A Family’s True Story of Surviving the Nazis and World War II
This true story is based on letters my grandmother Ilse Lang received from family and friends in Europe prior to and during WWII. I plan to publish it as Eating the Piano © 2021. To read the previous installment, click HERE.
Germany had been my family’s home going back to the 1700s. With the rise of the Nazis, family members exploded out of Germany to the U.S., Switzerland, England, Hungary, France, Sweden, and Palestine (later Israel). They were fortunate to find ways to leave. They were trying to reach a place of safety when safety could not be found.
In 1933, a year after arriving in Switzerland, many of Germany’s troubles found the refugees again.
Lena [Ilse’s sister] was settling into the Swiss town of St. Gallen with her daughter, Marianne. Hans, the husband she hoped to divorce, was nearby – as well as Fritz, the man she hoped to marry.
We had money, which came from Father’s factory in Berlin, and we behaved as Berliners would behave.
We made one mistake after another. I went into town in my breeches. I went shopping in the market with skis slung over my shoulders at a time when I should have been at home, cleaning. [from the memoir Lena’s Reminiscence, LR]
More Jewish refugees like Lena were entering Switzerland, being met with anti-Semitic propaganda. Her daughter’s kindergarten teacher demanded:
What is your religion? [LR]
My mummy says I am musical. [LR]
Despite the cheap laugh, being Jewish in Switzerland could be dangerous. To keep Marianne from having lung infections, the doctor had them send her to school in Davos, a warmer, drier place, but it turned out to be “a hive of Nazis.” They had to tiptoe around, trying to hide their identities.
When Hitler became Chancellor of Germany in 1933, he brought capital transfers to an end, and Lena’s source of income was cut off. The atmosphere in Germany changed dramatically and spilled out over the border:
…everything to do with Swiss officialdom became much more difficult.
Fritz was forbidden to work and always stood with one foot in the refugee camp. [LR]
They moved to a seedy flat in a poor neighborhood, and Lena sold her valuables to pay for rent and food. Eventually, it was the grand piano’s turn:
But even a grand piano comes to an end. [LR]
Often without a permit, Lena worked “under the table.” She was a buffet waitress, sold sausages at dances, and worked as a lady’s maid. Although the language was the same, cultural differences stood out.
When Lena came from Berlin, women were enjoying greater autonomy and sexual behavior stretched the norms of the past. Not in St. Gallen!
Switzerland was a more patriarchal society. Women could not vote and fathers and husbands held authority over women, their money, and their children. Lena’s life became a rich trove of scandalous gossip:
…Hans comes over for lunch and dinner and usually spends all his free time with us. Fritz does the same… [but] I hold the silly view that I want to be in proper and decent conditions before I can as much as turn my head! I am sick and tired of being the talk of the town. And that I am just that in this tiny place is a given. [37.10.25 LenaKass]
Through 1938, the Swiss exercised “foreigner control,” which meant there could be no divorce for Hans and Lena and no marriage for Lena and Fritz. Lena felt like she had no control at all. The men didn’t think it was a big deal, but to Lena it stung. And if Swiss authorities were to discover her “immoral” behavior, she could be deported back to Germany. What kind of future was that? She worried:
Fritz was doing so terribly financially that he may not even think about chaining himself to a wife and child. [37.10.25 LenaKass]
The divorce was not Lena’s top issue. Her family needed to get their father out of Berlin before something happened. They just couldn’t agree on where he should go, nor could they come up with the money…
Germany glared at them constantly from across the nearby border, setting off rumors of invasion. Lena dreamed of leaving this dangerous country for a safe place far away: Cuba, Mexico, or Argentina…but her papers were not in order. Without a finalized divorce she pictured herself being yanked out of the emigration line and charged with bigamy.
Lena’s divorce was completed in 1940 and she and Fritz were finally able to marry. However, the marriage triggered a review of their refugee status. Their work permits were revoked, and work in Switzerland once again became illegal.
They still could not find another country to go to that wanted them, as well.