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Mimi of Novy Bohumín, CzechoslovakiaA Young Woman's Survival of the Holocaust
By Fred Glueckstein Mimi Glueckstein
iUniverse, Inc.Copyright © 2010 Fred Glueckstein
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Chapter OneGrowing Up In Czechoslovakia
In 1938, I was seventeen years-old. I was a slim, dark haired, brown-eyed young woman. At that time, living in Novy Bohumín, Czechoslovakia (where I was born on September 29, 1921) were some three hundred Jewish families in a population of ten thousand. The official pre-war records listed nine hundred eighty-four Jews, including my parents Max and Ernestine (née Reinisch) Rubin, my sister Blanka, and me. Because of our proximity to Germany, many people in the town, like my family, spoke both Czechoslovakian and German fluently.
One of my fondest memories from before the madness was unleashed, were the delicious Stachelberrn. They grew in the backyard of my grandparent's apartment building, where I lived with my family. The oval, green looking-grapes with stripes, more commonly known as gooseberries, were sweet and aromatic. The Stachelberrn grew on spiny bushes near the nice little garden and cherry tree, alongside another of my favorites, the Ribiseln, or red currants. The fruits grew close to the cottage, near my grandfather's Sukkah, where he took his meals during the Jewish festival of Sukkot.
At that time, Novy Bohumín had three schools in which classes either were taught in Czechoslovakian, German, or Polish. I saw children from neighboring towns each day come from the train station, mainly to attend the German school that was the largest of the three.
Novy Bohumín was a quiet place. We had a tranquil life. My family was neither rich nor poor. We were best described as middle-class, working hard to make ends meet. My circle of friends included girls my age and boys that were slightly older. The residents of Novy Bohumín were good people. There was no anti-Semitism.
The first Jews in Novy Bohumín can be traced to 1655, when the local lord permitted a Jewish soap-maker and a Jewish distiller to live under his jurisdiction. By 1751, six Jewish families lived in various localities of Oderberg, which is the German name for Novy Bohumín. In the early nineteenth century, many more Jews settled in Novy Bohumín. They were attracted to the town because it was one of the important railway-crossings in Central Europe and later the site of an oil refinery. In 1900, a synagogue was built, an independent Jewish community was established in 1911, and a Jewish center opened in 1924. There was also an elementary school. In 1933, a large Maccabiah, or sports festival, was held in Novy Bohumín.
In 1938, my family lived in the center of the city on a street named after Dr. Edvard Bene, the leader of the Czechoslovak independence movement and the country's second president. We lived with eleven other families in a three-story gray concrete apartment building owned by my grandparents. Our apartment was on a lower floor. As one came in through the front door, there was a bathroom, spacious kitchen, bedroom, and terrace overlooking the backyard. There was also a living room, where Blanka and I slept. Another bedroom, one that was sometimes rented, could be entered through a separate door in the hallway. There was no telephone or radio.
Apartment buildings similar to mine adjoined the building. Shops adorned their front entrances. A movie theater, a cafe, and businesses were across the narrow cobblestone street. Further down the street was a large supermarket named Bachrach after the Jewish family that owned it. Running along Bene Street was a streetcar that stopped near the front of my apartment building.
My father owned a jewelry business. He had learned to repair watches in Switzerland before his marriage to my mother. Before going to Switzerland, he lived with his sister Caroline in Vienna, Austria. She had four children: Max, Mori, Lottie, and Mali. Their family name was Drechsler.
My father's first jewelry store in Czechoslovakia was located a few streets from where we lived. However, after a burglary in 1937, he moved to one of the two store fronts that were part of the apartment building we lived in on Bene Street. I worked in my father's shop, which had the family name, Rubin, on the outside. A small window with jewelry on display looked into the store. Although my father wanted me to become a watchmaker, I didn't. Later, I wished I had, as a trade would have been beneficial when times became difficult. However, I closely observed father, and I learned to take a watch apart and reassemble it.
Father enjoyed my company in the store. He would have liked my mother, Ernestine, to spend time in the shop too, but she needed to attend to her mother. My grandmother lived in the same building and was troubled by stomach ailments and very poor vision. Suffering from cataracts, she wore dark glasses that made her look forbidding and unapproachable.
Grandmother was very demanding. Mother attended her most afternoons and evenings. On nice days she took her to the nearby municipal park, where they would sit for hours. The park was an island of respite with dozens of species of bushes and trees ranging from acacia to the northern white cedar. With wide expansive fields of grass, the lovely park was dotted with benches. On warm, sun-filled days, it was crowded with families and young people. Tennis courts and a snack bar with tables and chairs were popular spots. During my free time I enjoyed strolling in the park. I wanted to play tennis, but mother thought I was too thin to play the sport. "Put on extra pounds, Mimi, and you can play tennis," she told me laughingly.
