Dispossession and Adaptation: The Weil Sisters Rebuild Their Family in America Part 5

Posted on December 18th, 2017 by

generations-2002-385x500Article written by Anita Kassof, former JMM associate director. Originally published in Generations  – Winter 2002: Jewish Family History. Information on how to purchase your own copy here. Many thanks to JMM collections manager Joanna Church for re-typing this article. 

Part V: Making a New Life

Missed the beginning? Start here.

In the meantime, the enterprising Weil sisters had found better jobs, Erna at Johns Hopkins University, Lisa in an office, and Toni in a mattress factor. They worked long hours and sometimes skipped meals so they could afford to pay rent on a small apartment, send their parents a stipend in France, purchase them trans-Atlantic tickets, pay the hefty storage fee for their lifts of furniture, which would not fit in their modest furnished rooms, and put a down payment on a house.

Erna acknowledged how remarkable it was that three unmarried women, all in their twenties, in the U.S. for less than a year, managed to secure a mortgage. She recalled that the tidy little house, which they purchased when it was under construction on Jonquil Avenue, cost them $4,500 plus a $95 ground rent. The day before their parents reached New York, movers brought the furniture from their lifts to their new home.

Theo and Hilda arrived in Baltimore physically weakened and emotionally depleted.  Their minds were still very much on their recent ordeal, which became a point of reference for their new experiences in Baltimore.  On a trip to the grocery store soon after her arrival, Hilda looked around and, still haunted by her incarceration, commented that the food in the store that day could have fed the entire population of Gurs for a year.  Theo and Hilda settled into a quiet, somewhat isolated retirement.  Hilda, a gifted pianist, often played the grand piano that had come in the lift from Germany.  Since neither she nor Theo drove, and they were hesitant to take the streetcar downtown, they spent most of their time in the little house on Jonquil Avenue.  They knew few other refugees, although they were active with the Chevra Ahavas Chesed, a burial society and self-help organization founded by émigrés from Germany in 1939.

The contrast between the eagerness with which young immigrants like Erna, Lisa, and Toni greeted life in America, and the passivity with which members of their parents’ generation faced their new and altered existence, is typical among most refugee groups, particularly the German Jews.  The girls were disappointed and disillusioned by the Nazi interlude, but they were certainly not destroyed.  After all, young refugees had no choice but to pick up interrupted educations, start or restart young careers, and look to the future.  Members of their parents’ generation, on the other hand, tended to be overwhelmed by the prospect of starting over from scratch.  Those, like the Weils, who were fortunate to have younger relatives to care for them settled into retirement, looking back toward lives that they had almost, but not quite, completed in Germany, and battling quietly with the demons of loss and regret.

Erna, Lisa, and Toni, meanwhile, worked tirelessly to educate themselves, build careers, and acclimate to life in America.  While their house on Jonquil Avenue was under construction, Toni visited the site often, fascinated with the process of construction and happy to be in the fresh air after her long days in the mattress factory.  Soon, the owner of the construction company offered her a job.  She discovered that suppliers and employees had been stealing from him, and she quickly put his books in order.  He rewarded her with regular promotions.  Eventually, she became familiar with all aspects of the construction business, even learning to operate a bulldozer.  For seven years, all three girls held down full-time jobs and attended Johns Hopkins University at night, studying civil engineering and construction.  Erna says proudly that they paid their own way, never borrowing a dime for tuition.  After graduation, Toni opened her own construction business, taking Erna as a partner. Lisa became an industrial engineer in Washington, D.C.

In 1945, Toni married a handsome soldier named Julius Mandel, himself a refugee from Austria, who had come to the U.S. in 1939.  They had one daughter, Brenda who lives with Julius in Baltimore. Toni died in 1995.  Erna was married in 1959, to a survivor of the Holocaust, and also made her life in Baltimore. Lisa, who never married, died in 1993.

