Littman Gorny, Esther

Littman Gorny, Esther

Survivor/Half-Jew in Nazi Germany
Stettin (Germany), Lauenburg, Berlin

(Synopsis of Oral History Interview in her own words)

I was born in Stettin, Germany, in August 1940. I was registered as a “Mischling” by the Hitler regime. “Mischling” is the German word for “half-breed” (literally “mixed”) and refers to someone who is half-Jewish.

According to the Nuremberg Laws of 1935, Jews were divided in four categories: 1. “Volljude” or full Jew: a person who had either four or three Jewish grandparents
2. “Geltungsjude” or self-declared or believing Jew: a person who had two Jewish grandparents and two non-Jewish grandparents (Aryan) and was raised in the Jewish religion
3. “Mischling First Degree”: a person with two Jewish grandparents and two non-Jewish grandparents, who was either baptized and brought up Christian or practiced no religion
4. “Mischling Second Degree”: A person with one Jewish grandparent and three non-Jewish grandparents, who was baptized and raised Christian or with no religion

The Nuremberg Laws dictated that Jews could only marry within their own category. A Mischling, for example, could not marry either a full Jew or a Christian. I was a Mischling First Degree because I was the offspring of parents who were also labeled Mischling First Degree. That means both parents had Jewish fathers and non-Jewish mothers. Both my mother and father had been baptized as Lutherans.

The story begins with my maternal grandfather. His name was Ernst Selowsky. He was born in Germany in 1886 to a Polish-Jewish family that had immigrated to Germany. He fought for Germany, was wounded in battle, and awarded the Iron Cross. In 1916, Ernst Selowsky married Johanna Pflenzel. She was Protestant and the daughter of an artistic family. Her mother was a musician who had studied piano at the Stern’schen Conservatory (a school owned and run by Jews). Her father was a sculpture for the Kaiser (emperor). The marriage produced two daughters. First came my mother, Waltraud. She was born in 1917. Then, in 1920, Margot, my aunt was born.

As far as I know there were no social or political repercussions from this marriage. Intermarriage was common at that time, especially in urban areas. Of course, these mixed marriages meant weakening ties to Judaism, but assimilation was often preferred by the parties involved. My grandfather was a secular Jew. Although he never converted to Christianity, he did not object when both my mother and aunt were baptized in the Protestant church. That happened in most mixed marriages. Only eleven percent of mixed couples raised their children Jewish. Unfortunately, there were marital problems – of a personal nature, having nothing to do with politics. So my grandparents separated in the early twenties. They were eventually divorced. My mother and aunt were raised exclusively by their German mother, with only sporadic visits to their father. Financially, life was not easy, but the two sisters remembered good times with extended family and friends.

In 1933, when Hitler came to power, life changed for both of them. Fortunately for my mother, she had already finished high school – the academic Gymnasium she attended in Berlin – before Jews were no longer allowed to attend German schools. But she was not permitted to attend art school or the university, even though she was academically inclined and gifted in the arts. So in 1936, my mother traveled to England with the hope of immigration. She got a job as an au pair, teaching German to the daughter of a wealthy family. She also took advanced courses in English. She was unable to obtain an affidavit to remain in England permanently, however.

My mother returned to Germany fourteen months later, in 1937, and almost landed in a concentration camp. Before the war, German law required that any Jew returning to Germany from abroad had to first spend six months in a concentration camp for reeducation. A Nazi official living in the same apartment house occupied by my grandmother, and who was on friendly terms with her, interceded on my mother’s behalf. Thus, she escaped what would have been a terrible experience, possibly a life-threatening one, since my mother’s health had always been fragile. Nevertheless, she had to make countless visits to the Gestapo to answer questions and fill out forms, a form of harassment that made her extremely nervous and tense. At this point, my mother was in her early twenties and interested in eventually getting married. But the Nuremberg Laws had severely limited her choices. She was not allowed to date Germans, but neither could she go our with full Jews. She could only socialize with half-Jews, like herself. So my mother, aunt, and their half-Jewish friends organized the nucleus of a club with the goal of attracting other half-Jewish members. They called it “Mampe Halb und Halb”. The name refers to a liqueur that was often mixed with another ingredient – I don’t remember what. Anyway, it seemed like an appropriate code name. This is how my mother eventually met my father – Herbert Stein.

