Wormser, Henry Claude

Wormser, Henry Claude

Hidden Child
Strasbourg, Clermont-Ferrand, Sayat (France); Dessau (Germany)

Henry Claude Wormser was born in Strasbourg, France, on September 10, 1936. His father, Arthur Wormser, was born in Ingwiller (Alsace), France and was a traveling salesman for a tool and dye company. While he was traveling between France and Germany, he met his wife, Meta Schwarz, who was born in Illingen, Germany.

Meta’s family moved to the United States when Hitler decided to break the treaty of Versailles, “So, I never really met anybody from my mother’s side until we immigrated to the United States in 1953.”

Arthur’s family included his mother, Caroline Wertheimer Wormser, his two sisters, Alice Wormser and Adeline Levy, and Adeline’s husband, Arthur (“Dhury”) Levy, “who was partially responsible for my escape from the Germans.”

“Strasbourg had a very large Jewish community and many of the people from that city moved to Clermont-Ferrand, which was located in the free zone, the non-militarized zone. My father thought that we would be safer there, and we moved to Clermont-Ferrand in 1939.” Shortly thereafter, “My dad was drafted by the French army and his battalion was stationed at the Port of Kehl, on the Rhine River, a few kilometers from Strasbourg. But the army was no match for the Germans. The Germans had spent years rearming and the French didn’t have the arms or capability of fighting, so he was captured with his battalion…. My dad was made a POW, Prisoner of War, and sent to a labor camp in Dessau, Germany, where his Commandant listened to the Red Cross and took away their Jewish identity, the Star of David that they had to wear. So, there were some Germans who complied…. Dessau was known for manufacturing railroad cars and airplane engines, so there was plenty of hard work for him and his colleagues from the army…. For the first few years that he was in the POW camp, my mother corresponded with him. Of course, the letters were screened very carefully. However, she knew that he was alive and not being mistreated, not being tortured, but he had to work from morning to night, very hard, for a traveling salesman.”

Henry went to school in Clermont-Ferrand, first to kindergarten, then to elementary school, Ecole Place Des Salins. “I remember being called a Jew by the teachers, by the students, but I wasn’t kicked around or anything like that…. I knew I was different. There may have been other Jews, but I think I was the only one.

“One night we got a notice around 8 or 9 o’clock at night, presumably by some French administrative person. Because it was late at night, my mother told everyone to be quiet and to shut the lights. An envelope was slid under the door. She waited a little while and when she thought the individual had left, she opened the envelope and it contained a notice to report to City Hall with identification papers. At that time, Jews in the free zone did not have to wear the Star of David. They had identification papers with a “J” on it, identifying them as Jews. My mother thought about some of her friends who supposedly had gotten the same notice a month ago and were never heard of, and she said we are not doing this. So, she went to get my uncle who was in the hardware business.….

“My uncle’s name was Levy, so obviously he was Jewish, but because he had an important position helping farmers with their hardware, with their tools, and the Germans depended on their food from these farmers, he was unharmed, which was very unusual…. He also had a car, so he came over a few hours after the notice came and we packed up a few things and we all got into the car and he drove us into the town of Sayat, which is maybe 20 kilometers from Clermont-Ferrand. He found a family who was willing to hide all of us – my grandmother, my two aunts, my mother, and me. My uncle was able to keep working in Clermont-Ferrand and came to visit on the weekend to see us.

“The Jourdan family had the only laundry facility in the small town, a farm, and a shed that was maybe a ten-minute walk from the farm. They decided that they could move their farm equipment out of the brick-and-mortar shed and made that available to us. It was one room and didn’t have lighting or running water; it didn’t even have a floor, but we managed. My uncle got some bedding material from somewhere. And there was a potbelly stove…. I became the water boy because there was a running fountain on the other side of the street, so I would take buckets and fill them with water and bring them to the house…. I went to school and I went to church. I went to catechism class and I even joined the choir…. Both aunts and my grandmother loved to read and so they stayed pretty much set…. I assume we were the only Jewish family, but nobody made a fuss about it. I was a child and I was with other children who accepted me.

