Hunter College H.S. Holocaust Survivors

How the Holocaust Affected My Life and Family

- Margaret Adlersberg Berger, January ‘49

Although I was extremely fortunate in having escaped direct suffering in the Holocaust, it certainly shaped my life, perhaps even for the better. It’s an ill wind that blows no one any good. I can’t tell you about life in Vienna before we came to the United States because I was too young to have any memories, but I can tell you about how history intersected with my life.

I was born in Vienna, Austria in July 1932. Neither my mother nor my father came from Vienna. My mother was born in what was then Russia, although it’s now Ukraine, and my father was born in the Austro Hungarian Empire in an area that became Poland and then Ukraine. When I was born, we lived on the Ring, a very grand avenue that had replaced the walls around the inner city that had been built as fortifications to protect the city. Many of the grand public buildings were located there. My father, a physician who did some of the early work on diabetes, taught at the medical school of the University of Vienna.

In 1934, when I was less than two, my parents left me with my governess at my maternal
grandparents while they went to the United States to attend the American Medical Association annual meeting which then, and for many years thereafter, was held in Atlantic City each May.. My father spoke English; my mother at that point didn’t understand a word. My father fell in love with the New York Times and ordered a subscription, which was sent to him in Vienna by sea mail.

In 1936--now I was under four--my father wanted to attend the AMA meeting again. My mother said she wouldn’t go without me, and so we all went. By now things were obviously much worse for Jews at the University of Vienna. My mother always spoke of the AMA having invited my father and I don’t know if she thought it was paying for their trip. It didn’t. I found a letter after my mother died from someone at the AMA saying that unfortunately they didn’t have funds to invite the Jews being deprived of their tenure, but they would put my father on a program if he sent a proposal and so he spoke at the 1936 AMA meeting.

I also don’t know the truth of their immigration to the United States. The story I was told was that when they were getting visas to come to the AMA meeting, the line for emigrating was much shorter than the line for getting a visitor’s visa and so they emigrated. I don’t know if my father did this deliberately but didn’t tell my mother who had been a refugee once before.

She and her parents and brother lived through the Russian Revolution in Kharkov, then Russia. Eventually, everything was confiscated and they lived in one room together with two maids and a grand piano --on which my mother slept-- and practiced. (She gave some piano recitals when they got to Vienna). They knew the two maids had TB, but how could one manage without maids. Before the revolution, they led a very prosperous life, Their silver was regularly requisitioned by whoever was in charge for large dinner parties but it was returned and then had to be buried for three days to make it Kosher again.

In 1922, when my mother was eighteen, relatives of my grandmother who lived in Vienna, Budapest and other places that had been part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire arranged – by paying money? – for my mother’s family to be exchanged for Russian prisoners of war held by the Austrians. This was arranged through the League of Nations; my mother’s family received so-called Nansen passports that allowed them entry into Austria, but they were stateless. My mother remained stateless until 1929 when she married my father whom she met in Vienna..

Anyway we came back to Vienna from the AMA meeting, and that summer of 1936 the Olympics were held in Berlin. As I’d said, we lived on the Ring and apparently there were violently anti-Semitic torchlight parades there. The NY Times seemed to think things were getting much worse. So in the fall of 1936 we left. At that time, to get a medical license in New York, all that my father had to do was to pass an English test. The subject matter tests which many European physicians had great difficulty in passing weren’t instituted until after refugees started arriving in much greater numbers after the Anschluss and Kristallnacht in 1938.

My father had taught lots of young American Jewish men at the University of Vienna (never heard of a girl). American medical schools in the 1920s and 30s had quotas for Jewish students, so many Jews went to the University of Vienna which despite the rampant anti-Semitism was perfectly willing to take their money. So my father had ex-students in New York who referred patients to him.

