Gilbert, Ursula Elizabeth Baum
Frankfurt, Karlsruhe, Germany; Paris, France; Kasba Tadla, Morocco; Santo Domingo, Sosua, Dominican Republic
Ursula Elizabeth Baum was born in Frankfurt, Germany on February 25, 1930, to Walter Maximillian Baum and Caroline Elizabeth Katarina Kliebenstein. She and her older brother Fred (Wolfgang Friedrich Dieter, born in 1926) were Mischling, the children of a Jewish father and a Christian mother.
Walter’s mother was widowed in her 20’s and was left alone to raise six children in Oberhausen, Germany. She took over her husband’s business, running a dry goods shop, and she put her kids through school. “My father was supposed to be the brightest, so she sent him to a Yeshiva to become a rabbi, which was a tradition in her family. After a few years, he decided that he really wanted to be a social worker. So, he arranged to go to the University of Frankfurt and received his degree in social work and then his masters.
Caroline’s father was a professional military man, a German commandant of the Kaiser Elite. Caroline was born in Metz, France, where her father was the military officer in charge of invading Lorraine. Her mother was an opera singer. Caroline grew up in quite a lot of luxury. She was sent to finishing school after high school, but she didn’t like it and wanted to go out and do things for humanity; so, she also went to University of Cologne to become a social worker. Her grandmother sympathized with her because she herself was a liberated person and sent her to college and paid for her tuition.
“My parents met at the Institute in Frankfurt and my mother was helping my dad complete his doctoral thesis. They fell in love and had to go break it to their parents that they wanted to get married, which was a very heavy uphill road. Because of that, I never met my father’s family until I was a grown woman. But also, because in 1933, when I was three-years-old, Hitler came into power and they wanted to protect us, my brother Fred and I, and not associate with us hoping that we would escape the Holocaust.
“My father had a big job with the Frankfurter Zeitung newspaper. When the Nazis came to power, the Frankfurter Zeitung let him go because he was Jewish. He became city director of the city of Mannheim. But then again, in 1933, the Nazis came and killed the mayor and left a message: ‘The Jew Baum next.’ That night, my mother put a sign on their house saying ‘chicken pox’ and my father fled over the border into France. My mother fled to her parents’ house in Karlsruhe, Germany, hoping that this would all blow over and my dad could come back and things would be all right.
“Within a year, she got word that they were going to come and arrest her because they said that my father is working against Hitler and she was married to a Jew. She was told they would forgive her being married to my father if she divorced him. She said, ‘What about my children’ and they said, ‘Oh, we will just take them some place and reeducate them,’ which we all know meant that the children would be taken away, the Mischlings. So, that night, the family took us over the border and put us on a train to Paris to rejoin my father…. He met us at the train station. I was three-years-old when my father left and I was four-years-old by then, I didn’t know who he was anymore. I asked him, ‘What do I call you?’ which broke my father’s heart.”
Elizabeth was never much aware of being a Mischling. “As a child, I accepted people the way they were. That’s what children do. It didn’t occur to me either way. We kept the Christian holidays and some of the Jewish holidays as well and it was just part of the way I grew up. My father was not religious but he was trained to be a rabbi and it was stuck to him…. I just totally adored my father. He was a wonderful father and a very caring father. My mother too, but my mother was German and she was very strict… ‘That’s the way it’s done.’ My father was the one who entertained me. He took me to museums, played games with me, read me a book every night. He was a very close father.
“The first year in Paris was very difficult for my parents because there was no money and my father hadn’t gotten a job yet. He was supposed to come to the States and be a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, but the quota was closed for German-born people. He couldn’t go and he was very despondent. At first, he was just tutoring people to make a living, but it wasn’t enough. Then he went to work for the Jewish Joint Distribution Committee in Paris and things got better for us financially. We moved to a bigger apartment and my brother and I were put in a private school. We were able to go on holidays in the summer. It was wonderful.
“In the summer of 1939, we were on vacation in the town of Royan in the South of France, my mother, my brother and I. My father had gone to London for the International Conference of Social Work; he was a secretary of the board. And then the war was declared. He returned to France and was immediately interned because he was a foreign national. He was given the choice of either being sent to Sweden or some place at the front or going with the French Foreign Legion in Africa. He chose the French Foreign Legion and was sent to the city of Bel Abbès.
