Holocaust Survivor H. Henry Sinason Testimony

Uploaded by USCShoahFoundation on 29.01.2009

Today’s date is May 29, 1996.
The survivor is H. Henry Sinason.
Interviewer, Maureen Halpert.
The city, state, is Laguna Hills, California, United States of America.
Language, English.
My name is Maureen. That’s M-A-U-R-E-E-N.
Halpert. H-A-L, P as in Paul, E-R-T.
I’m interviewing today Henry Sinason,
and we’re in Laguna Hills, California, USA.
The language is English. It’s May 29, 1996.
Can you give me your full name and spell it for me, please?
My name is H. Henry Sinason.
Last name is spelled S as in Sam, I, N as in Nancy, A-S-O-N.
And, how do you spell Henry?
Oh, excuse me. H-E-N-R-Y.
Can you give me the city and country where you were born,
and spell both please?
I was born in Berlin, B-E-R-L-I-N,
the capital of Germany, G-E-R-M-A-N-Y.
What date were you born?
I was born on August 26, 1925.
Have you used any other names? If so, please spell those.
No, I really have not used any other names.
Although my name at birth
was spelled slightly differently.
It had a German spelling.
The last syllable, S-O-N,
was spelled the German way, S-O-H-N.
I had this changed when I became an American citizen.
And I used my first initial which I use silently now, H. Henry,
because my name at birth and in Germany was Heinz, H-E-I-N-Z.
How old are you today?
I am 70 and a half.
Can you tell me again, where were you born?
And what was your house like?
All right.
I was born in Berlin,
which was then, as it is today, the capital of Germany.
Both my parents were born in Germany,
so were my grandparents.
And our family goes back–
according to some genealogical work that was done–
on my mother’s side till about 1730 in Germany,
and on my father’s side, as far as we could trace it, to the early 1840s.
We lived in the center of Berlin.
My parents were upper middle class.
My father was a sales representative for a large textile mill.
- What was your father’s name? - His name was Harry.
His first name was Harry, H-A-R-R-Y.
And, as I said, he was a sales representative in Berlin
for a large textile mill located in the south of Germany.
He would sell textiles
to the dress manufacturers who were concentrated in Berlin.
There was a garment district there.
Just like there is in New York in this country.
He earned a very nice living. We had a nice apartment.
The ambience was cultured. We had music.
I remember my parents dressing up in evening clothes
and going to the opera.
We had theater, and they would take us along.
We were comfortable economically,
at least before the National Socialist regime took over in Germany.
I’m talking about the early years that I remember,
in the early 1930s, before 1933.
Now, what was your mother’s name?
My mother’s name is Selma, S-E-L-M-A,
and her maiden name was Allmeier,
My mother was not born in Berlin,
but came from a small village in the Rhineland,
in the Moselle Valley to be exact.
As a young girl, when she was about 18 years old,
her mother, my grandmother, sent her to live with my grandmother’s sister
who lived in Berlin because my grandmother feared
that she would not meet a suitable young Jewish man
in this little village in the Rhineland where they lived.
So my mother went to Berlin to live with her aunt and uncle,
and the aunt and uncle happened to have a tobacco store.
And to help out a little bit after school,
my mother would work as a salesgirl in a tobacconist shop.
My father was one of the customers who went there to buy his cigars,
and that’s how he and my mother met.
What about brothers and sisters?
My own brothers and sisters? Okay.
I had a younger brother who was a year and a half younger than I.
His name was George,
although when he was born in Germany his name was Gunter,
same last name as mine.
Unfortunately, George passed away in 1988.
- What about your grandparents? - My grandparents?
- What were their names? - Okay.
On the paternal side, my father’s parents
lived in a small town in Eastern Germany, in the province of Posen.
That’s P as in Peter, O-S-E-N.
Small town called Schönlanke.
This town is very well known in Germany
because it contained the largest matzo bakery in Germany,
and every German Jew had heard the name of Schönlanke.
But my grandparents were not in the matzo business.
They owned a number of businesses in their town.
My grandfather’s name was Herman.
My grandmother’s name was Rebecca.
Same last name, Sinasohn, spelled the German way.
They owned a large general store.
They owned a sawmill. They owned a sauerkraut factory.
And generally kept all kinds of animals around.
Had a little bit of a farm. Did a little bit of everything.
I know this because, as a young boy,
we used to go and spend our vacations there.
What was Berlin like?
The community of Berlin, Jewish community and otherwise.
There was a very large
Jewish community in Berlin.
As far as I remember,
before the Nazi regime took over in 1933,
there were about 400,000 Jews in Berlin.
There were many, many synagogues.
There were many, many Jewish organizations.
My father belonged to some of them. Some of them were cultural.
There was a Jewish war veterans organization
to which my father belonged.
There was a very strong religious life.
There was a Zionist movement.
There were other Zionist-oriented parties
that had their own program for training young people,
and all sorts of things were going on.
However, my father, in particular,
was German first and Jewish second.
Now, this does not mean that he was not an observant Jew.
We were what was then called observant.
In this country, in the USA, this can be translated into Conservative.
But in those days the Conservative movement didn’t exist,
especially not in Europe.
We observed all the holidays.
We went to services Friday night and Saturday morning.
If my father didn’t have to work,
he made sure that I went and my brother went.
We both, my brother and I, sang in the synagogue choir.
Usually, synagogues had boys’ choirs.
We celebrated all the holidays.
My father never worked on the holidays.
We were without keeping a kosher home,
yet we observed all the traditions.
I think this comes as close to Conservatism or modern Orthodoxy
in this country as you could in those days.
It was never any problem.
I mean, when I was a little boy,
it was just traditional on Friday nights and Saturday.
We would have a Friday night dinner, and my mother would prepare it.
At Passover, we changed dishes and that sort of thing.
My father would conduct a seder, and many relatives would be invited.
It was a very rich, full Jewish life.
Tell me about the schools you went to.
Since I was born in 1925,
I started school in 1931 or so, when I was about six years old.
At that time, there was really no problem.
It so happened that the best school in the neighborhood where we lived,
in terms of academic work
and also the most convenient,
was a Catholic elementary school.
Now, Catholic elementary schools
were supported by the Catholic diocese of Berlin,
but they were not, as in this country, taught by nuns or brothers.
They were lay teachers.
And, basically, they had the same curriculum
as the city schools
with the exception that after regular classes,
there was a class in catechism,
and the Jewish kids in the school, and there were a dozen or so,
were excused from that, and we could go home early.
And we did.
Now, this was about 1931 and 1932.
In 1933, when the Nazis came to power, this started to change
because my classmates, who were my little friends,
and we visited each other and played together
and did our homework together and what have you,
must have picked up new vibrations at home
because suddenly, they called us “dirty Jew.”
They called us other names.
They would not play with us.
They would not invite us.
Some of their parents would telephone my parents and say,
“I hope you understand, but if my son plays with your son,
then his other friends will–” et cetera.
They knew what was going on.
They made excuses, but it didn’t stop.
It was not an official policy of the school.
The teachers were very fair. This was never permitted in class.
There was never any reference in class to anything like that,
unlike the public schools,
where the anti-Semitism had become suddenly very rampant.
I stayed in that school
until there came a point when the government,
by this time the National Socialists, the Nazis,
decreed that all Jewish children in Germany
had to go to special schools, Jewish schools.
And the consistory of Berlin–
by consistory, I mean the organization
of the various congregations.
There was a union of all the synagogues and all the congregations,
be they Reform or Orthodox,
which worked together for social relief and what have you.
This consistory founded a number of elementary schools.
There were five or six of them. I went to number four.
This was a regular elementary school, staffed by Jewish teachers.
All the children were Jewish.
When was this?
This was about 19– I would say ’35, probably.
What was the name of the school?
It was simply called <i>Jüdische Volksschule.</i>
This means Jewish elementary school, number four.
What about before?
What was your relationship like
between yourself and the non-Jewish kids in school?
- Well, it was– - And–
- Excuse me? - And, to expand on that,
did you have any non-Jewish friends?
Before, yes. We had a lot of non-Jewish friends.
People who lived in the same apartment building.
We played with the kids. We played in the street.
We played soccer with them. We raced our little toy cars together.
We played all the children’s games, all the boys’ games.
There was never any question of what religion were you.
Were you Catholic? Were you Jewish? Or were you Protestant?
Berlin was mostly
what the Germans call <i>Evangelische,</i>
which is Evangelical or Protestant.
I think best translated as Lutheran, was a prevalent religion.
It was not a Catholic part of Germany.
That is down south, in Bavaria.
But the northern part of Germany is not Catholic.
So even the kids in the Catholic school felt that they were a minority,
but nobody bothered them.
We never heard any epithets,
either against Catholics or against Jews, before that time.
About 1934, ’35 it started, for sure.
So what was the relationship like between you and other students?
Non-Jewish students?
They stopped playing with us around that time.
As time went by, contacts ceased.
We did not try to play with them because we knew that we were not wanted.
When I say we, I mean, for instance, my brother and I,
who were close in age, and other Jewish friends.
We made Jewish friends through school,
and we would play with them.
At that time, also, the Hitler Youth movement became very popular,
and all our former friends belonged to the Hitler Youth.
As time went by, they knew where the Jewish schools were,
and they would wait for us to come out of school in the afternoon
and beat us up.
They were, what you’d call today, muggers.
In other words, they would look for our pocket money and take it
and things of that sort.
I remember, to give you an instance,
this was later on, around 1937, ’38,
I was studying for my bar mitzvah,
and I had to go to the home of our cantor
that was going to teach me how to do what I had to do.
There were some kids my age, not much older,
who knew that a cantor lived there because the cantor was very proud.
He had his name on a brass plate with the title “cantor” underneath.
And these Hitler Youth children
knew that Jewish boys would come there regularly,
one every hour during the afternoon, and they were waiting for us,
and they would beat us up.
If you denied that you were Jewish, or tried to,
they would go through your pockets,
and if you were carrying a kippah or anything like that,
they would really become quite cruel as children can be,
both physically abusive and verbally.
So it was a gradual thing
which degenerated from just ignoring us to actually becoming physical
and making life a little tough.
Now what about before that?
What did you do, let’s say, in your spare time as a child?
During the elementary school years, we played all the children’s games.
Sports was a big thing.
Sports were organized by the schools.
The Germans, both Jews and Gentiles, put a lot of emphasis
on physical education in the schools,
and we would have physical ed every other day or something like that.
The school had a gym.
We used that.
There were certain swimming pools
which Jews were allowed to use in the city.
- When did that start? - I beg your pardon?
- When did that start? - That started about 1937.
But before that–
Before then, you could go to any one that you wanted,
but then the Nazis restricted that and said only one or two are open to Jews.
So I remember my brother and I having to take the subway
to go to this particular pool where we had swimming lessons.
The instructor was a Jewish physical ed teacher,
whom we knew, and all his students were the Jewish kids.
There were other instructors there from other schools,
but they were all Gentile.
So, never the twain mixed. We did our thing.
They did theirs in the same pool, but we didn’t talk to each other.
So, that
sort of went on for a while,
and then the government decided
that Jews were not entitled to go to any swimming pool,
and that cut that short, and that was about, I’d say, 1938.
When you were growing up, did you do cultural things with your parents?
Yes, as I mentioned earlier,
both my parents liked music very much.
My father was an amateur opera singer, and he was active in the–
what they called a <i>Kulturbund,</i> which was a cultural organization
sponsored by the Jewish community of Berlin,
and they would put on operas and plays and what have you.
