Photo: From left, Margot Lobree, Barbara Podair, Stephanie Wood and Rabbi Mark Cohn spoke about the Holocaust on Sunday.
Speakers at Yom HaShoah Service recount their families’ experiences
BY RACHEL ANDERS
If I were to ask you to list the first three things that come to your mind when I say Holocaust, what would they be?
Before Sunday, I never would have said Kristallnacht or Kindertransport, and especially not Shanghai.
However, during the Yom HaShoah Service at Congregation Emanuel, Rabbi Mark Cohn, Margot Lobree of Winston-Salem and Barbara Podair of Statesville made me reconsider what I knew about the Holocaust.
A teacher at North Iredell High School and United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Teaching Fellow, Stephanie Wood provided the historical background for the program. “There were three stages for the Holocaust. First: Emigration. The Nazis didn’t care where the Jews went as long as they left Germany. Second: Segregation. During this stage, the Nazis set up the Ghettos. Finally: Elimination.
In July of 1938, delegates from 32 countries and representatives from relief organizations met in Evian, France, to discuss the German-Jewish refugees. With the exception of the tiny Dominican Republic, no country was willing to accept more refugees. The Conference was the precursor to Kristallnacht.
Arthur Pick, Podair’s father, was born in Hindenburg, Germany. He owned a business and on Kristallnacht (also known as the “Night of the Broken Glass”) his business, along with thousands of other Jewish owned stores, synagogues and buildings had their windows smashed. Some were also set on fire. Kristallnacht was carried out by the Sturmabteilung (German Paramilitary Forces) and German civilians. It also marked the first time that men were arrested and detained for their ethnic background in Germany.
The day after Kristallnacht, as Arthur walked down a street in Hindenburg, he was followed by the Gestapo. When asked why he wasn’t working, he replied, “My business was destroyed.”
Immediately afterward the Gestapo took him to jail. The next day he was transported to Buchenwald Concentration Camp, where he was imprisoned from 1938 to Jan. 24, 1939.
Podair recounted a day in the life of a prisoner at Buchenwald, from an essay based on first-hand accounts written by Vincent Chatel.
“At 4 a.m. we’re awoken by the Kapo, they were yelling at us “Get up, and get your shoes!” They hated if we didn’t have shoes because it meant that we couldn’t work that day. You had to make your bed in military manner, with blankets done up just so. You had to run from the barracks and try to reach the sanitary facility. You only have a few minutes for washing up and if you straggled behind the Kapo would beat you. Then it’s breakfast time. You must have your mess tin in hand. No mess tin, no food. A Kapo gives you approximately 10 ounces of bread and some tasteless coffee—there was no sugar or milk. The bread you get will be will the only solid food you will eat until the next day. This, of course, gave the Kapo yet another opportunity to have fun. Sometimes they would throw the bread in the mud, or they would shove you while serving coffee; you get nothing more and you are risking punishment for wasting food.
“After breakfast, you have morning roll call. All the prisoners will line up in rows of ten. All prisoners must be at roll call, including the ones who died in the night. If a mistake was made, roll call had to be started over. Then it’s off to your work team. You’ll leave the camp under guards, SS and Kapos always barking at you. You may march off to the best music played by the camp orchestra or maybe your guards will order you to sing during the march. IF you are lucky, you’ve received a good tool, a shovel or a pickaxe, otherwise you have to work with your hands and this, of course, could mean death since you can’t work as fast the guards want you too. Everything has to be done in a fast pace, if the guard doesn’t think you are working fast enough, they may beat you … even unto death.
“A whistle will signal a lunch break. You are given a small amount of watery soup. Then another whistle signals lunch is over and it’s back to work. The afternoon seems harder because you are hungry and you feel your strength fading. If a prisoner faints, and can’t rise, he was carried back to the camp for evening roll call. At last, a signal whistle, the end of the work day has come. Your team walks back to camp, the survivors are carrying the bodies of the prisoners who died that day. Once you are back at camp, the SS are controlling your team. You are then lined back up for evening roll call. If a prisoner had attempted to escape, you will stand at attention until he is found. The evening roll call takes hours, even 10 hours before it’s complete. When roll call is over, it is time for dinner. You receive the same kind of soup that you got at lunch, if you spared bread you may eat it now. Again, dinner is an opportunity for the Kapo to beat prisoners.
“It is time for bed; you return to your barracks, the blockfuerher is waiting for you—they wear green triangles which mean they are real criminals. They have the right to decide who will live and die. Maybe he will allow you to rest until tomorrow, maybe he will have some fun and order exercise until you faint. Eventually you are allowed to lie down on your straw-mattress. You are five in a bunk, with one blanket. You are exhausted, but today, you managed to survive.”
Podair concluded her account with a remembrance of her family who suffered and lost their lives during the holocaust.
“Imagine if you will, you walk home from school alone. You enter your home and your mom tells you she had to make a decision about what to do with you … keeping you with her in Germany could mean death; sending you away to England meant life. This is what happened to me.”
Lobree’s family made the decision to send her away to England to live. From 1938 to 1940, the Kindertransport was the informal name of a series of rescue efforts which brought thousands of refugee Jewish children to Great Britain from Nazi Germany.
For some, the move was good; they had sponsors who took us in. Others were sent to orphanages, hostels and farms. Unfortunately, sometimes the children were looked at as cheap labor.