Before I continue, let me mention briefly the difficulties my mother and aunt faced, not only socially but also psychologically. Both had grown up with the knowledge that they had a Jewish father. But they had no idea what Judaism actually meant. Their Jewish father had made no attempt to influence their religious education. They celebrated no Jewish holidays. And they had no Jewish friends, other than half-Jews, like themselves. They had never thought of themselves as Jews, either religiously or culturally. Suddenly they were forced to assume an identity that was totally alien to them, not because of anything they believed or performed but because of “race” – something supposedly in their blood and genes. The situation was totally perplexing – and upsetting! And in some ways, the conditions were worse for my mom than for my aunt because my mother had what were considered typical Jewish traits: dark eyes and dark hair and a prominent nose. My aunt, on the other hand, looked German. She was blond and blue-eyed, snub-nosed and fair skinned. Had the Germans not kept perfect records, she could have easily passed for Aryan, and often did. In fact, my aunt participated in the 1936 Olympics held in Berlin. She was one of three representatives from her school and competed in track and field. She also took part in the Opening Ceremonies. Of course, her school knew she was a Mischling, but my aunt was such a good athlete that this fact was temporarily overlooked.

To continue, my mother met my father at this social group called “Mampe Halb und Halb.” His name was Herbert Stein. His father was Jewish and his mother was German. He, too, had been baptized and brought up Lutheran. Because he was born in 1905, he had already finished his university education before Hitler came to power. He had a Ph.D in chemistry and had worked in his profession as a chemist. However, in 1933, he lost all opportunities for advancement, even though he had already patented an invention – something to do with the incendiary properties of matches. And later, he lost his job. Thereafter, he was able to get only menial employment, doing routine work way below his educational level and ability.

My mom and dad married in August 1939, one week before World War II began. They moved to Stettin, a city on the Baltic Sea. (After the war it was given to Poland and is now called Szczecin.) I don’t know where my father worked or what he did. All I know is that he was not allowed to practice chemistry. Identified as a Mischling, he was treated very poorly by his co-workers. Comments like “Move away! You stink like a Jew” were constantly leveled against him.

I was born in August 1940, in Stettin. From the pictures that have survived, I seem to have been a healthy baby and toddler – well fed and cared for. I do remember the bombings, however. I recall the flashes of light coming from the window and the times we had to rush to the cellar for air raids. At some point we moved to Lauenburg, a city near Danzig. (Also granted to Poland after the war, Lauenburg is now called Lebork.) I think we moved there to get away from the bombing. My strongest memories come from the time I was four years old, months before the end of the war. The Russians came to the city and soon took command. We were evicted from our apartment when the Russians commandeered the house for their own use. My memory is of a cold night, sitting – with a naked bottom – on some luggage. In her haste to get me dressed and gather a few personal belongings, my mom had forgotten my underpants.

The next thing I know is that we were living in the home of a Lutheran pastor and his family. We occupied a small room adjacent to the dining room. I believe the pastor was sheltering other people as well. But we still ran into Russians. They came frequently to the pastor’s house to demand alcohol and women. I still see an image of a Russian soldier drinking a bottle of what I thought at the time was red juice. Of course, it was a bottle of wine. I also remember my mother and the other women of the household hiding in the attic when they saw the Russian soldiers approaching. They were afraid of being raped. I often asked to accompany my mother to the attic. But the others wouldn’t allow it, convinced that I would cry or make noise and thus reveal their hiding place. So I was left downstairs with the men. Everyone knew the Russians, though brutal, were very fond of children. Sure enough, they would bounce me around on their knees and give me sugar cubes to eat.

