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RESISTANCE, RESILIENCE & HOPE: Episode 5 – Ernie Heimann

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[Andy Miles] Hello, and welcome to “Resistance, Resilience and Hope: Holocaust Survivor Stories,” a podcast co-production of the Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center and Studio C Chicago.

The mission of Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center is expressed in its founding principle: Remember the Past, Transform the Future. The Museum is dedicated to preserving the legacy of the Holocaust by honoring the memories of those who were lost and by teaching universal lessons that combat hatred, prejudice, and indifference. The Museum fulfills its mission through the exhibition, preservation, and interpretation of its collections and through education programs and initiatives, like this podcast, that foster the promotion of human rights and the elimination of genocide.

On this episode, we hear from Ernie Heimann.

Ernie Heimann was born in 1929 in Mainz, Germany, 30 miles west of Frankfurt.  During Kristallnacht, November 9th and 10th, 1938, Ernie’s school and synagogue were destroyed. In the aftermath of these events, his parents knew that they had to get Ernie out of Germany. Days later the British Parliament passed a bill that would allow the temporary admission of 10,000 unaccompanied Jewish children into the United Kingdom. His aunt was in England visiting friends at the time and she made provisions for Ernie to come to England. On his tenth birthday he learned that in one week he would leave for England to live with a family in a suburb of London.

Before Kristallnacht Ernie had been asking for a 26-inch bike, but he says that with all the events that occurred, a 26-inch bike became “not so important,” and that nothing greater could have happened on his 10th birthday than the gift of leaving Germany. It was February 1st, 1939, exactly seven months before the start of World War II, when he departed for England on the Kindertransport.

[Ernie Heimann] I tell you, it’s kind of surreal because all of this had been pre-prepared. In other words, this wasn’t a last-minute deal; this was all planned out ahead of time. They knew that England was an island surrounded by the sea, and across the channel, Germans.

[Andy Miles] In 1943 Ernie Heimann came to Chicago where he would eventually enroll at the Illinois Institute of Technology.  He was drafted into the 101st Airborne, serving out the Korean War at Fort Benjamin Harrison near Indianapolis.  Ernie made a career as a material manager in the furniture industry, and between he and his second wife, Roslyne, has four children, five grandchildren, and three great-grandchildren.  We spoke at his home.

AM: To begin, I’d like to ask: How would you describe life in that first decade of your life?  And how do you remember your mother and father and brother at that time?   

EH: You, of course, realize that memory in the early years of your childhood is very vague and may be impossible to remember. I do have vivid memories starting at about the age of three, which coincides basically with the rise of Hitler’s ascendancy to power in Germany. And at first, we really didn’t feel threatened until some of the edicts came down that did affect us.

So basically, I had a pretty normal upbringing, the difference being that my brother was thrown out of high school because of an edict, and consequently, in order to continue his education, in 1937, the summer of ’37, he had to move to the USA, where a cousin was willing to take care of him and he could continue his high school, so I missed him, of course. He was about eight years older than myself.

So my family was a closely knit family. We had relatives all over Germany. My closest relative that lived closest to us was a widowed aunt and her two daughters; they lived in the apartment above us. Others lived, as I said, throughout Germany. We would visit them on a regular basis. And my father traveled. He was involved in a business owned by both my aunt and himself.

AM: And what was that business?

EH: (Laughs.) Unfortunately, now, it was a tobacco business. We owned a cigar factory and a wholesale distribution of all types of tobacco products.

AM: So the Nazis came to power in 1933. You were quite young.

EH: Yeah.

AM: But do you remember the first Nazi-imposed change in your day-to-day life? And if so, what was it?

EH: That, of course, was the edict that non-Aryans — and I repeat, non-Aryans; that didn’t mean just Jews; it meant everyone that was not considered to be of the Aryan race — could no longer play in the public parks, swim in the public swimming pools, and attend movies at all times, an Aryan being considered someone with blue eyes, blonde hair, and Nordic features. So that left a lot of the population out of various public activities.

