Edith and her family criss-crossed Europe and stayed in six different countries during their flight from their birthplace in Prague to safety in New York.
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I was born in Prague in 1931. One of my earliest memories is of me sitting on the floor and listening to Hitler's voice screaming out of Papa's radio. The words were too big for me to understand but I could feel my parents' fear, and I, too, became afraid. When I asked them to explain what he was saying, Mama replied, "You don't have to understand. It's nothing for you to worry about. You're just a child," and Papa added, "It's politics."
I didn't comprehend my feelings then, but I became angry. I was angry that Hitler made my parents afraid and consequently me as well. I was angry that they wouldn't explain, angry at my impotence and angry that no one would explain.
When Austria fell in March 1938, Mama, who had read Mein Kampf and believed every word, begged my father to flee to Paris, but he scoffed at her fears. However, early in May, something happened and we suddenly flew to Switzerland in a little biplane. It was a terrifying trip. We stayed in Zurich for a while, and when things quieted down, we returned to Prague.
That fall, right after Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, many Jews started to leave Prague, and Mama convinced Papa we must also. It was impossible to get any transportation to France, so we fled, this time by commercial airliner, to Budapest to the man my Grandfather, Dzeida Rudolf, considered his best friend. This best friend made it clear he wanted nothing to do with us and sent us on to Belgrade, from where we were supposed to be able to get on a ship to Marseilles, France.
It didn't happen. The civil unrest that exists today was already causing chaos in the then Yugoslavia. We were lucky to have found a hotel room. Papa tried to get ship's tickets, and in the meantime found a basement restaurant that had a radio. That's where we heard the English Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain's infamous "Peace In Our Time" speech. Papa, who spoke English, translated it for us; both my parents were appalled at Chamberlain's naivete. Papa then convinced Mama that, before it fell apart, the Munich Pact would give him a chance to get a substantial amount money to France and England for us to live on for a long period of time, so the next day we returned to Prague.
It was a hair-raising trip. One of the fighting groups bombed a railroad bridge just before our train crossed it and we had to carry our luggage over what remained to the station on the other side. From there the journey to Prague was uneventful. Once back home, my parents acted as if nothing had ever happened. It was the only time they didn't discuss politics in front of my brother, Peter, and me.
Right after Kristallnacht, Dzeida Rudolf decided to accept an invitation from an American customer to visit the United States and to evaluate the political situation from there. He crossed Germany uneventfully and took a ship to New York.
While he was away, preparations for war began in Prague. I asked Mama what the long hole in the ground in the park across the street from my school was for. She said it was to protect us from the Germans. She gave the same reply when I asked what the meter-long white lines painted at intervals on the sidewalk curbs were for. Her tone of voice discouraged any further questions, so I asked my nurse-maid to explain it better, but she didn't understand it any more than I did. All she and the other nurse-maids talked about, as they took their charges to and from school, was the coming war and the conscription of their boyfriends. They sounded very frightened, and I felt very small and very angry.
Just before the new year, Mama came down with pneumonia and almost died. The tension and fear in the house was palpable. The only good news came from Dzeida in New York. He had accomplished his mission and was on his way home. By the time he reached Prague, Mama was recovering, albeit slowly. After Dzeida gave Peter and me the toys he had bought us at FAO Schwartz, he said that he had concluded that we must leave Prague, but that we need only to go to Paris where we were sure to be safe.
When Papa explained about Mama's illness, it was decided that my grandmother, Babi Julie, would pack our things under Mama's supervision and our luggage would be sent to Paris into storage until Mama was allowed to travel. Permission finally came at the beginning of March, and Papa got us train reservations for March 10th. Unexpectedly, his father, Dzeida Emil, died on March 8th, and his funeral was the next day. Mama wanted to leave as scheduled, but Papa insisted that the least he could do to show respect for his father was to sit Shiva for the required eight days. It was an argument with which Mama could not disagree.
