Leipzig, Germany 1930-1938
When I was born in Leipzig on June 7, 1930, my mother named me Marion, I assume with my father’s approval. A few days later, my uncle Schleume, (his Jewish nickname) one of my mother’s five brothers, whose real name was Schlomo or Salomon Weiser, like a fairy godmother, made the offer to pay me ten Deutsche Marks per year upon my coming of age at twenty-one if my parents would consent to name me SYLVIA, the name of his girlfriend residing in England at the time. My parents agreed. My older brother Henry wasn’t too happy with this name change. He decided that Sylvia cried much more than Marion ever did and wanted Marion back. This was not to be.
When the time came for me to pronounce my name, I could only say “si – si.” My brother Heinrich, who was older than I by three and a half years, was already known by the nickname Heini. Heini and Sissi made a good German combination. Of course those nicknames were not acceptable in the United States when we finally got here. Heini became Henry, and I also gave up my nickname to go back to my real English name, Sylvia.
Hoppe, hoppe Reiter
Wenn er fällt, dann schreit er.
Fällt er in de Graben,
Fressen ihn die Raben
Fällt er in den Sumpf,
Dann macht der Reiter
Hop, hop, rider,
When he falls, he yells,
If he falls in the ditch the ravens devour him
If he falls into the mud,
The rider makes a
I am jumping up and down on top of my father who is lying in bed in his striped pajamas. My brother Henry is sitting behind me and also jumping on top of the “horse” who is protesting while laughing and singing: “Alter Schimmel, holahi und holaho.” (Old White Horse). We are enjoying ourselves because we caught our father in bed this Sunday morning. I am unable to think of greater fun for the moment. I feel like I vanquished a monster, conquered an army; I feel on top of the world because, for once, my father is home, and we are horsing around with him this special Sunday. Usually Sunday mornings find me in my brother’s bed where I follow him in the mysterious adventures his fertile mind never ceases to invent. Sometimes we invade our maid’s bed on top of which we launch wild jumps, all three of us together.
Fleeting are these memories from my early childhood, dim the vision of my father who usually traveled in Germany or Austria to sell his furs. He seldom spent time with us children.
In Leipzig we lived in an apartment on the second floor of a building without an elevator at 7 Thomasius Strasse (street). Our Jewish landlord, Mr. Grünblatt, lived on the floor below us together with his wife and daughter Paula. That is the only apartment that I remember. It actually was the third apartment that my parents lived in. After their wedding, they first moved in with my Weiser grandparents for about a year because of a lack of adequate and affordable housing in 1924. I am not sure of their second address.
A long hallway led to the various rooms. It was lit by the Herrenzimmer’s (gentlemen’s room or “salon”) glass door. Its access was restricted for us children. I was only allowed in the Herrenzimmer when I came home from school, after lunch, to take a rest on the couch together with my mother. Very often she would fall asleep while I played with the fringes on the lace curtains gracing the window above the couch. Then I would climb gently over her body to escape to our children’s room to play. On rare occasions my mother would give me a book from the floor to ceiling bookcase to read. She first had to remove the key from the huge desk and open the glass door. The Herrenzimmer was a beautiful room with furniture of dark hand carved wood, a couch and a huge wing chair. A Persian rug completed the decor. The next room was our living and dining room combination. This is where we lived, played, listened to the radio and, when deemed old enough at age six, could join our parents to share the noon hot meal and the evening’s cold supper, which were both served by our maid, except when my father was away on business. Only then could the maid join my mother, Henry and me at the dining room table. My mother quite often emphasized that the buffet and dining room set were made of Caucasian walnut, a reddish big grained wood in an art-deco style. An upright small oven stood where the hallway made a right angle. Our parents’ bedroom with the connecting double door to our room was next to the living room. My mother was proud that the furniture had been hers as a young girl before she got married. After her wedding, another bed was added as it was unthinkable at the time for a Jewish married couple to share a double bed. The furniture was chartreuse green lacquer, including a loveseat which doubled as storage chest for our woolens.
