub’s Hotel.
Growing up in Kreuzburg, Walter became an actor, writer and director, and performed in theaters throughout Europe. In 1932 he founded the Gerhart Hauptmann Theater, in his home town.
But according to Marta’s notes and in his book (see below), sometime during 1938, while Walter was performing on stage, he was attacked by Nazi thugs, and beaten up badly. At that point he fled for his life, leaving behind his country, his wife, Kaethe and his young son, Ralph.
Walter Wicclair as Czar Paul
in “Patriot”, 1937
From both Marta’s document and the Weinlaub Gedenkbuch, I learned that tragically in 1941 the Nazis forced his parents, Robert and Selma, to sell their hotel. Now homeless, they were “resettled” in a concentration camp in Breslau for eleven months, until both were loaded onto cattle cars and transported to Theresienstadt, where they perished a short time later.
When Walter fled from the Nazis, he first went to Czechoslovakia and then made his way to Holland before he was finally able to reach America. After he arrived here in 1939, he took on menial jobs at first, like washing dishes, before he was able to re-establish his stage career. But when he did, he became very involved in theater in Los Angeles. That’s when he changed his name from Weinlaub to Wicclair.Through my new found friend and possible relative, the Kansas college professor, I was able to connect with Walter’s son, Mark, who gave me much of the following information:
He also became involved with other exiled German artists and intellectuals who often gathered at the home of Lion Feuchtwanger, the noted German writer. Feuchtwanger had a beautiful cliff side home overlooking the Pacific Ocean, known as “Villa Aurora”, which is now a creative center and residence for artists, writers and film makers. Walter’s papers and manuscripts are currently housed in the Lion Feuchtwanger Memorial Library on the campus at the University of Southern California (USC).
In addition to his theatrical interests, Walter was also a playwright and the author of a number of books about the theater and its history. Probably his best known work was his autobiography about his experiences in both Germany and the U.S., titled Von Kreuzburg bis Hollywood (From Kreuzburg to Hollywood).
Walter had two sons, Ralph Weinlaub, who miraculously remained alive in Germany throughout the war, only reaching American afterwards, where he became a successful newspaper photographer and later a commercial photographer. He married a co-worker and raised a family, remaining in Florida until his death a few years ago.
Walter Wicclair, c. 1998
Mark Wicclair was Walter’s younger son by a second marriage, and grew up in Los Angeles, attending Beverly Hills High School. After graduation, he studied for a year at MIT and then transferred to Reed College in Portland, Oregon. He went on to earn a PhD in philosophy from Columbia University, and is currently a Professor of Philosophy at West Virginia University. At the same time, he is Adjunct Professor of Medicine, Center for Bioethics and Health Law at the University of Pittsburgh.
Having only met Walter that one time, I was saddened to learn that he passed away just a few months before I began to research my family, before a connection on JewishGen’s Family Finder led me to him and his descendants. My father had been successful in hiding Walter’s true relationship from me for all these years because he did not want me to know that he was a Jew.
Through all the writing and soul searching that I’ve done regarding my father’s determination to keep our heritage a secret, I believe that it was due primarily to the rampant anti-Semitism that existed in the U.S. prior to WWII. He felt he needed to protect his occupation and his ability to earn a living, and then later, when I was born, he wanted to protect me as well, which unfortunately became extremely detrimental to my mother’s mental health.
Los Angeles, CA USA
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Peter connected with another individual researching the Weinlaub family name as a result of a posting on JewishGen’s Family Finder. If you haven’t already posted the surnames you are researching—or if you haven’t reviewed the database recently—we encourage you to do so. http://www.jewishgen.org/jgff/
Walter Wicclair’s autobiography, Von Kreuzburg bis Hollywood (From Kreuzburg to Hollywood) is available through Google Books and Amazon.com.
For more information regarding the Theresienstadt labor-concentration camp where Walter (Weinlaub) Wicclair’s parents perished during the Holocaust, see:http://www.ushmm.org/wlc/en/article.php?ModuleId=10005424
For further information regarding Lion and Marta Feuchtwanger and the Villa Aurora, see:http://www.villa-aurora.org/en/marta-and-lion-feuchtwanger.html.
Walter Wicclair’s papers and manuscripts can be accessed at the Lion Feuchtwanger Memorial Library on the campus of the University of Southern California (USC).http://libguides.usc.edu/feuchtwanger
The Passing of a Dear Friend
Ruth Levy from a race at Elkhart Lake, 1957 giving the photographer a bad time. From her collection.
Ruth Levy Raymond was a woman of many talents. She was an artist, a cowboy poet, a singer, and an author of children’s books. But beyond that, she was best known as a world class race car driver and competitor in a man’s sport. She was also a very dear friend. Sadly, Ruth passed away just two days before Christmas, last December 23, 2014.
