Hana had a comfortable life in a wealthy family in Germany. Her father was in the grain business and the family lived in a large home with a cook and housekeeper. She talked of their vacations at the Baltic Sea and skiing in Switzerland. In our conversation she frequently came back to the wonderful life she had with her family, a life documented in photos sent by her parents and lovingly preserved by Hana. That life began to change as the Nazis came to power.
Hana’s children had in fact heard some stories from her that were quite vivid. They remembered her talking of the family buying her father out of a concentration camp. He went in with black hair and came out with gray hair. She had also talked about the Nazis pushing their piano out the window. Thrown out of their home they had gone to stay with a friend of her father’s so were not at home when it occurred. They lived with the friend for a year. As the climate worsened Hana was sent to a Jewish boarding school, one she described as “for kids who don’t have parents or can’t go home anymore”. She recalled the beautiful country in which it was located, but that they closed the whole thing down at the time she left. “No Jews, so that was the end of that,” she said.
“When I was sixteen I immigrated to England. I was all on my own already. My mother packed my suitcase and whatever she wanted me to take to America later on. I went to England with the children’s transport. I went to a very nice family who needed help for their kids and taking care of the house. A Quaker family. I went to church with them on Sunday. A different life.”
It was a difficult adjustment for Hana who mourned for the life she left. “I was very lonesome. The only person having to go from my house. Lots of other kids went too, and different ages. For me it was awful.”
Hana also faced the language difficulties of every immigrant. While she spoke French and German, she spoke no English. “I learned English with my dictionary. I had a German-English dictionary. I still have it. I had that with me all the time. The lady was very nice, that couple was very nice and the child, so they taught me. You learn. When you’re young, you learn easier than when you’re older.”
Suddenly she was thrust from a world where she had everything to one where she was responsible for caring for a house, a responsibility of the housekeeper in her childhood home. “It’s not easy living in somebody else’s house either, being the second dog….the English people are very fussy. The bricks in front of the fireplaces, they have polished bricks and they had to be polished every day.”
She eagerly awaited any word from her family which came in the form of Red Cross letters, letters sent by the Red Cross on their behalf. “You didn’t write much because you knew somebody else was in between.”
Hana pulled out her photo albums in which she kept her Red Cross letters. She told us that her parents were very good about writing, “and then everything stopped”.
Her granddaughter asked in puzzlement, “ Did you get any news? Did you get any notice that your parents had died, your brother?
Hana replied, “ No, I never did. The only thing, I found out because I didn’t get any more Red Cross letters.”
After three years in England she decided to become a nurse. She had a choice of nursing or working in a munitions factory, so she chose nursing. She cared for soldiers in an Army hospital in England during the war and later was able to come to the United States where she finished her training.
Her mother had a brother who had gone to South Africa. He later joined his girlfriend in Minneapolis. They took Hana in and recreated the family she once had. “The couple was the best thing for me,” Hana said. “ They took over my parents. They made everything for me. I stayed in their house for the first six months when I was here.”
When I asked her daughters what they had learned from their mother, they replied, “Survival skills. She’s a tough lady. You don’t want to be a whiner around her. She taught us to be tough. She doesn’t show her emotions really. Only, when talking about the Holocaust we don’t see any emotion from her, but in other areas the emotion comes out. She cries at weddings or somebody winning something on a game show but when it comes down to the real thing that is beneath what the tears are all about you’ll never see the tears.”
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.