ELIZABETH (MUNK) OPPENHEIM
10 October 1907 -- 4 April 1993
Elizabeth Oppenheim, or Lilly as her friends called her, was
invited sometime in 1978 to speak to a women's group in Berkeley on
her escape from Nazi-occupied Austria and later from France. She
prepared for this talk by writing out a 4,000-word account
entitled, "Emigration history of A. Leo Oppenheim (1904-1974) and
Elizabeth Oppenheim (nee Munk)." I had been intrigued by this
chronicle and wanted to know more of the details of how she and her
husband had managed to survive, and thus, at intervals in the
period from about 1989 to 1990, when she was a bed-bound invalid
but had not yet lost her ability to speak, we went over each item
in her account, I asking questions and she answering as well as she
Could -- much had been forgotten, but many new incidents were
revealed. The questioning also turned to the happier days in
Austria before the Anschluss and to her childhood and family
background and, at the other end of her life, to the progress of
the careers of herself and her husband. The account illustrates
very well that in perilous situations survival often depends upon
getting help from friends and other concerned persons, especially
those with influence. It also depends on one's own
resourcefulness, and depicted here is a remarkably resourceful
woman who, as a foreigner, was not allowed to work in France at a
steady job, even for minimal subsistence, and yet found a way to
turn her artistic skills into a modest livelihood; and who, when
living at the poverty level on first arrival in America, turned
these same skills to increasing their joint income so that she and
her husband could rise to a successful and comfortable life.
The information gained in the interviews was taken down as a 100 or
so short notes. Since Lilly's death, I have sorted them and
interfiled them chronologically with the paragraphs from her own
account. Her original text is reproduced in italics; the additions
are in ordinary typeface and are cast in the first person and
worded to blend with the original sketch. Lilly's 1978 account is
the more gripping story and whoever wants only her text can read
the italicized portions of what follows. In editing the additions,
however, I have followed the principle that, rather than cut out
some parts to make a tighter adventure story, it is preferable to
retain all information, as this is the only record of much of
Apart from her emigration history and the personal interviews,
minor sources for this biographical sketch are
An engrossing account of the even more formidable experiences in a
Nazi concentration camp of another branch of the family, Lilly's
first cousin Elfrieda (Markovits) Frank and her daughter Eva
(Geiringer) Schloss, are in the above-cited Eva's Story. To my
knowledge there are at least three published obituaries of A. Leo
Oppenheim which, being of him principally and of her quite
marginally, are not used herein.
Robert L. Oswalt,
- 1. a resume itemizing each of the art shows she has held or
- 2. three scrapbooks with samples of her designs for greeting
cards, wrapping paper, and textiles; some of her "how-to"
publications on decorating; and photographs and published reviews
of her artistic work together with some of her award ribbons;
- 3. a family tree published in "Eva's Story" by Eva Schloss,
portions of which tree have been combined with information direct
- 4. a passage on the 311e Compagnie des Travelers
trangers in Laura Fermi, "Illustrious Immigrants, The Intellectual Migration
from Europe 1930-41" (University of Chicago Press, 1968) page 90,
which information was elicited from the Oppenheims.
99 Purdue Avenue, Kensington, CA 94708
The account of Elizabeth Oppenheim
I have, to my regret, no journals to go by, and forty years is a
long time for memories to stay alive. Some of these memories will
stay vivid in my mind as long as I shall live, some are vague, some
are simply gone. I shall try to relate my experiences factually.
They are, by and large, not exceptional; they were shared by
thousands. The beginning was the same for all; the outcome varied.
I was one of the lucky ones.
I am a native of Vienna, Austria, the only child of a typical
assimilated Jewish couple.
My father's father was overseer at a succession of baronial estates in Bohemia,
and his children were born in these various rural areas. I know very little
about him as he died before I was born. But my father's mother,
called Klara Munkova in the Czech way, lived a very long time,
98 years, and we visited her every summer in Prague.
She had borne twelve children, six of whom she raised to adulthood (only
five names are remembered for the family tree). She wore her hair
in a bun and a hat with a hole in it to let the bun through. Such
Victorian style hats were no longer available ready-made at the
time I knew her she had them made specially. She told me of the
events of the war of 1866 with Prussian ond of the earlier time
when her grandmother had to flee before Napoleon's army.