On March 15th, the Germans occupied Czechoslovakia. The dreary weather suited the occasion. The radio blared the news, and the announcer instructed all children to go to school as usual. My parents, who had been so afraid of the event for as long as I could remember, acted as if nothing was different and hurried us out so that we wouldn't be late. But a lot was different. There were olive drab trucks parked all along the curb in front of my school. One of them had steel kettles from which a soldier was ladling out soup to the troops milling on the curb. All of those men were heavily armed and had bayonet tipped rifles swung over their shoulders. Across the street, more of the hated soldiers were placing boxes into the trenches that had been dug as a protection against attack. I had been right. Those holes in the ground were useless!
Heavily armed soldiers stood at attention at either side of the entrance to the school, just like a pair of book-ends. A similar pair of book-ends stood inside the doorway. In the classroom pictures of Hitler glared at us from the top of each wall. What kind of army, I wondered, bothers lugging along so many pictures for school rooms, when, surely, they had more important things to do? I was also enraged that the Nazis felt they needed guns to protect themselves from little children. The morning was unusually subdued, and by the time we left to go home for lunch, my anger was all consuming. Without thinking of it, I stomped the foot of one of the book-ends and glared into his eyes. Much to my fury, he smiled at me benevolently and ruffled my hair.
As I stepped out the door, Mama grabbed my arm and dragged me around the corner, away from the school. Then she squatted down to be at eye level with me. Shaking with obvious fear, she explained to me that what I had done was very dangerous and could have gotten me shot; that then I'd be dead and that she and the whole family couldn't bear that. She begged me, with tears in her eyes, to be good and to use self-control, to please, please stop asking questions and try to understand everything. Mama explained that there were things happening that were beyond anyone's understanding. The fact that she didn't get angry with me and that she was pleading with me, made a deep impression. I promised her, and myself, I would do my best to comply, and I did, except for one time when I forgot. The unhappy result of that incident insured that I would have no more lapses.
It happened a day or two after the occupation. As I was walking home with my nurse-maid after school, we saw a group of women looking at large white posters that were pasted on the corners of the apartment houses across the street. My nurse-maid was as curious as I, so we crossed the street. It turned out that the posters were headed by an eagle holding a swastika and they contained a list of orders, first in German and then in Czech. The women were debating the terrible consequences that were bound to occur when at midnight, all traffic would have to cease driving on the left and would have to start driving on the right side of the streets.
I didn't see why they were making a big deal of what I thought was a minor change. What irritated me was that this nonsense was defacing the walls of nice buildings. That's why I asked my nurse-maid why the Germans didn't put such announcements in the newspaper or on the radio, rather than defacing the apartment houses. I'll never forget the rotund woman, stuffed into a coat two sizes too small for her ample figure, glaring at me and saying, "Because we're not all rich and can't afford newspapers or radios like you filthy rotten Jews." I felt I had been slapped in the face and finally understood what Mama had meant. The unhappy result of that incident insured that I would have no more lapses in self- control.
Finally, early on the morning of April 9, we escaped from Prague. Papa had obtained permits allowing the whole family, Babi and Dzeida included, to go to the Tatra mountains for Mama's recuperation. We were allowed to enter the railroad station, where we made our way to the Paris track. Papa timed it so that when we arrived, he had only enough time to waive the permits under the German guard's nose before the train started to move. We barely caught the last car of the train. We crossed Germany uneventfully. At the border to France, ours was the last compartment to be examined by both countries' border guards. Once again Papa waived the Tatra permits under the German noses, and the French made them run off the train, as by then it was moving into France.
We stayed at a hotel in Paris for three days, until my parents rented a furnished apartment. The following Monday Peter and I started school. We knew almost no French, but out of necessity we learned it very quickly. As a result, about four weeks later, the girl who was the head of the ruling clique of the class, insisted that I could not be Czech if I was Jewish, because the good father said that if you were Jewish you couldn't be anything else. My French was still very rudimentary, and I had no idea who the good father was; but he obviously didn't know what he was talking about, and I said so. That resulted in a kicking and hair pulling encounter that had to be stopped by a teacher. I felt a thorough outcast in my class.
