A family escaped the Nazis in 1939, finding refuge in America, but its hardships were far from over
By Werner Gundersheimer
September 8, 2014
My parents, Hermann Samuel Gundersheimer and Friedl Siegel Gundersheimer, first met at a B’nai B’rith dance in Frankfurt in 1930. My father was a young scholar at Frankfurt’s Kunstgewerbe Museum (Museum of Decorative Arts), my mother an unsophisticated and undereducated shop girl from the provinces. For her it was love at first sight, but their long courtship was complicated, it seems, by my father’s ongoing interest in a beautiful, rather brilliant sociologist from Berlin. Though obviously attracted to my mother, herself a very pretty young woman, my father kept her dangling for a long time, while the situation resolved with the other woman, who, after 1933, saw the handwriting on the wall and got herself to Palestine. Soon after that, Friedl herself left Frankfurt to work as an au pair for an Algerian Jewish family in Marseille. Absence, she thought, might make Hermann’s heart grow fonder.
It worked. Her affectionate letters from Marseille, combined perhaps with the gradually diminishing supply of single Jewish women in Frankfurt, got my father’s attention. Soon after Friedl’s return from her sojourn in France, Hermann proposed marriage. Six weeks later—on May 21, 1935—the wedding took place. Only a few relatives and friends attended. Most of the people who might in happier times have formed the guest list had left Germany by then, to begin new lives abroad. Hermann’s “Aryan” mentors and colleagues also stayed away; to them, my father had become persona non grata. The few wedding photos that survive do not seem to reflect a joyous celebration, despite the normal trappings of bride and groom.
Following a brief wedding trip to northern Italy, the couple returned to Frankfurt, where they settled quite happily into a comfortable apartment at 27 Leerbachstrasse. By this time, Hermann had built a good working library of books in his field—on baroque and rococo religious painting and the sculpture of Franconia and Bavaria. The couple furnished the place in the conventional taste of the time—heavy, dark wooden pieces that gave their rooms an illusion of stability and permanence, a sort of physical denial of the turmoil that had already begun to intrude on their new life together.
Although they recognized—how could they not?—that they were building what might turn out to be a house of cards, they kept at it for the first three years of their marriage. After all, not every indicator was unambiguously bad. Though Hermann had lost his job at the Kunstgewerbe Museum in 1933, he was managing to support himself through regular articles and reviews in the Frankfurter Zeitung and as a teacher at the Jüdisches Lehrhaus (Jewish House of Study). By 1935, he had been appointed curator of the Museum of Jewish Antiquities, an institution established after the First World War and located in a mansion belonging to the Frankfurt branch of the Rothschild family. Together with his friend and colleague Guido Schoenberger, my father managed that notable collection of Jewish ceremonial art through a difficult time. He had no training in the field of Judaica, but he brought his formidable energy and considerable intellect to the work, and within a year or two was publishing original research—still cited in the literature—on such topics as Hanukkah lamps.
By 1938, vast and wrenching changes had taken place in my parents’ lives. Their own parents had sold their businesses and homes and moved to apartments in Frankfurt, to be near the young couple. The two pairs of in-laws had not met until the day of the wedding, and—as often happens—they did not become close, despite certain affinities. Both men were in the wholesale wine business. Both women were thoughtful, literate people who had run households and raised children successfully. But the Gundersheimers were more conservative, religiously and socially, and the younger Siegels had a more cosmopolitan outlook and wider social connections. The two sets of parents differed fundamentally in their view of how my parents were assessing their prospects in the Germany of 1938.
Friedl’s mother, Anna Bamberger Siegel, in particular, was a strong advocate of emigration, clearly dismayed by the permanence of the domestic arrangements my parents were making, especially after I was born, in April 1937. On the afternoon Mother and I came home from the hospital, the Gestapo searched our apartment, looking for prohibited books. Karl Marx, Rosa Luxemburg, and Sigmund Freud were not in evidence, and the searchers had no interest in Hans Wölfflin, Werner Weisbach, or Paul Kristeller. The invasion frightened my mother so much that she could no longer nurse her baby. But my father, whose knowledge of German history led him to believe that occasional paroxysms of anti-Semitism over the centuries tended to run their course, continued to hope it might all blow over. Ever the devoted son, he could not imagine leaving his parents: it was clear that their age and remaining resources made them unlikely candidates for resettlement. His opinion seems to have been reinforced by his parents, who—unlike Anna—did not encourage the couple to pursue the path of emigration.