This is not the usual context from which I blog, because this time I’m coming from the world of motor sports. Or more specifically the early days of sports car racing back in the 1950s and 60s. An exciting period for all of us who were involved. It was also a time of tremendous opportunity for the few women who were talented enough to compete with the men. And Ruth was one of them.
But there is a definite thread that connects her story to those of you who read my posts: Ruth and I were both Jews, making us kindred souls – a connection that also allowed us to commiserate on a whole other level.
In addition, we both made late life discoveries about our Jewishness. For me, as most of you know, I only learned that my family was Jewish at age 51. But for Ruth it was a bit different….
Born in 1930 in New York, she was adopted by a Minneapolis couple at a very early age. Her very strict mother made sure she attended Temple regularly. So, growing up as Ruth Cohen, she knew she was a Jew. But her true identity had always be been hidden from her and she’d given up on trying to find what she called her “real family”.
Then just last year, after reading a blog I posted about a woman with a similar story, she accidentally learned who her own biological family was. She called it “an OMG moment” in email she sent me after learning the astonishing truth, that she was born Audrey Schenker.
Enter a Jazz Musician
Later on, while attending the Minneapolis Institute of Art, she met Lou Levy, the famous jazz pianist. They married and she became Ruth Levy, the name that remained with her the rest of her life. During their marriage they had two daughters, Jacqueline and Pamela.
But the marriage was not destined to last, and they divorced in 1955. By then she had tried her luck at racing cars on the frozen lakes around Minneapolis and liked it. So, she gathered up her daughters and moved west to Los Angeles where she could try her talent on paved roads. And so began her legendary climb to prominence as a female race car driver.
Ruth and car owner, John Edgar.
However, I’ll leave the details of Ruth’s brilliant racing career up to others. I just want to talk about the Ruth I knew, because behind all the swagger and foul language was one of the kindest, funniest and most generous people I’ve ever known.
“The Texas Regatta”
While I often watched her race here on the West Coast and witnessed her successes, I only met her in person in 1957 in Fort Worth, Texas. It was June 2nd, after Sunday’s races at the Eagle Mountain Air National Guard base. The event became known sarcastically as the “Texas Regatta” because it had rained so torrentially that the local boat races had to be cancelled, while the sports car races continued undaunted.
I was in the Air Force at the time, stationed in Del Rio, Texas, about 400 miles away. Married less than two months, my wife Linda and I had driven up there a few days earlier, eager to see both the races and our West Coast friends.
Our VW a few weeks before the accident.
We made it to the track on Saturday. But while attempting to return on Sunday, during the deluge, we were in a fast moving line of traffic, on a rain slick access road inside the National Guard base. Suddenly the cars ahead of us stopped, and we were smashed between the car in front and the one behind us – the one that couldn’t stop. It totaled our little VW convertible and injured Linda to the extent that she needed medical care and a number of stitches.
So we never did see the races. But that night, we went over to a post race party put on by some of our friends from Los Angeles, hoping to find enough booze to anesthetize the trauma of the accident and Linda’s painful stitches and bruises.
June 1, 1957, Eagle Mtn. , Saturday before the deluge. Ruth had just had her own accident when center punched by a spinning car.
It was at that event that we were introduced to Ruth. She and Linda hit it off immediately. Then out of the blue, Ruth picked up the phone and called Linda’s mother back in Studio City, just to let her know that while her daughter had been in a car accident, she was Ok. That was her first act of kindness, yet she barely knew us.
But by the time I got out of the service my life was different and we lost track of Ruth. It wasn’t until the late 1990s after I’d become part of a group called the “Fabulous 50‘s”, whose members were now old farts like me and had all been involved to one degree or another in racing back in the day. That’s when we finally reconnected.
By then her racing days had long since passed as well as the long list of her multifaceted pursuits that followed. She’d finally settled down, was married and living in Solvang with her husband, Wayne Raymond, a Texan, aka “Hog”, who coincidentally was a very serious amateur bicycle racer. And by now her two daughters were all grown up, one with a daughter of her own.
Ruth and Carroll Shelby, close friends since their racing days.
I’m not sure how we reconnected after our 40 year hiatus, but it was probably at a tribute event for Carroll Shelby (of Cobra fame) at the Petersen Automotive Museum in Los Angeles.
Dogs and Race Cars
We began by exchanging old racing photos and pictures from Fab50s events. But both of us being dog lovers, we also started sending each other pictures of our precious mutts and swapping anecdotal racing stories from back in the day. Our medium was Email and FaceBook with a phone call every couple of weeks to fill in the blanks and to pickup on other compelling issues, like Hog’s bicycle races or one of her daughter’s competitive dog events. Or, from my end to recommend some fantastic movie they should add to their Netflix list.