AM: And with the edict that you just mentioned and the areas of activity that it involved, did all that come down at once, or was that a gradual —

EH: No, the first edict came down at once. So, big deal. I mean, we couldn’t swim in the river, in the public pool, so we found other spots in the river that we could swim unsupervised. The parks — well, that, of course, was a disappointment. When I was five I was enrolled in a Jewish parochial school attached to a synagogue so we had activities there, so that compensated for these things.

AM: Yeah. As the ’30s progressed and leading up to Kristallnacht, what are some of the things that started to change beyond those initial edicts?

EH: Oh, the 1937 edict, which prevented any Jew from attending public school higher than grade school affected not only my brother, who was in the middle of his high school education, but Jewish teachers, Jewish professors, the whole gamut in the educational system. They were out of that system just like that.

AM: And prior to November 1938, would you say that during these years you personally felt a sense of threat or menace? Or did you just feel like these were things that were being stripped from your day-to-day rights and livelihood but you weren’t necessarily feeling under threat?

EH: Well, number one, they were stripped; no question about it. Number two, the threat was depending where you were at. And the reason I say that is I lived a block and a half from my school. So it was a straight shot home and I would get home not lingering in order to avoid any Hitler Youth who were out looking for someone to bully.

AM: And that was a common part of everyday life?

EH: Yeah. So, you know, like here in the United States, you try to stay out of areas where you know there’s trouble. So it was likewise there.

My brother, of course, wasn’t as lucky. He went to high school. He was in the midst of the entire population, and he couldn’t avoid Hitler Youth. He would come home sometimes with a black eye, a bloody nose, and yes, even once with a broken arm. But, you know, again, you had to know where you could go and where you couldn’t go. And you adapted to it.

Above all, the most interesting aspect in looking back over all of this was my father’s complete, complete feeling that nothing would ever happen to he and his family. Why? Because he was a World War I veteran. My father had volunteered for the German army during World War I. He served as an infantry soldier in the front lines. He was awarded the Iron Cross, which is one of the higher decorations. And he said, look, he says, “Hitler’s Hitler, but my fellow veterans would never allow anything to happen to one of their veterans, especially not to one with an Iron Cross.” So, you know, he made things sound pretty easy for us, so we didn’t worry too much.

AM: So in November of 1938 Kristallnacht occurred.  You recall not knowing that it was happening, that you had breakfast that morning of November 10th and were leaving the house for school and you were astounded to see the street your family lived on full of people and shattered glass and such. Can you tell me more about that morning?  

EH: Well, number one, the street we lived in was a residential street, normally no traffic. I would go to school and probably not see more than one or two people. So when the street was all full, this was astounding to me. And then I ran down there and I asked what’s going on. And they said: “Don’t you know? The synagogue is on fire.” Well, at that time I was nine and a half years old and I was devastated. I ran back into the house. My father was away on a business trip, so my mother was the only one there. She quickly put on her coat and the two of us walked down, and yes, indeed, the synagogue and my attached parochial school was on fire. The firemen were there. They had their hoses out. But they were doing nothing to attempt to put out the flames. They were there, we found out later on, strictly to protect the neighboring property from catching fire. So, devastated, we went back home, realizing that a catastrophic event was occurring. We locked the doors, drew the blinds, and, you know, at that time the only means of communications was either land telephone or radio, so we turned on the radio and we found out what had been happening.

Now, luckily enough, the area surrounding my residence had not suffered too much damage. The corner store was damaged, but we didn’t even see that because that was in the opposite direction. So that’s how we hunkered down. We got a call from my father, and he told us that he is not going to be able to get home that evening as expected, because friends of his advised him it would be unsafe to travel and they were going to take care of him overnight, so he would be back the next day.