So it was that matters stood in September 1938, when my grandfather Samuel Gundersheimer, who had always enjoyed vigorous good health, had to have what was even in those days a relatively straightforward operation. But neither adequate nursing staff nor routine medications for post-operative care were in good supply at the Jewish hospital. A week after the operation, while still in the hospital, Samuel died of a massive infection. He was 64. Deaths such as his are not included in the statistics on victims of the Nazis, but they should be. In any event, my grandfather’s death seems to have saved my life, because only after that did Hermann become open to the possibility of his own family’s Auswanderung. First, however, something had to be done about his mother, Samuel’s widow. She was only 63, but for the rest of her life, this little woman would wear the black dresses and suits that marked her altered state. Within a few months she went to join her sister, who had already escaped to Jerusalem. There she survived the war.
During that fall, Hermann was administering the Jewish Museum, dealing with his father’s death and estate, teaching at the Lehrhaus, trying to be a husband and father, and with a growing sense of urgency, exploring the narrow pathways to emigration. He was 35 years old, exactly the age at which a scholar should be mastering the vast literature of his field and carrying out some major research enterprise. That was what he had been trained for, what he felt he was born to do. My mother, in contrast, was doing what she had always expected, if not aspired, to do. She was a conscientious young wife, still in her mid-20s, with a little son who had just started to walk. But she faced more than the usual challenges of young motherhood. Her own mother was a semi-invalid, her father forced into an unnaturally early retirement, her siblings and most of her friends gone, her social opportunities and even her physical mobility diminishing as a result of the insidious persecution. People with whom she used to exchange pleasantries now crossed the street to avoid any form of acknowledgment. Life had become lonely, threatening, dangerous. It was all she could do to stay focused on being a parent and a homemaker, to try to control the sense of stress and panic that accompanied every transaction of daily life.
And then, there was Kristallnacht. While I slept on the night of November 9, 1938, my parents sat terrified as the mobs rampaged through the streets, rounding up, beating, and humiliating Jews, burning, pillaging, and looting their shops, offices, institutions, and places of worship. It was the biggest, most effectively coordinated, and most deliberately staged pogrom in the long sweep of Jewish history. Hundreds of synagogues went up in flames, the scrolls of the law torn from their arks and hurled into the streets, where they were urinated upon, then incinerated by the howling mobs. In Frankfurt, one synagogue was spared, owing to its proximity to Nazi headquarters. As for the Museum of Jewish Antiquities, it too was sacked, its exhibition cases shattered, its precious objects scattered about helter-skelter.
The next morning, people began to assess the scope of the tragedy. As the news reports trickled in over the radio, it became clear that versions of this scenario had taken place in cities, towns, and villages all over Germany, wherever a Jewish community could be found. After August 17, all Jewish men whose first names were not recognizably Jewish had been required by law to take the middle name Israel, the women Sara. So Hermann Israel, his optimism intact, ventured out into Leerbachstrasse to see what he could see. He hadn’t been out very long when my mother heard a loud knock at the door. She opened it to two policemen, who wanted to escort Father to their headquarters. They decided not to await his return, instead instructing Mother to send him there as soon as he got home. Soon thereafter, the phone rang. The Gestapo asked to speak to Herr Doktor. The message was that he was to report immediately to their headquarters. Soon he came back from his explorations, pale and shaken by the destruction he had witnessed. My parents took each other’s counsel—to which of these orders should he respond? Which alternative was worse? Finally, like the good German he was, my father chose to answer to the higher authority, and headed out to the headquarters of the Gestapo.
It seems that at this crucial moment, he made the right decision. In surveying the damage at the Jewish Museum, the Gestapo quickly recognized that the objects strewn around the gracious rooms of the former Rothschild mansion had value. Many of these artifacts were made of precious metals, and most might potentially be sold, held for ransom, or preserved—like the objects looted from the Second Temple and depicted on the Arch of Titus—as relics of a vanquished or, better yet, vanished people. Who better to identify these scattered remnants than their curator? So the Gestapo ordered my father to go back to work, this time under armed guard, and to document and reorganize the entire collection. Once that task was completed, they said, the Reich would have no further interest in him. He would be free to go, if any place would have him.
