Historians speak about the Holocaust as the seminal event of the 20th century, and indeed it is, but its impact is truly seen when individuals tell their stories. The number of people affected by WWII and the Holocaust are staggering – millions of civilians murdered (including six million Jews), millions displaced, soldiers killed and wounded – all these people are individuals with their own personal tales to tell. The Holocaust is about more than numbers, it is about people, and each person, whether they perished or survived, has a voice that needs to be heard.
This story tells the tale of two people, Madeleine and Karl Weiss,my mother and my father. Both began their lives in Germany, and through the kindness of family members and total strangers, both survived the Holocaust in completely different ways.
Madeleine and Karl were both Holocaust survivors who fled from Germany. Madeleine, my mother, escaped to Belgium, and Karl, my father, escaped to England. They both ultimately emigrated to the U.S. after WWII, where they met, fell in love, married and lived out their lives. This is a brief synopsis of their life stories.
Mom was born in Frankfurt-am-Main, Germany on May 5, 1924. She and her parents, Gertude (Bial) and Alfred Witsenhausen, lived in a large house with a big garden near the center of the city. Mom had a happy childhood, and attended a Jewish school, the Philantropin. On May 6, 1930, Mom's brother Hans was born. Eventually, Hans also attended the Philantropin. Our grandparents were both fine musicians - Gertrude played the piano, and Alfred played the violin. He played first violin in a string quartet that met in their house weekly. I still have his violin, and his collection of bound chamber music. Our great-grandfather, Carl Bial, was also an excellent violinist, and I still play his violin! Both Madeleine and Hans grew up hearing wonderful chamber music right in their home, an experience that created their lifelong love of music.
All was well with the Witsenhausen family until 1933, when Hitler became Chancellor, and then Führer of Germany. Little by little, the rights of Jews in Germany, and ultimately any country occupied by the Germans, were diminished. In 1935, according to the Nuremberg Laws, Jews were no longer citizens of the German Reich. Jewish children were not allowed to attend German public schools. Luckily, Mom and Hans were already attending the Philantropin, so they could continue their education. However, by 1937, Alfred Witsenhausen had to "sell" his textile fabrication business to a Nazi, and although he remained an employee, the family's income was greatly reduced.
Mom's parents had already decided that the family had to leave Germany. Louis Bial, Gertrude's brother, had left for France in 1933. Aunt Charlotte, Gertrude's sister, and her husband and baby, were trying to get visas for the U.S. (they did succeed in moving to Los Angeles in December 1938 - among the few lucky ones). Gertrude and Alfred decided that they needed to leave Germany too, and selected Brussels, Belgium as their destination. Alfred spoke fluent, accent-less French, which ultimately saved his life, and the lives of the entire Witsenhausen family.
On Kristallnacht, November 9-10, 1938, Alfred was in Aachen, a German city on the border of Belgium. He telephoned home to make sure his family was safe; Gertrude told him not to come home because the Gestapo was searching for him. He then decided to cross into Belgium and headed to Brussels, where he rented an apartment and waited for the rest of the family. In January 1939, Gertrude, Madeleine and Hans traveled to Brussels, and began a new chapter of their lives.
Dad was born in Hamburg, Germany, on June 21, 1926. His father, Edwin Weiss, was a businessman who dealt in rawhide leather, purchasing goods in Scandinavia and eastern Europe, and was an Orthodox Jew. Edwin was also a master chess player. Sadly, Dad's mother died when he was 3 and a half, a traumatic experience. After a year or so, Edwin remarried, to Adele Sachs Thorn, who was not Jewish. She was born in Argentina and raised as a Catholic. She had a son from her previous marriage, Wolfgang, who was 3 years older than Dad, and they had great times growing up together. Dad attended the Talmud Torah Real Schule, which was closed by the Nazis in 1939. This location housed the University of Hamburg after the war, but has recently reopened as a school for Jewish children. Edwin and Adele Weiss loved music and opera, and frequently attended concerts in Hamburg.
Grandfather Edwin was questioned by the Gestapo sometime before Kristallnacht, which caused him to have a nervous breakdown. He was hospitalized at a Jewish psychiatric hospital in Bendorf-Sayn, outside Koblenz, until he and all the other patients, doctors and nurses were "evacuated" to Poland, where they were all murdered at Belzec, one of the Nazi death camps (likely in March of 1942). Mrs. Weiss (Adele) was able to get a visa to move to New York in 1939.
Luckily for Dad, Adele and Dad's uncle Henry Chassel (married to Aunt Irma Weiss) managed to get Dad on the first Kindertransport* to England. Dad left Hamburg about 3 weeks after Kristallnacht and arrived in London around December 3rd, 1938. Not all the children had been assigned families, so Dad and a number of other children were housed at Dovercourt Bay, in Harwich,England, in a summer "camp" with unheated little huts during one of the coldest winters on record! Just before Christmas 1938, Dad and 11 other Orthodox Jewish boys were placed with families in the Cricklewood neighborhood of London, and after the holidays, Dad began attending the Moro Road School, along with his new friend, Karl Morgenstern (who changed his name to Charles Morgan when he immigrated to the U.S.). Dad celebrated his Bar Mitzvah at the Dollis Hill Synagogue in the spring of 1939.
In August of 1939, most of the children in London were evacuated to the countryside, because the government was concerned that the Germans would bomb the city. Dad and his friend Charlie, and all the children from the Moro Road School, were sent to Biddenham and Bromham, two very small villages just outside Bedford, north of London. After some time, most of the children returned to London, as the Germans did not bomb the city at that time. But Dad and Charlie, and a few other refugee children, stayed in Bedfordshire. Dad was extremely fortunate to be billeted with Mr. and Mrs. Sharpe, a middle-aged couple who had never had children. Dad lived with them in Biddenham until he left England in 1946.