So that’s what happened until there was a knock on the door at about 8:00 and we had to decide whether to open or not to open. And we decided, well, we might as well face the music and open the door because whoever wanted to get in would get in one way or the other. At the doorstep was my father’s youngest brother with a little suitcase and he asked us to please let him in, and which of course we did. And we were very happy to have a man in the house. He told us his tale of woe. He lived in a small town near Nuremberg and he had been advised that morning by friends of his — they tipped him off that the Gestapo was coming around picking up all Jewish males over 16 and shipping them off to a concentration camp. So he decided he was going to try to get to us. And, of course, the next day my father came home, and visibly, he was a completely broken man because he had seen what had happened to other Jewish veterans with their Iron Crosses, how they were dragged through the streets, made to scrub the gutters and shipped off to concentration camp. He realized that his contention was completely fallacious. That’s when he started to try to get us out of Germany.

AM: So a week after Kristallnacht, the English Parliament passed a law that would allow 10,000 unaccompanied children ages two to 16 to enter the country.    Provisos had to be met, though.

EH: Basically, the most important one was that the child had to have a place to live, and the second important one was that someone in England had to guarantee the English government that that child would not become a ward of the state. So, you know, basically, those were quite reasonable compared to all of the other hurdles that would have to be overcome to get into some other countries.

AM: And your transport out didn’t happen until I believe February of the following year. Is that right?

EH: February the 1st. Actually, again there, I was very fortunate. I had a maiden aunt who had been visiting English non-Jewish friends during the period of the Kristallnacht, and she very wisely decided that irrespective of the fact that she had a condo and a car and all of her belongings in Berlin, she wasn’t coming back to Germany. So she stayed on in England and she was instrumental in getting these English friends to put up the bond, and my aunt was instrumental in beating the bushes to find an English family that would act and accept me as a boarder.

AM: So it came together pretty quickly for you, but it had to, because at that point, you were potentially under mortal threat.

EH: Well, I don’t think we were under mortal threat. And the interesting thing, which, of course, most people don’t realize is that the Germans, the Nazis were not preventing anybody from leaving Germany.

AM: They were encouraging it.

EH: (Laughs.) They were encouraging by all means, but not by mortal threat. They would even allow people who were in concentration camps to leave Germany, as long as two things were met: number one, they had a place to go to and, number two, that they would leave all of their wealth behind. But I think anybody that was in Germany at that time was more than willing to do that. Problem was, there was no place to go. There were no countries that were willing to accept people.

AM: So you were accompanied to the train station by your parents.

EH: Yes, as were all the other children.

AM: And none of those children were classmates of yours from school.

EH: No, it was surprising to me, but a lot of the children in my school had already left because their parents were more wise than my father and had applied for visas and quotas ahead of time. They had applied for visas when Hitler came into power, and some of them even before then.

AM: So you would have been 10 years old at this time.

EH: My birthday was a week prior to my departure.

AM: And at that time, you were right in the middle of the age range that was being permitted to leave, but were you surrounded by a real mix of ages?

EH: I don’t really remember exactly. I think it was primarily kids from maybe six years old and up. I don’t remember any two-year-old or three-year-old.

You asked if I had felt threatened from the time of Kristallnacht till the time that I left. And you have to understand that I had no school. The school was burnt down. However, the Jewish community attempted to quickly remedy that, and eventually they did obtain a building, which they converted to a school, but it didn’t take effect until just about before I left. In the meantime, in order to prepare me for any kind of a venture that I would be going on, my parents enrolled me in a private English lesson. So that’s what kept me busy between Kristallnacht and the time that I left.

AM: And at the time of that first lesson, did you speak a word of English?

EH: No. And at the time — at the end of my lessons I was very proud that I could recite “Little Red Riding Hood” by rote. I could say yes and no and please and thank you. But that was the extent of my English.

AM: So your parents took you to the train station and you said goodbye to them, and that was the last time you ever saw them.

EH: Yeah, and they promised me that they would make every attempt to follow me to England and that, in the meantime, I should be in good care because my aunt was there.

AM: Yeah. And did you have a sense of the gravity of what was happening, that this was a major turn in everyone’s life?

