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|February 19-25 2009
Holocaust survivor looks to the past with horror,
to the future with hope
by Erica Grossman
In her modest home in Broomfield, Colo., Doris Small sits at her kitchen table. She is a slender woman with a big, expressive smile and grey eyes. The afternoon sun shines in from the window behind her, highlighting the collected relics of her life. She points to them — smiling photos of her family, books, paintings, elaborate wood carvings, symbols of her Jewish faith. When Doris speaks, it is softly and with a mixed accent that comes from a lifetime of being surrounded by multiple languages and dialects. She regularly apologizes for her English, even though it is nearly perfect.
Seventy years ago, this same woman was a 14-year-old girl, sleeping next to her sister, Ida, in the bathroom of an interfaith couple in Berlin, Germany. This place was not her home — she no longer had one. Her hosts were not her parents — she had none.
Getting from a cold bathroom in 1939 Berlin to Doris’ quaint Broomfield kitchen on a warm February day was quite a long journey.
The gap in that period of time is one that most Americans can only fill by reading history textbooks and by watching Schindler’s List. But there is more to the story than just these historical accounts. In fact, there are more than 6 million different stories of the atrocities that unfolded during the rise and fall of the Nazi state and the systematic murders of the Holocaust.
Doris’ story is just one — one that will be shared with the public during the University of Colorado’s upcoming Holocaust Awareness Week. The annual event includes panels and lectures from Holocaust survivors, liberators and scholars, as well as documentaries and a litany of those murdered. As the generation of survivors who were children during the Holocaust approach their 80s and 90s, the opportunity to ask first-hand questions about their accounts grows increasingly rare. Soon, these stories will be confined to those written and documented cases shared with the public. But for now, we still have a chance to bear first-hand witness to the survivor’s stories of struggle and harrowing tales of inhumanity — and to say, “Never again.”
A clock ticks in the background, and Doris shares her story.
It begins with these words: “I was born, unfortunately, in Germany…”
Doris grew up in the eastern part of Berlin during the 1920s and ’30s with her family — her mother, father, an older sister and an older brother. Though she was born in Germany, her parents’ Polish background meant that she would not be granted German citizenship. Further, the fact that she and her family were Jewish came to mean that she would not be considered a human being.
Doris’ childhood memories were fairly typical. She went to school with her friends and studied vigorously to pass yearly exams. At home, she and her siblings giggled as they listened to their neighbor play the piano and mess up the same notes of each performance. Though her mother had long been ill, Doris’ father was alive and well, and helped take care of the family.
During the 1930s, the German political landscape began to take sharp shifts toward Nazism. In the wake of the post-World War I Depression, Hitler’s pervasive anti-Semitic ideology began to infiltrate the government and people, who came to view the Jewish people as a scapegoat for their social desperation. Points of blame quickly morphed into sources of hatred, and a rapid decline into the beginning of the Holocaust.
As Jews, Doris and her family and friends began to witness the first-hand ramifications of politicized anti-Semitism. Doris was forced to walk on a specific side of the road as she walked to her Jewish school. When she made her daily commute, onlookers hurled rocks at her and the other Jewish students. It was especially bad on the colder days, when kids could fill up their gloves with rocks.
These types of situations escalated, and soon even the family’s next-door neighbors began to dissociate themselves from them.
“We [had been living in our apartment complex] there for years, and it didn’t make any difference who we were,” she says. “My neighbors were very nice. We never had any problem with them. Then one day a woman came out to my father in 1938. She lived right next door. She came out, and she said, ‘I’m sorry if I don’t say good morning to you any more because my son is in the army now, and if he sees me talk to you, he’ll turn me in.’
“Imagine — a teenage boy!
“She said, ‘It’s nothing against you personally. You’ve always been a very nice neighbor, but I’m just afraid to talk to you in case my son sees.’ My father said, ‘I understand.’”
Taking notice of the increasingly hostile situation around them, Doris’ family brought up the possibility of leaving to escape an unknown future.
“My mother had been bedridden,” Doris says, “which is why we couldn’t leave Germany. We tried to get out, but we couldn’t. When she finally died, we tried again, but then my father got sick.”
Shortly thereafter, Doris’ father died, leaving her older brother in charge of the family.
Then, on Oct. 28, 1938, there was a knock on the door.
It was 7 a.m., and Doris was getting ready for school. When the door opened, she watched as a German SS officer spoke to her brother.
