Posts Tagged ‘Nazis and Jews’

Karl Romberg was the youngest of the 13 Romberg children born to Julius and Fredericka.  In many ways he might have been the most successful, at least financially, of his generation of the family.  Karl was the exclusive importer of English wool for western Germany.  As a result, not only was he financially successful, but his business continued to prosper long after other Jewish businesses had collapsed because of Nazi inspired anti-Semitism.  This is because his partners/suppliers in England were not about to change importers in Germany just because of Nazi policies.  So Karl had a monopoly in English wool.

On trips to England, Karl would smuggle money out of Germany in the hollowed handle of a shaving brush.  He opened a bank account in England as a hedge against the day when he would have to get his family out of Germany.  He prospered.  The boycott against Jewish businesses in 1933 hardly affected him.  His suppliers and customers were loyal.  So he thrived when others did not.

But all of that ended at Kristalnacht.

Across the street from Karl and his family lived a non-Jewish man who had served with Karl in World War I.  He owned a set of garages and let Karl store his car there, as it was against the law in Essen in those days to park in the streets because of the regular street cleaning (part of the German phobia of orderliness).  One day, in November 1938, his war comrade came to Karl and told him to get out of town and hide for about 2 weeks.  The SS had him targeted and a large operation was being planned.  He told Karl not to ask him any questions about how he knew, or ask for any details, just to understand Karl was about to be targeted by the SS.

So Karl left town leaving his business (which was right below the family’s living quarters), his wife, his sons Manfred and Ralph, and their governess, a woman named Maria Jagode.  Maria Jagode’s story was rather interesting.  She was an orphan who was raised by nuns who ran a combination farm, school and cloister in a small town on the banks of the Rhine River.  Kristalnacht arrived.  The family, minus Karl listened from the living quarters upstairs as the Nazis took axes and sledge hammers to everything in the office below, completely destroying the business.

The main stairway to get to the living spaces upstairs ran from the garden in the back of the store.  Soon they heard the troopers stomping up the stairway.  The Nazis burst through the door with the intent of destroying the home as well.  Maria, the governess, intervened.  She spoke to the leader saying she was Catholic and that the family was leaving Germany soon and was giving all of their belongings to her.  She said she would appreciate it if the Nazis would not destroy what was going to be her furniture.  They bought this and left the apartment unharmed.

By June 1939 the family, intact, made it to Cuba, eventually moving to Chicago, where Manfred and Ralph grew up and went to college.   They learned that the World War I comrade of Karl’s who warned him was himself an SS officer who saw Karl’s name on a list to be rounded up that night.   Maria wrote to the family while they were living in Cuba.  Now comes an interesting post script to the story.

Ralph served a tour in Korea as an American GI.  He was then transferred to Germany.  One of the people he looked up was Maria Jagode, to try to aid her.  She told him that the nuns that raised her used their facilities to hide and transfer Allied pilots who were shot down during the war – a kind of underground railroad.  Ralph went to the town where the convent was to give them some help as well – but it was completely gone.  He went to question the mayor of the village who was reluctant to tell him anything.  Being an American soldier Ralph was required to always be in full uniform, so when he began to press the mayor and put on an official “air,” the mayor caved and told the tale.  The Nazis found out how the nuns were aiding Allied soldiers, locked all of them in one of the convent buildings and burned it to the ground.

The former Jewish refugee from Germany turned American officer then returned to Essen to find his old home.  It was completely bombed out except for one thing.  The stairway from the garden to the second floor was still standing – a stairway to nowhere.  A satiric monument to Maria Jagode and the nuns who raised her.

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            Oskar’s disappearance in November of 1944 took the family by surprise.  Perhaps they were so used to Father Vorspel successfully hiding him whenever the Gestapo sought him out.  More likely, it was simply the result of Margarethe’s having to travel to the Black Forest to bring their daughters home to Essen.  Doris and Ilse had been sent to an abbey by the priest, as he was afraid they would be taken away as Jews.  However, after a year and a half of living with the nuns, someone from Essen happened to be travelling there and recognized them.  So Margarethe went to bring them home.