Ruth loved to make faces at the camera, or get me to hurray up, standing with Bill Pollack, a legendary driver himself.
We both bought 27″ iMacs about the same time. I had just switched over from PC’s and convinced her to do the same. I was editing my documentary at the time on mine, while she began to write her autobio on hers. Out of necessity, she’d periodically call me to pick my brains for information about people, drivers, race cars and events from way back when. Then as her story began to evolve, she’d periodically ask me for advice with some of her early drafts. Mind you, she’d already written childrens books. But now she was trying to find her voice as the author of her own story.
Linda, Ruth and me at a Fab50s Banquet in 2009.
Sadly, as her health began to deteriorate, she found it increasingly difficult to drive on her own. While she was able to get people to chauffeur her, by then even riding as a passenger became very tiring and uncomfortable. As a result, her trips to events in L.A. became more and more infrequent, and she just plain had to cancel out on a number of occasions.
However there were four events in 2013 and 2014 that she was determined to attend. First was the “Legends of Riverside”, an annual three day event honoring the drivers who participated back in the heyday of the Riverside International Raceway, which was held at the new Riverside Auto Museum, about 50 miles south of Los Angeles.
She was walking with a cane by then, but she still had a wonderful time seeing friends signing autographs with all the other legends, and having her pictures taken with her many admirers. Although a three day event, she only came down for the day. By the time she got back home she was not a happy camper. The long ride had been too much for her.
Legends of Riverside 2013. I must have said something funny, while she was waiting to sign autographs.
But later that year, she was wined and dined by the Porsche Club of America at their annual national get together in Ontario, CA, which is near Riverside. She sent me an hilarious video of her Q&A. An instant hit on camera, she consistently brought down the house with her funny and often self deprecating comments about her racing career. Here’s a link to it.
https://vimeo.com/79572367 Password is: Mamaroo13
Ruth after a couple of hot laps around the track as Guest of Honor.
Then last May she was the guest of honor at the California Festival of Speed at the Fontana Raceway, near Ontario, put on by the Porsche Club of America. But for this one she coaxed some of us old gummers to join her in a panel discussion of what cars and racing were like back in the day. It was great fun for all of us participants as well as the audience.
After it was over, they had a kind of a funky buffet dinner for us in a nearby tent. But because it was so crowded, Ruth and daughter Jackie had to sit at one end of a 20 ft. table, while my son Tim and I could only find seats at the other. There were far too many people between us to hold any kind of a conversation. So what did Ruth do? Exactly what any contemporary teenager would do.
She picked up her cell phone and started texting me about the food. As a result, we ended up having a delightful dinner conversation…texting on our iPhones.
That’s Ruth at the end of the table texting me.
And finally, she was SO determined to make it down here for my 80th birthday that she booked a cushy limousine and driver for the day to solve her comfort problems. When she proudly called to tell me what she’d done, I told her that not only was she the first to RSVP, but I hadn’t even sent out the invitations yet.
But sadly it was not to be. She had to back out at the last minute due to a new physical problem that required her to remain close to her doctor. So, instead, as a surprise, she sent down 300 incredibly delicious birthday cookies; each one with a picture of me and my dogs baked into it – a picture that I had sent her years earlier. Those delightful cookies came from her favorite sweet shop, the Solvang Bakery, owned by the family of her next door neighbor and very dear friend, Melissa (Halme) Redell. Nice to have a neighbor like that.
Ruth had a passion for animals especially her two little Boston Terriers. As a result we used to email our doggie pictures back and forth, which then expanded into those big collections of cute little animal pictures that keep getting generated on the internet.
The Wrong Side of Mamaroo
That’s when I found Ruth’s dark side…when I learned the hard way that there’s one type of animal picture that she absolutely hated. She couldn’t stand pictures of monkeys….monkeys of any type, size or stripe.
Big gorillas or ugly male orangs I could understand. But I made the mistake of including a picture of a couple of cute little chimps. That’s when she let me know in no uncertain terms that I was never EVER to do that again.
Well…since I’m old, a couple of years later I forgot, and a baby chimp picture happened to slip thru with 40 or so other cute pix of baby wild animals like squirrels, tiger cubs, baby elephants and so on.
Needless to say, I almost got my head handed to me. From then on I kept a little Sticky Note stuck to my computer that said, “No Chimps for Ruth. Or else!”
Linda and Ruth having their usual good time together.
She and my wife, Linda, always had a great time trying to out foul mouth one another whenever the three of us were able meet. You never knew what they would do together. At one Christmas banquet, the guest of honor droned on for so long that Ruth and Linda actually crawled under our table to get out of the banquet room without being seen.
