G E R M A N Y
MARGRIT ROSENBERG STENGE
My life began on December 27, 1928 in Cologne, Germany. When I was just a very young child I was taught to say my address: “Akkrepiner Hof 4” (which I believe now to be Aggripinaufer), just in case I should get lost. The chances of this happening were almost non-existent since I always had a Fräulein (nanny) to watch over me.
I was very young when my parents and I lived in this apartment, so my memories of this, my first home are shadowy and vague. I believe there were many rooms in the apartment, all with high ceilings and large, tall windows, through which I would stare on rainy days.
My parents, Alice and Max (Markus) Rosenberg had met during a family gathering. They were distantly related through marriage, and I was told that, when they met their attraction for each other was instant. By the time they got married my mother was 21 years old and my father 33. It is said that opposites attract each other and this held true for my parents.
My mother was a beautiful young girl, blonde and blue-eyed, perhaps a bit heavier than fashionable today. My father was slim, dark and handsome, somewhat shorter than my mother. Their temperaments were also very different. My mother’s anger would flare up at the slightest provocation, although the storm would blow over quickly. My father, on the other hand, was calm and composed, but his rare outbursts of anger would be much more serious and longer lasting.
Even my parents’ backgrounds were quite different. My mother was an only child, and from what I have been told, her childhood was a happy one. She grew up in a small place called Beul near Bonn where her father was a merchant and made a comfortable living. In keeping with the times her mother stayed at home and looked after the household and her only daughter. Like most German Jews, the family was German first and Jewish second, and religion played a minor role, if any, in their lives. My memories of my mother’s parents are strictly visual: my grandfather a short heavy-set man, my grandmother a gray-haired somewhat stout lady. I saw them rarely, and did not know them well at all. I called them Opa and Oma.
When my son visited the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington some years ago he looked up a computer register and found both my grandparents’ names. The notation next to the names said that they had been deported first to Theresienstadt and then to Auschwitz, where they perished.
My father’s family was much larger. I cannot say that I knew his parents any better than my mother’s, but I did see them more often. They lived in the same house as some of my father’s siblings, in a town called Wächtersbach, near Frankfurt am Main. My grandfather (Jakob), who died when I was still very young, was wheelchair-bound, and had obviously had a stroke, but even today I can remember him well. My grandmother (Veilchen - Violet) suffered from severe asthma, and in order to relieve her symptoms she would breathe in the fumes from herbs that she would burn in a small plate. In my mind’s eye I can still see her gray-haired head bent over the plate.
The care of the parents fell for the most part to Tante (aunt) Karolinchen, my father’s sister, who lived with her husband Nathan in the family home. They had no children. Another brother, Gustav and his wife Selma and their little girl Elfriede were also part of the household. The men in the family were cattle traders, and my father augmented their income if and when necessary.
My Wächtersbach family was orthodox, and my parents and I would often spend the Jewish holidays with them, which would give my cousin Elfriede and me a chance to get to know each other. As the years went by, we became quite close, since we were both only children.
One of my father’s brothers was killed in the war 1914-1918, where he fought for Germany against France. An older sister, Selma lived in a small town called Neuss with her husband and four children. My cousins Erna and Annie eventually escaped to England where they worked as domestics, Walter the oldest in the family went on Alyiah to Palestine and was one of the co-founders of Kibbutz Hazoreah and Max, the youngest, immigrated to the United States.
Their parents were deported and killed.
When my parents announced to their families that they had decided to get married, I assume that the Wächtersbach family had some objections. Although my father was no longer religious, they must have felt that marriage to a young woman from a completely ‘liberal’ family would further estrange him from the beliefs of his youth. But the die was cast and the two got married. Their first born child was a little boy, who died when he was only six weeks old, in 1926.
I suppose that I must have been a rather lonely little girl in my childhood, at least it seems so now. My companions were an assortment of young women, nannies or Kindermädchen, whom I would call Fräulein, as I mentioned before. My mother would spend her days much like any other well-to-do young woman, shopping and playing bridge, while my father was at work in his paint manufacturing company, Kölner Farbenfabrik. My mother did not do any housework or cooking during those years in Germany.
