Hunter College H.S. Holocaust Survivors

- Muriel Garfunkel Gillick ‘68

The daughter of refugees from Nazi Germany, Muriel movingly recounts her parents’ wartime struggles in Belgium, France and Switzerland and how their experiences affected and influenced her own life.


One Generation After

On a bitter cold day at the end of January, 1939, a train left the German city of Cologne, bound for Brussels, Belgium. Among the passengers were 50 Jewish children who were escaping from an uncertain future in the Third Reich. Among those children was a girl who had just turned 13 the month before: shy, skinny, and pre-pubescent, she would one day be my mother. Also among the children was a 14-year-old boy: worldly, sophisticated, and multi-lingual, he would one day be my father.

Once they arrived in Brussels, Ilse and Hans lived with families for a few months until they outstayed their welcome and were taken to a Brussels “children’s home,” in reality an orphanage, one for girls and one for boys. They were treated with condescension by the rich Jewish women who had arranged for their rescue from Germany, but at least they were safe. That is, they were safe until the German army invaded Belgium in May, 1940. Through the efforts of the handful of adults assigned to serve as their caregivers and underwritten by their Belgian benefactors, a group of 100 refugee children, including my future parents, left by train for southern France.

After a rough start—a bitter cold winter, spent in an unheated barn, with lice, rats, and little more than turnips to eat—the group of 100 children came under the protection of the Swiss Red Cross. They moved into vastly improved quarters in an unoccupied castle, also in the far south of France. They were provided with milk and cheese by the Swiss. For over a year, they raised vegetables, worked on nearby vineyards, learned French, and made friends. Some of those friendships would last a lifetime.

It was The Lord of the Flies in reverse—instead of falling into chaos, this community of children ages 4 to 18 became an oasis of decency as the world outside descended into barbarism. But the children remained painfully aware of the horrors beyond the castle walls: one after another, they would learn that their families had “gone on a journey,” a euphemism for deportation to Poland. Ilse’s parents had escaped to Shanghai, the last remaining refuge for German Jews in 1939. Her father would die of cancer in Shanghai in September, 1940. Her mother would survive the war, living to see V-E day, the end of the war in Europe in May 1945, only to succumb in a typhus epidemic. Hans’s parents remained in Berlin, where his father would die in the one Jewish hospital that would continue to function through the end of the war. His mother would be deported to Riga in August, 1942 and murdered soon afterwards.

The relative peace of the Chateau de la Hille came to an abrupt and harsh end in the summer of 1942. Just before dawn, the French police arrived to take away the 40 children over age 16 and bring them to a French “internment camp.” They went to Le Vernet, a camp that Arthur Koestler, who had been there as a political prisoner a few years earlier, would describe as “the zero point of infamy.”

Vernet was a way station to Auschwitz, whose inmates were systematically and brutally sent to their deaths as soon as enough people had been rounded up to fill a freight train. Ilse and Hans did not know exactly what awaited them, but all the friends and family members who had been sent East had never been heard from again.

On the fourth day of their incarceration, there was a ruckus at the entrance to the barbed wire complex. Their supervisor from the Chateau burst into the camp, demanding the return of “her children.” In a virtually unprecedented occurrence, her boss had bluffed his way into the office of the Minister of the Interior of the collaborationist Vichy government and secured the release of the children.

It was clear that France was no longer a safe haven for the refugees. But all the legal escape routes were firmly barred. so solo or in small groups, the teenagers of La Hille tried to cross illegally into Switzerland or over the Pyrenees to Spain. A few children were caught and turned over to the Gestapo. On Christmas Eve, my father walked over the Swiss border near Geneva. On New Year’s Eve, my mother, together with two other girls, would follow, crawling under barbed wire fences in the snow.

But the Swiss had a new policy of refusing asylum to refugees over the age of 16. Ilse, who had turned 17 a week earlier, lied about her age. She was interrogated in the middle of the night about her birthday, awakened from sleep and dragged to a bare room with a bright light shining in her face. Just when she felt she couldn’t take it any more, she was offered a position as an “au pair” in the home of a Swiss minister.

Hans was simply sent to a work camp where he lived in primitive conditions with insufficient food, spending his days cutting down trees. He managed to arrange to take high school classes in the evenings and eventually was given permission to go to school full-time. Hans received a high school diploma in record time and then took the entrance exam to the University of Bern, stunning the examiners with his outstanding performance.

Refugees were generally not allowed to hold jobs in Switzerland, but there was a nursing shortage, so Ilse was able to enroll in an intensive nursing training program. She learned to be a baby nurse, working such long hours that, exhausted, she fell asleep in the hot sun and nearly died of heat stroke.

