Morris (Moishe) Cohen
A personal recollection by his cousin, Dr Cyril Sherer – (edited for space and clarity)
I was eight years old in 1929 when I first heard his name. My mother had been busy since morning, frying fish and making a large pile of
latkes. I was told, “The Chinese General is coming”. I wasn’t sure what that meant. I only knew we weren’t Chinese, so something was different. I remember a large man with a large head, and I remember being patted on the head with a large hand. The fish and latkes disappeared quickly.
Two years later he was back. This time I understood more. I was told that my father’s cousin was a General in the Chinese Army, and that
he was thus a Very Important Person. I remember him sitting in the front room talking on the telephone to someone he called “Sir John”,
confirming an order for hundreds of trucks for China, and he spoke about millions of pounds.
Morris Abraham Cohen’s story begins in Radzenow in the province of Miaczyn, Poland. He was born in 1887 and brought to England in 1889, which he later gave as his birth date for reasons to be seen. His father, Yosef Leib, was a tailor. There were many siblings. Morris was a big child and soon got into trouble.
Enrolled at the Jews Free School, he played truant. By the time he was ten he was a petty thief, pickpocket, even a prizefighter under the name of “Cockney Cohen” which is where he got his broken nose. He smashed windows in order to drum up business for an itinerant glazier and before long was brought before the Juvenile Court, where he claimed to be two years younger in order to get a lighter sentence. He was sent to a Jewish Borstal1 run by one Israel Ellis, something of a reformer. He (Cohen) said afterwards it was the best thing that ever happened to him.
He stayed for five years. The curriculum was simple, including military drill and discipline, which was useful to him later on in China. He
also learned to recite long passages from Shakespeare, also useful. He left there in 1905 to return to a family that didn’t know what to do with him.
They decided to send him to Canada, to his father’s friend from Miaczyn, Abie Hyams, who had a farm in Saskatchewan. Morris left with a trunk full of clothes and five gold sovereigns. But Abie didn’t want him and sent him to a neighbor, who taught him how to shoot a pistol with either hand, also how to deal cards from anywhere except the top. Morris was a good pupil.
He spent the next few years as a gambler, which was how he made his first contact with the Chinese. There were tens of thousands of them working as cheap labor building the railways.
He usually, though not always kept clear of the police. But an opportunity came when he rescued a Chinese man who was being mugged – a very unusual thing for a white man to do. His name spread throughout the Chinese community in Edmonton. As a result he became an arbitrator for disputes, and was enrolled as a Commissioner for Oaths for the Chinese laborers. His name reached Dr Sun Yat Sen, leader of the Chinese Revolutionary Movement, and later the First President of China, who was in Canada to raise funds for his Movement.
According to Morris he was taken on as a bodyguard for Sun and purchaser of armaments for the revolutionaries in China. It was rumored that the man he rescued was Dr Sun himself. But even if it not true, it didn’t do Morris’ reputation any harm.
Sun returned to China and Morris became a real estate salesman during a land boom in Western Canada. As a result he legally acquired a small fortune, and went to England to visit his family. While there he bought them a new house in Tredegar Square. Then he returned to Canada, where he staid in various businesses (some legal) until World War One broke out and he became Sergeant Cohen in the Canadian Engineers.
Morris with his parents
As luck would have it, China entered the war; her contribution being thousands of coolies sent to France to build railways! Morris said he knew a little Chinese, which was more than anyone else. So, he spent the duration in charge of the coolies, increasing his Chinese connections. Then he went AWOL, lost his sergeant’s stripes and pay, and returned to his real estate business in Canada.
But the boom had ended. So Morris spent the next two years doing an occasional deal, but mostly playing poker, and staying one step ahead of the law. Meantime he kept in close contact with the local Chinese community in Edmonton, representing them in their dealings with the authorities. He became a member of Dr Sun’s party, and a member of a Tong, in both cases the only non-Chinese to do so. A tong is a kind of secret society. Meanwhile he stayed in touch with Dr Sun.
In 1922 an opportunity came, when the Northern Construction Company wanted to build a railway in China and they needed a contact man. Morris fit the bill perfectly and sailed there, where he soon made contact with Sun, who engaged him as his bodyguard. The railway deal didn’t come off but Morris was now an official in China. Given the rank of Colonel, he then trained Sun’s bodyguards.
He was also involved in setting up the first Military Academy in China at a place called Whampoa. It was about this time that he first met Chou en Lai, who later became Mao Zedung’s Foreign Minister. Morris was also instrumental in getting rid of the Russian Communist emissary who he didn’t trust.
Morris’ period of power in China lasted all through the 1930’s and early 1940’s. Despite his rough background he was intensely loyal to Sun, who he regarded as a father figure. His honesty, loyalty and integrity might have surprised those who knew him in his earlier life.
He carried out many delicate missions for Sun, until his death in 1925. Then Morris he did the same for Sun’s wife Quinling, one of the three famous Soong sisters. She remained his close friend for the rest of his life.
The sisters, whose father started life as a Protestant Missionary, were educated in America. Another one was the wife of Chiang Kai Shek, as the
third wife of the richest man in China. Their brother, T.V.Soong, was very influential in government and a long-time associate of Morris.
In the 1930’s he became a purchasing agent for Chinese armaments, and in 1935 was promoted to the rank of General.
While he earned 4-5% on each deal, he was never able to keep any money, because he gave lavish parties in Canton and Shanghai. His hostess was a beautiful Chinese actress named Butterfly Wu.
When the Japanese invaded in 1941 Morris was in Hong Kong. They wanted him captured after he had exposed their use of poison gas in Manchuria in 1936. He might have escaped, but stayed behind to take care of Mme Sun. He was interned in Stanley Camp where he was badly beaten. Repatriated to Canada in 1942 in a special deal, he had lost seventy pounds.
After the war he visited England frequently to see his family and mine, and always came loaded with presents like nylon stockings, cigarettes, cigars, whiskey, chocolates. Things which were unavailable in post-war England.
He and I met often in my parent’s home in Manchester where I was a Resident at one of the hospitals. My father was his favorite cousin and my mother a good cook and Morris loved to eat.
He also talked a lot about China, and had married, meantime, to an attractive Jewish woman in Montreal, Judith Clarke. But the marriage didn’t last long because Morris was never home.