There seemed to have been comparatively little interaction between my parents, whom I called Mutti (Mommy) and Vati (Daddy) and me. At times I would be allowed to say hello and curtsey to my mother’s bridge friends. My mother would hug and kiss me in front of them, which I remember embarrassed me. On Sundays my father would also often play cards, a game called Skat, and he too would sometimes ask me to come and say hello. However, always sensitive to my needs he would refrain from showing me his affection in his friends’ company.
Another of my early and none too pleasant memories, was the simple act of eating. In keeping with the times I never ate with my parents but with the current Fräulein. Like many children I had a small appetite, but since I had to eat everything that was on my plate, it would often take me hours to finish a meal. In the worst-case scenario my mother would insist that I finish my leftover lunch at dinner, and only my father’s intervention would rescue me.
When I was four years old my father became very ill. He too had been a soldier in World War I and was imprisoned by the French shortly after the war broke out. In exchange for learning French during his captivity he lost his health, which suddenly manifested itself in 1932. The first diagnosis was diabetes, and as if this were not enough, he was somewhat later found to be suffering from tuberculosis as well. Now I saw my parents even less. They traveled frequently to Switzerland, where the air was said to be good for my father. Sometimes I would join them there with the nanny. During the next few years my father had several very serious operations and my mother never left his side. When his health permitted it, my parents would go on business trips, mainly to Scandinavia. Without my mother’s constant and devoted care and attention my father would undoubtedly have succumbed to his illnesses even more prematurely than he ultimately did.
My father’s illness had a profound impact on me. From early childhood on and for years to come I shared my mother’s anxiety and worries. I was no doubt a very quiet little girl, always taking care not to disturb the gentle, loving man who was my Vati. A smile and a kiss from him made it all worth while - I loved him so.
But life was never the same again. The rhythm of our family life always depended on my father’s state of health. There were also other serious changes on the horizon. As we know, Hitler came to power in 1933, and although this event had little impact, if any, on our lives then, it would not be long until we began to feel the consequences of the political upheaval.
When I was six years old, I was enrolled into a neighborhood school. An old photo in my mother’s album shows me on my first day of school: A rather ordinary looking, smiling little girl with brown short hair, proudly displaying a colorful cone-shaped bag filled with candies. At the time every first-grader was handed such a bag upon leaving school the first day.
Before school started the following year, I knew that something very fundamental had changed in my life. I became aware that to be Jewish was to be different, when I had to attend the Cologne Jewish school rather than my old school nearby. It turned out to be a very good change. I loved my teacher, who not only taught us reading, writing and arithmetic but also Ivrit, which opened a whole new world for me. My schoolmates came from all over the city and I formed many new friendships, but it was Vera who became my best friend. As far as I can remember our parents were friendly too, and we were able to see each after school as well. Vera ultimately immigrated to the United States with her parents, got married at an early age and unfortunately contracted polio shortly afterwards. She was in a wheelchair for the rest of her life and died many years ago.
Around 1934-1935 we moved into a new house on Marienburgerstrasse 52, a beautiful tree lined street. Of course I cannot remember how many rooms this house had, but there were several living rooms, a large kitchen and several bedrooms upstairs. One of the downstairs rooms led out to a lovely garden with a fountain. Adjoining the service entrance was a dog kennel that ultimately housed a German shepherd dog, perhaps some kind of guard dog, I do not know.
In retrospect I wonder at my parents’ decision to buy this home at a time of considerable political unrest in Germany. The fact is that this house on Marienburgerstrasse 52 was my father’s dream house. Often he and I would walk in the garden and sit down on a bench and have a quiet conversation - just the two of us.
‘Our’ house, although it was not ‘ours’ any more by then, survived the war which was a miracle. Cologne was bombed extensively by the allies, but Marienburgerstrasse 52 only sustained minor damage. Many years later my husband Steve and I traveled with a tour bus through much of Europe. We chose this particular tour because it would visit Cologne (Köln am Rhein), and while our fellow travelers visited the Dom, we went to Marienburgerstrasse by taxi. A lady, who turned out to be the house sitter while its owners were in America, let us in after I told her that I had once lived in this house, without mentioning dates or times. With the passage of time the kitchen had ‘shrunk’ and so had the garden and there were many more and smaller rooms than I remembered, partly due to the fact that several families had lived in this house after the war, when the housing shortage in Cologne was severe. My visit to the house where I had lived so many years before was, needless to say, a difficult experience, yet I am glad I had this opportunity.