The Weil sisters faced a devastating situation not with despair, but by marshaling their resources to build new lives for themselves and their parents.  They had grown up in comfort and security, but they were never coddled.  To their parents’ credit, the girls had the inner resources – an unimpeachable work ethic, dogged determination to improve themselves, and no patience for self-pity – that enabled them to rescue their family and to persevere.  While they were still very young women, the Weil sisters displayed the presence of mind to encourage the family’s emigration, to adapt to life in England, and to embrace life in America.  They responded to an extraordinary set of circumstances by reinventing themselves again and again, and in teh process, saved their family from destruction.

~END~

 All quotations and family history information are based on oral interviews with Toni Weil (JMM OH 0246, July 8, 1990), Julius Mandel (JMM OH 0268, June 23, 1991), Erna Weil, and Brenda Weil Mandel, and on materials in the Mandel collection (JMM L2002.102). 

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Dispossession and Adaptation: The Weil Sisters Rebuild Their Family in America Part 4

Posted on December 13th, 2017 by

generations-2002-385x500Article written by Anita Kassof, former JMM associate director. Originally published in Generations  – Winter 2002: Jewish Family History. Information on how to purchase your own copy here. Many thanks to JMM collections manager Joanna Church for re-typing this article.

Part IV: Bringing Their Parents to Baltimore

Missed the beginning? Start here.

“There was nothing we would not do, and we enjoyed what we were doing,” recalled Toni of their first years in Baltimore.  Still, their adjustment was far from easy.  For starters, the only place they could afford to rent with the modest savings they had earned in England was a “fleabitten” room on North Avenue, near Fulton Street.  Then they looked for jobs. In 1940 the United States was just beginning to emerge from the Depression, and the job market was still tight.  Nonetheless, all three young women were working within days of their arrival.  Erna became a practical nurse, boarding with her elderly charge on Homewood Avenue.  Lisa got a job as an accountant for the Hi-Ho Inn, a Baltimore Street restaurant, and Toni found a position as a live-in governess for a family on Dolfield Boulevard.

This envelope, which contained a letter that Hilda and Theo Weil sent to their daughters in Baltimore, bears German censor stamps certifying it was opened and inspected before leaving the country. Courtesy of Brenda Mandel, L2002.103.44.

This envelope, which contained a letter that Hilda and Theo Weil sent to their daughters in Baltimore, bears German censor stamps certifying it was opened and inspected before leaving the country. Courtesy of Brenda Mandel, L2002.103.44.

As soon as they settled in, Erna, Lisa, and Toni turned to the task that weighted most heavily on all of them: helping their parents and their maternal grandmother, Lina Wachenheimer, come to the United States.  In July 1940 the girls were relieved to learn that their relatives had been called to the U.S. Consulate in Stuttgart to undergo physical examinations and pick up their visas.  They were free to leave! The girls quickly secured them passage via Lisbon, but by then Europe was engulfed in war. Although ships still sailed from Lisbon to the United States, land transportation between Germany and Portugal was almost impossible to come by. Tickets and visas in hand, the Weils were trapped in Germany.

In September 1940, the girls sent their father a telegram on the occasion of his 60th birthday. It was one of the last communications they were able to send to him in Freiburg.  In October, they received devastating news: the Jewish residents of Freiburg had been rounded up and ordered to report to a central collection point to be deported from Germany.  The sisters learned of the deportations because Hilda had the foresight to grab writing paper and a pen as she was forced from her home. As the sealed train slowed down she thrust a letter through the cracks, hoping someone would mail it. She was fortunate; a passerby must have picked up a letter, because eventually it made its way to her daughters.

Hilda and Theo were among 6,500 Jews who were deported to Gurs from the Palatinate and Baden Würtenberg (where Freiburg was located) in October 1940.  Nestled in the foothills of the Pyrenees mountains in France, Gurs had about 14,000 inmates. Inmates suffered from bronchitis, dehydration, heart disease, malnourishment, and dysentery. Rats spread communicable disease. The death rate was high, especially among older prisoners.  Toilets were rudimentary, there were no disinfectants, and pools of stagnant water bred filth and pestilence. The wooden barracks lacked lights, stoves, firewood and flooring.  Roofs leaked in the rain. Most prisoners, especially those who had arrived in the summer months, lacked adequate clothing and blankets. Official daily rations were barely enough to sustain them. Erna recalls that her parents later told her they had to eat and drink their watery soup out of rusty coffee cans.