But it was not an easy journey.  First of all, Margarethe was pregnant.  Secondly, Doris fell ill with appendicitis.  She was hospitalized for two weeks.  No one visited her, but one nun brought her a knitting toy.  By the time she was able to travel and Margarethe finally got her home, Oskar had disappeared and no one had any clue as to how or when it happened.  One day a neighbor had seen him.  The next he was gone.

Margarethe would visit whatever remnant of the Jewish community was left to see if any word had come of Oskar’s whereabouts.  Finally they received a post card from him in Holzmindin, a transfer camp.  Doris wrote her father a letter but heard nothing back.  Once again his location became a mystery.

In the early morning of March 13, 1945, Essen suffered a heavy bombing by the Allies.  The house that Margarethe and the girls lived in was destroyed.  They had made it to the bomb shelter underneath the house but lay trapped there, under the rubble until 3 in the afternoon.  Now, with no place of their own and their possessions destroyed, they were fortunate that a theology student by the name of Theo Borges had room for them in his apartment.  But still, there was no word of Oskar.

By the end of March, 1945 the Americans arrived in Essen.  Margarethe had saved one of the yellow Jewish stars that Oskar had worn.  She showed it to the Americans who then took pity on them and treated them with great kindness, spoiling the girls with chocolates and treats.  But still no word of Oskar, even though the Jewish community was able to begin to function once again and Margarethe checked with them constantly.

Finally, after yet one more visit to the Jewish authorities, a neighbor hailed Margarethe as she was returning, saying, “Mrs. Romberg, something always happens while you are away.”  At their door was a piece of cloth, a rag really, with Oskar’s handwriting.  The note simply said, “my dear wife and dear children, I will soon be with you but I am still very weak.  My friend and I went on foot, but it takes more than two weeks until I will be home again.  I am yearning for my family.  I send you many kisses.”

Oskar had been taken to Theresienstadt.  The Russians liberated the camp just two days before he was scheduled to be gassed.  Oskar was free to go but needed to recover some strength, as he weighed only 85 pounds.  Oskar was given food rations and cigarettes.  After a few weeks he began the journey back to Essen partly on foot and partly by hitchhiking on trucks.  Oskar missed his wife tremendously and did not want to return to her empty handed.  He hoarded his cigarettes and then traded them for a cut glass set of a creamer, small bowl and tray to give Margarethe.  Doris has the set in her cupboard even today.

Oskar spoke very little about Theresienstadt.  He only would say that they always needed to treat people well, with respect.  The only stories he told were ones with a touch of humor.  For example, one day a group of prisoners had to paint a barracks.  They found some potatoes and hid them in the paints so the guards would not confiscate them.  Later, they cleaned them off and made a small fire to fry them.

When Doris got married and had her first child, Andrea, Oskar would only say how lucky the child was to be able to live in a safe time in which she would never see the experiences that Oskar had seen.  His grandson would not have to live on the edge.

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            Oskar Romberg was the second youngest of the 13 children of Julius and Fredericka Romberg.  He was, by his own admission, a bit of a wild child.  But the traits that his 3 remaining daughters remember most about him was his kindness, and the easy way he befriended people of all kinds.  Julius died before Oskar was ten and not too long afterwards his mother suffered a stroke that meant she could no longer care for her children – those left at home had to care for her.  Oskar provided a lot of this care.

His first marriage was to a Jewish woman, Doris Williner.  With her he had a son, Julius, but while she was pregnant with their second child had a tooth  pulled, which resolved in an infection.  The infection was never properly treated and killed her in childbirth.  She bore a child Oskar named Ilse, who died 4 weeks later – as baby had contracted the untreated infection from her mother.