The work at the museum took six months. Every day, an armed guard came to 27 Leerbachstrasse, escorted Hermann to the museum, and with his weapon resting on the table at his side, sat and watched him work. By now, my parents were trying to move heaven and earth to get us to the United States. Though it was not easy to persuade my father to discuss this period in his life, he vividly recalled the desperate crowds outside the American consulate in Stuttgart, and the famously corrupt staff who, acting under orders from their superiors in Washington, did everything in their power to block the path to freedom. The numbers we were issued under the American quota system were just high enough to sustain hope, but also low enough to foster anxiety. In addition to the complex process of seeking admission to the United States, the German authorities had their own mysterious set of requirements. These included numerous declarations and certifications, ranging from birth and vaccination documents to inventories of household goods and other assets, releases from local and state police, and so on. Each of these had to be current and required official signatures, stamps, and seals. Most of them entailed the payment of substantial fees, with many officials intimating that it might help matters if the applicant also paid a little extra under the table.
Things were looking unpromising for us when help came from an unexpected source. A German friend in London had heard about a group of women in a small town in Essex who had decided to provide an affidavit for one Jewish family in transit, providing that its children were not yet of school age; the British government had agreed to issue a transit visa for such a family. This friend told the group about us, and it agreed to sponsor my parents and me. So it was that my parents received a letter from a complete stranger named Judith Welland, a middle-aged elementary school teacher in the little town of Witham. Together with a few friends, she had organized the Witham and Neighborhood Refugee Fund. “I am now able to invite you,” she wrote to my father on February 12, 1939, “your wife and son to our town of Witham, to stay until you are able to travel to America.” The term “righteous gentiles” was invented for people like her.
Another six months passed before we could leave. In addition to all the other formalities, new passports had to be obtained. These were issued on April 24, the day before my father’s 36th birthday. Hermann Israel Gundersheimer had his own document, complete with the required big red letter J on the first page. Properly renamed Werner Israel Gundersheimer, I traveled on my mother’s new passport. According to the terms of our transit visa, we were allowed to land at the Croydon airfield “on condition that the holder will emigrate from the United Kingdom and will not take any employment or engage in any business, profession or occupation in the United Kingdom.”
We had tickets on a flight from Cologne on August 3. The scene at the airport was chaotic and terrifying. Everything was searched, each piece of luggage, every Jewish body, all the clothes Jews were carrying or wearing. The customs officials and military police held the Jewish passengers from boarding the aircraft. After the other passengers had been cleared, the Jews underwent an agonizing strip search. The flight’s scheduled time of departure came, and the plane was ready to leave, but these inspections were not finished. My mother was the last person to be examined, and she was petrified that the plane would leave without her. Finally, we were all on-board. We had our lives, plus a few personal belongings, and 20 German marks. All our other possessions had gone to a warehouse in Frankfurt, which, together with its contents, was eventually destroyed by Allied bombers.
My mother and I lived in Judith Welland’s house in Witham through the winter of 1939–1940. During the week, Hermann stayed in Cambridge, where he worked on his English in a special class for refugees and gave a few lectures, including one on Michelangelo’s drawings for the Sistine Chapel ceiling, presented to the Cambridge University Art Society. He also earned a few shillings teaching at the Jewish Sunday school, despite the prohibition on gainful employment. While his command of the language gradually improved, he had (and always retained) a strong German accent—and the immigrant’s endearing propensity for committing memorable mistakes. My mother loved to recall how she asked him to go to the butcher in Witham one Friday afternoon to pick up some beef bones she had reserved for preparing the Sabbath soup. When he reached the head of the line at the butcher shop, he summoned his best English and declared, “I have come for my wife’s bones.”
The academic year in Cambridge was crucial for Hermann’s future life as a professor in the United States. Along with English, he began to grasp the differences between the German and the Anglo-American systems of higher education. This was especially important for him because, as a museum curator, he had never taught in a university setting. He had never constructed a syllabus, graded and commented upon examinations and essays, held office hours, advised undergraduates, or dealt with faculty colleagues. Before leaving Germany, he had begun the study of American bookkeeping, on the theory that he might need to support his family by working in an office. But the year in Cambridge gave him the confidence that he might yet find a place in academic life.