One day a big surprise awaited me. My father took me outside to the dog kennel, where a large cardboard box was standing in one corner. Squeaking noises came from inside the box, and I could hardly believe my eyes when I saw the beautiful little black-haired puppies crawling on top of each other. Where had they come from? I was thrilled and wanted to keep them all, but of course they had to be given away.
By now we had several servants, one of them a cook. The Fräulein, who occupied the room next to mine at the time, was Jewish and the nicest nanny I ever had. She would also be my last.
During the next few years there were still holiday trips to Italy with my parents and Fräulein,and my mother and father continued to travel on business. My father’s health remained frail but manageable. One year a whooping cough epidemic broke out in Cologne, and because the doctor thought I had a mild case of the illness, I was immediately dispatched, together with my nanny, to a region in Germany called Schwarzwald, where the air was supposed to be good for my cough. I can still recall our walks through the woods with their wonderful odor of pine trees.
Ever since I changed schools I had come to realize that there was a certain stigma to being Jewish. I also overheard conversations between my parents about Hitler and the anti-Semitism he preached, even though they did not yet believe that this had anything to do with them. As my father once told me:“Unsere Familie hat hier in Deutschland seit dem sechzehnten Jahrhundert gelebt” (Our family has lived in Germany since the 1500’s), so this could not possibly concern them. He had even received the Iron Cross for bravery during World War I, and our home and business were in Germany. But more and more often Hitler’s voice would be heard on the radio and nothing upset my father more than his ranting and raving, for the most part directed against us Jews.
Our house and garden were set back from the street and a low wall surrounded our property. One day, when I was in the garden playing by myself, a gang of young people gathered outside and started throwing rocks over the wall. When my father appeared, they ran off. That day in 1937 my childhood came to an end, and nothing was ever the same. I was never again allowed to leave our house unaccompanied, and my sense of security was forever gone.
My parents too considered this incident extremely serious. Our home had been violated, and today I am absolutely certain that had we been able to leave Germany just then, we would have. But stringent laws had been passed prohibiting Jews from emigrating from Germany, and just as stringent were the laws and quota systems imposed in most countries banning Jewish immigration. My father’s medical history further complicated our situation.
My favorite Fräulein left, I believe, in 1937. I remember saying a tearful good-bye to her, feeling that my world was truly collapsing. But then - a big surprise. My cousin Erna, my father’s sister’s daughter, joined our household, and she became my all time favorite companion. Erna was eleven years older than I, a young woman with a sweet disposition, who was always ready to pay attention to me. She was pretty, with fine features and beautiful curly hair. What I remember best is that she called me “Gritchen,” which I loved enough to remember after all these years.
Erna, together with her older sister Annie, left for England in 1938. At the time England admitted young Jewish women only with the proviso that they work there as domestics, which both my cousins did until the end of the War. By then they had earned their permanent residency in England. Annie remained in England all her life, married an Englishman, had a daughter Sylvia, and ultimately died in England. At the end of the war Erna went back to Germany as an interpreter for the Allied forces. Here she met her future husband Erwin, also a German Jew, and together they settled in Birmingham, England.
In 1938, for reasons which I have never understood, my parents decided to travel one more time on a short vacation to Italy, this time with me. Letters had reached them from the family in Wächtersbach indicating that anti-Semitic incidents had increased alarmingly. My father feared for their safety and on our way back from Italy to Cologne, we stopped in Wächtersbach. That very night, shortly after my grandmother, Elfriede and I had gone to bed, we heard the now familiar sounds of broken glass. I was terrified. An unruly mob had gathered outside our windows, most likely because they were aware of our presence. The stone bombardment continued for several hours. Almost every window in the house was shattered, and when the following morning a piece of glass was found in my grandmother’s bed, it was obvious that the time for decisions had come.
This is how it happened that our whole family traveled back to Cologne by train the following morning. My uncles and aunts had packed only what was absolutely necessary. In retrospect I realize that this decision must have been extremely traumatic for everyone, except for Elfriede and me. I was so excited about the prospect of living in the same house as my cousin, that nothing else mattered at the time, and for Elfriede too this seemed nothing but a wonderful new adventure.
The reason for this move was that the bigger cities were considered safer than the villages and towns. There were fewer Jews living in the smaller places, which made them more vulnerable, and my parents felt that the family would be safer in Cologne than in the small town that had been their home.