He also sang as a cantor on the holidays,
not because he needed to make money, but he loved to sing.
My mother played the piano.
My father would sing in the shower, I suppose.
And we heard him, and he would–
When friends come over they would ask him to sing,
and he would sing an aria from some opera.
Ever since I was a little boy, I remember him singing.
There was music, and they would go to the theater and to movies,
as long as Jews were still allowed to do that
because over a period of time that also stopped.
Then there were certain films
that could be shown in one of the Jewish centers, only for Jews.
Usually, they were old Yiddish films
that had been imported from Poland or some place.
They were in Yiddish.
Jews were not allowed to see the popular movies,
the American films that were being shown or the German films.
The theater, again, was put on by Jewish people
in these Jewish centers.
And I read a lot as a child.
We had a very classical education, even in elementary school.
Further on, when I was in fifth or sixth grade, we read Homer.
We read the <i>Iliad.</i> We read all the German poets.
We read all the–
It was, as I said,
a very academic, very classical type of education.
It was very thorough.
What was the relationship like between you and your family?
Your parents and your brother?
We were the typical German family.
My father was the head of the family, and his word was law.
There was no questioning it.
He was preoccupied. We spoke to him after he spoke to us.
We would not dare interrupt him when he was doing whatever he was doing.
My mother, of course, was a different story.
We could inveigle her into letting us do things.
When we wanted something,
we’d first go to our mother and say “Well, you know,” and she would say,
“Well, I have to ask your father,” and then we’d say,
“Oh, that’s bad news because he will say no.”
And she’d say, “Well, I’ll see,” and this kind of thing.
My father was–
This is absolutely typical for that period in time.
It was like that in my friend’s house and everyone’s house.
The man, the breadwinner, was sacrosanct.
He was on a pedestal, and his word was law.
What were some of the first things that you saw
with the rise of Nazism?
- The first things that affected you. - The first thing that affected me
was probably the transfer in elementary school,
when I had to go to an all-Jewish school.
What did they tell you?
My parents told me, “A new law has come out,
and you can’t go to this school anymore.
When the school year ends, you’ll be going to another school.”
And instead of walking maybe five or six blocks to school,
I now had to walk for about 40 minutes or so
to get to the school,
this Jewish school.
This Jewish school was a converted apartment building
surrounded by other apartment buildings in which Gentile people lived,
and they didn’t like the fact at all
that there was a Jewish school among them.
So they made life very difficult,
aside from the Hitler Youth, waiting for us when we came out
and beating us up and harassing the girls in particular.
German education demanded that boys and girls go to separate classes,
but the school was there for both.
But, for instance, during recess,
the neighbors in the other adjacent apartment buildings
had complained that there was too much noise during recess.
Children who are in class for three hours,
after they’re released for half an hour, they get a little wild,
and we used to run around and scream a little bit.
So, the school authorities decreed that we had to walk
two by two in a large circle through the school yard,
and we were not allowed to talk.
And that was our recreation
because the neighbors complained that there was too much noise.
When school was out, the teachers would come out on the street
and make sure that we were very quiet,
and that there was nobody shouting or yelling or anything else.
They weren’t there to help us much with the Hitler Youth gangs,
but they made sure that the neighbors weren’t disturbed
because the penalty was that the government would close down the school.
So we were very cowed and very subdued in school,
and we had to really toe the line.
Those were the first impacts that I felt as a child.
Now back home, eventually,
we picked up bits of conversation where my father said,
“You know, this so-and-so has been my customer for 25 years,
and now he says he won’t buy from me anymore.
He’s afraid he’s going to get into trouble, so I lost this good account.”
It became more and more difficult for my father to earn a living
because his Gentile customers were afraid,
although they were his friends, and they knew him for all these years.
And my father had a very, very difficult time dealing with this.
As I said before, my father was German first and Jewish second.
He had been a volunteer in the First World War.
He was, for four years, on the French front.
He was decorated with the Iron Cross by the kaiser himself,
and this was the proudest moment of his life.
He walked around every day of his life with that Iron Cross in his pocket.
I remember once, as a big joke,
which got my brother and myself into a lot of trouble,
we took the Iron Cross, and we sewed it on his pajamas.
It was terrible.
He punished us for weeks.
Anyway, he tried to teach us that this was next to holy almost.
It turns out that– Later on, this has a great bearing on my story.
But my father could not understand that he, as a good German,
who fought for the fatherland for four years,
and four of his brothers– he was one of 10 children–
four of his brothers were also in the German army in World War I,
both on the Russian front and the Western Fronts.
The whole family had been very patriotic,
and he was highly decorated, and he could not understand that,
suddenly, he was not considered German anymore.
He was just a Jew, like any other Jew.
When we first heard stories of the Gestapo rounding up Jews,
and these Jews being taken to concentration camps,
my father said, “Pay no attention to that.
They’re rounding up illegal Poles and Russian Jews that came to Germany,
and they have no business here anyway.”
He was a bit of a snob, maybe more than a bit of a snob.
He was a snob in that regard.
He looked down on Eastern European Jews
because German Jews were more cultured,
and German Jews were more emancipated–
that was his favorite word–
and we were really Germans first.
He simply could not fathom that this right of being a German citizen
was slowly being taken away from him.
You mentioned that the Hitler Youth would bother you.
Did they ever do something to you? And if so, what?
Yes, they would– What did they do to us?
They would stop me on the way home from school,
whether I was alone or with another kid, it didn’t matter much.
There would be 10 or 12 or 14 surrounding us,
and they would say, “Empty your pockets.”
They would take anything that they fancied,
whether it was some change that we had to buy a snack,
or whether it was a pocketknife, or some toy or whatever they felt like.
Usually they didn’t bother the books
because they weren’t interested in books that much.
So we never lost our schoolbooks and things.
But, they would just take things, and then after they had taken everything,
they would make threats and say, “Don’t come along here anymore.
This street is not for Jews.”
They would kick us in the behind a little bit.
Some of them would give us a punch in the nose sometimes.
It all depended on the mood they were in,
or if they had a bad day or a good day.
Sometimes one of them would say, “Let them go. They’re just little kids.”
And others would say, “No, they’re Jews. It doesn’t matter.”
Yeah, it became dangerous after a while in those terms,
and we would take different ways to school,
try to use different streets and different ways
to get to and from school.
But there were just so many that you could take.
Would you try and fight them?
Never, never.
Because we were always outnumbered.
There was never a one-on-one situation.
If there was a one-on-one situation,
let’s say you met a kid that lived upstairs in the same apartment building,
and he was wearing his Hitler Youth uniform, and he was going to a meeting,
and we met in the staircase,
we’d say, “Hi. Hello,” or something like that.
But they would never bother you on a one-on-one basis.
There were only certain gangs,
and they were not kids that we always recognized.
They sometimes came from other neighborhoods.
It was a very different situation.
These were not our actual neighbors.
They were kids– we don’t know where they came from.
I’m going to stop right here and go on to the next tape.
- Thank you. - Thank you.
...Germany, or did you experience?
That I experienced, personally?
It did not go much further than what I’ve already told you about,
but I saw all around me
things that were happening as a result of the new laws
and new anti-Semitic decrees
that came out from the government all the time.
It just never stopped. Every month there was a new decree.
It started out with the schools.
Then it went to things like the swimming pools, as I told you.
Then it went to the movie theaters,
where, at first, there would be one or two where Jews were allowed to go.
The others had big signs on their box office, <i>“Für Juden verboten,”</i>
which meant forbidden for Jews, so we didn’t go in there.
Then it went to the coffeehouses,
which was a very popular German pastime.
Everybody went to have coffee and cake at 4:00 in the afternoon,
my parents no exception.
Then they closed that down, and Jews were not allowed to go there.
Then a decree came out
that any store owned by a Jewish proprietor
had to have the proprietor’s name painted on the store window
in one-foot-high letters.
Actually, about 50 centimeters, which is very large.
This identified the store as a Jewish store.
Jews were allowed to buy in any store they wanted.
That is one right they never took away,
to spend the money in the non-Jewish stores.
But Gentiles, when they went into a Jewish store,
were hassled by the Storm Troopers.
Usually, there would be one or two, loitering near those stores,
and if they saw people that looked,
“Aryan,” go into the store–
meaning they were blond, blue-eyed, not Jewish looking–
these Storm Troopers would walk up to them and say,
“Don’t you know that this is a Jewish store?” and what have you.
Very often, they hit on tourists who didn’t speak German
and had no clue of what was going on.
So that happened, and then they would leave them alone.
But if it was a German person, they would ask for their ID papers,
and take their name and intimidate them.
I don’t think they ever did anything about it,
but they would intimidate them, and these people would never do it again.
So, of course, all the Jewish store owners
lost a lot of business that way.
And, as we found out later on,
this was a preamble to the <i>Kristallnacht,</i> the Night of Broken Crystal,
because it identified the Jewish stores
and made it very handy for the mobs to go looting and pillaging.
But, of course, this came about–
this business of putting the proprietor’s name on in large letters
came about a year before the Night of Broken Crystal.
Did you see parades?
There were constant parades.
Every time that Hitler made a speech,
he would assemble all the Storm Troopers and the SS and part of the army,
and they would go into one of the big sports stadiums,
and Hitler would make a speech.
They would parade around town.
If it was nighttime, they would carry torches,
and they’d sing these marching songs, and it was all very paramilitary.
- Did you see Hitler? - Did I see Hitler?
Several times, yes.
I saw Hitler. I saw Mussolini.
Seeing Hitler and parades in the street were a problem for the Jews
because, like in the United States,
when a flag passes, you are supposed to salute the flag.
Now they were carrying the new German flag, the swastika,
and Jews were not allowed
to salute the flag.
But on the other hand, if you didn’t salute the flag,
people around you got very huffy
because they didn’t know in those days that you were Jewish.
They would make remarks or would scuffle with you saying,
“You have no respect for the flag? What kind of a German are you?”
The last thing you wanted to do was tell them, “I’m Jewish”
because that would’ve gotten you into more trouble.
So whenever Jewish people saw a parade coming,
they would duck into a doorway or something
and try not to be there and watch the parade
because it was a very difficult thing to do.
Every group that marched by carried its flag,
so all these people constantly raised their right arm
in this Hitler salute to the flag.
But Jews were not allowed to use that salute.
That was against the law.
If you just stood there and didn’t salute– So it was a catch-22.
When were you bar mitzvahed?
Was it before Crystal Night or afterwards?
It was a few months before Crystal Night.
I was bar mitzvahed in September 1938.
By that time, the German government
had shut down some of the synagogues in Germany
on the grounds that they caused traffic congestion,
and that the neighbors complained of the noise
and the people coming and going in the street
at all hours and what have you.
They closed about half of them.
You just couldn’t open them. There were no services there.
But they left about half of them intact.
Fortunately, the synagogue that I was bar mitzvahed in
was one that was left open,
and I remember that it was filled to the last seat.
It seems to be a well-known phenomenon
that when Jews or other people are persecuted,
they turn towards religion.
Before the 1930s, there were many agnostic Jews
who did not participate in the Jewish life of Berlin.
But by 1938, there was not a single Jew in Berlin
who did not go to a synagogue
or did not in some way participate in Jewish life.
What synagogue were you a member?
It was a little Orthodox synagogue.
Well, it was modern Orthodoxy,
what we call Conservative, as I said before.