“Meantime, my mother, my brother, and I were not allowed to return to Paris because we were foreign internationals. We were ordered to leave Royan and went to Saint-Georges-de-Didonne; from there we were expelled again because we were too close to the sea and we were sent to Angers where the Joint had an office and they helped us. Eventually, because my father was in the Legion, we were allowed to return to our apartment in Paris.
“When the Germans started coming closer, the intention was to flee from Paris with a bunch of our neighbors from the Fifteenth Arrondissement, a very Jewish neighborhood. My mother packed two suitcases and tied them on the back of bicycles so we would flee Paris as the Germans were advancing…. But first, I asked permission to go in the courtyard of our building to say goodbye to my little friend, who lived one-story up. So, I went to the courtyard and I was waving goodbye at her and talking to her and I backed up and fell backwards into an opening, six feet down, and knocked myself out. My mother went running to see if she could find a doctor but they were all fleeing Paris in cars and whatever vehicle they could get. There was a mass fleeing of people, lines and lines on the streets, getting out of Paris…. There was no way we could leave because I was almost paralyzed from that fall. She could not find a doctor, so, she treated me with camphor oil. I will never forget the smell of that camphor oil…. But the neighbors went and they were walking away from Paris and the Germans came with their planes and strafed them and machine gunned them. The few that survived came back. In a way, falling into that pit saved our lives because we would have been in that crowd that got machine gunned.
“Then the Germans came and my mother forbade us to use our name Baum because they were looking for Jewish people…. I remember walking home from school and they were taking bodies out of the houses where people, mostly women, had committed suicide by gassing themselves. They were so terrified of going to the concentration camps that they decided to gas themselves in the ovens…. I remember one particular lady who I knew who was being carried out on a stretcher and she had a bandage on her toe. I was thinking why did she bother with that when she killed herself? Why did she bandage her foot? It was just a memory that was stuck in my head. I was just horrified…. I could smell the gas coming out of the buildings and I was terrified that my mother would do the same. I was never able to light a gas stove for years and years and years. I never wanted a gas stove because the memories of that smell of gas was horrifying.
“The concierge for our building was Alsatian and she was very sympathetic. They were friends; my parents and them. She was ordered to put the names of the residents of the building on the outside so the Germans could see who had Jewish names, but she eliminated our floor completely. She changed the numbers of the flooring. So that way we got away for a while…. One day, I was coming home from school and I saw the bus pull up. The front door of our building had curtains, so I opened the door and I hid behind the curtain. I knew they were Germans and they came into the building, the Nazis, and they asked the concierge for us and the concierge said, ‘Oh no, they fled a long time ago.’ My mother and brother were not home. I was the only one behind that door. And so, they left. We were saved one more time.
“The Germans had invaded and we were hiding from them. One day there was a knock at our door in Paris. We had a glass transom on top of the door and we could see the top of the German helmet. My mother hugged us and said, ‘I’m sorry it’s over. They found us. They’ve got us.’ And she said, ‘Might as well open the door, otherwise they’ll break the door down anyway.’ She opened up the door and there was her cousin. And he said, ‘The family has sent you money and food.’ He was killed soon after on the front, but he took a chance and he did it.
“My mother knew it was time for us to leave as soon as possible, but she didn’t quite know how to go about it. In 1940, as she was walking in the street shopping, this man bumped into her and gave her a piece of paper, quickly, a sleight of hand. When she opened up the paper it was from my dad. He said, ‘I am sent to the Dominican Republic. Try to get to the south of France and get passage to join me; your white house awaits you.’ She had told my father years before that she was dreaming of a white house in the tropics.
