Hunter College H.S. Holocaust Survivors

Kristallnacht through the eyes of a 9-year-old

    - Dorrith Leipziger, Jan '47

Dorrith Leipziger recalls the harassment and restrictions suffered by Jews in the German capital of Berlin, culminating in the infamous Kristallnacht and the arrest of Jewish men, including her father.


I have often wondered to what extent we were, in the 1930s, a typical German-Jewish family. We were comfortable, not wealthy, educated and articulate, Jewish less in a religious sense than in our awareness of belonging to a "we" group that perceived those who were not "like us" with a degree of caution handed down through generations.

My father, a physician in Berlin, had many non-Jewish patients who loved him. We had Gentile relatives by marriage who were welcomed into the family circle but not with the warmth reserved for those who were "like us." Unfriendly non-Jews were automatically identified as anti-Semites, and simply avoided.

I was about five when I found out that while we and almost everyone we knew had a Christmas tree in December, only people "like us" celebrated Chanukah. I decided that our difference--our Jewishness, in a word--lay in Holy Days marked by prayers in a mysterious language and in other oddly interesting observances. All this made it more difficult for me to understand later why this should make us so unacceptable to "the others" that they would no longer tolerate our living among them.

On my Oma Anne's 70th birthday, in May, 1935, all the great-aunts and great-uncles and even my other grandmother from Beuthen came together in our apartment for what we did not know then was the last time. Photos I still have were taken, though not by my father.

Except for a few snapshots on my first day of school two years later, Papa, who had been a passionate photographer and one of the earliest home-movie makers, had stopped taking pictures. I know now that he must have been consumed with worry over our increasingly difficult situation.

Month after month, the government levied new taxes on bank accounts, art objects, jewelry, silver, until finally anything of value owned by Jews was simply confiscated. Not long ago, I found an itemized receipt for such items given to my parents in 1936. Their wedding bands and my father's silver pocket watch were shown as "returned." Restrictions were placed on Jewish doctors, limiting the hospitals they could work in and the patients they could treat. At first, many of my father's non-Jewish patients ignored the regulations and begged him to continue to take care of them. He did so until their own safety as well as his was in jeopardy and he had to ask them to stop coming. One by one, his Jewish patients, our younger relatives, and some of my school friends left for America, Cuba, Brazil, Argentina, Australia, South Africa. I didn't know why. For as long as they could, my parents tried to keep my garden of Eden sunny and secure.

The year I turned nine was cataclysmic. In less than nine months, I confronted my first extended separation from my father, my grandfather Carl's illness and death, my grandmother's grief, the move from our beautiful apartment to a small one borrowed temporarily from one of the great-uncles, and the sight of our synagogue in flames after Kristallnacht, and then, finally, I watched as our remaining possessions were packed, preparatory to our leaving Germany forever.

That summer of 1938, my father left us to go on what he called an Informazionsreise, a reconnaissance trip to America. His first choice of a safe haven, if we had to emigrate, had been Switzerland, but he rejected it when he found out it would be nearly impossible for him to practice medicine there. He knew of no other way to support us.

To go to the United States, we needed affidavits of support from two sponsors, giving assurance that we would not become public charges. We counted on my Great-uncle Julius who was already established in New York City for one. Our only hope for the second was a generous American whose wife had briefly been Papa's patient, when the couple visited Berlin a year or two earlier. He had promised to help if he was needed.

Before he left, Papa took me for a walk and told me not to worry. It was possible, he said, that we would all go to America but that he had never been there, and that he would not take us anywhere without making sure that we could be happy there. He would write often. He would be back in six weeks and bring me a present.

While he was away, his father, my Opa Carl, fell sick. He lay in his bed in the big back bedroom without his dentures, looking pale and anxious. After he had been ill for a month, the doctor who was taking care of him insisted that he go to a hospital. Opa pleaded with us not to let him go. He said he would get better when my father was home, but he died while Papa was on the ship returning from New York.

Our American friend had agreed to be our second sponsor, so now we started to make plans in earnest. It was almost too late. We were still in Berlin on November 9th , 1938.

It seems strange now, but my parents were evidently unaware of the events of that night. I was sent off to walk to my Jewish elementary school as usual the next morning. In my knapsack with my books was the "Our Gang" coloring book Papa had brought from America.