“Please come with me,” said the officer to her brother, who was still wearing his pajamas.
“What? What did I do? I didn’t do anything wrong,” he replied.
The officer responded, “I know you didn’t do anything wrong, but just come with me. We want to ask you some questions. You’ll be back soon.”
“And that was the last time I ever saw my brother,” says Doris.
Doris was 14 years old, and her older sister, Ida, was 16. Unsure of the whereabouts of their brother and alone in their home, the two sisters were visited by their landlord’s agent a couple of days later. He demanded that the girls leave immediately, saying that, as minors, they couldn’t occupy the apartment. The girls pleaded with the agent, saying that their brother, who was over the age of 18, had only been gone three days, and that he would be back to help take care of them.
“Oh, no,” the agent informed the two girls. “Your brother has been deported, and he is never coming back.”
In the face of this news, Doris and Ida were able to convince the agent to let them stay for a little while longer by paying a cash sum upfront.
One week later, and without the return of their brother, the girls heard increasingly loud noises — shouts, screams and shattering glass.
It was Nov. 9, 1938 — an evening that would become known to the world as Kristallnacht.
Kristallnacht is considered by many to mark the beginning of the Holocaust. After five years of increasingly anti-Semitic posturing by Hitler’s regime, this was an effective state roundup of Jews for the purpose of their expulsion from the Aryan nation. While prior edicts took aim at Jewish residents in the form of social and economic restrictions, Kristallnacht was the first incident of widespread state-sponsored violence.
“That night became an unforgettable nightmare for everyday for the rest of my life,” says Doris.
She claims that she and her sister were fortunate to be living on the third floor of a building that housed almost exclusively non-Jews.
As the sun set that night, noise from the streets began to increase at an alarming rate. The girls had no idea what was happening, but knew enough to hide. They spent the night lying on the floor, listening.
“Downstairs there were stores and shops, and people broke all of the windows,” Doris recalls. “They were running in the streets breaking windows and abusing people. They were pulling people by their hair. If you had a beard, they would pull you by your beard. People were being beaten in the middle of the street.”
The destruction caused in that one night was unprecedented. It was nine months before the official beginning of World War II, but for the Jewish people of Germany, the streets had already turned into a battleground.
“Jewish stores were broken into, schools and synagogues,” says Doris. “They took our books, the holy Torah and burnt them to the ground. They took our teachers and rabbis and beat them until they fell to the ground and almost died.”
That night, 91 Jews were murdered, an unknown number beaten, and 30,000 sent to concentration camps, where they were brutally forced into labor and, in many cases, systematically murdered.
In the wake of Kristallnacht, Doris and Ida turned on their radio to hear the news of the night’s events — the destruction of the lives of their friends, teachers and schoolmates. They were still unsure of their fate, but what they did know is that it was not safe to stay.
“We looked around the apartment,” Doris recalls. “There had been five of us living there, and all of the sudden it was just two girls.
My mother and father were gone. My brother — we didn’t know where he was. And my sister said, ‘What do we take? Where do we go?’”
They had nowhere to go, but they each packed a small suitcase with a change of clothes and a couple family pictures. And without any sense of destination, they walked out onto the streets.
Fate brought a stranger into their lives. As the two young ladies walked the streets that were littered with broken glass, a man approached them. He recognized Doris and Ida as the daughters of his friend and asked what they were doing with suitcases on the street. Their explanation resulted in shock and sympathy.
“What are things coming to? No wonder my hair is gray,” he told Doris and Ida.
“The man was 64 years old, and we were just young girls,” says Doris. “He was Jewish, but his wife was Christian. He was not an observing Jew. He was in the German Army in the First World War, and so he was like a German citizen. He just couldn’t understand what was happening. He said, ‘Well I only have a one-bedroom apartment, but if you want, you can sleep in the bathroom.’
“And I said, ‘Thank God.’”
Doris and Ida were welcomed into their home, where meals were cooked for them and a safe haven provided. Ida slept in the couple’s bathtub, and Doris next to her on a cot.
On Christmas Day came another knock on the door.
It was their caretaker’s brother, a uniformed member of the SS Army, demanding to spend Christmas with his sister. The girls were told to stay silent and locked in the bathroom — to not even breathe if it would cause a noise. The toilet was in a separate room, and the family hoped there would be little cause for their guest to use the bathtub.