Until the day we left Germany, my brother and I shared a room which was furnished in a more eclectic style. Our beds were placed at right angles, with mine against the wall and Henry’s blocking the connecting double door to my parents’ room. Often, when we entered the room, we would look at the photograph of my parents hanging above the light switch, and laugh as they looked so funny to us, all dressed up, stiff, skinny and serious. Both our beds were white. There was a rug in the middle of the room and toys somewhere on shelves, also a Schrank (wardrobe) for our clothes on top of which the jars of fruit and vegetable preserves were stored in summer to be consumed during the winter. We had two pets: one live and one a stuffed red squirrel mounted on a stump, both relegated to the top of the white wardrobe. Hansi, our canary, lived in his cage next to the preserves. Once in a while when my parents were out, our maid Lisel would let Hansi out of his cage. He flew all over the room to enjoy his freedom. Then we had to chase him to get him back into his cage with shrieks of laughter
Lisel was the first maid I can remember. She filled my life from age three to six. A previous maid put me in the park’s trash can while she flirted with her boyfriend, a fact I was too young to remember. Luckily one of my parents’ friends saw me there and alerted my mother. That maid got fired forthwith.
After the rise of the Nazis, Jews were not allowed to employ German maids anymore. When Lisel left us, it broke my heart which Martel, a sturdy Swiss girl, mended in no time. However Martel didn’t last with us either. After her departure, a cleaning woman came to our house to help with the work.
I had watched Adolf, our maid Lisel’s brother, spray paint through various stencil patterns to decorate our room in pastel color shapes. It was the most beautiful room I had ever seen that wasn’t wallpapered. Next to our room was the maid’s room with just enough space for a narrow bed and a wardrobe. Who ever heard of built-in closets? The bathroom, which all of us shared, was off the hallway, across our room and next to the kitchen. The single toilet was right next to it in its own little closet size room. In our kitchen, there was an icebox, a gas stove with the oven below, and a table with a sink in it, as well as a lower level pullout extension board where I would share my meals with our maid until my first day of school. The kitchen and bathroom windows gave us a view of the tiny courtyard below, where beggars would come occasionally to sing and extend their cap, then bow when we threw a coin down to them. While I was practicing the popular songs of the time, like Zarah Leander’s “Ich tanze mit dir in den Himmel hinein…” (I’ll dance with you into heaven…) and other love songs which our maid taught us, the thought crossed my mind that it wouldn’t be so bad, when I grew up, to go from yard to yard to sing for a living.
The most important item in our apartment as far as I was concerned was the swing suspended in the hallway during the winter months. My bed came next in importance. After our cousin Ruth recuperated from her very long illness, which confined her to a wheelchair for over ten years, she spent a lot of time playing at our house, trying to catch up with her lost childhood, swinging on our swing while holding me on her lap. Actually I did not care to swing too high as it made me sick to my stomach. One time we swung so high that she let go of me, and my head hit the oven. That dampened my ardor for swinging with Ruth. Another time, she jumped on my bed until the bottom support boards broke.
Family lore had it that my brother Henry played hooky from preschool to visit the Leipzig Fair. I never understood how, at about age five, he would dare do such a thing like wandering by himself all over the Fairgrounds, and then manage to be back at preschool by the time our maid came to pick him up. He showed another streak of independence when he did not attend the boys’ choir session at our synagogue but instead went to visit our Tante (aunt) Martha. It must have been his way of showing that he didn’t like to sing in a choir, but no adult saw it that way. We children just had to do as we were told.
My preschool experience was different. I didn’t realize then that I attended a private Montessori nursery school, which only became famous later in the United States after Montessori nursery schools opened all over the country. I recall sitting on a high stool in a big room, watching my classmates walking in a circle to music. As the teacher pointed out to me, I had to sit and watch because I was punished, and that is how I learned a new concept, that there was such a thing as punishment because no such policy existed in our family. While sitting and watching the kids running and jumping around, I sat there reflecting on the aims of punishment. I didn’t feel adversely affected, and least of all did I remember the reason for my punishment. Otherwise I remember shelves full of wide orange metal stencils of letters of the alphabet which we could trace on paper. One iron-clad rule in the school was that whatever toy we removed from the book-shelf, we had to put it back when we were done. In the application for restitution that my father completed for me in German to submit to the West German Government after World War II, he mentioned that I was thrown out of the Montessori Preschool. This most likely happened because the year was 1935 and the Nazis were in power.
