Hirschel, Lieselotte Anne Engel
Breslau, Germany; Wroclaw, Poland; Buchenwald; London, England
Lieselotte Anne Engel was born in Breslau, Germany (now Wroclaw, Poland) on April 17, 1926, to Alice Isaac Engel and Richard F. Engel, a dentist. Family life for Anne, her parents, and her five-years-older sister, Gerda Lore (Birnbaum), “was very peaceful. It was very happy. Until about 1934, I didn’t really know anything bad was going on. I was still very young, but I picked up little bits and pieces that made me think that something isn’t totally right here. But I couldn’t put my finger on it. One didn’t discuss those things with young children.”
One of her first memories, when she was seven, was that “My sister, who always was very kind to me, but a disciplinarian, said, ‘We’re going to have to show these Nazi children that we can march just as well as they can.’ She forced me to march around and around the litfaßsäule – big concrete pillars that had advertising on them…. Then I noticed that so many of the other children were wearing what I thought were very attractive brown velour jackets. I said, ‘I would like one of those.’ And it was explained to me, ‘No, you can’t wear those brown jackets. You have to wear a gray jacket because brown jackets are for the Hitler Youth.’ I didn’t know what that meant. But I understood that there was a difference between what we were allowed to wear and what they were allowed to wear.
“My earliest recollection of something going wrong at school was when the other children were practicing marching past a tree and saying, ‘Heil Hitler.’ I was told, ‘You don’t march past this tree. You mustn’t say Heil Hitler.’ I thought this was odd. Everybody else was saying Heil Hitler and I wasn’t supposed to say Heil Hitler, but I didn’t have any idea what that meant.
“The real revelation that something was truly amiss came with an incident that I think saved my life. I was about eight years old; it must have been 1934. On the way home from school, I was late for the streetcar that we normally rode home because that was the day the Jewish children had religious instruction at school. So, when we finally got to the streetcar stop, the conductor said to us, ‘You cannot board my streetcar. I will not have Jewish children on my streetcar.’ We didn’t know what to do. My mother was waiting at the other end of the streetcar ride. It was quite a way. But we thought ‘well, if we aren’t allowed to go on the streetcar we’ll have to walk.’ It was a walk that took well over 45-minutes and my mother was frantic at the other end. When we arrived, she said, ‘Why are you so late? You’re supposed to be on the streetcar.’ And I said, ‘I couldn’t get on because the conductor says Jewish children can’t ride on his streetcar.’ So, my mother told my father why I had been late, and my father almost immediately said, ‘We’re leaving this country. I will not stay in a country where such things are possible.’
“From that moment on, he made every effort to leave Germany. It was very difficult to emigrate. He didn’t have much money. He had his dental practice. People said to him, ‘This is ridiculous. You have two young children, do not leave. How will you support your family? This will blow over.’ My father in his infinite wisdom answered, ‘This will not blow over. We’re going to have to leave the country.’ It took from 1934 to 1936 until my uncle, who had gone to England with his wife, discovered through a stroke of luck an outdated ordinance in England that allowed a few foreign-trained dentists to come to England and practice there without having to go back to school…. Before he made his application, my mother, who was a very smart woman and had been to an English finishing school, said, ‘Those people at the English dental board will not be able to read your educational documents in German. We’re going to have these professionally translated.’ So, my father made this application to the English dental board with a translated record of his education and was given permission to come to England.
“I think I was aware that things were getting worse because I would catch snatches of conversation about different things that one might try to get over there and what one might do over there. I didn’t really understand. I wasn’t really aware, except that very soon after my sister had to go to a Jewish school.” Although their friends – Jewish and non-Jewish alike – all told them they were crazy and irresponsible to go to a country where they didn’t speak the language, nevertheless, they decided to immigrate to London because, as a dentist, he had a way of making a modest living there.
“In 1936, you could still bring out household effects, but not much money. So, my father was smart enough to cut open the hollow legs of some metal dental cabinets, stuff dental gold into those legs, and then solder it all up again and we painted it. He thought when we get to England, we won’t have any resources, but we’ll have this gold.”
Her parents went ahead to find a house and to get established and Anne and Gerda stayed behind in Breslau for a few months with their two grandmothers Paula Engel and Rosalie Isaac. “Although my grandmothers had to stay behind, again we were very fortunate. Within a couple of years, my father somehow was able to arrange for both grandmothers to leave Germany and join us, as well as an uncle. My father’s oldest brother and his wife, Walter and Herta Engel, did not leave. They perished in the Holocaust.
Although they were part of the broader community in London, “My parents worked very, very hard through the Woburn House, helping other Jewish people who had not yet got out. If you were fortunate enough to find someone who would employ you as a domestic, then you got permission to come out on a domestic visa. My parents worked ceaselessly to get anybody who applied to them a way to get out. They helped a lot of people. They failed to be able to help a lot of people…. Many people would pass through London and would always stay at our house. Quite a few of them left a few valuables with my parents, with a wish: ‘If we can get out, we’ll come and pick them up. If we can’t get out, they’re yours.’ Sadly, my parents were left with quite a few items that people had deposited and they had never managed to follow us out…. I don’t think any of us knew what was really going to happen to these people. I heard later that quite a few of my Jewish classmates in Germany had not made it out. And making it out was sort of the lucky exception. So, I always felt I lived a charmed life because of that rotten conductor who wouldn’t let me on his streetcar, who literally saved our lives.…. He must be turning in his grave.
