A translation of “Erinnerung Aus Meinem Leben in Braunschweig, 1912-1937” Braunschweig, 1980
From 1912 to 1937 I lived in Braunschweig. Although I was not born there, I would not hesitate to call this city my hometown -- which it was until the onslaught of National Socialism forced me to emigrate to my new homeland.
I enjoyed the formative and very happy years of my childhood and adolescence in Braunschweig. Also, I received my entire school and college education there and even today close and friendly relationships tie me to this city.
Originally, my family did not stem from this neighborhood. My great-grand-father Solomon Herxheimer was chief rabbi of Anhalt-Bernburg and his name is still remembered as one of the first leading liberal rabbis in Germany.
His son Gotthold went to England as a young businessman but his wife came from Hamburg, Germany. She was the daughter of a wealthy Jewish linen merchant, Isaac Jaffe. Their three children were born in London -- my mother, Ella Pauline Herxheimer, in the year 1882. The family would certainly have stayed in England if my grandfather’s various ailments had not worsened due to the unfavorable English climate. With a heavy heart, my grandparents decided to move to Germany in 1894. As a cousin of my grandfather’s had just settled as a young doctor in Braunschweig, they chose to move there. Their son, however, did not join them and was in England when his father died in Braunschweig two years later.
When my mother and her younger sister had graduated from high school, my grandmother moved to Dresden with her daughters as both of them were interested in the arts. It was in Dresden where my mother met and married my father in August, 1907. Immediately after the wedding they went to Lyons, France, where my father was director of a silk export firm. He had entered this business, owned by some cousins, as a fifteen-year-old and stayed with it until his death in 1943.
I was born September 3, 1908 in Lyons. With my mother I went on my first trip at the age of nine months to visit my grandmother in Braunschweig. She had returned there from Dresden after both daughters were married and had an apart-ment at Bodestrasse 11 across from the Stadtpark. Every afternoon the maid took me for a walk in the park. Evidently it was fun for the three-year-old Hilde Oelmann, who lived in the same house with her family and who remained a friend for many years, to run along the stroller and join us on these walks.
It must have been the year 1912 when my parents got divorced and my mother came from Lyons to Braunschweig where I then lived until my emigration to the USA in 1937. By chance an apartment below my grandmother’s at Bodestrasse 11 was available so that my mother could rent it for the two of us. The best thing was the park across the street because I played there most of the time as the yard behind the house was small and mostly used to hang up the laundry or to beat the carpets. This, by the way, was a typical German custom that was probably stopped by the invention of the vacuum cleaner. I still hear the noise of the carpet beating. That, as far as I recall, was only permitted at certain hours in the morning.
Hilde Oelmann became my playmate. She was the one who taught me German. Until then I had only talked French. Together we sat on the staircase that led to the apartments and she let me repeat words like: table, chair, window, door, doll, etc. I don’t know whether I was a good student but one day Mrs. Oelmann came to my mother and told her angrily she would not allow Hilde to play with me any longer as she had talked German so nicely but now started mixing in French words. This, however, must have been for a very short period, because soon after I spoke German as well as the other children and refused to keep up my French.
One of my earliest Braunschweig impressions is an almost fairy-like picture of November 3, 1913. It was the entrance into town of Duke Ernst August and his young wife, Victoria Luise, the daughter of the Kaiser. The only thing I remember is an enormous crowd of pushing people where I was squeezed in between desperately clutching my mother’s hand and then, like a dream, the coach pulled by many white horses and in it the radiantly beautiful ducal couple.
In May 1914 something terrible happened. We received the news that the boat that Uncle Walter, my mother’s only brother, had taken from Canada to Europe had sunk in the St. Lawrence River. The “Empress of Ireland” had collided with a coal barge in the night. It must have been a dreadful shock to my grandmother and my mother and even I remember my own grief. I had not seen him all too often, but his visits had always been great fun for me.
One funny story about Uncle Walter I have to mention although I did not experience it myself but heard it from my mother. She was with him on the trolley in Braunschweig when the conductor noticed his broken German and said to him with a friendly slap on his shoulder, “I know you, last night I saw you at the circus, you were the clown.”
July 1914, my mother and a friend, who had a little boy my age, went with us children to a Baltic seaside place. I am sure we enjoyed the playing on the beach but the only thing I remember clearly is the huge excitement at the end of the month. The people talked excitedly about something called “war”, a word I had not heard before. They started packing and left in a hurry and the beach got emptier and emptier. Finally, my mother too packed up and I heard her say that we had to catch the last boat which was leaving that afternoon. We reached Braunschweig with greatest difficulties on the day World War I had begun, August 1, 1914.
Soldiers were everywhere, the air was explosive, strangers fell into each other’s arms, people who had never met kissed in the street. It was like a tremendous holiday. The masses sang and screamed and I ran along with the soldiers that marched through the streets. Flowers were thrown from windows and everybody told everybody that, of course, Germany would win, and the war would be over by Christmas.
My mother was British by birth and French due to her marriage; thus she was a “double” enemy. Every other day, she had to go to the police station to register. Generally, I went along and in spite of my young age, I very soon knew which policemen were nice and which were mean. Sometimes my mother had such severe headaches that she couldn’t budge. Invariably on those days a policeman would come to the door, stick his head into my mother’s room to make sure she was in bed. Immediately after the war had ended, there was another day to register. My mother asked the officer at the desk, somehow hesitantly, whether she had to keep coming. I still hear his answer, “As far as I am con-cerned, you can stay away.
A family with a son who was exactly as old as I was lived in our house. We started school on the same day, Easter 1915. There is a picture of the two of us, each holding an oversized “Zuckertuten” (sugar bag).’ [This is a German custom in which every child on the first day of school receives a cone-shaped cardboard container filled with goodies.] It is true that we were photographed together but we went to different schools as boys and girls were strictly separated. At that time, it was still possible to send me at the very beginning to the “Lyzeum” which meant that I went to the same school from which I finally graduated after passing the so-called “Abitur.” My first teacher was Miss Kuhlmann who, for a few years, had been my mother’s classmate when she had gone to school in Braunschweig after coming from London. She and I even had the same principal.
I remember my first school day very well. I was happy and excited and wore a new dress that my mother had made for me. It was light blue with a red patent leather belt and a white collar. On my back I carried a satchel and over the shoulder a small box-like leather case with my sandwich; both were presents from my grandmother.
It was a gorgeous morning when hand in hand with my mother I walked to school, a long way for a little girl. First the endless Kaiser Wilhelm Street, then crossing the bridge over the Oker, past the theater, along Steinweg to City Hall and between the monument of the lion and the cathedral to the narrow street that led to my school where, from then on, I would go for thirteen years.
My mother said “good bye” to me and for the first time I was all by myself, that is to say without any member of my family or anyone I knew.
Recess was at 10 o’clock and we went to the schoolyard to play. Under the memorial oak tree in the center of the yard I saw a little girl with long blond curls and a red dress. I thought she looked very pretty and I went up to her asking whether she would like to play with me. She nodded “yes” and that was the beginning of a life-long friendship. The girl was Ingeborg Matte.
Very soon I noticed another girl in class who always answered every question first. Just like Inge she still belongs to my closest friends. Helga’s father was my beloved eye-specialist Dr. Maertens. I want to relate a typical Helga story. Our teacher had told us about Mary and Joseph and that Joseph, before going on a trip, said “Auf Wiedersehen” to his wife whereupon Helga raised her hand and promptly announced, “Those days they still said ‘adieu’.” This had been the common farewell greeting in German until the outbreak of the war.
There is so much that I remember from my school days that I shall not try to tell the various incidents chronologically but the way they come to my mind.
The war was good and bad for us children. We enjoyed it that coal was scarce or not obtainable at all as that meant “coal vacation” because the schools could not be heated. During the summer it was a treat to go to the woods with our teachers to pick berries and gather nuts. Food was so scarce that everything nature offered had to be used. For the animals we collected chestnuts and acorns and pine cones were in great demand as a substitute for coal and firewood.
Very often I was hungry, very hungry, but I am convinced that my grand-mother and my mother suffered much more. They gave me all they could spare, e.g. the one egg that each person got once a month. After almost 70 years I recall that a friend gave my mother a loaf of bread, the most precious gift one could receive at that time.
Not everyone had as little as we had. Some people obtained food “under the counter.” Either they knew methods how to bribe the merchants or they had hoarded before things became so scarce. Some fortunate ones had country con-nections and got eggs, flour and even butter directly from the farmers or some gave their silver, jewelry and similar valuable objects as exchange. My grand-mother’s oldest sister owned a huge farm, a so-called “Gut”, but she never sent us anything, which my grandmother resented bitterly especially when she learned that her sister gave large quantities to hospitals and similar institutions. These generous donations, however, were written up in the newspapers with her name listed.