No doubt the next few months were difficult for all the adults in our house. My mother was not used to life with a big family, and all the maids had left because, according to Hitler’s new laws, they could no longer remain in Jewish employ. My aunts were used to doing their own housework and took care of everything, and I remember well how we all ate together around a large table in the dining room. This was a welcome change for me, who was used to having my meals with only my Fräulein, and for the first time in my life no one paid any attention to how much or how little I ate. Elfriede and I attended school as if everything was normal, and the time we spent together in Cologne so long ago has kept us close throughout our lives.
It was now 1938 and for all of us the situation became more precarious each day. Uncle Gustav had applied for an immigration visa to the United States earlier on and expected to hear from the American Consulate daily. Tante Selma’s brother lived in Bridgeport, Connecticut and it was he who had acted as guarantor for his sister and her family. Without such a guarantor it was virtually impossible to obtain a visa to the States then.
By September 1938 my parents had become very nervous. My father was not strong enough physically to deal effectively with the major problems facing us all, and it was my mother’s decision that she and Vati go on one more business trip, albeit this time with a different purpose - to look for a country in which we could find refuge. It was still possible to leave Germany for short periods of time. My parents decided to bring along the chemical formulas for my father’s own particular brand of house paint, in order to exchange them for possible employment. In my mind’s eye I can still see the slim volumes in black binding that contained probably his most valuable assets at the time. Smuggling the formulas out of the country was dangerous, but my parents had no choice, and fortunately they succeeded.
Cologne was just then in the grip of a polio epidemic, and schools were closed. At dinner the evening before my parents were supposed to leave, I suddenly burst into tears and told them that this time I did not want to be left behind, ostensibly because of the polio epidemic. In truth, there were other reasons too why I could not bear to be separated from my parents then. I did not really know my aunts and uncles too well, and they were ‘different’, and a tight knit family, whereas I felt like an outsider. The entire situation in our household was very unusual and strange. And - being a rather perceptive and grown up little girl, I knew that life in Germany was becoming more dangerous with each day, and I worried that I might never see my parents again.
This was a most unusual behavior for the docile little girl that had been left behind on many occasions with only a nanny as company. I suppose my display of emotion at a time like this impressed upon my parents that it would not be wise to leave me behind, although our destination was still completely unknown. Since my father had business connections in Brussels, this would be our first stop, and the following morning we boarded a train with the hope that Belgium would be the country where we would be able to find our new home. Little did I know that I would not return to Cologne, and that I would never again see my grandmother, Tante Karolinchen and Onkel Nathan. My grandmother died in Cologne in 1940 and is buried there.
Tante Karolinchen and Onkel Nathan were deported to Theresienstadt and then to Auschwitz, from where they never returned.
BRUSSELS - MY FIRST ‘CRUISE’.
Despite the fact that I left the country of my birth more than a lifetime ago, in my heart I know that the little German Jewish girl I was, still lives deep inside me. My life’s journey has taken me to several countries, but if truth be told I do not feel that any of them is my own. Germany was the country in which I only happened to be born, but when I hear certain Lieder (songs) or German expressions that remind me of my childhood I feel an unexplainable sadness. At times I have been called a ‘Jecke,’ a less than flattering expression for a German Jew, because of certain traits I have always had - hardworking, organized etc. True, they are German characteristics, but in my case they are my father’s legacy.
It soon became apparent that there were no business opportunities for my father in Belgium, and my parents decided to continue on to Scandinavia where he was well known. But there was a major problem. Taking me along on a journey such as this was out of the question. My father needed all of my mother’s attention and care and I would simply be an additional burden.
My parents had met the Nussbaum family while they were still living in Germany. The Nussbaums had since been able to leave and had settled in Brussels. A quick solution to our problem had to be found, and my parents got in touch with Herr (Mr.) and Frau (Mrs.) Nussbaum to inquire if they could possibly look after me until such a time that our situation had resolved itself. They agreed. In retrospect I assume that the Nussbaums were well paid for their efforts. After all, they too were refugees, and the extra income was most likely welcome. This was the first time that my parents had to make a most unusual decision that concerned me - to leave me in the hands of virtual strangers. It would by no means be the last time that I was put to the test.
