I am one of the very few Jewish children who survived living in Nazi Germany.
I was born in Berlin in 1940. Amazingly, Germany, pre-Hitler, pre-WWI, was a most intellectual, liberal, vibrant cosmopolitan country. The envy of many. Its population counted Jews among its foremost citizens in virtually every field from science, to music, philosophy, the arts, health, athletics, education and so much more. It was an inclusive democracy.
My Mom was Jewish, my Dad Protestant. They enjoyed a good life and had pride in their German heritage. They appreciated the opportunities open to them and took advantage of the many amenities Berlin offered. My Dad loved hiking. My Mom saw no reason to climb to the mountain top as it seemed easier to appreciate the sights right there on the ground. They enjoyed picnics and beer fests, music and good company. They were proud Germans.
Adolf Hitler gained more and more power. All changed. Jews were stripped of virtually all their rights, and no longer considered German citizens. They were terrorized at will, and later systematically rounded up to be sent to their death in concentration camps.
Initially we were among the very few Jews who lived in the open for Berlin was not yet “cleansed” of its Jews. Desperate to keep us alive, my Mom converted to Christianity. Her Certificate of Baptism was given to her on 28 Feb 1942. Yet her ID card had an unmistakable Big Red J for Jew. We were not safe. It was a precarious time, with arrest a palpable threat.
The SS came for us. The dreaded Gestapo. In the night. Pounding. Terrifying. Uniforms, weapons, yelling orders. It was my Mom and me they were after. I was barely 2 years old. Hardly a hard target worthy of an armed assault. Even with but one Jewish grandparent you were slated for extermination. We were herded into holding pens while the Gestapo assigned destinations. Children sobbing or frozen with fear, all cramped in, shaking and begging for release. Death was there waiting. My Mom courageously walked up to them and stated they made a mistake, we were Christian. This with a giant J for Jew on her ID papers.
By a miracle we were released. I suffered from dreadful nightmares for years afterwards. For a time we continued to live alternately in plain sight and in hiding. Brave souls warned us of imminent SS raids. Helping a Jew was punishable by death, potentially for the entire family.
Then my Dad was arrested. His “crime”: marrying a Jew and fathering a “mixed breed” child – me. He was interned in a Labor Camp, assigned to hard labor along with American and Allied POWs from October 1944 – April 1945. Somehow my Mom with the help of brave friends kept us alive through Gestapo purges, constant hunger, and ultimately the bombs that rained down on us. My Dad’s Labor Camp was bombed, he escaped and scoured the ruins until he found us.
WWII ended: Germany surrendered May 7, 1945. Russian tanks rolled in. Now we were once again Germans…but hated Germans. The nationality of those who mercilessly slaughtered Russians. In the midst of a lust for revenge there was unexpected kindness.
An Russian soldier entered our hiding place, filling the space with his huge frame. Seeing me he dug into his pocket and instead of a gun, offered me a piece of black bread.
The War was over. Passage to America was an elusive dream. It took until Jan 8, 1947. My parents almost gave up when a kind US soldier intervened. Endless documents were needed. Hard given the chaos, bombings, fires, and constant struggle to survive.
Yet we prevailed. Below is our ID, in lieu of a passport issued on Sept 17, 1946. Most importantly The American Christian Committee gave all 3 of us an Affidavit to America. Our new life was in sight.
The harrowing stormy trans- Atlantic passage culminated when we came within sight of the magnificent Statue of Liberty, her torch raised in welcome. Everyone rushed on deck for a first look at our new country. It was the most beautiful sight. I was wide-eyed. Our new life began after passing inspection on Ellis Island. We were greeted by volunteers. They asked me if there was something special I wanted. With my eyes open as far as they would go, I asked if I could have a whole egg all to myself.
As soon as possible an apartment was found for us in the affordable slums in the lower East Side of Manhattan. Here many refugees made their start. Our brick building sagged under the weight of so many before us. A bathtub in the kitchen covered with a board was our table. We had a roof over our heads and a place to call home.
Thank you America.
Written by Holocaust Survivor Jackie Zucker.
Photo Credit: Nazi badge from the Dachau concentration camp; Jewish Museum of Greece (Athens); Thilemahos Efthimiadis; Filters and extensions were applied to the original photo.