- Ellen Mendel, ‘53
A Chinese Curse states, “May you live in interesting times.” But was it a curse? It is left to you, as you read Ellen’s story, to decide.
Click here for photos and documents relating to this story.
I was born in Essen, Germany, in a small private Catholic hospital, when Jews could no longer be born in public hospitals. It was in September 1935 to be exact and just a week after the enactment of the Nuernberg Laws, which took away the rights of all Jews in Germany. We were no longer citizens and would no longer be protected by the State. Hitler had come to power in 1933 and gradually the life of Jews in Germany, who were now stateless, became more and more constricted. No longer could one go to the movies, theatre, or public or cultural events of any kind. Restaurants would no longer serve Jews, parks might still be open to them, but sitting down would be permitted only on benches painted yellow that Aryans, non-Jews, would not use. Professionals, artists of all kinds, white collar employees and laborers were all gradually dismissed from their positions. Business owners had to sell their businesses for a pittance to the so-called Aryans. These were some of the conditions that prevailed when I was a very little child.
I wasn’t old enough to go to school, so I wasn’t affected by the laws that forced Jewish children to leave their schools and made it impossible for a young Jewish person to get a diploma or degree anymore. Originally the idea was not to murder the Jews; it was to throw them out of Germany, but not before first appropriating all their possessions. When it turned out that almost no country was willing to take in Jews, the Nazis started the systematic murder of Jews in each of the countries they occupied, leading toward the extermination of all the Jews: the Final Solution. But I’m getting ahead of my story.
There was one group that could still work in Germany in 1938. That was the veterans of World War I. They were protected by President Hindenberg as long as he remained in power. My father fell into that category. He was a doctor and because he’d served in the First World War, he could continue to practice medicine until July 1938. At that moment my parents were faced with the painful decision of leaving the country that for many generations had been home to their families. Once the decision to emigrate was reached the question was, where? At around the same time, my mother’s family had decided to leave Heidelberg for Holland. Having to sell their cigar factory to Aryan Germans, it helped to have colleagues in Amsterdam. So the prospect of starting over for my maternal grandfather and his brother and families felt less daunting.
My parents, on the other hand, chose the United States, since my father had an aunt, Tante Margot there who was willing to sponsor us. This meant paying and supporting the family members for the rest of their lives, if necessary, so they wouldn’t ever be a “burden” on the country. Many documents were required to make it possible for us to leave Germany. To secure them involved a lot of difficulty for my parents, who had to travel to and stand in line for many hours in various cities. But most of all it meant saying goodbye to Opa Isaac, my paternal grandfather, who was going to have to stay behind, because he was too old and not well enough for the ordeal of emigrating.
During their times away my parents left me in Essen with Opa Isaac, or in Heidelberg with my maternal grandparents, Opa Ferdinand and Oma Eva. On some level I was afraid that my parents would never come back for me. Two weeks for a child can feel like an eternity– and the fear all around must have reached me as well. Of course, much to my relief they did come back. But then they would have to leave again and my same fears would begin all over again.
On November 9, 1938 I was with my Opa Isaac in Essen when the Nazis systematically set fire to almost all the synagogues in Germany; they arrested all Jewish males from 16 to 60 years of age, destroyed all the shops and every kind of Jewish business; they beat Jews in their homes, vandalized their property throwing furniture out of the windows and creating horrendous mayhem. The next day the Jews were made to clean up all the wreckage and broken glass, and they were forced to scrub the streets with little brushes often as small as a toothbrush, and they were forced to pay a huge amount of Reichmarks for all the damage.
At that time, fortunately, my parents were not in Essen, for my father would surely have been arrested with the other men. The next day they phoned and were told, “Don’t come home. Stay in Berlin where nobody knows you and wait to come back.” Eventually they returned. I can only imagine my terrors at that time. I was 3 years old.
What followed was a lot of change, packing to leave and saying good bye to Oma Eva and Opa Ferdinand, my grandparents on my mother’s side. They were getting ready to leave for Holland where they expected to be safe. We hoped to see each other again. But nobody knew for sure. And the goodbyes were tearful; especially saying good-bye to Opa Isaac in Essen.