She was a fighter, and continued to battle through her health problems the same way she used to race. But she knew her condition was terminal late last summer, when she called to tell me that she’d made up her mind to stop all the trips to the hospital in Solvang and all the chemo.
“Fuck it! It’s not worth all the bullshit for a few months more”, she said, in only the way that Ruth could say it. “It was a great ride while it lasted! …and shit, I got 84 years out of it!”
Realizing that the quality of her life was far more important during the time she had remaining, she had made peace with it. And her family was in full support.
The last time Linda and I saw her was on October 18, at the Fab50’s Paramount Ranch Reunion and Picnic. She was confined to a wheel chair by then, in pain and unable to stay very long. She knew it would be the last time she’d see many of her friends, and wanted to make sure that we’d be there because she was going to bring deli food for us all, and we were not to bring anything.
Ruth at the Paramount Ranch Reunion and Picnic. Now confined to a wheelchair.
But then she really surprised us because on her way down from Solvang, and no longer comfortable riding long distances, she made sure that Kenny, her son in law and designated driver, made a detour, all the way out to Brendt’s in Northridge, the best deli in L.A., just to pick up their famous pastrami sandwiches for the four of us.
Her final act of kindness.
But then, bless her heart, she somehow found the time and energy to get all her Christmas cards out during her last week, with personal hand written notes. Ours was inscribed, “Pastrami sandwiches forever! Hugs and love, Mamaroo and the Crew!”
Meanwhile she continued refining her book right up to the end, while assuring me, just weeks before her passing, that she had put it all in order. Her manuscript and her notes were all organized in a loose leaf notebook, tabbed and ready to be published.
At Ruth’s memorial, her daughter, Jackie, confirmed that it will be. Knowing Ruth’s ZESTY stream of consciousness writing style, it’ll be one helluva read – that I can promise you.
This is the working title, including a bit of her poetry:
“DON’T RACE WITH MOTHER”
You’re Old Enough to Know
Behind me the demons I meant to survive
At the age of fourteen I had a license to drive
With speed as my drug I took it, no other
And all of the kids knew don’t race with mother.
She was truly one of a kind!
Marion Blumenthal Lazan is a Holocaust survivor who has dedicated her life to delivering a message of racial and religious tolerance to audiences all over the world. I finally had the opportunity to meet this incredible woman in person, just a few weeks ago, when she spoke to 500 students at Cope Middle School, in Redlands, CA.
Marion in one of her favorite spots, surrounded by school children
Telling her story to school children, high school and college students, as well as young adults is something she’s been doing for over twenty years, motivated by the knowledge that she is the last of her generation to speak first hand about the horrors and adversity that she lived through, and the Anti-Semitism that caused it. What seems to fuel her enduring enthusiasm is the knowledge that the current generations to whom she is speaking, will be the last to hear of it, first hand from a living survivor.
But before I go on, let me explain what led up to this very moving experience.
Back in 2008, when I was doing research for my documentary, “For the Life of Me”, I happened to be working on the story of my uncle, Paul Rehfisch, who died in the Holocaust. His had been a narrative that had been evolving over a period of many months.
Kaethe and Paul Rehfisch
Originally, it had been disclosed by the Red Cross that he had perished in the notorious concentration camp at Bergen-Belsen, near Celle, Germany. But more recently I learned that was not true. While he’d been a prisoner there, he actually died in a little German farm village called Troebitz, near Dresden and the border to Czechoslovakia.
Then someone sent me the story of the “Lost Transport” – a train that left Bergen-Belsen on April 9, 1945 destined for another concentration camp, Theresienstadt, located between the German/Czech border and Prague, where the Nazis had recently installed gas chambers.
With the British Army only days away from liberating Bergen-Belsen, the Nazis didn’t want to be caught with the evidence. So they loaded three trains, each one carrying approximately 2500 sick and dying Jewish prisoners that the Nazis wanted to get rid of in a hurry. My uncle Paul and his wife, Kaethe were on the third train, all three bound for the same destination.
But when that third and final train began its journey, direct routes no longer existed because allied troops had already cut off much of the access to the southeast, and destroyed many miles of railroad tracks in the process. So, that last train, containing thousands of prisoners, who had no idea where they were headed, many already stricken with typhus, turned to the north east and meandered for two weeks without food, water, or any sanitary facilities, while the engineer continued his desperate search for a safe route to the Czech border.
That was a distressing revelation for me. But as I tried to learn more, I discovered the name, Marion Blumenthal Lazan, and her book, “Four Perfect Pebbles”. Never expecting to find a single living person who had been through the horror of that journey, I got a real jolt when I learned that Marion had been on the same “Lost Transport” with my uncle Paul.
Marion’s book with her story of survival.
