BY JEANETTE LENOIR
The Holocaust remains one of the most brutal and tragic occurrence in mankind’s history. We still memorialize this tragic chapter of our past on special days, and in books, talks, plays, movies, sculptures and when possible, hearing directly from some of the remaining victims of this unbelievable tragedy.
The systemic extermination of a group of people is not uncommon in man’s long documented journey on earth. From Genghis Khan to the era of Slavery, man has behaved brutally toward one another. Still, the Holocaust is a memory its dwindling survivor’s harbor like an anchored ghost ship. One of those survivors, Hilde Frost Reiter, was a little girl when the world was a much different place. This is her story…
ePa: Hi Hilde, thank you for this interview. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself, like where you were born?
HR: I was born in Breitenau, Germany in 1920. I went to grammar school there for the first 5 years. In 1930 I went to a private school. I was there till 1935. This was a private school, my father had to pay for this. Then when times got bad for Jewish people after 1933, when Hitler came to rule Germany, he couldn’t pay anymore, and I had to stop going to school.
ePa: How was your family able to make it out of Germany when things got bad?
HR: My mother had a sister in Philadelphia, United States. She left Germany in 1913 with her future husband, and they lived in Philadelphia. They sponsored my older sister and brother in 1934. She immigrated to the United States. She saw the hand writing on the wall in Germany and she decided to leave.
I, in 1939, went to Israel. I wanted to build Jewish homeland. I thought that was more important than going to another country where Jewish people may be tolerated; that’s all. My brother and I went to Israel. I left in October 1939 and arrived in Israel in January 1940. I stood two-weeks, since it was an English colony, and they wouldn’t admit us to Israel at the time—Palestine wouldn’t—they left us standing two-weeks outside the harbor at Haifa and finally they admitted us through Palestine and they took us right to jail, which was called, Atlit [detainee camp], outside Haifa.
Since many people, Jewish people, from Europe had to come to Palestine, just to get out of Europe, there were many boats and many immigrants, and they didn’t have enough room in Atlit so they decided to let the women go and kept the men. My brother was there too, for ten months. He sat in Atlit doing nothing, until they finally released him. When I came out of Atlit, I went to Kibbutz.
ePa: Your family was part of the influx of Jewish people fleeing Germany and other parts of Europe. Was it difficult to leave the country?
HR: If you could leave they’d let you leave. They didn’t prevent you from leaving. There was a Jewish Organization in Germany and they helped people to immigrate that already had the possibility, and there were also the Jewish agencies in Palestine. This was a coordinated effort to bring as many Jewish people to Palestine as possible. They came from Germany, they came from Holland, some came from England, a lot of them came from Poland and Russia. And, they organized these trips. They hired a boat, there’s a crew and they organized the trip on a train to the boat. We left on October 13, 1939, a Friday night.
The train entered the Vienna main train station. We were surrounded. The train was surrounded completely by SS. They took us in the train station. Separated the men from the women, and we were mostly young people. There were a few elderly people too but mostly we were 19, 20, 18… and, they checked everything out. We had to undress, and from A to Z… they checked the suit cases. We could only take 10 kilos, that was the maximum we could take and we were allowed to take 10 Marks. The money that we could take… we couldn’t take any more.
They finally released us and we went to the boat. We were three and a half months on the boat, then we changed to a little bigger boat. Then we went to the Aegean Sea… along to Lebanon and Haifa.
ePa: Your life was turned upside down from the upheaval of your family life and structure. What were you experiencing at the time as a young woman?
HR: The school I went to was a Catholic school and there were nuns that taught us. There was no anti-Semitism among the nuns but when it came to the children that went there to school, it was a different story. Plus, this was an all-girls school. Some they would talk to us but most of them when they saw us, they went to the other side of the street.
I think most of the young girls that went to school, they joined the Hitler Youths, that’s what they were called, and there, they were taught and told what Jews are and so on, and so on… The propaganda was atrocious, atrocious… you heard it on the radio, you saw it on every street corner. There was the newspaper, Der Stürmer, that was an anti-Jewish newspaper. I mean there were stars in there, I don’t know where they got them, or even when they were invented…and, horror stories… And, it was on every corner in our town, or in the big city.