“I made a lot of friends there and I was free to roam around, except when the Germans came to get provisions. They came in big trucks, but they couldn’t get to where we were because the streets were extremely narrow. So, basically, they stayed on the highway. They knew exactly which farmer had what and they got their cows and pigs, and fruits and vegetables from the farmers. Whenever they came into town we were notified by the family and we went to the farm and went in the back to pick weeds or cherries or do something to stay out of sight.

“We stayed there until after June, 1944, when the invasion took place; probably September, October, we went back to our apartment in Clermont-Ferrand…. After the liberation, we kept getting letters from the U.S. from my family on my mother’s side telling us to come over because at that time we could leave. My mother said no, my father will come back and will not be able to find us, so she decided not to immigrate at that time.

“For roughly six months, on a daily basis, we would go to the train station to see if POW’s came back and we asked them where they were interned. And if they said Dessau, we knew that my father was either on that train or on the next one. So, it became sort of a tradition to go to the train station…. We were there when he actually arrived. So, I finally got to know my father…. Because his plant had been destroyed, he got a job as a translator at a small POW camp in nearby Clermont, where they had maybe a dozen or half a dozen German solider POW’s and he could translate between French and German.

“After the war, there was still some anti-Semitism among some of the students. I remember walking once with a friend and he called me a dirty Jew and I said, ‘No, I’m a Jew but I’m not dirty. I wash every day.’ I think the children got this from their parents. But overall it was very sporadic…. My mother was Orthodox; my father a little less Orthodox. There was no kosher food, but my mother would make sure that the meat was salted and she koshered it herself…. I was tutored and had my Bar-Mitzvah in Clermont-Ferrand.

“After the German POW’s were released, my father had to look for another job. Because he was a traveling salesman and his driving skills were very good, he went to work with a Jewish friend, Alfred Hayum, who was in the clothing business. He had a store in Clermont-Ferrand selling suits, jackets, and pants and he decided to go into professional clothing, traveling throughout the area and selling merchandise to dentists, doctors, butchers, and bakers. In 1952 or 1953, Mr. Hayum died of a heart attack, so my father was unemployed once more, and that was when the decision was made to come to the U.S.

“We had a lot of family in the U.S., so they vouched for us and we came over in June of 1953…. My dad initially got a job in Atlantic City and because he was called at the time a ‘greenhorn,’ he didn’t speak English well, he worked for a Jewish hotel, Teplitzky, on the Boardwalk and he had to do dishes, wash the floor, wash the windows, and work for minimum wage…. After a while, we came to Vineland, New Jersey; there were factories where they made clothing and he became a cutter and got a job. My mother did also…. My two uncles both had large chicken farms and they told my dad that he should do that. So, ultimately, my parents bought a farm and raised chickens.”

Henry graduated from Vineland High School, got a four-year degree in pharmacy and a two-year degree in medicinal chemistry at Temple University, and then received a Ph.D. in medicinal chemistry from the University of Wisconsin. In 1965, he began teaching at Wayne State University in Detroit. He married Sandy Meyer; they have a son Alan, a daughter Carolann Berman, and six grandchildren.

He speaks to groups at the Holocaust Memorial Center Zekelman Family Campus and shares with them that “I didn’t suffer like some of the other survivors that went from one camp to the next, saw tortures and experiments, and people being gassed and burnt. I didn’t see any of that. I didn’t even see people being shot. So, I was really a very lucky survivor, very fortunate. And I owe it to my mother and my uncle, because they had the foresight….” He speaks to young people because, “I hope that what happened during that period of time never happens again. Although, it can. It is important to learn history because right now anti-Semitism is not a dead issue. It’s constantly going on. And genocide is also not a dead issue. It’s going on in other countries.”

Date of Interview: May 20, 2015
Length of Interview: 36 minutes
Interview & Synopsis by: Zieva Konvisser
Videographer: Fred Safran