THE STORY OF THE SQUARE
Quilt 3, Square 5
Artist: Gerard Friedenfeld
How Nazis Broke My Leg
Thus Saving Me, A Jew, From Their Gas Chambers
On April 12, 1939, at the age of fourteen, God may have ordained that Nazis break my leg, thus rescuing me, a Jew, from certain death in their gas chambers.
How did this happen?
On that morning, German uniformed thugs commanded by Oberscharfueher (Major) der SS Woerner invaded a refugee camp in Eibenschitz in pre-World War II Czechoslovakia. My family and some 600 fellow Jews found refuge in that camp, having been robbed and expelled from our homes in Lundenburg and in other communities in southern Moravia by our life-long Sudeten-German neighbors, my father’s former school friends among them.
The SS-troopers ordered all men, women, and children out of the buildings into the yard of the former tannery, our makeshift home. There we had to line up and stand at attention, silently and without food and drink, for many hours. Some two dozen males, myself included, were singled out by Woerner for “exercising” — turnen, the Nazis called it — to amuse the sadistic Woerner and his fellow sadists.
First they beat us with their fists and then with iron bars. Then they kicked us — and kicked, hard — with their heavy jackboots. They kicked us especially on our shins; this is excruciatingly painful. Before long, these inventive torturers spotted a long ladder lying beside a heap of cobblestones next to a tall building. They forced us to lean the ladder against the side of the building; then they forced us to climb the ladder to the top and to jump onto the cobblestones. Whenever one of us hesitated to jump, the SS sadists shook the ladder, causing that person to fall from a great height onto the stones. I do not know how many times I climbed and jumped, climbed and jumped. Following one of the jumps, I broke my right leg; totally exhausted, I fell to the ground and fainted from pain. This was fortunate because it ended my torture and prevented much worse from happening to me.
All my fellow Jews who survived this initial torture were thrown into the rat-infested dungeons of the nearby Spielberg. This is a medieval fortress erected on a hill top. It was built during the 1614-48 “Thirty Years War” to ward off the invading, marauding and pillaging Swedes. Unfortunately, there was no fortress to protect us from the invading, marauding and pillaging Germans.
In the camp infirmary, I received first aid for my fractured leg, but no other assistance. Only several days later did Woerner, who appointed himself camp commander, allow me to be moved to the local hospital, which was operated by Catholic nuns. They cared for me with great kindness. Doctors set and encased my leg in a cast. They asked no questions; they knew.
While there I developed a crush on a teenage, beautiful novice sister. Whenever she appeared on the ward, my pain vanished instantly. My “lovesickness” for this lovely creation was, of course, a poorly kept secret. Whenever this enchanting apparition with the sweet, soothing smile brought food or medications to me or to my fellow patients, she and I became instant objects of good-natured ribbing. My innocent, juvenile “love affair” with this kind, celibate, off-limits beauty, which occurred at a time of great personal distress, remains a sweet, cherished memory.
One day a man and a woman appeared at my bedside. The man introduced himself as Mr. Drucker, an architect. He told me that they came from Brüenn, the capital city of Moravia to ask if I wanted to emigrate to England. I replied that they would have to talk with my parents. They must have done so because, five weeks later, on May 31, I boarded a train in Prague with 135 other Jewish children aged two to fifteen; I was one of the oldest.
We travelled all night across Germany toward Holland, crossing the Dutch border in the morning. There we were welcomed by friendly Dutchmen who offered us their then most famous product: Chocolate! The contrast between the smiling Dutch and the dour Germans was like heaven and hell. At Hoek van Holland, a port on the English Channel, we boarded a ferry; we slept in cabins during an all-night crossing and arrived at Harwich, in England in the morning. A train whisked us to Victoria Station in London. There we were welcomed by a tall, stately lady named Lola Hahn-Warburg who, I would find out much later, arranged our rescue.
Before I departed, doctors removed the cast because they feared the Nazis would do it — brutally — at the border to make sure I was not smuggling out of the country valuables secreted inside the cast. I walked gingerly with the aid of two canes. Evidently, the fractured bones had not healed sufficiently; en route to England, the bones “slipped”. Doctors in a London hospital recommended that my bones be re-broken and set properly; a date was set for the operation. Earlier, the surgeon had delayed the operation repeatedly. Now, on the scheduled day he determined that my bones had healed beyond the point of safe, surgical fracturing. As a result, my right leg is and remains shorter than my left leg; this does not bother me.