An older Morris Cohen
As another cousin of Morris’, Muriel Cowan2 tells it, “In 1945 he was summoned to the UN Conference in San Francisco. This was while violence was building up in Palestine. Meanwhile the five member UN Security Council was due to vote on whether the question to apportion it into two states – one Jewish and one Arab – should be put before the General Assembly. A single veto and the resolution would be dead.
It was known that the USA, the Soviet Union and France would vote for, and Britain would abstain. But the decision of the Republic of China was unknown. Meanwhile the Arab world was bringing pressure on China to veto the resolution. Zionist leaders, desperate to present their position to the Chinese delegates, were rebuffed. That’s when Rabbi Israel Goldstein, an astute member of the Zionist group, made a quick phone call to Montreal, bringing Morris to San Francisco for an emergency meeting. When he was told that the leader of the Chinese UN delegation was General Wu, Morris was amused because it was he who had made Wu a General. When he met with General Wu the next day, he showed him the newspaper article Dr Sun wrote in 1924 supporting the Zionist movement. Then the rest was history. China abstained”.
Now we return to his cousin, Dr Cyril Sherer who had emigrated from New Zealand in 1961:
I had been a doctor in New Zealand army in occupied in Japan from 1946-1948 (that’s another story in itself). Then I became a New Zealand citizen and was in practice in Auckland till we left for Israel where I’ve lived ever since.
My only contact with Morris in those years was in 1955 when he sent me a copy of the autobiography he had written with Charles Drage, a British Naval officer he had known in China. He signed it and stamped it with his name in Chinese, “Ma Kun”, this being the nearest thing to Morris Cohen in Mandarin.
Then one day in 1966 the phone rang. A very English voice said “Is this Dr Sherah? (mispronouncing my name) Dr Cyril Sherah?. I said “yes”, and then the voice said, “Are you related to General Morris Cohen?” When I said I was, I heard Morris’ familiar growl saying, “Hiya Cyril, how are ya?” I didn’t know why he was in Israel, but invited him to lunch the next day.
He was still the same old Morris, smartly dressed, good humored, and dominating the room with his presence. But what was he doing here? Out of nowhere? Which was his usual style. He hated publicity, but it seems that he was sent for by Ben Gurion, who knew him from 1946, when as the head of the Jewish Agency, he was trying to promote a business that was selling Phosphates to China. While the deal didn’t come off, Ben Gurion remembered him.
At the time we were having trouble with terrorists (called Fedayeen in those days). They dropped plastic button mines near schools especially in the Haifa area, and these mines were made in China. Kids picked them up or stepped on them and lost an arm or a leg because they were very hard to detect. Ben Gurion asked if Morris could do something about it because of his intimate contacts in China.
Not referring to it specifically, Morris did tell me quietly that he was going to meet his old friend Chou en Lai in Geneva the following week. Perhaps he quoted Dr Sun’s respect for the Jewish people because the mines stopped shortly afterwards. We never experienced them again.
Morris (he insisted on my calling him Moishe) spent a couple of hours with us. He felt very proud of Israel. He had been active in pre-State days trying to help the Haganah, and later in the War of Independence. In 1948 he approached the Israel Consul-General in Hong-Kong, Moshe Yuval, asking if Israel needed Generals. He was politely turned down.
At one time he got hold of the plans of the British Naval base at Singapore and offered them to the Irgun, a Zionist paramilitary group that operated in the then British Mandate of Palestine. The idea was to get hold of two Italian miniature submarines and blow up British warships. It never happened.
Another time, he heard about 200 British Mosquito bomber aircraft still in crates in Canada. He went to the Canadian Ministry of Defense accompanied by Sidney Shulemson, the most highly decorated Canadian Jewish war ace of World War Two. He wanted the planes for Israel. But this plan also never came off; the Canadians were willing, but Israel didn’t have the infrastructure to absorb them, and possibly the money to buy them.
He talked with me and my wife for about two hours. I asked him what he thought of Chiang Kai Shek, whom he always thought wasn’t in the same league as Dr Sun. He turned and said “Cyril, I was invited to appear on a TV program in New York a few weeks ago, and they asked me the same question. I couldn’t say what I really thought. So I looked straight into the camera and said, “Tuchas”, knowing the half the population of New York would understand”.
When the time came for Morris to leave I took him downstairs, and he said, “Cyril, are you OK? Are you happy?” I said, “Moishe, there’s a lot of things I could do but there’s noting I’d rather do” He was a little moist-eyed at that, gave me a big bear hug and walked off to the car. I never saw him again.
Then living at his sister’s house in Manchester, England, he travelled often to and from both Mainland China and Taiwan – one of the few people welcome in both places. He was the English agent for Rolls-Royce aircraft engines at the time.
He died suddenly in 1970 at age 83, and was buried in the Jewish cemetery in Salford. Representatives from both Mainland China and the Government of Taiwan attended. His tombstone is black granite. One side engraved in English and Hebrew, the other in Chinese characters.
1. British historical a custodial institution for youthful offenders..
2. Muriel Cowan, nee Viner, is a Los Angeles artist. She was born in London and, was evacuated with regularity to Wales during the WWII blitzes. Two-Gun Cohen was her Grandmother’s first cousin. Ironically, Muriel is married to Ian Cowan – formerly Cohen. His father owned “Cohen’s Newsstand” but changed the name to “Cowan” to avoid persecution by the Nazis and harm to his family.
Is yours hidden behind family secrets?
1. You were never raised a Jew, but only learned later in life.
2. Your heritage was hidden behind a wall of family secrets.
3. Maybe it was hidden behind your own denial, or both.
4. Or, you discovered a fascinating story about a relative that’s worth telling.
Please sample any or all of the ones we’ve already told:
Sharon Squires’, “A Study in Denial” (upper left)
Ilonka Alexander’s, “The Pain of Family Secrets” (center)
Frannie Sheridan’s “Never Tell Anyone!”. (upper right)
Or the very dramatic WWII stories about relatives, like…
Mark Stevens, “The German Jew Who Bombed Berlin”. (lower left) and….
Marcy Hanigan’s, “The Thirty Year Search for Mike Zanger” (lower center)
Or, my own story – the one that started my Blog: “The Day I Learned I was a Jew” (lower right)
If your story is like any of these, and you’d like to share it on my web site, please email me at ForTheLifeOfMe.firstname.lastname@example.org
I can also help you write it!
