Vienna (Austria), Brussels, Lyon
Berta Gardon, born in 1925, is the younger daughter of Benjamin Jakob and Mania Rost of Vienna, Austria. The family lived in Vienna's 2nd District, Leopoldstadt, followed conservative Judaism and lived a comfortable life. Her father was a traveling salesman. Although living where a large number of Jews resided, she still experienced considerable anti-Semitism in her early life.
After the annexation of Austria by Germany in March, 1938, Mrs. Gardon was expelled from her school because of being Jewish and even though she was only 13 years old, she was not permitted to enroll in another school. Mrs. Gardon's father, and some uncles and cousins, fled Vienna in the mistaken belief that only male Jews were in danger from the Nazis. Among other things, he took with him the medals awarded to him for serving in the Austrian army during World War I. They attempted to enter Holland illegally, but German border guards detained them. Upon being shown the medals, a sympathetic guard placed Mrs. Gardon's father on a military train headed for Italy. From Italy he was able to enter Switzerland where he remained during World War II.
As conditions became intolerable for Jews, Mrs. Gardon, her mother and sister along with other family members, succeeded in entering Holland illegally in early 1939 with the help of a cousin who had previously left Austria. From there they entered Belgium. Strapped for money and without possessions, their first place of residence in Brussels was the top floor of a house of prostitution. Her mother found a job as a cook and Mrs. Gardon found work in a leather factory since additional schooling did not work out for her.
After the occupation of Belgium in 1940, Jews were required to wear a yellow Star of David on their clothing and eventually the round-up of Jews for deportation began. When she was summoned to report, Mrs. Gardon decided to flee to France believing it would be safer in the unoccupied part of France. With very little money, a forged home-made passport and only 16 years old, she left by herself hitching rides on trains like hobos, walking, and occasionally being assisted by French farmers. Nights were often spent in Catholic churches which were willing to take in strangers who knocked at their doors; asking few questions and even providing coffee and bread. An early morning departure was required to prevent their presence from being detected by the occupying German authorities. Sometimes food and lodgings were obtained from sympathetic farmers, and she managed occasionally through her own limited finances. It took several months to reach her intended destination, Lyon.
When she found that conditions for Jews were not much better in Lyon than in other parts of France, she attempted to enter Switzerland and join her father. With the help of a cousin whom she accidentally met in Lyon and the aid of the French underground, she was successful in getting across the border. There she surrendered to the police. Being only 16 years old, she was allowed stay in Switzerland. She was reunited with her father but couldn't live with him and stayed with an assigned family. For a short time she was in a Swiss internment camp. In Switzerland she also met a man, a Jewish escapee from Hungary, who was later to become her husband.
Mrs. Gardon's mother and sister survived in Belgium. Their survival is attributed in part to the protection they received from their employer but mostly to luck.
After the war Berta's mother, with whom she had re-established contact, suggested that they should immigrate to the United States. Berta was able to join an aunt and cousins who lived in Washington, D. C., and then found a sponsor to also bring her own mother to the United States. Her sister and brother-in-law first went to Argentina, but then they too came to the United States.
Her husband-to-be could not obtain the necessary papers for the United States and consequently immigrated to Canada. On a visit to Washington on a temporary visa, he and Berta were married, and Mrs. Gardon moved to Canada. Mr. Gardon, who had previously attended a technical university, completed his studies on a scholarship at McGill University and received a Ph.D. degree in chemistry. Mrs. Gardon worked for an insurance company to provide an income. Since professional opportunities were better in the United States, her husband applied for and received a good position in Philadelphia and later in Detroit. They became U. S. citizens five years later.
The Gardon's have two children and three grandchildren. Photos of family members were displayed during the interview. An oral history interview video was also made of John Gardon, Berta Gardon's husband, and is on file at the Holocaust Memorial Center.
Date: August 14, 2001
Length: 1 hour 49 minutes
Interview & Synopsis: Hans R. Weinmann
Format: Video recording