EH: You know, as a 10-year-old kid it was an adventure in a way. (Laughs.) Here you were, on a train, heading for England, having the insurance of knowing, though, that your aunt is going to be there, so that was an assurance which many of the kids didn’t have. And the train was accompanied by German Quakers who had gotten permission to accompany the train up to the border, and they had worked things out pretty well. They took some of the older kids and made them chaperones, so they kept us busy on the train. And you know, as a 10-year-old you don’t think too extensively of the events that are occurring around you and what the future might hold.

AM: Speaking of that, this is seven months before war broke out. Did you have a sense that war breaking out had an inevitability to it?

EH: I had no sense at all.

AM: And as a 10-year-old, how much did you care?

EH: In England we started to care because by the summer of ’39 it was pretty much understood that war was about to come. And the entire population was prepped for war. The English were very much concerned that the Germans might bomb London, quite possibly with poison gas. So they issued gas masks to everybody. So yeah, a 10-year-old kid — gas mask and told how to use it and to be prepared, told that in case war broke out, we’d have to report to our schools because we would be evacuated as a school to the countryside. So yes, that started to become prevalent and well understood in the summer of ’39.

AM: Upon arriving in England, what happened? I mean, how quickly did you find yourself in a school and settled?

EH: I arrived in England and my aunt met me. We went to the appropriate authorities, got myself registered. She took me over to the English family that would take care of me. Immediately enrolled in school and religious school, and I started living basically a normal life. The family had kids of their own, a boy my age and a girl two years older. So it was normalized, and as a 10-year-old you picked up the language real fast. So within a month and a half I was able to communicate quite well in English, and by the time war broke out, I could speak English perfectly well.

AM: Were there other Germans in your class who had done the same thing?

EH: Nope. Interesting: After the war — well, just recently, I became aware of the book The Children of Willesden Lane, and I began to realize that this was about within less than a mile — it was within about a mile of where I was living. Possibly, they worshiped at the same synagogue, although I doubt it, because I would have known about it. There were other German kids close by and I didn’t even realize it. So I was completely immersed in English community and surrounding.

AM: And how did your life change once the war broke out in September ’39?

EH: Well, war broke out and the English took the precautions, all kinds of precautions. The first thing that happened is I reported to school and we as a class were marched to the train station. We as a school were put on a train. Train went north, stopped at a place called Northampton, England, which is in the Midlands of England, and told to get off, so we got off, whole school, 300-odd kids. So we were divided by classes and teacher and us were marched off to the area where we were going to find our quarters. It happened to be a street called Agnes Road and the teacher knocked on the first door and said, “Mrs. Smith, the kids from London are here; you said you have room for two, here’s two.” So — (laughs) — two kids went in there. We got to 12 Agnes Road; Mrs. Swallow opened up the door and she had room for three so the three of us, me, myself, and the two kids from my English family, were put there. So that’s what happened, just like that.

AM: And there were shifts in which you were educated. Is that right?

EH: I tell you, it’s kind of surreal because all of this had been pre-prepared. In other words, this wasn’t a last-minute deal; this was all planned out ahead of time. The English kids would go to school from early in the morning until noon and we would go to school from noon until late in the afternoon. And to be fair, that was switched around every month. The English kids were prepared. They knew that their back was up against the wall. They knew that England was an island surrounded by the sea, and across the channel, Germans. Of course, the Germans weren’t in Holland and Belgium, but they were close enough. The distance between Germany and England was very short. And they knew that they were likely to get air raids, which they, of course, did. They knew that they were likely to get invaded, which, of course, fortunately, it never happened. But they had made all kinds of precautions, which, in retrospect, are very interesting, and historically I think very worthwhile of remembering.

They took down all the street signs, the directional signs on the roads, thinking that, well, it will make it harder for the Germans if they invaded to know their location and where to go. They took all empty fields, put up telephone poles to prevent the landing of gliders, which they were afraid of. They had barrage balloons, which were balloons that were up in the air with steel cables to prevent the dive bombers. They organized the home guard — (laughs) — which was also very interesting because all able-bodied men were already in the army. So who was going to defend the countryside if Germans managed to land? So home guards were basically World War I veterans, elderly, and real young kids, and they took the Boy Scouts, which I was part of, and a German enemy alien, which I was — (laughs) — and they made us part of the home guard. With our bicycles, we were going to be the runners between the various locations of the home guard, because they had no field — they had very few field telephones. So it was surreal.

