Dan Sonnenschein was interviewed on the life of his mother Bronia Sonnenschein, a Holocaust survivor who grew up in Austria.
DS: …The persecution of Jews culminated in the notorious Kristallnacht, so-called, The Night of the Broken Glass on November 9th 1938 which my mother always described as a government incited riot, the Germans wanted to make it seem like a spontaneous outpouring from people against Jews but it was government incited and orchestrated and synagogues were burned, well it’s a well known historical event so I don’t have to go into it right now. And then soon after well her father was in the textile business and he had business connections in Lodz, Poland which was a big source of the textile industry and so he arranged for the family to go there, he went there first and then he brought his wife and then the daughters were smuggled out and that’s a whole story in itself and I wish I had more documentation on that period, my mother has told me a little about it but it’s not in the book, she never went into those details in her talks because there was just too much to talk about.
BB: They were smuggled out to Poland?
BB: Well that wasn’t really any safer.
DS: Well it turned out not to be. They didn’t know. There’s that expression of going from the frying pan to the fire and that’s exactly what it was but they didn’t know that at the time. Other Jews escaped, they went to France they went to Holland, wherever and then they ended up being captured by the Nazis so it was a common story of refugees within Europe, Jewish refugees. So they ended up obviously when the Nazis invaded Poland which was September the 1st 1939 they were soon after rounded up and put into this Lodz ghetto which was a very poor part of the city and it was sealed up by barbed wire and they were imprisoned there for five years approximately. They were among the last to be deported from Lodz, more people were sent to Lodz, more Jews and they became extremely overcrowded and there was all sorts of suffering, again it’s really well documented so I won’t go into it and they were among the last to be deported in August 1944. And they were sent to Auschwitz. They were all together at that time, the family, and my grandfather, her father, had always said, “Hang in, freedom will come eventually” and so on. And as my mother has written it was not to be for him because he was killed or died of starvation, beating, whatever, in another concentration camp that they were sent to after Auschwitz called Stutthof, not as well known but extremely bad, also a so-called extermination camp and there were other prisoners there as well, non-Jews, it had been set up very early, it was near Danzig which is now part of Poland, Gdansk actually it’s called now near the Baltic Sea. Anyway they stayed there for a while and then they were sent to Dresden in Germany to do slave labour in a munitions factory. Well my mother actually worked in the office, she was very good with languages and had a knowledge of German which a lot of Jews in occupied Europe did not so that helped her in many ways because she could understand what the Germans were saying, and she worked in an office, she had office skills and so she did dictation and typing and so forth. And that’s where she met this woman who gave her this Schutzbrief, this letter of protection I imagine, this religious letter which she has talked about. So then she was there during the firebombing of Dresden by the Allies, she survived that, she said their captors didn’t let them go, they were still together, now the father was no longer there but her mother and sister and that’s what she always credited her survival to that they were together and she had these others to live for and they lived for each other and they encouraged each other.