Now comes the biggest problem of all. The Germans were ready to get rid of my parents and me. But the U.S. wouldn’t take us in. There was a quota system in place in the US, limiting the number of people from a country allowed to enter each year. You see, the American State Department was very anti-Semitic and didn’t want Jews either, so did nothing to help desperate Jews escape from the Nazis. Everyone had to wait for their quota number to enter the safety of these shores. It took my family about a year and a half to be able to leave Europe
It was toward the end of 1938. My father was concerned that it was getting increasingly dangerous in Germany, as more and more restrictions were placed on Jewish people and more and more violence occurred. We had a distant cousin in Belgium, so we were able to get a three-month temporary visa for that country. In March 1939 we finally left Germany with exactly 10 marks ($10 each). My parents had to leave all their money and possessions behind. We were stateless and destitute. Our passports were stamped with a Swastika and big J for Jude (Jew); and they showed Sara as a middle name as was done for all Jewish females and Israel for all Jewish males. But feeling free at last we left Germany for good, hoping soon to arrive in the U.S.
The ‘soon’ turned into 10 months of waiting for our quota number to come up. My grandparents, Opa Ferdinand and Oma Eva, had in the meantime settled in Amsterdam, Holland. Everyone expected to be re-united soon. It was only in January 1940 that we had finally gotten permission to enter the US. It had taken one and a half years to be able to enter this country.
On February 4, 1940 one minute after midnight we were ready to disembark from the Dutch steamship and we landed in Hoboken, New Jersey. We were met by family friends and brought to a hotel, and I remember a big bowl of fruit that was waiting for us in the middle of that night. We were finally safe.
But what happened in between leaving Belgium and entering the U.S? We were to take a boat, which would sail from Holland. In the two weeks before we set sail for America we had time to say good-bye to my mother’s close family--my grandparents, mother’s cousin, husband, little baby; her other cousin, aunt and uncle, eight people. While the goodbyes must have been very emotional everyone felt safe in their choices: one--being in Holland which had been neutral during World War I, and two--we finally being able to enter the U.S.
It was just before leaving that Oma Eva and Opa Ferdinand suggested to my parents that they leave me in their care. This they felt would make the transition to a new culture, language and all the difficulties of being an immigrant without any money easier. Then they planned to bring me at a later time, when my parents had gotten back on their feet. A loving suggestion, to which my parents replied something to the effect of, “Thank you very much but we’re going to take Ellen with us. And even if we have nothing, we’ll all make do.”
Actually, in total my mother lost 20 people in her family. By the end of the war, only one relative, Tante Ella, had survived the camps, and she later came to live with my family. I too would have been a victim of the Holocaust, because only five months later, on May 10, 1940, the Nazis invaded and conquered Holland and soon thereafter Belgium, that we had left, France and Luxembourg.
My story, therefore, is one of appreciation that I survived. And there are two other reasons for my gratitude: Our quota number came up in January 1940. Had it been four months later, we too would have been caught in the Nazi net. Finally I found out only a short time ago that our sponsor who agreed to take care of us as long as necessary, my father’s aunt Tante Margot was supposed to have been on the Titanic with her husband, but business had detained him in Paris where they lived, and so they were spared when the ship went down. With no sponsor, we would not been able to get out of Europe. And I would not be here writing this memory of my early life: from Europe to the US.
We were fortunate. We survived. We rented a furnished apartment in New York City that was infested with roaches and bed bugs, with plaster falling from the walls and ceilings. My father wanted to practice medicine again as soon as possible. He would stay up long hours, studying, in order to take the medical boards in English. When he was finally ready, in the middle of the exam he suffered a heart attack and had to stay in bed for what seemed like a very long time.
Finally he was able to retake the exam; he passed and we were able to move to a lovely large apartment on West 86th Street, which was spacious enough for office and living quarters. After the SP [special progress] class in my local Junior High School, it was a short bus ride to Hunter High. Hunter, though competitive was great. I made friends, some of whom are still in my life today.