AM: Was there anything of a surreal quality to this sudden change where you were a German, you had lived in Germany your whole life, and now you’re geographically on the other side of this conflict, and for good reason, but was there an adjustment for you to make?

EH: No, no. There was no question of fact that I wasn’t a German any longer. The English kids accepted us completely. So yeah, I didn’t have any problems. And likewise, the older kids didn’t, because the fact is that as soon as they were of age they volunteered for the British army and served during the invasion of Europe and helped no end in intelligence gathering.

AM: So you’ve said that you kids were welcomed with open arms, and in thinking about that, it reminds me of something you’ve said, which is that you were able to see the brighter side of humanity in these darker days, through the Quaker volunteers and the families who took you in, and later, in making your passage to the United States. Did you have that awareness at the time that —

EH: Oh, yeah. I was aware of the fact that I didn’t have a yoke around my neck that I had in Germany where I was not at all welcome. And in England, they were most welcoming. I don’t think I was ever confronted with the fact that I was a German. I was accepted for a human being and the kids around me were human beings. And they were inconvenienced by my presence or my schoolmates’ presence, but they never really let that affect them in any way. As I said, they welcomed us into the Boy Scouts, the Girl Scouts. We went on weekend adventures together. We camped out. We did everything together. I mean, it was a remarkable society that was forced to act humane because of their common enemy that was lurking at their borders.

People really and truly went out of their way, and you ask, you know, my further adventures, which was coming to the United States. That was due to the fact that my brother had volunteered for the Army Air Corps when Pearl Harbor occurred. And because of that, he was given special dispensation to bring his brother into the United States, regardless of quota.

In 1943, September ’43, after spending four and a half years in England, I was given permission to travel to the United States. My aunt put me on a train to Liverpool. Again, volunteers met me there, put me on the ship that was going to take me to New York, where an aunt of mine was to meet me. I was the only kid on the ship and most of the other passengers were British seamen. When they found out that I was traveling alone they made me their mascot, told me to stick by them. They didn’t anticipate any problem because no convoy had been attacked for the previous six months, and should something happen, they would take care of me.

So, three days out into the Atlantic Ocean, we joined a large convoy, over 300 ships; we were attacked by German U-boats, a pack of U-boats. And unfortunately, the convoy was escorted by little Corvettes; all they had were depth charges, so they tried their best to defend the attack, but there were too many subs and they played havoc. Half the convoy was sunk. Luckily, my ship wasn’t hit. And in order to divert the attack and half of the ships were sent on their original course to New York, the other half went north to be under air protection from Iceland and Greenland. And I ended up in Halifax, Nova Scotia, 14-and-a-half-year-old kid.

You have to remember, there was no social media, no cell phones. The only ways of communication was telephone and Western Union. So here we are, off the ship. What do you do? Well, volunteers put me on a train to Montreal. And from Montreal, more volunteers met me and they put me on a train to New York, and lo and behold, I arrived in New York. My aunt was at the station. She took me to her apartment, fed me, so I had a decent meal. Put me on a train to Chicago. Uncle met me at LaSalle Street station, took me to his apartment, and that’s how I started my life in the United States.

The war was going on. There was rationing here, but not the type of rationing that we had in England. You had your coupon books. You could buy, I think, two pairs of shoes a year, but that type of rationing really didn’t hit home like the rationing that took place in England. We didn’t starve in England, but we didn’t have many of the foods that we would have liked to have because all was being imported and — (laughs) — they had no room to import things other than war materiel. But I got here. I got enrolled in high school, went on to college, and started my life.