But then, when I found her on the internet I was amazed to learn that not only had she and her family been on the same death train as my uncle Paul and his wife Kaethe, but the coincidences continued to unfold. Marion’s path from prewar Germany was almost identical to that of my uncle’s. Both families fled from Germany shortly after Kristallnacht for the safety of Holland.
While the Blumenthals were from Hoya, the Rehfischs were from Hannover, less than 45 miles away. Both ended up in the Dutch transit camp at Westerbork. Then in February, 1944 both families were transported to Bergen-Belsen. Ultimately on April 9, 1945, they were all loaded onto that infamous “Death Train” that meandered for two weeks, only to wind up ignominiously in the little German farm village of Troebitz. That’s when it was finally forced to stop by partisans on one side and the Russian Army on the other, who then liberated the sick and dying passengers on board.
Marion, her brother, and mother survived the liberation, but her father, Walter did not, succumbing to the dreaded typhus. Neither did my uncle or aunt, Paul and Kaethe Rehfisch. All three were buried in that little German farm village.
Overwhelmed with all of this new information, I felt compelled to contact Marion and share with her all the incredible coincidences that I found – how she and my uncle had been on parallel paths from Germany to Troebitz. And I wanted share the possibility that we might also be related, since my paternal grandmother was a Blumenthal, who lived in Hannover, just a few miles from Marion’s home town of Hoya.
When I finally did find her phone number, I really didn’t know what to expect from the other end of the line. But when I was able to reach her, I was relieved to hear a very warm and understanding voice, spoken with a soft German accent that sounded so terribly familiar. It felt as if she was an old family friend who I’d known for many years. It took me back to my childhood, listening to a voice so similar to the ones I grew up with.
From that point on, we struck up a wonderful friendship. She sent me more information about Troebitz and the “Lost Transport”, and put me in touch with some of her friends and relatives who were other possible sources of information for my research and film script.
By finding Marion’s website, fourperfectpebbles.com, I began to learn about this wonderful lady’s passion as a Holocaust survivor, and her need to pass on her personal experience to younger generations.
As a result, I wanted desperately to meet her in person and tried for over a year to get her speaking engagements at local Jewish groups, and college classes in the Los Angeles area. But I was unsuccessful, and finally had to drop the idea when I just plain ran out of time.
I also considered going back to New York to meet her and her husband, Nathaniel, on the off chance that I could get a couple of speaking engagements of my own, and show my film in the New York vicinity, which would pay for my travel, and make the trip worthwhile. But that never happened either.
Meanwhile, we had a couple of near misses when Marion was booked for engagements a few hundred miles away. But she was never close enough to make a visit possible. That was until last November when her husband, Nathaniel sent me an email message that Marion was booked for a dozen or so speaking engagements in the “Inland Empire”, early in December, in the towns of Redlands and Yucaipa, all within easy driving distance from my home in Studio City.
But then a near tragedy occurred in November when she was at a speaking engagement in Germany. While opening the wrong door in someones home, she fell down a flight of concrete steps to the cellar, severely injuring the ligaments and tendons in her right hand, requiring immediate surgery and a five day stay in a German hospital.
Now this would be a serious injury for anyone of any age. But mind you, Marion is now 80. Yet her energy and resilience is so astounding that immediately upon her release, with her hand still swathed in bandages, this amazing woman went back to the speaking engagement she had missed due to her accident.
Then, still intending to keep her Southern California speaking engagement for the week of December 5, she experienced further complications, which required more surgery in New York, and forced her to postpone her trip out here until further notice.
But in mid January, I got the good news from Nathaniel that Marion was ready to resume her schedule, and all her speaking engagements. A few days later, I received her revised itinerary, and we were back on track, rescheduled for Thursday, Jan. 22, at Cope Middle School, in Redlands, CA. for her 1:15pm speaking engagement.
I brought my wife, Linda, and my son, Tim, and we all drove down on a glorious, crystal clear, winter day headed for the Inland Empire. When we arrived at the school, we were ushered into their “Multi Purpose Building”, which serves as their auditorium.
We entered before the students arrived, and there was Marion, up on the stage with the school’s young principal, Kate Pearne, preparing for her talk.
When I approached her and spoke her name, she looked up, and within a fraction of a second recognized who I was, greeting me like a long lost cousin. We hugged and once again, I had that warm feeling like we were really family.
We finally meet.
After introductions all around, I finally got to meet her husband, Nathaniel. Then Linda, Tim and I took our seats as the students filed in.
When Marion began her talk, I was struck by her ability to tell her story and make it sound as if she’s telling it for the first time. Yet I know that she’s given this same address thousands of times before, to audiences all over the world. But somehow she maintains a spontaneity that belies the reality.
She certainly got our attention.
I was also aware of the fact that Marion had only been out of her second surgery for a few days and was sporting a cast on her right hand. Yet, she was signing autographs with pleasure, as if her accident had never happened.