I still remember when in the middle of the war I visited a cousin my age who got hungry while we played. She took me to the larder where long reddish “things” on big hooks were hanging from the ceiling. She sliced off a big piece of one of those strange objects and ate it with gusto. Returning home I asked my mother what these “things” might have been. She called them sausages. Edit’s father dealt in textiles and probably had good connections to the farmers nearby.
It was impossible to buy shoes during the war but our shoemaker had invented a method to lengthen shoes. They looked fairly funny after this pro-cedure and I hated them. Still, I had to wear them. In the summer I ran around in wooden sandals that I preferred ever so much in spite of their noisy clatter. My dresses were made longer with remnants which seemed better to me than a friend’s dress that her mother had sewn using an old flag. One girl even came to school in a dress made out of paper.
There were quite a few big and small joys. One of our favorite hobbies was collecting and exchanging glossy pictures that were pasted into an album. For an especially beautiful rose bouquet I had acquired a Scottish soldier playing a bag-pipe. With pride I showed this picture to my mother who turned it over and discovered written on the back, “God punish England.” She tore it up in front of my eyes. I must have been eight years old and have never forgotten it.
Among the high points of our school days were the excursions that we under-took once or twice a year with our teachers. In the lower grades the nearby “Elm” was usually our goal. We got there by slow local train that rang a bell at every crossing and we traveled 4th class. That stopped existing decades ago. Once there we loved to listen to the stories of Till Eulenspiegel who supposedly was born in the village of Kneitlingen in the Elm and not far from there we visited the stone monument “Tetzelstein” that reminded us of the preacher Johann Tetzel who collected money from those who believed that would help them go to heaven instead of hell. When we grew older, we traveled to the Harz and hiked there for many hours. My almost nostalgic love for this romantic mountain range stems, I think, from those days.
For weeks we looked forward to these school excursions and also to the birthday parties of our friends. My mother always had some very special treats. There were “hit the pot” and other competitive games with all kinds of small prizes as our rewards. Once she had arranged for a magician to entertain us and another time a neighbor gave a puppet show. My friends still talk about these parties and one of them reminded me of the rolls with a chocolate bar baked into them.
The annual school festival was another great event. It generally took place at a large garden cafe in the midst of a forest. There were games, performances and all types of various sport offerings. I remember my pride when I took part in the relay race and my team one.
Since my mother, as an enemy alien”, was not permitted to leave the house after dark, she had to think of some home entertainment. Thus, she organized a regular music evening that was attended by friends and acquaintances every Monday night. A former school friend, Elsie McKean Kiel, sang and my mother accompanied her on the piano. By the way, Elsie and her sister Kathie had come to Braunschweig as children exactly like my mother and her sister. Their reason had been that their father was invited from Dundee, Scotland to come to Braun-schweig to take over the directorship of the local jute factory. After his retirement he returned to Scotland with Kathie. But in the meantime Elsie had married the Braunschweig businessman Arthur Kiel and therefore stayed on. As it happened she was just as British as my mother but, due to her marriage, had become a German citizen and was not considered an enemy alien.” I loved these music evenings and listened to them in bed from my room next door. After my mother heard me sobbing a few times, the program had to be changed around. The sad songs like Goethe’ s “Erlkbnig”, Lowe’s “The Clock” and others had to be sung after I had fallen asleep.
I have mentioned before that my grandmother lived in the apartment above us. I adored her, she was an unusually kind and wise woman and her unending concern for me contributed in a decisive way to the happiness of my childhood. From time to time she invited me to sleep at her apartment. It was like going on a trip. Finally, a real trip materialized and I remember so well how happy and excited I was. During the summer vacation of 1917 we traveled to her sister’s place in Silesia and for four unforgettable weeks I enjoyed country life at its best.
Soon after our return I stood in our backyard together with Hilde Oelmann when suddenly we heard a terrifically loud blast and saw flames shooting up to the sky. My mother called from the window, “Quick, quick into the house!” and a second later half a plane fell into our courtyard.
Shortly after that I was in bed with a cold when I heard the children playing in the street calling up to me, “A plane has just landed at the Franzsche Feld” (a big meadow behind the park). My mother was not home so I implored the maid, successfully, to let me get up. I still see us racing through the park and there it really was: a small double decker plane whose pilot had achieved this emergency landing. What an exciting experience! At that moment I was convinced that this was not only the first but also the only plane I would ever see in my life.
Another incident that happened in the street was less dramatic. I was play-ing with my friends when a truck loaded with cabbages passed our house. Just at that very moment a whole lot of cabbages rolled off the truck without the driver noticing it. We ran to pick up a few of them and very proud of myself, I took a huge head as a present to my mother. To my great disappointment she did not seem as pleased as I had expected and explained to me that this was a kind of stealing. I could not understand that at all and even today I am not convinced.
It must have been at about the same time (we were 8 or 9 years old) when Inge, Helga, Marie-Kathrin and I decided to found a club (Kranzchen) that later got two new members, Sophie-Luise and Hilde when they joined our class. We called it “Kranzchen Lustig”; it existed through our entire school years and we remain friends until now. We met regularly once a week taking turns at one or the others home. During the summer we played outside, in winter mostly party games in the house. When we grew older we read books to each other, discussed problems that were of importance to all of us and once in a while we organized a small fair where we sold our handiwork to friends and relatives and used the money we collected for Christmas presents for poor children.
Another of our undertakings was a letter of congratulation to Kaiser Wilhelm II in honor of his 59th birthday on January 27, 1918. We were overjoyed when we received an answer and wanted to cut the letter into four equal parts but then decided to raffle it. I was the lucky winner and got the letter but unfortunately I don’t know what happened to it. Marie-Kathrin got the envelope.
In winter, friends and classmates sometimes met on the big pond for skating at one of the parks and during very severe winters even on the Oker river when skating was permitted there. Tobogganing was winter fun too. In spite of the war and many hardships, we had a good time.
In summer we took long walks; a favorite walk led through a park to a small village with a beautiful ancient church, to a garden cafe at the edge of the forest. There we stopped for a glass of raspberry juice and then continued through the woods and along the ponds that were stocked with carp and populated by water-birds.
I was six years old when my grandmother and my mother took me to the theater for the very first time to see the Christmas show, a fairy tale. From then on it became an annual event which I looked forward to all year. It was not only the performance with all its dancing and singing and the many children playing in it that made it into such a lovely show, there was a lot more added by the festive anticipation, like putting on one s prettiest dress. And then, full of expectation, one sat on the red plush seats waiting for the enormous curtain to slowly go up.
During the intermission, my grandmother offered delicious candies that mysteriously came out of her bag, and at the very end, when you thought that everything was over, the beloved comedian, Herman Mesmer, dressed as Santa Claus, walked through the aisles distributing apples and nuts.
Almost coinciding with my first visit to the theater, my grandmother started taking me to the art museum where I very soon discovered that I loved certain paintings so much that I wanted to look at them again and again. Among my favorites were Rembrandt’s famous picture “The Family”, Vermeer’s masterwork “The Girl with the Wine Glass” and above all one by Cornelius de Voss that showed a couple with six or seven of their adolescent children. All of these I studied so carefully that I can visualize them today. One picture, however, scared and frightened me. It was “Judith Holding the Head of Holofernes” by Rubens.
As my grandmother realized how much I enjoyed music, she decided to take me, at a relatively young age, to the dress rehearsals of the subscription concerts which took place Sunday mornings at the theater. I was only eight years old when I heard Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony for the first time but I shall never forget the overwhelming impression.
The winter of 1917-18 was horrible. The German army lost one battle after the other. There was practically not a single family that did not mourn the loss of a father, a brother, or a husband. One saw more and more wounded and crippled soldiers in the street and the people looked worn, starved and desperate. No victories were celebrated anymore at school and there was absolutely nothing to eat but turnips. One ate turnips for breakfast, lunch and supper. Even jam was made from turnips and for decades after, my mother could not stand the word “turnip.” That winter was called the “turnip winter.”
Adding to all these troubles it was a particularly severe winter with lots of ice and snow and as there was no coal, people suffered terribly from the cold and also lacked sufficient warm clothing to protect themselves. I owned a pair of galoshes, a most valuable item those days. One day on the way to school I had to trudge through snow drifts and discovered to my horror when I arrived that I had lost one of my precious galoshes. I cried bitterly, so bitterly that the teacher took pity and permitted me to run back the entire stretch attempting to find it. Step by step I looked and at last, halfway down Kaiser Wilhelm Street, I dis-covered it. Even today I know the exact spot where I saw something sticking in the snow. I cried with joy, nothing could have made me happier at that moment.