Photo of Conrad Veidt, ca 1930, attributed to Hans Grohmann.
Ever since I began this blog, back in 2013, one of the many mysteries plaguing me has been the real story behind Hans Grohmann. As a victim of history, during his short life, he seems to have played a pivotal role in one, if not two lives that I know of. Yet, even, with new information that’s recently turned up, he still remains an enigma. That’s because of the mystery that continues to surround his untimely death, and how that may have affected the lives of at least two of his close friends.
So, please follow me as we explore how all of this may have happened – and how those possibilities may have been connected in some way to why Grohmann died.
So far I’ve learned that Hans Grohmann was born in 1898, possibly in Mülheim or nearby Duisberg, Germany. He was the son of a Protestant Minister. In 1924 and ’25 he studied art at the Folkwang School of Design in Essen. Later he shared a studio in Duisberg with a friend and fellow artist, but lived with his mother, Margaret in same city.
His art involved him with the Expressionists group known as the “Young Rhinelander’s”, whose works were often part of the regular display at Johanna Ey’s gallery in Dusseldorf. Fondly known as “Mother Ey”, according to one art historian, Johanna Ey’s portrait was painted more often than that of any other woman in Germany. Grohmann was one of those contributors. But it certainly wasn’t her beauty that led to her popularity as an artist’s model.
Mother Ey as sketched by Hans Grohmann.
Most of them were also anti Nazi and members of the Association of Revolutionary Visual Artists, using their art to fend off the spread of Nazism.
But with Hitler’s successful rise to power in 1933, nearly all the artists associated with Frau Ey were denounced as degenerate.
In addition to Grohmann’s art, it’s been rumored that he was also working as a journalist and an international correspondent. But whether he was or not, he travelled a great deal throughout Europe, and was part of the Gay community.
But let’s backup. I only learned about him in 2002, when I found an old friend of my parents, who after a 60 year absence, turned up in a retirement community, about 60 miles from my home near Los Angeles.
The old friend was a woman by the name of Marlies Natzler. I found her living in Laguna Niguel, just south of us, in Orange County. She and her parents had been dear friends of my parents going back to 1933 when they all immigrated to America, shortly after Hitler became Chancellor.
Marlies’s father, Dr. Adolph Natzler, had been a world-renowned orthopedic surgeon in Germany, until the Nazi’s drove him out. Our two families remained very close, even after he passed away in 1940. A close relationship that lasted until 1944, after my mother suffered an emotional breakdown.
Dr. Adolph Natzler ca 1913.
But what does this have to do with Hans Grohmann, you ask? Well…after my chance discovery of Marlies, I made the trek down to her Orange County home where I interviewed her. Realizing that the last time I’d seen her, I was only ten years old, I knew she’d have some very important things to tell me about both her family’s history and mine. Plus her reaction the details surrounding my mother’s breakdown. So, I recorded her on videotape.
During that interview the name, Hans Grohmann, came up for the first time. That’s when I learned of the impact he had on the Natzler family. And quite possibly on more people, including a world famous German movie star.
But as Marlies recounted his story, I realized I was finding out more about his legacies than about Hans himself.
Nevertheless, those legacies were significant for the Natzlers. As an extremely accomplished artist, he had chosen to give the family a number of very expensive Japanese prints, which I assume he brought back from the Orient some time in the distant past.
Those prints also had a significant impact on me as a small child, because I remember them well from our many visits to the Natzler household. They were mainly of Japanese Samurai warriors, which used to scare the bejesus out of me at my tender age.
But even more significant for me was to find them here, on display in Marlies’s little house in Laguna Niguel, sixty years later.
What I had not remembered from way back then however, were Grohmann’s other legacies. They were represented by four large framed sketches that he had done of the Natzler family: one each of Adolph and Hedwig, plus one of Marlies as a young girl, and one simply a whimsical look at her collection of dolls and stuffed animals. I currently have three of them in my possession:
Adolph, Marlies and her dolls and stuffed animals.
During those early years, when our families were still close, I learned that they had been friends with the German actor, Conrad Veidt, through his close ties to Grohmann. And he too had emigrated from Germany in 1933. Only he went to England.
Then, to cap off our conversation about Grohmann and Veidt, Marlies gave me a photo of the two together, while Hans was sketching his friend, Conrad. Taken circa 1930, it’s the only photo I’ve ever seen of Grohmann.
Conrad Veidt having his portrait done by his friend, Hans Grohmann.
But then Marlies dropped a bombshell!
On May 26, 1933, a night when Hans had just returned home from a trip to France, he was picked up by Nazi SS guards, and taken to the nearby woods, and
summarily executed. But not satisfied with their act of savagery, the SS guards then called Hans’s mother, Margaret, and told her to come and get the corpse
Poor Margaret, in her distraught condition, could do the only thing she could think of, and called her friends, the Natzlers, who lived nearby in Mühlheim. She asked Dr. N. to please come and get the body of her beloved son out of the woods.
Not that it made any difference, but the official cause of death was “Suicide”!
This for the Natzlers remained the most appalling legacy of all that Grohmann left the family. But there was more…
Possibly due to Dr. Natzler’s friendship with Hans, a short time later he was notified by some colleagues that the Gestapo wanted him. But for what, we don’t know. However, it seemed serious enough that the Catholic Nuns at his hospital in Mühlheim, where he was head of Orthopedics, hid him and his family long enough to allow him finish his commitments before fleeing the country with his wife and daughter.
Natzlers emigrating to the U.S. l-r Adolph, friend, Marlies and Hedwig
Was there a connection? Or was he wanted for other reasons? Hard to believe there could be other causes, because he had brought worldwide fame to Germany and German medicine as a result of his breakthrough discoveries in the use of orthopedic techniques treating broken bones and amputated limbs.
These were techniques that he developed as a German Army medical officer during WWI, where he had spent years treating the severe physical damage sustained by thousands of German soldiers in the front lines, during the many horrific battles of the War.
Dr. Natzler’s new walking cast technique.
But what had Hans done, or written about, or whom had he possibly consorted with, that would motivate the Gestapo to interrogate and/or arrest Dr. Natzler? While the complete truth will never be known, there are some possible reasons for his murder.