It was also heart warming to watch the children surround her after she finished her story. Some were so moved that they wanted to touch her or hug her. While others wanted to speak to her and get her autograph, mostly in their personal copies of “Four Perfect Pebbles”. But the demand was so overwhelming that she ended up taking a stack of their books back to the hotel with her, so the students could get to their classes, and she could sign them with less time constraints. This apparently happens after nearly EVERY event, finding Marion in her hotel room continuing to sign autographs for hours after each day’s activities.
Marion signing autographs and kids hugging her. A very happy time.
Meanwhile, Nathaniel, who has been taking pictures throughout the entirety of each speaking engagement, sorts his photos from each event in order to make CDs for each and every school and organization where Marion has spoken.
Now bear in mind that Marion usually has at least two speaking engagements a day, and often at different schools. She and Nathaniel keep up this killer schedule for at least nine months a year, traveling all over the U.S. and Europe, while schools and universities are in session. If they’re lucky, they get an occasional week at home, scattered throughout the year. But that’s when Nathaniel spends his free time making the CDs which he then sends back to the schools, often with additional prints.
For example, while they were here in Southern California, Marion had nine speaking engagements over a five day period, in eight different venues: four middle schools, three high schools, one university and one Church. During each talk, Nathaniel shoots dozens of pictures. So, by the end of a week, he has hundreds of photos to sort through and compile for each school, deciding which ones get burned onto CDs and which ones get printed.
I’m exhausted just writing about it!
In spite of this insane travel schedule, on Fridays Marion will only plan speaking engagements in the morning, so that they can ALWAYS observe Shabbat. And by bringing their own food with them, they can make certain they will always be eating Kosher food on the Sabbath.
Coming away from that memorable day last January, and looking at Nathaniel’s photos again, I’m reminded of the mood in that auditorium after Marion finished speaking. While one would assume that it should be somber, reflective, and maybe a bit depressed after her harrowing description of the Holocaust, it’s quite the contrary. The room is alive and electric in an atmosphere of optimism and joy. You see it in the children’s smiling faces and their need to get close to Marion. It’s an extraordinary experience.
Marion surrounded by the students of Cope Middle School, and their principal, Kate Pearne.
Not only is Marion one amazing lady, but she and Nathaniel are one amazing team. Traveling together for thousands of miles, they have reached over 1,000,000 people, who have heard her message of love, respect and tolerance to audiences of all ages – a message that I’m certain she will continue to convey as long as she has the breath to do so.
Marion, and Nathaniel, we reach out to you, grateful for who you are and what you do! The millions who have heard you, do so as well.
Since I wrote my original post, Eugenics, My Cousin and the “Final Solution”, enough new information has crossed my desk that I feel it’s necessary to write this update.
The Jacoby Kurhaus or Treatment Center
The original post began with my discovery of a cousin by the name of Felicitas Weinlaub, who died in 1942 as a patient in an insane asylum known as the “Jacoby’she Anstalt” or Jacoby Institute, and was buried in a cemetery in a place called Bendorf-Sayn. But I had no information about her other than her birth date, the date of her death and the fact she was buried there. While most of her life still remains a mystery, I have since learned a little more about her, how and why she died, and about the forboding facility where she succumbed. Otherwise her tragic life still remains an enigma.
But first let me set the record straight. She was NOT euthanized as I originally reported. But we’ll get to that a bit later.
By discovering my cousin, I not only found details about the mental institution at Bendorf-Sayn, aka the Jacoby Institute, but a veritable “Pandora’s Box” of grotesque issues: primarily the subjects of eugenics, and euthanasia and to my surprise, learning that Hitler’s rush to create a “Master Race”all began right here at home – that it was an American institution, created three decades before he appeared on the scene, yet fitting perfectly into his ultimate plans for “the Final Solution”.
You can find all of this in my original blog in far greater detail. But after I wrote the post last August, I was put in touch with Herr Dietrich Schabow, who has written a 50 page article about the Jacoby Institute, which is currently being translated into English. Meanwhile, he is essentially the keeper of the flame, and the “go to” person for information about Bendorf-Sayn and its history.
I had many questions for him, for which he answered in great detail, and sent me an incredible amount of supporting information, for which I’m eternally grateful.
While there’s too much to include here, many of the personal descriptions of life inside the institution that he supplied have changed my perception of it, while adding a level of texture and humanity to its sad history.
But first I must correct a serious error I made, based on mis-information from other sources. In the original post, I claimed “….that Bendorf-Sayn was a notorious insane asylum where the German (Nazi) doctors performed euthanasia on the mentally and physically disabled Jewish patients who were housed there.”
