Manfred and Anne Lehmann Foundation

The Very Beginnings of the Holocaust:
Some Personal Reminiscences

My political awakening was forced upon me early, in fact, at the tender age of 10. From the middle of 1932 on, the writing was on the wall -- even for me, a youngster caught in the feverish struggle between Democrats and Hitlerites, in the Germany of the so-called Second Republic. My family had moved to Hamburg in 1928 from my native Sweden. Our stay was to be a permanent one for the purpose of offering my brothers and me a better Jewish education than what was available in Stockholm. But with the clouds darkening on the German political horizon, the end of our stay was destined to come much earlier than planned.

I remember the unending columns of Brown Shirts of the dreaded SA of the Nazi Party marching by our house. A few doors from our home was the so-called "Brown House," as the Nazi headquarters was called in each German city. One Sunday, Hitler place himself on the balcony of the Brown House and received the salute of the miles of marchers passing by him. It was the summer, when, every Sunday, shoot-outs between Nazi hoods and anti-Nazis -- either Socialists or Communists -- took place in the streets of Hamburg’s poor districts.

My mother was expecting a baby in July, and my father took her to the Jewish Hospital, a 100-year-old facility that had been founded and funded by banker Solomon Heine, uncle of Germany’s favorite bard, Heinrich Heine. After my brother, Erik, was born there, my father risked his life by going back to the hospital on "Bloody Sunday," the most violent day of the German civil war, and most of the shooting took place near the hospital. It was a heroic feat, which our family never forgot.

Germany’s Political Disintegration

As the months Of 1932 moved on, the political crisis became a daily concern even for me. One chancellor after another -- Bruening of the Catholic Center Party, von Schleicher of the Nationalistic Veteran’s Party and Franz von Papen, the even sly schemer - -all took turns in trying to put the German house in order, under the aged President Field Marshall Paul von Hindenburg.

The mention of Hindenburg’s name in the news then, reminded me of the horror stories that my father had told me of World War I, when the Germans under Hindenburg had driven the Russian czar’s armies into the quicksand of the Russian Tannenberg swamps. I don’t know from where father knew the gory details of the battle, but I never forgot the utter despondency that came over me when my father related how Russian Jewish soldiers were shouting "Shema Yisroel" before sinking into the quagmire.

While that victory had made Hindenburg the worshiped hero of Germany, my knowledge of his brutal barbarism against my co-religionists branded him, in my book, a monster.

Hitler Appointed -- Jewish Reaction

The early weeks of 1933 were a-buzz with rumors that with all the other politicians having failed in their mission, Hindenburg would finally turn to his enemy, Adolf Hitler of the National Democratic Workers Party (NSDAP), to take over the chancellorship of the German Reich. And that is what happened on January 30, 1933, a black day in German history. Jews in Hamburg were, of course, shaken to their bones at the prospect of Germany’s surrender to the man whose hordes for over two years had shouted uninterruptedly in their street demonstrations: "Deutschland erwache! Juda verrecke!" ("Germany, awake! Judah, die like a dog!") What would happen to us Jews now?

"Nothing is eaten as hot as when it is boiled on the oven." That one saying, which I probably only heard once in my life, engraved itself in my memory. Jews were saying this to us to calm our terror: "Hitler won’t be as bad as he was when he was in the opposition." "Soll er nur kommen!" -- "Just let him come" -- was another saying I remember so vividly. These sayings simply illustrated how the human psyche refuses to face the stark truth and tries to soften any terrible blows with some "way out."

Those soothing words were, of course, senseless. Hitler was with an iron will, determined to carry out every one of his anti-Semitic pronouncements, especially those contained in his dreadful book, Mein Kampf, written while he sat for much too short a while in jail.

For just a few weeks little changed, at least as far as my schooling in Hamburg’s famous day school, Talmud Torah Oberreal Schule. My father was on the board of the school under chairman Max Warburg, the leading banker, who later turned out to be one of the Holocaust’s great heroes. This fully integrated school stressed German culture as much as it emphasized Jewish traditions. Only a few months before, for the one hundredth anniversary of the death of the national poet and playwright, Wolfgang von Goethe, this Jewish school staged an impressive ceremony. I found myself in a boy’s choir singing some of Goethe’s beloved songs. Nobody had an inkling that so soon thereafter Jews would be barred from any contact with German culture and would be hounded like pariahs and vermin.

Shechita Forbidden, Boycott of Jewish Shops

In March of 1933, my father returned from a business trip to Southern Germany. Ashen faced, he told us, before he even had time to take off his coat, that where he had traveled, heavy persecution and discrimination against Jews had been instituted. A tell-tale sign was the prompt prohibition of the religious ritual slaughter of kosher meat. It was this gesture that convinced my father that the Hitler regime was preparing a wholesale persecution of Jews at every level of society. Then came the straw that broke the camel’s back: the so-called "Boycott Saturday." Placed in front of all Jewish shops and stores in Hamburg, SA men held placards calling for a boycott of Jewish commerce. The claim was that this was justified as a counter measure against "world Jewry," especially in the United States, which allegedly had carried out a boycott of German goods abroad.

It was the first Saturday in memory that our family did not attend synagogue service. Instead, my father sent out a Christian maid to find out what was going on in town. The reports were chilling, windows in Jewish shops had been smashed and Jews were marched through town with insulting signs hung on them. The slogan behind these excesses was "Germans, defend yourselves!"

My father had made a decision and he called us together for a family council. Would we leave Germany on the spot and return to our home in Sweden, or would we remain in Hamburg where, as Swedish citizens, we might be safe?

A family Council

My two elder brothers were divided: Bert, a true Swede in his heart, had never gotten used to German culture and was longing to return home. Gabriel, however, an excellent Hebraic scholar with outstanding scholarly friends, was reluctant to give all that up. He knew that in Sweden he would be facing cultural and religious desolation.

What about myself? To my father’s great credit, I must record that -- despite my very young age -- my opinion counted as much as that of my seniors, I had only one question: "Papa, if we go back to Sweden, will we be traveling by sleeper car (in my mind, the highest definition of bliss on earth)?" Yes, we would travel by sleeper, and so my vote was cast for a weighty decision -- to abandon Nazi Germany.

Next morning, Sunday, April 2, our family was at the railway station ready to board the train to Copenhagen, where we decided to stay at first. It was a concession to Gabriel. In the case that the Hitler regime folded up as quickly as that of the other recent chancellors, we could immediately return to our lovely life in Hamburg. Of course, that was never to happen.

As we alighted from the train in the Danish capital, we were met by a delegation of Danish Jewish volunteers who had made it their business to assist Jewish refugees escaping from the Nazi regime. Fortunately, our plight was not as serious. As fellow Scandinavians, and pretty much at home in Denmark from many previous visits, we settled down in a hotel and planned the approaching Passover festival.

King Christian X -- A Righteous Gentile

Our stay was made eternally memorable through an act of the venerable old Danish king, Christian X. In April 1933 the local synagogue celebrated its one hundredth anniversary, and the ceremony would be attended by the king and queen of Denmark as an ostensible demonstration of the king’s respect for Jews -- a trait that became so pronounced and appreciated later during the Holocaust. I stood right in front of the spectators who crowded the entrance of the synagogue as the royal couple arrived. The next morning the newspapers sported screaming headlines: "Denmark’s King with Denmark’s Jews!" Nobody, certainly not the neighboring Germans, could mistake the Danish sentiments.

We did not return to Hamburg. After a few weeks of waiting, we continued our journey back to my native Stockholm.

In A matter of a short interval, I had become older by many years. I had witnessed the first stirrings of the approaching Holocaust.

 

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