Below are excerpts from my Austrian father-in-law’s written account of what he and his family endured during World War I, World War II, and the Holocaust. Not only did he and my mother-in-law survive the ravages of the Holocaust, but when he got to Ellis Island, he was drafted into the U.S. Army (Signal Corps Intelligence), stormed the beaches of Normandy on D-Day, and liberated concentration camps. Additionally, because he was German-speaking, he interrogated the captured Nazis. His harrowing story, which I have read untold times, still haunts me and serves as a reminder that history indeed repeats itself. Over and over again. (My mother-in-law was a hero in her own right. But that’s a whole other story.)
And even though it’s over 4,000 words, I hope you read it. I’m not sure what you’ll get out of it, but what it taught me is that decision-making should not always be left to those in charge.
If you’re not up for a 4,000 word read, please at least scroll down to the last few sentences at the end of this post beginning with my father-in-law’s question: “Now finally, what should all this mean for you children?”
Where to begin?
I was born in Vienna—on the 16th day of January 1913—which was still within the times of the Austrian-Hungarian monarchy.
My parents were both born in Kolomea (in Galicia). Galicia was then part of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire, which was huge. It consisted of about 45 million people. There were Hungarians, Slovaks, Bosnians, Ruthenians, Bohemians, Slovenians, Czechs, Croatians, Poles, and Ukrainians.
Kolomea was somewhere between Romania, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary (they all meet there, near the Carpathian Mountains).
My grandparents had eight children—seven boys and one girl and owned a big farm where they grew wheat, barley, and corn, and had a lot of horses and cattle.
In July 1914, the Germans and Austrians started a war against the Allies, i.e., the French, Belgians, English, Italians, and the Russians.
When World War I came, my father became a sergeant with the medical corps and was sent to the Russian front. My mother was left alone with me in Vienna. My father sent her support whenever he could. He used to send us flour and some other provisions from the army, but it wasn’t enough, and we didn’t have much to eat.
The Germans were allied with Austria and Turkey and they were a very strong military power. They won a lot of battles between 1914 and 1918 and they would have won the war, but America finally came to the rescue of the Allies and helped them to win the war in 1918.
Austria was then dismembered into many different independent states; parts of Austria became Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Yugoslavia, and Romania.
The small remainder of Austria proper became the Republic of Austria—a democracy with free elections and all the other freedoms of a parliamentary constitution.
My father returned after a long, long time, and when he came back, he was very sick with tuberculosis. He started to regain his health when he returned from a sanitorium.
All of my father’s brothers became soldiers except for the two youngest who stayed at the farm in Galicia. They were murdered along with his father and sister by the anti-semitic Cossacks under General Petljura. When these Petljura bands were unsuccessful when looking for Communists, simply broke into Jewish homes, like the farmhouse where my relatives lived.
They first asked for liquor and food, and then they wanted to rape my aunt. When my two uncles tried to resist, the band called them communists and just butchered them—I mean, they cut them apart and then took everything of value and fled.
There was a newspaper article in a Polish newspaper from which my father learned about this tragedy. He took a train there and gave them a Jewish burial. When he came back to us, he was absolutely out of his mind and heartbroken.
My father once showed me a letter which he had received from his brother David, from Soviet Russia. Uncle David, too, was in the Austrian army, and he also went to Russia like my father, but he was captured by the Russians, and he became a military prisoner. After the revolution in 1917, he joined the Bolsheviks. He became functionary in the Russian Communist Party, and the letter was written from Tashkent near Crimea. At that time, correspondence between Soviet Russia and Austria was allowed; I don’t know whether it was censored or not.
My uncle warned my father not to let me become a businessman and not even a lawyer or doctor—I should start learning a trade like a carpenter, tailor, shoemaker because the Communist Revolution which had started in Russia would spread all over the world and there was no hope for success for humanity unless the proletarians took over the economy, to avoid wars and so forth. No more chauvinism, race hatred, and suppression of the proletariat.
Well, I didn’t want to listen to this propaganda; I felt that I wanted to be a businessman.
My father worked very hard, like seven days a week, and had several retail stores in Vienna. He didn’t want to let me start in his place so he suggested that I become a volunteer in a very big silk farm in Vienna. I was there for about one and a half years learning how to buy and sell silks.
I became quite educated in the theories of Socialism or Communism, which was for us the same thing.
I was sort of a radical then. I took part in actions and demonstrations against the Conservative-Fascist government we had in Austria. One time, during a big street riot, the police arrested my friends and me and put us in jail for a couple of days.
