Kristallnacht - the beginning of Fleeing Nazi Europe
By Sarah Goodman & Hadassa Goldberg
Sarah and sister Susan in 1938
Susan was six and a half and Sarah was two and a half on the night of Kristallnacht, November 9th, 1938. During that terrible night the Nazis came and broke all the windows of our textile store, vandalizing and destroying everything. Susan was the first one to wake up from the loud noises emanating from the store. Frightened, she ran to our parents' room to awaken them. Father had just enough time to grab his heavy winter coat and put it on over his pajamas before the Germans marched upstairs. While arresting him, they brutally pushed him down the stairs. Mother always thought his heavy coat had protected him from breaking any bones as he fell. Father was no criminal and had not committed any crime other than being a Jew.
Susan: That infamous night is still engraved in my memory. I can still hear the sound of glass, crashing and shattering; people running and screaming hysterically. Worst of all for me was seeing my beloved Father forcibly removed from our home and his sudden and painful disappearance.
Later we learned that a jealous neighbor had informed the authorities that a Jew owned our store. The Nazi Nuremberg laws had forbidden Jews to own stores. That night Father, together with many other Jewish storeowners, was arrested and imprisoned in the local jail. The next morning, Mother went to bring Father his clothing and his watch. A kind police guard told her to take the valuable gold watch home. He warned Mother that Father would soon be transferred to a work camp and there he would not be able to keep his watch. Hearing this, Mother realized that the situation was much more desperate than she had thought. In 1938, concentration camps, with their death factories, had not yet been established, although forced labor camps had been in existence since early 1933. The rumors about the work camps were horrifying and very few inmates were ever released, certainly not the Jewish ones. Mother realized she had to get Father out of prison quickly before he would be transferred to a work camp. She understood that the chances of the family surviving in Germany were almost nonexistent. It was imperative to find a way for the family to flee from the rapidly encroaching death-trap in Germany.
In order to save Susan and Sarah, Mother explored ways of sending them out of Nazi Germany. World War II had not yet begun and Belgium, which borders Germany, was still considered a safe haven. One of Fatherís first cousins, Fischel Frisch, lived in Antwerp, Belgium. He and his wife Pauline had two daughters, Betty and Denise, who were about the same age as Susan and Sarah. After Mother telephoned the Frisches, they agreed to help her. It was arranged that Betty and Deniseís nanny would travel to Germany with the Frisch girls' valid Belgian passports. When the nanny arrived, Mother entrusted Susan and Sarah to her care and prayed that the three of them would arrive safely in Belgium. Thus the two little girls left Germany using the names and passports of their Belgian cousins.
This nanny, whose name we do not know, was very courageous in consenting to travel with Susan and Sarah while using their cousinsí passports. Had the Nazis uncovered this ruse it would have meant certain death for all three of them. She willingly took two strange and frightened little girls on a long train ride. For the two girls it meant leaving their mother after witnessing their fatherís arrest and subsequent disappearance. It also meant going on a trip with a complete stranger.
The Nazi guards on the train and at all the check points within Germany were told that the 'Belgian' girls had been brought to Germany to be treated by a medical specialist and were now returning home. On the train ride, it was Susan who kept Sarah quiet so that no one would hear them speak German instead of Flemish (the language spoken in Belgium).
Mother's decision had been very audacious and difficult. She had no guarantee that her daughters would arrive safely in Belgium. Father was still imprisoned and who knew if she could succeed in getting him released. The future was very uncertain and Mother prayed that the family would soon be reunited in Belgium.
The nanny and the girls arrived safely in Antwerp and were received very warmly by the Frisch family. They had heard of all the stringent anti-Semitic activities in Germany and feared that the girls would soon be orphans. Consequently, they tended to pamper them, which aroused the envy of their little cousins, Betty and Denise. Adding to their trauma, the two girls had to be separated from each other. The Frisch home was too small to accommodate them both. Sarah stayed at Fischel Frischís home, and Susan was sent to live with Fischelís brother, Max Frisch, his wife Anna, and their two children.
In the meantime, Mother, who was left alone in Dortmund, was bravely struggling to cope. The Nazis had ransacked the store and it was bolted shut. Many of their customers had bought on credit and still owed money. Mother invested a lot of time visiting customers in their homes in an effort to collect the money. Some of the people paid, some stalled, and some boldly refused. Undaunted, she continued collecting as much cash as she could.