Our home, in the meantime, became an unofficial Czech meeting place. Papa had purchased a radio and allowed friends to listen to the various newscasts with him. The interminable discussions and guessing games about what would happen next were as fascinating as they were frightening. Everyone's letters from Prague were discussed and dissected ad infinitum.
When school ended for the summer, my family decided to go to the Normandy coast, so that Dzeida would be away from the summer heat of Paris. Moreover, Mama believed that if the Germans decided to use poison gas, it would be more likely to dissipate over the ocean than anywhere else. Some of the other Czechs agreed, and so the Czech meeting place moved to Riva-Bella. The endless discussions continued, but this time on the long walks along the seashore. All of us were scheduled to return to Paris on September 1st. That day our luggage stood in the hall, waiting for the taxi to take us to the train in Caen. Only Papa's radio was still connected, so he could hear the latest news. As we ate breakfast, we heard of the German invasion of Poland. Then came an announcement telling us that all foreigners were forbidden to travel within France and had to report to the nearest Prefect of Police immediately. Papa and Dzeida hurried out to comply, hoping to get permission to go to Paris. They returned four hours later, followed by a porter pulling a handcart.
Returning to Paris was impossible, so they had rented the only furnished house in the village that could be heated and that had indoor plumbing. They also did some shopping for groceries to avoid anticipated food shortages and to make friends with the grocer. After a quick lunch, the porter piled our luggage into the cart, and we followed it on foot to our new home. The other Czechs also managed to find new housing, and since the village was very small, they had no trouble locating us that afternoon.
Compared to their new quarters, our house was a palace. It had a flush toilet under the stairs, and a hand pump in the kitchen. In addition two rooms had a huge fireplaces so that we had more heat than the others. I didn't see it as so terrible, but it must have been awful for the adults, who were used to the most up-to-date luxuries.
A new routine was quickly established. We children went to school. I had to repeat second grade, but this time I could jabber in French as well as anyone, and my Parisian accent set me up as an example to the other children. Thanks to the sensitive principal, no one but she knew I was a foreigner. Peter and the other refugee children also had it much easier. After school all the Czech children gathered at our house, and Papa supervised our homework. We usually finished it all by the time the Czech program came on the BBC. Then we all listened intently. There was the usual heated dissection of the day's development and any mail that may have arrived from Prague. Then our guests went home and we had our dinner. Often it was only oatmeal with plenty of fresh milk and a large dab of butter, and we were happy for Papa's foresight.
On Friday nights we all, our friends included, had a bath in a wooden tub placed on our kitchen floor. Mama and Babi would boil the water, and we would all take turns, replenishing the water as it spilled. When everyone was finished, Dzeida would hold open the door to the formal garden in the back, and two of the men would heave the water out. By spring the garden was ruined, but the kitchen floor was spotless.
As the winter of 1939-40 wore on, our friends started to get permission to leave, or in one case, they hired a boat to take them to England. Mama wanted to leave as well, but Papa insisted that our education had been interrupted once too often, and he wanted us to finish out the school year. It wasn't to be. We heard about the June 1940 debacle at Dunkirk on BBC and one morning, when I came to school, the yard was filled with people, campfires and bedrolls. There was such chaos, that we were able to leave and go south without any permits whatsoever. We encountered overt anti-Semitism and lost our luggage for a while, but my clever Papa managed to find it. For about two weeks lived in Arcachon, just south of Bordeaux where my parents had a number of friends. This time it was we who had the worst housing, but amazingly, because we were together, Mama and Babi managed very well. When Paris fell and the Germans started to overrun the country, we headed south once more intending to go to Portugal and then, hopefully to the US. We endured blackouts and bombing, but we managed to get to the Spanish border. There we learned that the new French puppet government now required us to buy exit permits but would not sell them unless we had a visa to a country that would accept us. Papa rode the train back into France to get these documents, but gave Mama money and instructions on how to find housing and how to arrange for smugglers to take us across the border if he didn't return in three days. Mama followed his directions exactly and accomplished both tasks. We had a small room in which four of us managed to sleep. One adult always stayed at the railroad station as that was where Papa would arrive. Mama even managed to find three chocolate bars for us to eat. I suspect that Peter, and I got the major portion.