My father, the patriotic war veteran, was very upset about this and told me that I couldn’t do this anymore because the Jews, as a powerless minority, couldn’t and shouldn’t oppose the authorities.
I later changed my mind about politics. I remained a liberal, however, and I always disliked the reactionary viewpoint. I began to get more interested in Jewish causes.
Adolph Hitler, who was a rather uneducated veteran of the Austrian army, settled in Munich. In 1923 he was arrested, however, to his terrorist followers, he became a martyr, and also, with the trend for most German people to unite, he became quite powerful.
It was about 1929, and the economic disaster—the stock market crash in America spread its waves to Europe. The economically weaker nations, like Germany and Austria, were most affected by this crash, especially Austria, which was still very weak from its inception on.
There was more and more unemployment. The dissatisfaction of the proletarians made them become more radical both to the left and the right.
At this time, we still had democracy with two major parties—the Social-Democratic Party (proletarians, intellectuals, liberals, and Jews), and then there was the Christian Social Party. They were under the influence of the church and the rightist circles, like bankers, industrialists, and big landowners.
As time went on, however, the Social-Democratic party in Austria was outlawed. With Mussolini’s support, the Catholic Church and the rightist reactionaries became more powerful by suppressing the left opposition
The socialists were well organized and had their own powerful military organization, the Schutzbund, with weapons and guns. We thought we would be able to defend democracy in Austria.
The rightists outlawed many freedoms that Austrians had gained since their revolution from the Monarchists in 1918 and influenced and cajoled their followers to stamp out the free expression of art, theater, and literature.
One can see that ten years before the Nazis took over Austria, the Austrians were well indoctrinated with much of the Nazi philosophy.
In 1933, with all different kinds of manipulations, Hitler took over the government in Germany. Anybody who would then read his book, Mein Kampf, should have been aware that there would be a persecution of all minorities and all oppositions and mainly the Jews because it was very easy to strangulate a weak minority like the Jews, who had been hated in Europe for most of their history.
The Austrian army was organized to destroy the opposition, and, in addition, a fascist political organization called Heimwehr was formed. They, with guns, tanks, and artillery, bombed the workers’ apartments and homes and the Social-Democratic offices in 1934.
All of a sudden, there was no more opposition and no more democracy in Austria.
Until then, we had five or six daily newspapers, freely expressing opinions from the left to the right. But now there remained only two. Every other was closed down as a danger to the government.
Chancellor Dolfuss, a Catholic World War I veteran, a little stinker who was no taller than five feet was quite suppressive with more censorship, internment camps for leftists and liberals, and with persecution, there was no more opposition.
The trend from Germany was such that the Nazis, although they were not legal in Austria (they were outlawed), got more and more influence in Austria. You must remember that the National Socialist idea in Germany started way back in 1919, when the militaries, the generals, and the rightist politicians in Germany wanted to revenge themselves for the losses they had from the first World War.
It was now 1935-1936, and somehow, I had the feeling that there was impending danger. We saw our comparative freedom as Jews in Austria and Central Europe shrinking and threatening to collapse. It was a very dismal future for a young Jew.
In 1937 there was a phone call from a man who spoke with a strange accent. He said, “I am here with my wife on the way to Kolomea. We are Americans now and live in New York City. I am going to Kolomea for Kever Ovis (to visit the graves of our parents). I usually make it a habit to look up in the telephone book to see if I have any family here, and I came across your last name in the phone book.”
We found out that Max was a distant relative. During Max’s short visit to Vienna, we did discuss my possible emigration to America. Max said that he, if necessary, would cooperate with us and help us, especially me, to come to America, and he also warned us of the impending danger of the Nazis who were going to take over Austria. My father hesitated, and so did I because we wanted to stay together.
In addition, the stories that we had heard about the tough life in New York and Chicago scared me. We had seen all those gangster films, and we didn’t think that America was safe and civilized enough, and I was afraid to leave. Max and his wife, Sylvia, went back to America.
Until 1938, I had a very carefree and good life. Economics in Vienna were not so good, but I had the advantage of having a pretty good financial life—I had everything that a young man my age would want.
During the period of 1933-1938, the Germans kept conniving the West.
First, they terrorized and then promised peace—while advancing bit by bit. Europe was scared of Hitler and wanted to maintain peace under the illusion that Hitler would go only so far and then he would stop.
In January 1938, I went to a Zionist dance in the Hotel Metropole. There were quite a lot of unattached girls, and then I saw her—standing in a blue satin evening gown, blonde, gorgeous, great figure, beautiful smile, charming, except there was one problem.
