Langnas, Dora and Josef H.

Langnas, Dora and Josef H.

Vienna, Ferramonti di Tarsia, Piove di Sacco

Dora Weinstein was born in Vienna, Austria in 1912, growing up in a family with four other siblings: three sisters (Helaine, Eva, and Paula) and one brother (Friedrich). Her parents Heinrich and Mina Weinstein owned a small dry goods store in Vienna, and the whole family lived a comfortable and peaceful existence in Vienna before the war started. Dora married a man by the name of Ignatz Langnas, who owned a lumber yard just outside of Vienna. Ignatz and Dora had two children, a daughter and one son named Josef, who was born in 1931. Josef attended kindergarten in Vienna, and neither Josef, nor his mother, remember experiencing any Anti-Semitism in Austria prior to the Anschluss in 1938. However, Dora remembers having Jewish customers in her parents’ dry goods store, who told the family of problems developing in Germany with the rise of Nazism. Thinking that there was no way the wave of Anti-Semitism would ever reach Austria, Dora and her family thought little of it.

That all changed when Austria was annexed into Greater Germany following the Anschluss.  As Dora explains, people who once were their friends and neighbors quickly became their enemies. The Nazis seized Ignatz’s lumber yard, and he was quickly out of work. Ignatz recognized immediately that his family was no longer safe living in Vienna, and he soon began plans to move his family south into Italy. Dora was a bit more reluctant to leave her mother country, thinking the discomfort of living with the German occupying troops was only temporary.  Ignatz decided to find a home in Milan, while leaving behind his wife and two children. As a few months passed in Vienna, the German occupiers became ever more aggressive, taking away the Weinstein’s dry goods store and apartment and giving them to former friends of the family. Dora’s parents, fearing for the welfare of her children, decided that she should leave Vienna immediately and join her husband in Italy. Before departing, Dora’s parents told her of their plans to escape to Shanghai. Having a passport and visa, Dora and her children were able to leave Austria rather easily, although they had to pay a significant sum of money to the German occupiers before doing so. Dora also exchanged all of her money for gold, before moving into their new apartment in Milan.

However, since the Fascist Italian government run by Mussolini had now allied themselves with Nazi Germany, troubled soon followed Dora and her family. With a new wave of Anti-Semitic legislation in Italy, Ignatz and Dora feared leaving their apartment, and many of their Jewish friends in Milan stopped congregating at the local synagogue. One day, while taking a trip to that synagogue, Ignatz was arrested by Italian soldiers. When Ignatz did not return home that night, Dora went out of their apartment in search of him. Dora found her husband locked up in a local jail, and, although the officers released him from prison that night, he was informed that he and his family were to be sent to Ferramonti, an Italian camp that was located near the city of Cosenza in southern Italy. When the Langnas family arrived at Ferramonti, they were all moved into the same building and were told that food would be provided to them. Although Ignatz had to work, Dora and her children were able to do as they pleased, on the condition that they stayed within the camp’s confines.

However, Ferramonti soon became over-crowded, as new inmates poured into the camp. Families were separated into groups to be sent out from the camp and placed into different Italian cities. The Langnas family was instructed to go to the Italian city of Piove di Sacco, located in northern Italy near the city of Padova. In Piove di Sacco, Dora and her family were sent to live in an apartment building with a single Italian woman, whom the government paid to board the family. The Langnas family was instructed to stay within the city limits and to report to the local police each day. This, as Dora and Josef point out, was a conscious effort by the Italian people to spare the Jewish people from the type of abuse they suffered in other countries. Dora and her family befriended many of the local inhabitants in Piove di Sacco, including the Gallo family, whom Josef remembers spending much of his time playing with. Josef was even allowed to attend school. The government even paid to have Josef go by train each day to the city of Padova, where he attended a Catholic school in the afternoon with other Jewish boys. Josef remembers earning a day trip to Venice with his teacher for excelling on his 5th grade exam. In Piove di Sacco, Josef worked picking grapes, and he received religious teaching from a rabbi who had also been sent by the Italian government to live there. Dora spent her time in Piove di Sacco cooking, cleaning, and looking after the family.