The overall situation grew worse from day to day. Everybody was dis-couraged and even we children knew that we had to expect a complete collapse. It therefore did not come as a surprise that on November 9, 1918 the German Republic was proclaimed. The Kaiser had abdicated and had left the country to find refuge in Holland. The German army was retreating.
One or two days later, before we had time to realize the extent of the happen-ings and to recover from the initial shock, we received a clearer picture of what all this really meant. We had just got to school when we suddenly heard furious screams and shouts from the street, crashing noises and soon even shooting. After a few minutes our principal entered the classroom and told us with a serious face that the revolution had erupted and that no child was allowed to leave school unless he or she was accompanied by a grownup. I waited till my mother came. By that time the main thoroughfares were blocked off, barricades were erected and barbed wire was put up. Wild fellows raced threatening and shouting through the streets and we saw soldiers, sailors, policemen and even women that furiously raised their fists and many of them carried small red flags. The detours took hours but finally we reached our house and had been lucky to get home all right because in the meantime there was shooting in most of the streets. The Duke of Braunschweig and his whole family had left town a day after his abdication on November 8th. The youngest child, his only daughter, Friederike, (born 1917) was a tiny baby. She later became Queen of Greece.
It took days, maybe even weeks for school to reopen. By the time it did, a very peaceful army had moved in, “The American Society of Friends,” and from one day to the next each child received during recess a steaming bowl of Quaker Oats and a large cup of delicious cocoa. After years of starvation this offering was a most welcome treat. A similar joy I experienced when a saleswoman at a large food store gave me a small piece of chocolate -- it was a little square, but as far as I remember, I nibbled tiny bits for a week. Due to the war I had com-pletely forgotten how chocolate looked and how it tasted.
Gradually the German people got used to the idea that the Monarchy didn’t exist anymore and was replaced by the Republic. By and by daily life might have normalized had inflation not overpowered us. During the five years after the war it grew rapidly to incredible and grotesque dimensions. It reached fantastic proportions that developed into tragedies for millions of people. In most cases it was terrible, in a few almost comical.
Men came home with their wages during lunch hour so that their wives could go shopping immediately as prices often doubled by evening. At one point, a roll cost as much as the fees for three months of school. (In Germany one had to pay for school.) A family friend visiting her relatives in the U.S. sent me a dollar for my birthday. This dollar, changed into German marks, rendered such a huge amount of money that my mother arranged a party for my entire class of 40 girls. Mountains of cake were offered and there were lots of surprises and after that enough money was left that I could still get a new outfit. When we traveled to the seaside in July 1923, the taxi to the station cost as much as three first class tickets for the train trip. In November the mark had reached astronomical figures and overnight a completely new currency was introduced which reduced the mark to its original value.
As I said earlier I had refused to keep up my French when I was a young child, but immediately after the war it began to annoy me that my grandmother and my mother talked English when they did not want me to understand. Thus I announced one day that I wanted to learn English before I had it at school. To make it more amusing for me, my mother pooled her efforts with friends who lived down the street. They had three children my age. The mother came from a well known Jewish family, the father, Mr. von Buren, was an American and distantly related to President Van Buren. This, however, was of no special interest to me at the time. We met once a week and my mother and Mr. von Buren really managed to teach us in a delightful way. We played all kinds of games, had question-and-answer contests, and it did not take too long until we were able to read simple English books. We were learning the language without noticing it.
During the war my mother had not been allowed to travel. Therefore I was overjoyed when in July 1919 she suggested that we should spend my summer vacation at a farmhouse in the Liineburger Heide. There was a nice woman who rented rooms to summer guests. I was delighted to see quite a lot of children when we arrived and cheerfully ran out to play with them the next morning. To my sad surprise I heard the biggest girl call to the others, while pointing at me, “With that one we don’t want to play” and all of them ran away. I could not understand and I don’t recall whether my mother explained it to me or whether I figured it out myself; in any case, this was the first and indeed the only time during my childhood that I clearly encountered anti-Semitism.
While writing these memoirs, maybe due to the intensive thinking about Braunschweig, recollections arise that I want to add to this account, mainly because they seem typical for the town where I grew up. There are, for instance, two characters whom we children often met on our way home from school: they were Harfen-Agnes (Harp Agnes) and Rechen-August (Arithmetic August). The street urchins ran howlingly after them, while we were somehow afraid but stopped in spite of that to listen to Agnes’ sentimental songs which she accompanied on her guitar. She wore a huge hat, a wide pleated skirt and color-ful scarves, torn and dirty, that added to her wild appearance. August, on the other hand, looked quite distinguished in his shabby black suit and a top hat on his enormous head. He was a partial moron but was obsessed with numbers and collected old time-tables that he studied and learned by heart. He was also com-petent in other fields. Once, after asking me my birthday he told me promptly that I had been born on a Thursday, which was correct. Supposedly he lived from a pension that he received from the medical faculty of Göttingen University to whom he had bequeathed his brain after his death.
Masch-Agnes probably owed her name to the fair that came to Braunschweig every year, called “die Masch”. There Agnes was a regular. For my friends and me this fair was a big event with those innumerable booths and all the other usual attractions. For relatively little money we could have hours of fun.
Quite close to the meadow where the “Masch” took place, just one trolley stop further on, was the old Jewish cemetery where I went every September with my grandmother and my mother on my grandfather’s birthday. Strange as it sounds, I looked forward to this annual “expedition”, as it was during chestnut time and I could fill my bag, specially taken for this purpose, with the biggest and most beautiful chestnuts. It was an unexpected surprise to still find this old cemetery when I returned to Braunschweig in 1952 for the first time. It was overgrown and smaller, due to street widening, but it was there. My grandparents’ grave (for it was also my grandmother’s resting place since 1937) was untouched, quite close to the old cemetery wall, exactly the way I remembered it.
Every child, I think, reflects sooner or later upon the profession he or she wants to choose. My first idea was to become a gardener; very soon, however, I realized that I would like to work with children. At an early age, I started organizing games with neighborhood children and I was ten years old when I had my first pupil. She was six years old, Heidi von der Schulenburg who lived diagonally across the street and needed help in arithmetic. Even at school it was noticed that I loved to teach and from time to time the teachers let me take over a lesson. My classmates hated it as they found me much too strict. My favorite subjects were English and German. During the last school years I tutored a lot in English and I owe it to this language that I passed the final exam, the “Abitur.” I was so hopelessly poor in math that the great danger existed that I would fail. One of my fellow students was excellent in this subject but her English was weak. Thus, during the last school year we tutored each other with positive results. In fact, my math teacher, who had given up on me a long time before, was quite amazed as I had been his poorest student for years, an “honor” that I shared with Sophie Luise Dedekind. Her father was the nephew of the great mathematician Richard Dedekind. When our teacher returned our tests, he threw mine on my desk with visible contempt but carried Sophie Luise’s to her seat and said sadly “Miss Dedekind, it breaks my heart to put an ‘F’ under the name Dedekind.” I thanked my stars not to be burdened with such a famous name.
My favorite teacher, who also had the greatest influence on me, was Miss Westphal. We had her for six long years in English. She was our homeroom teacher, too. As she had lived and taught in England for several years, she knew the subject to perfection. She was strict but fair and was equally respected by her colleagues and her students.
All of us were very fond of Dr. Crassus whose name was really Dr. Sievers, but even parents did not know this and frequently asked for Dr. Crassus when they came to school. His students had given him this nickname before the First World War when he was still round and chubby. He taught Latin but the language was secondary to him, what he really taught us was to love nature. As I see now, he was the first person I met who was a conservationist, so common today but practically unknown then. Nothing was easier than distracting him to his favorite topic: “Nature”, and it happened ever so often that the school bell rang at the end of the period and he realized, all upset, that he had not even started with Latin.
He loved to hike and it was he who proposed to us that we should form a hiking club and that we should find a place in the Harz Mountains where we could spend weekends. We were 14 years old and just in our class was a group of girls who were seriously interested in this project. Thus we became the originators of the Landschulheim (a kind of retreat) in Altenau (a small town in the Harz). The first step was to rent a loft above a pigsty. This loft was furnished with crates and homemade bunkbeds. For mattresses we filled potato sacks with straw. We washed in the back behind the shed. Our original group, consisting of ten girls, grew so fast that our place proved too small. The idea came up to buy a house in Altenau; money was needed which was raised through two immense bazaars. The entire school with its one thousand students participated. There were dozens of booths, performances of all kinds, games and raffles and such vast amounts of voluntary donations that many thousand marks were collected and the house was bought. It still exists.
I have to mention one more teacher whom I worshipped. She was Miss Voss who was our class teacher in 7th grade. She was small, slightly plump and not particularly pretty, but she radiated warmth and friendliness and had a talent to make us work. Just to please her we tried to do our best. We were looking forward to having her as a teacher for one more year when we were told, at the beginning of the new term, that she had died during the vacation. It was the first shattering encounter, at least for me, with death of a person I had dearly loved.