I just couldn’t get near her. There were so many young men always surrounding her. She was flirting with them. One would engage her to dance and then another while my eyes were peering out for her. As I wandered around on the dance floor, I asked another young lady to dance. As I danced with her, my eyes were always looking for that blonde girl that I had in my mind. The girl I danced with noticed this and said, “Hey, you don’t really want to dance with me, do you?”
I asked her why she had asked that, and she said that she couldn’t help but notice that I kept looking at that blonde girl. I said, “As a matter of fact, I wouldn’t mind dancing with her.” She said this was no problem, and she took my hand and reached into those young men and said, “excuse me, excuse me, excuse me,” pushed through and introduced me to the blonde.
She said to her, “This young man has been looking at you for quite a while and would like to dance with you but just can’t get to you. Why don’t you give him a break?”
And that blonde was mommy—that was Fritzi.
She smiled at me and said, “Why not?”
As we danced, mommy told me that the other girl was her sister, Rita. Then I understood why Rita was so interested in introducing me to mommy. After the dance, I walked her home together with Rita.
She came from an Orthodox family. My mother made some inquiries about them and found out they were a very big family which had immigrated to Vienna during World War I from a town in Poland called Sienava.
When I first met Fritzi’s father I was quite shocked because usually, I didn’t go around in Orthodox circles like they came from. He wore a beard and peyes. Then we found out that mommy had, besides Rita, five more sisters and one brother. This was rather unusual for me because I was an only child.
Despite her background, Fritzi was quite worldly. She was very progressive and absolutely glamorous. When I went out with her, everybody admired her and envied me. My friends congratulated me on my wonderful choice, and I was really showing off with her.
Now we were in February 1938, and the political situation in Vienna and in Austria became quite threatening. We understood that the Nazis in Germany made all different kinds of diplomatic pressures to convince Austria to become part of Germany. They blackmailed our politicians and provoked all different kinds of riots and demonstrations. The Nazi party was still illegal by then, but they got fresher and fresher. They bombed Jewish stores and beat up Jewish students at the Viennese University. The police ignored this and looked away. Later on, we found that most of the police were Nazi also.
It became quite unbearable. However, I hardly realized how bad it was already. We were still naively optimistic for a miracle.
But all of a sudden, our world crashed in. Adolph Hitler and his Nazis kept all their promises.
He summoned our Chancellor Kurt Von Schuschnigg and terrorized him and forced him to make all different kinds of concessions and compromises. Schuschnigg believed in Austria and independence. He wanted to rely on the support of the western nations like France and England—that they would help him out—and he also still trusted that Mussolini in Italy would support Austrian independence. His Catholic regime organized demonstrations against the Nazis and planned to have elections, but under further pressure, elections had to be called off.
Then, on March 10, 1938, Vienna woke up to a big fever of Austrian patriotism—thousands had been painting Austrian signs for Austrian independence. The next day, the 11th of March, we saw more and more Nazis coming out of the closet, showing openly their swastikas, which were supposed to be illegal.
We were listening to the radio, all of us were very anxious because we didn’t know what would happen to us. But we had always the hope that somehow, we would get out of this. Finally, Chancellor Schuschnigg made an announcement on the radio that he could no longer resist the brute force anymore. He didn’t want to fight the Germans because, after all, we were all Germans, and he signed off with the wish, “God save Austria.” Then the radio played military marches and hymns and the Austrian national anthem.
That night, we hid in our apartment and then heard a lot of noise outside.
About midnight, we saw Nazi bands marching around in the streets, yelling “Ein Volk, Ein Reich, Ein Fuhrer.” They yelled, “Deutschland erwache—Judah verrecke!” meaning “Awake Germany, Perish Judah.”
During this night, practically all the Austrian goyim became Nazis. Most of our goyishe friends turned around their coat labels under which they had hidden the Nazi swastika all the time. They were called members of the “Bluts Orden” (members of the Blood Order)—they had been illegal Nazis for years already.
My wish to leave Vienna immediately became more intensive, and I discussed this with my parents and with Fritzi. We were not married yet, and we agreed to wait a little while until the whole thing possibly would calm down.
But it never calmed down.
The situation became more ominous and more dangerous for all of us. The Nazis used to round up people on the streets and send them to the police first for interrogation and then to concentration camps, of which we had some already in Austria.
I was hiding out in our apartment, and my father went to the business to save whatever was possible. One day, the Nazi S.A. came into our main store in Vienna, and they were looking for the Jude. My father came out smiling politely, as he usually was, and said, “Gentlemen, what can I do for you?”
