Mittelman (Sturm), Bessie Ruth
Vienna, Austria; Jewish Orphanage of Brussels, Belgium; Zurich, Switzerland
Bessie Ruth Sturm was born in Vienna, Austria on April 5, 1930 to David Sturm and Leah Kowanz Sturm. David worked in a big shoe company, Deichmann, where he decorated the show windows. Leah also worked there. When Bessie was six-years-old, Leah passed away from complications of childbirth, following the birth of her son Harry. Nevertheless, “We had a very nice family life. My Oma, Leopoldine Kowanz, lived with us, and after my mother passed away, she was the main caretaker. She always helped in the house and took care of me. And I have very, very good memories. She was just wonderful…. Not only was I so well taken care of and loved, but it was really such a good life.”
She went to a nearby all-girl school. “I remember being probably in 1st or 2nd grade; they had prayers in the school every morning, so all the kids got up for the prayers, and I felt so very important that my friend and I didn’t have to get up because we were Jewish.”
When Hitler came to Austria in 1938, they were living on the third floor of a large, beautiful apartment house on a main thoroughfare. “I was standing with my Oma by a large window and we saw the Germans marching in, and all the people on the sidewalks cheering them. I remember my Oma was holding my hand and I was afraid. Maybe at the time I didn’t know exactly what I was afraid of, but I still remember that feeling up until today of just being afraid standing there and we were holding hands.”
“At the end of 1938 things were getting worse. There had been Kristallnacht already. Not too long ago, I finally realized that all that was going on when I was a little girl was Kristallnacht. We had been at home. The phone rang and my father ran to the phone to pick it up. After what seemed like a second, he slammed down the receiver, grabbed his coat, and ran out of the house. Shortly thereafter, there was this big pounding at the door and there were German soldiers at the door. They came running and screaming into the house. They tore everything out of the cupboards, the closets, and screaming and pounding all the while. After that they left.”
“My father tried that we should be able to leave Austria. In the end, he had a guide. It was in December. I remember walking in the dark and my father holding the baby and holding my hand, walking through that snowy forest towards Belgium. Belgium, at the time, would let people in, even if they didn’t come in legally.”
In Belgium, they lived with a very nice family – the Weidlings. They took care of the children while David tried to find a job. He married Selma Lemler, whom the children called Mutti…. There came a time when all the Jews had to go to a refugee camp, including the Sturms.
After that, David, Selma, and the two children were on a march to France. “There were maybe thousands of people marching from all walks of life and trying to reach France before Hitler came into Belgium. We walked on a main road. There were dead people on the road and dead soldiers and dead cattle; and in a way, I can still smell the stench from all of the dead around us. We came to one village and we came to a farm. There were no people anymore in the farm. All the doors were open; there was food in the house; there were eggs in the chicken coop; and so, we just went in there and my father managed to get a little meal together for us…. Eventually the march wasn’t successful. We couldn’t possibly reach France on foot before Hitler came into Belgium and took it over.”
“We got back into Belgium and lived in a one room apartment. It was very difficult, even though I don’t remember being unhappy. I was still well taken care of. I always felt much love around me. Before he left Vienna, my father learned to do pedicures in order to make some extra money and occasionally he found a job. There was very little food; there was very little of anything; but I was able to go to school at that time.”
“In 1942, in Belgium, the Germans had this official policy that they only took the Jewish men to work, and that they could come back home sometimes in between. But of course, it wasn’t true. When my father got the letter that he had to report, he knew he was going to be deported. He managed to find the Jewish Orphanage of Brussels for us. It was run by Yona Tiefenbrunner and his wife Ruth – a young, newly married couple. I found out years later, that they had visas to America to save themselves. They decided instead that to stay in Europe and help save some Jewish children. So, my father had the good fortune to be able to find this place for us…. I remember saying goodbye to my father when he was walking me to school that day, before he was deported to Saint-Omer, France.”
“The home was a very good place. There was a very warm atmosphere. The Tiefenbrunners were like parents to us. He came every night to the bedrooms upstairs to say goodnight to the children. The orphanage was in a lovely mansion-type house, and there was a courtyard to it. At any given time, there were maybe 30 children. When the children reached 16 and 17, the Germans came to pick them up. They were deported also.”
“Yona Tiefenbrunner had to report to the Gestapo every single day, maybe a half hour walk each way. He would take one of the older children along and tell that child to wait a block away, and if he does not come back within half hour or so, to run and alert everybody in the home that they don’t let him out.”
“My stepmother, Selma, went into hiding with a family, but was able to come and visit us and saw to it that we had a little more food…. One night, there was a big commotion downstairs and we heard shouting and screaming. We heard the Germans marching in and yelling and pounding. They had found Selma’s whereabouts and they had taken her and they had come to the home to get her children, my brother and me. By some kind of sign from heaven, they managed to convince them that we weren’t her real children and they left us, but they deported her, and we never saw her again.”
Bessie’s Oma was hidden in Vienna and survived the war. Her paternal grandparents, Binyamin and Clara Chaya Sturm, and four of their other five sons – Moses, Joseph, Max, and Sigmund – and their families were murdered by the Nazis.
“In the children’s home, we used to sometimes stand on the balcony when the Americans and English came bombarding. We were all happy when they came bombarding because then you knew that we were going to be helped and be liberated…. There were good neighbors around that would take the children in for a day or two if the Germans were coming. Just before the war ended, a priest from a church nearby took us all in. The church was lined with cots and I believe we stayed there maybe for two or three days until the end came and we were able to go back to the orphanage.”
