The vacations of my early childhood stand out the most vividly. The Keilberg was my paradise, combining freedom and magic all at once. It was a Jewish Youth Hostel in Czechoslovakia, in the Harz Mountains, relatively close to Leipzig by train. The Keilberg stands more than 1,000 meters high, but the Youth Hostel was maybe halfway up the mountain. Do I imagine it or did it really look like the opening scene in the film The Sound of Music, where the hills are alive with green grass, pink, blue and yellow flowers, and blue sky? I can still feel the joy of rolling down the meadows at will. While our father traveled as a salesman selling fur bundles to furriers all over Germany and Austria, my mother, brother and I stayed for several weeks’ vacation in the chalet, together with other mothers and their children of all ages. I can remember my first vacation at age four when I was the youngest, right in the middle of every activity or game, the mascot for everybody. Herr Tintner was the charismatic manager whom everybody adored. At that time, he took me to see a litter of little gray puppies. The next big event was the arrival of Dr. Weizmann together with Usishkin, who were leaders in the international Zionist movement. For days everybody in the hostel was enlisted to clean and decorate for their arrival. Hannelore Fraenkel and I, both aged four, were appointed as the reception committee. We had to stand on either side of the entrance door in front of two long white and blue flags, flower bouquet in hand. We kept giggling nervously until we finally saw a bunch of older men approaching. The moment came for us to offer the flowers but to whom in this big approaching crowd of bearded men? I quickly handed my bouquet to the man with the biggest beard, made my curtsey and ran inside. Somewhere there is a photograph of all the kids dressed in blue shorts with white shirt, except that it is a black and white picture. My brother wears a blue sleeveless sweater and my mother stands close to Weizmann and Usishkin. There was singing and dancing and a whole program that day, but I was too little to attend or to remember.
Henry and I stuck together on the Keilberg during our several vacations there. The many children and teenagers formed teams to fight each other in hide and seek or cops and robbers. Teams were always picked by the two captains, who first marched toward each other and took turns putting one foot exactly in front of the other, possibly turning the foot sideways so as not to step on the other person’s foot. You could also “take a point” by just squeezing a toe in front. The first one to step on the opponent’s foot lost. So the other kid got first picks and then they took turns choosing their team. Nobody ever picked Henry, so he had to form his own team with me as his only ally. I stuck with Henry through thick and thin even though I had more fun with the other children.
One night I woke up crying on the floor. I had been sleeping in the top bunk with blue netting strung from head to toe as a protective railing. Somehow, the center hook had not been closed so that I rolled out of bed between the mattress and the netting. The next day I had to stay in bed even though nothing hurt me. Every single staff member came to see how I was doing. I adored all the attention but was glad when Henry climbed up into the top bunk and I slept at the bottom again.
I remember one excursion we took to Joachimstahl, now Jáchimov, of Madame Curie’s Pechblende fame. We walked for over three hours, the little kids as well as the teenagers. My mother carried me on her back and so did one strong fellow after another. We visited with a Jewish family in Joachimstahl where I was put to bed for a nap. I slept for four hours and missed all the fun everybody else was having.
It was on the Keilberg that I learned from my mother where and how to recognize blueberry bushes and to recognize the leaves of wild strawberries growing in the shade of trees. I loved to pick berries, a passion that has stayed with me always.
1936 was a very important year for me. It saw my first day in school, and later that winter I contracted whooping cough. This was the time before the vaccine. Children died of whooping cough while going into uncontrollable fits of coughing until all breathing stopped. One of the remedies prescribed by our pediatrician, Dr. Jakobson, my father’s school friend, was a change of air, preferably into altitude. For that one and only time, we went to the Keilberg in winter but not to the Keilberg Youth Hostel because my whooping cough was contagious, and also because the youth hostel was most likely closed in winter.
First, my parents and Henry got fully equipped with new navy blue woolen ski suits, the latest styles. They also got skis. I had to be content with my brother’s outgrown training suit. I just loved to be in pants. A big sleigh pulled by horses picked us up at the railroad station to take us to the Waldschloeschen (Little Forest Castle), a small hotel close to the ski station. I sank into soft warm blankets, lulled to sleep by the sound of little bells until our arrival at the hotel. The next morning I was handed a pair of old dark brown skis and poles. One ski had been broken before and was repaired with a metal band. The bindings were the very old-fashioned cross-country type bindings. My parents took me to a very small hill, which was actually the path leading to the real ski area where my parents and Henry were learning to ski. I was supposed to slide down the little hill on my skis and then to climb up again as best as I could. There was just one hitch. Every time I skied down that little hill, my right ski hit a bump, causing me to fall down. At that moment, my right foot came out of its binding. I did not know how to get up with only one ski on my foot and just sat there waiting for somebody to come by who would help me put my right foot back into the binding and pull me upright.