So, if people today, or even after the Holocaust say they didn’t know anything about it, this is nonsense. Every person in Germany knew what was going on with Jewish people.
In 1934 they burned the books from all Jewish authors. But, there weren’t only Jewish ones. There were also from Communists, left leaning organizations, people that were more open and had more open opinions of certain things… People had to bind the books in the middle of the town and they burned them all down. This was all over Germany.
In 1934, there was a boycott. SS stood in front of every Jewish business and urged people not to buy from Jews anymore. In our store too. My family had a butcher store and there were two SS standing, but the people said, ‘We know these people all our lives, we never had a problem before and we’re going to buy’…”
My uncle saw the hand-writing on the wall. He, in 1934, took a trip to Israel. He bought a house there and he came back and saw this side of the business. Since everything was owned together, my father and him separated, they made an agreement and he left with his wife and younger daughter to Israel.
In 1936 after I couldn’t go to school anymore, I went to Berlin. I went there to school. We lived in Bonn with an elderly couple and they looked after us. During the day we went to school. It was a Hebrew school. It was attached to a beautiful Synagogue. There was also a little museum. Since the wars the museum and the Synagogue remains standing.
From there, I prepared for going to Israel. I went to another cultural school; we worked there and we learned, and that was part of the preparation to go to Israel. In 1938 they closed it. Because they could no longer financially make payments and we went outside of Berlin to further our agricultural training. And from there, I left in 1939 to Israel.
A project installing commemorative brass plaques in the pavement in front of the last known address of Holocaust victims by the artist, Gunter Demnig, started in Germany in 1997. Officials with the project reached out to Reiter for help uncovering some of the names of the victims. Many of them Reiter remembers fondly as a little Jewish girl growing up in Nazi era Germany. Thanks in part to her contribution to the project, there are over 610 places in Germany as well as in Austria, Hungary, the Netherlands, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Norway and Ukraine that bear the names of Holocaust victims. The Stumbling Stone project’s aim is to keep the memory of the victims alive and to ensure this page of man’s history is not forgotten or repeated.
Reiter got involved in the project in 2002 after a friend send her information about it.
HR: …They wanted some information. They sent me a letter, sent me a lot of information, they wanted me to verify that these are the people they thought they were. And, they asked me about other families, and about my family…this is how I got involved.
I answered other questions. I gave them information about my family. There was a husband and my favorite Aunt Loidh, wife and daughter I’ve been looking for, for about 35 years and couldn’t get any information about what happened to them. I send them the papers that I got from Red Cross, which were full of life and asked them if they could find out what happened to them. They lived in my parents’ house. And they were picked up from there.
They found what happened to them. When they were picked up, and where they went from there. They don’t know what concentration camp they got killed at but at least I know what happened.
I asked them, as a favor to me, if they would put three stones for each one of them in front of the house where we lived, and where they were picked up. And, they finally decided to do this. And it was my decision to go to Germany to be present when this happened.
There was another sister of my father…she perished with her husband, her son and daughter in Izbica. They picked them up and took them to Izbica [Izbica Ghetto]. According to German records, they kept them there on a train overnight and from there they took them to different concentration camps. But, they were all four killed in Izbica.
They lived in my grandparents’ house. She was the youngest sister and she took care of her parents, she lived with them in the house. Three other cousins of my father perished too.
Reiter can name several other families off the top of her head, including her own, that perished in the Holocaust and who are also commemorated in the Stumble Upon project.
HR: I gave them all the information about the family Wolf because the father died in the early 1930s and the mother since she was from Holland, took the two sons and was heading back to Holland. The older son, which was a good friend of mine, perished in Mauthausen, [Mauthausen-Gusen] and the mother and the younger son Gurd, they were on the train that the Germans just left…it was from Bergen Belsen, they left it on the track, and the wagons were all locked without water or food, they just left it there.