As an artist, and possible journalist, Hans was critical of the Nazis, plus he was gay, which under Hitler, was already against the law. But I find that explanation rather limited, because we really don’t know of anything that he could have done wrong in the few months since Hitler’s rise to power. At least not enough to murder him. Plus so many of his contemporaries and fellow artists, had the same or greater antipathy toward Hitler and his Nazi thugs…and many were Jews. Yet most had been immune during those early months.
Having only been in power since January 1933, the Nazi’s were just beginning to torment the Jews and political dissidents. But Hans wasn’t even Jewish. And as a political dissident, while he certainly ran the risk of being arrested and put in a concentration camp for awhile, he shouldn’t have been murdered.
But maybe the real answer had to do with his friend, Conrad Veidt.
As a very popular German film star, Veidt was very much on the world’s stage, and anything he did had tremendous impact on world opinion. And like Hans, Conrad was also critical of the Nazi’s. He had, in fact, taken on a couple of movie roles in which he played sympathetic Jews. And that absolutely infuriated Hitler to the point that he was put on their death list….for awhile.
But then wiser minds prevailed when they realized that killing Veidt would only bring world wide scorn and derision to the Third Reich. So, he was removed from the list, and allowed to leave his homeland and emigrate to England safely. But not without a lot of red tape to overcome before he could make it happen.
“Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” – Cesare. Best known in U.S. for “Thief of Bagdad” – Jaffar,
“Casablanca” – Col. Strasser
Ironically, his final act of defiance before leaving for good, was to list his religion as Jewish on his emigration forms. Although he was definitely not.
While this can never be proven, I can’t help coming back to what appears to be the one legitimate reason for the Nazis to murder Conrad’s friend, Hans Grohmann. It was in retribution for his defiance against them and the one way they could show him that they were still very much in control and not to be trifled with.
The motivation is certainly there and the dates fit. Veidt left Germany for good in April, 1933 and Grohmann was executed one month later in May.
And so far no other evidence has appeared that might change my hypothesis.
* * *
 Ironically I found German Art Gallerys on EBay that were selling Gromann’s work, some of which are now on Flikr: Junges Rheijnland
 Life with an Insane Parent-Prt.2
 “Joseph Süss”, formerly “Jew Süss”, and “The Wandering Jew”
4 year old Eva with baby deer
Many of you know my cousin Eva Baruch’s story, from my film and the many posts I’ve written about her, along with many of the people who were part of her life.
But for those of you who don’t know her story, here’s a brief synopsis:
She was a cousin of mine whose life reads like a movie script, because of her numerous cliffhanger escapes, and the circumstances surrounding them.
During the mid 1930s in pre-WWII Berlin, Eva had become a successful actress in German theater, following in the footsteps of her actress/mother. But it wasn’t until 1938, when the Nazis threatened her very existence that she fled with her parents to Shanghai.
Here she began working again in both legitimate theater, and in radio, producing some anti-Nazi radio plays for the British. But suddenly wanted by the Shanghai Gestapo, she was forced to flee again just a few days before Dec. 7, 1941. That’s when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and simultaneously sealed off Shanghai from the outside world.
Landing in Australia, she was forced wait out the war there before being able to return to her Homeland. But because of her very strong anti-Nazi feelings, she chose East Berlin as the place to resume her theatrical career – only to find herself in trouble once again. It was during the violent East German Workers’ Strike, when she had sided with the workers and was severely punished by her Communist bosses.
June 19, 1953 – East German protestors throwing rocks at Russian tanks.
Now, no longer able to work in Berlin, she found her life in East Germany untenable and fled once again – only this time it was across the border to West Germany…just as the East Germans erected the Berlin Wall.
If this synopsis interests you enough that you want learn more, then please go to the end of the story to find more links. *
Now if you can imagine this irony of ironies: at one time I’d given up trying to include her story in my embryonic film. I didn’t think I could find enough background information and film footage to make her story into something that was both interesting and filmic!!!
Little did I know then how her story would take on a life of its own!
Fortunately for the sake of the project – which we later titled, “For the Life of Me”, my creative partner, Bob Sallin, pleaded with me to continue my research. After reading my very sketchy story notes about Eva, he insisted that her story HAD to be in the film.
Those notes were based partially on what little my mother told me about Eva, combined with a short but intriguing bio about her that someone sent from the University of Hamburg Library in Germany.
A portion of Eva’s bio from the library at the University of Hamburg.
But it was that short bio that excited both of us, hinting that there was much more to be revealed. If only we could find it. Bob became so intrigued by what may be out there that he convinced me to spend the next few months tracing her life, hoping that we could find ENOUGH material to fill out her story and include it in the film.
Little did we know then just how much material I would unearth. SO MUCH, in fact, that we couldn’t fit it all into the film. It didn’t take long to realize that telling her entire story would require a complete film exclusively about her.
I had already made some wonderful contacts, both here and abroad, researching my Uncle Paul’s story primarily through the resources of the Jewish Genealogical Society. So it was a natural fit for me to return to those earlier contacts to learn more about cousin Eva.
Doing that kind of research on the internet always made me feel as if I were throwing a metaphorical “message in a bottle” into the worldwide waters of the internet. Then sitting back waiting for the answers.
And sure enough, in Eva’s case, they came back quickly, washing up on the shores of my browser. Information began rolling in from JewishGen members in the U.S., Australia and Germany, all eager to help.
You can learn much more about those wonderful people who helped in Chapter #4 of Eva’s Story–“Who, What Where and How!”
It was during that time that I received a cryptic email query from someone in Australia looking to make contact with the person who’d put up a family tree on JewishGen – a tree that included Eva Baruch and her family. Since that person happened to be me, I wrote back, only to learn that the curious sender was none other than Eva’s only son, Michael. And thus he became one of my early, go-to sources of information. Some of it went into the script, but some didn’t because it couldn’t be confirmed. Then very recently some of it was. But we’ll get into that later.
Yet even after “For the Life of Me” was sufficiently finished to begin having screenings for private groups, more information continued to filter in. For example, an update from my dear friend in Celle, Germany, Ralph Hirsch. He found some new information and was eager to put me in touch with a film producer friend of his by the name of Paul Rosdy.
Rosdy was living in Vienna at the time, and had written, produced and directed a wonderful documentary about the European Jews who fled to Shanghai before WWII, and how they were able to recreate their European lifestyle during the war years.
The film also happened to show a publicity photo of Eva.