It was simply called by the name of the street it was in.
The street was Passaustrasse.
Passau is a city in Germany,
and the street was simply named after the city of Passau.
This synagogue had a strange location.
It was in the back of an apartment building.
You walked through the apartment house,
and there was a big courtyard behind it,
and in this courtyard stood the synagogue.
That’s where I was bar mitzvahed.
We had a rabbi and a cantor, and we had the boys’ choir.
All of my relatives that were still living in Berlin came,
and we had a little bit of a party at home
because Jews were not allowed to go to any restaurants anymore–
It was the end of 1938.
My mother and my aunts came and helped her,
and they baked and cooked and things like that.
We had a traditional lunch.
It was a nice day. I remember it very well.
Were you affected by any curfews or propaganda?
Not in my day, no.
What type of propaganda did you see?
Propaganda was everywhere.
It was on the radio
every time that you heard either Hitler or Goebbels or Goering
or any of the ministers speak.
They blamed every problem in Germany on the Jews.
In Germany, as all over Europe, they have what they call “kiosks,”
which are simply round pillars on which today’s newspaper is posted,
also some other posters advertising movies and theater.
These would be full of cartoons,
showing Jews always big-nosed and greedy looking,
and carrying bags of money strapped to their belt,
with some sort of a caption under it, blaming the Jews for this and for that.
The official slogan–
one of the official slogans of the Nazi regime
that was plastered all over the city of Berlin–
was <i>Die Juden sind unser Unglück!</i>
Which means that the Jews are our curse
or bad luck.
Actually, translated properly, it’s bad luck.
This you saw on every park bench and on every–
It was like graffiti all over town.
So we saw a lot of that.
And, of course, the newspapers, as I said,
were full of articles about
Jewish store owners exploiting their employees,
and this Jew had been caught with a non-Jewish woman,
and this Jew was sent to jail, and this person was sent to jail.
Though he was not Jewish, he had a Jewish grandmother,
which explains the obvious of why he was a criminal,
and things like that, beyond any rhyme or reason.
Tell me about <i>Kristallnacht.</i>
November 9, 1938.
I remember it very well.
We woke up in the morning. My brother and I shared a room.
We heard something that sounded like a crash,
and we also heard glass shatter.
It woke us up. It must’ve been about 5:30 in the morning.
But we didn’t think much of it because we lived in central Berlin,
not far from the theater district, and there were some night clubs there,
and there was a lot of traffic at night sometimes.
Sometimes, there were some drunk drivers.
There were many accidents that happened, automobile accidents.
We thought somebody had crashed into a lamppost or into another car,
and it was just that, so we just went back to sleep for another hour.
Then when our mother woke us up,
she said to me, “Go outside and buy some milk.”
In those days, you didn’t have supermarkets.
Milk was obtained two ways.
It was either delivered to your door,
or you went to a little store called a creamery that sold milk and cheese.
Jews were not entitled to door-to-door delivery anymore
because the drivers refused to serve Jews.
So, fortunately, in the front of our apartment house,
on the street level, there were several little stores,
and one of them was a creamery.
My mother would, every morning, send–
we took turns, my brother and I– send us out.
So I went out. It was a little pail that we had,
a little container just for the milk,
and I went out to buy a quart of milk.
When I came out to the street, I saw that there was another shop–
which belonged to a Jewish neighbor who was a furrier–
that his show window had been smashed.
I bought the milk, and I went back in, and I said to my mother,
“I don’t know what happened. We heard a crash this morning,
and now Mr. Cohen’s window, storefront, is all smashed in.”
My mother said, “It must have been a drunk or some rowdies
who threw stones or something.
Just get dressed and go to school and be careful.
Don’t stop anywhere to look. Just go.”
We went to the corner of the next main street,
which was a busy shopping street, and there we saw
that all the Jewish stores had been smashed.
There were big crowds in the street.
There were some police there, but they didn’t restrain the crowds.
The crowds were egged on by Storm Troopers in their brown uniforms,
and they were looting all the Jewish stores.
My brother and I got scared, and we ran back home.
We told my mother, and she woke up my father and said,
“Something is happening.
This is bad, because there’s a big, angry crowd out there.”
And my mother said, “You’re not going to school.
Just put your books away.”
We stayed in the house, and we listened to the radio,
and it said that there were mobs
all over the central part of Berlin and other parts,
being angry because this German counselor
had been shot in the Paris embassy by a Polish Jew,
and that the German people wanted revenge,
and they were going to kill 100 Jews for this one.
So, my mother and father said, “This is very dangerous.
I think you better
not go outside.
In fact, we’re going to go down into the cellar,
and we’re going to stay there during the day.”
Down in the basement, they had storage bins, which we called the cellar.
It was a basement of the apartment house.
We went in there.
We had some wooden crates that contained our Passover dishes,
and, behind that, we had a little folding table and some chairs
that we had prepared there just in case.
So we went in there. We were very quiet and reading and things.
But all was very quiet and nothing happened.
So about 4:00 or 5:00 in the afternoon,
my brother and I went outside.
My parents said, “Go outside and take a look.
They’re not going to bother you because you’re children.”
The apartment house that we lived in
was owned by a Jewish person
because Jews could not find apartments.
The Gentile house owners
would not rent to Jews anymore by 1938.
So we lived in this house, and there were a lot of Jewish families living there
because of that.
It was wintertime. It was November.
So by about 5:30, it started to get dark.
Then we saw a whole bunch of people carrying torches,
coming down our street.
My brother got very scared, and he ran back into our building
and was going to tell my parents.
I said, “Well, I’ll wait a couple of minutes to see what happens.”
I was 13 then.
This whole mob of people– There were some Storm Troopers,
and there were just other civilian people that I didn’t know,
they stopped in front of our building.
Then some of the Storm Troopers went in,
and some of the other people,
and they were yelling, “Nobody goes in and nobody goes out.”
And I was out. I was in the street.
So, the people just stood there for about 10 minutes.
Then somebody opened a window upstairs on the third or fourth floor,
and they said, “Look out below.”
They started to throw furniture out the windows.
I knew whose apartment this was.
This was the apartment of Jewish people.
They were up there with torches and all kinds of things.
- What were their names? - I beg your pardon?
Do you know the names of the people that lived there?
I don’t remember their names, but I know that they were Jewish people.
Because, as I said, a number of Jewish families lived in that building.
- Maybe a dozen or so. - So then what happened?
They threw all their furniture out their window.
Then they went to another apartment, and they did the same thing.
They threw stuff out the window.
People in the street would pick up whatever they found there.
But by the time it landed in the street there wasn’t–
because anything valuable these people that were in the apartments
probably put in their pockets.
So we were afraid they would do this to my parents’ apartment.
At least I was, and I didn’t know what to do, where to go.
So I just stayed in the street.
It was dark, I stayed away from the crowd
and sort of hid in a doorway on the opposite side of the street.
After about an hour or two– maybe it was two hours or so–
they got tired of this, and they went away.
They went to some other street. I didn’t follow them.
I didn’t know what had happened, so I went back into the apartment building.
My parents were still in the cellar, and my brother was with them,
and they had been terribly worried about me
because they didn’t know what had happened to me.
So I said, “Well, all is clear outside. They’ve gone away.”
So my father said, “I’m going to see if I can help the people,
or do something for them, or if they need some place to stay”
that, you know, had been put upon by these people.
But they had already left and gone somewhere else.
So he said, “Well, I think it’s over for now.
We’ll go back to the apartment.”
So we went back to the apartment, and we had some dinner.
We didn’t put the lights on. I remember it was dark.
My mother made some sandwiches and things like that, and we went to sleep.
She said, “Tomorrow, you’ll have to go to school.”
About 2:00 in the morning, there was a knock on the door.
There were two men, and they were Gestapo,
and they said that my father had to come with them.
My father said, “There must be some mistake.
I’m German, and I’m a veteran, and you have the wrong person.
You certainly don’t want me.”
They said, “Are you Harry Sinasohn?” et cetera and so on.
He said, “Yes.” They said, “You have to come with us.”
What happened next, I found out later on,
he was taken first to the local police station,
where there were some other Jews,
and then he was taken to a concentration camp
outside of Berlin called Sachsenhausen.
Sachsenhausen was not a death camp or a labor camp.
It was really a concentration camp.
It was a collection point
for Jews from the greater Berlin area.
- How long was he there? - I beg your pardon?
- How long was he there? - I will tell you that story in a moment.
When my father got there the next morning,
he became very vocal.
My father had a very strong temper, if not violent.
These people were stepping on something that was very sacrosanct to him.
He carried on something fierce–
that he was German, that he was a veteran,
that he was decorated, that he had an Iron Cross,
that no way was he going to submit to these indignities.
He wanted to talk to the commandant of the camp.
He made such a row that two of the guards
took him to the commandant of the camp,
and our miracle starts to unfold.
The commandant of the camp,
as were many other commandants of these concentration camps,
was a retired German army officer,
a colonel.
He questioned my father, “What’s your problem?
Why are you carrying on like this?”
My father reached into the pocket of his suit
and smashed his Iron Cross on the table, and he said,
“I deserved this. I risked my life for the fatherland.
The Kaiser gave me this, and I was–”
The colonel, being an army man, said,
“Where were you during the First World War?”
My father told him, and he said, “Do you know that that was my regiment?”
So my father said, “Well–” now very civil, you know.
Germans in front of authority become very obedient.
My father being confronted with this military authority now,
he had respect for this man and he said, “May I ask your name?”
He said, “Oh, yes. I do remember you were our colonel.”
The colonel dismissed the guards, and he said to my father,
“What am I going to do with you?
I really don’t know what to do with you. I can’t–
You have some urgent business to take care of, right?”
He winked at him, and my father said, “Yes, absolutely.”
He says, “Do you have a family?” He said, “Yes.
I have two small children, and my wife is at home,
and I didn’t know I had to leave.
My affairs are not in order.”
The commandant said, “Okay. I will give you a 48-hour pass,
and then you must report back here.”
He winked at him, and he let my father go.
My father took a train back to Berlin, and he came home, and he says,
“We’ve got to get out of the country.”
Do you remember the name of the–
No. I don’t know.
I don’t remember who that was.
- You mean the commandant of the camp? - Yeah.
Also, during <i>Kristallnacht,</i> what happened to your synagogue?
During <i>Kristallnacht,</i> our synagogue was burned like all the others.
We saw the flames because we only lived about four blocks away.
But we did not go near it, and there was nothing that anybody could do.
It was not burned very badly because, as I said before,
it was right next to an apartment house.
The fire department came to protect the apartment house,
but they let the synagogue burn.
So, mostly the roof of the synagogue burned, and it caved in.
But after that, either they extinguished the fire,
or it just burned itself out– I don’t know.
But the walls were left standing.
I saw it one time, after I went back to Berlin, after the war.
So what happened then– your father?
Okay, so–
In the meantime, of course,
my parents had seen the writing on the wall,
and we had made some preparations to leave Germany anyway.
We wanted to go to the United States because we had some relatives here.
There’s a little side story here.
My maternal grandmother had a young sister who was a very beautiful girl.
During World War I, they lived in the Rhineland,
which was occupied by the American Expeditionary Forces
in 1918.
A nice, young Jewish man from the Bronx fell in love with my great-aunt,
my grandmother’s sister, and she was a war bride.
He took her back to the United States, to the Bronx.
His name was George Hellman, and that was my Great-aunt Paula.