“After the war, when I was 16 years old, I had an opportunity to learn diamond setting. I accepted, even though it was a hard decision for me at the time because I had wanted to go to school and continue my education. But then I thought, well maybe I should learn a trade to support myself and maybe take care of my brother, which wasn’t very realistic. So, I traveled every day from Brussels to Antwerp, about 35 minutes by train, to learn diamond setting with a family of survivors from Poland.”
When she was 18, Bessie learned from a routine checkup that she had tuberculosis from malnourishment during the war. “There was very little food. Food was very measured. We got a slice of bread once a week. They probably saved it for Shabbos morning and there was some kind of chocolate spread on it. During the week, we had mostly potatoes and maybe some kind of squash and carrots.”
Bessie was sent to recuperate at the Etania sanatorium in Davos, Switzerland. “There were a lot of young people there; all of them survivors from the war who also had come there because they were ill…. When I think back to the time, I don’t ever remember even thinking of what was going to happen to me or how was I going to live and when were my parents going to come back and what was happening to them. It was the biggest blessing; in a way, I think that helped me overcome and just have the start of a good life; even though I was thinking of all these people and all that happened, it didn’t overtake me.”
“One day I came with a friend to another sanatorium where they had a ping pong hall to play ping pong. There was another young man there playing ping pong…. I came there with Yona and I left the hall with Manny (Emanuel Mittelman)! That was the beginning of almost 70 years that we know each other… The truth is, if not for the war, east and west would have never met. He comes from the east and I come from the west. My husband comes from a little town in Czechoslovakia, where I am sure he had a much different life than I had.”
After they met, Manny went to Zurich, where the Jewish people were very kind and gave him a job as the milkman for the community. Bessie joined him in 1949 and they were married in a big beautiful synagogue. “The people who befriended us then, Betty and Julius Wormser and Oma and Papa Weinman, became friends for life, became like our family.” They rented a flat on the Rieterstrasse in an apartment building owned by one of the people in the community. The first three of their six children were born there – Yakov/Yankel, Leah, Esther, Dinah, David and Nomi.
In 1954, when Switzerland would no longer renew Manny’s work permit, they decided to emigrate to the United States, where Manny’s two brothers lived. They also had an aunt and uncle living here and they helped with the affidavit and visas. They traveled on the return maiden voyage of the SS United States and arrived in New York.
First, they went to Springfield, Illinois, where Manny’s older brother Meyer and his wife Barbara lived. Since there wasn’t enough opportunity for a Jewish education for the children there, they decided to move to Detroit, Michigan, where Manny’s second brother Yosef lived with his family. First, they moved to Oak Park and then to Southfield, where they have lived in their home for over 50 years, surrounded by mementos of “a very good life.”
Thinking back to her years in the orphanage, Bessie reflects that, “I feel it’s a chapter in my life and it’s not even something that I think too often about. In a way, the reason I was there was the most hurtful, but on the other hand considering that it was war time and that we were very restricted, I don’t have that feeling from it. I have the feeling that it was a good place. They took very well care of us. Everybody had their place. We helped when we could. We even played tricks on the teachers. In a way, what shouldn’t have been normal became normal, which is a blessing that I don’t have a very oppressive memory of it; that I have good memories of it, maybe for the wrong reasons, but good memories.”
“I think what hurts the most, it’s just the regret that my parents couldn’t live to see all that we have. They didn’t live to see their children grow up. They had a horrible way of dying and if you allow yourself once in a while, it gets the better of you. On the other hand, I find myself talking to them a lot. I want to show them all that we have. We have six children, 22 grandchildren, and 64 great-grandchildren and still counting.”
Bessie would like her family to know “That Pa and I, for whatever we suffered, Hashem, God, made it up to us. We were able to have a magical and wonderful life together. We always had everything that we needed for our soul and for our body. And thank God, my husband was always able to make a good living for us and to provide, not just physically, but also mentally. My husband is a very learned man and “Jewishly” speaking, he knows it all inside and out. In a way, it helps you to be even more thankful and to appreciate.”
“Our younger years, it seems were like a whirlwind. We were very busy. We still are very busy. It went by very quickly. When the kids were little, I stayed home. I was a mommy. I would never have wanted it any other way. I loved taking care of them. Not only did we have a good life for ourselves, we managed, thank God, I believe to raise very good human beings. Not only am I proud of them because they are my children, but I am proud of them for the human beings they are. They know what really matters in life: to care for other people to do what is right for God and for mankind; to help when help is needed; and to fill out each other’s lives and our lives. And when I think of how fast the years went by, it’s really unbelievable; and when I think of all the blessings, even that is unbelievable.”
“There isn’t a day that I don’t remember to be thankful for all that we have. For the shape that we are in, so that we can still enjoy it, thank God for the lives that we’ve had. And I think that, in a way, not that it makes good for us all we suffered. My husband was in concentration camp for three years at the age of 17. But I think Hashem made it good for us. We go about our daily lives, we are so fortunate with all we have. We think about it all the time. We are grateful all the time. I want to thank all the people who helped us along the way and all of our grandchildren, children and great-grandchildren who are still there for us. And I thank God with all my heart. I’m asking him to let us continue for some more years, please. And it’s very wonderful.”
Date of Interview: April 5, 2016
Length of Interview: 82:20 minutes
Interview & Synopsis by: Zieva Konvisser
Videographer: Kevin Walsh