When the Americans came and found the train and opened the wagons…there were many dead, sick and dying… There were about 2,500 or 3,000 people, and they took them to the next town and made the towns people take care of them. The dead were buried there in mass graves. They took care of the sick, many had typhus, even 23 people from the town died from the illness…but the mother and the son also died there and were buried in a mass grave.
In 1938, Kristallnacht, they burned the synagogue down. They deliberately burned it. Someone came to tell my father that the synagogue was burning. He and another Jewish man ran and tried to save the Torah scrolls but there wasn’t too much to do…
“Kristallnacht (“night of broken glass”): Nazis burn synagogues, destroy Jewish property, and beat and arrest thousands of Jews. This is the start of the harsher phase of persecution,” states Wesleyan University Prof. D. Morgan in a chronology of historical events.
Reiter goes on to say that the fire marshal lived right across the street from the burning synagogue and when the two men tried to get him to call for help he told them that the fire was deliberately set and that he was under strict orders not to do anything about it. Reiter’s father and the other Jewish man were arrested that night by the police for trying to put out the fire. Reiter’s father was released two weeks after being detained.
HR: When he came home he said, ‘It’s time to leave’…”
My father would have never ever left Germany and leave one of his children behind. I got out in 1939 right after the war broke out, my brother left a few months later, probably about 8, 9 months later and then they sent my younger sister by herself to Spain and from there she went on a boat to America.
Then after everybody was out, my father tried to get out too. They got to the United States December 5, 1941. December 7, 1941, Japan bombed Pearl Harbor and that was the end of coming out of Germany because America declared war on Germany.
They were lucky that they got here when they got here… it was the last boat. The absolute last boat.
Reiter still recounts the good times she shared with some of the victims she helped to uncover for the Stumble Stones project, especially her family members.
HR: For me it was a very important day [The official commemoration] because I finally felt that my favorite Aunt, her husband and daughter, found a resting place. Nobody knew what happened to them but now we know. Now, they’re permanently remembered in front of our [family] house. From where they were taken and later perished… She was an exceptional person. She was my favorite aunt. They always invited me to spend time with them. And, I loved to go there. I only have wonderful memories of the family, and to me this was a very important day that I finally found out what happened to them and that they were memorialized.
ePa: Not everyone is happy with the Stumble Upon project. Some have taken issue with the placement of the plaques, essentially saying that the plaques being on the ground is offensive to the memory of the victims. Others are saying that the plaques negatively impact property values. What are your thoughts on this issue?
HR: I think it’s a wonderful project. It’s a worthwhile project. The reason they do this is for the younger generation that don’t know anything about the Holocaust, and should know about it, so this should never ever happen again. It’s true, there’s still anti-Semitism in Germany and I’m sure the people that didn’t like Jewish people then and don’t like them today, probably object to this. What can I tell you… apparently the majority agrees with it because this project has been going on since 1997.
ePa: Are there still lessons to be learn from the Holocaust?
HR: Absolutely. The artist of the project puts the commemorative stone markers on the ground to force people to bow down to read the names of the Holocaust victims. When you bow down to read, it’s like bowing down to the victims, to pay your respect, and that’s how I feel about it. We must remember the Holocaust, and be mindful of the lessons from it, to avoid repeating the mistakes that led to it.
Hilde Reiter left the Kibbutz life in Israel for the United States, a widow with two children, following the death of her husband who died from injuries sustained during the Independence War, (1947-1949).
HR: So much Jewish culture got destroyed, things got stolen that belonged to people, art, and all kinds of things… I think it’s important that we remember. And, this project [Stumble Upon] helped memorialize the victims. To me, it was closure for my family that passed. The two sisters of my father with their husband and children… I grew up with them. They meant something to me, and all of a sudden, you don’t know what happened to them…They were very important to me.
Reiter, now in her 90s, still lives independently in Westchester County, NY and is an active member of her community, especially at her local Library. She still travels to Israel, still speaks fluent German and gives talks on surviving the Holocaust whenever possible.