Erdstein, George (Georg)
George Erdstein was born on August 12, 1938 in Vienna, Austria. His story “is not so much about me, but about my family. I’m part of it, but to put it in context of the Holocaust, I really have to tell the story of my family….
“My mother’s parents, Michael and Charlotte (nee Aberbach) Imber, and my father’s parents, Emanuel and Bertha (nee Elters) Erdstein, were born in Poland in the 1870’s and both families immigrated to Vienna and raised their families there.
“My father, Berthold Erdstein, was born in 1899, had an older brother Jack, and a younger brother and sister Alex and Regina. When the First World War broke out, my father, being an Austrian citizen, was drafted into the army at the age of 17. Very sadly, Jack was killed in the war…. My father had always been an excellent student and, even as a teenager, got a position as an accountant in the financial department with a large manufacturer of machine parts, Garvenswerke. They saved his position for him should he survive the war. He did survive. For some reason, his father was not able to support the family so it really fell on his shoulders to be the sole support for the family.
“My mother, Ida Imber, was born in 1907, also one of four children. My parents were married in 1931, looking forward to a happy, successful life together. Then, in 1933, next door in Germany, Hitler came to power. But in Austria, whether people had blinders on or not, trying to ignore what was happening, they still had to go on with their lives. My parents were citizens, living fairly comfortably. Up to this time, Vienna was pretty much the center of culture in Europe; the center of music, art, philosophy. It also was where essentially all the Jews of Austria lived, 200,000 out of a total population of 2 million, or 10%…. All that changed in March of 1938 when Hitler marched in and took over. It was called the Anschluss, or annexation.
“Generally, the Austrians embraced Hitler when he took over. Not the Jews, who were fearful for their lives. Strangely the chancellor of Austria, Kurt Schuschnigg, did not welcome Hitler. He got on the radio the night that Hitler entered Austria. I’m going to quote him now because my mother told me these exact words years later. He said, ‘All is lost. God help us.’ That night hundreds of Viennese Jews committed suicide. My mother wanted to commit suicide. She was pregnant with me at the time. My father said, ‘We can do that any time. Let’s hang in there.’ And they did.
“But, things got worse. This was March. Then came April and May. People were being picked up on the street on all kinds of crazy charges. My parents really didn’t know what to do. As far as survival, luck was a major part. There were 6 million plus Jews who were not lucky. But those who did survive did so to some degree by luck.
“My father’s 39th birthday was June 1st. He had always been an outdoorsman. He loved skiing, hiking, and so forth. My parents were invited by friends who lived in Hietzing, a suburb of Vienna, for coffee and cake. Because it was my father’s birthday and a beautiful day, he decided to walk the countryside a little bit. My mother was very pregnant with me at the time and stayed behind with their host and hostess. My father said he would be back at a certain time…. While he was gone, two SS officers came to the door and asked for the men. They looked at my mother, ‘Where’s your husband?’ ‘He’s not here.’ ‘We’ll wait for him.’ They waited past the time my father said he would come back. Meanwhile, my father decided, ‘Oh, it’s so beautiful. How many chances am I going to get to walk.’ He took one more hill…. After a while, these SS officers decided that they couldn’t wait any longer and they took the other man with them. As they walked out the front door, my father walked in the back door… at the same moment. They took this friend to Buchenwald, never to be seen again. It was a lucky day for my father. Not so for his friend.
“But things got worse; June, July, August. On August 12th, I was born. Later, my parents said I saved them by being born because they would have tried to escape, and I kept them there. At that time, they didn’t know what to do. Here is a Jewish boy born. They decided they would forgo the ritual bris, the circumcision given to Jewish boys at eight days. The idea being that they could pass me off as a Christian child, give me away, or hide me somewhere, should the circumstances be necessary.
“In September, 1938, my parents get passports, but could they use them? Where could they go? Their passports were stamped with a red ‘J’ so that bureaucrats reviewing passports at borders would see that they belonged to Jews and would act according to their directions. So, they had passports but really nowhere to go…. My father’s superiors at the firm told him, ‘Bert, we will protect you. You are safe with us.’ They did this and they meant it up to a point. Sometime in October, they said, ‘We can’t protect you anymore. You have to get out of here for your own safety,’ but there was no place for him to go. So, he was stuck.
“What happens in November? Kristallnacht. Many people were arrested. Shops were burned. Synagogues were burned. People were killed. Many were arrested and taken to camps. My father was arrested and taken to Gestapo headquarters in Vienna (Rossauer Kaserne). They tortured him and tried to get a confession that he had slept with non-Jewish women – at any time. Had he succumbed to their torture, they would have killed him.
“At this point, there is another element of luck. While he is at Gestapo headquarters, my mother is home alone with me and my older sister, Evi, who was born in 1934. What I would consider coming from heaven, an affidavit arrives from David Elters, my father’s uncle in New York. An affidavit is a document that declares that the sponsor will provide for somebody coming into the country, so that that person is not a burden on the state. However, this document provided for only my father and his younger brother, Alex, not the rest of us…. My mother takes this document and walks to Gestapo headquarters. Here’s a young woman walking into this fortress. They could have laughed her off. Who knows what these guards could have done to her. But strangely they honored it. They released my father but he had to get out of the country almost immediately. Just him and his brother….
