As some readers may have noticed, the tales I write are stories of my life. Some of them, including the one below, are about my family history. My father, born of German/Polish roots, fled the Holocaust. On my mother’s side I had a Ukrainian grandfather and Belarusian grandmother who was a Bolshevik who had to flee her home before the Russian Revolution.
Normal conversation among us descendants of European anti-Semitism is often peppered with stories of guile, luck or serendipity.
For the 100th edition of Copper, I bring you an account of my mother-in-law Erna who, as I write, is 100 years old and still living independently in New York.
“They’ll never let you sit your final exam,” her friends told her.
This was in 1938 Vienna shortly after the Germans annexed Austria in what’s become known as the Anschluss. A campaign against the Jews began immediately and thousands were driven from their homes. Property was seized and many were arrested and deported to concentration camps.
It was at this time when Erna, just 19, after finishing an intense course to qualify as a French teacher, demanded to go before the educational board for her spoken language final. To everyone’s surprise, the panel agreed to hear her and she passed with flying colors. The coat of arms of Austria (a double eagle) on her certificate of matriculation already had the Hakenkreuz (swastika) overprinted on it. (Many years later, this certificate qualified her for a pension from the Austrian government.
On her parents urging she agreed to leave Austria for Palestine. Her cousin lived there and had enrolled her in the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. This helped her to obtain an exit visa. She left with the intention of bringing her parents to Palestine but by the time she managed to organize visas from the British mandate in Jerusalem, World War II had broken out and there no longer was a British embassy in Austria to process the application. Her father subsequently died of Parkinson’s disease and her mother, after spending time in the Treblinka concentration camp in Czechoslovakia, was transported to Auschwitz and to her death.
Her father had booked her on a boat and had ordered the finest cabin. This wasn’t to coddle her; currency restrictions dictated that the amount allowed per passenger was dependent on the size of your cabin. While on board, she was approached by a Spanish princess who offered her money to give up her cabin. Thinking, presciently, that this would probably be the last time she would ever travel in luxury, she declined.
On arrival in Tel Aviv, she contacted her cousin in Jerusalem and arranged to meet him there. He presumed that she, a sophisticate from Austria, would take a taxi. So, he with flowers in hand, waited at the taxi station. She, not wanting to waste money, took a bus and of course they missed each other. Jerusalem in those days was hot, dusty and run down. Opposite the bus station was a psychiatric hospital and the wails of inmates did nothing to welcome her. Dressed in her finest Viennese clothing and high heeled shoes, she had to walk through the unfinished streets carrying her bags. Her shoes ruined, she eventually found his apartment and when she entered, he presented her with a bouquet of wilted flowers.
In 1917 the Balfour Declaration was issued by the British announcing support for the establishment of a “national home for the Jewish people” in Palestine. After the defeat of the Ottoman Empire which had ruled there for over 400 years, the League of Nations (a precursor to the United Nations) gave Britain a mandate in the early 1920s to rule over Palestine until such time as the local populations (Jews, Christians and Muslims) could stand alone as independent and self -governing. The British established Jerusalem as its capital and created a professional civil service, built roads and eventually created a lively western society.
Erna took a series of jobs, the first to a man who sexually assaulted her, then as an aide to a woman suffering from post-natal depression. Her next job was governess to the son of the head of the British High Command. She taught the son French and in return, he taught her English. This, along with the Hebrew she was learning, added to the other languages she knew: German, French and Latin.
While working there she learned from her boss of the illegal arrival in Palestine of her fiancé from Vienna. Leopold Vole was a violinist but he joined the newly formed Palestinian Orchestra (a precursor to the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra) as a needed double bass player; too many violin players from Europe had already arrived and joined the orchestra. She did not marry Leopold but years later became friendly with his son, Gaby, who also became a bass player in the Israeli Philharmonic. (A subsequent story is in the works about Gaby’s wedding in Tel Aviv which my wife and I attended along with Zubin Mehta and the whole orchestra.)
After dating a few men in Jerusalem Erna ended up falling in love and marrying her cousin, Benno. He had been a butcher in Germany and they subsequently opened a shop in Jerusalem. She worked there and it was a far cry from the academic future she had planned as a teenager.
Such are the vicissitudes of war. Life in Jerusalem was exciting. They were members of the YMCA on King David Street opposite the luxury King David Hotel. In those days it acted as a social club and sports facilities for expats. They had a camaraderie of refugees, Europeans who were fortunate enough to flee Hitler before it was too late. She survived the siege of Jerusalem in 1948 when the Arab armies blocked the entrance to Bab Al-wad (the entrance of the main road to Jerusalem).
This caused severe food rationing for the population. Water was also in limited supply. The siege lasted about seven weeks until the Israelis built a temporary road that bypassed Bab Al-wad.
My sister-in-law and my wife-to-be were both born in Jerusalem. Erna celebrated the declaration of Israeli independence and gradually fell in love with the town.
Benno had always wanted to emigrate to the US. In 1953 his visa arrived and Erna very reluctantly left what had become her cherished home for New York and the start of yet another new life. It took a while but she eventually fell in love with New York and lives there to this day.