A few years later Oskar met another woman, Margarethe.  She worked as a cashier in her parent’s butcher shop, which was also a kind of deli as there were tables where customers could sit and eat lunches they bought there.  Margarethe’s family was Catholic, but this presented no problems for Oskar he already had many non-Jewish friends.  By this time Oskar had established himself as a travelling salesman for furniture.  Most of his customers were not Jewish yet he had many strong relationships.  He married Margarethe in 1932.  They had two daughters; Doris, who he named in honor of his deceased first wife, and then Ilse, which was the name of his baby girl who died.  He kept a close contact with his first wife’s parents and his young girls came to look at them as relatives of their own.

This should have been an idyllic life for Oskar.  He was a successful salesman, with a wonderful new wife and two young children.  He had many friends of all sorts and even kept a close contact with his first in-laws.  But it all fell apart in just a few short years.

By1936 he was forced to quit his profession and do street labor with heavy equipment.  More and more apartment buildings did not want to rent to Jewish families.  His wife, Margarethe, was regularly called to the local Gestapo headquarters and badgered to divorce her Jewish husband.  Over he next few years the family had to move over 20 times, each time into worse conditions.

During the events of Kristalnacht, November 9 and 10, 1938, Oskar disappeared and his children did not know where he was.  Doris believes now that he was most likely hidden by a priest, Father Vorspel.  Just a short time earlier, as Oskar was no longer able to find employment that would support the family, Father Vorspel hired Margarethe to work in the priest’s quarters for the parish.  She cleaned, carried buckets of water, anything to support the family.

By the outbreak of the war in 1939, the Gestapo was actively trying to round up Jews.  One time a Nazi sympathizing neighbor saw Oskar on the street and called to the policeman on the beat that there was a Jew walking around and he better take him in.  The policeman had no desire to arrest Oskar, but did so and once he got to police headquarters, set him free.  By 1940 the family was hearing of Jews being deported.  In fact, the Williners, Oskar’s first in-laws, were deported.  Father Vorspel often hid Oskar when the Gestapo came around.  He would put him in the priest’s quarters or hide him in the recesses of the church library.

But that was not the end of the priest’s caring.  By 1943 he told the family that the young girls, Doris and Ilse, needed to be hidden, and he had the right place for them in a nunnery in south Germany.  Margarethe responded that they did not have the money for either the trip or the costs of boarding them.  Father Vorspel’s response was to not worry about the expense.  He took care of everything.  The girls were told not to tell anyone about their Jewish father and they lived with the nuns from March 1943 until November 0f 1944.  They would have stayed longer but someone from Essen came through and recognized them.  So their mother came to pick them up.  On the way home, Doris got sick with appendicitis and that delayed their trip home by two weeks – the time of the hospital stay.

Upon arriving home, Oskar was gone.  No one had seen who had taken Oskar.  Finally they got a postcard from him, sent from Holzmindin, an interim transfer camp.  After that they heard nothing.  Every few weeks Margarethe went to what remnant was left of the Jewish community to see if they had any word, but there was none.  At the end of March 1945 the Americans arrived in Essen.  The entire atmosphere of the city changed, as the Americans were extremely sympathetic.   But still there was no word about Oskar until they arrived home after yet one more trip to the Jewish community.  Someone had left a note at their apartment, written on a rag.  It read, “my dear wife and dear children, I will soon be with you but I am still very weak.  My friend and me went on foot, but it takes more than two weeks until I will be home again.  I am yearning for my family.  I send you many kisses.”

Oskar had been sent to Theresienstadt.  He was liberated by the Russians on May 1, 1945, just two days before he was scheduled to be gassed.  He was only 75 pounds the day he was liberated.

Oskar lived to have two more daughters, Anne and Beatte.  He rebuilt his furniture business, with many of his old customers giving placing large orders with him.  It was a time everything was being rebuilt and everyone needed furniture.  But Oskar’s customers made sure Oskar Romberg did very well.  They had always liked him and wanted him to prosper once again.

In Doris’s photo album of the family in the war years is a picture of the priest, Father Vorspel.  Without him, Oskar might well have been caught by the Gestapo years earlier and would not have survived.  If Father Vorspel has not been honored as one of the righteous gentiles, it needs to be rectified.  This righteous man was a priest who got it right.

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