They told him to take some paint and go out and paint on the windows “Jude” because the Aryans were to boycott all the Jewish establishments. My father was looking for one of our apprentices to take a paintbrush. He didn’t want to fight these young Nazis.
“Dirty Jew,” they said, “you are going to paint with your fingers.” My father really broke down and invited them into his office. They went with him, and he showed them a large framed picture on the wall of him as an officer in the Austrian army with all his insignias and medals. “I am an Austrian veteran, and I fought in the war for the fatherland together with your fathers, and I wish you would have a little respect for that.” They beat him up and said, “Never mind, Jew, you go out and paint.” He was forced to do it. When he came home in the evening, he broke down in tears in front of us. He had never imagined that this could happen to him.
I was still hiding out most of the time, and I was joining all different kinds of groups to be able to emigrate. Then the Nazi police arrested my father and took him to the Gestapo headquarters in the Hotel Metropole—the same place where Fritzi and I had first met two months before.
At that time, we had a gentile lawyer. I went up to his office and told him that my father had been arrested. The lawyer confessed (bragged?) to me that he had been a member of the Nazi party all along for many years and had quite a few influential friends there, with the police, and with the Gestapo too.
He made a few calls and then came out and reported to me that my father was in a concentration camp. If I gave him 5,000 shillings (about 5,000 dollars), he would be able to get my father released. I went home to my mother and we took out the money that we were hiding for our escape.
When father returned to our home, he was pale and terrorized. He told us that they had beaten him up and forced him to all different kinds of confessions. We sat crying together, and my parents said to me, “Well, this is it. You have to leave.”
My Uncle Solomon in France promised to help me come to France. I went to the French Consulate every few days, but there was no visa to go to France. In the meantime, I was very attached to Fritzi already. I said to her, “If I can’t go the legal way, then I have to cross the borders illegally, but first we have to get married.” We got married on July 31st, 1938. We had to do it then because there were certain marriage laws that were going to be changed under the Nazis and that was the last day Jews could marry.
I kept hiding out in my apartment, being afraid of the Nazis, until we finalized our plans. In August, I was going to leave with mommy, but she said she would wait a while—I should prepare first and try to cross the border into France. Then she would follow and meanwhile take care of my parents and her parents.
Mommy found and introduced me to three youngsters, one girl and two young men who were also trying to escape from Vienna to the West.
There were not too many Jews who had the guts to leave that way. I embraced mommy tearfully for the last time, and we rolled on toward the German border. That was at the beginning of September 1938.
The border between France and Germany was mobilized. There were a lot of troops on both sides. I figured it would not be such a good idea to cross this border. Further north, there was another way to go to France via Luxembourg. Its eastern border is Germany, its northern border is Belgium, and the rest is surrounded by France. We would be able to get to France via Luxembourg.
I had enough courage to walk up with my three other young companions to the German border police there. We introduced ourselves with our Nazi German passports. This German passport was issued to me by the Nazi Government in exchange for my previous Austrian passport.
Across the passport on the first page was stamped a big “J” so that everybody would know that I was Jewish. That passport is still in my possession. Mommy also had this type of passport. It was not very easy to get such a passport in Vienna; one had to submit to the authorities that all taxes were paid. Only then would one get a passport after a long wait and a lot of palm greasing.
It was this passport that I showed the German border authorities. I explained that we wanted to go join our relatives in France. They laughed and told us that we’d never be able to make it there, but we were able to convince them.
We told them, “What do you need us for anyway? You should be glad to get rid of the Jews. After all, your Fuhrer said that all the Jews should leave Germany.” Well, maybe they were just policemen and not really Nazis yet, and they let us go.
Late in the afternoon, we walked across the border into Luxembourg. I asked my young friends if they wanted to go to Belgium, and we all agreed we had to get out of Germany—so we went.
In September 1938, it was quite warm yet. As we hiked towards the Belgian border—there, all of a sudden, a Belgian border policeman stopped us and spoke to us.
He said in French, “Don’t kid around with me! I know exactly where you want to go!” Then he said, “I want you to remember this! I pass by here every hour on the hour. I have rounds to make and watch the border so that illegal aliens will not be able to cross the border into Belgium. I’m passing by here again in one hour, and if I see you here, I’m going to arrest you and send you right back to the Germans.”
Then he pointed toward the northwest and said, “This is where you go into Belgium. I’m telling you to just disappear from here. I don’t want to see you here anymore, and if in one hour you’re still here, you’ll be sorry!”