Grandfather, who had died in his sleep a few years earlier, had been a religious man who observed the Jewish holidays. He had written books on the Talmud in Hebrew and spent long hours writing and reading.
The family dinner was usually at 6:00 p.m. Afterwards, Blanka and I met our friends and strolled on the main street. On occasion, Blanka, who was adventurous, and some of the others would walk to the old cemetery after dark. In their game, the person who traveled alone from one side of the cemetery to the other would win ice cream bought by the others. There were also fun times when our cousins, the Perlmans, who lived in the nearby city of Moravska Ostrava, visited us.
The park in Novy Bohumín opened at the far end onto a street and a modern gray school that I attended before graduation. It was called the Gymnasium. Depending on whether a student would go on to the university, he or she would study there for four or eight years. When my friends and I had a break between classes, we would go to the park and talk and laugh among the green and peaceful surroundings before returning to school. It was a pleasant life.
After graduation from the Gymnasium, my older sister Blanka, and I traveled daily by train to a business school in a nearby city, where we learned typing and other secretarial skills. By 1938, I worked in my father's jewelry shop, and my sister worked in the office of a Jewish-owned lumber company. But disturbing events were to take place across Czechoslovakia that would intrude into the idyllic lives of my family.
Chapter TwoPoland and Nazi Germany Invade Novy Bohumín in 1938 and 1939
On October 2, 1938, Polish cavalry, motorcyclists, and infantry with unfurled flags, massed at the bridge over the Olza River at Teschen, a city on the border of Poland and Czechoslovakia. The Poles carried bayonets, machine guns, and flowers. The bridge had separated the Polish and Czechoslovakian parts of Teschen since January 1919, when Czechoslovakia invaded the area that Poland claimed at the end of World War I. But now, almost twenty years later, Poland annexed Teschen and the surrounding Czech district, including the strategically positioned city of Novy Bohumín where I lived.
As I learned later, the justification for Poland's annexation of the Czech district my family lived in was the Munich Agreement. This pact was signed in the early morning hours of September 30, 1938 by Adolf Hitler, the Austrian-born dictator of Nazi Germany, Neville Chamberlain of Great Britain, Edouard Daladier of France, and Benito Mussolini of Italy. The Munich Agreement called for the Sudetenland, the western regions of Czechoslovakia inhabited mostly by ethnic Germans, specifically the border areas of Bohemia, Moravia, and those parts of Silesia associated with Bohemia, to be evacuated by the Czechs in five stages. In turn, German troops would occupy the Sudetenland. In agreeing to the Munich Agreement, Adolph Hitler pledged peace and an end to territorial expansion.
Winston Churchill, a member of the English Parliament, had stood alone in his concern about Germany's increasing strength. Churchill understood what the Munich Agreement meant. On October 5, 1938, he gave a speech to the House of Commons where he stated the consequences of the Munich Agreement. "We have sustained a total and unmitigated defeat," he told his countrymen. He said all the countries of the Danube valley, one after the other, would be drawn into "the vast system of Nazi politics: Churchill warned them. "Do not suppose that this is the end. It is only the beginning."
News of the Czech evacuation of the Sudetenland and its occupation by the Germans reached the residents of Novy Bohumín. My father followed the events closely. He read German newspapers like the Morgen-Zeitung, which he hid under the table so our Czech neighbors wouldn't see it. They frowned upon other Czechs who spoke German and read German papers. Reports reached Novy Bohumín that the Polish Army had occupied the Czech section of Teschen. Soon rumors spread that Polish troops were heading toward our town.
In the early morning hours of October 9, 1938, Polish troops entered Novy Bohumín. As a youngster, I had no understanding what the occupation of my town by Poland meant for the future. At the time, I was working in my father's jewelry store. Watching the Polish soldiers in Novy Bohumín, I saw young men wearing fatigue caps made of cloth and olive-colored uniforms with black boots. There was no outward display of machine guns or other weaponry. The Poles treated the people of Novy Bohumín politely. They liked spending money in the shops. I served the Polish soldiers who came into the jewelry store to buy my father's watches.
A month after the Polish occupation, the world's focus was on Germany and the Jews. On November 6, 1938, a seventeen year old Jew named Herschel Grynszpan, who we later learned was enraged about his family's harsh treatment and expulsion from Germany, walked into the German embassy in Paris and fired five shots at the first official who would see him.
Three days later, Ernst vom Rath, the junior diplomat shot by Grynszpan, died. Immediately, in retaliation, Nazi storm troopers and Hitler Youth rampaged through Jewish neighborhoods in Nazi Germany and Austria. From November 9-10, the terror and destruction called Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass, saw more than a thousand synagogues destroyed and thousands of Jewish businesses damaged. Thirty thousand Jewish men between the ages of sixteen and sixty were arrested and sent to concentration camps such as Sachsenhausen which was less than ten miles outside of Berlin, the German capital.