The war began with Germany's invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939, and a few days later, Britain declared war against Germany. The next major event in our family's history was the invasion of Belgium (and Holland and France) on May 10, 1940. All male Jewish refugees between the ages of 16-60 in Brussels were arrested, and most were sent to concentration camps in the south of France. Alfred Witsenhausen, Mom's father, was one of those sent to Saint-Cyprien, a ghastly camp near the Spanish border. He was able to escape from a transport to another camp in Bordeaux several months later, and ultimately walked to Brussels, where he was reunited with the family. Things were quiet in Brussels until the summer of 1942, when the Nazis made a more concerted effort in all their occupied territories to round up Jews, deport them to Poland, and ultimately murder them. Madeleine and Hans were no longer able to attend school; rations for Jews were difficult to get - the situation was tense with the possibility of arrest and deportation always a possibility. Luckily for the Witsenhausen family, they were able to find a safer place to live - hiding openly in a basement apartment on the same street as Gestapo headquarters with false papers. The family survived the war intact, which was a miracle.
In Britain, Dad attended the local school in Biddenham. At the age of 16, he was given a choice of either doing war work or being interned on the Isle of Man, where many German and Austrian Jewish refugees were imprisoned. Dad chose war work and served as a farm laborer on the neighboring farm in Biddenham. Dad often spoke of how much he learned about life from working on a farm. At the same time, he continued his studies in science and math, especially chemistry, at the Bedford Technical Institute. In 1943, after winning the first prize in a national (all Great Britain) chemistry exam, Dad was given the opportunity to work in a chemistry lab in London, and attend the University of London to study more math and chemistry - at the age of 17! Dad lived in a boarding house in North London, where the landlady called him "Larry" because "Karl" was too German! He was a firewatcher on the rooftop of the Dufay-Chromex building where he worked, as the Germans were dropping incendiary bombs all over London. Dad would spend most weekends back in Biddenham with the Sharpes.
When the war finally ended, Dad was in London and joined in the VE Day celebrations. He had not heard from his father since war was declared and was unable to discover what had happened to him or any other family member for many years. However, his stepmother was able to correspond from New York, and she urged Dad to come to the U.S. and live with her. In November of 1946, Dad traveled to New York and moved in with his stepmother at 545 W. 111th Street on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. She had rented 2 adjoining apartments and was running a boarding house there, renting rooms and providing meals. Dad began working at a chemistry lab researching the benefits of blackberries, but ultimately found a position he was more interested in at Color Research Inc., where scientists were exploring producing color film.
Meanwhile, in Brussels, our grandfather Alfred Witsenhausen became ill with cancer and ultimately died in the fall of 1946. He lived long enough to listen to the Nuremberg Trials on the radio and was somewhat comforted that the major Nazi criminals were found guilty and sentenced to death. When Brussels was liberated back in the fall of 1944, Mom worked at a USO canteen. She and Hans both resumed their education. Mom attended a college specializing in art, with a concentration on commercial art. She wanted to go to the U.S. to work as an artist because the opportunities were greater than in Brussels. However, when grandfather Alfred became ill, Mom decided to stay in Brussels for the time being. In May of 1947, after a great deal of difficulty in getting the proper visas and passport (as refugees in Belgium, they were all stateless), Mom got on a train, traveled through Germany and boarded the SS Gripsholm in Gothenburg, Sweden for the journey to New York.
She disembarked on June 1, 1947 and was met by her Uncle Louis, Aunt Grete and Cousin Ernie, who has arrived in New York early in 1945, after finding refuge in Cuba for several years. Another relative, Julius Nathan, was a boarder with Mrs. Weiss at 545 W. 111th Street. A few days after her arrival, Mom went to visit Uncle Julius and there was a handsome young man named Karl Weiss! They enjoyed the typical German afternoon tradition of coffee and cake, and then Madeleine and Karl went for a walk.
A few weeks later, Dad invited Mom on a date. They attended a concert at Lewisohn Stadium (College of the City of New York) where the main piece on the program was Dvorak's 9th Symphony, "From the New World". Lewisohn Stadium was an amphitheater that hosted athletic events, as well as many concerts and theater productions, until it was demolished in 1973.
Both Mom and Dad loved music - attending that first concert together cemented their bond and was just the beginning of a lifetime of attending concerts, listening to records and music on the radio. Dvorak’s 9th Symphony became a symbol of their love for each other and of their love of music. Whenever they heard this symphony, it provoked lovely memories of their first date. The music itself, with its beautiful melodies and use of American motifs in a European musical structure, mirrors the life story of Madeleine and Karl Weiss.
On July 31, 1948, Mom and Dad were married at New York City Hall. They spent their honeymoon at Lake View Lodge in Bolton Landing on Lake George in the beautiful Adirondacks of New York State.
While working at The Rivers School in Weston, I was fortunate to be able to teach a course on the Holocaust for 14 years. Both Mom and Dad frequently visited my class and told the students their stories - a bonus for my students to hear from actual Holocaust survivors. Mom's favorite part of visiting with the students was to show her final slide - a photograph of the entire family after our daughter Abby's wedding. She would say, "Hitler tried to kill us, but he didn't succeed. Look at how we have multiplied!"
* To learn about the Kindertransport, visit the Kindertransport Association at https://kindertransport.org/.