Bernard, Henri Siegfried
Beckingen (Saarbrücken), Germany
Henri Siegfried Bernard was born on April 13, 1936 to Siemund (Simon) and Martha Schwarz Bernard. Under the Nuremberg Laws, midwives could no longer go into a Jewish household, so Martha delivered Henri with the help of the nuns who ran a clinic associated with a factory owned by one of Simon’s friends.
The Bernards were one of three Jewish families – probably all related – living in the small German town of Beckingen, near Saarbrücken in the Rhineland. Sometime in the late 1800’s, the family had moved there from Alsace-Lorraine, which went back and forth between the Germans and the French.
The family home was next door to a bakery. They kept goats and cows on the first floor of the house, and had to walk through there to get to the outhouse. Simon was a butcher, a business that his father had started. He was able to kill the animals in a kosher way and also provide services for the non-Jewish people in the town. They lived a fairly Orthodox life, keeping kosher and walking to a synagogue in a nearby town of Dillingen. A rabbi came to town to give them lessons in Hebrew and prayers.
Simon told Henri that when he was in school, most of the students were Catholic, but the Jewish kids were excused when they had morning prayers. “Whether this is good or bad, I’m really not sure. Other than that, I think he basically denied that there was anti-Semitism in Beckingen. Although he did say that a Jewish man could only go as far as being a lieutenant in the German army.”
Martha Schwarz was born in Vienna, Austria; her parents, Ludwig and Regina Schwarz, originally came from Slovakia. At some point, her parents went back to Slovakia, and then the family went to Frankfurt, Germany. At the onset of the war, they were living in Frankfurt, along with Martha’s two sisters and her brother. Martha’s parents and her sister Katte (Katha) were sent to Slovakia, either in 1939 or 1940, and they were put on a transport to Auschwitz. Katte, who was born on May 25, 1906, died in Auschwitz in September 1942 from pneumonia. Martha’s brother Jacob was there at the time they were deported, but he wasn’t with them in Auschwitz and the family has no knowledge of where he finally went or what happened to him.
Simon’s parents, Herz and Babette Bernard, died before the onset of the war. Herz is buried in the Jewish cemetery in Diefflen, Saarland. Of their ten children, Dora went to England and married Sam Cohen; Ludwig went to the United States in the 1920’s; Henrietta, her husband Gustav Herz, and son Heinz went to the United States in the late 1920’s; and Josephine met and married her husband, George Kahn, and settled in Detroit. “He was in the German Army during World War I and was captured by Americans. The guard that he got to know and actually became friends with was a Jewish man from Detroit. After the war, he sponsored my uncle to come to the United States.”
The Kahns sent Simon and Martha the papers to come to the United States. They also helped two other siblings come out, Sigmund with his wife Mella, and Mathilde. The papers they sent to Germany for the two other sisters, Erica and Berta, came back. Berta and Hugo Moses and their daughter Ruth were transported to Riga; Erica’s fate was unknown.
“I think the decision to leave Germany was forced on us. We knew that things were getting bad. There were elements of the Nazi party in Beckingen at that time. My father’s work papers were taken away, so he wasn’t permitted to earn a livelihood, and he was working on public roads. My mother had to go to neighbors to ask for food. Before we got the papers to come to the United States, my dad had applied to the British government to emigrate to Palestine. But by the time he got the reply from the agency, the amount of money they wanted was out of my father’s possibility – he couldn’t afford that. And at that time the border to France, one way to get out of Germany, had already been closed. So, we had the papers and my parents knew it was time to go.”
In order to get permission to leave for the United States, Simon and Martha, their older son, Helmut, who was almost four-years-old, and two-year-old Henri “went to Stuttgart, Germany to the American consul. He checked the papers and said, ‘The three of us could go, but my mother couldn’t leave because she was born in Vienna. She wasn’t a German citizen.’ At that point, he asked my father if he had any money and my dad thought well maybe he’s asking for a bribe. But what he asked for was 5 Marks to send a telegram to the American consulate in Austria to ask for permission…. While they were sitting in the waiting room, my mother was constantly crying. And my father would tell her ‘Don’t worry, I’m not going to leave you.’ Then just before 5:00 on March 12, 1938, there was an announcement over the radio that Germany had invaded Austria and Austria was no longer a sovereign country. So, of course, this added to their anxiety. But then, a short while later, at 5:00, the telegram came that the permission was granted to leave.”
They returned to Beckingen, then left on June 30, 1938 from Hamburg on the SS Deutschland for New York. “I don’t remember any of it because I was two-years-old. My brother, who was almost four at the time, remembers being frightened on the ship by a puppet show he was watching.” They came to Detroit where they first stayed with Aunt Mathilde “Tante Thilde” and her husband Ludwig Bekgran in a small apartment in Highland Park, and then moved to a four-family flat at 1492 Lee Place, in Detroit. “My mother was pregnant during all of this. And in October, my brother, Leo, was born in Detroit.”
Meanwhile, Martha’s surviving sister Josephine and her husband, Eddie Leib, “made their way into France and for a while he was trained as a tailor. He was working with a sewing machine that he got from ORT somewhere in France. When things got too difficult to remain in France, he joined the French Foreign Legion and was stationed somewhere in the Middle East during the war. When the roundup came in Paris, Josephine moved into Unoccupied France and my cousin, Annie, was given to a non-Jewish farmer. They survived and at the war’s end, we brought Josephine, Eddie, Annie, and 15-month-old Sylvia, who was born after the war, to the United States.” Henri remembers that after the war, his mother got a letter from Uncle Eddie, and the letter told her about her parents and her sister being killed in Auschwitz.
Henri knew from the very start, that he and his family had come from Germany. “As far back as I can recall, my parents did speak German. We belonged to a synagogue that was made up mostly of people from Germany – the German congregation, Gemilut Hasadim. I could speak some German then, and when my uncle came in 1947, I was 11-years-old and went with him to Hudson’s Department Store downtown, where he got a job and I was his interpreter.”
Henri went back to Beckingen in 1984, and met with the family of his dad’s brother, Leander or Leo. During the war, Leo and his wife Irene had to leave Germany, even though she was not Jewish. At the end of January, 1935, Leo left Saarbrücken with hundreds of anti-Fascist refugees under the protection of the League of Nations, which had supervised the recent vote on the reorganization to Germany or retaining the status quo. Irene and their two children, Horst 2 ½ and Alice (3 months) followed in March 1935. They survived the war in the small town of Agen, France. After the war, they went back to Germany and he worked for a newspaper and they lived in West Germany.
Through Yad Vashem, Henri connected with a cousin on his mother’s side, Paul Hronec, who wrote a book about his story of running from the Nazis, from Slovakia to Hungary, back to Slovakia. When Paul, who was working as an engineer in West Germany, retired and had a pension, he moved to Israel to be with his son and daughter who had made aliyah.
Henri shares his family’s story of perseverance and success and “a little bit of mazel along the way and thinks that young people today should know history, should be aware of what happened and of course that’s what the Holocaust Memorial Center is all about. They should be tolerant and not judge people on stereotypes. I think most of our children, our grandchildren, are in good shape in terms of that sort of knowledge, that attitude, that upbringing. I just wish there were more.”
Date of Interview: December 22, 2016
Length of Interview: 34 minutes
Interview & Synopsis by: Zieva Konvisser
Videographer: Mark Einhaus