My father, Sigmund Emil Munk, was born in Psatavak in
1873. He was a sportsman and something of a free-wheeling type,
who was fairly sucessful until around the time of his divorce,
when he went into a long decline frm a mysterious ailment and died in 1938.
My father's sister Josephine married a manufacturer named Wohlmann
and she, with two children, escaped to America, where they changed
the family name to Wellman. But most of my father's brothers and
sisters and their children died in the holocaust -- I have been able
to count sixteen on my father's side who perished this way.
My mother's mother's father, Lazar Brandl, brought his family to
Vienna from Burgenland, Austria, in the early 19th century. My
mother's father, Adolf Schubert, owned an advertising agency in
Vienna. He died of leukemia in his 60s, when I was young. His
wife, Franziska, lived much longer and died at age 85 after a fall
that broke her hip. My aunt Helen took care of her in her old age.
I knew three of my grandmother's sisters and one brother; a younger
brother had died in 1881, in the great Ringtheater fire that killed
hundreds. Some of these relatives were wine merchants, for several
generations, and were much richer than my immediate family -- they
were the first people I knew who had a butler and a chauffeur. They
lived in a very different world.
My mother's sister, Helen, married Rudolf Markovitz and they had
two daughters, Elfrieda and Sylvia. Elfrieda, married Erich
Geiringer and they had a son Heinz and a daughter Eva. Elfrieda's
husband and son perished at Mauthausen; she and her daughter
survived concentration camp. Their ordeal is chronicled in Eva's
Story. Elfrieda was later remarried, to Otto Frank, the father of
Margot and Anne Frank. Elfrieda, or Fritzi as the family calls
her, is my closest living relative, and we correspond several times
My mother's sister, Paula, married Rudi Pollak and they were
parents of my cousin, Hedy. She was widowed twice, from Steiner
and from Curt Dietz. She spent the last part of her life in
Pennsylvania. We corresponded until her death in the late 1980s.
Paula had another daughter, Marianne, who died in a concentration
My mother's brother, Ernst, was a lawyer. He escaped with his wife
and daughter from Austria to London. Their daughter, Gertie
Schubert, still lives in London as far as I know.
My mother, Ida (Schubert) Munk, separated from my father and then
divorced him when I was about 14 years old. The year after my own
marriage my mother married a second time, to Dr. Wilhelm
Prokocimer, whom she had known for many years. Early in the first
World War he had been captured at the Siege of Przemysl and was
kept in Russian prisoner-of-war camps 1914-1922, eventually
escaping through China.
(See also the two pages of family tree.)
THE VIENNA YEARS
BIRTH: My entry into this world did not come about auspiciously.
The doctor who assisted at my birth used forceps and bungled the
job badly, seriously damaging my eyes and nose. However, I grew up
with this impaired vision and have accepted it.
EARLIEST MEMORIES: Mushrooms had been spread on a bench to dry and
I knocked some off into sawdust. I don't remember any punishment
or reaction to this. This happened the summer before my third
birthday. At age five I stood under a rainspout and got drenched.
At six I was good at training dogs to follow me, and to stand on
their hind legs and shake hands.
EDUCATION: My first five years of schooling were at the Freie
Schule, a "sozialdemokratische" school of about 25 boys and girls
in a classroom. The school, reputedly better than the public
school, taught Handfertigkeiten (manual skills) like drawing,
modeling clay, and wood-carving, as well as academic subjects. I
was better at drawing than the other children, particularly at
portraits, so the teachers gave me special praise and instruction
in drawing, which encouraged my efforts in art, a source of
livelihood and satisfaction later in my life. Over the years I
also studied Latin, Greek, math, geometry, history, typing, and
shorthand by the Gabelsberger method. I studied French both at
school and with a private tutor and was able to speak it very well
before I moved to France.
CHILDHOOD RECREATION: There was a separate school for dancing
where they taught the waltz, no other ballroom dances. When I was
15 we had dances, which were always chaperoned. Many boys wanted
to accompany me home. Until 12 I skated on outdoor rinks.
WORK: For a year and a half before my marriage I worked for a real
estate firm, newly formed by the lawyer Heinrich von Neukirchen,
where I did general office work, typing and shorthand, and also
some selling -- no real estate license was required then. It was
there that I met Maria (Mitzi) Zadrazil and we have remained
friends for life, corresponding with each other several times a
MARRIAGE: I married early a young man with a similar middle-class
background, who had studied long-dead Near-Eastern languages.