AM: Was it hard to leave England after being there for —

EH: No. No, no. I looked forward to coming to America to join the remnants of my family, which I know was here. And they were most welcoming and they made me feel at home. And they compensated for the fact that my parents had not been able to join me. Of course, we didn’t really at that time know what happened to them, but we realized that nothing good had happened because we hadn’t heard from them.

AM: And were you ever able to get any definitive information about what did happen to your parents and any other parts of your German family?

EH: Definitive information — (laughs) — depends what you mean by that. We were fortunate enough to get a copy of a postcard that, for some unfathomable reason, the German censors allowed to go through. It was a postcard that was sent by my mother in early April of ’42 to a distant cousin who was in — who lived in Lisbon, Portugal. The reason it went through [is] because Lisbon was neutral, but the content of the postcard surprised us that the German censors had allowed it to go through. It told my cousin that my mother and father had been deported to a place called Piaski, which is near Lublin in Poland, that they were living under conditions similar to Sukkot — that was the word used; the German censors should have realized what it meant — and that every other day was like Yom Kippur. Again, the German censors should have known what that meant. But they allowed it to go through and they said, look, things are rough over here by us; there is typhoid running rampant throughout the ghetto that we’re living in. And would you please send us anything and everything — clothing, blankets, medicines, food, money, and that we’re sure that our relatives in the USA would reimburse you. And that was the last we heard from them.

Now, subsequent to that, we tried to find out from the International Red Cross and nothing came of that search. They just didn’t know more than the fact that they had been deported to Piaski, Poland. And we did check with the German authorities when we were on a vacation trip in Germany, and there we found out that there was records that they had been deported, and, however, the record stopped once they got to Piaski, Poland. So definitively, we knew they ended up there and that either they perished in the ghetto of disease or they were transferred to one of the nearby death camps.

AM: And you said earlier your uncle had brought information that people were being deported to the concentration camps. So you knew that. But during the war, what sort of awareness did you have of those camps and what was involved with —

EH: Not really too much until the allied forces were able to enter some of the camps. The information was out there from numerous sources of what was happening, but the Allied governments decided to suppress that information.

AM: So in the years after the war, did you talk about your story?

EH: No. Didn’t talk about it.

AM: And why? You didn’t have the sense that anyone needed to know?

EH: I didn’t want tor really dig up the past. They knew about my life in England; don’t get me wrong. But they didn’t know my loss — what happened to my parents.

It was very painful at the beginning, but, you know, after the years and after repeating the story so many times you realize that that’s reality. That’s what happened. You see the good that it — the fact that you’re telling your story might have a beneficial effect upon the children and the adults that you talk to. And you realize that it’s very important. And so it’s become very, very easy now for me to talk about it — painful at times, but it’s not as heart-tugging as it was originally. (Laughs.) Originally, I talked from a script. And I try to make the public aware of the fact that the Nazis and their ideologies didn’t affect only Jews but they affected all individuals that were not considered Aryans, of which there were very, very many, the fact that they even killed their own who had mental deficiencies, other deficiencies that they considered had to be eradicated.

AM: Do you have a parting message for our listeners? I mean, what’s the most important thing people can take away from this conversation?

EH: The most important thing from the conversation, I think, is that history is what happened. There is no denying what has happened. And we should learn from history and not repeat history. And because of that, if we learn from our history, we should make progress — maybe more slowly than is what would be desired, but we should make progress forwards, not to go backwards again.


You’ve been listening to “Resistance, Resilience and Hope: Holocaust Survivor Stories,” a podcast co-production of Illinois Holocaust Museum and Chicago’s Studio C. If you’d like to learn more about this episode and the series in general, please visit studiocchicago.com/holocaust, or ilholocaustmuseum.org. And please share this podcast, rate it, and subscribe. I’m Andy Miles and I’d like to thank executive producers Marcy Larson and Amanda Friedeman for their assistance and guidance in bringing this podcast to fruition, Ernie Heimann for his time and candor, and I’d like to thank you for listening.

Also available: a “Podcast Extra” in which Ernie talks about his family’s roots and Jewish life in small town Germany.

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Photo credits: David Seide

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