I thought most of the teachers were terrific. As a result, I learned so much and till today have a facility for writing and seem to have much better vocabulary than many of my peers. I will always feel the pride of having gone to Hunter High.
It gave me a wonderful foundation for what was to follow. Several Masters degrees a career in education as a teacher and a guidance counsellor followed. Concomitant with that has been my avocation, practicing as a psychotherapist, a profession I still love after more than 30 years; adding to my responsibilities has been serving as president of the Alfred Adler Institute of New York.
It was in the 1970s through the International Adlerian Summer Institute that I began meeting Germans and getting to know them rather than seeing them as the enemy. It was the beginning of coming to terms with my history. In 1985, a huge step, I went back to the city of my birth, Essen, and actually saw the synagogue in which my parents had worshipped every week; It has been converted into a museum, and there I saw an exhibit of the History and Fate of the Jews of Essen. I was given a book which reflected that history – on one side were the names of all who had perished in the Shoah and on the other, the survivors There, to my amazement, I found my name and the names of my parents with a descriptive paragraph; a reconnection with my roots. By 1995 I was ready to visit all the camps that had seen the last days of my mother’s 20 relatives. I took photographs of all I saw, later turning some of these into collages; writing poetry and saying my last good-bye to my beloved grandparents on the way to Sobibor, their final destination. It had taken 55 years to be able to say, good-bye and gradually come to terms with all that had befallen our family.
Once having done that I wanted to teach young people how what had seemed impossible had indeed happened, step by step, leading to the ‘final solution’ and the death of more than six million Jews and 10,000 other people, all of which could stem from a highly civilized, highly cultured country, when the goals become the destruction of an entire people.
I created a project that I titled, “Rescuing History to Build Bridges Through Understanding and Dialogue.” In a different step by step process of contacting teachers with whom I had become familiar, I began speaking in German to classes of young people in Essen, my birthplace and that proliferated into many Middle and High School speaking opportunities in various cities in Germany, including Heidelberg which had been home to my mother and her family; and Essen, which had been home to several generations of my father’s family. I have been doing this for the past 10 years.
To make the story come alive I use my own family photographs and other appropriate visual material. Since the goal of these lectures was dialogue, after finishing the presentation I would ask for questions and responses from the students and then get the rest of their responses from letters. It was these letters from students that encouraged me to continue, “Keep talking to other students; your way of doing this is the best guarantee that this will never happen again,” To date I have over 500 thoughtful, beautifully written letters – often decorated and sprinkled with English words. There are even some letters written completely in English. After 9/11, I received some amazing, caring and heartfelt letters – assuring me, “You are not alone.” Last year I began speaking at a high school in my New York neighbourhood. The letters were just as amazing as those that I had gotten from the German students. Many even contained similar sentiments.
After such a wonderful reception in New York, I decided to contact my Alma Mater, Hunter High. What ensued was a reference to this excellent website of stories and an opportunity to speak together with other alumnae from my generation with survivor experiences to Hunter students in November 2008. It was there that I met Doris Meth Srinivasan ’51, an alumna who grew up living just across the street from me, who told me that my father had been her mother’s doctor and that she remembered me from then. How amazing! From that experience a year ago at Hunter we have developed a strong friendship that continues to grow. Six months later I had the opportunity to speak to students in the Bronx with another Hunterite from our group. Later that summer I spoke in Tennessee. Each time the responses were heartfelt and equally encouraging.
Speaking in the US is a whole new and enriching experience for me. When I speak in English, I feel at home. The responses of the young people are awesome, no matter where, no matter when. And I feel privileged to have such incredible opportunities to reach this young generation. Next year I will speak in Essen – the Cultural City of Europe for 2010. In addition to an excellent symphony orchestra and Museum of Art, they have been able to turn mines into museums. What a metaphor! Going from destruction of the past to the construction of the present, from the darkness of the Holocaust to the light of tomorrow. This gives me hope and I plan be there to see it.
- November 2009
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