Yom HaShoah 2015 – Melanie Topol

When Rabbi Skolnik asked me a while back to speak tonight he initially requested that I tell my father’s story. Then after we chatted a bit he said “you know what why don’t you tell your mom’s story as well?” To condense the first 20 years of your parents’ experiences down to just minutes is a daunting task, but I’ll do my best to enable you to enter into their lives.

My dad Herbert Stilman was born in Vienna in 1926. He lived with his parents and younger sister in the Zweite Bezirk, the second district, which was a predominantly Jewish area. His grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins lived close by. He especially loved spending time with his maternal grandfather, his “Opapa.” On Shabbos dad and his grandfather would go to the local Shteebel. They’d spend many afternoons studying the Seforim in my great grandparents’ home. Those happy hours remain among my father’s most cherished memories. He enjoyed a secure and carefree childhood.

Then in the spring of 1938 Hitler’s soldiers marched into Austria. The Viennese welcomed them with open arms and life for the Jews of Vienna would never be the same. Many were abruptly dismissed from their various jobs. Over time Jewish owned shops and businesses were taken over, or forced to close. Children, including my dad, were no longer allowed to attend public schools.

Then came the daily rounding up of Polish born Jewish men for deportation.

My grandfather recognized that his time would come and fearing the worst developed a plan: he had been a medic in the Austrian army in World War I and had received many medals for his bravery. He felt assured that this evidence of his loyalty to Austria would spare him, so he carefully tucked the medals into his jacket. When he was taken away and questioned by SS officers, he presented the medals. The officers did allow him to return to his family, but not without a severe beating first. Dad’s parents knew that the family had to leave Vienna but getting out of Austria was not a simple matter. Documents had to be obtained from government offices where long lines formed because there were so many other families who needed to get out as well. Unimaginable stress and the impossible Nazi policies made life increasingly unbearable for the Jews.

So where would they go? Years earlier Dad’s uncle had developed a successful business in Stockholm. He informed dad’s family that the Swedish border control was, for a very limited time, allowing people without visas to enter. So the decision was made to go to Stockholm. Finally, all the necessary paperwork was completed and their passports were obtained. Now my Dad’s close extended family was torn apart. His grandparents felt unable, at their advanced age, to leave Vienna to begin a new life elsewhere. There was a tearful parting as no one knew what the future was to hold.

In September 1938 my then 12 year old dad and his family reached Stockholm. HIAS arranged for an apartment, and jobs for my grandparents, and my dad and his sister were enrolled in school. Though they began a new life in Stockholm, their dream was to get to New York where they could be reunited with cousins who had already settled there.

Because there was a quota for Polish born Jews like my grandparents to enter the U.S., the waiting period for the family dragged on. They remained in Stockholm for 2½ years but finally in February 1941 the U.S. Consul granted them entry to America. The shortest route to the US would have been to go west, but Germany had already invaded Norway so there was no safe passage with that route. As a result, they were forced to go a much more circuitous route; East.

They boarded a boat and then a train to reach Helsinki, then travelled to Leningrad and to Moscow where they secured passage on the Trans-Siberian Railway for the 9 day journey to Vladivostok. They continued on to Kobe, Japan where HIAS arranged for a “kind of Pesach”. It was then on to Tokyo and to Yokohama. (I should mention that in each one of the cities I just named, Dad and his family languished for days to await the arrival of trains

which would take them to the next destination). So in Yokohama they boarded a Japanese freighter, crossed the Pacific and arrived in Seattle in April of 1941. It had been a 2 and a half month, 12,000 mile journey.

Seattle was a growing city and it was suggested that they remain there and that my grandparents could easily find work, but no, they had set their sights on New York and that’s where they’d go. So after a week they were once again on a train through Spokan, Bismark, Chicago, and finally arrived in New York.

The joy of the long awaited reunion with their cousins in New York was tinged with great sadness however, when they learned that all four of dad’s grandparents had been killed in Riga and Buchenwald.

In the Fall of 1941, Dad was enrolled in high school and upon graduation in 1944 he was drafted into the US Army. He served in Naples, Tubruk, and Cairo. He returned home to New York on July 4th 1946.

My mother Brigitte Schenkein was born in Berlin in 1925. She enjoyed an idyllic childhood with her beautiful mother Berta, beloved father Mendel, and dear sister Erna. My grandfather was a much loved man – his quiet gentle ways endeared him not only to his family but to those in his community as well.