And I remember another event – a very sad event. The pastor (I believe his name was Pastor Ehrenfurt) had a beautiful twelve-year-old daughter, with long, blond braids. Her name was Renate. One day, Renate and her mother were found by the soldiers and taken away for several days. Of course, everyone, except me, knew what horrors they were enduring. I just thought that Renate had gone for a visit. So I did something that I had wanted to do for a long time: I played with her beautiful porcelain doll. Renate had allowed me to look but never touch. So when she was gone, I snuck into her bedroom and picked up her doll. Somehow, I damaged the doll’s face – perhaps a crack or a chip. My mother found out and told me that I would have to confess. Soon after Renate returned home, I told her what I had done, assuming she would be very angry with me. But she barely looked in my direction and seemed not to have heard what I said. I can still remember a sort of faraway look in her eyes, a blankness in her face. Many years later, in discussing the situation with my mother, I learned what had happened to her. The soldiers had tried to be kind, wooing her with all sorts of delicious food so she would participate willingly. When she didn’t, they raped her anyway, numerous times. She was only twelve.

I have several other memories. Three of them stand out. One is of a woman who was sent into our room one night to sleep on the couch. She had nowhere else to go. The next morning she was dead. It was suicide. She was Jewish and knew she would soon be deported. The other memory comes from right after the war. A group of women with very short hair are hugging me and stroking my face. They are complete strangers, but they keep hugging and kissing me. When I ask my mother later who these strange women are, she says they were in a concentration camp; they have lost their own children. The last memory is of our return to Berlin and the destruction I saw all around me. Fortunately for us, my grandmother’s apartment house in Berlin-Friedenau was still standing. But so many buildings had been destroyed. Years later, even after we came to America, I still had nightmares of bombings. I dreamt repeatedly that the Empire State Building came crashing down on me.

What happened to other members of my family? Soon after my mother returned from England in 1937, her Jewish father (Ernst Selowsky) asked her for help in getting out of Germany. He thought that she might have some connections in England. He had lost his business – a shop in Berlin that sold fine wines – to the Aryanization Laws of 1936 or 1937. These laws stated that Jews could no longer own property. But they were also not allowed to profit from a sale. On the contrary, they had to sell their homes and business to Germans at a price way below market value. My grandfather had already suffered losses, either through boycotts of restaurant and hotel clients who took his wine but then claimed they didn’t have to pay him because he was a Jew. Unfortunately, my mother had no connections and could not help him. As a penniless Jew, his chances for escape were nil. In 1944, he was sent to Theresienstadt and then to Auschwitz, never to return. This information is recorded in two chronicles we found in the library of the Holocaust Center in Washington, D.C.

Meanwhile, my maternal grandmother led the life of any German attempting to survive the war. She worked for the Red Cross, writing letters to parents whose sons had died in battle. She also learned how to operate the Hollerith machine, but I don’t know if she ever worked for Dehomag, the IBM subsidiary. Of my grandfather’s four Jewish siblings, my mother’s aunts and uncles, two survived and two did not: One aunt left for Israel with her Jewish husband. Another aunt was married to a Gentile. Although harassed by the Gestapo, she survived. One uncle disappeared, never to be heard of again. And another uncle, also married to a Gentile, committed suicide (he hanged himself) so that his wife and children would not suffer financial loss. (I believe they owned a lace factory and a house in Heidelberg.) As for my paternal grandparents, I don’t know what happened to them. I heard that my paternal grandfather was deported. We had very little contact with them during the war and none after the war. Soon after the war ended, my parents and I returned to Berlin to live with my maternal grandmother. My mother immediately got a job with the U.S. Military Government as a secretary and translator. Then she took a job as an English instructor at a Displaced Persons camp in Schlachtensee. The camp was locate outside Berlin, in the British sector. It was called Duppel Center.

My mother and I lived in the DP camp for about two years. I was six and seven years old. My mother changed my name from Christa to Esther. We occupied a single room in barracks that had once housed soldiers. While my mom worked, I went to a makeshift school where I learned the Hebrew alphabet and some elementary arithmetic. Food for the inhabitants of the camp was distributed at a central kitchen and dining room. Many evenings, when my mother was working, I would go to the kitchen with my pail to pick up dinner and bring it back to our room. It was usually “lokshen” (noodles) in some chicken broth. Although I had never spoken Yiddish before, I learned quickly since it is mostly based on German. My best memory of these two years is going to summer camp. All the younger children were brought to a castle outside Berlin, a place with beautiful gardens and a fountain. There we could run and play with other kids our own age.

