I was born in 1930 in Karlsruhe, a city in south-west Germany, close to the French border, but lived in Philippsburg, a small town on the Rhine, 30 km north of Karslruhe. I was the youngest of four. My family has lived in the rural part of southern Germany at least since the beginning of the 19th century. My maternal grandfather, born in Bavaria, upon graduating from Jewish Seminary at the age of 20 (in 1889), became the head of the Jewish community of Philippsburg and surrounding villages as teacher, cantor, shochet (ritual slaughterer), as well as any other services needed by the community.
He was not a Rabbi – his parents couldn’t afford the schooling – but was known as the Judenlehrer. His wife, my grandmother, came from a small town not far from Philippsburg. My mother, born there, was an elementary school teacher, but did not teach after she got married. In Germany, at that time, married women did not teach in public school.
My father came from a small town in the Black Forest. He came to Philippsburg as a young child when he lost his parents to be raised by an aunt. He was a printer; for a while, he published the local weekly newspaper.
While I grew up, Philippsburg was a town of 3,100 inhabitants, about 30 of which were Jews. The Jews were fully integrated into the community, but that does not mean that all were assimilated. Our family led a religious family life, attended Synagogue regularly, observed Shabbath, the Jewish holidays and kept kosher. Most able-bodied Jewish men had been soldiers during World War I and three Jewish men from Philippsburg, including my mother’s brother Hugo, were killed on the Western front. My father was a German soldier on that same front for three years.
Even after the Nazis came to power in 1933, there was relatively little anti-Semitism in Philippsburg. We continued to go to public school and play with our non-Jewish neighbors. My parents knew that we could not stay in Germany and tried to emigrate. But that was not easy for a family of limited means with four children. Germany allowed Jews to leave, but no other country in the world was ready to accept them. The United States, despite the famous inscription on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty, had immigration laws since 1924 which admitted only a certain number of people from each country. The German quota was relatively high, but the U.S. State Department did everything in its power to deny visas to Jewish immigrants. Each immigrant had to find a sponsor in the U.S. to guarantee that the immigrant would not become a public charge. For a large family and with the Depression in the U.S., it was easy for the immigration authorities to use this as an excuse to deny visas. We could also have tried to go, perhaps illegally, to another country in Europe. Again, that was not easy for a family of six with very limited funds, and my mother always said that this would be useless, since Hitler was going to take over all of Europe sooner or later. She was right, but what we probably could and maybe should have done was to leave individually, on children’s transports to England, for example. But my parents felt that the family should stay together.
I remember the 10th of November, 1938 (Kristallnacht), when my grandmother came to our house at six in the morning to announce that the Synagogue, next to which my grandparents lived, was burning. Most Jewish men between the ages of 18 to 65 were taken to a concentration camp that day. My father spent five weeks in Dachau. The start of the war, on September 1, 1939 did not really change our lives much. The fighting was far away, in Poland. Even the invasion of France, in May 1940, much closer to home, was hardly noticed, except for the distant rumbling of guns and the appearance of French prisoners of war to work on farms.