How My Father Saved our Family by Esther Ticktin

Esther Ticktin shared the  following story with Fabrangen on January 25, 2014 at a special service celebrating her 89th birthday.

My Refugee Story:
How My Father Saved our Family

By Esther Ticktin

My story begins when the Nazis marched into Vienna, Austria.  It was March 1938 and I was 13 years old. I want to share this memoir so that my children, grandchildren, community and friends can hear, remember, and tell the story to future generations.

A close cousin and friend of my father told us that we had to leave Vienna because of the situation.  Jewish people were being picked up on streets and taken to concentration camps.  We were told about the concentration camps and that Hitler was planning to invade and annex Austria.

My father sat down with my brother Herbie and me and told us it was not safe for Jewish children and Jews in general, to remain in Austria.  My father felt strongly about this because just days after the Anschluss, March 12th, 1938, when Hitler marched into Austria, my father, along with hundreds of Jews stood in line outside the United States Embassy to apply for visas to leave. If he had not gone at that time to register for the visas, we would not have made it out of Europe.

I remember trusting that my parents would protect and save the family.

Here is an entry from my diary that I wrote in Vienna when I was 13 years old, dated March 12th, 1938. These diaries were translated orally from German to English in 2007 with the help of my daughters Deborah and Ruthie.

“All of Vienna is adorned with flags.  The National Socialists took over the government bringing joy and happiness for all those National Socialists [Nazis].  And who is not joyful right now?  Mourning, fear and unhappiness, sleepless nights, anxious days, that’s how it looks for the People Israel.  Will it be like Germany, Jews without work?  Separate benches for the Jewish kids in school, prohibition for swimming etc?  Or will God take pity on the poor tortured people?  Until yesterday I still had hopes.  Today’s newspaper robbed me of any ray of hope.  Without let-up, German airplanes circle around us.  We have to always see the swastika in front of us.  We have to tolerate that certainly!  If only the fear and worry didn’t depress us so much.  What dark future are we walking towards?  I look without hope to the next day.  Will there be school?  What will happen to my swimming?  Oh God give me the strength to carry on.  Help my parents, my relatives, my little brother, all those whom I love, my people whom I love.  Help us to atone for all our sins today and keep helping us, dear God.”

The following is another Diary entry from March 14th, 1938:

“Today someone started: “Jew-pig”.  I want to suffer that, I want to be strong and endure it.  Papa heard that Jews will get a different middle school.  My first thought was if I’m going to be together with my friends and my swimming.  Even in these hard times I think about them and hope we will be allowed to continue training at the pool. Three days later, Purim! Herbie’s birthday, March 17th 1938.  He will remember this one.  Our situation is sad.  Houses, stores, and apartments are being robbed.”

On April 29th, 1938, I wrote in my diary:

“Thrown out of School [April 29th 1938] It was a hard day for my friends and me.  We are not allowed to return to our dear school, to this school which I liked so much.  It meant more to me than a house of learning.  I spent three happy years in the school and it was my second home.  What beautiful memories connect me with this old gray building with the green dome.  In joy and sadness I stepped into the schoolhouse and the warm walls surrounded me and it was a comfort to me when I was sad.  I don’t know how but I feel attracted by the building where I met and loved my friends and through them I became a faithful member of the Hakoah. What the Hakoah meant to me, no person can feel with me.  I have never experienced anything so beautiful. It was for me not a swim club but everything – sport, culture, spirituality and beauty.  I love everything that is connected with Hakoah.  My uncle Yoachkim is a fanatic Hakoah fan and he wanted me to go swimming with Hakoah.  Yoachkim and Tante Marta love my brother and me so much that they would be willing to give everything to us.”

In the spring of 1938 I wrote an entry in my diary about two sisters who were on the Hakoah women’s swim team. In 2004 they were interviewed in the movie “Watermarks” which is a documentary about the Hakoah.

“Hanni told us that in a year she and her mother would go to Eretz [the land, meaning of Israel] for good, while Judith with her father wanted to move there, around May.  I caught myself getting very sad and I have unending respect for the two girls.  I admire and love them, especially Judith who is a wonderful girl.   She is so serious and determined and yet a kindhearted person like she, is rarely seen.  I think that Hanni will one day be like her and hopefully so will I.”

I wrote the following a few months later in July 1938:

“We got an eviction notification for our apartment, a beautiful sunny apartment in the third district.  It was in a dignified noble neighborhood, a large garden as a courtyard, outside the banks of the Danube Canal and near a park with a dense forested path.   Next to it was the old school.  At the bridge was the apartment of Tante Adele and Uncle David.  I lived with all this wonderful life, receiving and giving love.  I was loved by my parents, Herbertle, uncles and aunts, and girlfriends.  I was able to radiate this feeling to the Hakoah, Eretz, and all those who loved me.  Now it’s all supposed to be over.  Gone are all the joys and everything really.  I hope that in New York there will also be a swim club so that my brother Herbie and I will be successful.  We want to get away, absolutely far away from here.  As of now we have no news from America.  We will probably go there and then we too will be refugees.”

