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The horror of what’s happening in the Ukraine these days has triggered painful memories for Evelyn Grapek, my older sister who escaped from Nazi Germany 85 years ago. She and my parents were among the lucky ones to be spared death and begin a new life in America.
Her story warrants sharing because the reasons today for the senseless murder of millions of innocent people beg the question: “Will we ever learn?’’
Prior to 1935, when Hitler’s Nuremberg Laws depriving all Jews of their civil rights went into effect, Evelyn recalls a happy childhood.
Here is the story she recently shared with me.
“We had visits with friends and relatives. Daddy was the proprietor of a men’s clothing store, Mommy had a maid to help care for our house. I had a nanny. We lived in a lovely apartment above the store. While German anti-semitism was on the rise, my parents — though somewhat aware of the changes in government — were not particularly worried that they would be negatively affected.
But once the Nuremberg Laws escalated from depriving Jews of their civil and employment rights to preventing Jewish people from being allowed to sit on a park bench, enter a restaurant, or attend a local concert, Dad became alarmed. His fear reached even greater heights when the new laws forbade his store’s sales staff to continue being employed by a Jew. Even our mother’s Christian maid was forced to leave, as was my nanny.
A harsher reality set in when Nazi thugs — who were free to roam the streets at will — came into Dad’s store shouting ‘Heil Hitler’ and helped themselves to armloads of shirts, trousers and any other merchandise they wanted.”
Evelyn — who will soon celebrate her 94th birthday — vividly recalls that terrifying incident, and gets teary-eyed when she talks about it. It happened more than eight decades ago, but she still recalls the panic that she and our mother witnessed from their upstairs apartment.
Over the years, I had heard bits and pieces of my family’s struggle to escape Nazi Germany and resettle in the United States in 1937, one year before I was born. It was a taboo topic. “Don’t ask; don’t tell” was the unwritten rule in our home. While they survived, the sorrow for those who were burned to death in Nazi concentration camps left an indelible blot on their souls.
“Daddy wanted to leave Germany, even though his friends said he was overreacting. Things will change. Hitler is just a passing phase. He struggled with his decision until I was forced to leave my friends and attend a school for Jewish children only.
As anti-semitism continued to become more prominent in our everyday lives, the fear level increased. One day, walking home from school, I was stopped by a small group of boys who were shouting “Yid b**** or something like that. For Daddy, that was the final straw. He clearly understood what so many of his peers did not: anti-semitism was taking over every aspect of our lives.
The decision to leave was the easy part. The real conundrum was to figure out how to leave. Visas to exit the country were becoming scarce, and any money earned by Jews was confiscated. Mom and Dad seemed nervous all the time, and their conversations were always conducted in a whisper. I never understood most of what was going on, but I inherited their fears.
A few months before we left Germany, I remember traveling every month with Mommy to visit someone in Holland. Decades later, I learned that she had been smuggling cash to a bank account there for safekeeping. Mommy carried money in her bra and I had cash stuffed inside my toy dolls. The shoemaker even made a false bottom in our shoes so we could carry out more cash.
In 1937, we went on a vacation to Marienbad, Czechoslovakia. I didn’t know that Dad’s game plan was to go from there to Prague, to try to obtain a visa for passage to anywhere out of Europe.
When the train stopped at the border between Germany and Czechoslovakia, I remember my parents being terribly nervous. Big men in uniform were ever so scary.
I remember that Daddy’s hand shook as they asked for our passports. Mommy held my hand and told me to be very very quiet. Daddy was fearful that they would discover the money hidden in the lining of his jacket and the cash sewn into the lining of my mother‘s heavy woolen skirt. Since Jews were not allowed to take money out of Germany, he feared we would be sent back to Germany.
Once we passed through the border, my parents would spend months in Prague standing in line and knocking on embassy doors hoping for a visa to go anywhere to get out of Europe.
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While there, they lived in a rundown hotel while I was placed in a nearby nondescript boarding house with children whose parents were doing the same. They rarely came to visit. Being separated from my parents and not understanding what was going on during made me feel abandoned; it’s a feeling that — painfully —comes back to me even today.
When we finally obtained visas, we headed for Holland and then boarded the SS Rotterdam to New York City. We were the lucky ones.”
“If Daddy hadn’t had the know-how and the courage to escape‚ we would have been among the 6 million Jews who perished in the Nazi Holocaust.‘’
Bea Lewis is a journalist, author and public speaker who lives in Boynton Beach.