During our nine months in England, our financial resources were, to put it mildly, minimal. The Witham ladies made sure that we had enough to eat and a place to stay, but their ability to sustain such support was limited. Hermann soon wrote to Baron James de Rothschild, explaining his predicament and his prior role as curator of the Frankfurt museum in the old Rothschild mansion. The baron, who was probably helping a lot of other refugees, notified Father through an assistant that he would provide a stipend of £10 per month for the duration of our stay in the United Kingdom. Father later reflected that asking for money from a person he did not know, and had never even met, was one of the hardest things he ever did; he was always grateful for this ungrudging assistance at a crucial time, and for the dignity and generosity with which the baron responded.
The next challenge—emigration to the United States—filled the long months of the winter. Well before leaving Germany, Hermann had booked passage to the United States at Thomas Cook in Berlin. But after the invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939, Thomas Cook’s assets in Germany were frozen, and there were no tickets. Passage would have to be booked again, but before that, visas would have to be secured. To travel to the United States, one needed a sworn affidavit from an American citizen. This legally binding document committed the signer to full financial responsibility for those named in the affidavit. This was America’s way of protecting itself from the possibility that a refugee would become a public charge. Very few American Jews were both able and willing to assume this responsibility.
At this moment, my mother’s mother came to the rescue. She wrote to a cousin named Millie who was married to a federal judge in Minnesota and who had provided affidavits for relatives, as well as hundreds of other refugees. Millie Loevinger agreed to sponsor us, and so, as if a great hand had intervened, we boarded the M.V. Brittanic, a smallish Cunard liner, at Southampton on May 3, 1940. In my father’s pocket was £30 sterling, a final benefaction from Baron Rothschild—all we had as we disembarked a week later on the West Side of Manhattan.
My mother’s brother Wolfgang, now renamed William, met us on the pier. His parents had sent him out of Germany in 1936 at age 16. He had made his way to New York and found a job, like so many immigrants before and since, in the garment industry. Having learned the ways of the world, he brought along a new woman’s coat, which he bestowed on the customs officer, who cleared us without the usual intrusive inspection. William had rented a furnished room on the Upper West Side, which became our home for the next few weeks, as Herman—he now dropped the second n from his name—made the rounds of the refugee agencies in a discouraging quest for academic or museum work.
By 1940, the few institutions able and willing to hire refugee scholars had already had their pick. In my father’s field, such luminaries as Erwin Panofsky, Richard Krautheimer, Richard Ettinghausen, and Wolfgang Stechow had emigrated earlier and were well settled in the academy. Herman was of a younger generation, and relatively unknown. His area of specialization, German baroque, was not exactly sought after at that time, and Jewish ceremonial art was not a recognized academic specialty. What college or museum would want an unknown 36-year-old German Jew with a modest command of English who had never taught undergraduates, let alone graduate students? If Herman had not understood the difficulties he faced, he soon found out. The main Jewish refugee agency, HIAS, offered to send him to Illinois to work in a factory—take it or leave it. At another office, he ran into an acquaintance from Landau who said, “If you want a job in art history, you might as well shoot yourself.”
Instead, he eventually found his way to the office of the American Friends Service Committee, an arm of the Religious Society of Friends devoted to helping displaced persons of all faiths. There, he learned that the Quakers were about to sponsor a summer seminar for refugee scholars. For eight weeks, 50 participants would study English and learn about America at a boarding school in New Hampshire while the Quakers tried to place them, at least temporarily, in academic positions. A few spaces remained, and my father was eligible for this opportunity, which would get us out of New York and offer at least a chance of a teaching job. However, there was a fee of $50, an astronomical sum that he did not have. The £30 from Baron Rothschild was just about gone, William was both supporting himself and helping us on his salary of $20 per week, and hopes of finding the money, plus enough to keep us going until July, when the seminar started, were slim.
Emboldened by the immediate need, and by now accustomed to swallowing his pride to ask for help, Herman went to see two elderly sisters whom his parents had known in Würzburg, and who had left early, their resources intact. In their comfortable East Side apartment, the Frankenheimer sisters listened politely to his description of the Friends’ seminar, then withdrew to another room to discuss their response. Soon they returned with an envelope, saying that they were glad to help. Thanking them, he said he would make every effort to repay this debt, though he did not know when that could happen. They replied that there was no need to do so, that they hoped the seminar would be the beginning of a happy future. As Herman waited for the bus back to our room, he opened the envelope. In it were two $50 bills.
