Listening for Loss: My Father’s Holocaust Story

Last week my husband Joe, our two dogs and I shared a celebratory dinner with my parents on the occasion of my father’s 98th birthday. Despite poor vision and hearing and a stroke that left him reliant on a walker, he describes his health as “excellent.” His mind is sharp and clear as ever. After a festive evening filled with hope against the backdrop of a darkening second winter of Covid, Joe suggested on the car ride home that I write about it. As readers of my blog know, I am immersed in work on a new book about listening for loss. I should practice what I preach.

Born in Hildesheim Germany in 1923, Henry Jacob Meininger grew up in the shadow of the rise of Naziism. That year Adolf Hitler, imprisoned for trying to overthrow the government, wrote Mein Kampf, the manifesto that laid the groundwork for his planned extermination of the Jews. It was published in 1925. My father’s development occurred against a backdrop of an increasingly ominous threat to his family’s safety.

In general he prescribes to the philosophy of “living life forward,” a highly adaptive and optimistic approach that has served both him and my 98-year-old mother well. He is adamant that he is not a “Holocaust survivor.” He would never refer to his experience as “trauma.” It was not a subject that was discussed in our home.  But when in 2012 my then 13-year-old son asked his grandfather to speak to his eighth grade class in the context of their studies of the Holocaust, the innocence of the request broke down my father’s wall of silence. My mother expressed fear that the event would cause him harm, speaking with pride of a good friend who through 50 years of marriage never asked her husband what happened to him during the Holocaust. But my fears that something terrible would happen were unfounded: the presentation energized and exhilarated my father. However, it turned out to be both the first and last time he spoke at any length about his past. My hope that we could write a book together fizzled as he shut down most attempts at further conversation. Fortunately a transcribed DVD recording preserved the event. He began his story in 1933, the year of Hitler’s rise to power.

As I said, I was 9 years old. I lived in a little town called Hildesheim. We lived on Main Street on the third floor and I had a good home. I found that my mother took good care of us and I was a kid. So, the enormity of what was happening was not very much on my mind. I had friends, we had birthday parties, I went to school, pretty much like your age. So, the horror that you saw in the Holocaust Museum was really not part of my experience.

But I did see these things developing as a child. For example, one day I came home, it was probably in 1933, from school. And my father had a cigar store on Main Street and I usually, when I came home from school, I went into his store. And there I see a couple of storm troopers in their brown uniforms with a big sign saying, “Don’t buy in this Jew store.” So, that was the boycott that came pretty early in the time of the regime. But you know, it was kind of scary for me to crawl under these signs and past the storm troopers but I did go in.

So then, that was in 1933, and basically, while the atmosphere was obviously ugly, as I try to recall the way I felt about things, some of the boys and girls would bully me and say nasty things, but I don’t really don’t think much, being a child, it’s not that much different from somebody bullying somebody else in these classes. You live through it because life goes on as a kid. So, I didn’t really have that kind of experience that you witnessed in the Holocaust Museum.

A few things did happen. One of the things I recall is that whenever the kids pestered me, there was a big guy whose name was Butterbrot. And I didn’t know him at all. He was a big bully in my class and whenever kids threatened me, Butterbrot came over and the kids dispersed. I never spoke to this guy, but he was like my avenging angel. So that’s the kind of life I had until 1939 actually.

In the middle of 1939, I started to work on a farm outside of my town because I wasn’t allowed to go to school anymore. The Jews were not allowed in the public schools, so my father arranged for me to work in a garden establishment. I did that during the summer of 1939. At the end of the summer, when I was no longer needed to weed and stuff like that, as an assistant on the farm, I sort of, in a sense, lost my job. I was 14 or 15 years old then.

And then the town government assigned me to a forced labor camp, so that I had to buy a shovel and every morning at 6 o’clock, I had to stand at a corner where a bus picked me up to go to the building site where we built some sort of a factory for the German war effort – I really don’t know, but that’s what my subsequent research tells me what happened. So, there I was, a 14-year-old kid, with a group of Viennese men who were living in a labor camp nearby. I never went there to see that. But I joined this group of men every day and spent the day working with this shovel doing what I was told to. But then, a kind of stupid thing happened. I was a young kid, I was energetic and ambitious, and we had to carry bricks from here to there. I carried three or four bricks on my shoulder. These men I was with, they knew they were in trouble. I didn’t know that. So, this overseer sees me carrying these three or four bricks and then he says to the other guys, “See, there you have a German kid, you see how he works.” And you know, I was so proud of myself and I told my father when I came home that night and he was proud of me. But it was sort of really ridiculous, because that guy, the camp overseer, was probably one of the people, who then went and supervised the exterminations in Auschwitz. So, life is strange.