The first thing I noticed that morning was how quiet the streets were: there were almost no people and no automobiles, as if it were Sunday. Half a block from our apartment house, the plate glass window of our bakery was broken. The shelves inside were bare. A few yards along, there was another broken storefront, then another. Then I saw wide strips of white paint on the sidewalk in front of each damaged business, strips I had been stepping over, as if I were playing hopscotch.

Across the street, there were more smashed-in windows and I realized finally that the painted strips were curved at the end like an umbrella handle, making the letter J. Each one was about four feet long. I could make nothing of all this, until I passed a store with a wooden door on which, in the same white paint, was the single word "Jude!" The accusation implied in the exclamation point was impossible to miss. More confused than frightened, I wasn't sure if I should turn around and go home or go on to school.

I was one of a small number who showed up there that day. A teacher talked to us quietly for a while, trying to explain and answer our questions. We were dismissed early.

On the way home, traffic seemed normal. I saw a few shopkeepers sweeping debris inside and boarding up their show-windows. Halfway to Grunewald Strasse, I heard the wail of a fire engine. It came closer and closer, finally turning into the street I was about to cross. A crowd of adults and children were running after it. For the first time in my life, I disobeyed the standing parental warning to come straight home and followed them.

Two blocks away, I saw the fire. The burning building was the synagogue to which I had sometimes been taken for Purim and Rosh Hashanah. Smoke and flames were billowing out of several holes in the roof. Two fire engines were already there; firemen were spraying water, but their efforts seemed half-hearted. A large circle of men, women, and children, strangely silent, stood around the building, kept at a distance by barricades and policemen. Although I did not understand, I made the connection between the temple in flames and the graffiti: "Jude!" What had we done that was so bad?

At home, no one scolded me for having taken a detour. Papa said that the Fuehrer and his followers were blaming the Jews for all that had gone wrong in Germany and that this was the reason we were leaving--not because Jews were guilty of anything but because we were too small a group to defend ourselves. I asked him whether we would ever come back. He said he didn't think so.

In the weeks that followed, we moved from our apartment to a small one nearby, owned by Uncle Julius and vacant at the time. Our furniture and carpets and what was left of our good china and silver were sold or given away. My play store, the enormous stuffed elephant, and my white desk also disappeared.

By December, 1938, even I knew that concentration camps existed. I had heard Papa speak of raids and roundups with some concern that he might be next. Mutti and Oma, almost as nave as I, still believed that since he was a peace-loving, well-respected man who had never done anything wrong, never offended a Nazi, never even belonged to a political organization, Papa would surely be safe. They were wrong.

He was picked up one afternoon in early December. I came home from school to find him gone. Mutti was left with the task of explaining to me, and to herself, why two men from the Gestapo had taken him away. We were not told where.

He was gone for three weeks. When Mutti asked whether I wanted to sleep in the big double bed with her while Papa was away, I knew it was to comfort both of us. At night, when she cried, I told her that wherever Papa was, he would be thinking of us, hoping we were all right, and that he would not want her to cry.

Incredibly, a week after he had been taken, we received a postcard from Papa date-stamped Sachsenhausen. My mother and grandmother spent hours decoding this card, which said very little, looking for hidden messages. They finally agreed that he was trying to tell us that he was not in any immediate danger; that, while he was not being grossly mistreated, he was doing some sort of hard labor; that he didn't know how much longer he could keep up.

The day after Papa's card came, Mutti did the bravest thing she had ever attempted in her life. At the time she was 33 years old, pretty, and looked ten years younger. Wearing one of her good dresses, high heels, and her best make-up, she went to Gestapo headquarters to plead for Papa's return. She charmed her way past several secretaries until she reached a moderately high-ranking officer.

Without tears, she explained why she was there. She told us later that he had first asked her very gruffly how she had managed to get into his office. Then, evidently taken by her spunk and good looks, he had smiled and said, "I can see why Herr Doktor would want to come home to a little woman like you. So, tell me why we should let him go?" She told him that Papa was a good man and a good doctor, and that his family and his remaining patients needed him. The officer appeared to be making a note of Papa's name and location. He shuffled some papers, then perfunctorily dismissed her. Mutti cried all the way home, convinced that she had humiliated herself for nothing.