This went on the whole first day until one of the maids taught me how to snowplow and walk uphill in a herringbone pattern. Then I could avoid the bump and stop myself. We stayed at the Waldschloeschen for two weeks during which time I became very comfortable practicing on my skis. I also got rid of the whooping cough. There must have been an epidemic in my class as I heard of one kid whose family took him on an expensive airplane ride just to get rid of the cough. In those days, airplane rides were quite out of the ordinary.
For the 1937 summer vacation we went to Hungary, as that was the only country which would give us Jews a visa. We went together with the Sobels, Edith who was Henry’s age and my best friend Lili. Mrs. Sobel spoke Hungarian, which was of tremendous help to us everywhere. On the train from Leipzig to Budapest, imagine my consternation when I saw my teacher, Fräulein (Miss) Schühler. Now, I worried that she would tell my mother all the bad things I did in class. I was so embarrassed it almost spoiled the idea of a vacation. Luckily Miss Schühler kept to her own friends and much to my relief we did not see her again after we got off the train. I mostly remember arriving after nightfall in Budapest on a very clear night. I could hardly tell where the city lights ended and where the sky with its multitude of twinkling stars began.
I learned to swim in Síofok, on Lake Balaton where we were staying in a hotel. The swim teacher attached me to the end of a contraption very similar to a large fishing pole. I was suspended over the lake surface, perfectly safe, but I didn’t realize that. As soon as my face made contact with the water, I started to scream in fear. Somehow this process was repeated every day. By the end of our vacation I could swim the breaststroke but was still afraid to put my head under water. I also ate my first corn on the cob in Síofok.
In 1938, for the first time ever, we took a vacation during Passover. The four of us traveled together by train to Czechoslovakia, Karlsbad (now Karlovy Vary), to be precise. To get ready for the trip, my parents filled huge trunks with sheets, towels and all kinds of household linens. When I asked why we needed all that stuff on vacation, my mother shushed me and told me to be quiet and not to ask so many questions. I believe that the two trunks were shipped to Karlsbad and later to Belgium. We had crossed the German-Czech border many times, but that was the only time that, at the border, both my mother and I were asked to undress in a separate room watched by a woman, a strip search which made no sense to me. We stayed in a small “pension,” which is like a Bed & Breakfast except that they serve three meals a day and is more reasonably priced than a hotel, that was run by friends of the Weiser family. It is in Karlsbad that I attended my first public Seder, actually the first Seder that I can remember, in a kosher restaurant with the nickname of “Mumpitz.” There were many long tables and many people. I sat next to my mother. Because I got so thirsty, I not only drank the diluted wine in my glass but also emptied my mother’s glass while she was turned away to talk to her neighbor. After a while I complained to my mother that I felt very hot. I was wearing too many warm layers, always on account of the fact that I was so skinny. My mother took me to the bathroom to remove my woolen slip, hand knitted by my aunt, with fuchsia and white wool. At that moment I really felt sick. The next thing I remember is lying in the large entrance hall on three chairs. People were passing by and laughing at my improvised bed. I felt terribly embarrassed. This story pursued me for many, many years, the fact that I got drunk at my first community Seder.
The next day we went again to the restaurant for the second Seder of which I don’t remember anything. We the children, and there were many, were playing in the entrance hall when the maid of the pension where we stayed came to pick Henry and I up. We were having a most wonderful time and did not want to leave, so my brother told the maid that our parents had given us permission to stay until they themselves went home. Thereupon the maid left without us, and we continued to play and have fun. After a while, my parents came out and were very surprised to see us there. At first my brother told them that the maid did not come to pick us up, but the other children corrected him and told the true story. At that point my parents were really angry, so angry that Henry and I got scared. After Henry fetched our coats, we ran out of the restaurant into the night. We passed a drunkard wrapped around a lamp post, unsteady on his feet. Henry grabbed my hand and we ran on. Luckily he knew the way back to the pension. No sooner were we in our room than our parents arrived absolutely furious. I started to cry with fear. Henry got a big beating because he had lied to them and then gone out at night in a strange city. When it was my turn I yelled so loud while running around the table in the middle of the room that my parents could not catch me and therefore left me alone. Despite that night’s escapade, Henry and I had a good time during the whole vacation. One day we hiked up the mountain with some of the older children. I felt very proud to be part of the group.
Another day Henry took me to the center of town. Suddenly we found ourselves in the central square filled with lots of people listening to a man haranguing from a podium in Sudeten German (a German closer to the Austrian German). When he was finished speaking everybody raised their right arm in the hated Hitler salute and shouted “Heil Hitler.” What could we do among all these adults but do likewise? The speaker was Konrad Henlein, who was founder of the Sudeten German Heimat (home) Party. The reason I remember his name is because Henry told me “Henlein,” sounds almost like a small chicken in German (Hünlein).