Through this great-aunt being in the United States–
In those days, in the ‘30s,
you needed someone to sponsor you to come to the United States.
There was a quota of about 5,000 Jews from Germany a year.
She had sent the necessary paper to us and to Washington,
but on the quota number we were something like 22,000 something or other,
which meant we had to wait about four years.
So, now my father had to get out of Germany within 48 hours.
There was no country in the world that would take Jews
without a long waiting period, without having a visa,
without having a lot of people in that country
that would vouchsafe for them and sponsor them and what have you.
There was one place in the world that Jews could go to without any paper.
All they needed was a ticket.
And that was China, the city of Shanghai.
The city of Shanghai, in 1939, was already occupied by the Japanese.
And apparently,
the Japanese had established some ammunition factories in Shanghai,
but they could not get enough labor to work them.
So they let Jews in, and they put them in a ghetto in Shanghai,
and they made them work in the ammunition factories.
All this, of course, I found out much later.
But at the time, China and Shanghai was a total unknown to everyone
because in Germany, I had never seen a Chinese person.
I don’t know if my parents ever had.
So what happened to your father and your mother then?
So my father and my mother
scraped together some money very quickly,
sold some jewelry and things and bought–
had enough to buy two tickets on a ship that left Germany the next day
to go to China, and they decided that they were going to Shanghai.
My mother now had to make a terrible decision
because she didn’t know what she should do with my brother and myself.
I was 13. My brother was 12.
She could’ve borrowed enough money to buy two additional tickets
to go to China with them.
But on the other hand, she said, “I don’t know what China is.
I don’t know what they’re going to do to us there.
It certainly looks like we’re just going there, and the Japanese are going to kill us,
because they are the allies of the Germans.”
They had already established what was then called the Axis, Berlin and Tokyo,
although the war hadn’t started yet.
Now it happened that one of my father’s brothers,
my Uncle Richard, was living in Paris.
He had left Germany in 1933,
because he was the head of the Berlin Grain Exchange,
and he was on the Nazis’ hit list.
As soon as they took power, he was one of the people that was to be arrested.
But he was tipped off, so, by night, he simply went by train to Paris.
In those days, border controls were very loose
because the Nazis had just taken over.
So he lived in Paris with his wife and little daughter.
And somebody told my parents
that there was a way to smuggle children into France,
and that the French authorities were very lax
about verifying papers and things when it came to children,
that they really didn’t bother with children,
and that children could cross into France unmolested.
My mother said, “Well, let’s do the following.
I think we’re going to our certain deaths,
and we’ll make a copy of this quota paper that we have,
and if God wants it,
we’ll all meet in the United States in a couple of years.
But you two are going to go and live with your Uncle Richard in Paris.”
Of course, it was terribly difficult for her,
but she thought that better than to die
in some far off place that they never heard of,
we would be safer in Paris.
Because after all, Paris was a civilized place,
and France was a civilized country,
and maybe there would be no war and–
So what happened?
I met this person
at the railroad station in Berlin.
I just had a briefcase with me.
My father bought a train ticket from Berlin to Paris,
and he said, “These people will tell you what to do.
Here’s a piece of paper with your uncle’s address on it.”
He had no telephone.
“You go there, and you tell him what happened to me.
And he will understand.
When we get out of Germany, I will write to him and tell him
and take care of everything.”
- Were you with your brother? - I was not with my brother
because it was considered too dangerous to take two children at the same time.
I went first. I went alone.
We came to the French-German border,
and the Gestapo made everybody get out of the train.
Put all the Jews to one side.
We were all body searched.
They confiscated everything we had,
including my little briefcase and my salami sandwich, I remember that.
My mother had bought a salami to take to my uncle
because apparently he liked salami, I don’t know.
They took my salami, which made me very unhappy.
They body searched me, and then they said,
“Well, where are you going?” I said, “I’m going to Paris.”
“Why?” “I’m going to live with my uncle.”
They said, “But you have no papers.” I said, “I have my passport.”
I had a German passport.
They said, “That’s not enough. You have no French visa.”
He went to confer with his superior, and they both came back, and he said,
“Okay, you can go, but if you come back, we have to shoot you.”
Didn’t mean anything because, by this time, you sort of get numb.
We got back into the train, and this couple that were taking me, they said,
“Okay, now you crawl under the bench.”
The European trains have compartments. Three people sit on one side.
Three people on the other, facing each other.
There’s a little door to the compartment.
I’m going to have to stop right here, and we’ll continue this on the next tape.
- Okay. - Thanks.
You were talking about a little door. Can you explain about that?
I was describing the arrangement of the trains in those days.
As a matter of fact, they still have them in Europe today,
where passengers sit in little compartments.
The compartments have two benches. On each bench, there are three seats.
So there are six people in a compartment.
There’s a little door that shuts each compartment,
and outside the door there’s a long hallway, a corridor,
that goes from one end of the railroad car to the other.
The restrooms are at the end.
Those were the configurations of the trains.
So after the Germans had let me go, we went back onto the train.
This couple that had charge of me said,
“Okay, we’ve passed the Germans.
Now there will be about a 10-minute ride,
and then we stop for the French control.
What I want you to do now is you crawl into the space under the bench.
We will sit on top of you, on the bench.
You will be behind our legs. You will be very still. Don’t even breathe.
When they come in, they’ll say something in French,
and we will show them our passports.
Then hopefully they will go away.”
There were some other people in the compartment too.
They were all Jewish people leaving Germany, fortunately.
And I did that.
Sure enough, after about 10 minutes or so, the train stopped again.
After a few minutes, the door to the compartment opened.
I saw a uniform that looked very strange.
Obviously it was a French customs inspector,
and he asked for the papers.
They showed him the papers, and the man saluted.
After about two minutes, the train went on.
And I was in France.
The train arrived in Paris
about 6:00 in the morning.
But there was a little problem because, unbeknownst to me,
my father had bought a second-class ticket,
and we were in first-class with these people.
When the French ticket controller
came along to verify the tickets,
he said that I had to pay an extra 50 francs.
I didn’t have a dime with me, either German money or French money.
So these people said–
50 francs in those days was the equivalent of about $25 perhaps–
“We’ll pay it, but we’ll have to go and get it back from your uncle
when he meets us at the station.”
I said, “Fine with me.” I mean, nothing I could do about it.
Who were the people that you were traveling with?
We don’t know them. They were total strangers.
They were total strangers, but apparently they had French citizenship,
and they could travel freely between the two countries.
I never saw them again after this adventure, and we had never seen them before.
That was purposely.
They never gave us their name or anything.
But, of course, they got paid for this. That was their job.
They were smuggling Jewish children out of Germany.
My father was supposed to have
gotten in touch with my uncle through a friend who had a telephone
so that my uncle would meet us at the station.
When we arrived in Paris, it was about 6:00 in the morning,
but, of course, my uncle wasn’t there because he had never been contacted.
So these people, who wanted their money,
said, “Do you have his address?”
I said, “Yes.” So we took a taxi, and we went to my uncle’s house.
We knocked on his door at 6:30 in the morning,
and everybody was sound asleep.
He came in his pajamas to the door, and he recognized me,
and he said, “What are you doing here?”
Then he saw the other people, and he said, “Oh, boy, another one.”
In other words, he was familiar with this,
and he understood what had happened.
He paid the people, and they said, “Thank you and good-bye,”
and that was the last I saw of them.
I never knew who they were or what.
So I was at my uncle’s house, and my uncle was a little angry.
He said, “Why didn’t your father get in touch with me?”
So I told him the story, that he only had 48 hours.
I said, “He tried to get in touch with you.” “Well, I didn’t get the message.”
The message came about four hours later.
Anyway, so here I was.
Then I was supposed to call my parents
to let them know I was safe in Paris,
which meant that my brother could go the same way.
I was supposed to do it the same day, which I did.
My brother came the same way, two days later.
My parents went–
That same day that my brother left, they left on another train to Hamburg
and went on the ship and went to China.
This was in the end of January 1939,
and I did not hear from or see my parents again until 1947.
What were your aunt and uncle’s names again?
My uncle’s name was Richard.
My father had six brothers and three sisters.
This uncle was Richard Sinasohn,
and his wife’s name was Greta Sinasohn.
- Did they have children? - They had one daughter, my cousin.
Her name was Renée.
All three of them are deceased now, unfortunately.
An important point for my later story
is to note that my Aunt Greta was not born Jewish.
She converted when she married my uncle.
So she had kept her German citizenship.
She had a German passport
which was not stamped with a big J for Jew.
It was a valid German passport.
This, again, as you will hear later on, is a very important point in my story.
- What papers did you have with you? - What?
- What papers did you have? - Papers.
I had a German passport
which was marked with a big J, which meant Jew.
Every Jew in Germany, when he was male,
had to take on the middle name of Israel.
Every female had to take on the middle name of Sarah.
So my passport read Heinz Israel Sinasohn,
and it had on the front of it a big red J, the letter J.
That’s all I had.
I had a copy of this communication from the German consulate in Berlin
which said, “Your quota number to immigrate to the United States
is 22,800 and something.”
I don’t remember the exact number.
Of course, it was addressed to my parents.
“You and your family,” you know.
We were supposed to keep that
and give that to the American consul in Paris
or wherever we would wind up,
so that we could be notified if and when our quota would come up,
and we could make efforts to go to the United States.
How long did you live with your aunt and uncle?
We arrived there at the end of January.
My uncle was not too well-off financially.
He was working as a salesman, and he was making ends meet,
but it was hard for him to really support two extra boys.
We went to– He enrolled us in a French school.
I had completed elementary school in Germany,
so I had to go to what the French call <i>lycée,</i>
which is sort of high school to start with,
but it goes a little further than our American high schools.
We had to learn French.
Fortunately, I’ve always had a good ear, and I picked up French very quickly.
It only took a few months, and I could really communicate fairly well.
We stayed with my uncle until World War II broke out.
It broke out between Germany and France and England
on September 3, 1939.
Now my uncle, being from Germany,
had applied to become a French citizen,
but the waiting period in France is seven years.
So he was not yet a French citizen. He was still German.
With that, he was now an enemy alien in France.
The French rounded up the enemy aliens because they couldn’t tell
which ones were good Germans and which ones were bad Germans.
So they rounded up the Jews with the other Gentile Germans,
and they put them into labor camps.
Their job was to repair roads, repair bridges,
dig trenches for the troops and do things of that sort.
They were not harmed in any way or threatened physically.
- But they had to work. - So what happened to you?
With that, of course, my aunt had no financial means to keep us.
She called an acquaintance
who was working for a Jewish social agency in Paris
called <i>Assistance médicale</i> <i>aux enfants réfugiés,</i>
which means Medical Assistance Group to Help Refugee Children.
These people sent us
to a children’s home boarding school in the suburbs of Paris.
There were about 25 children there. It was a large country house.
It was run by a German Jewish couple.
We were enrolled in a little village school there
and continued our education.
We helped with the chores and kept the house running.
This social organization paid for our maintenance
as it did for all the kids that were there.
There were a total of 20 or 25.
And all went well.
When was this exactly? And how old were you?
This was in September
of 1939.
I had just turned 14.
Now, as I said,
this little children’s home was run by a German Jewish couple.
About a couple of months after we got there,
the gentleman that was running this home,
this Jewish man from Germany, his name was Mr. Joachim,
was also rounded up by the French police as an enemy alien
and sent away.
His wife tried to carry on for a while without him,
but it was very difficult for her to run this thing alone.