Called, “Zufluct (refuge) in Shanghai – Port of Last Resort”, his documentary was a retrospective done in the late 1990’s, long after the war was over. But during production in China he learned about Eva, and learned that in addition to her theatrical and radio work, she had starred in a film that was shot in 1941 – the refugee era.
“Port of Last Resort” DVD
In 1940, hoping to raise money for the thousands of Jews already displaced by the Nazis, the European War Relief financed a film about the plight of those who had fled from Europe to Shanghai. It had been produced and directed by a very accomplished German/Jewish filmmaker, by the name of Greta Wolfson, who was a refugee herself.
But on December 8, 1941, just as all of the principal photography was completed, the Japanese shut down the city and confiscated the film.
Learning about it years later, while researching his own film, Rosdy became obsessed with finding that footage. He sincerely hoped to finish the film and finally release it to the world as “found footage”. It would be a “feature/documentary” from that era. As a result, he spent years trying to locate it. But sadly he never found a single frame.
When, through Ralph Hirsch’s connection with Rosdy, I was able to contact him, he was eager to give me large amounts of information from his own research including magazine articles about his quest. But more important was a front-page story from a Shanghai newspaper about the filming, with numerous production photos, including Eva and her co-star. All of these taken while the movie was being shot.
Street scene with stars, Eva, center & Isaac Goldmann w/little girl.
But this revelation was way too much, and too late to fit in my film. So it became part of the backlog of information that has since gone into my blogs.
At that point, I thought Eva’s story was surely dormant.
A number of years of years went by with no new information.
Then suddenly last year, I was contacted on Facebook by a woman in Germany, who had been given a copy of my story, “Who Were the Shanghai Twelve?”.
When I responded, she sent me an email introducing herself as Sonja Muhlberger née Krips. It turns out that she was born and raised in Shanghai during WWII. And with her first hand knowledge, she had become the “go-to” source, and co-author of a number of books on the subject.
This was amazing to me because she knew every one of the players that had helped me with my original research…and more. But then she was also the bearer of the sad news that my friend and Shanghai scholar, Ralph Hirsch, had passed away.
On the brighter side, she also happened know a dear friend of mine – who is still living. And like Ralph Hirsch, was a child from Berlin, who grew up in Shanghai’s Jewish ghetto during the war
Then, if that wasn’t enough, she sent me copies of a German newspaper from 1947 that pictured Eva and her mother, Kaete’s arrival back in Berlin, after they left Australia. Sonja kept a copy of the newspaper,”Der Weg”, dated August 29, for all these years because, by coincidence, she had arrived from Shanghai, with her parents on the same ship.
Eva collecting her belongings upon arrival in Berlin. Kaete is behind her.
She also had copies of some of Eva’s more personal letters, written after the war ended. These were written when she was still living in Australia, but was estranged from her husband while caring for her young son. Some of it was personal stuff that her son, Michael, had hinted at years earlier, but couldn’t be confirmed at the time.
Among other revelations I was surprised to learn that while Eva was waiting to find out if and when her mother, Kaete, intended to leave Shanghai, and join her in Melbourne, she voiced some serious mistrust of her older brother, Barry. It appeared that while living in China during the war, an extreme ideological schism had grown between the two. Accusing him of being a “reactionary, she even suggested that he might have been a Japanese collaborator!!!
Then, just a few months ago, while re-editing my film, my editor suggested that it would be dramatic if we could find any Australian newspaper articles about Eva’s divorce. Seeing it visually would help support and clarify, what up to now was only a rumor. That the trial had become so sensational that it reached the newspapers – in part because the courts refused to allow her to take her son back to Germany with her. And in part because the trial became sensational over some of the juicier revelations.
It was a long shot since we didn’t really know if it actually did reach the newspapers. But it was certainly worth a try.
One of the first people I reached out to was Naomi Ogin, who lives in Australia. She had been an enormous help to me during my original research almost a decade ago.
This time she didn’t hesitate a beat. And her reply was almost instantaneous. She found not one but three newspaper articles, and even more personal information about Eva.
Suddenly I was overwhelmed by almost more information than I really wanted to know. Yet some of the details confirmed what I originally thought had been erroneous information from her son, Michael, a decade earlier.
Then, a couple of months ago, out of the blue, I received an email from a person who introduced himself as Wolfgang Neusch. He claimed to be related to Eva’s mother, the actress, Kaete Horsten, whom it turns out was never a Horsten, but a Schumahcher – Horsten being merely her stage name.
Kaete Horsten, the Actress
Wolfgang’s father was Kaete’s half brother. So, Kaete was his aunt and he is my half cousin…. I guess.
Nevertheless, he brings a whole new Gentile branch to the Baruch side of our family, with a long line of actors and performers reaching back to the mid-19th Century.
Ironically, while he’s connected more closely to Eva genealogically, since her mother was his aunt, he barely knew her. He was far closer to Barry, spending a large part of his adult life working in the Far East in some of the same places where Barry worked. As a result Barry became kind of a mentor to him.
Yet paradoxically Barry represented the Jewish side of the family, while his sister, Eva, through her mother, Kaete, represented the Gentile side. This is all because Barry’s mother was Lina Lowenstein, his father, Siegfried’s, first wife. While Eva’s mother, Kaete, was Siegfried’s second.
Eva and Bari ca 1926
When my mother lived with her Aunt Kaete, and Uncle Siegrfried in the Baruch’s home, she knew her cousin as “Bari”, spelled the only way I knew until Wolfgang’s recent appearance. That’s when I learned that after he fled to Shanghai, Barry never returned to Germany until many years later, and then only for visits.
Sometime, during his many years living in the Far East, he changed his name to “Bill Barry” In this international setting he no longer wanted to live with a surname that was both a biblical and Hebrew.
I’ve since received dozens of emails from Wolfgang, asking and answering countless questions that we both have. But it isn’t just the information that we’ve been able to exchange, but our family photos as well. I’ve sent him pictures of his aunt Kaete and his cousin Barry that he’s never seen. And in exchange he’s come back to me with dozens of other family photos that I’ve never seen either. The picture of Eva with the fawn is an example.
Then just a few days ago I received some photos from him that put my concerns to rest that there was a life long breach of trust between Eva and her brother. From these photos, taken in Cologne in 1965, it seems obvious that their mistrust had long since been put to rest.
Eva & Barry in a Cologne restaurant ca 1965
From all of this, I have a very strong feeling that Eva’s story will just keep on ticking.
