A Single Suitcase

Posted on June 29th, 2018 by

A blog post by Director of Collections and Exhibits Joanna Church. To read more posts by Joanna click HERE.

Last December, we reprinted an article from our journal, Generations (Winter 2002), telling the story of the Weil family and their arduous journey out of Germany in the early days of World War II.  I’d like to add an illustration to that story, in the form of a plain leather suitcase:

Suitcase owned by Theo and Hilde Weil. Gift of Toni Weil Mandel, JMM 1990.119.1

In 1938, Theo and Hilde Weil lived in Freiburg, Germany. Their three young-adult daughters, Toni, Lisa, and Erna, had a clear sense of what was happening to Jews in their country, and urged their parents to begin the lengthy and expensive process of applying for travel papers to the United States. Kristallnacht – and the subsequent arrest and detainment of Theo, which left him bedridden for several weeks after his family rescued him – showed the senior Weils that it was indeed time to leave their home and try to start over in a new country. In addition to moving forward with their visa applications, the family packed up much of their furniture and belongings and shipped them ahead to New York, hoping they’d soon be able to go there themselves.

“The trouble in Germany was things didn’t happen suddenly. It was a little and a little and a little, and you can always take a little more.”  – Toni Weil Mandel  (JMM OH 246)

 Shortly afterward, the three Weil sisters left Germany on their own, working and saving money for some time in England before they secured their US visas. After arriving in Boston in 1940, they learned that the crates of family furniture were being moved from New York to Baltimore; not knowing what else to do, the girls moved here as well, and managed to find work and shelter.

In the meantime, however, their parents in Freiburg were not faring well.  Despite finally receiving clearance to come to the US, the Weils were not permitted to leave Germany. In October of 1940, the Nazis announced that all remaining Jews in Freiburg would be deported, with only an hour’s notice. The Weils were allowed one suitcase in which to pack their things.

This suitcase measures 17” x 29” x 10” – about the same size as my own carry-on bag (it even has an expandable top, like mine, for when you need to cram in just that little bit more).  My carry-on barely holds the clothes, shoes, books, and toiletries I consider ‘essential’ for a few days’ vacation, let alone the things I would want if I suspected I would never see my home again.

While they were packing, Hilde wrote a quick letter to her daughters, which she later managed to shove out of the sealed train. The letter was found and mailed, by an unknown person, to the Weil sisters in Baltimore, who otherwise would have had little or no idea what had happened to their parents.

Hilde and Theo Weil, Hilde’s mother Lina Wachenheimer, several other relatives, and their Jewish neighbors were taken to France and imprisoned in Gurs.  Once the girls discovered what had happened, they began working to secure the release of their parents and grandmother, gathering the money, affidavits, and travel papers necessary to prove that these people – forced to leave their home without identification – were the people they claimed to be, and were, thanks to their earlier visas, permitted to come to the US.  Eventually their efforts succeeded, and in April 1941, the senior Weils arrived in Baltimore … still carrying their single suitcase.  (Lina stayed in New York, with her daughter Sophie.)  It is important to note that most internees at Gurs were not so fortunate.

Theo and Hilde settled in Baltimore with their daughters but, weakened and depressed by their time in the internment camp, their lives were never the same. In an interview, Toni later remembered that her mother was “starved to death” when she got to Baltimore, and that the first shocks of America’s abundance were hard for Hilde to bear: “When we took her the first time to a food market, she asked us to take her out, she couldn’t see that food. She said, what she’d seen in a few seconds would feed that camp for years.” (Toni Weil Mandel, JMM OH 246) Thankfully, the Weils had a community of people who had endured similar experiences; they joined Chevra Ahavas Chesed, a charitable organization and burial society founded by European Jewish refugees in 1940.  They were both naturalized as US citizens in 1947 and lived in Baltimore for the rest of their lives; Hilde died in 1961, at the age of 73, and Theo died in 1970.

Naturalization cards for Hilde and Theo Weil, issued by the US District Court in Baltimore on January 13, 1947.  Via ancestry.com.

Take some time today to put yourself in the shoes of Hilde and Theo Weil in October 1938. Though reluctant to give up their home and lives in Freiburg, they had shipped most of their large belongings off to a country to which they had no assurances they would be able to move. Their lives were in danger. Their daughters were on their own, across an ocean. They were given an hour to pack the remainder of their belongings into a single suitcase, knowing they were about to be sent off to face an uncertain fate. If this happened to you, how would you react? What would you pack? How would you get word to your children?  These are questions that we at the JMM take seriously, as part of our educational mission, and I urge our readers to consider them seriously as well.

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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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