Too young fully to realize the danger, I never doubted that my father would come home. When he had been away for three weeks, our existence in limbo had established its own routine. Oma was visiting her sisters in their apartment downstairs and Mutti was out of earshot when the doorbell rang. I heard it and went to open the door. There stood Papa, unshaven, with no hair on his head, his suit rumpled and dirty. He smiled a sort of lop-sided smile, but as he lifted me up and held me close, I felt his shoulders shaking, and I knew he was crying. "Mausele," he said, "your Papa is home, safe and sound."

Although he was very tired, we heard his story that evening. As far as I know, he never repeated it again:  the transport by truck and train with about forty other professional men; the barracks at Sachsenhausen, where they were stripped, shorn, and given work clothes and a blanket; the meager two meals a day consisting mainly of bread and something they figured was horsemeat; the construction work they were forced to do from sun-up to dark, my father's task being to haul bricks, fifty or sixty pounds at a time, in a wheelbarrow; the day they were given postcards and pens and told to write cheerful notes home; the daily roll call singling out some men to be taken away, leaving the rest to wonder whether these were to be released or shot; and finally, my father being called to the Kommandant's office where he was told that he could leave, provided he signed a sworn statement that he and his family would be out of the country within three weeks. It took longer, but no one came to check. On the 20th of February, 1939, we were on our way.

Years later, I thought about how my parents and my 73-year-old grandmother Anne must have felt, leaving those close to them, not knowing whether they would ever see them again. My mother's siblings and their children had already gone to Brazil. Uncle Richard and Aunt Paula were expected to leave for America soon. Of the rest, only my cousin Dorette, who was half-Jewish, and her mother were to survive and get to the States after the war. They were subjected to forced labor and a miserable existence, but they were not killed. My grandmother's remaining seven brothers and sisters, all over 70, didn't make it.

On the morning of March 5, 1939, after an 11-day crossing, our ship reached New York harbor. I had never heard of the Statue of Liberty. I could not imagine why people were suddenly shouting and running to the railing on the port side. They let me squeeze in. Many were crying, even some of the men. I was embarrassed and escaped out of the press of bodies to the quiet starboard side where there was virtually nobody left. There I almost jumped with excitement when I recognized the tall buildings I had seen in pictures. But there were so many that I wondered whether most houses in New York were hundreds of stories high, and whether we would be living in one.

Later, Papa explained that the Statue of Liberty was America's way of welcoming refugees and that it stood for freedom. I only half-grasped the symbolism. I also rejected, then and forever, the words "refugee" and "immigrant," which I was to hear hundreds of times in the next few years; they were a new way of identifying those who were "like us." I found these labels demeaning and stubbornly excluded them from my vocabulary. I saw myself now as an American and wanted, as fast as possible, to be seen that way by everybody else.

Those first few weeks in New York were a daily round of discoveries. There was our first meal in a cafeteria, where there were so many choices that I ended up just pointing to whatever looked most familiar. To get around having to order in our halting English, we also ate at Horn and Hardart's Automat. After the initial game of putting coins in a slot and opening a little glass door to make a selection, there was the fun of waiting to see the empty compartment rotate to the kitchen, where disembodied hands made a few deft gestures and then turned the whole thing back again, magically refilled.

I could not get enough of walking in Times Square, with its oversized billboards and electric signs. On one, moving lights appeared to be pouring bubbly stuff from a bottle. On another, smoke-like steam came puffing out of the lips of a huge face.

The elevator-man at our small hotel on 50th Street welcomed me, whenever he saw me, with a shower of words not one of which I understood. Papa had just enough English to get by. Mutti, Oma, and I were mute except with one another. We wanted to blend in and not to be noticed.

With advice from Uncle Julius and financial support from Papa's friend, we soon found a furnished apartment in an old brownstone on West 80th Street. It was at the back of the first floor and had a big living room with a double bed for my parents and a daybed for me, a separate small bedroom for Oma, and a curtained-off kitchenette and dining area. The bathroom was down the hall, shared with the couple in the first floor front. Our rent was $13 a week, and we stayed for two years.