Five years earlier on March 22, 1933, the SS (Schutzstaffel), Hitler's "elite guard," established the first concentration camp outside the town of Dachau, Germany for political opponents of the Nazi regime. Between 1933 and 1945, Nazi Germany established about twenty thousand camps to imprison its many millions of victims. These camps were used for a range of purposes including forced-labor, temporary way stations, and as extermination facilities built exclusively for mass murder. By 1934, the SS had taken over administration of the entire Nazi concentration camp system.
Meanwhile, news of the terror of Kristallnacht, and the treatment of the Czech Jews in the Sudetenland, reached my family and other Jews of Novy Bohumín. I could hear father telling mother that the danger was coming closer and closer. "But we will be safe," he told her, "as long as the Polish troops are here and protect Novy Bohumín from the Germans." However, the protection offered by the Poles was not to last. Within one year the Germans had replaced the Poles, and my family, as well as the other Jews of Novy Bohumín, faced the danger firsthand.
On March 15, 1939, within a year of the Germans occupation of the Sudetenland, German troops occupied Prague, the country's capital. They also took control of the western provinces of Bohemia and Moravia which they established as a German Protectorate. Seeing that Hitler had not kept his promise to end territorial expansion, both England and France issued a mutual defense guarantee to all the central European countries between Germany and the Soviet Union.
Less than six months later, at twelve noon on September 1, 1939, the German Army, entered my city of Novy Bohumín. From the window of our apartment, mother, Blanka, and I watched the soldiers marching and singing below us on Bene Street. In the hours preceding the Germans arrival, the Polish troops had evacuated the town. As father watched the soldiers leave, he knew that every male Jew in Novy Bohumín faced immediate danger with the imminent arrival of the German troops. Father had heard how Jews had been treated by the Germans after they occupied Austria in March 1938. On the first night of the German Anchluss, or annexation, the Germans looted Jewish apartments and stole valuables, pieces of furniture, and art. Austria's Jews, some one hundred eight-five thousand, were singled out for beatings and public humiliations such as scrubbing the streets of Vienna.
Father was well aware that the Nazis would soon launch an operation against the Jews in Novy Bohumín. He knew that the occupation of the Sudetenland had led to the arrest of Jews and Synagogues were torched. Thus, with only hours of the Germans expected arrival, father and other Jewish men decided that it was prudent to leave Novy Bohumín. But the families were to stay behind.
"It is a hard decision," father explained, "but Jewish women and children will be of no use to the Germans. You will be safe. The others and I will travel east into Poland away from the Germans, find work, and send for you. Is there any other choice?" he asked. On the morning of September 1, 1939, father packed a small valise with clothes, rings, watches, and other jewelry from the shop. Only the clocks on the wall, which had been for sale, remained. The familiar 'tick-tock' 'tick-tock' of the clocks was the last sounds father heard as he closed the shop for what would be the final time. I was sad to see him leave. A feeling of ill-boding gripped me. And I was right.
I never saw father again.
Unbeknownst to father and his fellow travelers on the day they left, September 1, 1939, Germany mounted an all out attack, or Blitzkrieg, on Poland. With their superior firepower, the German troops overran the western part of the country. The German Air Force, or Luftwaffe, bombed the major cities and key Polish military and civilian installations. We later learned that father's train was bombed by the Germans in an aerial attack. He was unhurt and managed to get to Krakow, one of the largest and oldest cities in Poland. Krakow is located in the southern part of Poland, on the Vistula River in a valley at the foot of the Carpathian Mountains. There he melted into the city, which was seized by fear and nervousness.
On September 3, 1939, two days after the attack on Poland, Great Britain and France declared war on Germany. The Second World War began. Meanwhile, German forces advanced across Poland. On September 6, Hitler's troops occupied Krakow, and about sixty-thousand Jews came under Nazi authority. Father was trapped.
Meanwhile, in Novy Bohumín, the Germans took over the city hall and police station using these facilities as their headquarters. There was looting by the soldiers, and father's shop was vandalized. Uneasiness fell over the Jews. The Germans used selected Jews to communicate with the other Jewish residents. One day, Blanka, my friends, and I were told to report to German headquarters, where we were registered and immediately assigned work. The Germans were interested in people capable of working. Elders like mother and grandmother were exempt. Men and boys were put to work rebuilding a bridge blown up by the Poles.
A number of young women and I were assigned to work at the Army barracks just outside the town where the German soldiers were housed. I was given housekeeping chores. Each day the others and I met at Nazi headquarters and walked, sometimes with a German guard, about fortyfive minutes to the barracks. There another guard supervised our work. I scrubbed the toilets and swept the floors. And after a full day of work, I trudged back to Novy Bohumín. The situation for the Jews of Novy Bohumín soon worsened.
Excerpted from Mimi of Novy Bohumín, Czechoslovakia by Fred Glueckstein Mimi Glueckstein Copyright © 2010 by Fred Glueckstein . Excerpted by permission of iUniverse, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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