Our neighbors were the Büttels with a son Udo and an older daughter with blond braids. Udo was Henry’s friend. There were other apartments in our building, but we children did not mix with anybody else. At the Büttels’, we would go to hunt for Easter Eggs, decorate the Christmas tree and sing Christmas songs like O Tannenbaum.
Frau (Mrs.) Büttel was my mother’s friend and Udo, who was a year or two older than Henry, came to play with him. We knew that Mr. Büttel was very strict and would take his belt off to hit Udo for the slightest infraction. Until my father bought a stick to punish us, we felt indeed fortunate to have such easygoing parents. Lisel the maid broke the stick my father had brought home and burned it in the kitchen stove. Nothing was ever said about it again.
The landlord’s daughter Paula was my friend, except that we considered her spoiled and not so bright. Her parents left Russia after the Revolution of 1917 and spoke Russian to each other. The mother was an intellectual who was too lenient with her daughter. She spoke a broken German which we ridiculed at home, and she gave in to everything Paula wanted. Much to my amazement, Paulahit her mother and gave her maid a hard time. Yet she was lonely and came quite often to ring our bell whether we made her feel welcome or not.
During the summer after my arrival in New York in 1949, on Labor Day weekend I went by bus to Lakewood, New Jersey, to meet with Paula, at her cousin’s chicken farm. Somehow my Weiser uncles knew Paula’s family and had put the two of us in touch with each other after all those war years which she had spent in London. Her mother did not succeed in escaping from Germany and perished. Her father died in London. Before I left for the weekend, Henry told me that the American buses have a lever which, when pushed, reclines the seat. It wasn’t until the return trip from Lakewood at night that I sat in the bus at a window seat all by myself without a neighbor. That is when the idea came to me to look around for that special lever. I looked all over without finding it. Then in the dim light, I saw something dark protruding at the end of the seat. I reached over to the dark object which I pushed down with all my might. It turned out to be the shoe of the person sitting behind me. My English wasn’t good enough to explain my blunder. The rest of the trip I turned around many times to say “Oh excuse me,” wondering what the man must have been thinking. I had to wait until I was home again to drop my suitcase on the living room floor, and finally start shaking with laughter until I quieted down to tell my adventure.
Herr (Mr.) Lehmann owned the grocery store downstairs. When we accompanied our maid, he would offer us Blutwurst (a sausage made with pork blood) and chuckle when we declined, too embarrassed to tell him that it was not kosher. How could I explain to him what it meant to be kosher when I hardly knew it myself?
I knew that I was different from the Büttels and from our maid. Yet we did not keep a kosher home, and we were instructed what to tell our grandmother when she asked us to describe the meal we had eaten at home. I knew that I was being taught to lie, which I did not like to do.
My grandfather David Osias Weiser, my mother’s father, died before I was born. Henry was named after our father’s father Henoch Fraenkel, who died when my father was about five years old. Actually Henry’s Jewish name is Henoch ben (son of) Isaac.
My grandmother Frieda Weiser lived in the Christian Strasse (street) within walking distance of the Rosenthal Park, in a huge ground floor apartment with a housekeeper, my uncle “Mulke” (Sally) and my uncle Nathan, both bachelors. Her three oldest married sons supported their widowed mother in the style she was accustomed to. My mother would point out to me that the room, with the balcony and stairs leading to the string of gardens in the back of the row of houses, was hers before she got married. Very often on Shabbat afternoon, my mother, Henry and I would walk to my grandmother’s. As soon as we got there, Henry would disappear in Uncle Nathan’s room to read one of the thin paperback books about German mythology that our uncle stacked on a shelf. My mother would visit with my grandmother while I would rush down the stairs from the balcony to find kids to play with in the maze of gardens. It was a magic world for me to be free to roam as I pleased, to run and play, as I felt like a prisoner in our apartment the rest of the time. Once I fell and skinned my knee, but I did not go back to my grandmother’s because I wanted to play. Later I was scolded for having blood stains on my white knee socks.
