The Gift of Remembering
Ursula Pawel tells her story
By Valerie Davia
The Pawel family led a normal, happy life in Maplewood. Ursula never spoke about her youth as a German Jew during Hitler's regime. Her neighbors and business associates knew nothing about her experiences at Auschwitz and Theresienstadt, or the murders of her father, brother, and countless friends and relatives in Hitler's death camps. Even her sons knew little about these horrors.
Ursula and her mother, Caroline Lenneberg, arrived in America in 1947. On their journey across the Atlantic, Pawel's mother told her daughter, "We have a choice. We can live in the past or we can start a new life. I vote for a new life." This is the pledge that enabled them to begin again and to prosper in their new country.
Although she has managed to transcend her past and now exhibits an enviable sense of inner peace,
Pawel is no longer silent about her experiences. In November of last year, she published
Pawel was born in 1926 to a Jewish father and a Christian mother _ a mixed marriage that she says was fairly common in those days. While Pawel and her younger brother Walter were raised as Jews, neither parent exerted strong religious influence and Pawel felt equally at home among her Jewish and Christian relatives. Her father, Otto Lenneberg, ran a department store in the small town of Aplerbeck, near Dortmund in northwestern Germany. Pawel remembers living in a large apartment, complete with beautiful furniture and oriental carpets, and with a huge supply of books in her father's study. She began school in 1932 and enjoyed the company of many playmates, in addition to her large extended family of aunts, uncles, and grandparents.
Hitler became Chancellor of Germany on January 30, 1933. Almost immediately, restrictions began to be placed on Jews _ where they could go, where they could work, what schools they could attend. At seven years old, Pawel's first inkling that something was wrong came when her playmates began to tell her, "I cannot play with you anymore because you are Jewish."
As more and more restrictions and edicts were forced upon Jewish citizens, the Lenneberg family had to sell their business. They moved to Dusseldorf in 1936 where Ursula and Walter could still be educated in a Jewish school. Otto Lenneberg started another business, only to be thwarted by ever more systematic forms of repression. Eventually, the family had to sell their possessions and survive only on the meager work that Pawel's mother could get in a leather factory.
All along, the Lennebergs didn't believe that things could continue to get worse. Pawel writes: "In 1933 my parents and many of their Jewish friends had been convinced that Hitler would not be in power for very long; they argued that the German people would not allow it! I think that up until November 1938 they were still hoping for a miracle. Then came the so-called `Kristallnacht' when countless Germans watched and many applauded as Jewish homes were openly plundered and destroyed. Jewish shopfronts were smashed and our school and synagogue were burned to the ground. It became quite clear what the Nazis were capable of, and now everybody was desperate to leave Germany."
The Lennebergs were offered an affidavit, a promise that they would be provided for, by distant relatives in Chicago. However, the American consul in Dusseldorf arbitrarily decided that these relatives, even though they were quite wealthy, had given so many affidavits that the Lennebergs would have to secure additional sponsors. They had nowhere else to turn. When the war began in 1939, all travel stopped and it was too late to get out.
A decree in 1941 ordered Jews to appear at police stations to receive their "identification," a black Star of David on a yellow background with the word "Jew" (Jude in German) written across it. These had to be sewn onto all outer garments and "prominently displayed whenever entering the German world outside the home." Jews were now an openly marked people.
Despite daily threats and inhumane treatment (Pawel's mother was ordered to "divorce the Jew," which she refused to do), Pawel's family managed to survive intact until 1942 when Ursula, at age 16, was summoned to join a transport to a labor camp. Knowing that eventually they would all be called, Pawel's parents and brother volunteered to accompany her. The Gestapo did not allow Pawel's mother to go.
The transport took Pawel and her father and brother to Theresienstadt (Terezin), near Prague in what is now the Czech Republic.
Pawel explains: "Theresienstadt had been a garrison town where soldiers were housed; the Nazis turned it into a transit station in 1941. Jews from all over Europe were held there, before being sent on to a camp where they would be selected for work or extermination."
The Lennebergs spent two years in Theresienstadt where Pawel cared for children in the youth shelter and her father worked as a carpenter. In 1944, they again chose to stay together when Pawel's father was ordered into another transport, this time to Auschwitz, where he and Pawel's 14-year-old brother were killed.
From this point on in her story, Pawel describes every day as being like a lottery. "You had no idea each day whether you would live or die there was no reason to anything, it's impossible to say why one was chosen to live and another to die." Eventually, Pawel was transported to an airplane factory but was rejected for work because of her nearsightedness. Five other women _ three Czechs, a Dutch, and another German _ were also rejected for work and joined Pawel on the trip back to Auschwitz for their certain death.
Hundreds of people were crammed into cattle cars for the trip. Inexplicably, the six women were able to stay together in their own car, accompanied by two young German soldiers. The women, all German-speaking, spoke of their plans to commit suicide by jumping on to the high-tension wires rather than be gassed. When the train stopped, the soldiers led the six women through the village of Merzdorf in what is now Poland. They delivered them to the commander of a large work camp. Despite the commander's insistence that she didn't want them, the soldiers clicked their heels, saluted, and quickly left, thereby saving the lives of the six friends.
Pawel worked in that factory _ which made cloth from flax _ until the war's end when Russian soldiers advanced and liberated the camp. She and her Dutch friend Hilde Buschhoff, called Buschi, then made a remarkable bicycle journey of nearly 500 miles across Germany to the village of Lippborg, where the Lenneberg family had agreed to meet if they were separated. Pawel did find her mother, who could not stop crying, "My child is back, my child is back" (Mein Kind ist zuruck), hence the book's title.
Pawel describes these events in riveting detail but in a matter-of-fact style that disguises the tremendous courage and tenacity she displayed in order to survive. It is a personal account that brings the truth of horrendously painful events to life for all to see and learn from.
The book ends with Pawel's marriage to Hans on September 24, 1948 in Boston. Though she'd only known him for six weeks, they enjoyed 51 years of marriage. "He was a good choice, a wonderful man," she says. Also a German Jew, Hans Pawel survived the war by escaping to England as a student in 1939. His entire family was killed, including his father, a surgeon who had received a medal of honor for his skill at saving German soldiers in the trenches of World War I.
Pawel now lives in a lovely condominium in Bedminster where she moved when she could no longer take care of her house and her ailing husband. Her heart, she says, will always be in Maplewood, that "unique melting pot where people from every ethnic background find a welcome."
Holocaust survivor and Nobel Prize winning author Elie Wiesel wrote: "Remembering is an act of generosity, aimed at saving men and women from apathy to evil, if not from evil itself." With her poignant book and her generous sharing, Ursula Pawel adds her strong voice toward ending such evil. She concludes: "I hope that people will not see this only as a Holocaust story, but as a book to teach tolerance and stop hate."
My Child Is Back! is published by Vallentine Mitchell (London, England) and is available by calling 1-800-944-6190, visiting any independent or online bookseller, or contacting Pawel directly at email@example.com.
Valerie Davia moved to Maplewood in 1998. She is grateful that her work with Matters Magazine introduces her to inspiring people like Ursula Pawel.