Friday, December 23, 2011

Artwork: Greetings from Bessie

In doing my oral history project I had the opportunity to interview a number of survivors.  Walter charmed me immediately with his faint accent and gentle manner.  A tall courtly gentleman of 90, Walter had a story that was different from many.  He was able to get out of Eastern Europe with his immediate family and then joined the army and went back as a Ritchie Boy, a unique unit from Camp Ritchie where German speakers, often Jews who had escaped Eastern Europe, were trained to interrogate prisoners of war.  (for more on the story of the Ritchie Boys).

I was going to school on March 15, 1935 on the day Germany invaded Czechoslovakia, I was there.  My parents were in Romania. I went to school on that day.  They had sentries in front.  I walked up the steps of the school.  By the entrance were a bunch of hoodlums with swastikas on their sleeve.   “Juden raus”.  They wouldn’t let any Jews into that school.
I went and packed my bags.  The railroads were already run by the German army so I had to get permission to buy a ticket.  There happened to be a sympathetic officer so I was able to buy a ticket.  I believe that was the last train that left Czechoslovakia for (Romania).

My mother’s history is that at age 5 her family moved to the US so my mother was brought up here.  At that time in 1939 the war started already and Czechoslovakia was already occupied and Romania was going to be next.  So my parents made frantic efforts to get out. They were on a quota system, so many but not more.  Because of her background in America, she went to school here.   She had to show evidence to the American consulate that she had been in America.  By chance her sister who lived in America was a good friend of her former teacher and she once met her and asked her, ”Is there any evidence that my sister Bessie was your student?” She says she has a class picture.  So my mother had to show that picture to the American Consulate and said, “This is me, I was there”.  And on that basis she was able to get a visa to get the whole family in.

When my family got out we boarded a ship in Genoa, Italy.  That was the last refugee ship that left Italy.  On the way to the United States, Italy declared war on France in 1940.  And from then on they dropped the refugees off in New York and the ship went back empty back to Italy and there was no more trafficking.
Walter was able to join the Army after Pearl Harbor was bombed.  Prior to that non-US citizens were not admitted.  He became a "Ritchie Boy", trained in interrogation techniques for German prisoners.  After the war he was stationed in Czechoslovakia, ironically the place he was when the war first broke out.  

Every time we went by jeep through a town I saw in the middle of town there was a big bulletin board.  This was a time when the concentration camps were being liberated and the International Red Cross published the names of the people who were released and they put them on the bulletin board.  My mother had a lot of relatives who were sent to the concentration camps and she got hold of one of those lists and she found a name that she knew, that was a second cousin of hers.  He had just been released from Theresienstadt and he was coming home.    My mother wrote to me, "Would it be possible for me to visit that family?"   I was anxious to meet a relative.  I found the address and I knocked on the door.  The people came to the door slightly opening it. What is a man in uniform doing here?  They were suspicious of people in uniform anyway.  So they opened the door and I said, “Bessie Schwartz my mother is sending you greetings”. 

Walter then told me that the cousin who went to Theresienstadt was Jewish, but his wife was not.  He had gotten a divorce in order to save her and they re-married upon his return.  Walter became good friends with the family and later in life reconnected with the daughter.  

 The image of the half-cracked door stayed with me and I decided to include it in the painting.  The connection with the family was an important element in Walter's story as well as his experience as a Ritchie boy.  I was also struck by the chanciness of his escape, the last boat, the last train and a school picture all figured in the story.  There is also a circular motif to reflect the oddity of his story coming full circle back to Czechoslovakia.

This project has been made possible in part through the Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund through the vote of Minnesotans on November 4, 2008. Administered by the Minnesota Historical Society.

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