My grandmother managed to escape from the hell on earth that had been created by Hitler and his Nazis in a totally unforgettable and unique way.
This tale actually began long before anyone had even heard of Hitler; even before the advent of World War I. During that period, ambitious Jewish girls could work for German aristocrats before they got married and settled down to raise families of their own. So in the summer of 1913, my grandmother Theresa, at age 18, accepted a job in Baden, Germany, as a governess to two privileged little boys.
Little did she know that 25 years later it would determine her fate and that of her future husband and children.
My grandmother's job as a governess was apparently not very strenuous. She was free to walk in the beautifully sculptured formal gardens every evening, weather permitting. Tall and thick hedges bordered these gardens and there were benches placed at periodic intervals, surrounded by ordered beds of fragrant and vary-colored flowers.
My grandmother told me that on one typical evening, just as it was getting dark and the trees' shadows started casting strange shapes, she overheard two men talking. They were speaking about a well-known German army officer. She was curious, naturally, and listened more closely. But when she started hearing details about plans to assassinate the man, she was terrified.
She passed the incident off as 'teenage gullibility.'
As soon as she felt it was safe, she went to the police station to file a report. Grandmother Theresa did remember being puzzled that, although the police officers were polite to her, they didn't appear to take her story very seriously. In fact, when she returned later in the week, she was told that it had been a hoax, and not to worry about it anymore. So she passed the incident off as "teenage gullibility."
Years passed, and the incident was forgotten. Grandmother Theresa married a man from Warsaw. Since my grandmother's family was very snobbish, very German, and very patriotic, her marriage to a Polish Jew was against family wishes. Luckily, he had money of his own, but her family's attitude toward him was such that they did not settle down near her extended family who had lived on both sides of the Holland/German border since the Spanish Inquisition. Instead, they moved to the beautiful city of Cologne, where they would run their four textile factories and raise their four children.
Fast forward to the summer of 1938, in the desperate months preceding the deportation of Polish Jews living in Germany. My grandmother managed to gather together 10,000 deutschmarks, which she used to bribe the German guards at Dachau -- enabling her husband (my grandfather) to disappear from the camp, as the bribed officers shuffled papers to cover up his escape.
Ironically, it was my grandfather's threatened deportation that motivated my grandmother to make plans to leave Germany. No one else in her family believed things could get that bad. Each and every one of them perished.
Through family connections (the Chief Rabbi of Cologne was a distant cousin), my grandmother managed to get visas to Palestine. But she encountered difficulties getting permission from the German government to leave. Apparently the factories they'd owned, though they had since been confiscated, had held army contracts.
Any one person, for any reason whatsoever, could stop her from leaving Germany.
So, in the way of all bureaucracies, my grandmother raced from office to office, standing in one line after another, to get many people to stamp loads of documents. And the threat loomed that any one person, in any office, for any (or no) reason whatsoever, could stop her from leaving Germany.
In addition to all her other worries, my grandmother was tending to three young children (including my very rambunctious father), and was five months pregnant. In these offices other parents and children were adding to the noise and confusion, and as the summer heat grew more oppressive, she felt as if she would not be able to continue for another minute.
Finally, my grandmother reached the last office. She only had one more person to see, but this person would give the most important stamp of all: the one dealing with their former army contracts. When the factories were confiscated, many records were lost, and there was no way to prove that all their contractual obligations had been fulfilled. Certification of that fact had to be made by a high-ranking army officer. For days she had been dreading this moment, trying to think of some way to explain the lack of documentation and to prove her honesty.
The officer, heavy with medals, rose from his chair to stand in front of her.
When she was at last called into the office, a man in a starched and pressed uniform, heavy with medals, rose from his chair and walked around his desk to stand in front of her. Even if she had been tall enough to look directly at him (she was 4-foot-10), she would never have dared do so.
The officer held the sheaf of documents in his hand and asked if her maiden name was Arendt.
This question was out of the ordinary, and anything unusual was something to be feared. She worriedly answered, "Yes."
Then the officer held out his hand and smiled. "I'm glad to be able to thank you at last. Do you remember me?"
"No," she replied.
"I'm the man whose life you saved, 25 years ago in Baden."
My grandmother was totally speechless, but no words were needed. The officer just smiled again and handed her the stamped and validated papers.
She left the office and went home to finish packing. Nine days later, my grandfather, my grandmother who was pregnant at the time, and their four children left Germany.
The assassination that never took place saved eight lives, including the officer.
Jewish Watch Dog
I grew up surrounded by memories of the Holocaust. I saw a documentary on the Warsaw Ghetto when I was four years old and can still recall the pictures of men shoveling dead bodies into wheelbarrows. I knew about the atrocities long before I heard my grandmother's story -- or any other rescue story for that matter.
I've always been proud of being Jewish and willing to fight for its dignity. The phrase "Never Again" meant exactly that to me and I never was lulled into any false sense of security that it couldn't happen again anywhere. I fought with my fists when I was a child and now I fight anti-Jewish and anti-Israel propaganda with my writing and my website.
I believe that every Jew that is born to a Holocaust survivor, and their children, are the best answer to Hitler and the horrors of the Holocaust. I have two daughters, and I consider myself blessed to be one of those Jews who have a story to tell, to help keep the memories alive for those Jews who can no longer speak.
Am Yisrael Chai!