We heard on the radio that allegedly a Jewish man killed a German diplomat Nazi on the streets in Paris.  My parents said it was very clear to them and to everyone that it would start trouble against the Jews all over Europe.  And sure enough stories of Jews being gathered in the streets of Vienna occurred.

And on November 10th Jewish men were taken off the street and we assumed taken to concentration camps.  I worried about papa every day and night because at that point men were just taken.  We could see them being taken from our window. But after the event of November 10th – a memorable date that we will never forget, we woke up to the news that Jewish synagogues were destroyed in Vienna and one of them was right around the corner from where we lived.  It was a Sephardic Turkish temple, along with most of the synagogues in Vienna that were destroyed November 10th, Kristallnacht, the night of broken glass. And I think my father must have said, as he usually did on such occasions, that we have to find a way of getting out.  We had to find any way to get out so that we could to get to the United States.    It was clear that it was going to get even worse.

This is an entry from my diary, Thursday November 10th, 1938:

“The next day, Nov. 10, we had no opportunity to go out.  All of the synagogues were burning. What an experience.  We saw everything out of our windows.  What went on in the streets, and added to this, came the fear for life.  We prayed, we cried and we waited.  Every moment we ran to the window.  At the slightest sound we jumped.  Our knees kept on trembling. We didn’t have a drop of courage or hope in us.  The news we received was terrifying.  We saw smoke clouds in the sky.  The synagogues are burning.  God’s houses are in flames.  And you Dear God watch it all.  It’s your houses, which were built for your honor, are burning and are destroyed.  A jubilating and laughing mob stands and stares and we, we are so unhappy.  Suddenly we saw under our window a heap of books and papers burning.  At our first glance we saw prayer books, burning! It was terrible.  We also saw papers going up in the air.  The tops of the papers said Mizrachi. The registration forms, youth aliyah and Hachshara forms, the fruit of so much work were burned here.  Was that possible?  Could people do that to other people? It was unthinkable, the things from our youth group?  Surely my eyes did not deceive me.  Should I run downstairs and save something from their hands?  No I wasn’t allowed to do that.  Now I was not as I had been before.  I have lost hope and couldn’t stay on my feet. It was too much.  Temples; Sifrei Torah, papers from the youth group are lying in ashes around us and we… We sit at home and wait for the annihilation.  I had to lie down.   This day passed and then another week began.  The Heim, my youth group home, is totally demolished.  The doors have huge holes through which you can look in.  The entire hallway has shattered glass and torn papers.”

What I was afraid to write at this time is that we heard the footsteps of the SS  (Hitler’s black-shirted men) all day long. They were marching up the stairs of all of the apartment buildings.  We saw them taking radios and other electronics from various apartments.  At 5pm two men entered our apartment.  They asked Papa some questions.  They took two books from the hallway bookcase.  One was a poetry book in German written by a Jewish Zionist poet and some other seemingly non-incriminating book.  Then they left and we listened again to their footsteps on the stairs…

I had to leave school.  The next few months were full of saying goodbye to friends from my youth group, who were off to Eretz, as we called Palestine.

And from my diary, December 19th, 1938:

“The certificates arrived.  All of those whom I loved so much are leaving.  Will I ever see them again?  Will they ever write to me?    I want to buy something for them but I have no money.  I want them all to sign my autograph book…It’s hard to go through these departures.  But we don’t know anything definite. . . .  I hope everything goes well and then I’ll go as quickly as possible to America to work there and save money and then go to Palestine.  Dear God help that everything will turn out beautiful and that the sun will shine for us again! Amen.”

There were a lot of changes for us. And a lot of things happened in the next few days and weeks that really strengthened my father’s conviction that he had to get his family out.  We all saw horrible things that made the story painfully clear.  So my father got in touch with his cousin, Jack Goldfleiss, (who was in Italy, and later France, through the war) and was able to acquire visas for my parents, my aunt and uncle, my brother and me.  The visas were good for ten days and allowed us entrance into Belgium. We all got ready for that trip that was going to change our lives completely.   But within a few days Jewish Vienna was full of stories about how these visas were not being accepted at the border of the Belgian train station crossing.  They did not allow Jews on these visas to get off the train and enter the country so they had to return to Vienna.  The group who tried to leave before us, an orthodox family with 10 children, got on the train to leave but then they had to turn around and go back after they were not allowed to enter Belgium.