Members of the extended Weil and Wachenheimer families seated outside a barracks at Gurs, an internment camp in the French Pyrenees, 1940. Hilda and Theo Weil are standing in the second row on the right and Lina Wachenheimer is seated, front right. Courtesy of Brenda Mandel, L2002.103.1215.

Members of the extended Weil and Wachenheimer families seated outside a barracks at Gurs, an internment camp in the French Pyrenees, 1940. Hilda and Theo Weil are standing in the second row on the right and Lina Wachenheimer is seated, front right. Courtesy of Brenda Mandel, L2002.103.1215.

The Weils have saved a black and white photograph of their extended family in Camp de Gurs in the winter of 1940. Theo and Hilda Weil, as well as Grandmother Wachenheimer and several aunts and uncles, are identified. A note in Toni’s writing reads, “others all related.”  In all, 22 people sit looking at the camera in a weak winter sun.  Were it not for the telltale rough wooden barracks in the background, and the looks of puzzlement on the subjects’ faces, it might have been a picture of a family reunion on a winter’s day, so many of them are gathered together.  At that time, the subjects could not have known that the deportations of German Jews from France to the death camps in the east would begin in 1942.

Letter from the Hi-Ho Inn, certifying that Lisa Weil was employed there. The letter accompanied Lisa Weil's Affidavit of Support for her parents and grandmother. Courtesy of Brenda Mandel, L2002.103.142.

Letter from the Hi-Ho Inn, certifying that Lisa Weil was employed there. The letter accompanied Lisa Weil’s Affidavit of Support for her parents and grandmother. Courtesy of Brenda Mandel, L2002.103.142.

As soon as they learned of their parents’ incarceration, the girls marshaled their resources.  Since Theo, Hilda, and Lina had already been approved to receive U.S. visas at Stuttgart, the first step was to have their paperwork transferred to a U.S. Consulate in France. Then the girls sought and gained permission from the State Department to send their relatives a stipend in the event they were not able to leave France as soon as they were released from Gurs. The $70 per month that they proposed forwarding represented nearly one-quarter of their combined salaries.  They also secured affidavits from people in the United States and made preliminary arrangements for trans-Atlantic passage.  Since their parents and their grandmother had been unable to take personal papers when they were deported, they had arrived in Gurs without identification.  Erna, Lisa, and Toni took photographs of them to a notary public in Baltimore, and he created new identity papers, which they sent to France.

Identity cards for Theo and Hilda Weil and Lina Wachenheimer. Erna, Lisa, and Toni Weil had these papers drawn up for their relatives because they carried no identifying documents with them when they were deported from Freiburg to Camp de Gurs.  Courtesy of Brenda Mandel, L2002.103.155b, c, d. 

Identity cards for Theo and Hilda Weil and Lina Wachenheimer. Erna, Lisa, and Toni Weil had these papers drawn up for their relatives because they carried no identifying documents with them when they were deported from Freiburg to Camp de Gurs.  Courtesy of Brenda Mandel, L2002.103.155b, c, d.

The Weil sisters repeatedly wrote the commandant at Gurs, pleading with him to look favorably on their request to free their parents and grandmother. One of the last letters they sent, dated January 11, 1941, reads, “We, the 3 daughters of Mr. and Mrs. Weil and the granddaughters of Mrs. Wachenheimer, beg you [Sir] to take pity and to permit them to leave for the United States, where they can live the rest of their lives along with their children.”

Their persistence paid off.  Early in 1941, Theo, Hilda, and Lina were released, and the trio made their way from Gurs to Lisbon. From the vantage point of more than 60 years, we can only conjecture about how this elderly trio, weakened by months of inadequate rations and substandard shelter, made it over the Pyrenees, across Spain, and into Portugal. But they did, and in April, 1941, exactly a year after the girls came to America, their parents and grandmother arrived in New York. Lina stayed there with her daughter Sophie. Theo and Hilda continued on to Baltimore to live with their daughters.