My parents did not want me to learn English until I went to school so that I would learn it correctly. So in February 1938 when I started kindergarten at Hunter (then the Model School, it was changed to Elementary shortly thereafter), I didn’t speak a word of English. How my father arranged for me to be admitted I don’t know. I guess he must have translated while they gave me some tests. By the time I started first grade I was fluent in English but I remember it as a very lonely and unhappy time. It wasn’t until high school that I started making some friends. My father did all the arranging about school because he spoke English, and besides my mother knew nothing about school. She had never gone to school in Russia. She’d had a French governess, a German fraulein and a Hebrew tutor. She spoke Russian with her father, German with her mother and was tri-lingual, as well as knowing a lot of Hebrew.

Eventually my father was able to provide affidavits to bring most of his and my mother’s immediate family to New York. My mother’s family came in 1938, and my father’s parents who had first gone to England came later. My father ended up supporting three different households.

I knew my father had two sisters who went to England, and I thought that my father also had a brother. But I wasn’t sure, and my father never spoke about any of this. After he died, I asked my mother. My father had a brother, 18 months younger. My father was the perfect child and this boy was not and did not get on well with his father. When my father sent him an affidavit to come to the United States, he refused to use it and died at Auschwitz.

One of my mother’s cousins and his family who survived selected which Jews would live or die for Eichmann. He testified at the Nuremberg trials and was stoned by Jews whose families were killed.

Quite recently, I discovered another piece of my family’s Holocaust story. Unknown to me I had paternal cousins who had come to Cleveland in the 1920s. A woman, now married and living in Maryland, whose grandmother had been an Adlersberg, became interested in genealogy and went to Europe looking for her roots. In Warsaw she met someone who showed her how to use the Internet to get information. I had just been to my 50th college reunion in 2003 and just as for Hunter High School, I was listed as Margaret Adlersberg Berger. The list appeared on the Internet. She contacted me and told me about Bolehov, the now Ukrainian town where my paternal grandfather was born. Bolehov is the town Daniel Mendelsohn wrote about in “The Lost” in which he sought to discover how members of his family perished. Only a handful of Jews from Bolehov survived. One who did, Shlomo, who plays a prominent part in the book, ran away when he was 13 with a cousin after his parents were killed. He was hidden for the rest of the war in a tiny space by farmers who had known his parents. Shlomo’s mother was my grandfather’s sister. He lives in Israel now, and I was introduced to him by my Cleveland cousin who has put together several meetings of persons with Bolehov connections at the New York office of her husband’s law firm.

Shlomo told me that the Russians first occupied Bolehov and that his father ran a factory for the Russians. When the Germans abrogated their pact with the Russians, the Russians withdrew from Bolehov. They gave Shlomo’s father two hours to decide whether he and his family would go with the Russians in which case they would be interned in Siberia. They knew so little about the Germans they decided to stay and annihilation followed.

Shlomo has been raising funds to restore the Jewish cemetery and synagogue, which were completely vandalized. He takes tours to Bolehov with the guide who assisted Mendelsohn and they visit places mentioned in “The Lost,” which is an excellent book. I have not contributed to this effort. I have very ambivalent feelings about pouring money into a town in which not a single Jew lives. I realize this is to restore some terrible desecration but it looks to the past rather than to the future.

When my husband and I visited Amsterdam after the war, he said, “Let’s go to Anne Frank’s house,” and I discovered that I could not go. Although I was very lucky, I obviously bear scars from the Holocaust.

When I was finishing college in 1953 it was very clear to me that if I got a PhD in history, which is what I really was tempted to do, I would never as a woman get a position at any first rate university. I saw that many of our excellent teachers at Hunter had PhDs, but I definitely did not want to teach in a high school. So I went to law school at Columbia where I was one of only five women in my class. Nowadays law school classes are at least 50% female.

Eventually, everything worked out very well for me. I ended up teaching at Brooklyn Law School and visited at Harvard, NYU and Hastings. I became quite well known in my field of Evidence, especially scientific evidence, and I’ve served on many cutting edge projects of the National Academies of Science. I’ve recently retired, although I’m still doing some work, and I am now the Trustee Professor of Law. I wonder sometimes what would have happened to me if there had been no Holocaust and if I’d stayed in Vienna.

- August, 2009


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