And, eventually,
we were transferred to another similar home
in another Paris suburb called Orsay.
There was this little children’s home, very similar to the one that we had been in,
except it was run by two Polish ladies, Jewish ladies who were from Poland.
As such, they were not enemy aliens as far as the French were concerned.
Do you recall their names?
I recall only the first name of one of the ladies.
Her name was Bella, and she had a long Polish last name, but I can’t remember it.
I’m sorry.
Orsay was not very far from the first home,
which was located in a suburb called Palaiseau.
Do you want me to spell all of these French names? Is that necessary?
- It’s all right. - Okay.
Orsay and Palaiseau were about six kilometers apart,
about four miles.
So it was possible for us to continue in the same school,
although we had a long walk.
We walked about four miles four times a day
because we went home for lunch,
and back to school after lunch, and then back in the afternoon.
We did that for a good many months.
It was nice in the summer, but not so nice in the winter.
What was the age group of the children?
The age group of the children was about–
I think the oldest there was 16, and the youngest was about eight or nine.
And where did you sleep?
Well, this was a country house,
and they had about four or five bedrooms,
and we slept dormitory style.
The beds were very close together.
Five or six or seven kids to a room.
And we managed.
We were still being subsidized by this Jewish social agency in Paris.
We are now talking about the beginning of 1940,
the spring of 1940.
February, March, et cetera.
What would you do during the day with your time?
We went to school. We went to school from–
School started at 8:30 in the morning and didn’t let out till 4:30 in the afternoon.
What about when you weren’t going to school?
When we weren’t going to school?
Besides doing our schoolwork, we helped around the house.
We had planted a vegetable garden to simply have food to eat.
We helped with that. We kept up the grounds.
As all children do, we played a little bit, and we did whatever sports we could.
We played among ourselves, a little soccer.
Did errands, helped the ladies go shopping,
carried the bundles and, you know–
Bedtime was fairly early because we had to wake up very early in the morning
to trudge our four miles to school.
So there wasn’t all that much free time, and there was homework to do.
Did you know what was going on with the war?
We knew what was going on with the war
because we were subject to air raids.
Many a night, the sirens would go off,
and we had to go into the basement, into the cellar.
This was both when we were at Palaiseau and at Orsay.
We had rigged up some straw bunks so that we could sleep in the cellar.
We would hear bombs go off
because Paris was fortified in a strange way.
They had built a ring of fortifications in a circle around Paris.
We lived right, sort of under one of these forts,
which was up on a little hilltop.
In these forts, they had antiaircraft guns.
The German planes used those gun emplacements
as their favorite target.
As kids, in the morning– they always came at night–
In the morning, we would go out, and we would find
these pieces of shrapnel from the exploded bombs,
and we’d collect those as souvenirs.
None of the children was ever hurt in any way.
There was damage to the house, windows broken and things of that sort.
Doors that would hang askew, but nothing serious ever happened to us.
We were not that close to the target.
We were maybe half a mile away.
So, we knew about the war, and, of course, there were newspapers.
There was the radio, and we heard talk
through our teachers and what have you.
Patriotism ran very high.
We made friends with the French kids in school.
The teachers were very sympathetic to us
and what we had gone through in Germany.
They helped us– at least my homeroom teacher helped in every way she could.
She helped me with my French, and she helped me in every other way.
I was a good student.
By that time, I was fluent in French and kept up with the others,
and I really wasn’t any problem.
Some of the other kids had more of a tough time with the French,
but I didn’t, so I was lucky.
Did you get any correspondence from your parents or did you know–
No. We had no news at all.
We tried through the Red Cross to find out what had happened to them,
and the only news that we received
was that there were 20,000 Jews in Shanghai that lived in a ghetto.
They were not being harmed.
If we could send food packages, we should,
which was a little facetious
because we didn’t have enough to eat ourselves.
Food, by that time, was rationed in France.
Of course, we couldn’t send any packages to them.
The Red Cross sent some forms, and they said, “You can fill out this form,
and on the bottom there are three lines for a personal message.
Maybe we can get this through, maybe not.
We can’t promise, but you can try,” so we did that.
But it didn’t help.
How long were you in these places?
I mean, you were in the two different places as well?
We are now sort of at the end of spring of 1940.
In 1940, the German army went on the offensive and invaded France.
It did not take very long after Paris fell.
The next morning, we were still in Orsay,
we heard the noise of marching outside,
and we looked outside, very early in the morning, 5:00,
and there were French soldiers retreating.
Then a French soldier came to our house and said,
“Take cover because we are going to blow up the bridge.”
The highway they were on ran over a little creek,
and there was this bridge.
About five minutes later, there was this huge explosion, and all the windows broke.
This was very close to the house we lived in.
The French had blown up that little bridge to slow down the Germans.
It didn’t slow down the Germans
because they simply went down a side street and bypassed the bridge
and continued on the same highway.
The two ladies said, “Well, the Germans are here.
Now we are the enemy. We’re Polish.
We can’t keep this up. You have to leave.”
We said, “Well, we don’t know where to go.”
They made a couple of phone calls, and they said,
“There’s a French orphanage run by the French government
in a town called Sèvres which is near Versailles.
That’s about 20 kilometers from here, about 14 miles.
You can take the bicycles.”
We had about four or five bicycles in the house that we would run errands on.
We just each took our clothes
and some things that we could put in a backpack.
“They’re expecting you when you go there,
but be careful because you have to cross the German line.”
So we marched with some French soldiers,
who went up to meet the Germans on this road to Sèvres.
After a while, the French soldiers turned back, but we had to go on.
We saw some Germans, but they didn’t bother us.
We went to this place, which was a very large state orphanage,
and there were about 500 children there.
They were not Jewish children, per se. We were the only Jewish children–
this group of about 8 or 10 of us that went there.
These were all French children. It was run by French people.
It was sort of, in retrospective, an Orphan Annie type place.
It was run by a couple of ladies who were a little mean and strict,
at least to us children they were.
But they had a big responsibility.
All of these kids and, you know, supply problems were huge.
We stayed there until the Germans came in one day
and controlled to find out who was there.
They asked these ladies if there were any Jewish children there,
and of course she said, “Yes.”
She pointed us out to them.
This German soldier came over to me, and he spoke to me in German.
I had no choice, but I answered him in German.
He said to me, “If you do me a favor, I will do you a big favor.”
I said, “Well, anything I can do.” He said, “I want to buy a motorcycle,
and I understand there’s a dealer in town, but I can’t speak French.
Can you help me?”
I said “Okay.” I didn’t ask him what his favor was.
But I went with him to this motorcycle dealer,
because apparently by this time in Germany,
you could not buy a motorcycle anymore.
They were just making armaments.
So I negotiated. I was 14 years old,
but I negotiated the deal for this motorcycle for this German soldier.
He bought it, and we walked out.
He says, “Now, I will tell you something,
but don’t say to anyone where you heard this or that I ever told you.”
He said, “Get away from this place where you are.
That’s all I can tell you.”
So I sort of knew what he meant,
and I told the other Jewish kids.
We ran away at night, we meaning my brother and I.
Do you remember the soldier’s name at all?
I don’t know if I ever did.
I don’t think he would’ve given it to me.
What he did was very dangerous.
First of all, he was not supposed to buy the motorcycle.
I think that was illegal.
And secondly, that he would tell me
that they had some sort of orders to pick up these kids–
That was absolutely against regulations.
So how long were you at this orphanage?
We were at this residence, I would say, about three months,
in this orphanage.
Were there any groups that were helping out with the children?
At this point, no. At this point, we were wards of the French state.
The French state quasi did not exist anymore
because it was occupied by the Germans.
It was occupied France now.
So where did you and your brother go?
The only place that we could think of to go was to my aunt in Paris.
We weren’t even sure that she was still there, but she was.
We told her what had happened, and she took us in.
Now the Germans had invaded France, but they didn’t invade all of France.
They sort of stopped in the middle.
France was partitioned into German-occupied France
and what was later known as Vichy France
because an old World War I general by the name of Pétain
had negotiated an armistice with the Germans
and gotten the promise that the southern third of France
would not be occupied by the Germans.
- What was your aunt’s name? - My aunt’s name was Greta.
Greta Sinasohn. She was Richard’s wife.
As I told you before, she was not born Jewish
and had therefore kept her German passport.
Obviously, she had barely enough
to feed herself and her daughter.
Her daughter, being half-Jewish, was in hiding with some Catholic people.
She could not keep us.
She simply could not financially afford to keep my brother and myself.
So she tried to get in contact with one of the Jewish social organizations
that had taken care of us before,
but they had all fled into that unoccupied part of France,
into Vichy France.
She called someone there, and they said,
“If you can get the boys to come here, we can take them into a home.
But I don’t know how you’re going to do that because the Germans
are not letting any Jews cross the line.”
So my aunt said, “Okay, let me handle this.”
The next morning, she said to my brother and myself,
without telling us what she was about to do,
“Get dressed, put on your best clothes, and come with me.”
We took the subway,
and she went to Gestapo headquarters in Paris with us.
I thought she was going to turn us over to the Gestapo.
Then she said in German to the receptionist,
“I want to see the person who’s in charge of–”
what’s called <i>laissez-passer,</i> a pass for the frontier.
The receptionist said, “Are you German?”
She said, “Naturally, I’m German.”
She was blonde, blue-eyed, very German looking.
Very tall, statuesque type woman.
He was very polite and clicked his heels,
and he took her to the person that was in charge of this department.
She walked in there, speaking German–
of course, my brother and I understood–
and she said, “My name is Greta Sinasohn.
I’m a German citizen. These two boys are my nephews”–
and she used our German names, Heinz and Gunter–
“They are in boarding school in the south of France
because we want them to learn French.
Now, all of a sudden, I understand you need a special paper to cross the border?”
He said, “That’s correct, Madame. Please give me the names again.”
He filled out two pieces of paper, handed it to her, and he said,
“Please, I’m sorry you had to inconvenience yourself and come here.”
She marched out with us, and then she fainted in the street.
Anyway, excuse me.
She borrowed some money and bought us a train ticket.
She said, “You go to Limoges,” which was in unoccupied France.
“Here’s the address.
You go to this place. It’s a children’s home.
They will take care of you.
It’s run by the same people that took care of you before.”
We thanked her, and we got on the train, my brother and I.
We got to Limoges, and we asked somebody where this place was.
They said, “You have to take a streetcar.”
So we had a few pennies left, and we took the streetcar.
Then we arrived there, again, always at 6:00 in the morning.
These people said, “Oh, yes, you are the Sinasohn boys.
We know you were coming,” and they took us in.
Now, this home had changed hands,
and there was a different social organization running it.
This organization played a very important part in our life.
It still does today. This organization is called the OSÉ.
It’s simply an acronym.
The letters O-S-É, with an accent on the É.
In French, it’s pronounced OSÉ.
It stands for <i>Œuvre de secours aux enfants,</i>
which means simply, Organization to Help Children.
We had no idea who was funding them.
But we knew, or we were told,
that they had a network of children’s homes in unoccupied France,
and that there were French Jewish children there
and also some German refugee and Austrian refugee children
in these homes.
Now, the home we landed in, in Limoges,
was really a home geared to small children.
Babies, toddlers and things– and kids of that age.
We were a little too big by this time, my brother and I.
So after about three weeks there, they sent us to another home
which was about 100 miles or so north of Limoges,
but still in unoccupied France,
in a department called the Creuse.