To this day I do not know how Mr. Drucker and his companion located me in the Eibenschitz hospital. Nor do I know what became of them, my guardian angels who snatched me out of Hitler’s jaws barely three months before World War II erupted on Polish soil on September 1, 1939.
Nor do I know with certainty what became of my parents. On the morning of May 31, 1939 they placed me on a train in Brünn headed for Prague; this was the last time I saw my parents. According to German records, which I obtained after the war, Germans transported my parents from Czechoslovakia to Warsaw, Poland. There they may have perished in the artillery bombardment of the Ghetto during the uprising of the Jews against their Nazi oppressors in April 1943.
I received no more messages from my parents.
The war years and how they affected my family may best be described using William Shakespeare’s immortal words: When Troubles come, They come not single Spies But in Battallions....
Some years after the victorious conclusion of World War II, I determined that an organization founded in London in 1938 named “Kindertransport” — Children’s Transport — were the ones who rescued me. A founder and guiding light of Kindertransport was the previously mentioned Mrs. Lola Hahn-Warburg, a member of the premier, wealthy German–Jewish family Warburg. The Warburgs had worldwide connections at the highest levels of governments and banking. They used them and their wealth to accomplish, quietly, extraordinary feats for mankind. In some instances, they operated clandestinely because the times and the circumstances of their actions dictated it.1
I have no proof, but I strongly suspect that my life and the lives of the other 10,000 “Kinder” — children — were purchased by bribing Nazi officials . I was informed recently by Dr. Hanusz Grosz of Indianapolis, then a fellow passenger on the train from Prague to London, that Mr. Nicholas Winton, a now 86-year-old Englishman acted as one of our guardian angels in Czechoslovakia, somehow procuring our release from the Nazi grip.
I was invited and it was my great privilege to reside at Mrs. Hahn–Warburg’s townhouse in London, while I received medical attention. She was then the mother of two children. She immediately accepted me in her family as her third child, lavishing the same love and attention on me as on her own children. Consequently, to this day I consider this then strikingly beautiful, tall, energetic, confident, aristocratic lady my second mother because she gave me a second life. I am most grateful to Mrs. Hahn-Warburg, this grand lady, and to all the other Warburgs who contributed to my rescue in one way or another. Mrs. Hahn-Warburg died in London four years ago at age 88.
The “Kindertransport” was only one of her successes in saving children's lives. In 1945, she helped to rescue 1,000 orphans, survivors of Nazi death camps. Their post-war rehabilitation in Great Britain has been chronicled, vividly, accompanied by compelling photographs.2 Shortly before her death, Mrs. Hahn-Warburg helped to rescue children from hostile countries as diverse as Ayatollah Khomeini’s Iran and Mengistu’s Ethiopia.
I write this piece and I dedicate it to the memory of my beloved, martyred parents, Henriette and Rudolf Friedenfeld; also, with profound gratitude, to Mrs. Lola Hahn-Warburg and to all my myriad guardian angels, known and unknown, who watched over and cared for me during long hours of darkness.
I wish to express, publicly, my immense, long overdue, eternal gratitude to all citizens of Great Britain of 1939, who offered me refuge on their safe island, sharing their freedom with me.
Mourning deceased family members and friends Jews pray: “May the beauty of their lives shine for evermore, and may life bring honor to their memory.” This story of “Troubles come in Battallions” had to be told so that the horrors of the Six-Year World War II and of the Holocaust shall never be forgotten.
It is revolting that Nazi mass murderers have somehow been admitted to our America and may still live among us right here in Wisconsin. Finally, this question begs to be asked and to be answered if, indeed, there is an answer:
Two hundred years ago two Germans, each a giant in his chosen profession, created what many consider to be the supreme work of art ever conceived. The poet Friedrich von Schiller wrote in his poem "Das Lied an die Freude” — “Ode to Joy”, these beautiful, immortal words: Alle Menschen werden Brueder” — May all Men become Brothers. Ludwig van Beethoven composed celestial melodies to Schiller’s lofty words. Schiller’s words and Beethoven’s music, combined, resulted in the latter’s final, his Ninth, his “Choral” Symphony, glorifying God and all Mankind!
How did it happen, how was it possible that some Germans elevated their nation to the highest rungs, to sublime heights in the realms of poetry and music, on one hand, while other Germans degraded their nation to the lowest rung, to the lowest depth any nation ever sank to?
Is there an answer? Who knows?
All I know is that Nazis broke my leg on April 12, 1939 and so saved me, a Jew, in some mysterious, inscrutable manner from certain death in their gas chambers and crematoria.
Incredible, but true!
October 23, 1995