The comfortable life in Piove di Sacco soon ended in 1943, after Italy surrendered to the Allies; this resulted in an influx of German occupying troops in northern Italy. As the Langnas family quickly discovered, German soldiers began to round up Jews and send them north to be placed into concentration camps. A local policeman in Piove di Sacco instructed Dora and Ignatz to leave the area immediately, as he had been recently approached by the Gestapo, who were searching for any passports of Jews that the police were holding. A contessa (Italian countess) told Dora and her husband to go to a local printer, who made counterfeit identification for them, in order to allow them to travel throughout Italy undetected. At this time, the Gallo family even offered to look after Ignatz and Dora’s children for them in Piove di Sacco, which they declined, since they always wanted their children right beside them. After an unsuccessful escape one day, Ignatz and Dora returned to Piove di Sacco. There, they discovered from friends that, during their short absence, German troops had been by to pick up their family. Fearing for their safety, Ignatz and Dora were once again helped out by the local contessa, who gave Ignatz and Dora the name of a Bishop in Florence to go to.

Once safely in Florence, they met the Bishop that the contessa had sent them to. He gave them instructions to go to a local convent, where were housed for months. At the convent, Dora slept in the women’s quarters with the nuns, and Josef stayed with the priests. Only one priest there actually knew that they were Jewish; their identity was kept secret, lest a Nazi sympathizer should give their location away. Dora and Josef were considered to be refugees in Florence, who had had their house destroyed by Allied bombing. Ignatz stayed elsewhere in Florence, as to not arouse suspicion. After their stay in Florence, the Bishop soon instructed them to leave. He sent them to a castle in Montetrini, that was housing refugees at the time, but, even there, they could not stay long. An agreement had been made with a fruit seller to take them to Rome, where the Langnas family would once again be housed at a convent. On their trip to Rome by Bus, two Nazi soldiers stopped the bus and inspected the passengers. Never in her life had Dora feared for her life. Fortunately, they passed them over; later, Dora found out that the soldiers had actually been Nazi deserters.

In Rome, the Langnas family stayed at a convent for two days before they were liberated by the Allies in 1944.  As soon as they were liberated by the American troops, an opportunity was presented to them to come to the United States. In 1944, President Roosevelt, under pressure from Jewish organizations, agreed to allow one-thousand Jewish refugees into the country; the Langnas family applied and was later accepted.  They traveled to the United States on a boat known as the Henry Gibbons with a thousand other refugees and also wounded American soldiers. The boat was part of a large convoy that was headed back to the United States. Their boat was consequently surrounded by warships, and Josef and Dora remember being under enemy fire once while on the trip. Dora and Josef recall horrid conditions on the ship, and Josef contracted an illness while on the boat. After the Langnas family arrived in New York City, they were sent to Fort Ontario in Oswego, New York, where they stayed for almost a year and a half.

Later in 1946, President Harry Truman and Congress formed a committee to inspect the fort’s inmates, in hopes that the refugees could become American citizens. When the government agreed to allow the Langnas family to become citizens, they were sent to Niagara Falls, Canada, and allowed to enter to the United States on the American side, a process that established their citizenship as legal immigrants. Next, the government asked Dora and Ignatz where in the United States they would like to live. Dora and Ignatz agreed that it had to be a place where their children could receive a good education and also where there was a synagogue. Ignatz and Dora chose to live in Detroit, after some debate. Dora later found out that all of her immediate family had survived the Holocaust. Her parents and most of her siblings had safely escaped to Shanghai, while her sister Paula survived after staying hidden in Holland. Dora worked at Hudson’s in Detroit for twenty years before retiring at the age of 62. Josef would go on with his education by going to medical school and becoming a pathologist. He married a woman by the name of Frieda.

Interview Information:
Date: August 12, 1998
Interviewer: Donna Sklar
Length: 1 hour 58 minutes
Format: Video Recording