“It was difficult for me in London in the beginning because I spoke no English. My mother took me to the local school, which was actually a convent school, where they were very kind to me. Within nine months I was able to pass the entrance exam to the local grammar school. I grew up in England and was very happy, in spite of the fact that we were in London during the blitz, during the war. Those were hard times, but nothing compared to what other people experienced who hadn’t had my good fortune.” Anne went to dental school in England.
Anne and her daughter Alison continue with the story of Anne’s husband, John Ulrich Hirschel, born Hans Ulrich [Hirschel] in Breslau, Germany where he had known Anne’s family. He graduated with a law degree but wasn’t allowed to practice law in Germany because he was Jewish. He worked for an insurance company. It was not very lucrative work, but he knew his legal career was over. He always had a very strong sense of justice which he passed on to his son and daughter and five grandsons.
“On Kristallnacht, John had gone to the train station to try to hide because he thought you could hide best in plain sight. And then having heard that the Gestapo had already been there, he went home, where the next morning the Gestapo came back and picked him up and took him to Buchenwald…. Within a few months, a former girlfriend, Ruth Schiess, went to the person in charge at the camp and, in exchange for sexual favors, he allowed John to get out of Buchenwald. Since he was going on vacation, he misfiled John’s file for a couple of weeks. But at the end of that time, he was going to have to account for the file. He warned John: ‘When I come back if you’re still in Germany, you’ll be back in Buchenwald. During the time I’m gone, you have to leave the country.’
“When John was finally told that he could leave the camp, he was at the headquarters which were at the center of the camp. Nobody offered to escort him to the gate that was the distance of about two football fields of just open area. There were guard towers and the guards had instructions to shoot any prisoner who was walking unaccompanied across that area. He said the hardest thing he ever had to do was to walk as slowly as he could across that vast expanse so that he wouldn’t attract the attention of the guards and they wouldn’t think he was trying to escape. To his astonishment, he made it right to the gate and was able to walk out then knowing that he had two weeks to figure out how to get out of the country.
“John had been given an affidavit by someone in California and so he had a number, but his number hadn’t come up yet. So, he made frantic efforts to get out to England on a temporary visa. His friend Puz’s father “Pap” Gericke, an attorney, was able to impersonate a German officer and called SS headquarters. He said that he was a German officer and asked them why they hadn’t processed the exit visa for that swine Hirschel to get him out of the country. He thought, correctly, that because Germans were very attentive to authority that if someone who sounded authoritative told them to do this, they would speed up the process.
“When he was finally on the plane to get out of Germany, some Nazis came on board and he was sure they were going to come and pick him up and take him back. By some miracle, they were looking for somebody else and finally, the plane took off for London.”
John stopped to see the Engels in London while waiting for his transfer to the United States in 1939, shortly before the outbreak of the war. He was inducted into the American army and then served as a chief interrogator during the Nuremberg denazification trials of prisoners suspected of being Nazis.
“He lost his entire family. He lost his mother, his two sisters, and his 96-year-old grandmother. He lost everybody. He was the only one who got out. After the war, his daughter learned a little bit through the Red Cross. What she heard was so awful that the family decided not to tell him. He had heard that his 96-year-old grandmother, when she was picked up and was being pushed onto the truck, turned around and said, ‘Thank you, you don’t have to help me. I can get up by myself.’ He did not realize that she had been murdered just like his sisters and mother had been murdered…. Earlier in his life, John seemed to be able to compartmentalize what had happened to his family and lead a very happy life. He had drawn a curtain across that whole part of his life. It was only when he became much older and started having nightmares that it all sort of came flooding back. He could not speak about his story. He was absolutely guilt-ridden that he had got out by some miracle and his family, he couldn’t help them. That chapter of his life was closed, and he didn’t want to have to investigate it again.”
Anne does want to tell her story because “I didn’t go through what he went through. I don’t have a reason for guilt because I was so young, I didn’t know what was going on. I feel I have a very happy story to tell and sometimes when I’ve told it, people have found it quite interesting…. Quite a few years ago, my grandsons invited me to speak at their local school. I told the story about the conductor who hadn’t let me on his streetcar. And a little black girl raised her hand and said, ‘That’s exactly what happened to my auntie in the South.’ So, the story resonated with this little black girl in my grandson’s 5th-grade class. And so, the reason I tell the story is that not only this little girl but many people find it interesting. And in view of what’s going on today, the discrimination, I think it resonates unfortunately with today.”
Anne shares the message: “Don’t discriminate for any reason for people who maybe are a little different from you, whether it’s skin color or religion or where they come from or how they look or how they talk. Just don’t discriminate. We all have a story to tell and we all should be allowed to tell it without fear. I think that’s the story of what happened to me. I was fortunate. I was fortunate later during the war, during the bombing, I was in London the whole time. I escaped. I don’t know why. But if I can do that little bit, if I can change one person’s mind about the terrible things that I feel are going on right now in this country, I think it’s important to tell the story. To warn people, please be kind to each other. Don’t look for differences. Look for the things with which we are all alike; we are more alike than different. But people don’t want to see that. And they are not being encouraged to see that. I never used to be that interested in politics. I now am glued to my television set, listening to these dreadful stories that I hear. And it’s very sad that people haven’t learned anything.”
Anne’s sister, Gerda Birnbaum, was a typist of the transcripts gathered by the secret listeners for British Intelligence during the Second World War. They eavesdropped on captured Axis officers. She was not allowed to speak about her work for 50 years.
Date of Interview: February 21, 2019
Length of Interview: 67 minutes
Interview & Synopsis by: Zieva Konvisser
Videographer: Mark Einhaus
Additional Comments: Alison Hirschel