By mid-April, my father was enrolled in special classes in English, basic sciences, and textbook medicine. To practice in New York, he would have to pass the same exams as young students just out of medical school. I had to be very quiet in the evenings and not disturb him, while he studied till he couldn't stay awake any longer.

At 47, he was by no means the oldest of experienced German-Jewish physicians who submitted to this struggle to continue in their chosen profession. Most eventually made it, though some gave up in despair and committed suicide. Others, out of pride or fear of failure, refused even to try. They eked out a living as door-to-door Fuller Brush salesmen or sausage peddlers, piano tuners, stock clerks, kitchen helpers.

Like other professionals' wives who had never had to work outside the home, Mutti got Papa's reluctant agreement to look for a job. The first one she found was in a small factory downtown where she made feather ornaments for ladies' hats. It was piece-work, but she was good with her hands and usually averaged between seven and eight dollars a week, enough to pay our grocery bills. Eventually, she switched to a perfume- bottling firm where she was paid a steady $13 by the week. She was very proud that she could do this and kept the job for four years. Oma managed our household, did the cooking, and with me along to interpret and help carry, did the marketing.

I have often been asked when and how I learned English. I know when - between March and September, 1939 - but I can't really explain how. From 9 to 3, I went to school at P.S. 9, initially assigned to the third grade, almost two years behind where I should have been. (I caught up later by skipping part of the 4th, 5th, and 6th grades.) At home, I spoke German but everywhere else I suppose I just listened intently and imitated what I heard. Until I could produce a proper th, I faked it, as in "Dick and Jane fought vey heard vuh dog bark." That raised no eyebrows, as did my classmate Andreas' "Dick and Jane sought zey heard zuh dog bark." I picked up a lot of words at the movies, going with Oma regularly twice a week. And HIAS (the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society) sent me and 39 other girls to camp in New Jersey, which also helped to expand my vocabulary.

Fast forward now to January, 1943. By then, my father, now Daddy rather than Papa, had established his practice, and our home, in Washington Heights; Mom, Mutti no longer, had quit her factory job and was now his office assistant; and Oma Anne had passed away, but Oma Helene from Brazil was living with us.

When every teacher in every class that first day at Hunter High greeted me as Miss Leipziger, I grew three inches on the spot. I also quickly became a night owl. Every teacher in every class ignored the prescribed limit of 45 minutes of homework per subject, so my parents had to get used to my staying up late to study, often till midnight. I joined the French Club, wrote for What's What and later Annals. In a booth at Caso's luncheonette on 69th and Third, I was one of a foursome that met every day after 8th period to discuss School, Boys, and Other Important Subjects: Joyce, Phyllis, and Pat became my friends for life. Hunter was hard, Hunter was highly competitive, Hunter was wonderful. Its message got through loud and clear to all of us who stayed the course: believe in yourself, open all the doors, be the best you can be.

Without those four formative years at Hunter High, I would not have had the temerity, at 21, to travel abroad by myself: I hid my German but got along effortlessly with the fluent French I had been given by the school's incredible French Department. I would not have read as avidly or written as passionately all my life without the rigorous prodding of my teachers of Latin and English. I would not have had the study habits or teaching tools that supported me during my 30-year stint with the Social Security Administration. And, even with my father as a role-model, I would not have trusted myself, when I retired at age 58, to go on to begin a second career. Compared to Hunter High, that first awful year of law school was a snap, or almost.

Traumatic as it may have been to be uprooted as a 9-year-old, and vivid as the memory of some of the bad times still is, I don't believe being a Holocaust survivor has unalterably scarred my life, diminished my happiness or my view of the world and other people. Nor am I am skewed by cynicism or bitterness. I am one of the lucky ones.

Unscarred by her experiences, Dorrith is indeed one of the lucky ones. In the Hunter Holocaust histories that follow, you will meet survivors who escaped from Europe much later or not at all until after World War II and read about their lifelong anxieties, that include secretiveness, difficulties making friends and fitting in, fear of abandonment, anxiety around authority figures, as well as bedwetting throughout childhood.

Home    Previous    Next


All content on this site is copyright 2000 by the various authors.   All rights reserved.