“My mother didn’t know what happened to my father for almost two years. There was no communication. We were in the occupied zone of France…. My father had been released from the Legion and was sent back to a prison camp in Les Mazures in the middle of France. When the Germans approached, the French soldiers who were guarding them fled. So, the prisoners decided they were going to flee too. My father walked all the way across the Pyrenees into Spain and somehow managed to get transportation, a train or something, into Portugal and rejoined the Joint Distribution Committee offices in Portugal.” The Joint sent him to the Dominican Republic as the Director of the Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. At the Evian Conference in 1938, Rafael Trujillo of the Dominican Republic had offered to take in up to 100,000 Jewish refugees; about 800 German and Austrian Jewish refugees received visas between 1940 and 1945.
“My mother managed to get together with the Free French and bribe some people to get some documents so we could leave Paris and get to Marseille. We were on the train to Marseille and between Occupied France and so called non-Occupied France, there was a German patrol. Inside of our coats, my mother had sewn documentation from the Free French… part of the deal for helping us was to take all that stuff with us. We were ordered off the train and the man in charge of this patrol happened to be her father’s adjutant who had lived for years in their home. ‘He’s going to know who we are. I think we are done for.’ The adjutant looked at us, he looked at my mother, he looked at the papers; he stamped them and he said, ‘God bless you.’ So that was another time we were saved.
“When we arrived in Marseille, she got in touch with the Joint and they worked together to get passage to Martinique, which is the closest to the Dominican Republic. It took several months before we could get passage on a ship.… It was a cargo ship, just a very cheap, ugly little piece of garbage. They had put bunks in the holds, one for the men and one for the women, and it was just a concentration camp with layers of bedding. They gave us each a gunnysack and there was a pile of straw and they said, ‘You pack that and that’s your mattress, that’s your bedding.’ Then they had a great big kettle, one of those WWI kettles, and they had living animals on board and they killed the animals, cut them up, and put them in the kettle and they gave one person out of ten a bowl. The food was dished out from the kettle and they had to distribute that among ten people. But we survived somehow.
“When we got to Casablanca, we started towards the Canary Islands and we were blockaded by the British Navy. There were three ships with refugees on them. They turned us around and we had to go back to Casablanca and they anchored us in the middle of the port. There were dead bodies in the water; I remember one was decapitated. I was 11 years old and I remember being horrified about the fact it was so polluted. We were anchored there for several months. We were prisoners as such. And then we all got typhoid fever…. So, the French authorities decided they were going to take us off the ship and send us to camps. Families with children over 11-years-old would go to this one particular camp and the smaller children would go to a different camp. The camp that we went to was in the middle of the Sahara Desert, Kasba Tadla, an abandoned Legionnaire camp. They put us on the train and when we got off the train, we had to take our suitcases in hand and walk. I remember I had my mother’s portable typewriter, she never went without it, and my doll in my other hand, and we walked for hours and hours.
“We were at the camp for quite a while. They didn’t treat us badly. They did the best they could for us. We all had to work. My brother, 14-years-old, had to carry coal from the village. I had to peel potatoes. I ate some of the raw potatoes because kids are hungry. But we were not hurt in any way except that we lived in those conditions. The flies were horrendous. The food was camel, all camel. It’s very chewy. Don’t recommend it. But the latrines were way out and there were hyenas all over the place howling.
“Then one day, they called all of the prisoners to assembly and there was a big pickup truck there. They announced, ‘If we call your name get on the back of that truck. You have so much time to get your things together and get on the truck.’ We thought, ‘Okay that’s it; we are going to be shipped back to Germany.’ Our name was called, my mother, my brother and I. We got on the back of the truck and they drove us all the way back to Casablanca…. Then they announced, ‘We have a ship for you.’ It was such an itty-bitty ship and they put 250 of us aboard that ship to go to New York. And we were saved. The Joint had bought us out and they had chartered this little Portuguese boat, The Guinea. My brother, my mother and I had a cabin. And the food was real food.
“We sailed and everything seemed wonderful. Then we had a huge storm and a waterspout hit the boat and the boat went sideways and our cabin was under water. All the men were asked to immediately help pump water from the bilges. This went on for a day or two. We were in the Atlantic. Then the British Navy sent out a ship and towed us into Bermuda…. In Bermuda, we had to all get off the ship to check all the documents and papers. For some reason, they took my father’s thesis. My mother had saved that thesis with her life and they took it away from her. And there is no way you could ever recover that.