Something new was introduced the following year, the positions of so-called “Vertrauensschülerinnen (confidence students) were established. They were elected by the class, and the teachers had to confirm them. It was their task to be a link between the students and the faculty. In cases of injustice or misunder-standing they were supposed to even them out and, if possible, were expected to solve problems of different kinds and magnitudes. To my utter surprise I was elected and re-elected from then on for six years until graduation. It speaks for my fellow students and their lack of prejudice as I was the only Jewish girl in my class and also for my teachers that they accepted me in spite of my mediocre grades. With the exception of languages, I was even a poor student in certain subjects.
My only Jewish friend, Annette Meyersfeld, I got to know outside of school. She went to a small private school, but just like me she had religious instruction every Wednesday and Saturday afternoon at the Jewish Community Center. I hated these enforced lessons that ruined two otherwise free afternoons. The only consolation was to meet Annette who became a close friend within a short time. She was a vivacious, very beautiful girl and came from an elegant and wealthy home. In the course of years I spent many wonderful hours at her house. There were lovely parties and marvelous trips by car, something very special at that time. When we were in our late teens, Annette arranged a regular evening where, with two young lawyers, we read and discussed selected chapters of recent books. One of them, Curt Staff, was already then the best-read man I ever met. He, I remember, introduced us to the “Magic Mountain” by Thomas Mann.
I liked Annette’s parents who were especially nice to me. Her father came from an old established banking family and her mother was born and raised in Paris. Both were very much interested in art and their house was furnished with great taste. Around the turn of the century Annette’s grandfather had presented Braunschweig with the delightful Eulenspiegel fountain. A small plaque commemorat-ing this gift, as I was told, was removed during the Nazi years. Then something incredible happened. Within a matter of hours -- it was the night of October 14/15, 1944 -- the entire old city of Braunschweig was destroyed in a bombing attack. The next morning scarcely a house was standing, but amidst all the smoldering ruins and the debris there, on the rim of his fountain, sat Till Eulenspiegel with his broad grin completely untouched.
A few years before the Nazis came into power the Meyersfeld family had been hit by a catastrophe. Many banks collapsed on account of the world-wide economic crisis of 1929. The Meyersfeld Bank, too, was a victim and from one day to the next the family lost almost everything they had possessed with only one exception, they were able to retain the beautiful mansion that had housed the Bank. Mrs. Meyersfeld, who until then had never lifted a finger, decided to turn this building into an elegant Cafe. In a relatively short time the Meyersfeld Cafe, across from the old station, became the favorite meeting place for the Braunschweig people until, only a few years later, the National Socialist dictatorship came upon us.
On May 1, 1933, Mrs. Meyersfeld forbade the swastika flag to be raised on her building. Her own manager, who had concealed that he was a Nazi, denounced her and the same day she was arrested and taken to prison. I shall never forget how the following morning the immense prison gate was opened for Annette and me when we delivered to the gatekeeper a small suitcase with her mother’s most needed belongings. Some months later, on September 10, Mrs. Meyersfeld was released; she owed this solely to Annette’s connections to the highest authorities. In 1928 Annette had lived in Berlin for a short while and had been friends with a group of young officers to which Goering belonged. One of them, whose name was Körner, fell in love with her and even proposed, but she refused. He told her, however, before she returned to Braunschweig that she should contact him if ever she needed help. He kept his promise.
During my teens, like all my friends, I used every penny of my allowance to go to the theater. We bought the cheapest tickets, even standing room high up under the roof, the so-called “Olympus” and enjoyed immensely whatever was offered. We loved operas, saw the classics and modern plays and once in a while guest performances of famous artists. The greatest experience was an evening with Anna Pavlova where she danced her immortal “Dying Swan.”
I have to say, though, that some achievements of our local actors and actresses made such a lasting impression that a couple of times, seeing a Broadway play, I caught myself thinking it was almost as good as a Braunschweig perfor-mance. I could name quite a few, but one stands out above all, it is Zuckmayer’s deeply moving circus play “Katharina Knie” with Helmuth Gmelin as the clown.
I was almost seventeen years old when I knew that I wanted to go into some kind of teaching. My mother, who guided my life with intuition, intelligence and love, decided that I should have a little voice training as, from her experience, she knew how tired her voice felt after hours of tutoring. A friend recommended one of our best known actresses for these lessons who very reluctantly agreed to instruct me just five times as she did not want to take students any more. I got these rather expensive five lessons as a birthday present.
From the very beginning I realized that I would profit enormously from these lessons, not merely in regard to my voice. Irma Scarla was not only a great actress, she also was a highly educated woman, an outstanding teacher and a wonderful human being. I cannot say whether it was my enthusiasm or what else it was, in any case she seemed to forget about the “threatened” five times and let me continue on and on. And not only that, the lessons became longer and longer and we also started taking extensive walks. Irma Scarla also came to visit us, and another lifelong friendship developed that lasted till 1974 when I saw her for the last time in Germany shortly before her death at the age of 96. Far beyond the knowledge acquired at school, I learned a great deal about literature and poetry. We talked about philosophy, politics, and world problems. But most of all I heard about facts of life that, in the overly protected atmosphere in which I had grown up, were never discussed at home. In later years when she had retired from the theater and moved back to Munich where she was born, I visited her frequently and from there we took trips together. A two-week knapsack-hiking tour through the Dolomites was an unforgettable experience.
In November 1925 the friend who had sent me the dollar some years before told us that her brother and his wife were coming from Los Angeles and that these relatives would stay in Braunschweig for a few months. Mr. and Mrs. Sanders had hardly arrived when she brought them to our house, probably because she did not have too many friends who spoke English. Until then I had never met real Americans and although I had not expected to encounter Indians, I had certain lopsided ideas. In any case, meeting them seemed most interesting to me. Mr. Sanders was a friendly, rather elderly gentlemen, not especially stimulating but evidently a successful businessman. Mrs. Sanders looked at least 20 years younger, and was to my idea very pretty, overly made up, and extremely elegant. It amused me that she only knew one German word, “liverwurscht.” I was delighted to have this chance to practice my English and she was glad to have somebody to talk to. On my way home, passing their hotel, I visited her quite often.
Sometimes I spent two hours with her just chatting. She told me that they had no children, that she appreciated what her husband was doing for her but that in principle she was bored to death and that she was really hoping for some adventure. The “adventure” soon happened in the form of a young cellist who played at the hotel every evening. He did not know any English and she no German, still they managed to fall in love with each other. Before I knew it I was drawn into playing the role of a go-between. It was the first and, as far as I know, the only time in my life that I had to play this part. I was fully aware of the fact that she flirted with the cellist behind her husband’s back while I took scribbled messages to the young musician which I had to translate to him. He, on the other hand, wrote love letters in German. Whether the affair went further is beyond my knowledge but I don’t think so. Suddenly, however, I felt very grown up, especially as I had to assume that I was her only confidante on whose shoulder she could cry.
By Christmas we were good friends and for New Year’s Eve Mr. and Mrs. Sanders invited my grandmother, my mother and me together with his sister and her son, Walter, to join them at their hotel. There was a huge dinner followed by entertainment, performed by actors and singers from the theater whom one knew so well and the MC was Mesmer, the Santa Claus of my childhood days. After all this excitement, music and dancing began and suddenly Walter discovered a former classmate among the guests sitting with his sister and her husband Helmuth Gmelin. He was the young painter Ulfert Wilke whom he brought to our table. Ulfert told us that he had just returned from Paris and was planning to go to England soon. Out of this first meeting a lasting friendship developed.
As Ulfert came from a famous Braunschweig family of painters -- his father was the co-founder of “Simplizissimus”, the German counterpart of “Punch” -- should just like to skip quite a few years in my account to relate what happened to him. In September 1938, Ulfert arrived in America to visit my husband and me in New Rochelle for six weeks. After that stay, however, he could not bring himself to return to Nazi Germany and remained in the U.S. As artist, art collec-tor, university professor and director of several museums, he enjoyed quite an outstanding and distinguished career in this country. He married a woman of German extraction, has three grown children and, since his retirement, lives on his farm in Iowa during the summer and spends the winter at his home in Hawaii, where, by chance, we happened to be present at the most delightful housewarming party in 1979.
In the fall of 1927 we started to prepare for the dreaded final exam, the “Abitur.” I worked harder than ever and tried desperately to make up the work of twelve relatively lazy years and to fill the gaps that should not have existed. I trembled and was terribly afraid that I would fail the exam, it looked more than doubtful that I could pass. It was not much of a consolation that my grand-fatherly uncle, Dr. Alfred Sternthal, who played an important part in my life, told me that, at the age of 70, he still woke up with nightmares having dreamt that he had to pass the Abitur once more.