Instead of being with family in Cologne I now ended up with perfect strangers in Brussels, but I quickly adjusted to my new life and soon came to love it. The Nussbaums were an extraordinary family, and nothing like mine. They had three children, a boy older than I, a little girl younger, and a small baby, whose gender I do not remember. Frau Nussbaum was in the early stages of another pregnancy, which none of the children including myself were aware of. They were a warm close-knit orthodox (Jewish) family, where Friday evenings and Shabbat as well as the holidays were strictly observed, and I loved being part of their lives.
I can recall that the Nussbaum apartment was beautifully furnished. Persian carpets covered the floors of the living room and dining room. A piano stood in the corner of the living room. In all likelihood the Nussbaums had left Germany early enough to take with them some of their belongings.
I did not go to school during the three months I stayed in Brussels, but I managed to learn some French - exactly how I do not remember - and spent my days with Frau Nussbaum and the younger children. Frau Nussbaum was a wonderfully patient mother, who obviously enjoyed spending time with us children. She would read to us, play simple little melodies on the piano and take us for walks, while Herr Nussbaum was at work. I did not want to think of the day that I would have to leave my new ‘family.’
In the meantime my parents had visited Sweden and Denmark without any luck. But all that would change when they came to Oslo, Norway. My father contacted Nordiske Destillationsverker,a fairly large company and a customer of Kölner Farbenfabrik, and offered them his paint formulas in exchange for a position. The people at Nordiske obviously recognized the value of such a proposal, and my father was promised the position of director of their new paint manufacturing division. Proof of employment guaranteed a work permit for my father and Norwegian immigration visas for both my parents, and with these documents in hand they returned briefly to Germany to try to salvage some household goods, with which to begin our lives in Norway. The family was still living in our house on Marienburgerstrasse, and it must have been unimaginable painful for my parents to say good-bye to them, not knowing what the future held in store for any of us.
As soon as they were able to, my parents rented a tiny furnished apartment at Kirkeveien 104 in Oslo, consisting of a living room with a bed that folded into the wall (Murphy bed), a bedroom, kitchen and bath. Vati started his new career and so did my mother - housekeeping. It was very difficult for her, since in all her thirty-six years she had never done anything of the sort. Moreover, she was in a foreign country. True, she had been there many times before, but always as a guest in hotels or in people’s homes, and even the language, although it was familiar, was strange once she had to use it on a daily basis. My father adapted quickly to his new surroundings. His colleagues were supportive, and it did not take long for the new paint division to prosper under my father’s leadership.
But I was still in Belgium. Although my father applied for my immigration visa as quickly as he was able to, it took much longer than expected to receive this document. Even then it was unheard of to keep a child separated from his/her parents for any length of time for lack of a visa, but one of the Norwegian immigration officials was rumored to be a Nazi and he caused one delay after another. Finally, in late December 1938 the visa arrived.
As soon as I received my ticket for the crossing to Oslo, Herr Nussbaum began looking for someone who was scheduled to sail to Norway on the same ship as I, and who would be willing to keep an eye on me during the trip. Herr Stern, a middle-aged German Jewish business man fit the bill, he was booked on the same ship as I. That he seemed to have little or no experience with young children was another matter.
It was a sad little girl that parted from the Nussbaums in early January 1939. They left me at the pier in the care of Herr Stern and the two of us boarded the ship that would take us to Norway. I remember very little of our voyage, except that I was lonely and frightened. Herr Stern’s cabin was on a different deck than mine, so he would check on me once or twice a day, and the rest of the day I would mostly stay in my cabin reading. On the second day of our trip I ventured on deck to look up Herr Stern in his cabin. The wind was blowing and I struggled with the door leading to a different part of the ship. I could not open it, but another passenger came to my rescue and then addressed me in a language I did not know. Fortunately I did not get seasick. On the third day we arrived in Oslo.
It was a cold, dark winter day, such as you find in the North in mid winter. I was nervous and apprehensive. Not only was I arriving in a new country, but I knew that my life with my parents would be very different than it had been until now. They had told me that we were ‘poor’ now, so I was wondering what that meant. It would be the very first time for the three of us to live by ourselves, without servants or relatives. Would Mutti still be impatient with me? What would school be like in Norway? A million thoughts whirred through my head while I looked for my parents as the ship approached the wharf.
Finally I saw them, bundled up in their winter clothes, eagerly looking for me. A great feeling of relief surged through me. Everything would be all right.
With kind permission from
Memoirs of Holocaust Survivors in Canada. Published by the