And so they were sent on this death march, walking for… I’d have to look it up or do some more research, let’s say ten days to two weeks approximately and they were almost ready to give up. I mean my mother and her sister, her sister had apparently suggested… well they marched along this river the River Elbe, a big long river in Germany that goes into different countries and her sister had said, “Well we can’t go on any longer and so let’s just throw ourselves in the river and end it.” And so they went to their mother who said, “Yes well maybe you’re right but let’s wait one more day,” because she had overheard a guard saying the date or somehow knew that the date next day was April 24th which happened to be my aunt’s birthday. She said, “Let’s hang on one more day, it’s Paula’s birthday,” that was her name and that’s how it’s pronounced or was in Austria, “and maybe a miracle will happen.”And so my mother always remembered that because the very next day they were brought to the gates of this last remaining ghetto called Theresienstadt a famous ghetto just north of Prague in Czechoslovakia and there were Jews welcoming them there and apparently the plan had been for the Germans to just…they wanted to get rid of like any criminals to get rid of the witnesses to their crimes and apparently their plan was to blow up this ghetto with all the Jews inside and destroy all the witnesses, that’s what they were trying to do in the end and that’s why they didn’t want to let them go but by then the Russians were rapidly advancing and the Germans were very afraid of the Russians, much more so than the Americans, they knew by reputation that the Russians were brutal and treated the German soldiers very harshly and so they were afraid and they ran away. And so the Jews were just sitting around in the ghetto finally my mother when they came they were welcomed by the remaining Jews in this ghetto, they were given fresh clothes from their rags, they were given food and a bath finally, that type of thing and so it was a tremendous relief, soup and so forth they had…
And then on May 8th they were officially liberated when a Russian soldier came on horseback into the courtyard of this ghetto and said, “You’re free, you can go home now,” and Mother could gather what he was saying, he spoke in Russian but she knew some other languages, Slavic languages like Polish which she’d picked up in the ghetto and there were similarities in the words and she gathered what he was saying from some of the words and the context, it was clear. And so that was a wonderful moment that she obviously never forgot. The Jews were not like, she said, compared like with people at the end of the war, it was announced in Times Square and people were throwing confetti and celebrating but for them it was not like that, they just wept, you know.
Interviewer: Irene Dodek & Cyril E. Leonoff
ID: Then the Germans came and that was it.
SW: And that was it. And I was working in a [pharmacy] dispensary at that time and first the Gestapo came in, you know, and then the military came in and they were very nice, just the soldiers and so on not Gestapo, and they were nice people you know, Germans, nice people who had to serve and go and the front moved farther east, the Gestapo remained and then they started to introduce their own system. There were quite a large number in that city, at that time I lived in the city Brody and Brody before the First World War was a free city, it was between Austria and Russia and it was a free city, a very prosperous city and eventually it became Poland and it was a nice big city with many Jewish people and the majority of people there were merchants and tradesmen and professional people. There were three pharmacies and all three belonged to Jewish people, the majority of doctors were Jewish doctors only two Polish doctors and one Ukrainian and otherwise we had about 15, 16 doctors, Jewish doctors and they were well off and all the lawyers, the majority of lawyers were Jewish people so a lot of intelligentsia. So the Gestapo called up, there was an order that all the intelligentsia, all the professionals have to report to one of the barracks because they are going to make a Jewish community and they wanted, they didn’t call it ghetto just a separate Jewish community and [they wanted that] Jewish people would have to do their own administration and supervision and they will not be under the Polish government, they will just have to have their own rules and regulations and so on. So they had to order to come and report and naturally all the people came. I went too but my husband didn’t, my husband actually was in hiding because he was known as very pro-Soviet at that time so he didn’t show up, he just didn’t leave his room, absolutely not because he was exposed…
ID: Wasn’t that dangerous for him though? Would anybody have reported him?
SW: No, nobody reported him, nobody kind of specially, he was not actually, he known among the teachers but actually he didn’t have enemies, he was just a Socialist but, you know, that was enough, he was an inspector and he was a principal so that was enough to expose him if he would have been caught, so he did not go but I went. And everybody came, they told us to call the pharmacist for about two hours and we did and then everybody came, in our pharmacy there were four employees, all the pharmacists who were in charge, three of us, three pharmacists and one assistant pharmacist and so they gave us instructions that we have to meet together and everybody has to be assigned among us, that was the trick, to get us all in and we didn’t realize, nobody realized that, and that we have to have a president, a leader, and we have to have secretaries, everybody had to have a function, a position in that government, in the Jewish government. So they said, “Next week we will call you all again and you have to come and then we will know how you have to present.” Naturally if you know Jewish nature everybody wanted to have a chair, everybody wanted to do something and there was quite a bit of fighting between the community. I stayed away I never wanted to be exposed to any offices the same as I don’t want to be now in the public eye for any reasons and I was the same before so but I had to come but I didn’t have any position, I didn’t apply for anything so the pharmacists had to have a head pharmacist, a doctor in charge of the doctors, and the lawyers and everybody, you know, the merchants didn’t come just the professional people. And I went to see my parents in the country and I was late, when I came to the gate of the barracks there were some Gestapo men and I said, “I’m so sorry I’m half an hour late because my mother was sick and I had to go and see her.” So he said to me, “You are not Jewish, you don’t look Jewish and I don’t know why you wanted to go in, you just go home.” So I said, “I may be punished, we all had to report here.” He said, “Well I am telling you and you go, and you go now.” So I went home and I was very unhappy because I was sure that I would have to pay the consequences because I didn’t report, and they took them all out into the field and they shot them, every one of them. Not everyone, I’m sorry, they left three doctors, they left three pharmacists in charge of every pharmacy because they were needed and two or three more but there were about 60 of them or 70 that reported, the rest were taken and disappeared, they told us that they were sent to other cities, to work in other cities and for many, many months…
ID: Did you believe that?