Immediately after Christmas we were given the four written tests. German I had always liked; English, was child’s play; mathematics, due to the above-mentioned help, was not too bad, but Latin was gruesome. We were to translate a text by Cicero that I messed up completely. The oral exam followed on February 23. This was the end; “life or death” was my mood. My memory is somehow veiled, I only remember that all seventeen of us who had taken the exam sat, as it seemed to us, endlessly in our classroom waiting and waiting for the verdict. It was the day of “Last Judgment”. Finally, the door opened and the youngest of our teachers came in with a radiant smile. He did not have to say a word, we knew that all of us had passed. We screamed, danced, sang and fell into each other’s arms.
The feeling of relief, liberation and happiness was so overwhelming that I wish everybody, once in a lifetime, could go through a similar moment of ecstasy. 4 raced home to tell my mother and my grandmother; I think I flew.
Most of my classmates started with their university studies that same spring, but I postponed if for one term, as I had a very tempting invitation. My mother’s friend, Elsie McKean-Kiel, had suggested that I should visit her sister who lived in a suburb of Dundee. Apart from those very early travels from and back to France this meant my first trip abroad. It became another unforgettable experience. I was enchanted with Scotland, with the people I met, and with all the things we did while I was there. I remember that stay so lovingly that I hoped to return. This wish was fulfilled. Together with my husband I revisited Scotland in 1969 and again was enchanted.
After that long and so impressive trip, I was more than ready to begin with my studies. The Braunschweig Institute of Technology (as of April 1, 1968, Technical University of Braunschweig) had just added a new department, for the training of grade school teachers, and offered exactly the courses I was interested in: education, psychology, philosophy and sociology. I enrolled in the fall of 1928.
Our group of students was strangely mixed; it consisted of highly intelligent, quite sophisticated young people, of whom some would be called “radicals” today. Most of the others were relatively harmless sons and daughters of farmers from the surrounding villages. Our professors were “mixed” too, at least in regard to quality. Theodor Geiger, the sociologist, was outstanding and is now named among the leading sociologists of his time. The psychologist, Prof. Herwig, was an excellent teacher. Adolf Jensen, together with Wilhelm Paulsen, had created the first progressive school in Germany. He was marvelous in the demonstration lessons that he conducted in some of the elementary schools, but he was a poor lecturer. The philosopher, Prof. Moog, had written several good textbooks and was considered competent in his field; as a human being, however, he made a pathetic impression. It was painful to listen to his lectures. He was afflicted with an awful stammer that, at times, got so bad that the students stamped their feet in anger. This in turn upset the poor man to such a degree that he fled from the auditorium cursing and practically in tears. His final step was tragic -- he ended his life killing himself.
Education courses we took with August Riekel. He was a rather young man with ingenious but blown-up ideas. He was married to an elderly affluent dress-maker who was well known in Braunschweig. It was rumored that she had given him the money for the much too ostentatious pedagogical institute that he established in one of the most beautiful mansions in Braunschweig. The whole project collapsed after a short time -and he was dismissed from the Institute of Technology by disciplinary procedure. He was the typical opportunist, for I was told that he wrote successful plays for the National Socialists a few years later.
Aside from the four main subjects, we were obliged to take one elective. I chose German literature with Prof. Hoppe. Some of my fellow students decided on mathematics - how could they?! They talked about a young professor, who was brilliant, but also very strict. I was not even interested in his name.
I enjoyed my courses and profited enormously. In the spring of 1932 I got my degree. As so often in my life, my mother had made wonderful summer plans for me. I was to go to Paris for a few months to improve my French. That was my reason for declining, for the time being, the assistantship that Prof. Geiger had offered me.
I arrived in Paris at the beginning of July 1932 and registered for courses at the “Alliance Francaise” where the secretary, after noticing my birthplace, said to me: “Oh, vous etes Ia Francaise qui ne parle pas francais”.
My fellow students came from all over the world and after a short while we had formed a group of five or six out to “conquer” Paris with all her beauty. All of us were eager students but enough time was left to enjoy the theaters, the cafes, and the museums and to take extensive walks through the streets, the boulevards, the parks, and along the Seine. Our common language was French and soon we were sufficiently fluent to be able to discuss any topic. Only one of us, a German fellow, blond and blue-eyed and very intelligent, remained strangely silent. He never talked about himself and was cautiously secretive about his reasons for studying in Paris. It never occurred to us to be careful with what we discussed, even when it came to politics. Only months later it struck me, and I am sure I was right, that he was a Nazi and that he was sent by the party. I lost all contact with him but stayed friendly with an English boy who even came to Braunschweig to visit me. I also corresponded for several years with a Norwegian girl. As I had kept her address, I rediscovered her when we were in Oslo in 1977.
Immediately after my return, at the end of October, I notified Geiger that I was back and ready to start for him. He had found a small office for me within the Institute and I worked there every day for many hours. Geiger’s very inter- esting project, which he wanted to use for a book, required a huge amount of material that I was to collect and prepare. Part of it was to be my dissertation.
His idea was to research the distribution of talent in all the German-speaking countries through the centuries. We were to get the basic information from the twenty-six fat volumes of the “Allgemeine Deutsche Biographie”. This meant reading, reading, and once more reading and I had to make notes on index cards that were specially designed for this purpose. The Biographie, going back to the year 800, contained descriptions of all the men and women who had made a name for themselves in science, art, literature, history or politics. In many cases one short sentence was sufficient to indicate the most essential contribution, but there were also pages and pages about quite a number of them. It was my task to find out what profession the person had had, what the father had been, when and where he or she was born, and above all, what special reason was given for the name to be immortalized in this encyclopedia. This part of the research took in itself over a year and by the time I was finished, I had filled nineteen thousand index cards.
I had started this work, as I have mentioned, at the end of October. Shortly before Christmas I told Geiger that I intended to visit my friend in Munich during the holiday. “What a peculiar coincidence” he said, “my parents live there and I also plan to go. Could we not travel together?” This was arranged and turned into a strangely exciting trip. It was on this trip that it hit me for the first time and to my utter surprise that Geiger did not only appreciate me as a co-worker, but that his interest went far beyond -- in fact, that he considered marriage. This realization was a terrible shock. I was 24 years old, he 40. I admired him tremendously as a scholar and teacher. His personality fascinated me. I liked him very much but I did not love him. It made me sad to hurt him but he respected my honesty and I was grateful for his understanding. We did not travel back together but I continued to work for him.
Only a few weeks had passed after this memorable event when, on January 31, 1933, every headline all over the world announced that President Paul von Hindenburg had nominated the leader of the National Socialist Party, Adolf Hitler, as Chancellor, a man who so far had not been taken seriously by most people. I think that neither the German people nor the rest of the world grasped at that very moment what consequences this nomination was going to carry.
Life went on, unchanged, as if nothing extraordinary had happened and I personally did not think about it either. I found myself in a state of happy excitement because some next-door friends had invited me to join them at the annual Braunschweig stage ball, the so-called “Bra Bü Ba” which was the great social event of the year. It regularly took place in February. I had heard a lot about it without ever attending it. Like a child I was looking forward to the festivity and counted the days. Adding to all this good fortune was my grand-mother’s generous gift: she had presented me with a new dress. It was, accord-ing to my wishes, a long, black gown and very beautiful.
At last the day had come - it was February 4, 1933 - a date that I shall never forget. It was to become the most important date in my life. That evening I could hardly believe that this elegant creature was really I. The doorbell rang and there was my friend Eva to pick me up. Together with her parents we drove to the big hall where the “Bra Bü Ba” was going to be. The evening started with magnificent performances as all the actors and actresses, the singers and the dancers did their very best since all the money collected that evening was meant for the widows and orphans connected with the theater.
Around midnight the music set in and approximately two thousand partygoers started to dance, one after the other. I sat next to Eva, looking on, and we were pleased to recognize familiar faces from time to time. Suddenly, with short quick steps, a slim young man in a tuxedo came up to us. I had never seen him and nudged Eva when be bowed, assuming that he was a friend of hers inviting her to dance. She, however, nudged back and a second later I realized that the bow had been meant for me. I stood up hesitantly and somewhat dazed and then we danced and danced and danced. We chatted and laughed and continued to dance, only interrupting for a glass of champagne that he offered me. I was in a radiantly happy mood, told him that I worked at the Institute of Technology and noticed that he, too, seemed to know this Institute. “Are you also a student?” I asked. His answer was a grin, neither yes nor no. And on we went dancing, always dancing. The hours were flying when suddenly it struck me that I had come here with friends. I apologized and told him that I at least had to contact them and explain why I had stayed away for such a long while, “I shall be back in a few minutes.” He looked at me dubiously as if he did not quite believe it. There was great excitement when I returned to the table where several friends had joined Eva and her parents. “Nellie, we saw you dancing with Professor Friedrichs all the time.”
