This oral history video interview is available at the USC Shoah Foundation website through the generosity of the Eugene and Marcia Applebaum Family Foundation
Fürstenwalde is a German town situated on the river Spree, 55 km east of Berlin. Erna Placzek from Wilna, Germany and Hugo Zydower from Märkisch Friedland [Miros?awiec] came to Fürstenwalde when they married. Their son Alfred was born November 15, 1929, and 18 months later in 1931, a daughter Anna was born – who Alfred calls Piipi to this day.
The Zydowers and Erna’s Aunt Rosalie lived in a building with other families, including “my Uncle Sigo [Siegfried Placzek], my mother’s brother, and the non-Jewish woman he was going to marry [Tante Kräling and her daughter Erna]. Everybody in the building, even the Catholics, they were so nice. They were like family to us. And I was calling them auntie and uncle.”
The synagogue was in a nearby apartment building where Rabbi Vorsange and his wife lived. Alfred called them Grandpa Vorsange and Oma, Grandma, and the Rabbi was Alfred’s godfather. Alfred was the youngest Jewish boy and got special treats, like finishing the Havdalah wine, plundering the fruit from the sukkah decorations at the end of Sukkot, and picking up the candy thrown on the bima during Simchat Torah.
When he was three years old, with the approval of his godfather, Alfred was enrolled in the Catholic nursery with Auntie Schmidt’s grandson Horst, who was a month older.
When the Nazis put out the order not to associate with Jews, “all of those so called friends in the building cut themselves off completely. They even moved out then and all of a sudden it was a very cool relationship with them. If they see you, they might wave at you and stuff like that but it was like an acquaintance.”
Then the law was passed that Uncle Sigo could not marry Tante Kräling. One day, they were tipped off that he was going to be arrested, and so he kissed his family goodbye and fled on his bicycle to Kiistren in another county where they could not punish him. “Within a minute or two, a whole bunch of rowdies came in our place and they wanted to arrest the Jew. Well they went out then to the backyard and they grabbed my father. But the caretaker of our building told them ‘you’ve got the wrong one!’”
Hugo originally was a horse trader, but that business wasn’t that good anymore, so he started to trade and slaughter other animals, like goats and sheep, and sell their pelts. He did that until the Nazis took away his license. Then he went to work for the garbage collector who hired him because he knew how to handle the horses. And he worked for him until Kristallnacht.
On Kristallnacht [November 9-10, 1938], everything changed. The mortuary building at the Jewish cemetery was smashed and the synagogue was set on fire. Erna was warned by the woman from the bakery that her family would be picked up next and she rushed back home. Meanwhile Alfred had gone to school, but when his sister did not show up, he asked the teacher, Frau Lowinski, to go home, where he found “the whole house was full with all kinds of women – no men. All I was told was that my father had been picked up by the Gestapo.” Mrs. Zopf, who was in the pharmacy across from city hall, confirmed that she had seen Hugo and Mr. Kaski being loaded onto a truck. That night, the women split up, some staying at the Zydowers and others at the house of the Kiwi family that owned a dry goods store.
Soon some of the families, like Mrs. Kaski, moved away, but the Zydowers stayed. The day after Kristallnacht, “that dirty caretaker, Herr Hahn, took everything because he was a big shot in the Nazi party, which we didn’t even know. Originally he used to be so nice and when I was real small, I’d run to him, he would pick me up; he threw me in the air. From that day on, Kristallnacht, all of a sudden he became the enemy.”
After Kristallnacht, the Jewish kids could not go to the government run schools; they could only go to a Jewish school. So Alfred, Anna, and Harry Altmann went to Frankfurt on the Oder to a school set up in the former synagogue that was burned down but still was usable. Erna wanted her two children to go on the children’s transport to England and she was going to go also as a help to England. Alfred carried on so much that she decided never mind about the children going. “It’s a good thing she did that. Otherwise, we would have never been together anymore.”
When they received a postcard from Hugo, saying that he was in Sachsenhausen, Erna took all of the medals that he had gotten in World War I, including the iron cross, and went to the Gestapo in Frankfurt on the Oder to try to get her husband out. “The Gestapo took her for a regular German woman because that’s what she looked like. And he said to her ‘get a divorce from that Jew.’ So she said to him, ‘well no, I cannot; I am not getting a divorce. I’m a non-Aryan myself.’ He said ‘I don’t believe that’. She said, ‘no, and I have got two children too.’ He said ‘well we will take care of the children and you don’t worry.’ She said, ‘no, I am a non-Aryan’ and then she left all the medals and she put them on the table and he said ‘well I am sorry then.’ He said ‘I can’t help you then. Well okay, I will tell you one thing; I do not know when your husband is coming home but you can expect him soon. But he has to leave Germany.’”
Hugo was in Sachsenhausen until the January 6 or 7, 1939. “They let him out because he had volunteered in World War I. He was only 15 years old when he went into the Army. They even sent him to the front in France.” Also in the camp were Hugo’s three brothers from Märkisch Friedland – Georg, Siegfried, and Oscar – and his father Simon, as well as Erna’s brother, Uncle Sigo, They all got out much later than Hugo. Erna succeeded in getting her brother to the Isle of Man in England. Many, many years later, they learned that the British used him since he looked very German. He parachuted down into Germany to work the people up against Nazis. They dropped him off somewhere in the Black Forest area. The Nazis shot him in the head and he was in a military hospital and probably unable to remember or contact his family.