He was a watch maker and jeweler whose shop was the focal point of his young daughter’s after-school activities. Just being in his presence made them both so happy. But that was all to change late one night in October of 1938. Mom and her family were awoken to the sound of the local police banging on their apartment door. They were rounding up all the Polish born Jewish men to deport them. My then 12 year old mom clung to her father’s legs as he was dragged away and she along with him. As she told me: she “had to be peeled away from him.” He was deported to Rohatyn. For a while, he was able to send out a letter or two.

In one to my grandmother, he lovingly reminisces about the wonderful times he had had with “his girls” as he called them. He writes: “my memories are intermingled with pain, but I am not giving up hope that we will be together again with the help of G-d.” Despite his dreams of being reunited with his girls, months later he was picked up in an Aktion and killed.

For a time my Grandmother maintained my grandfather’s shop. Then came Kristallnacht. Some stores’ windows were broken, others had swastikas painted on them. When Berta went to the store the next morning she found the workers had gotten there even earlier to clean up as much as they could. They said they did it out of respect to Herr Schenkein. Quite a testament to their loyalty to my special grandfather.

After Kristallnacht, life for the Jews of Berlin became unimaginably difficult.

Once, while my mother was walking alone on the street, she was accosted by several Hitler youth. It was a terrible and frightening experience for her.

Berta knew she had to get what was left of her family out of Germany but getting visas was a difficult and dangerous business. My resourceful grandmother decided to go to the issuing office on Hitler’s birthday knowing that the Nazi soldiers would be out getting drunk. She was right and she managed to obtain visas for the three of them to go to England.

Once in London, the weight of her husband’s absence and finding herself in an unfamiliar country became too much for Berta to bear and her ability to care for my mother faltered.

Mom, at the sensitive age of 14, entered a home for other displaced young Jewish women.

My aunt Erna, five years older than Mom, joined the WAF’s and was assigned with the responsibility of intercepting and decoding German fighter pilots plans to bomb various sites in London. With the information she provided to the Allies, many of the German efforts were thwarted.

During the years of the Blitz, air raids and explosions were a common occurrence and buildings shook and fell everywhere in London. One night as Mom was sleeping she had a dream of her father. He was in his night clothes just as she had last seen him. He was reaching out his arms to her. She immediately sat up to reach for him. When she awoke she saw the marble mantelpiece near her bed had come loose and landed on her pillow. My mom always believed that in that instant her Papa had saved her.

My Grandmother, Aunt Erna and my mom remained in London throughout the whole war, 7 years, always hoping to one day reach American shores. When a well-established American cousin “vouched” for them – a requirement to gain entry into this country, their dream came true. They arrived in New York in May 1946.

I’d like to take a few more minutes to share with you a couple of addendums to my parent’s stories.

The last time my Mom saw her father was on October 28th 1938 when he was taken away and deported. She then spent 7 years in London. She came to the U.S., met my Dad on New Years’ Eve of 1946 and they were married in February of ’48. 7 years passed before I was born on October 28th, 1954 and I am named after Mendel – I’m Miriam.

In 1994, my Aunt Erna returned to Berlin with my cousin Marsha. Of course, it was a very emotional trip.

She went back to her High School where Steven Spielberg happened to be shooting a film, which was later to be called “The Lost Children of Berlin.” Erna was offered a chance to speak about her childhood growing up there. Her recollections brought her to talk about Papa and she asked aloud if she could say his name, “Mendel Schenkein”? The interviewer recognizing the importance of that moment said “of course” and it was included in the final cut of the film which was released in 1995. Throughout the film, lovely sentimental music is heard in the background. A particularly beautiful, soulful violin plays while Erna speaks. The composer of that piece was so moved by my Aunt’s story, he retitled the track on the CD. Track 11 is now simply called “Mendel Schenkein.”

My parents never were comfortable being called survivors because they felt that they never were forced to endure the suffering of those who were in the concentration camps, however, I as their child know that the loss of their cherished loved ones, and the uprooting of their innocent childhood left an indelible mark on them for the rest of their lives. They were forever changed by the devastating experiences that they suffered at the hands of the merciless Nazis.

My dear mother passed away on Shabbos Tshuvah 2012 but I am blessed to still have my wonderful father. My parents were married for 64 years.

I’d like to thank Rabbi Skolnik and all of you for giving me the opportunity to share my parents’ stories.