“Oh no, I danced with a young man, a student.”
“That exactly is Professor Friedrichs, he is the youngest professor at the Institute.”
Now the cat was out of the bag, which accounted for the peculiar grin. I went back to him and to my utter surprise he now told me that he had seen me for quite some time on Kaiser Wilhelm Strasse, when he would be was on his way home after an early morning class and I on my way to work. He had wished for an opportunity to talk to me and had come to the “Bra Bü Ba” vaguely hoping to meet me there. And we were still dancing, until, all of a sudden, it was 5:00 a.m. and the ball came to an end.
“Good bye, good bye (auf Wiedersehen), my little room is next to auditorium 3.”
‘‘That is exactly above my office.
And off I ran not to keep my friends waiting any longer.
My mother was still awake when I came home, I talked and talked and did not stop. She sensed what had happened to me and I knew it too. The first twenty-four years of my life were over, a new phase of my life with a different person had begun. I do not recall whether I got any more sleep but I remember clearly that all of Sunday I was too jittery and too restless to do anything sensible. My greatest fear was that in the excitement I had not described sufficiently where my room was, that the man with whom I had danced through this dream-like night would look for me in vain, would not find me, and I was never again to see him.
My fears were unfounded. Earlier than usual I went to the Institute. I tried to work but do not think that I was able to do so when, suddenly, I heard a soft knock and in came, somehow embarrassed, my slim young man. From then on we met, I believe, every day and took long walks. We loved to go through the village of Riddagshausen to the forest beyond and sometimes, towards evening, we stopped for a sandwich at a small country inn. The more we talked, the better we seemed to understand each other and one day, I know, together with my friend Ulfert Wilke, we went to the Meyersfeld Cafe where we met Annette. I invited him for lunch to our house so that I could introduce him to my mother and my grand-mother. He, in turn, invited me to the architects’ fancy dress ball at the Institute where he, by the way, was the only one in a tuxedo as he was used to living in the Rhineland. This caused a funny incident.
He had gone to get a glass of champagne for the two of us and came back to our table with his fast step, when the wife of one of his colleagues impatiently called to him, “Waiter, how much longer do we have to wait for our coffee?” That same evening we sat for quite a while with some other colleagues. The widow of one of them told me, many years later when I visited her in Braunschweig, that her husband was dismissed by the Nazi regime. The reason was that, as President of the Institute, it had been demanded of him to appoint Hitler as professor (since professors in Germany are government employees, that would have automatically made him a German citizen). He had answered this request with the words, “I am not in the habit of appointing unskilled laborers as professors.”
Two weeks had passed after the “Bra Bü Ba” when we decided to go skiing in the Harz Mountains. I was a rather mediocre skier and saw with astonishment and admiration how Frieder, whose first name, Kurt, I had changed that way, was shooting down the slopes. I tried to follow him and landed in his open arms. Twenty-five years later, when we were officially asked to give the date of our engagement, we chose this day, the 18th of February, 1933.
A few more gloriously happy weeks and then, during the first days of March, Frieder left for a skiing trip to Arosa, Switzerland that had been planned months before. There he was going to meet Richard Courant, his professor from G6ttingen, who, in the meantime, had become a close friend.
Meanwhile Hitler had been Chancellor for a whole month; in spite of that I cannot recall that too much was talked about it. Frieder, who had been one of the few who, for his own information, had read “Mein Kampf” from the first to the last page, may have been more aware of what to expect than most people. But even for him it was a shock when he learned in Switzerland what was going on in Germany during his absence. It is part of history that the “Reichstag” burnt down and that the so-far suppressed anti-semitism erupted violently. Jewish businesses were plundered and destroyed, synagogues were set on fire, Jews were attacked in the streets and beaten up and mean anti-Jewish slogans appeared all over. After all these horrifying events, however, there were still quite a lot of Jews who did not recognize the seriousness of the situation and stuck to the illusion that this would blow over soon and could not last more than a few weeks. Courant belonged to this group while Frieder, the non-Jew, was very pessimistic in his view of the future. He felt that his most intimate Jewish friend, Hans Lewy, who left German immediately, was the only one doing the right thing.
I waited desperately for Frieder’s return and got almost sick over it. I was indescribably grateful and relieved when, completely unannounced, he showed up in my room at the end of the month. We both felt the urgent need to discuss the happenings of the last weeks and did so on extended walks.
We still went to concerts and the theater and even traveled together to the North Sea island of Sylt for a few weeks in July. But it also grew clearer and clearer that life for the two of us would not be possible in Germany anymore. We were, however, not yet ready to leave from one day to the next although Professor Geiger was one of those who had done just that. He was not Jewish but had shown and expressed his opposition to the Nazi regime so clearly that his life was threatened and he had to flee the country. He went to Denmark where a position, which he had declined, had been offered to him some years before. Probably I would have followed him to continue my work and write my dissertation if Frieder had not stepped into my life. Instead, I only finished making the excerpts from the “Biographie” and sent the entire material to Geiger in Denmark.
As the situation was, I could not expect to be hired as a grade-school teacher in spite of my certification, but a different type of teaching soon developed. More and more Jewish families considered emigration and mostly to English-speaking countries; thus a great demand for English lessons arose. At times I gave 35 lessons a week and had students of all ages ranging from young children to grandparents. In between, Frieder and I tried to meet but not any-more in public places. In spite of that, a well-meaning acquaintance found it necessary to inform me that it was known that we met and this was dangerous for both of us. So far this was only a personal warning. What we did was not yet against the law, but it was frightening.
It amazes me in retrospect that considering all this that we took a skiing trip to the Dolomites in spring 1934, went on a hiking tour in the Lineburger Heide the following summer and spent another ski vacation in the Alps in 1935. Today these undertakings seem incredibly reckless to me, but miraculously we were spared. Besides all these travels we enjoyed so much, in the face of constantly growing danger, Frieder took me to Ilmenau, the home of his parents, to introduce me to his father and his mother. I shall never forget their warm reception. It must have been absolutely evident to them how seriously interested their son was in this Jewish girl. Under the circumstances it would have been more than understandable if they had refused to see me and had tried everything and anything to convince the son they were so proud of that this was a hopeless tragedy and also a great danger for him and the rest of the family. Instead, they received me with open arms and I shall be forever grateful that I had a chance to meet them. I enormously admired their most generous attitude toward me and I know that it exerted a lasting influence on my own thinking.
Mostly on account of his parents but also not to endanger his sister and his brother, Frieder had to proceed as cautiously as possible with his decision to leave. The more the Nazis showed their intentions, the more we knew that they could not separate us anymore. But how could we get out of Germany and where should we go? Strange to say, I cannot remember, with the exception of a few upsetting moments, that I was desperate those days, hopeless, or full of fear. Somehow I felt an inner security and was mysteriously happy.
The Courant family had emigrated to New York in 1934 and Frieder decided in 1935 to visit them during his long summer vacation. He wanted to discuss his situation with Courant and at the same time find out what chances for a job he might have in the United States. By then he had already eliminated Denmark or any other European country as he felt they were too close to the constantly grow-ing National Socialist threat.
He embarked at Bremen for New York on June 1, 1935. As to me, it must have been some kind of premonition; in any case, I did not want to be in Germany for months while Frieder was in America and I notified my relatives in London, a brother of my father and his family, that I should finally like to accept their long-standing invitation. This visit proved a greater blessing than we could have imagined. While both Frieder and I were abroad the Nazis created a horribly severe new law, the so called “Nürnberger Gesetz” that, with a great many dread-ful decrees, included the paragraph that any contact between Aryans and non- Aryans would be considered a major crime and would mean being sent to concentration camp or even the death penalty.
Our luck in this devastating situation was that we were out of the country and were therefore able to correspond without fear about this latest catastrophe. This would have been impossible if one of us had been in Germany as all of us knew how strict the censorship was. We now had the chance to write to each other and make detailed plans how we would behave and what we would do from now on. Above all it would be out of the question to be seen together and that we had to find ways to communicate.
Frieder’s first step was to extend his stay in the U.S. to explore even more future possibilities to prepare his immigration in 1936. Most important, we arranged to meet in Paris in October on his return trip to Europe so that we could discuss all our plans in peace and quiet. In spite of the dreadful reason that had prompted this secret meeting, our three days in Paris were an incredibly wonder-ful experience.
We traveled to Braunschweig on different trains and, as far as the outside world was concerned, we did not get together anymore. This is not quite so, because on certain pre-designated days we met at midnight at the darkest spot in the “Stadtpark”, the park across from our house. Thinking of it today I feel a shiver going down my spine: if these meetings had been observed by anybody, they could have resulted in a frightening disaster.
