Hugo Eichelberg was born in Hamburg, Germany, on October 9, 1929, to Heinrich (Henry) Seymour Eichelberg and Helena (Helen) Goldschmidt Eichelberg,
Heinrich was from Marburg, Germany, the son of Hugo and Rosa Eichelberg and the brother of Carl and Tessie. At one time, he worked for Aharon Hirsch & Sons, a textile business. Many young Orthodox people went through Aharon Hirsch & Sons, which was a training ground for younger people who then spread out all over Germany, married, and found a family.
Helena was the daughter of Moreinu Yaakov Yona and Thekla (Seligmann) Goldschmidt and the sister of Rachel Esther, Ilse, Hannah, Sigmund, and David. Yaakov Yona Goldschmidt traces back to the famous Glückel of Hameln, a Jewish businesswoman and diarist of the 1600s, whose diary is still in existence. The Seligmanns were related to the famous Rabbi Yaakov Ettlinger, one of the leaders of Orthodox Judaism.
Thekla Goldschmidt, passed away in 1925, but prior to that, “She ran a very efficient and businesslike household; it was a large house. It had servants. But she made her daughters believe that they should be able to do anything that a servant could do and she made them do it; clean the toilets and all that. My mother often gave her all the credit for the fact that she would have never been able to survive the Nazis – and her later dramatic change in standard of living in the U.S. – if her mother hadn’t been so tough on her. She was, but it was with a purpose. You have to go out in the world, but you have to be able to do anything to make life on your own.”
“My grandfather, Yaakov Yona Goldschmidt, had a big influence on me and his Rabbi was Joseph Tzvi Carlebach, who was a person of great charisma. I still remember that, unlike the other rabbis in Germany, Rabbi Carlebach didn’t face the congregation. His back was to the congregation and he was concentrating on what he was supposed to be doing while he was praying.” Hugo attended Talmud Torah Oberrealschule, a preparatory school, where the principal was Dr. Alex Spier, who had taken over from Rabbi Carlebach, who then was able to devote himself completely to his rabbinical duties in Altona and then in Hamburg.
Hugo shared many inspiring stories about Rabbi Carlebach, who “could have left Germany many times. But, he said, ‘I cannot leave. As long as there is one Jew left in Germany, I am the captain of the ship, I can’t leave.’” And because of that, on December 6, 1941, he was sent on a transport from Hamburg to the Nazi concentration camp Jungfernhof near Riga, along with his wife Charlotte “Lotte” Preuss and five of their children. Their other four children had been sent out earlier on a Kindertransport to England. “In the camp, Rabbi Carlebach tried to keep up the morale of the people even though he knew exactly what was going on and what was going to happen to them. He taught classes in higher mathematics in order to keep people’s minds off of their fate. He also taught Judaic studies to the children so they would have some sense of normalcy amidst the horror and chaos. The Gestapo was amazed at how he can do this without textbooks, but he did.” Carlebach’s wife brought many children to England in the Kindertransport. “She also was told ‘Don’t go back.’ But she said, ‘I gave a promise to the Gestapo, I will come back and I have to be with my husband and I will come back.’” The Rav was murdered on March 26, 1942, in a mass grave shooting in the Bikernieki Forest, along with close to 2000 other people. Hugo concludes, “My grandfather Yaakov Yona, Rabbi Carlebach, and both of my parents molded me.”
Hugo’s parents married in 1928 and lived with his grandfather Yaakov Yona Goldschmidt for a while but then they moved to their own apartment on Bieitenfelder Strasse in Hamburg. “We lived on the third floor on one side. Right across from us, also on the third floor, lived a high official of the Gestapo. Very often my father came home from shul on a Friday night and they met each other but didn’t talk to each other. When Kristallnacht happened on November 9, 1938, each member of the Gestapo had a quota to arrest maybe 50 Jews. All he had to do is walk across the courtyard, take my dad, and he has one more person. But father was never arrested. That was good because my father was spared a lot of anguish; but it was also bad because, in the long run, it made it more difficult for us to leave Germany.
“We were supposed to have gone to America and after Kristallnacht, we went to the American Consulate. Unlike what you normally hear about Franklin Roosevelt, this particular Consul was very pro-Jewish. He said to my parents and he was right, ‘I’m sorry I cannot help you right now to go to the United States. I have other responsibilities to those people who were arrested who are being brought in here by the Nazis. I have to help them get out first.’ So, my mother said to my father, ‘We have to send you to England,’ where her sister Rachel Esther had already moved with her husband Arthur (Nosson) Joelson.