That was wrong! The truth is far more banal, yet no less tragic. First of all, there were NEVER any German doctors on staff at Bendorf-Sayn, and no-one ever performed euthanasia on any of the patients. In fact, during the Nazi era – from 1940 on – very few Jewish patients remained there.
Instead of it being a dedicated site for euthanizing Jewish inmates by Nazi doctors, Bendorf-Sayn remained a Jewish institution, as it had begun some 70 years earlier. Only Jewish doctors were hired to administer and care for the strictly Jewish patients.
“Euthanasia is too good for the Jews. For them we have something different in mind.” This was a declaration attributed to an SS officer in nearby Koblenz, which pretty well summed up the reality of the situation.
1940 was a pivotal time for the psychiatric hospital in many ways. That was the year the two owners, the brothers Dr. Fritz and Dr. Paul Jacoby chose to emigrate to the United States after finding Dr. Wilhelm Rosenau, who they put in charge as their successor. He in turn picked Dr. Kurt Laufer as his colleague.
That was also the year the Nazi Home Office, the “Innenministerium”, decreed that mentally ill Jews could no longer be housed together in hospitals with mentally ill non-Jews. As a result Bendorf-Sayn became a collection site for Jewish patients who were rounded up from other German hospitals.
During their stay, only Jewish doctors treated them, and only Jewish nurses cared for them, until they were ultimately packed in cattle cars and sent east to the death camps in Poland.
By June, 1940 Dr. Laufer and his Jewish wife, who had worked as a nurse in the hospital, met the same fate, as they were both transported to a concentration camp along with their patients.
Fortunately for Dr. Rosenau his wife was Gentile, and their children were educated as such. This according to Herr Schabow, who went on to say that the Nazi term for them was, “privilegierte Mischehe”, or privileged mongrels. As a result, Rosenau was able to remain at Bendorf-Sayn. But he was only allowed to treat Jews!!!
When the hospital was closed in November, 1942, he was the only doctor who was still there.
Regina Suderland (ne’e Hermanns) was also a “privileged mongrel”. The daughter of a Jewish father and a Gentile mother, she was only 15 years old when she moved with her parents to Bendorf-Sayn in 1941, after her father lost his job in Osnabrueck. Her father, Benno Hermanns, became the Nursing Supervisor there, while Regina worked her way up to Practical Nurse.
Regina Suderland, the last known witness from Bendorf-Sayn.
She remained for years the last witness to what went on within the confines of the Jacoby Institute at Bendorf-Sayn. This is an excerpt from a newspaper article from the “Rhein-Zeitung”, written by Kersten Steifel, October 27, 2001 from an interview with her:
Before his patients were engulfed by the “Final Solution,” chief physician Wilhelm Rosenau tried to help them live in dignity. The “harmless ones” were able to move freely between the billiard room, the music room and the synagogue. There was even Kosher food to eat. The park was discreetly but securely closed off from the street by walls, and a heavy cast-iron gate – an enclave of safety in the middle of a war. “That was the highest priority,” Regina Suderland remembers. “The patients weren’t supposed to know what was going on outside”.
While a handful of Jewish patients remained at the facility, their numbers dwindled to nothing over time.
Regina Suderland survived. When not a soul was left in the hospital, after all of the patients and staff had “EMIGRATED”, as a report from the Gestapo in Koblenz put it. The young woman (Suderland) lived on in the empty rooms with her family and that of chief physician, Wilhelm Rosenau. The beds always had to be freshly made up in case the Kemperhof hospital in Koblenz was destroyed by bombs.
The managing director appointed by the Nazis was Paul Kochannek, who Suderland liked to call, “our little Oskar Schindler”….by saving the lives of Benno Hermanns and Wilhelm Rosenau by telling the Gestapo he needed the two Jews to keep the building in shape. The chief physician and the nursing supervisor spent the rest of the war as janitors, wandering like ghosts through the abandoned hallways.
Meanwhile, the tragic story of my cousin, Felicitas Weinlaub still remains a mystery. But since my initial post, I have learned from Herr Schabow that she was born in Graetz, Posen, Germany on Feb. 26, 1902. (The town of Graetz was a 19th century enclave for my Weinlaub ancestors). She was married to Adolph Cohn at the time of her hospitalization, which was June 11, 1941. Cohn’s occupation is listed as “Merchant”. They were married on June 14, 1928 in Berlin.
Felicitas died on the morning of March 14, 1942. According to her medical records, she was a depressive paranoid who periodically refused to eat for fear of being poisoned, but the ultimate cause of her death was tuberculosis. She had only been there for 10 months. One of the few Jews to have died in the hospital after 1940, she is buried in a single unmarked grave in the north east corner of the cemetery at Bendorf-Sayn.
While I’ve learned nothing about her life before her hospitalization, what is an even greater mystery is how she got to Bendorf-Sayn in the first place, because her husband’s last known address is listed as Litzmannstadt which in Polish is the….Łódź Ghetto!