Just as in 1935, Frieder had to apply for permission to spend the summer vacation of 1936 once again in the U.S. Only this time he intended to stay and I should follow as soon as possible. All this was carefully planned. As a govern-ment employee and being of military age, he needed this official permit for any trip abroad. The answer was prompt and furious and was signed by Rust, the highest-ranking member of the ministry of education. The wording was something like this: It is unheard of that you as a government employee have the impudence to apply for another trip to the U.S. as it is well known that you had contact with the Jews Courant, Einstein, Weyl (who, by the way, was not Jewish though his wife was) and a lot of other scientists during your previous trip. We demand immediately a copy of your letter to Professor Courant declining this invitation.
This was a terrible shock and for the first time we had the desperate feeling that we were trapped. What to do now could not be discussed in a few minutes at midnight in the park. Thus we decided to accept the uniquely generous offer of one of my dearest school friends, Hilde Hornemann. She had once said to me, “Our house is at your disposal, if you should need a hiding place.” This, by the way, and other similar acts of overwhelming friendship explain why I was not only willing but eager to visit Germany a relatively short time after the war. I was anxious to see my friends.
Once again, as we had done from Paris, we took different trains to travel from Braunschweig to Dresden and met at my friend’s house where she and her husband received us with open arms, not like fugitives who were taking advantage of their hospitality and actually endangered them. During the three days we spent there, they did not let us feel for a single moment that our presence upset them although fear would have been more than justified; prison or worse things might have ensued. I really think that today I would shrink from accepting a similar invitation, although I have to admit that at that moment we could not have solved our problem without their help.
The Hornemanns made it possible for us to discuss in complete privacy all our detailed plans for the immediate future and how to prepare our escape. To begin with I took a train to Czechoslovakia where I had? relatives. Once again I was fortunate in so far as I was able to travel freely, because by that time all German Jews had not only lost their citizenship but their passports too. I, however, being French was still in the possession of a French passport. This, by the way, I owed to my motherly friend, Irma Scarla, the actress. On some occasion I had mentioned to her that I was eagerly waiting for my coming of age to be able to apply for my German citizenship as I felt German, looked upon Germany, which I loved, as my homeland, and had no ties to France. Her voice sounded strangely compelling, I still hear the tone, when she said, “Nellie, if I were you I would retain my French citizenship.” Her warning made me think; in any case, I made up my mind to wait a while and not to rush into anything. This must have been early 1929, a few years before Hitler came to power.
Many years later, after the Second World War, I realized why Scarla had been able to warn me. I was told that her brother, to whom she had been devoted, had committed suicide in February 1945 on account of the very close connections he had entertained with the most prominent National Socialists. By 1929 he must have known what to expect and since he was aware of his sister’s and my friend-ship, he gave her indirectly this advice to be passed on to me. I, somehow, have strangely mixed feelings of gratitude towards him.
Why now did I travel to Czechoslovakia as I mentioned above? Namely to write a letter to Courant. I had discussed the exact wording of the letter with Frieder and even learned the address by heart to be sure not to have anything in writing on me in case of a checkup at the border. As soon as I had arrived at my relatives’ I wrote an endless letter to Courant explaining how Frieder had been forced into sending his letter of refusal and that there was nothing left to him but to wait for an opportune moment to leave Germany and travel to America. He hoped that this possibility would arise within a year. As he could not write to announce his arrival, Courant should be prepared that one day Frieder would land in New York and then notify him. Although I had never met Courant in G5ttingen, I knew that he was fully informed about our situation and would know who it was who had written this letter.
Airmail did not yet exist and mail from Czechoslovakia went regularly via Hamburg or Bremen to the USA. For this particular letter that was much too dangerous; I therefore sent it via Switzerland to Lyons and asked my father to forward it to Courant. As we had asked Courant not to write to Braunschweig anymore, we could only hope that he had received my letter but could not expect a confirmation.
“Mission accomplished”, I returned to Braunschweig. It was fall 1936 and still a long time until Frieder had his spring vacation which he wanted to use for his planned “escape.” Once again luck was with us. Frieder’s sister happened to teach languages in France at that time and lived in Paris. He asked her to send him a letter of invitation which she did immediately. With the help of this letter he could apply for a trip abroad. Without any fuss the permission was stamped into his passport. The next step was getting a visitor’s visa for the States from the American Consul in Hamburg. Without that he could never land in New York. Complications arose. The Consul demanded proof that Frieder had paid his rent three months in advance. This receipt he got without trouble from his landlady who did not ask any questions as if she sensed that there were some serious reasons. The real difficulty was that the Consul also demanded a certification that Frieder was employed as full professor at the Institute of Technology. We met, as usual, at night in the park to figure out how this certification could be extracted from the Institute secretary in the most harmless way. We trembled, at least I did. The next morning Frieder went to see this man, whom he had known for years, and who was in charge of such matters. A conspicuous swastika was pinned to his lapel, proof that he was a member of the party. In spite of that he was one of those fundamentally decent Germans who had only joined in order to keep his job. He knew about the two of us, had seen us together at the begin-ning of our friendship and may very well have suspected that Frieder did not require this certification for the sole purpose of visiting his sister. He could easily have investigated further but did not do so. He just signed what was requested and thus the case was settled. We were forever grateful to him.
There was one more hurdle to overcome -- the military permit to leave the country. The officer in command was gruff and unpleasant, until, almost by chance, Frieder mentioned that he was a professor; his immediate reaction was, “Oh, then it is no problem at all.”
At first glance the painfully assembled documents did not seem to satisfy the Consul, but then he did put his stamp of approval on the visitor’s visa. He put it into the passport exactly one page behind the military permit. Now the trip as such was fully prepared but we had one lingering and very gruesome fear, namely that Frieder’ s name was already on one of those awful lists that were checked at the border and that they might catch him there. This would have been the end. There was nothing we could do but hope and pray that all would go well. As luggage he only had one suitcase with his most essential belongings and the 10 marks that people were allowed to take when going abroad.
When we took leave of each other and said “farewell”, we did not know when, where, or whether we would meet again. We arranged that Frieder, who planned a slight detour to see his parents once more, was to send me a postcard the moment he had safely crossed into France. After that I should leave right away so nothing would happen to me in case the authorities had found out that Frieder had left the country never to return.
I cannot remember how I survived these days of waiting, it may be a blessing for memory to be veiled at times, but then, at last, the postcard arrived and my relief must have been overwhelming. The card was signed “Dorothea” as we had agreed upon; I have forgotten why we had chosen this name. All I knew was that he would stay in Paris for a few days with his sister and then embark for New York. I should say that, against all fears, Frieder’s border crossing had been perfectly smooth. I left on the day the postcard had arrived; it was March 10, 1937, the day I saw my grandmother for the last time. I loved her and we both knew that this was a farewell for good. She could have made it very hard for me, she did not. She knew, although it had never been discussed, that I was on my way to freedom and if fate turned in my favor, on my way to happiness, that was all she was still hoping for in life. She was a wonderful woman.
I did not travel to France directly but went for two more days to Ilmenau as I had the strong desire to see Frieder’s parents once more. Again they received me with heartfelt warmth and this time like a daughter although it was never really expressed. The feelings, however, were stronger than words. Frieder had told me that he would not discuss his plans for the future with his parents nor would he tell them where he intended to go. I was grateful and appreciated that they did not attempt to find out from me. It was for their protection that Frieder did not inform them, so that in case of inquiries from above they could say with conviction, even swear if necessary, that they had not known anything. Miraculously they were never asked, which meant, that in this respect, thank goodness, we did not have to reproach ourselves. We would have been desperate if, on account of us, something terrible had happened to them. Still, we took the risk upon us.
After llmenau I made another detour, namely to Frankfurt to meet my mother there for a few more days that had hastily been arranged on the spur of the moment. We had endless talks, even laughed together and enjoyed the sights the city had to offer. When finally it came to parting, where neither she nor I had any idea what the future had in store for us, there were no tears and no sobbing. She was the strongest and bravest human being I ever knew. Her composure, just like the composure Frieder’s parents had demonstrated, has shown me in a unique and influential way how to cope with life. When, within a difference of a few minutes, her train went north and mine south, we did not know whether we would ever meet again.
I arrived in Lyons on the 17th of March, 1937 for an indefinite stay. I was to remain until Frieder would be able to judge approximately what his chances in America were going to be. Only then I was supposed to follow. It was, I believe, the saddest and loneliest time of my life. I hardly knew my father, I had met him rarely in the course of years and only for short periods. His second wife was a good-natured and friendly but rather simple person -- a complete stranger as far as I was concerned.