“My father went to England in June 1939 and we were supposed to follow in September. But, on September 1, Adolph Hitler invaded Poland. England and France were aligned with Poland, so, they declared war on Germany on September 3 and we could not leave.
“After my father left, we moved to an apartment house at Hansastrasse, 35, where we lived with Mrs. Aronson. There was an air raid warden in that apartment house. I think his name was Teeper, who was not Jewish. He had a son Carl Heinz Teeper, who often played with me. We didn’t have any problems. The air raid warden actually went out of his way to protect my mother and me at a time when there was a great amount of anti-Semitism. He made sure that we were okay. There were some people in Germany, even at that time, who did not share the persecution of the Jews. When I was in Germany in 1972, there were a lot of Germans who were in the synagogue. The Rabbi told me that they all converted to Judaism because they feel guilty because of what their parents and grandparents did.
“Meanwhile, my father was in England and my mother and I were in Germany. My father went to Scotland Yard and said, ‘Look, I have a wife and son in Germany. I would like to correspond with them but I don’t want you to think I’m a spy. I need your permission to correspond with them.’ They said, ‘Of course, no problem.’ They even gave him a letter signed, ‘His Majesty’s and your servant.’ So, they sent letters to each other through Holland, through Yaakov Yona’s sister Bette Jacobson’s daughter’s family who acted as a go-between. This went on from September 1939 until April 1940…. And then in April 1940, my mother got a call from the Gestapo that they wanted to see her. They purposely asked her to come on the 7th day of Passover. Well, the Gestapo called and she’s got to go. You go! So, he said to her, ‘Where’s your husband?’ ‘In England.’ ‘Have you heard from him?’ ‘I can’t; it’s wartime.’ He said, okay, then he pulled the letter out, ‘Identify it.’ She identified it as her letter. Then he said, ‘We will give you exactly 24-hours to leave Germany. If you don’t leave in 24-hours, we will come and get you and your son.’ He would have never done this if he had known we were going to leave after Passover anyway.
“My mother went from the Gestapo office to see Rabbi Carlebach and he told her ‘There’s only one thing, right now you have to save your life, get going. If you are able to go, go!’ The mitzvah of Pikuach Nefesh (endangerment to one’s life) supersedes all others, even on the holiday of Pesach.’ So, we left the next day, April 30, the last day of Passover.
“We took a train from Hamburg to Genoa, where there were two boats. The Manhattan was an American boat; the Roma was an Italian boat. The people on the Roma did not make it; the people on the Manhattan made it to America, just about the time that Mussolini decided to enter the war on Hitler’s side. We left Italy on May 4 and we got to the United States on May 14, 1940.
“My father left England about the same time on a Dutch boat. When he was on the high-seas, Hitler decided to invade Holland. So, a question came up to the crew: ‘Do we go back to Holland now or do we continue onto the United States.’ Luckily, they continued on to the United States. My father got to the United States on May 17, three days after we did.”
Hugo and his parents were sponsored by Herman Marmorek, a close friend of Henry’s from his synagogue. They stayed with the Marmoreks in New York for 11 or 12 weeks, until they moved to Cincinnati. His father’s family members in Cincinnati helped with arrangements, including Sheldon Blanck, the dean of the faculty at Hebrew Union College, the Schwartzes, and the Ecksteins.
“When we came to this country, my father said, ‘From today on we speak only English in this house.’ I said to my father, ‘No, we will continue speaking German,’ which was very unusual because you don’t disagree with a German parent. My father looked at me and I said, ‘Yeah, it’s very simple, you can go out anyplace and speak English. Where am I going to hear German? If I don’t hear Germany anymore, I will completely lose everything I know. I don’t intend to lose it.’ So, my father realized the wisdom of what I had said and we continued speaking German in the house. I speak fluent German to this day. So, I became a German teacher.”
Hugo met his wife Evelyn in 1950 and they married December 24, 1950. They have two children, Rena Muszkat and Ethan Jay Eichelberg.
Hugo shares a lifetime of stories about Rabbi Carlebach and Rabbi Eliezer Silver of Kneseth Israel Congregation in Cincinnati, as well as Rabbi Silver’s close friend Senator Robert Taft of Ohio, who “looked out wherever there was a Jewish cause and tried to help.” He wants young children today to know that “You have to deal decently with another human being at all times. This is part of your service to God. You are doing two things when you’re treating another human being the way you should; you are serving your God as well serving another human being, whether you realize it or not.”
Date of Interview: May 28, 2017
Length of Interview: 81 minutes
Interview & Synopsis by: Zieva Konvisser
Videographer: Mark Einhaus