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The Heumann Struggle
By Alison Heumann
Gerda Heumann rarely thinks about the Holocaust or growing up as a Jewish girl in Germany. “There is no use dwelling on it,” my grandma says, but every once in a while, something brings her back. The image of President Bush on the television discussing his latest plans for military success in Iraq reminds her. Her decision not to go downstairs with her friends and watch Schindler’s List reminds her. This time, it is a quick glimpse on the television of a white and blue china teapot adorned with little flowers that reminds her. She and her sister Illa used to collect teapot sets like this one whenever they had a little money, one cup here, a saucer there. “We both had, I think, a full set of dishes,” she says. “Nothing was left of it.”
Her voice remains steady, no hint of anger, and no sign of tears as she describes her childhood in Nazi Germany. “I’m not angry at this point anymore,” Heumann says with a slight English accent that is detectable only on certain words. “I’m sure there were times when I was, but you cannot…it will eat you up.” Heumann sits upright in her beige recliner, which matches her orthopedic shoes; her walker is placed at only an arms length away, a telling sign of her 89 years. A mint-green cable-knit sweater sits carefully on her petite shoulders, which round slightly forward. Her light brown eyes show signs of glaucoma, but her gaze is strong; it emits a strength that comes from years of fighting to survive.
Immune to the car horns blaring outside her Bronx window, Heumann speaks with an unwavering clarity, choosing the proper words to articulate her thoughts. A half-finished word jumble sits on the side table, blank spaces with coded numbers waiting for her to decipher them, which she will by the week’s end, and then start anew. “She’s one smart lady,” says her friend Rachel Fein, who lives in the assisted living facility with Heumann. “Certainly surprising considering she had little education.” Heumann deems it a miracle that she ever learned how to read and write, considering her elementary school teacher went to sleep after he assigned the class work.
This education was interrupted when Heumann reached middle school. Hitler’s influence was spreading and her father needed more help in the butcher store since he could no longer employ women under the age of 45 because the Nazis thought he might rape them. Heumann worked in the store, like “a good little girl” as her older sister Illa describes. “She was a very good daughter, always helping her parents.”
By 1936, the store was suffering and the Nazis used a fear-tactic to discourage clientele. “One day we had 12 SS men, the elite of the Nazis, standing in front of our store, shoulder to shoulder, to avoid anyone from entering,” she says. The Nazis only blockaded one day, but from then on there were spies in stores across the street who would warn customers not to buy from her father’s store or they would risk unemployment. “When the clientele really went down, down, down, I went [by foot] to three neighboring towns, Wednesdays and Thursdays, to take orders from Jewish people and I had about 120 families I visited,” she boasts as though it was a recent accomplishment.
The business managed to survive until Kristallnacht, The Night of Broken Glass, right before the start of World War II. Nazis broke the windows of Jewish homes and synagogues, burned buildings and beat Jewish men. Heumann was out taking meat orders when the Nazis began ransacking a customer’s house, arresting the men of the family. “From that I took they were going from house to house, so instead of going any further taking orders, I went home,” Heumann says.
By the time she made it back to her town, Hohenlimburg, she found her mother and siblings hiding in the woods with other neighbors. The Nazis destroyed their house and took her father to a concentration camp near Berlin to keep him out of the way when they were destroying his property. After five weeks her father was released, but the house and store were gone. Her family applied to immigrate to America, but they were assigned a high number in the lottery system, which meant they were unlikely to ever be chosen to come to America.
Through word of mouth, Heumann heard about the Bloomsberry House, a refugee agency that sent young Jewish women on domestic permits to England as servants; in return, the families agreed to support the women for two years. And so, with little deliberation, in late 1938 or early 1939, she and her older sister escaped Germany, leaving behind her brother and parents. “Your feelings were so numbed really. Like everybody was looking out for themselves more or less. Do what you have to do and get out,” she explains.
Her younger brother Max joined an Israeli organization while still in Germany and managed to make it out on the last boat to leave Germany, the Patria. However, his boat was denied admittance into Haifa harbor because Israel was overrun by refugees. The Jews on the ship could not face the possibility of being sent back, so they bombed and sunk their own boat, and those that could swim made it to shore. “My brother was one of them that learned to swim there and made it ashore,” she says, before pursing her thin lips together. He has lived in Israel ever since.
Her parents remained in Germany and Heumann corresponded with them through Red Cross messages. “The messages consisted of 15 words or less. Just hello and how are you and we are okay. That was about all it amounted to. You couldn’t say much more. So long as you had the knowledge that you were okay and they were okay. Those were the only messages that we could send,” she says. The messages stopped in 1941. Her parents were deported to a concentration camp.
She is quiet for a moment, this time not looking for the best word choice, not looking for any words. The noon sun peers through the window and reflects off the gold Star of David necklace that sits loosely around her neck. “According Zerstreut in Alle Welt [translated: Scattered Throughout the World], a book written by a German professor, it is not known where my parents were deported to and unknown to what has happened to them,” she says, as though she is reading directly from the book itself.
The next 20 years of her life read like a history book with very little exciting details. Heumann worked as a servant in England for eight years. She came to New York in 1947 when her Aunt Henny and Uncle Oscar sponsored her financially. Heumann worked in factories sewing underwear and blouses trying to make a living. After three years of living under her relatives’ care, she met and had a short courtship with Max Heumann. They married in May 1950 and had one son named Joel.
Once Heumann was in New York, she tried to receive justice for all she suffered. She hired a lawyer hoping to acquire monetary reimbursement, but it did little good. “It was so ridiculous it wasn’t even funny,” Heumann says shaking her head. “It amounted to a refrigerator for Illa and Max.” Heumann’s lawyer told her she needed proof of her life in Germany before Hitler, but any proof was shattered a long time ago, along with the china tea set, unable be glued back together.
Today Heumann lives in The Kittay House, a Jewish assisted-living facility in the Bronx, NY. She finds comfort in knowing some residents went through similar situations during the Holocaust, not that she ever speaks about it with anyone. “I don’t dwell on it anymore,” Heumann repeats her thoughts. “Where does it get me?”
from the May 2007 Edition of the Jewish Magazine
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