At this point, I had the impression that this guy was maybe not a human being. I had somehow felt that he was sent to us, like an angel.
I don’t know why I deserved that, but during our flight from Hitler, there were many more miraculous incidents with these “malochim” (angels); with these “scheliachim” (messengers from G-d). This happened quite often, and every once in a while, I had a dream that these helpers were really sent from above to help us.
In the middle of the night, we arrived in Antwerp. The first thing I did as soon as I arrived in Antwerp was to hire a “guide” for Fritzi to come to join me.
I wrote to Fritzi that she should come to the German border from Vienna and bring some money with her and some jewels and whatever else she could get out of Germany, and she would get help to cross the border.
We were not allowed to take more than ten schillings with us, which in today’s value would be about ten dollars. Jewelry and such had to be smuggled out from there. In 1938, it was not as strict as it was later, and I succeeded in bringing some valuables with me, and so did Fritzi.
A few days later, Fritzi arrived in Antwerp. She had her own exciting story to tell—how she crossed the border with four youngsters, but that is something I would like her to describe.
We lived from about September 1938 on, in Antwerp. Of course, our biggest desire was to help our parents and our other relatives.
Fritzi had six sisters and one brother. The oldest, Annie, had left Vienna years before. A rich manufacturer from Havana, Cuba, was on a visit in Vienna, fell in love with her, married her, and brought her to Cuba. Later on, Susie followed her to Havana, too. Then Elise, who was also a very beautiful girl, met a very good-looking young man, married him, and went with him to Palestine in 1936. Mommy’s next sister, Ilse, followed Elise to Palestine also before Hitler took over.
At that time, Olga was left in Vienna and Rita too. My parents and mommy’s parents stayed behind as well. They couldn’t make up their minds to leave their established homes and, at an advanced age, stray out into a strange country once again—with all the risks of illegal border crossings.
Finally, in October 1938, Rita and Olga decided they had enough of life with the Nazis in Vienna.
Rita and Olga had been attending dancing classes in Vienna. Olga was about 16, and both Rita and Olga were extremely good-looking. They got their artist’s visa to come to Belgium. They were just refugees using a pretense to come across the border.
My parents were still in Vienna under the Nazis, and so were Fritzi’s parents. It was November 1938, shortly after the “Kristallnacht” in Germany.
The “Kristallnacht” (crystal-night) was another anti-semitic tragedy, where the Nazis in one night all over Germany and Austria decided to raid almost all of the synagogues; break all the stain-glass windows and crystal chandeliers, destroy the Torahs and prayerbook, and then set fire to the edifices.
We had to save our parents very soon, and we engaged a “guide” to smuggle them in.
You ought to understand how dangerous it was to rescue our parents from Austria and Hitler’s claws. Most Austrians were more anti-semitic than the Germans. The Austrians were well known to be among the worst Jew-haters.
We got out of Europe soon after the Nazis overtook Austria, feeling the first ominous signs of this devilish plan to destroy all Jewish life in Europe.
It was this anticipation that made us leave Vienna so hastily. It took quite some ambition to succeed in this escape combined with guts, shrewdness, and determination.
And then, of course, I was fortunate enough to come back with the victorious American Army to make an end to this inhuman, barbarous regime.
Unfortunately, our intervention was too late for millions of our people who went down innocently and helpless.
When I mentioned some of those angels who helped us on the way, usually in the most critical moments, I can really say that the All-Mighty, through time, selected us and others like us to be saved.
Mommy’s and my belief is that you can’t just meekly wait for destiny to help you. God helps you only if you are willing to help yourself. And we helped ourselves.
So, if it wasn’t for those wonderful humans we met on the way; the messengers from above, there would have been others. As long as we dared to take the chance, to take the risk, and gave them the opportunity to come forward to do this mitzvah for us.
Now finally, what should all this mean for you children?
There is no greater crime than the murder of a man’s soul.
You have been brought up by us well protected, keeping out of the dangers of the present world situation.
We hope, and we didn’t mean to spoil you.
Maybe you will learn to take some lessons from our experiences.
Remember our determination, our love, and our loyalty to each other, to our parents, and to you children too.
Maybe you will learn from this attitude a certain standard of morals and ethics and the willingness to give aid and comfort to the needy ones, to your parents and to your relatives, and to poor Jewish people who are less fortunate than we are.
We don’t have to be ashamed to be Jewish; we have a right to be proud of our accomplishments.
And mommy and I, are content in our feeling that we have done the right thing with our lives.