Continue to Part V: Making a New Life

 

All quotations and family history information are based on oral interviews with Toni Weil (JMM OH 0246, July 8, 1990), Julius Mandel (JMM OH 0268, June 23, 1991), Erna Weil, and Brenda Weil Mandel, and on materials in the Mandel collection (JMM L2002.102). 

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Dispossession and Adaptation: The Weil Sisters Rebuild Their Family in America Part 3

Posted on December 11th, 2017 by

generations-2002-385x500Article written by Anita Kassof, former JMM associate director. Originally published in Generations  – Winter 2002: Jewish Family History. Information on how to purchase your own copy here. Many thanks to JMM collections manager Joanna Church for re-typing this article.

Part III: The Girls Get Out

Missed the beginning? Start here.

During the Hitler period, Erna, Lisa, and Toni urged their parents to apply for U.S. immigration visas. Although the Weils were well-to-do, finances proved to be the biggest stumbling block to immigration. The United States required potential immigrants to prove that they would be self-supporting or had a sponsor in the United States who would guarantee that they would not join the public relief rolls. [NOTE: it’s “roles” in the article, but it should be rolls] Yet, the Nazis’ punitive taxes pauperized the Jewish emigrants, and the Weils had no close friends or wealthy relatives in the U.S. to vouch for them. Erna recalls that for years before they were able to submit their application, she and her sisters scoured American telephone directories and wrote hundreds of letters to complete strangers, asking them to sign affidavits assuring the U.S. government that they would not allow the Weils to become public charges.  Finally, their persistence paid off: a New York advertising tycoon named Albert Lasker agreed to serve as their sponsor.

Advertising card from Gebrüder Weil Freiburg, Theo Weil's business, which distributed stoves, ovens, and other metal products. Courtesy of Brenda Mandel, L2002.103.137a.

Advertising card from Gebrüder Weil Freiburg, Theo Weil’s business, which distributed stoves, ovens, and other metal products. Courtesy of Brenda Mandel, L2002.103.137a.

At the same time, the Weil family had to assemble the paperwork required to complete the application, including five copies of their U.S. visa applications, two copies of their birth certificates, and certificates of good conduct from German police authorities. Theo and Hilda included copies of their marriage license, and Theo attached copies of his military record.

Finally, in August 1938, the Weils submitted their applications to the U.S. Consulate in Stuttgart. They were extraordinarily fortunate to have applied just months before the Night of Broken Glass. After that, desperate refugees flooded the overseas consulates, and the wait for visas to the U.S. – which limited German and Austrian immigrants to 27,370 annually – stretched to years.

Although the Weils submitted their applications before the deluge, they still anticipated a lengthy wait before they were called to the consulate for a physical examination – the last hurdle they had to clear before purchasing ship tickets. A restrictionist U.S. State Department, wary of allowing a flood of immigrants to enter the country during a time of economic depression, instructed overseas consuls to examine all applications stringently, regardless of the delay that entailed. Nor did the State Department send additional consular offers to the overseas embassies and consuls to handle the backlog. As a result, even before 1938, émigrés could expect waits of several months to more than a year before receiving their visas. In the unstable, volatile atmosphere of Nazi Germany, the wait could be excruciating. It was all the more difficult for the Weils, because between the time they applied for their visas and the time they received them, the Night of Broken Glass and Theo’s ensuing arrest shattered their illusions of waiting safely in Germany.

After Theo’s arrest, Hilda masterminded a plan to free him, but it was Toni who carried it out. Just before Theo was transferred to Dachau, diminutive Toni slipped into the Freiburg prison with a bundle of papers for him. She explained to the jailors that Theo had to sign paychecks for his Jewish and non-Jewish employees.  The ruse worked. Theo not only endorsed the checks, but managed to sign several blank business papers. These helped Hilda and her daughters liquidate parts of the business so they could finance legal fees and bribes.  Theo’s captors agreed to his release from Dachau, but not before they gave him a bath – by turning an icy hose on him on a raw November day. After five days in Dachau, Theo returned to Freiburg a changed and damaged man. Covered from head to toe with bruises and blisters, he crawled into bed and remained there for four weeks.