“We finally arrived in New York; there it was the Statue of Liberty. Then they announced that those of us who did not have documentation for the States would have to go to Ellis Island. My mother went to pieces when they put us in cells because ‘In camp, I got out prison. I thought I was saved and here I am back in a cell locked up.’ But they only locked us during the night. During the day, the kids were sent to a classroom where we did coloring, because we couldn’t understand a word of English, my brother and I. They gave us milk and I thought that was the most delicious thing I ever tasted in my life; a glass of ice-cold milk. To this day, every time I have a glass of milk, I remember that day on Ellis Island when I had a glass of milk. We were there for a week until we got our documents to go on a cruise ship to the Dominican Republic.
“We arrived in the Dominican Republic after a week of sailing and there on the jetty was my dad; the first time in two years that I saw my dad. My dad took us to a place he had rented temporarily and there on the table was a great big bowl of fruit, pineapples, mangos, and a big stalk of bananas. My brother and I sat down and ate all of the bananas on the stalk. I’ve never liked bananas since…. It was just a different life. We moved into a house. My dad had a job and we were sent to school, a little tiny private school in this beautiful estate; the owner of that estate wanted to be a teacher so she took in a few refugee kids and Dominicans.
“My father was working for the Joint. First, he ran their office in the capital city of Santo Domingo, which had quite a few Jewish refugees. Then he was sent to Sosua to help establish a community there for the Jewish refugees in an area that used to be owned by a sugar company. We couldn’t reside in Sosua all the time because there were no schools, so we stayed in the capital…. The first thing my father did when he became director of that settlement was to have them build houses. They were tropical houses, so the families could live together. One person opened up a goods store, food and other things; another man built a little factory for mattresses; and a lady was making corsets and bras. It was like a whole town of little businesses and little homes and little gardens…. They built a little synagogue and a little school and a little hospital. It was a very thriving little town, like a western town. No cars; only horses.… There were several hundred people, not as many as they had hoped for, all Jewish, and the majority of them were Austrian and they were young. And I loved going there; Sosua to me was heaven. We had so much fun. There were mostly guys; and a few girls.… And the gorgeous, gorgeous beach; the surroundings were absolutely stunning.
“We were just accepted. My mother felt a little outside of things, but she entertained the Jewish ladies, tea parties, in our beautiful tropical home, with gorgeous surrounding gardens…. Unfortunately, the mattress factory caught on fire and before you knew it the whole town was burned down. By then the war had ended and the people didn’t want to stay anymore; the only thing they wanted to do is leave for the States.
“My father had a Ph.D. in political science and had studied community formation and social services and so he was able to use his expertise doing that. He had wonderful ideas. In the capital city, he rented a farm, a nice big house with garden farming, to house trainees, teenage boys that had been saved and sent to England, and then from England they were sent to the Dominican Republic…. He put the seniors, the old couples, into the farmhouse and he put the teenage boys in the outside buildings and there was a reciprocal situation where the old people cooked for them and parented them and the young people helped the old people and did the vegetables.
“Of course, there were politics involved and things started falling apart…. My father was given a job at the university to teach social work, but he noticed that a lot of his Dominican students were missing. On one of the tours he gave as a social worker, he went to a prison and found that they were incarcerated, political prisoners from the other dictator…. The next time he went to New York to report to the Joint, he protested and threatened to report having his students in prison for political reasons. So, when he tried to come back, they found him persona grata, and would not allow him to return to the Dominican Republic….
“My brother was away at Kenyon College in Ohio. And so, it was just my mother and me and word was sent to us that we would be safe only five days; after that no guarantees about our safety. I was a senior in high school. It was May and I was graduating in June. And yet we had five days to get out. So, my principal immediately printed my diploma so I would not be without it. And we had to pack up and leave…. I was put on a ship, the same ship that brought me to the Dominican Republic seven years earlier, and went by myself to New York…. Although she was German, my mother was born in France and according to her visas, she was French and the quota for French people was closed. So, my mother had to fly to Cuba and my father had to fly from New York to Cuba to bring her back under his German visa, but under American sponsorship.