*Other stories about Eva from my blog:
Eva Baruch – Actress, Acitivist or Spy:Chap. #1
Eva Baruch – Actress, Activist or Spy: Chap. #2
Eva Baruch – Actress, Activist or Spy: Chap. #3
Eva Baruch – Actress, Activist of Spy: Chap. #4 – Who, What, Where & How!
Maritime Monday – Escape from Shanghai
Who Were the Shanghai Twelve?
This month’s post is made up of three excerpts from “Thin Ice”, a brand new novel, and a unique proposition for both my blog and me. But after reading Frieda Korobkin’s powerful and moving story, I found that it fits in perfectly within the context of my other posts. But more important, I couldn’t help but identify with many parts of it. That’s why I asked Ms Korobkin if she would allow me to showcase some select pieces here in my blog. She graciously said, “yes”! However, there is a caveat: these excerpts are from a copyrighted work and are being reproduced with the author’s limited permission. They are NOT to be copied from my blog!
To set the stage, Herr Mayer is both a German Jew, and an industrialist in Frankfurt, Germany. Up to now he was the owner of an armaments factory, built by his father, with a history going back to the 17th century. But Herr Mayer, having recently lost his wife, has now lost his business to the Nazis. Herr Gutman is his next-door neighbor and reluctant confidant. Gutman is a newcomer from Poland, but has his own successful retail business. He’s also the father of young twins, plus two older sons and a daughter.
This is Frankfurt, Germany on November 15, 1935, during the announcement of the odious Nuremberg Laws. Herr Mayer and his loyal driver, Hans Bauer, are in his Daimler listening to the broadcast on the car radio.
Another voice replaces Hitler’s, a voice Herr Mayer also recognizes all too well, that of Reichsmarshall Goering. The new laws are announced. At first the news doesn’t seem too toxic: the Nazis have passed the Reich Flag Law, making the swastika symbol the official flag of the country. Herr Mayer begins to breathe more easily, and Hans flexes and loosens his shoulders. After all, hasn’t the swastika been blanketing the country for years now? Surely by this time the whole populace is inured to its ubiquitous presence? Surely, all the Nazis are doing by this new law is making it official, nicht wahr?
But then Goering enumerates the new ‘blood’ laws. Herr Mayer’s nausea returns and intensifies; he feels physically ill. He knows that if he listens to one more word he will vomit. He commands Hans peremptorily, with unusual severity and without his usual polite ‘bitte’. “Turn off the radio. Sofort.”
It has started to drizzle; a fine curtain of moisture descends on the Daimler’s windshield forming a design of fine Belgian lace. The streets are almost deserted of pedestrians, and they encounter few automobiles. It is as if the whole German Volk, indeed the whole of Germany, Jew and gentile alike, are behind closed doors, listening to their wireless sets. The red and black swastika flags seem to have multiplied and reproduced themselves, hanging and fluttering in every conceivable size from every window and door, so numerous that they appear dense and thick as quilts. As Herr Mayer gazes out the car window, it appears to him as if the whole of Frankfurt is wrapped in one gigantic swastika. He watches the rain gently dimpling the puddles forming in the roadside gutters, and wonders how Frau Mayor’s grave is holding up; a visit from him is overdue.
They drive the remaining distance to the apartment in grim silence, broken only by the repetitive click-clicking of the efficient Bosch wiper blades. Herr Mayer is momentarily hypnotized and lulled by their movement, like a metronome in their tedious predictability.
“Incidentally, Herr Gutman, they are taking possession of my car and driver also. Anforderung they call it. Requisitioning. So, as of next week, we will have to send our children to school by hired vehicles, as you used to do.” The two men walk on for several paces in silence. Samuel is too shocked to comment. Herr Mayer finally speaks again. “My guess is that the whole world must know by now that Germany is rearming, and that Herr Hitler no longer cares what the world thinks, which is why he doesn’t need to be secretive anymore, why he has terminated my services, why he can order whatever he needs from whichever source he wishes. After all, have you heard any protestations from any foreign government after the announcement of the 15th? I certainly haven’t”. Samuel has to admit that he hasn’t heard of any objection to the Nuremberg Laws from any foreign source. “But of course,” Samuel says, “it is more than likely that objections have been raised through diplomatic channels, which have not been released to the German public; as we all know, our press is heavily censored, nicht wahr?”
“That is a possibility, of course. Jedoch, Herr Gutman, we cannot assume anything, can we? Nor can we rely on anything or anyone. After all, when was the last time you heard of any country running to the aid of the Jews? As for me personally, I cannot assume that after seizing my business they will merely forget about me. If you remember, I told you weeks ago, didn’t I, when I first confided in you the whole Sache, that after my role is over, I will be expendable. Why would they want me around? I know too much. Not to mention,” he adds bitterly, “that I have suddenly become a security risk. A ‘heavy’ one.”
“In that case, Herr Mayer,” says Samuel, “let me urge you once again to get out of Germany while you still can.”
“That’s not possible anymore, even should I wish to,” says Herr Mayer shaking his head, “And I do not wish to.” Samuel has never before heard such utter desolation in the man’s voice. “I am glad, though, that the rabbi said what he did, that he finally seems to be facing reality; I begin to have hopes for him. I would never have suspected him capable of doing what he did today. He showed enormous courage.” Herr Mayer turns his head away from Samuel, and lowers his voice so that Samuel has to strain to hear him. He says, “I am forced to bring up another subject entirely, Herr Gutman, one that is causing me more Arger than I felt even after the death of Frau Mayer.” Herr Mayer pauses, clears his throat, and now his voice has become almost a whisper, “It concerns my daughter.”
Henrietta?” says Samuel, immediately alarmed. “Is she ill, I know we haven’t seen her for some days, what…?”
“No Herr Gutman. Henrietta is not ill. If only she were. Illness is something I know how to deal with, nicht wahr? No, she is not ill. It pains me to tell you that Henrietta has forsaken all the religious principles by which she was raised, everything that she has been taught, everything that Frau Mayer and I tried to instill in her. She has forgotten all decency and morality…” Herr Mayer bites his lip, unable for a moment to continue. Then, and it is as if he has difficulty enunciating the words, he says, “Herr Gutman, Henrietta…is with child. Sie schwangert.”