In December 1939, I was able to go to America. I left my parents. My parents took me to the train station in Hanover and it was just around midnight, from 1939 to 1940 that I waved goodbye to my parents and they stayed there. I took the train from Hanover to Munich and then over the border to Trieste, Italy, with a bunch of kids roughly my age who were saved through an organization, something like the Save the Children organization, and my parents realizing that there was no hope for us, sent my sister to England, she was 2 years older than I am. The English had a kind of organization where young girls like my sister were taken into well-to-do households where they became servants. And I, on December 31, 1939, went to the United States. It was good. It was a wonderful experience for me, so exciting. It was by ship, in those days, people didn’t travel by plane. I think it was January 17, 1940 that we approached New York and there I saw the Statue of Liberty early in the morning, very early in the morning. And we stood at the railing of the ship. You felt “up,” it was so inspiring. I was picked up in New York by one of the ladies with the organization and we were taken to the Lexington Hotel in New York City, which I think is still there. We slept in good beds and we had good breakfasts, and a couple of days later, I went on a train to Chicago and from Chicago to Minneapolis where people took me in, a family. The family had three sons and I joined their family.

I came in on a Sunday and on a Monday, the next Monday, I was inducted into the local Boy Scout troop. I didn’t speak English very well at the time, hardly at all, but I became pretty much a red-blooded American immediately. I entered high school, that was in 1940, junior high school. I was two grades behind because I couldn’t speak English very well, but I caught up. The big event was on a Monday, I think it was December 8, 1941, we were all called into the auditorium like this in that school in Minneapolis and we listened to President Roosevelt talk about December 7 when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, and then the United States was at war with Japan and, very shortly thereafter, with Germany. And I was in school in 1941.

In 1943, I graduated high school and I was 18. I was immediately drafted into the army. I was in basic training in Camp Hood, Texas, and Camp Polk, Louisiana, and I became a soldier. It was 1943. In early 1944, we were shipped to England to join the fight against Germany. The Normandy Invasion was in late 1944, when the American armies from England went to land on Normandy Beach and the pursuit of the German armies started then. I was stationed in England with the other soldiers in my unit. In early 1945, we were shipped over to join the fight against the Nazis.

My job in the army was I had to make wire communication. I was with the armored division and my unit was responsible for telephone wires. So, we had big 2.5 ton trucks with rolls of wire and we soldiers had to climb telephone poles and put the wire up, and down again, and to the next telephone pole or tree, and put up the telephone wire, all the way from headquarters to artillery so they could talk to each another. So, I did that for several months, it seems like I ran across France maybe two or three times. And then, when the army moved forward, we had to climb up and take the wire down and climb up again and take it down and roll it up again. But we were soldiers, we were young. I would say it was more fun than anything. Then, I had an opportunity to volunteer to become an aerial observer. All of this, you will see at the end of my little story, hangs together in an amazing succession of coincidences. So, I volunteered to become an aerial observer in a Piper Cub with a pilot and the guy behind him who was me. And we flew across front lines, enemy lines, and we had to spot enemy fire and then direct artillery on that. And we had maps that had grids – Able Baker Charly, this way, this way, and we identified the place that we wanted artillery to bomb and then we radioed back that particular position, and we’d watch it explode. And then, we’d wire back something like “Fox Able , 10 over…” or something like that. So, anyway, that was my job, aerial observer. Nowadays, they do that with drones, but that was my job.

Anyway, it was significant, because a couple of things happened. One night, late evening, we were going to attend a briefing, those of us who were in this aerial observation group. And the commanding officer, Major Cross, said, “tomorrow we start the drive across the Rhine and he handed out maps and these maps were, generally, the name of the map was the name of the biggest town in that section, and the second map was my home town, Hildesheim. So, even now, I think, can you imagine myself sitting there, an American soldier, and getting that map, and I’m going to liberate my own home town. So, that was quite an emotional experience. No one around me knew what was going on in my mind. But at the time, the reason we had the meeting or briefing is because the American army had conquered the Bridge at Remagen, which was a very famous incident in World War II, the bridge across the Rhine at the town of Remagen, and was a major victory for the American army. That bridge enabled the American forces to go across the Rhine, it was one of the events that brought us closer to victory, so that’s why we were sitting in the briefing room on the west side of the Rhine being briefed for the big push to end the war and defeat the Nazi armies.