The evening dragged on for hours, with the soldier drinking excessively and the girls holding their breath.
When the soldier finally left, Doris and Ida were let out of the bathroom and told news they did not want to hear: “I am so sorry, but I cannot keep you anymore.”
Thankfully, the girls were not forced out that same night. Their caretakers helped them in every way they could, sending out visa applications in their names. At the time, those 16 years old and younger were allowed to seek refuge in England. They were approved, but by the time their applications arrived, Ida had turned 17, voiding her visa. Ida reapplied under a domestic labor asylum. As she waited for her response, it was decided Doris would leave.
Doris recalls the train station where she would embark on her first trip out of Berlin, and away from almost-certain death.
“We looked up to the platform, and it was all the children that were going away,” she says.
While in hiding, Doris had not known what had become of any of her friends or schoolmates during the aftermath of Kristallnacht. At the train station, she was approached by a friend’s mother, pleased to see that she was alive and could accompany her daughter on the trip.
It was a moment that struck Doris. This mother knew that she was sending her daughter away permanently and that she would never see her again.
“I thought to myself, ‘Oh my God. Am I fortunate that my parents are dead,’” says Doris. “That’s an awful thing to say, but if they were alive, I don’t think I would go. I couldn’t. That’s the only reason we went, is because I left nobody behind.”
Doris embarked on her trip to England, not knowing what the future held, but certain that it was necessary for her survival. Ida’s domestic service visa came through shortly thereafter, and she promptly left the country — three days before Great Britain and France officially declared war on Germany.
Life in England was not easy on the two sisters. They worked day and night in exchange for shelter and food, spending most of their nights in bomb shelters. But throughout their vigorous labor, they knew one thing — that they had escaped.
As the war came to a close, and the horrors of the Holocaust were revealed to the world, they decided to relocate to New York City.
It was in New York that Doris met and married Martin Small, another Holocaust survivor, whose story is known to many. Born in Molchad, Russia (now Belarus), Martin grew up a Jewish student with a loving and supportive extended family. When the Nazis invaded Molchad in 1941, Martin was forced into a ghetto and later moved into the concentration camp of Mauthausen — the last camp to be liberated at the end of the war. In the end, 86 members of Martin’s family died at the hands of the Nazis, including his mother, father and two sisters.
Martin, who passed away in late November, shared the horrific details of his story, as well as his expressive, rich artwork and poetry that depicted the trauma of his life. His wood carvings hang in museums — and on the walls of Doris’ home.
• • •
Back in Doris’ kitchen, the sun has set, but her story continues on. She tirelessly explains that today, her faith remains. When asked if
she feels hatred toward the German people for what happened to her and her husband, she shakes her head.
“I have nothing against the German people,” she says. “It’s the Nazis. Why should I hate all these people? Most of them were very nice to us — they were just afraid to do anything.”
Tucked beneath Doris’ pink sweater is a necklace bearing the Star of David and her late husband’s wedding band. As she pulls it out, she explains that sometimes she still fears those who remain spiteful and soon puts the emblem of her faith back into hiding.
“Sometimes I feel that maybe somebody is prejudice, and I am afraid,” she says. “After all these years… but you never know.”
She recounts the story of when Martin shared his survivor story in several television appearances.
She recalls, “Soon after, he went into a supermarket, and somebody said to him, ‘Oh, I saw you on television. You know, the Holocaust never happened.’”
But she continues, “Then again, he met some other people that same week who said, ‘Oh, I saw you on television. Let me shake your hand.’”
Doris sees racism in the world, the continuing of violent ideologies across the globe and the suppression of voices at home and abroad. But she also sees hope, the love of her family, friends and community, and the memory of her late husband — and it’s the reason why she invites strangers into her home to share her story.
“We must never forget the past — never,” she says. “But we must continue to fight and fight for the future.”
Holocaust Awareness Week
Holocaust Awareness Week will take place on the CU-Boulder campus from Feb. 23-26. Doris Small will speak at the University Memorial Center, Room 235, at 11 a.m. on Feb. 24. To view a complete schedule of events, visit http://sites.google.com/site/cuboulderhaw. Martin Small’s biographical book, Remember Us: From My Shtetl Through the Holocaust (written with Vic Shayne) is available online at www.amazon.com and www.vicshayne.com. The Small family’s proceeds from the book support the purchase of the Torah scroll of Boulder’s Congregation Bonai Shalom.
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