The tiny, little village of about 100 people
was called Chabannes.
This big country house that this home was in now
was called the Château de Chabannes.
It wasn’t really a château.
It was just a nice, old country house of Georgian style.
We’re going to stop right here and go on to the next tape. Thanks.
You were at another place, and there were young children there?
Yes, we were at this little home for small children in Limoges,
in Vichy France, unoccupied France.
Because all the children there were real small,
the people that were running this place thought we’d be happier
in a place where there were children of our age, of course.
The organization, the OSÉ that I referred to earlier,
had several homes not far from Limoges,
and we were sent to a place called the Château de Chabannes
about 100 miles from Limoges, 100 miles northeast,
but still it was in Vichy France, unoccupied France.
We arrived there, and there were about 100 children there.
Half of them were German or Austrian refugee children.
The other half were French Jewish children.
It was a nice place.
It was very countrified, in the middle of nowhere,
in a very rural, backward part of France,
way off the beaten tourist paths.
Even today, nobody ever goes there.
We were in this little village, and, basically, we lived off the land.
We would go out and go to the local farmers
and try to buy vegetables and fruit and whatever meat we could
or chickens or what have you
and tried to keep ourselves supplied as much as we could.
Where the money came from at that point, we didn’t know.
We didn’t care either. We were just glad to have a place to stay.
We didn’t care– It wasn’t being callous, but we just weren’t inquisitive.
We had learned that asking too many questions
is sometimes very unhealthy during wartime.
What was the place like?
The place was very nice
because we were finally among children our own age.
We had to depend on one another to survive.
Everyone had a job to do, and we did it.
We became very good friends.
Jumping the gun a little bit in my story,
I have remained friends with most of the people,
the other kids that I met there, till this very day.
- Were you with your brother? - I was with my brother, yes.
There were, as I said, about 100 children, divided into three groups.
The little ones, which ranged up in age to about eight years old.
What we called the middle ones, who were about eight to 12.
And the older ones, of which we were part, from 12 to–
I think the oldest one was 16 or 16 and a half.
I was 14 at the time.
We were going to the local school in that local village.
It was what, in the States, they call a one-room schoolhouse.
Except there were two rooms, one for the boys and one for the girls.
The French were very strict about that.
Fortunately, we had two lady teachers,
who were French ladies, French teachers,
but were themselves refugees from Paris,
having wanted to escape the Germans.
The local French kids from the village
didn’t like all these smart refugee kids coming into the school,
and we did make them look bad a little bit, I must admit.
They started in with some anti-Semitic remarks and what have you
because a lot of this spilled over from the occupied part of France.
We were not too far from the border. They heard this on the radio.
In the occupied part of France, where the Germans were,
they had now started their campaign against the French Jews.
But these two schoolteachers would have none of it.
They absolutely marched in there. They would hit the kids.
This was legal in French schools, still in those days.
There was corporal punishment. I beg your pardon?
Was everybody Jewish that was there? Were the teachers Jewish?
In the home? Everybody was Jewish.
The teachers in the public school, that little schoolhouse,
were not Jewish, no.
No, no.
But they would not buy any of this anti-Semitism.
In fact, after we were there a while,
the Vichy government, when a man named Pierre Laval became prime minister–
he was a rabid anti-Semite–
wanted to pass a law, and did pass a law
that Jewish children could not go to French school,
these two schoolteachers simply said,
“This is not a law that we– We don’t discriminate against children.”
They were both arrested by the French police
but had sufficient connections in the Ministry of Education or somewhere,
that they let them go, but they stood up for us Jewish kids.
Wonderful ladies, and we’re still in contact with them.
We did that, we went to school in the morning,
and in the afternoon, we went to a trade class.
The OSÉ was working with the French chapter of O-R-T, ORT,
which is a vocational training organization for Jewish children worldwide.
They were teaching us how to work leather and make leather products
like wallets and purses and what have you.
So that when we got older and the war would be over someday,
we would have a trade, something to fall back on.
What were the names of the teachers? Do you recall?
The names of the teachers?
Oh, there were so many. They were counselors more than teachers.
- The teachers in the public school? - You mentioned two women.
- The two ladies? - Yes.
Okay. They were sisters actually.
Their family name is Paillassou, which is a French name.
I saw them last in 1988.
We had a reunion, and I’ll tell you about that a little bit later on.
They’re retired of course now,
but still very much active.
What was the place like that you lived?
Was it a house?
Yes, it was an old country house, Georgian style.
You might call it a small mansion. There was a main house.
There was an annex which had formerly been used as stables
and was now converted into dormitories.
We had very little running water,
and the sanitary facilities weren’t always what they should be.
But when you’re 14 or 15 years old,
and you have to wash under a hand pump out in the yard,
and it’s 35 degrees out– So what?
It was fun because we all did it together.
But it was a little primitive.
But we had a roof over our heads.
We had food. It wasn’t good food.
The farmers would sell us things at very inflated prices.
We ate certain vegetables, if you can call them that,
that they used to feed to the pigs, but no humans would eat them.
But our chef in the kitchen knew how to cook them
and make things out of them, and we ate them for days.
It depended on the season of the year.
The winters were tougher than the summers.
So how long were you there?
I was there a year and three months, or something like that.
And when did you leave?
I left in 1941.
I left in August 1941.
One day, the director of the home
called me into his office and said,
“I understand that you have relatives in the United States.”
And I said, “Yes.”
He said, “Well, did you have any papers?”
I said, “We did, but at one time when we were going to this French orphanage,
we tried to pass ourselves off as French.”
Both my brother and I spoke fluently and without accent.
“And we took everything that was in any way related to Germany,
our passports and any identity papers,
anything that made us, by trappings, Jewish,
and we buried it in the yard in Orsay.
I don’t have any papers. I don’t have anything.
I only have my name,
and you can check with the consulate, I guess, in Paris.”
He said, “Well, we can’t go to Paris, but we can go to Marseille.
There’s an American consulate in Marseille,
and we can find out if they know anything.”
Then he said to me, “If you had a choice to make,
would you go and try to find your parents in China,
or would you rather go to the United States?”
I said, “I’d rather go to the United States,”
because I had no idea if my parents were alive or not.
So he said, “Okay.”
What were their names, the directors? Do you recall?
His name was Félix Chevrier. He was a Frenchman.
He was a former congressman in the French parliament.
He had also been a refugee from Paris. He was not Jewish.
But he worked as director of this OSÉ.
It was important that the head of these places be not Jewish
and be someone connected with government
because it made the local village people
more compliant and more cooperative, and they wouldn’t–
But by the time 1941 came around,
the French police were already in Chabannes,
and they were questioning everyone.
They had been sent by Vichy,
and, of course, the Germans had put pressure on Vichy
to try and round up the Jews in that unoccupied part of France,
and Vichy cooperated fully.
The French police were
more thorough than the Germans and the Gestapo in that area.
The Germans came and visited once.
They just wanted to see who was there. Some German officers came.
They really had no jurisdiction in that unoccupied part of France.
But they didn’t care. They came anyway.
They just nosed around a little bit, and then they left again.
But then the next day, the gendarmes came, and they were more thorough.
So we knew that it was a matter of time before they–
Eventually, after I had left,
they rounded up a number of comrades and sent them–
They wound up in Auschwitz and in some of those camps.
So, what happened to you then?
After this interview with the director, a few weeks passed.
He called us in, and he said, “Okay, you said to me
that you wanted to go to the United States rather than to go to China.”
I said, “Yes.”
He said, “Well, how about your brother?”
I said, “My brother feels the same way.”
He said, “Okay, one of you can go to the United States.
We don’t have enough money to send you both.”
So I said, “Then let my brother go.”
My brother and three other kids were sent to Marseille,
eventually smuggled into Spain,
then went to Portugal and came to the United States.
I’ll tell you the details in a minute,
because I followed that route a few months later.
When the time came, I was called into the director’s office,
and he said “Okay, it’s your turn.”
Oh, I thought I turned that off.
So, when was that then?
That was in September 1941.
- Okay. And tell me about that. - I’m sorry, no. I would like to correct that.
It was in the beginning of August 1941.
I left Chabannes on August 4, 1941.
We were sent by train to Marseille,
to a collection point where we met other kids
that came from other homes of the OSÉ,
also destined to go to the United States.
We found out we had one thing in common,
and that was that we all had relatives in the United States.
We spent about three or four weeks in Marseille,
waiting for the right moment or opportunity,
we didn’t know what,
for these people to take us out of France.
We didn’t know how we were going to get out of France,
but they told us it can be at any time.
Sure enough, there was one night when, actually, there was an air raid.
The British were bombing Marseille very heavily.
A truck came, and we were woken up in the middle of the night
and asked to take our things and go in the truck.
They took us to the train station. The train took us to the Spanish border.
There was a man that met us there.
We walked for a short distance, wasn’t very long, about two hours,
through some hills and mountains.
No real mountain climbing, it was just hilly country.
He said, “Well, you’re in Spain now.”
He took us to another railroad station,
and there was somebody there waiting for us who was an American.
He said to us that he was from
the Joint Distribution Committee in the United States,
and he would look after us.
But we were illegal in Spain
because Franco Spain was siding with the Nazis
all throughout World War II, so we had to be very careful.
When you were in these homes,
did you have any type of religious observances?
Yes, we did.
We tried to observe the Jewish holidays.
We conducted our own services.
Some of us had been educated and gone through Hebrew school, myself included.
I was reading liturgical Hebrew fluently.
I don’t speak the language as it’s spoken in Israel,
but I know liturgical Hebrew.
Through the routine of having gone to services
Fridays and Saturdays when I was a kid at home,
I knew how to conduct a service.
There were one or two other kids that were also knowledgeable.
So we had a service.
Those who wanted to attended and those who didn’t, didn’t.
But we did observe that.
We knew when it was Passover.
We didn’t have the wherewithal, the matzo, and all things like that,
but we knew it was Passover,
and the people in the kitchen tried to do a little bit extra if they could.
We would tell the story of the Exodus in French
because we had no books or anything.
Yeah, we were always conscious that we were Jews.
Our counselors, they would teach us songs in Hebrew,
and we would do some of the Israeli folk dances and things like that.
Yes, we always had that spirit.
Now, so you went to Spain.
When exactly was this, and how old were you?
Okay. This was at the end of September 1941.
We arrived by train in Madrid,
and this gentleman took us on a little bus that was waiting.
We went to a convent, and there were these Spanish nuns.
We stayed at this convent for a few days
because, as I said, we were illegal in Spain.
We had no papers, and the Spanish authorities
would have turned us over to the Germans or the Vichy French.
How did you get there?
By train.
This man that had met us at the border from the Joint Distribution Committee,
he had train tickets for us.
How many kids were with you?
About a dozen. We were about a dozen altogether.
I was the oldest in that particular group.
As I said, we stayed for about three days in Madrid,
and the nuns–
They sort of cleaned us up, literally and figuratively.
They gave us some good food for a change.
They gave us some new clothing.
They got rid of the fleas and other little creatures and things
that we had acquired in Marseille
because conditions there weren’t all that great.
Anyway, we got out of there, and we were sort of like new human beings.
The man had train tickets
to the Spanish border for us.
At the Spanish border, we were met by an American couple,
a man and his wife, who worked for the Joint Distribution Committee.
They were supposed to be our escorts to the United States.