The next few days brought a lot of changes from our original plan.  Jewish neighbors throughout the city exchanged thoughts and decisions and many Jewish families tried, in an experiment, to enter the country by the airport.  And clearly they managed to get in without any problem into the Brussels airport, the capitol of Belgium.  My father immediately ordered 4 visas for Belgium.  I knew that I could trust my father and he would find a way to bring us to safety.  A week later we made a plan.  We took the train from Vienna to Cologne, Germany.  There we went to the airport and flew to Brussels and then connected on a very small airplane to Antwerp Belgium. And so with success, we all arrived in Belgium, and were not turned back.

I want to share some of my experiences during this chapter of my family’s life.  We arrived in Antwerp and were met by the Jewish community who welcomed us.  We lived in Antwerp for a little more than a year. Stepping into Belgium was a completely new experience.  It was also the first time we had been on a plane.  Herbie was sick the whole trip.  I remember the first day of that actual arrival but I don’t feel comfortable talking about it and it’s hard to sort out all the different feelings around this time. But I do clearly remember Papa saying to me, “Edith, write to Uncle Yoachkim and Tante Marta and tell them how good it is in Belgium. Ask them to please join us here so we can be together.” My mother’s sister Martha and her husband joined us later in Antwerp. Thank God they got out of Vienna in time.  Papa knew they had to leave.  We stayed in Antwerp for only one year because our ultimate goal was to leave Belgium and get new visas for the United States.  That year my mother took care of all of us.  She cooked on a hot plate and we all lived in one room.

We were finally able to take the boat to the United States because the visas were approved and financially guaranteed by my father’s cousin Jack Koenigsburg.  That was April, 1940; two years after my father had registered for visas at the U.S. consulate in Vienna.  My mother’s brother, sister-in-law and two daughters were in the U.S., the Pomeranz family, and they helped us.  My father’s family – his sister Molly Bleich, her many children and his sister Fanny Katz were also there.

Jack Koenigsburg met us at the boat, took us to his apartment, and we met his family.  Then we went to Brooklyn, and it was wonderful. I liked the people immediately.  They were very loving and kind and warm and everything was so familiar because they had the same background as my family.  My family had many cousins and they let us stay with them, temporarily, sharing beds.  They were by no means wealthy.  My mother’s brother and sister-in-law and two daughters lived on Ocean Parkway, only four blocks from the beach in Coney Island.  We eventually found an apartment in Borough Park and our family also helped us to find work.

My mother got a job as a cleaning woman and my father found work, peddling door to door. Sometimes we helped peddle on the weekends. But it was very difficult for my mother to be a cleaning woman because of the way people treated her.  She didn’t complain. My father’s cousin, Jack Koenigsburg was so generous and he put a down payment on a grocery store for us in Brighton Beach in Brooklyn.  The grocery store was like a good convenience store nowadays.  I opened the store every morning because the milkman came very early and I had to put the milk in containers and into our refrigerator. This all happened before I left for school.  I was up around six in the morning every day to do this one important chore.

Herbie, my brother, worked in the store and delivered groceries on a regular basis.  He was especially busy before Passover.  He carried huge baskets by hand. We all worked very hard, but nobody worked as hard as my parents.  They were in the store all day until early evening and after a while my aunt Martha, who lived on Ocean Parkway, also came to help us.  She was a very good businesswoman and she helped us a lot.  She came into the store every morning and mostly worked at the cash register.  My Aunt Martha was a character.  She had been my father’s partner in Vienna at the fabric lace store. We were very close – Mama, Papa, Uncle and Tanta – they were our 4 parents.

I loved my new school and have an especially fond memory of Mrs. Deutsch, a wonderful German Jewish teacher.  Her husband was a doctor and if I had any medical problems she took care of me. She watched over me in such a tender way and urged me to write an autobiography.  I wrote one at home during the time I was in Junior High School. I do remember, as if it was yesterday, that Mrs. Deutsch helped me to feel welcome in my new country.

This is just one part of the journey to the US, to our grocery store in Brooklyn New York, and there are many more chapters to follow.

Now I must add that I owe so much to my father, Leo Kelman. He worked in the store in Vienna but was also a writer and he was good at it.  He was about to have one of the plays that he wrote, performed in Vienna.  The play was halted due to the city being under attack. Later the play was translated in English, self-published by my brother (in 1959) and given to my father for his 70th birthday. My mother worked so hard for all of us. She was also educated, and learned modern Hebrew at a time when very few women did.  She felt that our Jewish education was very important for us at all times.

A lot of Viennese Jews sent their children to England as part of the Kinder- transport but my parents felt that they wanted to keep their family together and my father wanted to leave with his wife and children.  He was committed to not splitting us up, and my mother supported and trusted his decisions.   If not for my father’s wisdom and courage I would not be here to tell my refugee story.  He saved our lives.