“My father goes back to the firm and tells them he has to leave the country. Can he have a letter of recommendation. They write him a very nice letter, which says, ‘Mr. Berthold Erdstein, born in Vienna in 1899, leaves our house because of his not being Gentile, after 20 years’ activity here.’ It then goes on to describe his activity and his value to the firm. So, here it is in black and white, just because he was not Gentile made all the difference in the world between being an honored citizen and being a pariah destined for death or something comparable to that…. My father took the letter and very sadly had to leave. He had no choice. My family had no choice. In December, my father and his brother left and went to New York. My mother was left behind with my sister and myself.
“My father gets a job and then was able to send for us…. So, in April 1939, my mother, my sister and I, come to the States. We settled in the Washington Heights section of New York City, where a lot of refugees settled. My parents were, in a sense, with their people – those who did survive. Now, you might think, okay we are home free. Not exactly.”
In 1992, George wrote the following passage in a book of Holocaust remembrances titled “And So We Must Remember,” published by Temple Emanu-El in Oak Park, Michigan: “We set sail on the Queen Mary in April, 1939, leaving behind family members we would never see again. Once in New York City, we found ourselves clustered among fellow refugees struggling to start a new life without missing a beat. There was no catch-all buzzword like ‘Holocaust’ at the time, on which to focus the demise of our previous world. The need to support a family was so instinctive that for many the emotional trauma, not only of being ripped away from the constants of a secure life, but also the guilt of survival, was suspended for a long time, even decades.”
“From the moment that my father set foot on America soil, he tried desperately to get his parents out. The United States had quotas, very severe, restrictive quotas and immigration laws. The quotas were based on your country of birth. The quotas were most severe for those coming from Poland because of its large Jewish population. That proved to be deadly for my grandparents…. I did not know about this until after my father passed away in 1990. I discovered among his belongings correspondence with the State Department. He had paid for passage for his parents and each time they were about to leave, they were stonewalled and not permitted to leave. The State Department headed by Cordell Hull and Breckenridge Long were terribly anti-Semitic and were responsible for the loss of many Jews in Europe.
“My father actually never found out what happened to his parents. He received a telegram in July, 1946 from the Red Cross Tracing Bureau for Austria: ‘Your letter concerning your relatives have been passed to us by the Central Tracing Bureau. We very much regret to have to inform you that Mr. Emanuel and Mrs. Bertha Erdstein were deported to Minsk on April 17th, 1942 and have not yet returned to Vienna.’ … It wasn’t until the mid-90’s, when I went to the Yad Vashem Museum in Israel, that I discovered other documents. The Nazis kept their books and had records of everything. And I found a document, very concise but very clear, that confirmed that both of my grandparents were deported to Minsk in April of ‘42, and were sent, probably by cattle car, which is unimaginable, to a killing camp, Maly Trostinec in Belarus. They arrived May 5th, 1942. So, imagine travelling by cattle car essentially from April 17th until May 5th. They were shot dead May 11th, 1942. This was the murder of my grandparents.
“I was an infant. I really didn’t know my grandparents, but they knew me. Just knowing these dates and picturing this, it blew my mind. I have their pictures and I loved them just through memories. My father had always been a very positive person and he didn’t really talk about them, but every once in a while, a tear would come to his eye…. So, in my immediate family, in a sense, given our background, are we fortunate. We only lost two? – I don’t think so.”
On his mother’s side of the family, George’s grandparents were able to escape to London and lived to a ripe old age.
For George growing up, “Things were not quite the same as a normal kid. When I was born, my name on my birth certificate is Georg, without the ‘e’ at the end, which is the German equivalent of George. When I came to the United States, I wanted so much to be an American kid. Even on my citizenship papers, at the age of seven, my name is George with an ‘e’ at the end. It’s my signature. And I’m sorry about that because I denied my origins. And I wish I hadn’t done that. But I grew up as George.”
Reading again from “And So We Must Remember,” George reminisces: “For me, as a boy growing up in America, there was a different kind of conflict. Although I came over as an infant, for all practical purposes, I was brought up in a European home where German was spoken and old-world customs and formalities were adhered to. The war was still going on and U.S. patriotism was high and fervent. America was our savior and in the eyes of a child, somehow there was something wrong with my parents speaking the language of the enemy. My older sister, who retained vivid memories of the Nazis, was more deeply affected. Whenever we congregated on the street with other refugee families, which was the customary thing to do on nice Sunday afternoons in New York, she would often run away when the conversations could be heard by passersby. She and I wanted so much to be full-fledged Americans, and lose our true identities, the very same background we later came to cherish.”
It is important for George to tell his story as a speaker at the Holocaust Memorial Center because “This is my story and my family’s story. It’s one of so many others. Every story while unique… No, we didn’t go through the concentration camps and I don’t put myself in the same position as those survivors who have, and sometimes I am even reluctant to speak as I do. Every story contains the DNA of the whole bloody mess, the whole Holocaust. And we have to tell our stories so that the lessons for tolerance aren’t lost.
“As I get older, my connection to the Holocaust gets stronger and stronger. I feel more connected to the past than I did when I was much younger. I like to think I’m somewhat creative. I wrote a novel called ‘Mountain Rat,’ which was published about ten years ago. It’s a fictional story with the Holocaust as its background. What I wanted to stress is the value of life in a post-Holocaust world. Life is valuable and we have to cherish it…. Even though the Holocaust took place over 75 years ago, the lessons are more relevant than ever and we should not forget them. The message of Zachor – to remember must go on because tolerance is in jeopardy today more than it’s been in a long time.”
Date of Interview: April 24, 2018
Length of Interview: 36 minutes
Interview & Synopsis by: Zieva Konvisser
Videographer: Mark Einhaus