It poured on the third morning, but we went out to the handcart holding our luggage, ready to be smuggled over the border. As we started out Dzeida and Papa came up the hill, accompanied by a couple of friends. They were almost carrying the old gentleman, as he had had a stroke. The deal with the smugglers was that they would not return the money if we could cross legally, so instead they accompanied us to the border. They put our friends' suitcases on top of our luggage and lifted the old gentleman on top of a trunk. They placed a huge umbrella in his hand, and that was how we made our way to the border crossing in Irun.
The embankment in front of the customs station was four and five deep with people as far back as the eye could see, but we went along the street, directly to the border station, where the smugglers knew the officials. The people who had waited for their turns, God knows how long, were very upset, but Papa explained that war robbed people of honor. In those difficult times one had to worry about one's family first.
We crossed the bridge into Spain and stood on the Spanish side, waiting for Papa to take care of the formalities. Suddenly we saw trucks, flying swastikas on their bumpers, coming down the hill we had just been on. So we watched as the Germans closed the border behind us.
From there we were able to get on a train to Portugal. We were directed to a resort town, Figuera Da Foz, the only place where housing was still available. Papa was able to go to Lisbon by train daily and finally, by October, he had our visas and passage on an ocean liner to New York.
We arrived there, on Thanksgiving Day 1940. That was, of course, a Thursday. By the following Monday we were installed in a furnished house in Jackson Heights, and Peter and I were enrolled in PS 148. The American children were much friendlier and more welcoming than the ones in Paris. The teacher, however, was an incompetent and resented the difficulties that she felt I presented. In the spring, in a social studies class she was explaining that the US had signed a lend lease agreement with Russia, so now Russia was our good friend. When she finished I asked how that could be, because Russia was a Communist country and hated us capitalists, and besides hadn't she had made a deal with Germany less than a year ago to divide Poland between them? The teacher's mouth dropped open, and then, very angrily, she said, "You're a foreigner. You don't know what you're talking about. Sit down and listen!"
That's why I didn't mind too much when our lease agreement was up in November. We moved to another house in Jackson Heights and I had to transfer to PS 151. I missed my classmates, though I was never really close to anyone. Besides Dzeida was very ill with heart problems and cancer, so I could never bring friends home. Not that I wanted to. No one at PS 151 knew I was a foreigner; no one that is, until I went to my citizenship swearing in ceremony. I met one of my classmates there. He and I were always vying for top place in our gifted class. He was as surprised as I, and by some sort of an unspoken agreement, neither one of us ever mentioned our encounter after the event.
Because of our wandering, I was a year behind in school, so when given the chance, I went to PS 69 and finished sixth and seventh grade in one and a half years. Then I went to Junior High 149 in Corona and finished eighth and ninth grade in one and a half years as well. By the time I got to Hunter High, I was the right age for my grade. I chose Hunter, as I didn't want to follow in my brother's footsteps at the local High School. I didn't think I could live up to his achievements.
I enjoyed Hunter very much but wished there were more opportunities for me to learn to social skills. Only later did I realize that the problem was with me. I simply didn't know how to get close to anyone. I knew there were other refugee girls in my class, but none of us acknowledged it, and I don't recall that the Holocaust was ever discussed in any of our classes.
My father died suddenly in my arms when I was seventeen, and I will always be grateful to my teachers and class mates for their support and compassion at that terrible time. I was accepted by Queens College and by Hunter. I chose Hunter because I had no money for books, and in those years Hunter had a book room. Mama tried to talk me out of college because she could use extra money, and she truly thought that men didn't want to have a wife that was too educated. I used the old saw, "Mama, this is America. Things are done differently here," to counter that argument. I did, however, get a part time job after school and gave her all I earned except for $4.00. I never asked her for a penny.