In the winter when the days were short, I had to go into the house as soon as night fell. The house was still dark as nobody was allowed to put a light on before the end of Shabbat. My grandmother, mother and some other ladies would sit around the dining room table, tilting their chairs while leaning forward to be in a better position to schmooze (make small talk). I would walk around the table, observe the long shadows and push the back of each chair down to have all four legs on the floor, startling each lady in turn. When it was time to go home, my grandmother would kiss me. She had a soft mouth as she seldom wore her dentures, which she kept in a glass of water at her bedside. Once, when she left her bedroom door ajar, I got a glimpse of her combing her long gray hair – she was a different person from the one I always saw wearing a wavy jet black wig. She never visited our house because it was not kosher. My father, who had gone to cheder as a little child and was well versed in Jewish prayers, did not really want to follow Jewish rituals which he considered old-fashioned. In addition he did not like the fact that kosher food was more expensive. In fact I cannot remember any family dinners that I attended or many visitors to our Herrenzimmer except one New Year’s Eve. My father had bought a gadget to make seltzer water in a special bottle, but I did not like the bubbles that came up through my nose. We were not allowed to stay up, but heard all the noise and laughter of the party.
Sometimes my grandmother Nathalie Birnbaum would come to visit by train from Chemnitz, some forty miles away, where she lived with her second husband, my father’s stepfather, Hirsch David Birnbaum, and their youngest daughter, my aunt Lene. Grandma Birnbaum was a kind-looking woman whose German was as bad as my Weiser grandmother’s, except that we were used to it and never noticed. Both grandmothers spoke a mixture of Yiddish and broken German. My grandmother would sleep in the maid’s room, the maid would sleep in my bed and I would sleep in the Graebele, (the gap between by parents’ twin beds). At the time of the huge annual Leipzig Trade Fair, my parents would rent the maid’s room out to foreign visitors and we would play musical beds again. I remember a Chinese or Japanese man, always bowing deeply and speaking in broken German.
I also had a Tante (aunt) Biena or Sabinaas my mother called her cousin. She had married a German non-Jew, Kurt Fruehauf, who had spent time in jail for embezzlement. Their five children, including a set of twins, were grown up but single by the time Tante Biena took an interest in me. To me she appeared every bit as old with her white hair as my two grandmothers. She liked to take me to special places at tea time. Once she took me to a cafe where every child was given a balloon to blow up. The first one whose balloon popped was the winner. How could I admit that I had never mastered the art of blowing up balloons? Even as I got older, I would never master the skill.
We frequently went to the park according to photographs I have seen in my uncles’ photo albums. My mother also liked to take us hiking in the countryside or in the woods. During our walks she sang marching songs, off-key but with much gusto. After I started school, my mother would go over the multiplication tables during our walks in the Rosenthal Park. We had just reached the table of twelve before we left Germany. I can remember playing games with our eyes blindfolded at birthday parties, hitting the ground with a wooden spoon to find the upside down pot that would hide a surprise. When I was six, I got roller skates, but my sense of balance was not up to it. Henry had a blue scooter – one with a pedal in the center – on which he stood and pumped up and down to propel it. How I envied him and tried again and again to ride on it without success. Eventually I would manage to keep my balance on my roller skates.
In winter we went ice skating on the pond in the park. First we got all bundled up, then I had to sit on the wooden bench where the maid helped me put on my skates. My skates were special learners’ skates with three blades in the heel. I always wore brown high top shoes which were considered healthier for growing feet and ankles than the ordinary low top ones. The skates hooked onto shoes with a special key that we wore around our neck. It was the time when children’s shoe stores had x-ray machines to see how well the shoes fit. I took a peek once to see my bones. Skating was as fun and as exciting as in a Breughel painting. Even my cousin Ruth made an appearance on the ice in her wheelchair, and was pushed around, I holding on for dear life at first. The best part was the hot mulled wine which we could charge to our mother’s account at the concession.
On the Jewish Holidays, we went to the big Gemeinde (community) Synagogue. During Rosh Hashana Services, my mother took me to visit my grandmother in her little synagogue. In the big synagogue I sat in the balcony with all the women, envying the men wrapped in their tallit, and my brother who was allowed to join my father down where I could see the action was taking place with the reading of the Torah. There was nothing exciting happening upstairs, where the women just talked about their recipes and waved lemons studded with cloves on Yom Kippur to perfume the rising hot air.