Hans began his studies at the University of Bern, but after a short time he had what used to be called a “nervous breakdown.” He had gotten an official letter confirming what he had long suspected but not known with certainty—that his mother had been killed in the concentration camp Majdanek. The war was over in Europe and it seemed Hans would be able to make something of his life, but suddenly he couldn’t hold everything together any more. He had nightmares and panic attacks and was hospitalized in a psychiatric clinic.

Just as Hans began to improve and was able to resume his university studies, he was informed by the Swiss government that he had 60 days to leave the country. Switzerland had a longstanding policy of requiring “transmigration,” a euphemism for expelling refugees. Hans had only one surviving close relative, his brother, who had emigrated to Brazil in 1937. Miraculously, the two made contact after a long period of silence. Desperate to re-establish family ties, and effectively thrown out of Switzerland, Hans journeyed to Sao Paulo, Brazil.

Ilse also realized that her prospects in Switzerland were limited. The Swiss authorities sent her a letter stating how pleased they were that they would be able to “repatriate” her to her “fatherland.” They were arranging for Ilse to return “home” and instructed her to report to the train station in Basel on a specified date and time. Ilse’s friend and protector, the Protestant minister, prevented this new deportation, but agree that her future would be brighter in America.

Hans was reunited with his brother in Sao Paulo, but he hated the corruption, the poverty, the slow pace he found in Brazil. After working in an office for a year, he achieved what had eluded him for the duration of the war—he obtained a visa to the United States.

It was only natural that the few children of La Hille who ended up in New York would make contact with one another. Ilse discovered that Hans was not nearly as arrogant and condescending as she had thought when they were in France. Hans realized that the shy, scrawny Ilse he remembered had matured into an intelligent, sensitive, and attractive young woman.

On September 18, 1948, Hans and Ilse were married in Central Park in New York City. Three years later, they had me.

I cannot really imagine what it was like for my mother to leave Germany by herself, destined never to see her parents again, when she was 13. At that age, I was finishing eighth grade at Hunter College High School, preparing for summer camp. I cannot imagine how she must have felt when, at age 16½, she was taken by the French police to a concentration camp. When I was that age, I was a senior at Hunter, worrying about college applications.

Unlike some parents, mine did not keep their past a secret from me, but it wasn’t something they dwelled on. I was, of course, aware every day that my parents were not Americans by birth: they spoke with a foreign accent, they held their fork in their left hand as they ate, and they never ate hotdogs or drank soda. The principal effect their past had on me as I was growing up was related to their being immigrants. I remember being mortified in eighth grade that I still didn’t wear a bra—my immigrant mother didn’t know about the importance of underwear in the psyche of American pre-teens. I would dash off to the locker room before gym class and change quickly into the awful bloomers we had to wear for gym in those days, before any other girls arrived. I was devastated that as a junior and senior, I never went to a Hunter dance, held with Stuyvesant High School at the time, because my parents didn’t think that was an important activity for me.

The fact that my parents had a traumatic past and not merely a foreign past did affect me in one crucial way: my father had post-traumatic stress disorder and frequently had panic attacks. He was too agoraphobic to take public transportation to work so he went by taxi instead. Because he sometimes had panic attacks in the taxi, he preferred to have a family member accompany him. This wasn’t really feasible, but my father was very resourceful. He left the house for work at the same time I did, took me along in the cab, and dropped me off at school—Hunter was half way between home and his office. Some students might have found going to school by cab appealing; I was convinced that my classmates would think I was a spoiled rich girl and treat with me disdain—they would not understand that I was neither; I simply had to help care for my troubled father. I had the cab driver bring me two blocks from school in the hope that no one would see me arriving.

It’s impossible to know how my parents’ past influenced my choice of career. I do know that they were ambitious for me, as were most German-Jewish refugees whose education had been interrupted by the war, their future prospects severely diminished. They were pleased that I did well at Hunter and was accepted at Swarthmore College and later at Harvard Medical School. But I suspect that my specific career choice—geriatrics and palliative care—had something to do with who my parents were. There was no way to give my parents retroactively what they had missed by growing up under stressful and lonely circumstances. The best I could do was to try to work with a needy and vulnerable population, patients who were in certain critical ways not so different from my parents as teenagers.

Muriel Garfunkel Gillick, MD has written a family memoir/history about her parents, Once They Had a Country: Two Teenage Refugees in the Second World War” (Tuscaloosa, Alabama: University of Alabama Press, 2010)

- January 2011

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