In the decades before World War I, America was flooded with immigrants. To curb the growing influx of foreigners, the American government set up a quota system for entry visas. These were allocated annually according to different percentages, allotted for each country of origin. Before Kristallnacht, Mother, Susan, and Sarah had received visas for America since they were all born in Germany. Father was refused one, since he was born in Poland and the Polish quota had already been filled for that year. Our parents did not want to be separated, so Mother did not make use of our American visas. By the time Father was arrested these visas had already expired. Mother then took our expired visas to a forger who altered their dates and also forged one for Father.
With the forged visas as proof of their intent to emigrate, Mother went to the prison authorities. She showed them the visas and also paid the German police a substantial bribe. At that time, Jews who possessed legal papers were allowed by the Germans to emigrate. As a result of Motherís ingenuity and courage, Father was released just in time. When she arrived at the prison to demand his release, he was already standing in the prison courtyard. He was lined up with the prisoners who were forced onto trucks to be driven to one of the infamous German work camps. Father had been imprisoned for six weeks for the crime of being a Jew!
Once Father returned home, our parents began to seriously plan their escape from Germany. They hoped to reach Belgium and be reunited with their daughters, as quickly as possible. Although they possessed false visas for America, they had no travel permits for traveling within Germany. They contacted an underground organization that helped Jews escape and received from them the name of a man who helped smuggle Jews over the border into Belgium. The man told them that he was no longer involved in this dangerous activity. Mother then offered him payment in exchange for information about any other smuggler. Reluctantly, he gave them the name of a truck owner who was helping Jews without travel permits. This man would smuggle them through the Nazisí many roadblocks and bring them to the Belgian border. The problem was that the truck driver lived in a different canton in Germany. Our parents had to travel by train in order to meet him. There was no way for them to do this legally as the Nazis did not routinely issue papers to the Jews. Train tickets could not be purchased without these permits. The German Gestapo was everywhere, constantly checking all the passengersí documents and travel permits.
Our parents managed to sneak into the train station undetected by the Gestapo. After locating the train they needed they stealthily crept under it. Long horizontal bars were affixed to the underside of the train cars and while the train was in motion, they firmly hung on to the bars with their arms and legs. This was a very difficult and daring feat that would have been impossible had they been accompanied by their two young daughters. The journey was extremely dangerous and took many hours. The Gestapo frequently stopped the trains to check the passengersí papers. After the harrowing and exhausting train ride our parents successfully left the train station without being caught. They then met the truck owner at the designated meeting place.
The truck was loaded with logs and had a concealed compartment behind the driverís cabin. This compartment was barely large enough for four people to stand rigidly upright side by side. Concealed together with our parents were two young Jewish girls, complete strangers to them. The four escapees stood silently without any space to move in the compartment. The Gestapo stopped the truck at every internal German border. They searched the truck and inspected the driverís travel documents. Suspecting that perhaps people were hiding in the truck, the Nazis randomly shot into it. Miraculously, not one of the four smuggled passengers was killed by the shots, or even wounded.
All four of them had paid the driver in full before starting on this risky journey. This did not prevent him from demanding more money after each safe internal border crossing. When our parents' funds were exhausted they paid with pieces of Motherís jewelry. When the two young girls also ran out of money, Father paid for them as well. He did not have the heart to abandon them alone and penniless, on a strange road, during such perilous times. After almost a full day of traveling, they finally reached an unguarded area in the forest near the border. The four exhausted refugees walked undetected across the Belgium border into freedom. Although their flight through Germany was hazardous and frightening, they were neither discovered nor harmed. After safely crossing the border together, the two young girls gratefully thanked our parents for their help and went their own way. Within Belgium permits for traveling were not needed, and there were no police barriers to cross. Our parents quickly made their way to Antwerp, to the Frisch home, to be reunited with their daughters, Susan and Sarah. The girls had been separated from their parents for three long months. At first, Sarah did not recognize Mother, and when she finally did she burst out crying and clung to her with all her might. Seeing this, Father realized just how traumatic the enforced separation had been for his young daughters. This caused him to come to two major decisions, which he was determined to try to fulfill:
1) The family should never again be separated!
2) The family should never remain in a country invaded by Nazis!
We left Belgium after a year and continued on our way through Europe. It took us a long time to cross France, Spain and after many further miracles we reached Portugal in September, 1940.
In Lisbon, Portugal, we were lucky to find a modest apartment and Susan again attended school. She was only eight years old and would now be studying and learning her fourth new language! Father could not always find regular work. Between odd jobs he occupied himself with his stamp collection, which he had managed to smuggle out of Germany. The money he received now and then from the sale of a valuable stamp helped us survive. Our parents frequently sold pieces of Motherís jewelry to supplement their income.