The war actually, well, that was in the beginning of 1945, and the war ended in May of 1945, with the surrender of the German forces. My unit was held back because the front of the army was, by that time, moving so fast, and we were stationed in the town of Göttingen, which is in northern Germany, my father’s home town. The name Meininger is very well-known in that town, so I was assigned to military government, it was in maybe April 1945, and the war was over on May 8, 1945.

I have to backtrack just a little bit, as we went into England, France, Germany, then I started thinking, what happened to my parents. I had no idea because during these war years, there was no correspondence. I did not know what happened to my parents. I made some inquiries. My mother had told me of an aunt in Brussels, her name was Helene Fromme and they were in correspondence. She was a distant cousin of my mother, I didn’t know that. I arranged for myself, as we were moving forward with the army in Germany, I arranged for a 3-day pass and I went to Brussels as a soldier. Brussels, and Belgium by that time, was in Allied hands. And I looked up my Aunt Helene Fromme and I found her and she was living up on a third floor, in a very poor neighborhood, a very poor woman living on charity. But this aunt, Helene Fromme, had heard that my parents had been, or probably had been sent to Theresienstadt, the concentration camp, so I had something. I took my old aunt and I said, “I’m going to buy you a good dinner.” We went to dinner at one of the finest hotels in Brussels with waiters and tables with napkins, and when we got the menu, I couldn’t even afford the appetizers, so we walked out and laughed, and we went to Waterloo, which is near Brussels, and we had an outing, my aunt and myself, and we spent the afternoon in Waterloo, which was very interesting – the battle of Waterloo where Napoleon was finally defeated. So, I had some inkling of what happened to my parents.

Then, when we were stationed in Göttingen, which is about 30 miles south of my hometown, Hildesheim, I took a Jeep and I went to Hildesheim, my home town, and that town Hildesheim was completely demolished by American bombs, so I went to my house, what used to be my home, and it was rubble, and I went around the corner, and that air raid was maybe 2 weeks before, so 2 weeks after and the war was still on, and I saw my house, and I went around the corner and it was just streets of rubble, and there I see a woman digging in the dirt of their house, and I recognize Frau Netzel, and she was the mother of my best friend, Herbert Netzel, from high school, and I introduced myself, I was an American soldier, and she was trying to rescue some stuff in the rubble, and she said her son Herbert was killed in Russia.

So and then, I went to the outskirts of my town, Hildesheim, and there was the mayor, the Bürgermeister, and he was put in by the British army because that region of Germany we liberated was under the English army, so this Bürgermeister, an old man, the mayor of town, and I went there and said, “What happened to my parents?” And he was a very sad old man, it was a very beautiful old medieval town, totally in ruins, but he said, “I don’t know, but I believe that your parents and a group of Jews were sent to Hanover in 1942, I think.” And, from there, “as far as I know,” he told me, “they were transported to Theresienstadt, the concentration camp.” So, my inquiries had led me to believe that my parents were sent to a concentration camp, Theresienstadt.

I told my commanding officer, Colonel Holt was his name, and he, inasmuch as I was an aerial observer with the planes, the Piper Cubs, he gave me a plane, a Piper Cub and a pilot for me to look for my parents. So, we flew, incidentially, that was about a week after the war was over, and the border between the American and the English portion of Germany and the Russians were on the eastern side, so the Russians occupied a good portion of Germany at that time, including Berlin, but we were stationed in the American/English center in Göttingen, so I took the plane and we flew over the Russian zone in to find this place, Theresienstadt. In those days, when you flew in a Piper Cub, you didn’t have navigational equipment, you looked at maps, and you looked below and you identified towns, and that’s how you oriented yourself up there. Sometimes, when you weren’t sure, you’d buzz down and look at the sign on a railroad station. So, with maps and that, we found the town near Theresienstadt, it was called Leitmeritz, and we landed the plane in the field near Theresienstadt, and the pilot and I went into Theresienstadt, the concentration camp and it was occupied by the Russians. The Russians actually liberated it. And I went to the headquarters in that little place and I asked do they know whether my parents are here. And they looked it up, and sure enough, they were there. And so the pilot and I walked through the streets and there I see my father sitting in front of a house. And I went up to him and I said, “Papa, it’s Heinz!” And he looked at me, and he said, “Erwin!” Well, he didn’t recognize me because I had left as a boy, but here I was a man, a soldier. Of course, it didn’t take long. And I said, “It’s me, it’s your son.” And my mother, at that time, was taking care of children and my father, incidentally, was wounded in World War I. He had one amputated leg, and when I say he ran inside to my mother, he couldn’t run all that well.