The worst memory I have is of a terrible automobile accident. My mother was taking driving lessons. She was in the back seat of the jeep, waiting for her turn at the wheel. I was sitting next to her. Another student was driving, the teacher at his side. Suddenly, the car ran into a little boy who had run out into the street. I can still see the image of his bloody cheek and the mother coming out of the barracks, crying desperately. I don’t know if the child survived.

My father was not with us in the DP camp. He had become very ill and had to be hospitalized. In addition to physical ailments, he also had a nervous breakdown. During the Hitler years, both before and during the war, the Nazis had robbed him of his livelihood and his dignity because he was Jewish. And then, ironically, when the Russians arrived in Lauenburg, they treated my father like a German. On his way home from work one day, he was accosted by Russian soldiers. They roughed him up, swore at him for being a “Nazi” and then stole his only coat. After the war, my father became depressed and seemed to lack the will to go on. My mother, on the other hand, was energetic and optimistic about the future. Yet she was perplexed and troubled by my father’s condition. They were divorced in 1947. When we left for the United States in January of 1948, I never saw my biological father again. He regained his health, remarried a war widow, and immigrated to Melbourne, Australia, where he became a chemist once more. For a number of years I received gifts and letters from him.

About a year before we left for the States, my mother met a man whose name was Hersz Gorny. He was a Jewish doctor who had been born in Szelkow and had also lived in Pultusk. This man would ultimately become my second father. Hersz Gorny had escaped the Germans by moving eastward to the Ukraine. Like many male Jews, he had been told that the Germans only wanted the men for hard labor. They would leave the women and children alone. So he went to Russia for what he thought would be a temporary arrangement. There he worked in a hospital. When Germany attacked the Soviet Union in June 1941, Hersz Gorny was told to fill out a questionnaire. One of the questions was, “Do you want to return to Poland?” Not suspecting foul play, he answered “Yes.” After all, he had family in Poland. He must also have refused to accept the Russian passport that was being offered to Jews at the time. As far as the Soviets were concerned, those who refused were guilty of treason. So they shipped him off to Siberia as a political prisoner. He ended up in Vorkuta, where it is dark six months of the year. Had it not been for his medical training, he would have died. Rather than working in the salt mines in freezing cold temperatures, he was told to set up a clinic to treat injured prisoners. Conditions were terrible, however. There were few medical supplies, and he was often pressured from two sides, the prisoners who wanted to be declared too ill to work and the Soviets who demanded their labor.

After the war, Hersz Gorny smuggled his way out of Russia. When he reached Poland, he learned the worst. His entire family was gone: parents, three sisters, two brothers, wife, and five-year-old son. All had perished in the Holocaust. I don’t know how or why he ended up in Germany at the same DP camp we were in. But he became a student in my mother’s English class and then asked her for private lessons. He left for the United States in October of 1947, sponsored by wealthy relatives in Long Island. My mom and I followed three months later. We arrived in America on February 5, 1948, sponsored by HIAS. They were married in October of the same year.

According to Lucy Davidowicz, “Mischlinge” were “temporary citizens” of Germany, tolerated by the grace of the Nazi government. Yet they lived in a constant state of uncertainty. They never knew when the laws protecting them would change or when friends, neighbors, and colleagues would turn against them. I recently learned that at the Wannsee Conference of January, 20, 1942, it was suggested that if Mischlinge were not deported to a concentration camp, they should at least be sterilized. Hitler and Goehring, however, were reluctant to anger and alienate the German people. They feared a public outcry from the Aryan relatives of Mischlinge, especially after Stalingrad. So nothing happened at the time, at least not on a national scale. The persecution of Mischlinge was localized and depended on a variety of factors: where you lived, whom you knew (connections), the presence or absence of a jewish parent or grandparent. Sadly, my maternal grandfather’s absence from my mother’s life, though difficult in her formative years, helped her in the end. There’s no doubt that had the war lasted longer, had Hitler won, the Mischlinge would have also been exterminated. Hitler called them “monstrosities, halfway between man and ape.” In the winter of 1945, a number of Mischlinge were deported to Theresienstadt, mainly from Hamburg.

Interview Information:

Date: June 12, 2001
Interviewer: Judy Michaels
Length: 1 hour 22 minutes
Format: Video recording