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Growing up in Nazi Germany

Herta Pila, Holocaust Survivor

Well, I tell you something, I kind of grew up into the mess that Hitler started. So I thought that was the way life was, which it really wasn’t but it was the way I knew. We must have been a fairly affluent family, because we used to have a house in the country, which in 1935, when we all—all German Jews lost their citizenship automatically, so we had to get rid of the house because it was not allowed. And I do remember my mother had to take over the driving because—for the business, which we were in the leather branch, which meant my father used to sell the—not raw, but the tanned hides and leather for soles to factories. And he delivered, too, but he never drove because he never learned how; he had a chauffeur. But in 1935 nobody could have any more gentiles working for them, and our chauffeur was the first one who said he was leaving, so Mother took over for driving for the business.

She got her driver’s license in 1929: that was even before I was born. But she did take over for the chauffeur then. And we still could have a nanny, but she had to be over fifty years old. So we were still there, and both my brother and sister were seven and eight years older than me. And in thirty-five [1935], with all that was going on, my mother tried to start getting us slowly out of Germany, and so she sent both my brother and sister to Italy, into a boarding school. Then in 1938, naturally, when they closed all of our accounts, she had to take them back because she couldn’t pay any more money for them. And I think that was even before the Night of Broken Glasses [Kristallnacht]. But she—it just didn’t work for her. We also did have a cousin here in New York who had vouched for us, with $50,000 for the whole family to get us out, but in thirty-eight [1938], the Night of Broken Glasses, my father ended up in Dachau. And when he came back in thirty-nine [1939], he was sick. So I—to this day I kind of feel sorry that I didn’t question my mother about what really happened, but from what I heard from others, they all got kind of injected with some kind of a virus. And because everybody that was left, which were the men who used to serve in the First World War and had the Iron Cross, and so they let them out. But all of them pretty soon passed away.

So it was like—and like I say, our bank account was closed. Anything my mother had to pay for, she had to bring the bill to the bank, and if they felt that it was too much money that was on that bill, then they just wouldn’t give her the money for it. From our own account—and the business was taken away anyway already, in thirty-eight [1938], as soon as the Night of the Broken Glasses. But like I say, for me, I grew right into it. It was don’t do this and don’t that. You can’t go on a streetcar, you cannot go with a train, you cannot go to a movie, you cannot go anywhere; you have to stay home. And then in forty-one [1941], we all had to wear the Jewish star. Even so, Hitler—well, Germany really didn’t have any more ghettos, but Hitler made a ghetto. What he did is downtown he would empty out a kind of a high-rise—well, high-rise: six floors, seven floors. And he would move all Jewish people in it, so they all were in one place so he knew where to get whom. And so we stayed there.