Elsie’s Story

by | Jun 22, 2018 | Other News

She speaks with a slight, but distinct, accent whose origin I had long suspected, but, given her age and all that implied, been hesitant to ask. One night at dinner, though, I posed the simple question to 95-year-old Elsie Hirsch, “Where are you from?” She looked at me with an imperceptibly sad smile and, after a long pause, replied, “Where do you think?” Afraid of probing too deeply, I held her gaze and meekly ventured, “Eastern Europe.” Her piercing blue eyes did not flinch when she said, “Germany,” pronouncing it “Chermany,” a tonal hint of the homeland she had left nearly eight decades ago.

“When did you come here?” I continued, a tentative way of asking whether she’d been fortunate enough to have fled the Nazis or strong enough to have survived them. “In 1939,” she replied.

Despite the bustle all around us, my eyes and my heart were fixed on this small, soft spoken woman. “How did you get out?” I asked gently. I was more than curious. I felt compelled to know her story, obliged, in my own small way, to bear witness. Offering scant details—her father’s cousin had sponsored them, a brother already in Portsmouth, Virginia—she said quietly, “I don’t like to talk about it.” We turned to other topics, but I couldn’t forget her brief account and the certainty that there was more to it. The next day, I asked if I could interview her more formally. “I don’t like to talk about it,” she resisted again. I explained that I would try to put her account on paper, that she could read it and decide whether she was comfortable sharing it with others, that I would do nothing without her consent, but there was value and meaning in her testimony.

Finally, she agreed.

In the middle of the night of November 9, 1938, 16-year-old Else Moos, asleep in her bed in the German city of Ülm, was awakened by loud knocks on the door. On what would come to be called Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass, Germans took to the streets in a wave of violence against their Jewish neighbors. Through the long night and into the next day, Else’s synagogue was burned, Jewish businesses were looted, and her father, Adolph, a prosperous linen merchant, was arrested by the Gestapo. Along with scores of his fellow landsmen, he was taken to the local jail, then shipped to the concentration camp at Dachau.

It was a shock, she said, but not a total surprise. Already, Jewish children could no longer go to school in Ülm or play in the parks. A sign at the local movie theater read “No Jews Allowed.” For months, conversation in the family’s close-knit circle of friends had centered on leaving Germany. “That’s all we talked about,” she recalled, “When are you leaving?” and “How are you going?”

One after another, they left—one family to Argentina, another to South Africa, and more to America. The Moos family had planned that they, too, would be going. Even with her father trapped in Dachau, unable to finish her last year of high school, and her world upended, Else and a cousin dared to take a train every day to a Jewish school still open in Stuttgardt, 60 miles away, to learn English, in anticipation of their own departure.

Else’s older brother, Heinz, had been the first to go. Sponsored by their father’s first cousin, Albert, who lived in New Jersey, he had arrived in the U.S., just weeks before her father’s arrest. It was the depths of the Depression and work was hard to find in New York. Assisted by a Jewish resettlement agency, Heinz, whose name was now Anglicized to Henry, went to Portsmouth, where he knew a friend from home, and found work in a department store.

.With the official start of the war still months away, Adolph Moos was one of the lucky ones. After six weeks in Dachau, miraculously, he was allowed to return home. “They released everybody in (the camp), because they didn’t know what to do with them,” said Elsie, who would add an “I” to her own name once in the States. Thankful to be reunited, there was no doubt that the family faced grave danger.

On learning of his father’s ordeal, Henry reached out immediately to the cousin who had sponsored his own immigration and said it was urgent to get the rest of his family out of Germany.

Cousin Albert, whose work in 1933 had taken him, temporarily, to the U.S., realized that, with the rise of Nazism in his homeland, he could never return to Germany. Settling in New Jersey, he pursued an academic career while working passionately to help save fellow Jews in Europe, including colleagues still in Germany. As honorary president of the Union for the Protection of the Well-Being of the Jewish Population (OSE), he not only solicited and encouraged others to take action to save persecuted Jews, but made his own, direct appeals.

In a letter that year to the President of Turkey, through its Prime Minister, Albert wrote, “I beg to apply to your Excellency to allow forty professors and medical doctors from Germany to continue their scientific and medical work in Turkey. The above mentioned cannot practice further in Germany on account of the laws,” adding shrewdly, “…in granting this request your Government will not only perform an act of high humanity, but it will bring profit to your own country.” It was later reported that, counting the men, their families and staff welcomed by Turkey thanks to that entreaty, Albert saved 1,000 lives.

Despite the persecution in Europe, Jewish immigration to the U.S. was strictly limited by quotas, and refugees needed to be sponsored by two individuals, preferably relatives. Following Adolph Moos’s release from Dachau, a long, anxious year passed until finally, under his cousin’s sponsorship, he, his wife and daughter received visas to enter the U.S. In December 1939, abandoning their home, their business, and all but a few possessions, the family managed to reach Holland where they boarded a ship bound for New York. Elsie’s mother, Hilde, had no siblings, but her father had three brothers still in Ülm. Tragically, they believed the move was unnecessary and chose to stay in Germany.

The voyage was perilous. With the war already started, the German navy had placed mines along the sea route to block American supply vessels. A few days into the trip, the vessel stopped dead in the water. “They had to decide whether to continue or turn back,” Elsie recalled. Facing the threat of death in both directions, the fate of the Jewish refugees lay in the hands of the shipping company and their captain. “We stood there for about two or three days, “she said, “not moving, not knowing what to do.” Ultimately, the ship went ahead and she and her parents landed, safe, but destitute, in New York. “I think we came with ten dollars each,” she said.

Jewish services reunited the family with Henry in Virginia to start their new life, but, with limited command of the language and scant resources, 65-yearold Adolph, was lucky to find work. The affluent businessman, who had sold the finest fabrics to German high society, now carried heavy baskets of linens and clothing up and down stairs in a laundry. Seventeen-year-old Elsie, skilled in handiwork, knitting and crocheting, took a job sewing in a clothes factory. Her great regret, to this day, is that she was not able to finish high school. At the factory, she met her future husband, Jerry, born Joachim, Hirsch, who’d been a medical student in Germany. “He couldn’t go to medical school anymore because he didn’t know enough English, either,” she said, “so we worked there together.” Elsie and Jerry would go on to build a successful business and life for themselves and their two children in Portsmouth.

Elsie Hirsch never met her father’s cousin, the man whose efforts saved her and so many others from Nazi genocide, but there is a picture of him in her living room, inscribed in his own hand to her grandparents, his Onkel Adolph and Tante Ricke, from their nephew…Albert Einstein.

Elsie Hirsch is a resident at Beth Sholom Village’s Terrace.

Reprinted from the Madison Jewish News, Madison, WI, April 2018.

– Jerilyn Goodman