SW: You know the people want to believe, because it was just the beginning of it, of this extermination, and this is how I got out.
ID: Did you pass yourself as a non-Jew after that?
SW: Yes, I did. When they formed a ghetto I was never in the ghetto and then after that they had an order on every wall, big signs that Jews have to wear a white band with a blue star of David, I had the star but I never wore it, you know. First of all I didn’t look Jewish, my great grandmother was not Jewish and I had contacts, you know, we never associated with that family never and I grew up and I didn’t know that my great grandmother was not Jewish and nobody told me, my mother told us when we were just about engaged and we were grown up and my sister had a family already. I knew that sometimes she would send some money to somebody but I never thought of it, we didn’t associate with them, it just happened two generations back, that was my mother’s grandmother. So anyway, during the war that came in handy because these people came forward and they gave me the papers, original papers, one of these distant relatives whom I never met in my life she knew of us, she found us and she came and she gave me and my sister papers and I used that name and my name was Eugenia Homich, Jenny Homich, and this is what I used.
ID: Who was this name? Was this somebody from your great grandmother?
SW: Great grandmother, one of the family.
ID: And they had the papers, maybe had died a long time ago?
SW: They had the papers and they just gave me and I was eight years younger on these papers.
ID: So that’s how you survived.
SW: This is how I survived but it was difficult because my sister did not survive.
RK: Well, I was the first born in 1940 in Holland where the war had already broken out, and I was in Holland in hiding for three years with a Christian family, the Munniks, M-U-N-N-I-K. Albert and Violette Munnik and their daughter Nora, who became my sister. In 1945 I was reunited with my parents who survived in hiding individually in different places and that was at least a minor miracle if not a large one because everyone else except for one first cousin was murdered.
RS: And how old were you when you were taken into hiding with this family?
RK: I was two years old, 1942 to 1945. Liberation of Holland was May 5, 1945 and I was returned to my parents within two or three weeks after that.
RS: And after that, Dr. Krell, your family decided to immigrate to Canada?
RK: My parents in 1949 looked at Israel, which was not a great place to work for a furrier, which my father was and they were worried about more wars and had just come out of one barely. So then they looked at Australia, then we got American visas which were given to the family with my father so that they could emigrate which they did to Los Angeles area and then we got our Canadian visas and came to Vancouver, British Columbia in 1951.
RS: So how old were you? So I guess now we will start with your life in Canada?
RK: I was...we came here in March and I was 10 years old, turning 11 in that coming summer.
RS: And how do you remember that time of your life moving to a new country, you have gone through so many...
RK: Oh, I was the world’s most eager immigrant. I wanted to get out of Holland that was just a place of reminders of death and other than missing a couple of relatives who survived in Switzerland and my own Dutch Christian parents, other than that I left nothing of importance behind, I was eager to be here in Canada and it turned out to be the right place.
RS: So what do you remember, when you moved here how was it for you as a family to find a house, to start, you know, finding a school, to be in a new country as a child? Probably I don’t know if you spoke the language back then, so...
RK: No, it was complicated for my parents. They made their second, third, or fourth start in life, which is not easy. And of course they were the only survivors of their entire family so there was no one, no one left. They started anew. For me it was a piece of cake. I didn’t speak English when I got here so I was put back one grade in an elementary school. I learned English over the summer.