As Theo recovered, the family continued to arrange for their anticipated emigration.  The Weils packed four enormous lifts, each the size of a moving van, with furniture, artwork, and household goods. They forwarded their lifts to New York, hopeful that they would join their belongings there one day. The goods that the Weils shipped speak of an elegant lifestyle in an elaborate home. They include ornately carved and inlaid wooden chairs and tables, custom-made by a Swiss craftsman. Massive armoires and sideboards, heavy wooden tables and upholstered chairs, exquisite bed and table linens, fine silverware and china services for 24, and valuable paintings filled the lifts. By the time the Weils left, however, the Nazis forbade Jews to remove or transfer currency from Germany. As a result, it was not unusual for a family like the Weils to arrive in the United States accompanied by crates of belongings, but unable to afford to pay rent for an apartment to house their things.

“Im Spielwarenladen” [In the Toy Store], one of the children's games that the Weils packed in their lifts. Its presence among the belongings they shipped – long after their daughters were grown – suggests that the Weils packed their entire household in the realization that they would never return to Germany. Courtesy of Brenda Mandel; photo by Stephen Mayer, L2002.103.4.

“Im Spielwarenladen” [In the Toy Store], one of the children’s games that the Weils packed in their lifts. Its presence among the belongings they shipped – long after their daughters were grown – suggests that the Weils packed their entire household in the realization that they would never return to Germany. Courtesy of Brenda Mandel; photo by Stephen Mayer, L2002.103.4.

Meanwhile, life in Germany grew increasingly unbearable. After November 1938, the Nazis unleashed a battery of anti-Jewish legislation: Jewish access to public areas was circumscribed; Jews had to turn over all of their gold and silver; Jewish children were expelled from schools; and Jewish businesses were “Aryanized” – turned over to non-Jewish proprietors with no compensation to their original owners. Unable to endure life in Germany, the sisters secured “domestic permits,” which enabled them to work as servants in England while they waited to receive their U.S. visas.

After a brief stopover in Switzerland, the Weil sisters arrived in rural England, where they were assigned posts as household servants. Suddenly, Erna, Lisa, and Toni, who had grown up in a house full of maids where they never so much as had to boil an egg, found themselves hauling buckets of coal to heat drafty mansions in the English countryside. “It wasn’t for us,” recalled Erna, with characteristic understatement.  However, the three girls managed to adapt to new and unfamiliar circumstances. Erna and Lisa, who were in the same town, left their employers after three days. Using funds they borrowed from the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society during their stopover in Zurich, they made their way to Bournemouth in southern England, where they were reunited with Toni.

Evading employment restrictions on foreigners, Lisa found a job as a governess, caring for two small children. Erna and Toni, “little itty bitty things,” in Toni’s words, became chauffeurs.  Were it not for the increasingly desperate letters the sisters received from their parents, their year in England might almost have been a pleasant interlude. Erna drove for Mrs. Jacobs, a kindly Jewish woman who had a vacation home by the sea. After she chauffeured Mrs. Jacobs to her cabana, Erna was free to visit with her boyfriend, also a German Jewish émigré.

In April 1940 the girls learned that they could collect their U.S. visas. The generous Mrs. Jacobs helped finance their trip to Boston.  As the ship docked in Boston Harbor, the girls realized how very far they had come from their sheltered and secure life in Freiburg.  “We stood there on the boat, the three of us, no one to pick us up, no relatives, no strangers, no one, and we thought we really could jump overboard and no one would ever miss us,” said Toni.

The girls immediately boarded a bus for New York, where both their lifts of belongings and their aunt, Sophie, also a recent arrival, awaited them.  Almost as soon as they reached new York, they received distressing news: the storage area in New York was full, and their lifts were being forwarded to another facility.  The lifts were the girls’ only physical connection to the life they had been forced to flee.  With no idea what awaited them, they decided to follow their lifts to a city about which they knew nothing and where they had no relatives or friends – Baltimore.

Continue to Part IV: Bringing Their Parents to Baltimore

All quotations and family history information are based on oral interviews with Toni Weil (JMM OH 0246, July 8, 1990), Julius Mandel (JMM OH 0268, June 23, 1991), Erna Weil, and Brenda Weil Mandel, and on materials in the Mandel collection (JMM L2002.102). 

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