The Zydowers continued to live in their apartment. Hugo was put on slave labor, building military barracks, but came home every day. “He had to report at six in the evening at the Gestapo headquarters and say ‘the Jew so and so is still here.’ And sometimes they would slap him; but sometimes they would just wave if they were not really a Nazi. And sometimes I would go with him and they would say ‘Jew, where did you get him? He’s not yours.’ And that would make my father so angry.” Hugo also took care of the Jewish cemetery, planting beautiful flowers and doing everything with the deceased.
On May 1, 1939, the Zydowers had to move into the Jew House, which was owned by Mrs. Gross and her husband Moritz. They had two sons, Julius and Heinz. Upstairs lived Mr. and Mrs. Storch. The Gestapo put Mr. Storch in charge of the Jews and “he was the only one who could go to any Jew person who was still living outside the Jew House and visit and give them the news or whatever new rules.” Mr. Isaac and Mrs. Cohen lived in the two back rooms. On weekends, Mrs, Gross cooked for everybody who was still working in that township, buying the meat on their ration tickets.
Nearby, was the Zionist Estate Neuendorf [a Jewish Labour Settlement in Germany: the first colony for unemployed Jews, established in 1932 by the Central Jewish Welfare Office, http://www.jta.org/1932/06/21/archive/jewish-labour-settlement-in-germany-first-colony-for-unemployed-jews-started-near-berlin-will-comb#ixzz3FrnL8wan]. “They were able to grow food, fruits and a lot of other items there too. So it was probably self-supporting in a way with food. So they could stay there until actually the Nazis deported them I guess, in 1943, after all the Jews of Fürstenwalde were deported by 1942.”
One day, when they were living in the Jew House, Alfred went to visit his friend Harry Altmann in Ketschendorf. On the way home “a bunch of boys on bicycles, tried to push me down toward the sluices by the river. I got away and I ran and I came on the bridge and they grabbed me and wanted to throw me in the river; but I hung on the railing as best I could and said ‘leave me alone! I didn’t do anything to you.’” From then on, somebody always had to walk him home when he went to visit Harry.
On May 31, 1939, Alfred’s grandparents, Simon and Ernestine Zydower and her younger sister Hedwig Levine, left for Shanghai. Mrs. Cohen’s relative, Mr. Cohen, was on the same boat. Remaining in Fürstenwalde, were Mr. Kaski, the Altmann family (including Harry and his sister and brother Herta and Alex), Mrs. Waldau, the four Zydowers and Erna’s Aunt Rosalie, Mr. Isaac and Mrs. Cohen; also all of the Jewish women who were married to gentiles “who you had to be careful that nobody would know they were Jewish,” including Mrs. Angel, Mrs. Dumas, and Mrs. Tietzler.
Alfred’s family were going to leave before Kristallnacht, but the money their American relatives had sent to them was in Paris, not Germany, and the American relatives “didn’t quite understand how the situation really was” and would not allow that money to be used to go to South America… But they allowed that money to be used to go to Shanghai “because they figured it would probably be much easier from Shanghai to come to America than it would be from South America, although it would have been much easier from South America to come to the United States.” They were supposed to leave September 15th and they packed everything up because, “even after Kristallnacht, you could take whatever you had, like furniture, new furniture, dishes; you could take a whole lift the Nazis would let you have as long as you did not take gold or sterling with you, which you had to give to them.” They were planning to leave by September 10th and were going to go to Genoa, Italy and then take the boat to Shanghai. “Well, the war came September 1st and we got stuck in Germany for good now and didn’t even know what now.”
Once they were allowed to go to Shanghai, it took a few weeks to get their Russian visas from Berlin and their Japanese and Manchukuo visas from Hamburg.. Since they were not allowed to have a telephone at the Jew House and they needed to be in touch with their lawyer at the German-Jewish Help Organization, they had to communicate by mail. Luckily Mrs. Hahn was a mail delivery woman and expedited the mail delivery to Mrs. Zydower so she could go to Berlin or Hamburg as needed. They also needed papers to come to Shanghai. “Good thing my uncles were there already. They sent the papers. Otherwise, the Nazis would not let you leave.”
Their trip started in Berlin and Alfred and Hugo stayed two days in Rosenstrasse, from where all the Berlin Jews were deported. They had to wait for the Russian visa and “the minute you got your Russian visa you left the same night.” Erna stayed with the daughter of the Storches, Eva Prager. In the middle of the night, Alfred experienced his first air raid and bombing “about a kilometer away from there on Dragonerstrasse in an apartment building.”
The next day, their Russian visa was released and Mr. Prager, who was a mechanic and had a special pass, helped them get their luggage accepted at the Stettin [Szczecin] Railroad Station, and then to board the train at midnight at the Charlottenburg Railroad Station.”One of my mother’s cousins, Edith, who was living in Berlin had come to say goodbye. She had not turned in all of her jewelry and gave my mother a gold ring with some diamonds on it. And my mother told her ‘no, no, we get caught with that, we get punished.’ So I took it and dropped it on the railroad tracks.” They arrived in Shanghai on September 14, 1940 and came to the United States in 1948.
Alfred hopes that some of the people who he remembers from Fürstenwalde and Shanghai or their children and grandchildren will see his story and remember him as well.
[For additional information about the Zydower family’s life in Shanghai and the United States after emigrating to Shanghai, please see the recording, transcription, and synopsis of Alfred’s sister, Anna Zydower Lindemann, in the Oral History Archives of the Holocaust Memorial Center Zekelman Family Campus in Farmington Hills, Michigan.]
Date of Interview: November 18, 2013
Length of Interview: 1 hour 38 minutes
Interview & Synopsis by: Zieva Konvisser
Videographer: Fred Safran
To view this oral history video interview, please click here.