I was very impressed at Sukkoth when we went into the sukkah (open booth) at night to see the stars through the branches. My brother pointed out to me that the two flaps standing up would be closed at night to protect the sukkah from rain. On Simcha Torah my brother paraded with a blue and white flag, the Jewish colors, while I had to be content with a green and white horizontally striped flag representing the colors of Leipzig. It embarrassed me to walk in the procession in synagogue with the wrong flag stripes and colors but nobody else seemed to notice.
Winter was a bad time, as I had to wear so many layers of clothing on account of being so skinny. It was downright unpleasant to wear long stockings like Pippi Longstocking herself, stockings that came in just two colors, brown for everyday use and white for Sunday and holidays, held up by a garment called a “Leibchen,” a combination undershirt and garter belt with four very long garters pulling and cutting into the flesh, especially the clips at the end. The stockings scratched also and if that wasn’t enough, because I was so skinny, I had to wear “Gamaschenhosen” or knit tights pulled over the long stockings. If we fell on the street or in the park, we ripped a hole in our stockings and that felt awful, between the garters pulling and the knee wanting to come out through the hole. The maid had to mend the stocking over a mending egg, weaving the special mending yarn which did not always exactly match the stocking color. The mended section felt rough on my skinned knee. This is a vivid childhood sensation and must have happened many times.
My first day of school was like a big family party. First I was measured to see if I could carry my brother’s blue and gold Zuckertüte, a big colorful decorated glossy cardboard cone. Because I was so skinny and therefore considered weak, the Zuckertüte was only half filled with sweets like colorful hard candies, chocolate, and nuts…all for me. Well, I knew I would have to share with Henry. I wore a new dress which I found quite darling, royal blue with small white polka dots, which fit loosely and comfortably, without a waist. My lunch bag consisted of the traditional purse-like leather pouch with a long shoulder strap. This contained food for recess. Nobody ever worried about drinks in those days.
My mother had succeeded in having me admitted to the Jewish day school, the Carlebach Schule on that first school day of the school year 1936-1937, around Easter, even though I was born six days after the cutoff date of June 1st. We walked to school that spring day, my mother carrying my Zuckertüte to my great embarrassment. My friends were not only carrying their own Zuckertüten, most of which were bigger than mine, but they were also full to the brim with candy with colorful paper tied at the top so that one couldn’t even look inside. There were lots of adults and children going up the steps to the school. My Tante Martha was there with a present in a box for me on this important day. It turned out to be a beautiful blue wool Bleyle dress, a famous German brand still available today. Not only did the new dress have two pockets, but there was embroidery on both the collar and the pockets. Then we were all ushered into a big room with a projector. The lights went out and we saw a boring movie about Palestine, in black and white of course.
At the beginning of the school year, I was put into an all-girls class, but soon I was moved to a co-ed class of boys and girls. My best friends were Lili Sobel and Helga (see Prologue). In winter, we each wore a different distinct knit cap. I loved mine, which was knitted by my mother and had a tassel hanging from the top which flipped and flopped whichever way I moved. The others had more fashionable Teuffelsmützen (devils’ caps) as they were called, more like a Scandinavian ski cap.
My mother decreed that I was a very responsible girl, and therefore I was to walk to school every day with Ismar (whose last name I forgot) and Leo Hepner to watch over them when we crossed the big street, the Ranstädter Steinweg. I had been drilled for years to first look left and then right before crossing a street. I also knew that I always had to go to the bathroom before leaving the house, as there were no public toilets anywhere. When we went to a park, the public toilet consisted of an outhouse and a board with a big hole in the middle. The hole had a cover which had to be removed. I much preferred to go behind a bush in summer to avoid the awful smell and mostly soiled board.
The same Leo Hepner who walked with me to school every day, was picked to play the young Joseph in the school play based on the Bible story which was presented in a large theater. His soprano voice resonated loud and clear as a bell throughout the whole theatre while I had to be content with crawling across the stage hidden behind the skinny cardboard cow I was cast as. At least I was soon done and could go watch the rest of the play from my seat. If I remember this episode so well, it is because I was very disappointed not to be picked for a more important role during the auditions.