“We became known as the train children,” Lobree said. “In Germany, one day you were like every other child; the next you were Jewish. We had to leave the schools, only because we were Jewish. There were signs that said, ‘Don’t buy from Jews; don’t patronize Jewish businesses.’ Basically, just divorce yourself from anything that spells Jew.
“My older brother immigrated to Israel, where he lived out his life. However, I was too young to go to Israel, so in April 1939 I began my journey. I left Germany and had a train ride, an overnight carriage ride, then another train ride before I arrived in London.”
The family that she was to live with picked her up at Charing Cross railway station. Some of the children who had sponsors were extremely lucky.
“I was told repeatedly that I should be grateful for their sponsorship. I ate with a maid, I had to do house chores before I could go to school then I came home and did more chores. I feel that I became cheap labor. Today, we’d say I was exploited.”
The blitz started and the family evacuated, leaving Lobree and the maid to endure the bombing of London. Eventually, they would approach Bloomsbury House and explain they couldn’t afford to keep Lobree and she would be moved to a refugee hostel for girls. They ranged in age from 4 to 16. According to Lobree, it was nice there; the older children looked after the younger ones. At age 15, Lobree was sent to a shop to clean and learn to sew dresses. After leaving the hostel, she and another girl decided they could make it on their own, and moved back to London.
“I could correspond with my mom until 1941,” she said. “The last notice from my grandmother in 1941 it said, she had went on vacation, but she was deported.
“In 1997 I was invited to Frankfurt, Germany, to visit the town where I was from.”
Lobree said she would visit on one condition—that she could bring her brother. Not only did she get to bring her brother, she also brought her husband and their eldest son. “I was surprised. Here we were in Germany, with a new generation that was remorseful for what happened, but promising that it wouldn’t happen again.”
Rabbi Mark Cohn
According to Stephanie Wood, “The Nazis permitted emigration from Germany.” Shanghai didn’t require visas, so this allowed for people to move out of Germany faster. Shanghai would eventually become a safe haven for nearly 30,000 Jewish refugees. According to the Shanghai Jewish Museum, “In the “Designated Area for Stateless Refugees” in Tilanqiao area of Shanghai, about 20,000 Jewish refugees lived harmoniously with local citizens, overcoming numerous difficulties together.”
Cohn, Rabbi at Temple Emanuel in Winston-Salem, laced his story about his Great Uncle Herb Wolff with humor. After leaving Germany, Wolff traveled to Shanghai, China, where he lived from 1939 to 1947.
“I am honored to be here to remember those among our people and among humanity that helped us survive,” Rabbi Cohn stated. “I didn’t realize until I was in high school that my uncle Herb was born in Germany. He never considered himself a holocaust survivor. A refugee, yes; but not a Holocaust survivor.”
The story Cohn shared Sunday was written by Uncle Herb in an autobiography that he left behind to the children he considered his surrogate grandchildren.
“He was born in 1920 and his father had him registered as a Prussian and single; as if a baby would be registered as married,” Cohn said. His “omama” and “opapa” (parents) had their photographs taken by Alfred Eisenstaedt, who would eventually become famous for the photo of the sailor kissing the nurse in Times Square in 1945. Wolff’s parents were married in 1919.
In 1935, things began to change. Jewish business owners were given six months to train Gentiles to take over the business. That same year, Wolff and his mother moved to Milan, starting a whole new life for themselves. Wolff went from being a young man wearing short pants and long stockings to becoming a man wearing trousers. He improved his Italian by watching movies, and going to shops. He would eventually meet Laura, his first love. According to Rabbi Cohn, they had a lot in common. Wolff nearly got enlisted into the Italian Army, but the German consulate attested to his German citizenry, stamping his paper work with a Nazi swastika.
Realizing that war was coming to Italy, Wolff looked for places to live even as far away as Turkey and Colombia. He settled on British Kenya, namely because of its proximity to Italian Somalia. He believed that Laura would follow him there. Alas, that didn’t happen, she would marry a man named Andre, and Wolff would marry Elise. They would travel to see each other and got on wonderfully.
Wolff, upon his arrival in Kenya, learned that anonymous sponsors helped make his trip possible. “Not knowing who helped has left me grateful for the entire community of Jewish people,” Wolff wrote.
He left Kenya for Shanghai. Herb entered Shanghai in 1939, when it was under Japanese occupation. He was reunited with his father and lived in a big city. His father landed a job in advertising, and Herb joined the French Foreign Legion. “I bet all militaries can’t say this, but ‘We had wine at lunch, and beer with dinner,’” Wolff said.
Wolff left the military, returned to Shanghai, and reunite for a second time with his father. In 1947, Wolff came to the United States via the General Gordon, a ship that also transported Podair’s family to the U.S.
Rabbi Cohn ended his presentation by saying: “We are commanded to never forget the evil of Amelek in the Torah—we can never forget the evil of the Holocaust; we should also remember the good, and those who helped save our people. We should never forget.”
Podair closed out the program with the proclamation: “Mr. Hitler, we’re here, and we’re Jews. He didn’t get what he wanted! We have learned to get along, and we have been there for each other. The Christians have been there for us; and we have been there for them. We need to remember, that if we do one good deed a day, we can overcome evil.”