We got onto a train that took us from the Spanish border to Lisbon,
and we went to a little college outside of Lisbon,
a boarding school, and we waited there about three weeks
because apparently it was very difficult to get space on board a ship.
Only the neutral ships could cross the Atlantic with civilians on board,
and there weren’t many neutral countries.
There was Switzerland, but they had no navy.
They had no ships, and that left Portugal or Sweden.
We were too far away from Sweden.
The Portuguese ships were all booked in advance for months and months,
so we didn’t know which ship we would get on and when.
After about, I think it was about again three weeks or so,
we were told that we would leave the next day.
There was a Portuguese ship called the <i>Serpa Pinto.</i>
The <i>Serpa Pinto</i> was like a big shuttle between Lisbon and New York.
There are literally thousands of refugees in the United States
that came here on that ship.
It was, at that time, one of the largest passenger ships afloat.
By today’s standards, it’s very small.
The ship was supposed to go in eight days from Lisbon to New York.
That was the standard time in those days.
They had enough provisions
for eight or nine days on board for all the people.
The refugee kids went in steerage, which was way down below the water level,
and we slept in bunks four high.
Had sort of a straw mattress, but we didn’t care.
We were just glad to get out of there.
Since food and things like that were hard to buy in Europe–
every country had shortages, even the neutral ones–
the ships were usually replenished in the United States.
So they had enough food on board for eight days.
We were about two days out of Lisbon
when the boat came to a stop one morning,
and that was very unusual.
We ran up, got dressed and ran up on the deck,
and there was a German submarine that had stopped us.
Although we were neutral, they had said, “While you’re neutral”–
we found this out later when the crew explained it–
“You have enemies of the Third Reich on board,
and we have to control your passenger list.”
They directed us to go to the nearest port,
which happened to be Casablanca in Morocco.
Casablanca, Morocco, was under the Vichy government.
It was still a French colony, and it was under the Vichy government rules.
The political situation at that point in France was very confusing.
You had the Vichy government.
You had the free French under De Gaulle, operating out of London.
In North Africa, you had another free French group
which was, however, collaborating with Vichy
under a general called Giraud.
And they were all fighting each other.
So what happened in Morocco?
In Morocco, some Germans and Vichy French gendarmes
came on board, and they wanted to see our papers.
All I had was a French residence permit,
which I had received when I got to Chabannes.
I had to go to the police every month to have it stamped,
so I could stay another month.
I showed them that, and they wanted to know,
“Did I have any photographs that would show any buildings
or bridges or things of that sort?”
I said, “No, I have no photographs I don’t have anything.”
Because all I literally had with me was the clothes on my back
and a little backpack that had a mess kit in it and that was it.
I think a change of underwear.
Other than that, we had no luggage and no belongings.
So we stayed in Casablanca about three days, and then they let us go.
This was important because it added three days to our itinerary.
We got out of Casablanca, and we’re heading for New York.
We got out another four or five days
when, very early morning at dawn,
we heard gunfire from the cannon.
Again, we ran on deck,
and there was this warship, flying a British flag.
It was a British destroyer.
It was again the same story.
“Yes, you’re a neutral ship, and we mean you no harm,
but you have Germans on board.”
We were the threat to the Allies,
poor Jewish kids.
“We have to escort you to the nearest Allied port,”
which happened to be Hamilton, Bermuda.
So the poor <i>Serpa Pinto</i> limped into Bermuda.
By this time, we were 15 days out of Lisbon,
and we had no food or water or anything.
It was the last three days that was really rough.
In Bermuda, they gave us some food and things.
The British went through the same routine as the Germans and Vichy French.
They wanted to know, “Where do you come from?
Where are you going? What did you do in France?
Where were you? Do you have pictures?”
They were looking for spies.
They let us go after about two days.
In all, the journey took about three weeks.
Then we arrived in New York in October of 1941.
Did you speak English?
I spoke a little bit of English, because I had–
Both in Germany and in France,
in school we were required to take a foreign language.
In Germany, having no idea that I would someday go to France,
I had opted for English
because “we were going to the United States.”
I had studied some English.
Little did I know that I would have to learn French.
So what happened in New York?
So in New York, apparently, the story of this voyage,
which was the last trip that this ship made
before the US entered into the war,
the story of this little odyssey
had made the newspapers or the news media in New York.
We were met outside of New York Harbor by a–
I guess it was a Coast Guard cutter or something, full of news people.
They had film cameras.
In those days, they had the Movietone News
or whatever they call that.
It was a news reel. News reel.
There were some reporters that came on board,
and they rounded up this bunch of kids,
who had been ignored throughout the voyage by all the other passengers.
All of a sudden, we were the very important people
that the press came to meet.
They rounded us up, and they took pictures of us.
They wanted to know if somebody spoke English.
I said, “Well, I speak very little.” They said, “Okay.”
I was the oldest, so they started to say,
“Well, are you okay?” “Yes.”
“Okay. Are you happy to be here?” “Yes.”
I just repeated the question with a positive.
Some of the questions I didn’t understand, and they said,
“Well, was it very bad in Europe?” “Yes, it was very bad.”
“Did you see the war?” “Yes, we saw the war.”
“Where are your parents?”
Questions like that. It was in the news reel.
Did any of your family meet you there? Or who met you there?
The ship docked in Staten Island, New York.
I had an uncle who had emigrated from Germany earlier,
my mother’s brother– this was my mother’s family now–
who lived in the Bronx.
He and his wife met us at the ship.
We went to live with them in the Bronx.
My uncle who lived there–
Besides his wife, there was his little daughter,
and also my grandmother and my grandfather lived with them.
So he already supported a large family.
And now, my brother had arrived a month earlier than I did.
He was with them, and I was, and my uncle said, “Look–”
By this time I was 16,
just barely 16.
“You boys have to go to work because I can’t afford this.
I don’t make enough money to support eight people in this household.
It’s just not–”
So we said, “Sure, fine, okay.”
But I had always been a studious boy,
and I wanted more than anything else to go to school,
to a real school, and get a real diploma.
I had done my elementary school in Germany.
I had done my secondary education in French, in France.
I was all mixed up. I didn’t know where I belonged.
Now I was supposed to study English and go to school.
But the first thing was to get a job.
So somehow, through some friends, I don’t know,
I got a job to work in a bakery in the Bronx.
This little bakery was owned
by a German Jewish couple who had been here for many years.
They emigrated back in the ‘20s.
But there was–
They spoke German, so I could communicate with them.
I worked from 7:30 in the morning
until 6:00 in the afternoon,
six days a week, for eight dollars a week.
That was the prevailing wage at the time.
Now, what happened to your parents and your brother?
At that time, this is 1941 now,
and I had been working about a month when Pearl Harbor Day arrived,
and the United States was at war with Japan.
Now, of course, there was absolutely no hope
of getting any news whatsoever from my parents.
My grandparents who had been in New York, in the Bronx,
and my uncle and aunt had had some news from my parents.
They had received some letters.
While life was very tough for them, they had survived.
But all communication stopped again on December 7, 1941.
- So you went to school? - So I went to work.
I went to work, as I said, during the day.
After work, I went to high school at night
because I didn’t know enough English to get into college.
I did a full high school program in two years.
I graduated. I was valedictorian of my class.
I went to evening high school in the Bronx
and took a full academic course.
The only advantage I had was that I didn’t have to take courses in languages
because I spoke fluent German and fluent French.
So I passed what they called the Regents in those days,
which were statewide exams, without any trouble.
So that gave me a little leg up, but all the other subjects
I had to start from scratch.
I’m going to stop right here,
and we’re going to be going to the next tape,
doing some closing questions and that.
Thank you.
...the United States, and who financed your trip?
The trip to the United States was financed in two parts.
The part getting us out of France and into Spain
was financed by the American Society of Friends,
who operated in Switzerland.
The American Society of Friends
is better known to the public as the Quakers, the Mormon Church.
They unequivocally paid for that portion of the trip.
Then, from Madrid to the United States,
the trip was paid by the American Joint Distribution Committee.
Although the transatlantic, the ship’s passage,
they asked to be reimbursed, and my uncle and aunt did that.
Tell me about how you found your parents.
What happened there?
I did not find my parents. My brother found my parents.
My brother was a paratrooper in the army
and stationed in the Pacific.
In 1945, after the armistice was signed,
he hitched a ride on an airplane to Tokyo.
From there, on another US military plane to Shanghai.
He simply asked a rickshaw driver to take him to the ghetto of the Jews.
He was in full American uniform.
The rickshaw person took him to this ghetto.
He stopped a person on the street,
and he said to this person in German,
“I am looking for the Sinasohn family.
Can you tell me where they are, where they live?”
These Jews were so intimidated by uniforms and authorities,
and they had never seen an American uniform.
He was there– My brother was very tall, six feet and some,
in his paratrooper boots with his white scarf and all that,
very much military looking.
This person says, “No, I don’t even know who they are.”
So my brother said, “Thank you,” and he went on.
This person, in the meantime, ran back to where my parents lived,
because all the Jews knew each other,
and said, “There is some kind of policeman looking for you. Hide.
I don’t know who it is. I’ve never seen a uniform like this.
I have no idea who this is.”
So my brother stopped another person in the street and said,
“Can you tell me where the Sinasohn family lives?”
And this person said, “No, I don’t know.”
And again, this person waited till my brother was out of sight
and ran to warn my parents.
My brother stopped a third person, which was a young man,
and he asked him the same question in German.
“Do you know where the Sinasohn family lives?”
This young man said, “No.”
My brother looked at him, and he said, “But I know you.”
This man said, “No, no, you don’t know me.”
He said, “Yes, I know you. Your name is so-and-so.
And you are my cousin.”
This man just didn’t know what to say, and so my brother identified himself.
He says, “I’m looking for my parents.”
So, of course, my cousin,
who knew very well where my parents lived,
took him there, and this is how we found my parents.
They lived in this ghetto.
They worked in this munitions factory for a while.
Then my mother had started a little business
and did some sewing for the Japanese.
They eked out a living, barely.
Was there anything that you took with you from Europe?
- That I took with me? - Anything that you happened to have.
No. When I came to the United States, I had nothing.
I only had the clothes on my back.
I had a little backpack, and it had a mess kit in it and a change of underwear.
I had no papers. I had no pictures. I had nothing.
- What about anything you have today? - That I have today?
Yes, I have things today that belong to that period.
My parents, although they had to leave Berlin in a great hurry,
managed to pack a few things in a few suitcases.
I don’t know if you can see the menorah that’s behind me on the shelf.
That menorah was a wedding present
to my parents from my grandmother,
and for some reason, my parents took that along to Shanghai.
It broke in all the travels, and they brought it back to the United States,
and that’s how I have it.
Okay. What about– What happened–
You said you had a lot of aunts and uncles.
What happened to them?
My father was one of 10 children.
He had six brothers and three sisters.
They all had two, three, and four children.
About half of that family died in the Holocaust,
in the camps.
One other brother and one sister of my father survived in Shanghai.
After my parents left for Shanghai,
some of the other family relatives took the same option.
But some wouldn’t go.
They were offered it, but they thought it was too dangerous.
Now when did you marry?
I married after I graduated college here in the United States in 1949.
And who did you marry?
I married an American girl that I had met while I was on vacation.
- And her name? - Her name was June Meyer.
She was born in Chicago.
- And what about children? - I have two children.
I have a son, David,
who is today a professor of accounting and finance
at the University of Northern Illinois.
- He has given me three grandsons. - What are their names?