I wanted to be a lawyer, but our financial situation was such that law school didn't come into consideration, and I felt I would never get a scholarship. Teaching was out. When my Hunter College speech teacher saw on my record that I was foreign born, he decided that I had an accent without hearing me utter a single word. He refused to endorse me for that major, and I wasn't motivated enough toward that goal to fight him. Mama wanted me to major in home economics but I wasn't sure I would get married or want to keep house. I ended up majoring in geology and minoring in geography, don't ask me why. In my Senior year I came to my senses and took stenography and typing courses as electives, so that I was sure of finding some sort of employment.
I met Herb Nathan in my Junior year, and we hit it off immediately. He was Jewish and born in Frankfurt, Germany. He was kicked out of school for beating up a couple of Hitler Youth boys after enduring months of harassment. When his parents realized what he had been struggling with, they sent him to a boarding school in Belgium. He returned to Germany only during vacations. He, too, had to learn French the way I did. Since we found out much later that he was dyslexic, it was no easy task. Somehow he learned how to work around his problem. His parents came to the US in 1938, just before Kristallnacht, and once they settled in Chicago, they sent for him. He started as a freshman in high school without knowing any English, but a summer in Boy Scout camp took care of that problem, and in the fall he was a senior. He went to Illinois Tech, where his dyslexia made it a very difficult program. When the war broke out, he volunteered for the army, solving his employment program. He got his citizenship papers before he was shipped to Europe. Herb was in the second wave of soldiers to hit Omaha beach on D-D day. Thank God, he managed to survive without a scratch. One of his pleasures was to return to Frankfurt and visiting his father's factory in a US uniform with a 38 on his belt.
Herb and I married before I graduated and soon after getting my degree, I became pregnant with our son. Two years later we had a daughter. We felt we had finally become a typical American family. We bought a house, and I became a working mother before it was fashionable. We moved to the suburbs and felt we had arrived. When our son was sixteen he prepared a report for school, which he wanted us to review before he presented it to his class. It began with a film showing refugees being herded in the rain along a street, carrying their luggage. Armed Nazi guards watched over them. Suddenly I felt I was in the picture. My reaction stunned the children. That was when Herb and I realized we had never spoken of our part in the Holocaust to them and that's when I started to write my book of memoirs.
It was a very painful undertaking, but far more effective than therapy. It has just struck me that it took me over twenty years to write my memoirs, and they dealt in only with our flight from Europe. The inability to make close friends, and not understanding why, was one of the greatest traumas I suffered in the U.S. Somehow, I always felt it was my fault.
Herb and I retired in 1988 and moved to California. In 1997 I had my first bout with lung cancer and recovered quickly from surgery. The experience made me examine my life even more closely, and I became aware that anger was my first response in times of stress. When the cancer returned, I finally accepted that there was no point in wasting whatever time I have left. I am finally getting a better insight into the pain I blocked out when we arrived here. I have finally found the inner peace I needed to deal with it
Edith Schleissner Nathans flight from Prague to New York is described in her unpublished book, Expelled, on which this memoir is based.
An excerpt from this history appears in Escape--Teens on the Run: Primary sources from the Holocaust, Enslow Publishers, Berkeley Heights NY 2010.
The following obituary of Edith Schleissner Nathan appeared originally in Leisure World News.
Edith Schleissner Nathan died on July 28, 2001. She passed away peacefully in her sleep at Mission Hospital, Mission Viejo, California after a brief illness. She was a long-time resident of Rockland County, New York and a member of Temple Beth El of Spring Valley, NY.
Edith was an alumna of Hunter High School and Hunter College, class of ’53 where she earned an MS degree in Vocational Counselling in 1971. She retired as District Manager after 27 years service in the New York State Office of Vocational Rehabilitation. She is listed in the National Distinguished Service Registry of Medical and Vocational Rehabilitation of 1987 and received numerous awards for her services.
She is survived by her loving husband of 48 years, Herbert, son Edward and daughter Beverly Bowen.
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