AG: With your mother. What was her name?
EK: My mother, my mother… was a model in one of the biggest fur salons. She was a beauty, people would turn their head on the street as she would be walking, I remember that. Not as bright as my grandma but she was very beautiful – [laughs] usually the two don’t go very well together unfortunately, you know – we are in the middle. So she got married and that was it; I don’t know what year she got married, I don’t remember that but I don’t think that’s too crucial… it has to be before I was born so probably ’32 or ’31. She was very young – wait a minute- she was just past 20 so she was born in 1913… how’s your mathematics?
AG: Maybe she would have been 20 years old in 1933.
EK: So something like that, 19 or 20, right. So then until my father was taken away she was staying with us at home and then my father had to go for forced labour, then she went and worked in the franchise business for my uncle, I mean my father had some shares. So that was that, and my grandma, I mean her mother, my mother’s mother, stayed with us to run the household so she could go to work and then comes 1944 March 15th – that’s the crucial date - from that date we already were ordered to wear the Mogen Dovid, you know the yellow star, and I was still going to school with that yellow star sewn on my coat, and it was horrible, you never forget that. I think it was the end of June when we had to move into designated houses, which was in the ghetto area but it wasn’t enclosed yet but that building was, the name of the street was called Vas Utca and that was in the real Jewish quarter of Budapest.
AG: Had you lived near there before? Had you lived in the Jewish area before?
EK: No, no, no… we lived in the Eight District where my grandmother and the business was and where lived all the family. No, no, where we lived this was the Jewish district. We lived where most of the assimilated Jews lived; there is a distinction you see.
AG: As a child did you speak any languages other than Hungarian?
EK: Not before the war, no. I had some instructions, I remember, in a synagogue, but there is such a vague recollection I have. All the other memories are so much stronger, which I am sure is not unusual with people, I am not an exception. No, I did not read Hebrew; I did not do any of this. We had some lessons, I remember, but that was just before the war and was lots of trouble, you know, the last part of it. So then, we were moved in there, there were curfews; limited access to going to the other part of town, but it wasn’t really closed like later on. Then came the Nazis, and the Hungarian Nazis you know, the whole Horthy regime, you probably heard of it. Goering collapsed and it was getting more and more vicious, the whole situation, and then the Germans were really clamping down and making the ghetto fight. Just before that, because my father and my uncle had the Swedish ball-bearing SKF, that’s the famous company the Swedish ball-bearing company franchise; Wallenberg at that time was starting to issue those letters of protection, my mother and myself and my sister had them. My uncle got them, because he was married to a Gentile, and he was not, because he served in the First World War, for one reason or another he was not taken. I don’t know why or how he managed it, but anyway we got this letter of protection, then we had to be removed at night under secrecy to another part, close to the shores of the Danube in another district, Fifth district of Budapest, and then we were in December already, that was horrendous, that was just awful, very bad memories. Anyway we had not enough food; ten of us were sleeping in one room. I remember I slept on two armchairs, their legs were tied on the bottom so I wouldn’t fall or push it away This was a very select group, needless to say, and I, without a Mogen Dovid, I would go out because I was very responsible and very mature for my age. You see when we went with these letters of protection also both of my grandmothers came with us but they did not have a letter of protection and my mother and my uncle felt that it’s possible that they can slip aside. I would go to one of the markets there and I would go and buy some food and of course walk on the street; they didn’t know that I was a Jew; I didn’t look like too much of a Jewish kid so I got away with it. And the last couple of weeks in December they came and examined everybody, they lined up everybody and who didn’t have the letter of protection they just put them in the lineup and they were going to take them to the ghetto. And my sister goes with my grandma so I had to go and rescue her from the lineup; but anyway both of my grandmothers survived in a ghetto. Amazing. Anyhow I have seen people being shot in the dining room, we were not very far, those who were not taken were just put up, line up, and shot. Horrible, I never forget those things. So, it’s enough for the past, isn’t it?