My grandsons are Matthew, Joshua and Adam Sinason.
- Do you have other children? - I have a daughter
who lives nearby here, in Mission Viejo, California.
Her name is Carol Sinason.
She is not married. She is a single girl,
therefore, still has the same last name as I do.
What date exactly did you come to the United States from Europe?
I came in the middle of October 1941.
You went to New York. When did you leave New York?
I left New York just three years ago.
I lived all my life in Greater New York,
always worked in New York City, in Manhattan.
What have you done for work?
I have a degree in engineering and started out as a young engineer.
Because of my language capabilities I was sent overseas
because, at that time period, in the ‘50s,
the United States was implementing the Marshall Plan,
and we were rebuilding factories in Germany
and all the other European countries.
What other things have you done?
From that, I gravitated into actual project management,
where I was in charge of the entire project.
I liked the financial end of project management
better than the technical end,
so I went back to school and got an MBA,
and eventually wound up in the banking business.
When I retired, in 1986,
I was with the Chase Manhattan Bank in New York,
and I was senior vice president of administration.
Since I opted for early retirement, and I was really too restless to retire,
I was offered and accepted a job with the United Nations.
My official title was counselor.
I did something called risk analysis, logistical risk analysis,
which really meant how do you get things and people
from one place to another in this world.
What about hobbies? Tell me about that.
My hobbies? Oh, that’s very simple.
I have fortunately inherited my parents’ taste for music.
I’m an amateur musician. I play in an orchestra.
I spend my summer vacations, touring with an orchestra in Europe,
representing the United States.
- What do you play? - An instrument called the bass clarinet.
This group that I play with is called the All-American Winds Concert Band.
We represent the United States
at some of the international music festivals in Europe.
- What about– - I’m sorry?
- Where– - What about– I’m sorry.
Where I live, here in Laguna Hills,
is a retirement community called Leisure World.
It’s a very large community. There are about 18,000 people living here.
We have our own orchestra, symphony orchestra, and I play with them.
My other hobbies are linguistics.
I’m very much interested in the study of languages
and their origins and so on and so forth.
I always study some language or other.
How would you– I want to ask some closing questions.
How would you describe your religious affiliation today?
I am a Conservative Jew.
I remember my upbringing and my teachings.
I observe the holidays. I observe the Sabbath.
I do not keep a kosher house.
I am simply not talented in the kitchen
and, just for myself, don’t bother much with food.
But there being no Conservative synagogue here in Leisure World,
I had the choice between Reform and modern Orthodox.
So I joined the modern Orthodox group,
which leans more to the Conservative than the Reform does.
What is the reason that you decided to give your testimony today?
I have been thinking about this for a long time.
Partially, because many people think
that it is important to have this record kept alive.
And while I have not suffered as much as some others,
those who went through the camps,
I think that the entire Holocaust and the story of World War II survival
by the Jewish people is a big jigsaw puzzle,
and maybe my story is just one little piece of it.
The other reason being that, for a long time,
my children, and my grandchildren especially,
have asked me to put the story of my life either in writing or on tape.
I’ve never had the impetus to do this.
When I was offered an opportunity to do this interview,
I thought I could accomplish both objectives at the same time.
How do you feel about the way that you’ve lived your life?
That’s a very difficult question to answer in a very short period of time.
I’ve always tried to do the right thing.
I have never purposely hurt anyone
or have done anything unethical,
either in my business dealings or my personal dealings.
I’ve had my ups and downs like everyone else, but I have no criminal record.
I have nothing to reproach myself.
I can look myself in the face in the morning when I look in the mirror.
And I think that about sums it up.
How has your experience in Europe affected you?
Yourself, and maybe the way you raised your children.
Myself, I think it had a very profound effect.
First of all, the fact that I have a European background
gives me a different outlook on life.
I value certain things in life more than others.
My children have never been very much interested in the details of my story.
My grandchildren have,
and I think that’s because, nowadays, the Holocaust is taught in school.
It is taught to them, to my grandchildren, in school.
In my children’s day, when they went to school in the ‘60s,
it was not part of the curriculum.
So, I think my grandchildren know more about the Holocaust
than my children actually do.
I think that my European background has given me different interests,
and it certainly has helped me career-wise.
Do you think about the Holocaust much? Do you ever dream about it?
Not much.
I do not go around, carrying it as a backpack.
By that, meaning that like some other people that I know
who constantly talk about it,
who constantly feel sorry for themselves,
who bemoan the fact that,
“If only it could have been, I could have been.”
I never think in those terms.
What happened, happened. I had no control over it.
My parents had no control over it.
There’s no sense in retrospective bemoaning it.
I do not forget it, not for one minute.
And I will not let anyone else forget it.
But I don’t feel sorry for myself.
And I don’t think it has affected my children to any extent
because I’ve never let it make a difference in my life.
Even when I meet with my old friends
whom I met in France and the OSÉ homes,
we never talk about the bad things.
Do I dream about the days in Europe?
Occasionally, yes, I may have a nightmare.
I sometimes dream about seeing German soldiers
or having a conversation in French with some people
or thinking that I’m back then somewhere either in France or Germany.
It happens rarely, but it happens. I don’t know why.
There’s no particular occurrence during the day
that pushes me in that direction– it just happens.
Have there been any decisions made as a result of your experiences?
- What kind of decisions? - Any life decisions that were made
based on your experiences or that were really influenced.
Well, I think the most serious influence
and the most serious decision,
coming from that background,
is the fact that I am a religious person
to the extent that I can be.
It is too far for me to walk to the synagogue.
Therefore, I drive on the Sabbath
because I feel that it’s better to attend services
than to sit here by myself.
So I do what I can.
But, I am a Jew. I try to be an observant Jew.
I live by the 10 commandments.
I think that is the biggest influence.
I am grateful to God for every day that I’ve had since I left Europe
and everything that’s happened to me.
And I give thanks every day.
It’s been over 50 years since your experience,
since the end of the war.
And your children, grandchildren, other people, will be watching this tape.
What message or legacy would you like to leave for those watching?
I’d like to dedicate this tape to my children and to my grandchildren
and tell them and everyone else never to forget
how lucky they are to live in this country,
to have been born in this country.
And to give thanks
and fight evil in any way that they can.
Be good people.
Because without God’s help,
I would have never come here, and they would not be.
Is there anything additional you’d like to say
before we show the photographs?
I am very grateful for the opportunity of you letting me tell my story.
I have never done so before,
certainly not in this much detail and so completely.
I’m grateful for that.
I am also grateful that my children will have a record that will survive me.
My grandchildren, and maybe some day some great-grandchildren,
will have an opportunity to see what I look like, and what I sounded like,
and what happened to me,
and to relive something that they only know about from history books.
And to say to them it actually happened.
Okay, why don’t we stop right here?
We want to thank you very much for you sharing your testimony with us.
We’re going to be showing photographs of you and your family.
I thank you very much.
Tell me about this photograph, please?
This is a picture of my father, Harry Sinasohn.
- Where is he? - He is at the French front.
Where is he in the picture?
He is the third person from the left, sitting cross-legged.
There is a little X in front of him.
- What country was this taken? - This was taken in France.
He was with the German Imperial Army during World War I.
- What year? - This was 1918.
Tell me about this photograph. Where are you, Henry?
This is a picture of me, Henry Sinasohn,
taken in 1935
in the Fourth Jewish Elementary School.
- And the country? - In Berlin, Germany.
Where are you sitting?
I am sitting at the right row,
in the first seat.
The second person on the left,
in that little white shirt, wearing glasses, that’s me.
- From left to right? - Yes.
This picture was taken in Berlin, Germany in 1937.
It is of my mother and my brother and myself.
From left to right, at the very left is my brother.
His name in Berlin was Gunter Sinasohn.
He later on, in the United States, changed it to George Stare.
When he joined the army, he was afraid the name might get him into trouble.
In the center is my mother, Selma Sinasohn.
On the far right is myself, Henry Sinasohn.
This was taken in our apartment in Berlin in 1937.
This is a picture of my father, Harry Sinasohn,
that was taken in Berlin in 1938 for his passport.
- In Germany? - In Berlin, Germany, yes.
This is a picture of the OSÉ home in Chabannes,
called the Château de Chabannes, where I lived in 1940 and 1941.
There were 100 children living in this house.
How did you get the photographs that were taken of your family before the war?
The pictures of my family taken before the war
came to me through my mother when, eventually,
she and my father came from Shanghai to the United States in 1947.
This is a photograph taken in France in 1940.
It shows a group of students, working in the leatherworking workshop,
run in cooperation by ORT and the OSÉ.
I am Henry Sinasohn, the person all the way on the right, top row.
This was taken in France?
- This was taken where? - Yes, it says– Oh, I’m sorry.
This was taken at the Château de Chabannes in France in 1940.
This is a partial view of my travel pass, Henry Sinasohn,
still using my silent first name of Heinz,
issued by the American Friends Service Committee,
which let me travel from Chabannes, France to Marseille, France
in September of 1941.
This is a photograph that appeared in a commemorative booklet
issued by the OSÉ.
It shows me, Henry Sinasohn.
- Where are you? - I am in the center of the picture,
talking to the gentleman in the suit.
The gentleman is Mr. Katsky
of the American Joint Distribution Committee.
The picture was taken at the collection point,
the hotel we lived in in Marseille, France,
in the middle of September 1941,
just before we left for Spain.
This is a picture taken in Shanghai, China.
It shows on the left, my brother, George Sinasohn Stare–
and my mother, Selma Sinasohn.
This was when my brother went to Shanghai to find my parents.
- What year was it taken? - This was 1945.
This is a picture taken in Shanghai, China, in the year 1944, of my parents.
On the left, my mother, Selma Sinasohn. On the right, my father, Harry Sinasohn.
This is a picture taken in 1981, in New York City,
when I was working for Chase Manhattan Bank.
I was vice president in charge of administration,
and I was hosting a reception for some of the bank’s suppliers of checks.
I am the second person from the left, Henry Sinason.
- When was this taken? - This was taken in 1981.
This picture was taken in 1988 at the Château de Chabannes,
the former OSÉ home, and all the people in this picture are my former comrades
who were at the OSE home in Chabannes with me in 1940.
- Where are you? - I am the fourth person in the middle row.
The baldish-looking gentleman wearing glasses,
next to the lady with the white blouse.
- What year was this taken? - And I am Henry Sinason.
It was taken in 1988.
This is a picture of my son and his family.
On the left is my son, David Sinason, with his wife, Karen Sinason.
On the right are my three grandsons.
The one on the left is Joshua, the middle one.
The one behind him is Matthew, the oldest.
And the little one in front is Adam.
This picture was taken in 1990,
when Adam was about two years old,
Joshua was about six and Matthew, 10.
- What country? - This was taken in the United States.
- City? - In Tallahassee, Florida.
This is a picture of my daughter, Carol Sinason.
It was taken in the year 1985,
in Houston, Texas.
This is a photograph showing four generations of my family.
On the left is my mother, Selma Sinasohn.
The little boy is my oldest grandson, Matthew.
I am holding him in the middle. I’m Henry Sinason.
And to the right is my son, David. This picture is–
- His last name is? - Is David Sinason.
This picture was taken in 1981, in Tallahassee, Florida.
This is a picture of myself, Henry Sinason,
taken in 1975,
in Ridgewood, New Jersey.
I’m holding my musical instrument, a bass clarinet,
and it was taken after a concert
where I performed with the local symphony orchestra.