“I had visions of college or whatever I was going to be. I was still going to be a kid. But I was no longer a kid then. I had to go out and get a job, which I did, in a law office. And then I enrolled in college, into Hunter College, evening courses….
“Then I met my husband, Walter Gilbert. He had a similar history. He was born in Danzig, which is now Gdansk.… His father was Jewish from Berlin, his mother was Mennonite from the northern part of the Scandinavian countries. His Jewish father fled into Prague, into the Czech Republic. His mother and he knew that they were also at the point of being arrested because that’s what they were doing to Mischlings. So, they went to the mountains separating the Czech Republic from Germany. She had blonde hair and those little pigtails around her ears and she looked still very Scandinavian. They asked permission to go sledding up the mountain, which was granted by the Germans. When they got to the other side, they slid down the mountain. My mother-in-law asked the Czech border guard if he could just stamp the paper to please the little boy to show that he had been there, so he stamped the passport and they went. They had put their luggage on the train already to Prague so were able to escape that way to Prague… Later on, they also fled to Paris and lived in the same neighborhood, within a block or so from where we lived. Just for one year, and then they were able got documentation to go to the States…. I didn’t meet them again until we were living in Forest Hills, New York and our parents bumped each other in the streets. It’s a small town you know, New York.
“My husband was an engineering student at the Polytechnic Institute in Brooklyn and we just hit it off and were married a year later. We produced five sons – Ronald, Barry, Christopher, Walter, and Daniel…. I had so many adventures after that with a husband who is very adventurous. We flew all over the United States in our own plane and we lived on a sailboat for a year. We had a little cottage in Saint Lucia and, after a while, I was asked if I could possibly teach because they were desperate for teachers. I started teaching and then the Embassy appointed me as Consular Warden and I did a lot of the Embassy work. I became an FBI Auxiliary and did a lot of investigation for them. I got an EMT degree and worked for Aero Jet Ambulance Services, a medivac service for American citizens.
“My father worked very, very hard to get his brothers and sisters out of Germany and he succeeded only to help one brother, Hans, to get to Kenya, where he eventually ended up owning a huge ranch and became quite well-to-do. He was saved because he was in Dachau and, in 1935, you could still get out if you had a place to go…. My Uncle Erich managed to flee to the States with his wife, Lottie, and daughter, Ilsa…. The oldest sibling in my father’s family was killed in WWI as a soldier of Germany and then Germany turned around and imprisoned his brother, Joseph, his wife and his children. They were all killed at Buchenwald; they were gassed…. His sister, Lily, was also sent to a concentration camp and was killed there. When they came to get her daughter, his mother was killed also. I heard that she was thrown down the staircase of her house…. Strangely enough all of his family pretty much was decimated, killed, no relatives left in Germany except for the two that escaped and my father…. But my mother’s family was also decimated, they were all bombed out. My grandmother on my mother’s side was killed by a bomb. I only have a cousin left in the whole entire family of the Kliebensteins…. So, the destruction of this particular war killed my father’s Jewish family and my mother’s Christian family. It’s awful isn’t it to think what we have done to each other. Let’s hope it never happens again. But I’m afraid it is going to happen again someday.”
Elizabeth’s message for young people today is: “Survive, just survive. I did, miraculously. We had bad people and good people on both sides. All of my life I have found that out to be the case. So, survive. Look at the good side of it. I try to be cheerful, why not? I don’t hate anybody. Why not be that way? Why not be positive? We only have a short time on this earth, so we might as well make the best of it and enjoy what you can and if you don’t like it move on…. I am so glad about the Holocaust Museum, as horrifying and awful as it is, to remind people what happened and never let it happen again. Never let it happen again…. The young people in Sosua too had decided that it was never going to happen again. They saw all their relatives killed. They were separated from their families. They were orphans practically. They said, ‘It is never going to happen again. We are not going to let it happen again somehow. Never, never give in to this evil again.’”
Dates of Interviews: February 8, 2015 and April 17, 2016
Length of Interviews: 15 minutes and 71 minutes
Interview & Synopsis by: Zieva Konvisser
Videographers: Fred Safran and Kevin Walsh