Susan: We spent about ten months in Portugal and I have many pleasant memories of our time there. I know that for our parents it was very difficult. I went to school and learned Portuguese, which I still understand to this day. I remember that year spending the High Holidays and Succot in Lisbon and accompanying Father to a beautifully decorated succah. I was greatly impressed with the fresh fruit hanging from its beams.
We lived on a mountainside with a steep incline and the streets were constructed as steps. The houses were built with their entrances facing the steps. Vehicles could not be driven on these streets. The women walked up and down the steps, carrying baskets on their heads from which they sold fresh produce and fish.
Our parents saved money while they planned our escape from the European inferno. America would not admit any more immigrants, and the British closed the borders into Palestine and England for Jews. This did not deter Father from constantly visiting every consulate possible in his fervent hope of obtaining visas for us to any country off the European continent. At the Cuban Consulate, Father finally received Cuban visas for the whole family. With visas in hand, he spent many days and weeks at the port searching for a boat with legal passage to Cuba. Our goal was to reach America where we had many relatives, and Cuba was to be a temporary step along the way.
Father rushed home one day, after buying four tickets on a ship which was sailing to the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. We quickly packed our meager belongings and within a short time arrived at the shipyard ready to embark. When we tried to board the ship we discovered to our horror that our places had also been sold to other refugees who had already boarded the ship. Not only had our tickets become worthless but we also lost the money Father had paid for them. Again we found ourselves trapped in Europe and penniless. When Father saw the ship sailing without us he felt desperate. He knew that time was running out and it was imperative for us to flee Europe. The Nazis were invading one country after another and passage on the seas was almost nonexistent. To add to their worries, Mother was in an advanced stage of pregnancy.
Then one day, our parents met a distant relative in Lisbon. They barely recognized each other since their appearances had changed so much as a result of all their hardships and sufferings. This relative helped Father obtain the necessary funds for new tickets for another future sailing. Father decided that the family would have to remain near the shipyard. This enabled us to board the next available ship without wasting precious time running back and forth from our residence to the port. We could not risk losing our places again. We moved from our rented apartment to a dingy hotel room near the waterfront. The conditions in the hotel were terrible and for a few weeks we all shared one small room.
Father succeeded in booking passage on the last legal ship that sailed from Lisbon to Cuba. After this, legal traffic on the seas ceased due to the war. The Germans were torpedoing all foreign ships, which made it highly dangerous to sail. We were fortunate in finding places on the ship, and this time we boarded as soon as we paid our passage.
Susan: I think our boat was named the Sera Pinta. I also have memories of the trip across the Atlantic Ocean to Cuba. I looked out to sea most of the time. The bunks on the boat were stacked five decks high and I remember sleeping somewhere in the middle.
Later we heard about the tragic fate of the ship on which we had lost our original passage. That ill-fated ship was torpedoed by the Germans and sank, with all its crew and passengers!! Once again we felt the hand of God guiding and protecting our small family.
* * *
It took our family two and a half years to cross war-torn Europe until we reached a safe haven in Cuba. Hadassa is the third sister to Sarah and Susan born in Cuba. We fled from Germany through Belgium, France, Spain and Portugal while learning four new languages. We are thankful to God for His guiding hand in saving our family, time and again, from near-certain death. We are also very grateful to our parents for their incredible insight, courage, strength, perseverance, faith and wisdom. They quickly realized that it was vital to not only escape from Europe but also to keep the family united. Mother and Father did everything in their power to accomplish this. Despite constantly being on the run, they still had to provide food, clothing, and shelter for the family. Money was needed for transportation, false documents, and bribes. This meant they had to accept any menial work available to them. This traumatic and stressful experience forged our parents into a united front against the raging world around them with one burning goal: to survive and to save their daughters. No doubt their strong determination was an important factor in our survival.
During our childhood, we saw our parents working together as a unit with mutual love and understanding. All their decisions were made jointly and throughout the years we saw them support each other in countless ways. Our home was filled with true Shalom Bayit (domestic harmony), Torah learning, chesed (kindness), hachnasat orchim (hospitality) and tzedakah (charity).
May we be blessed by God to follow their indomitable spirit and fulfill their exemplary ideals. May their memory and their deeds be forever perpetuated and may their spirits guide our children and grandchildren to continue in their footsteps.
Lest We Forget...
from the June 2011 Edition of the Jewish Magazine