Up to this very moment I had had no time to think. Incessantly most important decisions had to be made, one after the other. Event followed event without interruption and there was no breathing spell in between. Only now I really felt the penetrating effect of all those fateful happenings that had completely changed my life. The impact of the farewell from my mother and my grandmother overcame me and I sadly realized that I had not said “goodbye” to a single friend out of fear of endangering them. But in spite of all this pain I am grateful, in retrospect, for the few months I spent in Lyons, barely three as it turned out, because they were my only chance to get to know my father, at least to a certain extent.
He was, as I said before, a businessman and as such efficient and successful. His passion, however, was history and he would have loved to be a professor of history and would have been a very good one, I believe. It made him happy to find an enthusiastic audience in me and for me it was fascinating to listen to long discourses on French history during the evenings we spent together. With pride he also showed me his precious collection of valuable books, beautifully bound volumes that filled his bookcases and that he treasured. Besides he was touch-ingly willing to help me with my immigration papers. As I was French-born and still had the French citizenship, it was very easy for me to get the U.S. immi-gration visa, all the more so as my father’s firm had its headquarters in New York and he was in close contact with the American Consul all the time. Formalities that took years in many cases were accomplished within a few weeks. As early as May 4, 1937 I was given my immigration papers. The same day I received a letter from my mother that my grandmother, this beloved woman, had died peacefully on May 1st. Although she had been very weak at my departure, the news of her death was an unexpected shock and for many hours, completely dazed, I sat on a bench in the park. I wanted to be by myself and not have to talk to anyone.
Later my mother told me that, while my grandmother was dying, the National Socialist 1st of May parade was marching through the streets with all its pomp and sickening noise. The landlord had put out his endlessly long swastika flag that was dangling down from the attic to the first floor right in front of our balcony. Mrs. Oelmann, who had lived in our house for years and had always been devoted to my grandmother must have sensed how unbearable this fluttering red symbol had to be for my mother and simply pulled down the flag, an act that might have cost her life. She too, by the way, was one of those good-natured but naive people who shouted “Heil Hitler” enthusiastically and who, in my presence, once said, “All these terrible things would not happen if only our ‘Fuehrer’ knew about them.
Shortly after I had received the visa I got a letter from Frieder, much earlier than I had dared to hope, that there was a good chance for him to get a job at New York University in September (1937), and that I should come over as fast as possible. I was overwhelmed, hardly able to fully grasp what was contained in this letter. It was too good to be true. From one moment to the next the entire world seemed transformed. Even the so-far gloomy city of Lyons suddenly sparkled and looked different to me in this glorious month of May where overnight everything appeared bright and beautiful. My father booked a passage for me on the next ship to New York and my mother wrote to my utter delight that she could arrange to meet me once more for a few days in Paris before my departure. All of a sudden everything fell into place.
Our days in Paris were like a gift from heaven and no city could have been more suitable for these precious hours of togetherness that we enjoyed to the utmost. We enjoyed them indeed, despite of the farewell looming ahead of us. My ship, the S. S. Champlain, sailed on June 4, 1937 from le Havre to New York. The crossing was superb; I was in a state of blissful happiness.
Even today I feel the wave of excitement that gripped me when the rumor spread on board that New York was appearing on the horizon. With the greatest difficulty one could recognize, in the far distance, the outlines of the skyscrapers against the bright blue sky. And then, surprisingly fast, New York moved closer and closer and almost in a flash the gigantic buildings of the huge city were over-powering our ship. It was a grandiose spectacle.
I was still waiting in the 1st class drawing room where the immigrants had to assemble when I saw Frieder coming through the door. It was the first and the only time in my life that I felt like fainting. He had made a room reservation for me at the Hotel Great Northern on 57th Street. By the time I had unpacked and put on my thinnest summer dress it was dark. We walked through the streets of New York. It was one of those hot and humid summer nights, typical for this city but entirely new to me, new like everything else. I had been to several big cities: Berlin, Vienna, London and Paris, but this city was different, completely different. Hand in hand we walked for many hours through the streets that were teeming with people. Thousands were around us, but nobody we knew. It was as if we moved in a vacuum. The glitter, the smell, the colorful, constantly chang-ing street scenes, the noise, the humidity: all this formed into a uniquely power-ful picture. The following days must have been similar. I have forgotten the details, they are vague and unimportant, but the recollection remains of a deeply moving emotion. Gradually, very gradually it dawned upon us: we were free!
E P I LOG U E
From Canada Frieder had immigrated with an immigration visa to the USA on August 10, 1937. Immediately after that, on August 11, we got married in Platts-burg, New York.
My mother followed us in October 1938. We had at long last succeeded in convincing her not to go to England, as she had intended, but to come to us. As a blessing for all concerned, she lived with us, in fact most of the time under one roof, until her death in April 1978.
Our entire American life we spent in New Rochelle, a suburb of New York. Our five children were born from 1940 to 1950 and grew up in this city, but we traveled a great deal with them. Most of the trips were connected with lectures Frieder had to give and other professional obligations. We crossed the continent by car all the way to the West Coast. We wanted our five to absorb the beauty and immensity of their grandiose homeland. But we also took them to Europe to show them where both of us had grown up in Germany and to let them meet friends and relatives. In England, France, Italy, Holland and Switzerland they got a slight impression of other cultures and different lifestyles. All these trips awakened their desire to travel even more. Later on some of them visited places all over the world on their own. Frieder and I also continued our traveling extensively. We were in Russia and Japan, India and South Africa, in Kenya, Hawaii, and Cambodia and many more countries, but most often in Germany which kept attracting us. We were, however, always grateful and anxious to return to America.
All our children are married and now have one or more children of their own and we have immensely enjoyed those grandchildren.
Our oldest son, Walter, is in real estate. He manages office buildings for his firm in New York City and also has a business of his own buying land and build-ing homes in upstate New York.
Our daughter, Elisabeth (called Liska) has lived in Anchorage, Alaska with her husband since 1967. He is a hydrologist for the U.S. Geological Survey. She works as an editor and translator.
David is a professor of sociology and criminology at the University of Scranton, Pennsylvania and does a lot of research work and has published many papers. He discovered, quite a few years ago, that there was an English edition of some of Theodor Geiger’s work and presented me with that volume.
Christopher teaches history as a professor at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada. He specializes in early modern German history and wrote a book about Nördlingen during the Thirty Years War: “Urban Society in an Age of War.” He also spent some time working at the archives in Braun-schweig, collecting material for another publication.
Martin works as an operational analyst at the Chase Manhattan Bank and is involved with the various problems dealing with running and improving the functioning of the bank. He is the only one of our five children who inherited at least a little of his father’s mathematical mind.
Frieder, known as K. O. Friedrichs among the mathematicians of the world, began his promising career in Germany and gave it up. In 1937 he started as visiting professor at New York University without being sure whether this position would be extended beyond the first year. It was extended! And not only that, against all expectations he very soon became full professor and was even named “Distinguished Professor” for many years, a title that is rarely given. Under the guidance of Richard Courant, together with his American friend and colleague J. J. Stoker, he developed the Courant Institute of Mathematical Sciences at New York University. He received innumerable honors and prizes all over the world. He was a member of the National Academy of Sciences and other academies. He got several honorary doctors’ degrees and in November 1977 received the National Medal of Science from President Carter in a White House ceremony.
Frieder died in New Rochelle on January 1, 1983.
Nellie Friedrichs Translated from the German November/December 1984
AFTERWORD BY LISKA SNYDER 1998
This memoir was published in Braunschweig, Germany, in the fall of 1980. The publication was done in connection with the exhibition “Brunsvicensia Judaica: In Memory of the Jewish Citizens of the City of Braunschweig,” which was sponsored jointly the city archive and the city library. A second, slightly revised edition was published in the spring of 1988, since the first edition was completely out of stock due to worldwide interest in the book.
Since 1952, Nellie frequently visited Braunschweig to resume the relationship with her long-time schoolmates and other friends in the destroyed city of Braunschweig. She always worked actively for Jewish-German reconciliation, and consequently became a well-known popular speaker to school and community groups. It was for this reason that she received the Civic Medal of Braunschweig on December 8,1989 in the historic old city halt. The archivist stated, “She without a doubt embodies an important element of the Jewish-German cultural tradition, which was so fanatically oppressed by the National Socialist dictatorship. In the history of our city, Nellie Friedrichs will always be recalled in eternal remembrance as a dedicated pioneer of Jewish-German reconciliation.”
Surrounded by members of her family, Nellie died after a short illness on November 7, 1994 at the age of 86. On what would have been her 90th birthday, September 3, 1998, another ceremony was held in her honor at the historic city hall in Braunschweig. A third edition of her memoir, with some new material and several new photographs was published. After the ceremony, several family members and friends traveled to the nearby new neighborhood of “Gartenstadt” and spent an hour walking up and down the “Nellie-Friedrichs-Strasse,” a street of charming houses, flower-filled gardens, and playgrounds. What a beautiful and fitting eternal memorial.