Herman’s outgoing personality made a strong impression on the leaders of the seminar, who looked high and low for an academic job that might take him through the coming year. But the new academic year brought no prospect of employment. Herman and Friedl were faced with an agonizing choice. The Friends had heard of a position in North Carolina for someone with bookkeeping skills, but that would mean abandoning hope of a scholarly career. The alternative was a one-year, unpaid internship at the University of Pittsburgh, under rigorous terms. My father could hone his English and offer a few lectures, my parents would live in the servant’s quarters in the residence of one of the deans, and my mother would work as a domestic servant, cleaning, cooking, and waiting at meals, all at a salary of five dollars per week. However, the dean and his wife were not willing to have a child in the house—another arrangement would have to be made for me.
This presented my parents with the most difficult decision they had ever faced as a couple. My father’s professional prospects depended on accepting this arrangement, yet throughout all the hardships and losses of the recent past, the one constant had been the ability to keep our little family together. Now, when we were finally out of danger, my mother was asked to let go of her only child, to leave me with another family in a new country while she undertook the drudgery of domestic service in a distant city. I can only imagine the agonized, and perhaps divisive, conversations that took place over this decision, during the waning days of summer. But the Quakers had found a family in New Hampshire willing to host a foster child in return for four dollars a week to cover their added expenses. And so my parents reluctantly agreed to that arrangement, and I spent my fourth year with a Congregational minister, his wife, and three daughters in a tiny New England village.
That is another story. The main point here is that this decision, despite its enormous risks and costs, was a crucial step in what became the wonderful success story of Herman’s career in America. It led, through some complex pathways, to a one-year appointment in the fall of 1941 to the faculty of Temple University in Philadelphia. There he spent the next 30 years. He became a teacher revered by generations of art students and others. He was the first art historian, and only the second Jew, to join the faculty at Temple, which had been founded as a Baptist college in the late 19th century. His courses, spanning the entire history of Western art from the cave paintings to Picasso, had huge enrollments. His heavy teaching responsibilities and continuing financial pressures took him away permanently from the life of scholarly research and publication he had originally envisioned. But at Temple, he discovered a grand passion for teaching, and a pleasure in engaging with young minds, that he might never have found otherwise.
Thus, William Penn’s City of Brotherly Love became the site of my father’s new life in learning. Students sensed his optimism—not only was he a living example of the survivor, but in his teaching he also embodied the belief that much of the best that humans have made and thought survives and may continue to inform and enrich our own lives. Through his example, as well as his precepts, Herman Gundersheimer conveyed these convictions to his own children as well. When I became a historian, in the 1960s, very few Jews taught in the humanities departments of our great universities and colleges. In those days one was still conscious of being, and being seen as, part of a minority group. My father had faced bigotry and hatred, but the doors were opening for my generation, and my career became one of expanding opportunities and choices.
In 2004, after my parents died—Friedl was almost 94, Herman had just turned 101, and they had been married for 69 years—I found some surprising remnants of their early life together. One was a small rectangular brass plaque, inscribed with the single word “Gundersheimer.” It was the nameplate from the door of my parents’ apartment in Frankfurt. The house at 27 Leerbachstrasse is long gone. Perhaps the nameplate is all that remains of it. I often wonder what this young couple must have been thinking when they unscrewed this plaque from their door and headed to the airport with their little boy on that morning in May three-quarters of a century ago.
And though Herman Gundersheimer never looked back, never lamented the life he might have lived had the Germans voted differently in 1932, he and my mother were profoundly reminded of what our fate would have been had we not emigrated when we did. Some 25 years ago, he was invited to Frankfurt’s Jewish Museum to speak at its inaugural ceremonies, in the presence of Chancellor Helmut Kohl. On that occasion, my parents had a chance to see—to bear witness to—the names of my grandparents Anna Bamberger Siegel and Siegfried Siegel on the tablets of remembrance of those elderly Jews of Frankfurt who had no choice but to remain in Germany during the war—and were subsequently deported to Theresienstadt in 1942. They who had urged us so vigorously to escape suffered their own tragic end by not being able to do so themselves.
Werner Gundersheimer is director emeritus of the Folger Shakespeare Library.