Łódź Ghetto, Poland. (Bundesarchiv_R_49-1)
Sally, his wife Julie, and eldest daughter, Herta.
This headstone is in the Weissensee Cemetery in Berlin, Germany. It helped me solve a long term question of mine, who is Sally Rehfisch? Or more specifically, what was Sally Rehfisch’s gender.
I must give credit to a fellow Jewish Genealogical Society member, Bert de Jong, for helping me find the answer, plus a whole lot more. Bert, who lives in Amsterdam, claims he’s been photographing headstones since he was twelve years old. In 2012, his hobby took him to the Weissenssee Cemetery where he photographed hundreds of headstones in answer to numerous requests from members of JewishGen, including myself.
The results were overwhelming for me because I not only found the answers to my Sally Rehfisch question, but learned that the Jewish burial ground is a final resting place for many ancestors of mine on the Rehfisch side of my family.
Caecilie, Max and Aron Rehfisch
For you genealogists* out there, in addition to Sally Rehfisch, and the three listed above, whose headstones were found, (Caecilie, Max and Aron Rehfisch**), also buried in the Weissenssee Cemetery are the following:
- Irma Rehfisch
- Margarethe Rehfisch
- Siegmund Rehfisch
- Hedwig Rehfisch
- Otilie Rehfisch nee Lipschuetz
But getting back to my search, my mother’s maiden name was Rehfisch. When she passed away in 1998, I found a few old letters of hers that she’d kept in a box. But since they were hand written in German I wasn’t able to read them. So, I filed them away for the time being. But then I discovered that she’d also left me many family photo albums. That’s when I really got the urge to find out more about my family, and to learn about all the nameless faces that appeared in those photos. I assumed that many of them were relatives and possibly even close family members – the ones who I grew up knowing nothing about. (see “The Day I Learned I was a Jew“)
But I wasn’t sure how to identify them unless maybe those old letters of Mom’s might possibly contain some answers. Although that would require someone to translate them, which was long before I joined the Jewish Genealogical Society with it’s access to ViewMate and the many members who could translate old German “Suetterlin Schrift”.
Nevertheless I did have access to the internet and was able to find a German woman in Kansas who could translate the letters and help me begin the rudiments of a family tree.
One of those letters was from Mom’s grandfather, Isidor Rehfisch, written in 1917, near the end of WWI. It was addressed to his daughter-in-law, Bertha Rehfisch, my grandmother, and described what was essentially a family reunion, reuniting five of his six grown children. Since Bertha and my grandfather Louis, were not able to be there, Isidor sent her the letter to recap what they’d missed.
From his description I learned that four of the siblings were males, named Berthold, Albert, Max and Leopold. Two of them were currently on leave from the war and the German army at the time. But the fifth sibling was always referred to as Sally. Not knowing any better, I assumed Sally was a woman. Since the name was usually combined with another diminutive, “Julchen”, who I assumed was someone’s little girl. Trying to build a scenario, I thought possibly that Sally and Julchen were Isidore’s daughter and grand daughter, that they were mother and child.
Since my translator in Kansas couldn’t solve it either, I didn’t learn the truth for more than a decade, until I finally got the Weissenssee information from Bert de Jung. That’s when I realized that my earlier assessment could NOT have been more WRONG! Sally was a really a HE.
Isidore actually had six sons and Sally was one of them. Also in the German Army, he too was on furlough from the war. But he also had the good fortune of being reassigned from his battalion on the front lines to a new post with the Army Finance Office in Berlin. And “Julchen” was not Isidor’s grand daughter after all, but Sally’s wife, Julie.
But what had made it so difficult to identify Sally’s gender for such a long time was the fact the he never ever used his real given name, which was Salomon. Whether or not it was because he felt it was too Jewish, there’s a certain irony to it since he was able to maintain his nickname even in death, as public records and even his grave marker continue to identify him as “Sally Rehfisch.
Although Julie Rehfisch’s name appears on the tombstone under Sally’s, along with their eldest daughter, Herta, neither of the two women are buried there. Their names have only been placed there in tribute since, sadly, both Julie and Herta perished in Sobibor in 1943. This may have been added after WWII by Sally & Julchen’s youngest daughter, Margot, who survived the war in the Netherlands. Sally passed away a decade earlier in 1933.
* If any of you genealogists are interested in researching the Weissenssee Cemetery for other burials, Bert de Jong provided me with a spread sheet containing nearly 7,500 names of folks interred there. If you contact me through my website, I’d be happy to email you a copy. It’s in Excel.
** Max was Sally’s brother. Aron (Eugen) was the son of Caecilie nee Adam and Joseph Rehfisch.