Samuel stops in his tracks, too shaken to speak. Herr Mayer has moved ahead, and Samuel hastens to catch up to him. When he finds his voice, he says, “Surely you must be mistaken, Herr Mayer, Henrietta would never…”
Yesterday he ordered a taxi and rode to the Friedhof for his monthly visit. He was disturbed to find evidence of vandalism; gravestones toppled over, swastikas defacing the slabs. He is glad that he insisted on a simple stone for Frau Mayer, set flush into the ground, making it a less tempting target. He has paid the cemetery in advance for ‘eternal’ care of the grave. Whatever that means.
As he always does at the end of each visit, he recites the mourner’s Kaddish over her grave.
They come for him under cover of darkness, after Inge has left and he is alone in the apartment. There are two of them, in Gestapo uniforms. Or perhaps they are SS. It is impossible to tell the difference, not that it matters. He is not at all surprised to see them; has, in fact, been wondering for many months what was taking them so long. Their black uniforms are dusted with snow; it must really be coming down now. They are polite, suggesting he pack some warm clothing, enough to fit into a small valise. One of them sits patiently in the Wohnzimmer, admiring the furnishings, while the other accompanies Herr Mayer into the bedroom to oversee the packing. Perhaps they are concerned that if left alone he will harm himself, or harm them, that perhaps he possesses an old Luger in his bedside Schrank. So foolish of them. If he had wanted to harm himself he has had ample time and opportunity. He lifts the photograph of his father from the Schrank, where it has resided ever since he was ordered to remove it from his office. He stares for a moment at the ever silent image, then carefully tucks it into the folds of his clothing. He hesitates over his tefillin, then slips them, too, into the valise.
Herr Mayer leaves his apartment for the last time. He raises his hand to the small, unobtrusive mezuzah affixed to the doorpost of the front door, lets his fingers linger for a moment, then brings them to his lips. The Mozart is still playing, and trails after him down the corridor, but the recording is running down, dissonant and piercing to his ears, like the screeching of a cat. They escort him down the three flights, then into the waiting black Mercedes with the ubiquitous swastika flags on the hood. The snow has begun to settle on the car. The pavement, too, is speckled white. He turns to take one last look at the apartment building. The snow is blurring his vision, but through the darkness and whirling flakes he notices chinks of light escaping from some of the windows. He lifts his head to look up at the familiar top floor where the Mayer and Gutman apartments sit side by side, but there is nothing to see. Both apartments are shrouded in blackness.
He is placed in the back seat between the two Gestapo agents; a third uniform is at the wheel.
The car begins to move.
“Thin Ice is available at Amazon.com.
Joan Durham’s Story
I was five when I first met Ruth Herzog. It was at Rumplemeyer’s in New York City, a popular after theater restaurant known for its pastries and thick hot chocolate. With its stained glass windows and ice cream sundaes, it was a magical place for children.
Ruth was a hostess there and knew my father. That was the moment when I ran to her, squealing, “Daddy, Daddy, look, a relative!” Yet I didn’t remember any of that incident for forty years, until I was reminded of it by Ruth herself – more on that later.
Rumplemayers, in the Hotel St. Moritz, NYC.
Meanwhile during the following forty years I knew nothing about any relatives other than my nuclear family….and a cousin of my father.
As a child I knew my parents came from Germany. My father was Felix O. Durham (originally Duhrenheimer.) In 1898 he was born in Mannheim, where he was raised. As an only child, he did very well in school, learning eight or nine languages including Latin and Greek.
He later studied to be a psychiatrist at Heidelberg University. After earning his doctorate, he went into private practice in Weisbaden before coming to the US in late 1938.
My mother was Else Henschke, born in Danzig in 1907 and raised in Berlin. She had a twin brother, Erich. Their mother died when they were four and, for the next seven or so years they were separated.
My mother lived with her mother’s older sisters, in Torun, while Erich lived with his uncles in the same west Prussian town. They were reunited in Berlin after their father remarried. They were twelve at the time. Her stepmother was very mean which made her teen years very difficult.
As a child all I knew about Uncle Erich was that he lived in Europe and we would occasionally send him a card, usually around the Christmas holidays.
My mother began studying with Elsa Gindler in Berlin around 1926. Gindler was considered a pioneer in the field of somatic bodywork and sensory awareness. While my mother was intrigued by the developments in psychoanalysis, she only pursued the therapeutic side of human behavior, as taught by Gindler, and never went into the psychoanalytic field. Two years later she began working with both children and adults, while still under Gindler’s tutelage.
By 1933, after the intervention of the Nazis, she no longer felt she belonged in Germany. In 1934, with Gindler’s encouragement, she immigrated to America, opening her own studio on West 57th St in New York City.
By 1940 my mother’s business was thriving. That was also the year she met my father, at a meeting of Psychoanalysts in Manhattan. They married the following year and I was born the year after on June 12, 1942. My brother, Roy, was born two years later on April 27, 1944.
Else, Joan and baby brother, Roy.
While growing up religion was rarely discussed in our family (except for somewhat derisive references by my father to individuals who he believed had Jewish surnames).
However, when I was about eight I asked my parents if I could attend Sunday school after learning that many of my friends did. I loved the social aspect of school and wanted to join them. Happily my parents agreed and for the next six or seven years I attended Sunday school at the Presbyterian Church around the corner.
I was aware that all four of my grandparents were dead. I also knew that my father had a cousin because we sometimes spent afternoons with him, his wife, and two sons.
On the other hand when my mother spoke of her family it was usually negative. This made me aware of how much pain she must have felt during all those years, after her mother’s passing and her separation from Erich, her twin brother. Once her father remarried, she lost almost all contact with her mother’s family. I came to realize why she felt abandoned and developed the attitude, “who needs them!” The loss and the trauma of losing her mother at such a young age, as well as much of her extended family, also contributed to the tremendous mistrust she felt toward her entire family in later years – themes that seemed to plague her for the rest of her life.
The twins: Else and Erich Henschke, ca 1912.
When I was a child my mother and I were extremely close. I have fond memories of coming home from school, or other activities, and sitting with her as I relayed my adventures. But this changed when I was around fourteen. That was a time when I began to deal with my own issues.
From then on, whenever we had a disagreement or something happened that she didn’t like, my mother would refer back to my teen years and tell me how awful I was, especially to her.
My father had a phobia about his health and took all kinds of drugs, depending on what he thought the problem was at the time. He could fly into a rage on the spur of the moment, which kept my parents’ relationship and our household in continual turmoil. As a result my parents slept in separate rooms.