As I reflect back a decade later, I see a beautiful document of the events. It portrays my father as the hero adventurer that he is. But it feels somehow sanitized; the pain and horror glossed over. I understand why. It’s just too much.

Only one time before the birthday dinner did I see him access the deep well of suppressed grief. In the summer of 2015 he was in a rehabilitation hospital for a month while recovering from his stroke. One visit Joe and I helped him into his wheelchair and traveled to the front of the building to enjoy the warm evening. He began to talk about a Norman Rockwell painting “Breaking Home Ties” in which a boy sits beside his father eagerly awaiting an arriving train. While my father has always presented himself as the boy embarking on an adventure. in that moment he shared with us a glimmer of his recognition of the perspective of his parents. His voice cracked as he said simply “I don’t know what it was like for them.” Perhaps because my husband and I were with him together he felt safe. Perhaps his brush with serious illness had opened something inside him. Perhaps it was a combination of the two. But for that brief moment he was able to speak his true feelings. Later I shared the story with the director of the Norman Rockwell Museum, who is a friend. She expressed interest in interviewing him. At first he went along with the plan but at the last minute shut it down. He never spoke of it again.

At our birthday dinner, he explained to us that while poor vision now makes reading too difficult, he takes great pleasure in the rich memories that filled his mind. He then repeated the story of his heroic rescue of his parents. This time a tiny fraction of the enormity of the experience leaked out. As he launched into a description of their reunion. I somehow had the presence of mind to turn on my cellphone and discretely record what came next. Please listen as I cannot capture it in words.

Before sitting down to write this piece, following the dinner with my father. I felt a pain in my head that I recognize as representing thoughts that cannot be thought, words that cannot be spoken. I have experienced it twice before. The first episode occurred in the months around my 40th birthday when despite an outwardly successful life, I felt fundamentally disconnected from myself. Months of this relentless nagging ache between my eyes finally motivated me to seek help. I had the good fortune to begin therapy that gave me back my life. The second came when the end of that therapy approached and the need to grieve became urgent, pressing with relentless pain against the inner wall of the center of my forehead. My last year of therapy was spent almost entirely in deep sobs released from the core of my being.

My family’s ghosts were murdered in the gas chambers of Germany in the 1940’s.  But my family did not discuss loss. Only on rare occasions did my father share a story of his escape from Nazi Germany to America as a teenager, leaving his parents behind to an uncertain future. In those moments his voice would crack to reveal the surface layer of a deep well of unimaginable sorrow. My mother felt it her duty to protect him by never talking about his past. They carried this philosophy forward: any uncomfortable or painful feelings were quashed with an “Everything is fine, right?”

My parent’s resilience lies in their ability to shut the pain out. But as a child I felt perpetually in the dark, completely alone with anything that resembled worry, anger, or sadness.  I received clear communication that the full range of my emotions were not acceptable. I lived with an almost unbearable existential anxiety that I could not be my full self. Not wanting other children to experience this kind of pain, I have made it my life’s work to offer a safe space for families with young children to play in the uncertainty and speak the unspeakable. Together we tear down the façade that “everything is OK”  to discover the roots of their suffering. Once parents can share and release their own grief, they can better hear their children. And by being heard, the child can fully blossom.

When I posted a photo of my father’s birthday on Facebook many friends said he should record his story for the Shoah Foundation. The well-meaning comments made that pain in my forehead return. The time and safety needed to speak of the enormity of the loss have for the most part eluded my father. For the momentary glimpses into the authentic experience of his life that he shared with me, I feel eternally grateful.

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