My cousin Ruth Weiser would meet me during recess in the Carlebach Schule. She drew a big comb from her pocket, and proceeded to comb my hair and to style it into a tolle, a big round horizontal curl on the top of my head. I submitted with mixed emotions. On the one hand I wanted to go and play with my friends, but on the other hand I relished Ruth’s attention. She was eight years older than I, a lovely girl full of mischief, whom I loved dearly. She had the same jet black, wavy hair as my mother and Henry. In fact people often mistook her for my mother’s daughter. Ruth taught me to knit. I can still see myself sitting next to her on the sofa, my sweaty fingers getting entangled in the yarn, trying hard not to drop a stitch and to manage the knitting and purl stitches.
I didn’t quite fit into the Weiser family with my skinny look, freckled face, and wavy auburn hair. Yet I felt and knew that everybody loved me and valued me. As to my freckles, they never bothered me. While most children got a good night story at bedtime, I went to sleep with my cheeks covered with “Uralla Crème,” which was supposed to make my freckles disappear. The cream treatment stopped when we left Germany, and the freckles kept multiplying.
When my cousin Hardy (Bernhardt Weiser), Ruth’s older brother, made aliyah (permanent move) to Palestine in 1935, we inherited his toys, like a Märklin building set (Erector set) and a train with tracks. The engine could move backwards when one pushed the right button. With the Maerklin, Henry built a small sewing machine for me and my dolls. That was one of the few times I played with dolls. We also had board games. Henry taught me how to move the chess pieces, as well as checkers and Chinese checkers. I lost at all of the games when I played with Henry, who was after all three and a half years older than I.
My father went to a tailor to have his suits made to order. That entailed several visits to be measured and pick the fabric, along with several fittings. The quality of the fabric was very important because the suit had to last many years. My mother had her own dressmaker. As for me, I inherited many of my dresses from my older cousins Ruth, and Evelyn who was called Eva in Germany. Sometimes my mother took me to my own seamstress. I remember a dark, smelly apartment where we first had to wait for my turn for a long time with nothing to do or read. Then I got measured, and finally I had to submit to several fittings, standing still on a low stool, turning slowly around while the seamstress pinned the seams of the dress and made the necessary adjustments to fit my small figure.
Another memory is an air raid alert drill in our apartment building. It happened one evening, and we had to run down to the basement. The non-Jewish tenant, who acted as the air raid warden, kept complaining to my parents that we didn’t come down quickly enough and that we didn’t bring either flashlight or blankets. In other words, we didn’t take the whole thing seriously when there could be real danger. We had to sit for a while on the floor in the corner allocated to our family before we were allowed to go upstairs again. The atmosphere was very unpleasant. It is possible that my parents had emigration plans set already and therefore didn’t pay much attention to be properly equipped to spend a night in the basement.
The Brühl was the center of the thriving Leipzig fur business. I never understood why its name stood on its own without the addition of the word street or avenue. Both my mother’s three brothers, under the name of “Gebrüder Weiser” (Weiser Brothers), and my father under his own name of “Izak Birnbaum,” had offices there, precisely at #46-48. If there was a telephone in my father’s office, separated by glass partitions within the large loft-like area, I never saw it. I did see the smelly raw pelts hanging from hooks in the vault, some full of crawling tiny bugs. The skins were bought at international auctions in Moscow or London, were processed, tanned, cleaned, dyed and assembled into bundles, not necessarily in this order, each bundle ready to be sewn into a fur coat. My uncle Nathan, the youngest of my mother’s five brothers, who was sort of the “gofer” for his brothers, would stand me on the scale to weigh me with big black weights on each of my visits. I suppose that there wasn’t much to do for a small child on the Brühl. While the Brühl still exists today, #46-48 has been turned into an ugly office building with lots of modern windows.
See the Weiser Family Tree in THE WEISER STORY.
The ice man brought ice blocks on a horse drawn cart, picked a chunk with a long ice pick, lifted it onto his shoulder protected by a thick brown leather apron, and carried it up the several flights of stairs to set the block down inside the top part of our white ice box.
 Ruth had osteomyelitis, an inflammation of the bone and bone-marrow cavity. There were no antibiotics available yet to cure it.
 Udo was killed during WWII on the Russian Front.