Most mornings mother herded my brother and me into the kitchen, the room farthest away from father’s bedroom. We hoped we wouldn’t disturb his drug induced sleep. Otherwise we would invariably become the targets of his rage.
Because he was often volatile and could quickly lose his temper, mother worked to keep the two of us away from him as much as possible.
My parents did indeed have a stormy relationship. Over the years, mother attempted to leave at least three times, only to return after many promises that things would be different. She often spoke of her resentment that friends and associates couldn’t be counted on to help and/or support her.
The second time my mother tried to leave my father was quite a traumatic event for all of us, and led to a separation that lasted for a few months. I was five at the time.
The third time she left was in 1957 when I was 15. Mother and I stayed in a small hotel in midtown Manhattan. It was a dark and dreary place during an unpleasant time for me. I had been involved in an intense relationship with a boyfriend and had managed to get pregnant. But mother somehow arranged an abortion and I recovered from it there.
Then in 1958 I was sent away to finish high school in Massachusetts – an obvious attempt to keep me separated from my boyfriend until I finished high school. It worked! We broke up that fall, and I didn’t live at home again until after graduating from college in 1963. In 1964 I married someone else.
That marriage was in the chapel of the same Presbyterian church where I’d gone to Sunday school fourteen years earlier. The following year we (my husband & I) moved to Tulsa, Oklahoma for his new job. We soon learned that we were expecting our first child. By the end of 1970 we had three sons. But in 1975 we divorced.
Remaining in Tulsa, I remarried in 1977. But that marriage also ended in divorce in 1982.
By then, single again, I was feeling “claustrophobic” still living in Tulsa, and wanted to relocate. But my dilemma was whether to move to California or back to New York. I decided that moving to New York where I spent my childhood might help me find the pieces I was missing about my background and family.
Meanwhile, in spite of all the problems in their marriage, my parents remained together for almost 36 years. They had come to live in Tulsa in 1973. But by 1976 they agreed it wasn’t a good fit.
At that time my brother was living in LA and encouraged them to move to La Jolla, California, which they did in the fall of 1976. However, less than 5 months later, on February 7, 1977 my father passed away.
Then, probably because of my father’s passing, a significant event occurred. Later that summer my Uncle Erich, and his wife, came to the US to visit my mother, Else, his twin sister. I wanted to meet them for the first time and flew to La Jolla.
It was a wonderful introduction and I was actually able to spend a few minutes alone with Uncle Erich. But it seemed to make mother very uncomfortable. I attributed her anxiety to the still recent loss of my father.
Yet most of that conversation didn’t register until years later when I realized that Erich was a Communist living in East Berlin, and wrote for a Communist newspaper.
Later I reconnected with Uncle Erich in East Berlin, when we corresponded several times over the next few years. I was hoping to learn more about my family and felt that he was the best resource I had at the time.
In one of his responses, he acknowledged that his sister was certainly a complicated person. But then I got the distinct impression that he really wasn’t interested in my quest and would have preferred to stick with more intellectual and political topics.
Nevertheless, he did reveal some important information when he wrote about two of his (and my mother’s) cousins: a brother and sister named Ruth and Gerhard, both born Henschkes. Ruth was living in Manhattan and Gerhard in LA. Ruth had been an actress and dancer in Berlin before the war and married Kurt Herzog when they later met in NYC.
The actress: Ruth Herzog nee Henschke
Yes, this is the same Ruth I met at Rumpelmeyer’s so many years earlier…and then forgot about!
That information from Uncle Erich came in 1985 – a time when I was dealing with the effects of my move to NYC and its fallout on my teen-age sons.
My youngest in particular was experiencing a level of adolescent anxiety and depression that had us both in therapy. The situation led me to a therapist who was instrumental in my continuing the search for my family by encouraging me to find the answers I needed through genealogy.
She also reminded me of the discovery of my cousins, Ruth and Gerhard. That’s what led to my phone call to Ruth Herzog in April, 1988.
But it had taken three years and the encouragement of a therapist to call Ruth – a phone call that was a turning point for me, because during that call I suddenly asked her if I was Jewish. Her response was quite matter of fact.
“Of course you are!” It was as if the whole world knew, but me.
Rumplemeyer’s, July 3, 1989: Ruth Herzog’s (cntr) 80th birthday-just 15 months after THE PHONE CALL!
I was never consciously aware that both my parents were Jewish. As a child, I was too young to make the connection. Nevertheless, in the two to three years following “my discovery” I did quite a bit of reading, and started attending Friday night services at a local synagogue.
Hearing Hebrew and learning about Jewish traditions, some memories came back to me. There were definite hints during my childhood, i.e. my father lighting candles, which I’m convinced were in memory of his parents’ Yahrzeit. In addition, listening to prayers at services I realized Hebrew sounded familiar.
I also remember a time when I was about seven my brother and I were playing by our father’s large desk in our living room. We had opened drawers and found lots of papers, which made our parents so angry we never went near that desk again.
My guess is that those papers probably contained revealing information about their identity, including naturalization information and/or their change of name documents.
With much encouragement from others I began to trace my family history, only to realize how much I avoided asking questions throughout my life. And, indeed my mother continued to resist answering questions I asked even in the late 80’s and 90’s.
But during a phone conversation in 1995, my mother made a revealing and terribly sad comment. She said, “I don’t know why you ‘want’ to be Jewish! It could harm your brother and your son(s)…!”
Why in 1995 my mother felt so threatened still haunts me – it remained the case until her death at 102 in August, 2009.
I continued to work with my therapist who also motivated me to learn about Judaism and my Jewish ancestry. It’s a slow process but it continues to draw me back to the memory that changed my life, that April day in 1988 when I got the nerve to call Ruth Herzog.
I had a relationship with Ruth and Gerhard who were able to give me invaluable insight about my mother. I came to realize her behavior, which I believed I caused, actually existed before I was born.
That April day was truly a gift when Ruth answered my question: “Am I Jewish?”
But it took me until after Ruth’s death in 2005 to actually hear and relate to that little five year old girl happily calling out, “Daddy, Daddy, look a relative!!”
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: International Enclave of Foreign Intrigue!
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…”
View full post »
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:
Few Jews were Marine Corps pilots in WWII – Mike Zanger was…!
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!