80 years ago… eighty years ago … LXXX years ago, the unthinkable happened. My mother’s father came to the fateful conclusion that they had to leave Germany. Germany – the country that had been home to generations of his family, Germany – for which he had fought in WWI and from which he had received an Iron Cross, Germany – which had allowed those generations of family to be observant Jews. It started slowly. My mom grew up in a small town; her father was the kosher butcher. He also bought and sold cows for the neighboring farmers at the market to which he traveled about once a week.
First, my preteen mom and her sister couldn’t go swimming in the town pool, then her (non-Jewish) bff (best friend forever) just stopped talking to her and ignored her completely, then they weren’t allowed to attend the public school and their cleaning help stopped working for them, not able to be replaced by a non-Jew. They all said, “It will pass.” Then all 50 Jewish men from town were locked up one night in jail for no reason. They were released. “This will pass.”
One day when my grandfather went to the market to buy the cows he needed for his shop and for the neighbors (non-Jewish), the cow dealer, with whom he had dealt for over 30 years, told him in a very unfriendly voice “take that cow over there, Herr Reiss, and never come back. “That” cow was sickly. “This will pass.”
But doubt started predominating. A distant cousin in New York wrote them to “get out” and sent them affidavits stating that he would help them in the USA so they would not become burdens on the state. They decided that they would get passports and visas. When they returned from the big city with the paperwork, they put it away, hoping that they would not need to use it. One day the police came and took my grandmother to the police station on some trumped up charge of failure to pay appropriate taxes. She paid the hefty fee and returned home. “This will pass.”
Then one day, as my grandfather was about to shect (slaughter) a cow (he had found a supplier), the Nazis came and took away his chalaf (ritual knife) and shot the cow. They then returned the knife to him. The cow was no longer kosher. He told his family “it’s time! It’s not going to pass. If we can’t live as Jews, we can’t stay here.” They quickly purchased steamship tickets and emptied their house. My mom said that he took out every picture nail and hook in the house, not wanting to leave anything for the next inhabitants.
They made it to the USA. My mom was seasick the entire trip. However, they made it out alive and intact and despite my grandfather’s fears about the “treife medina” (“nonkosher” country) and whether his grandchildren would be Jewish, we grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and great-great grandchildren are still Jewish.
My father grew up in an even smaller German town, one main road, with two side streets. His father had died when he was a young teen. My grandmother owned a shop and my father had been apprenticed to a fabric store in Northern Germany. It seemed to be going decently for him. But in his small hometown, it was very different. The few Jewish families were harassed and maltreated.
One day a young Jewish teen was forced to cut down a tree at its base and walk around the streets holding that entire tree upright in his hands. My grandmother had had enough and feared for my father’s life. She wrote to him that he had to leave Germany. He wanted to go to Palestine, but she insisted that he go to New York, where there was a distant relative who had once visited and had said that if they ever came to the States, they should look him up. So my grandmother wrote him and bless his soul, he sent an affidavit. 80 years ago, he met my father at the boat, bought him an ice cream soda, which to his dying day was his favorite treat, and took him home. The next day, the man took my father, 19 years old without a word of English to his credit, to an employment agency.
He found a job and a room to rent. He sent money home and the next year my aunt came over and then my grandmother.
My father served in the US Army during WWII and knew American geography better than any of his children.
When I think about it being the 70th anniversary of the Liberation of Auschwitz, I feel pain at the thought of all those innocents who never had the chance to live and experience the rest of their lives, I hurt for the families who suffered so greatly, and I mourn the immense tragedy. I regret all the generations that have been lost to us. I thank G-D for helping my family escape and I pray that the world will realize that we need to learn from history. “It can happen.”
Susan Koss is former Lower School principal of The Melvin J. Berman Hebrew Academy.