I first met Leo at a dance, but we did not start going steady for
another year. We were married Nov. 9, 1930. The ceremony had been
scheduled for my birthday, October 10, but had to be postponed when
I was in an accident, run over by a car, breaking my clavicle and
damaging ligaments in my legs, so that I was in an upper body cast
for four weeks.
ADOLF LEO OPPENHEIM: Before I met Leo he had graduated from a
gymnasium at the age of nineteen and started studies at the
University of Vienna, concentrating on languages, including Arabic
and Hebrew. After three years he had dropped out of the university
to work in his father's furniture business, both designing
furniture and traveling to sell wholesale. Leo hated this work and
two months after our wedding he returned to the University of
Vienna to pursue a Ph.D. at its Oriental Institute. He studied
much more seriously and dedicatedly than he had earlier and in a
year had finished his dissertation, Die Rolle der T-formen im Alt-Babylonischen.
After receiving his degree, Leo, as a Jew, had practically no
chance at a university career; but he did get a part-time low-paying job at the Oriental Institute of the University of Vienna as
librarian and volunteer editorial assistant of Die Zeitschrift fur
morgenlandische Literatur. He also found time to publish several
articles in a variety of journals.
For the period that Leo was a student we lived with his parents
and, later, after having had our own apartment, we moved in with
them again, as our income was so low. They always treated me very
SUMMER RECREATION: In the summer our main recreation was camping
and traveling by Faltboot (a kayak-like folding boat). Leo had had
the Faltboot before our marriage and, after marriage, almost every
weekend from April to October, we went out in it, usually camping
overnight. At that time there were not many campers and one could
stop almost anywhere along the rivers and set up a tent for the
night. We sometimes camped on an island in the Danube, though the
mosquitoes were bad. We would often take the train upstream with
two heavy packages on wheels -- one the Faltboot, the other the tent
-- and boat back downstream. We had a sail for use on the Austrian
lakes. Once on the Inn River the water level rose two meters, but
we were camped just high enough to avoid being flooded. On longer
vacations we would go further afield: before the Nazis came to
power we went to Bavaria; in Italy we boated on Lake Garda and the
Adige River. We even tried the Tiber upstream from Rome, but the
water was too shallow and we hit a rock and overturned. The
Italian peasants brought us food, thinking we were crazy
WINTER RECREATION: In the winter our main recreation was going to
the opera, theater, or movies; or having friends in for tea and
conversation. Mitzi's boyfriend was a judge, and every month he got
a box at the circus and he and Mitzi and Leo and I went together.
On occasion we took Mitzi with us when we went out boating.
ESCAPE FROM VIENNA TO PARIS
When Hitler took over Austria in March, 1938, Leo was dismissed
the very next day. His fellow Orientalists abroad, in particular
at the Vatican University in Rome, immediately, without waiting to
be asked, initiated a search for a job outside Austria and
succeeded within a short time in having my husband invited as a
research associate to the prestigious College de France in Paris to
work on the Thesaurus of Akkadian. It took several weeks, some time
in May, to get the necessary French papers --
which turned out to be for him alone -- as well as the exit permit from Austria. Since
Jewish men were in constant danger of being jailed, or of being
sent to a concentration camp, he did not hesitate to leave as soon
as possible, leaving me to stay with his parents.
We counted on his procuring my French visa soon and Leo tried.
The French promised the proper papers but dragged their feet for
months, so that I was still in Vienna when Britain's Prime Minister
Chamberlain went to Munich in September of 1938 to sell out
Czechoslovakia to Hitler. I was desperate, sure that war would
soon break out between Germany and the Western powers and that I
would not see my husband for years, if ever. All borders had long
been closed, and I refused to cross any border illegally.
Leo had met Otto Neugebauer, mathematician and historian of
mathematics, at the International Congress of Orientalists in Rome
in 1935 and discussed with him the translations of old mathematical
texts in Arabic, Akkadian, Egyptian, and Sanskrit. Neugebauer had
earlier left Germany because of the Nazis and gone to Denmark. (He
later became a professor of mathematics at Brown University. Leo
dedicated "Ancient Mesopotamia" to him.) Soon after the Anschluss,
Neugebauer contacted Leo from Denmark and offered to help. I
phoned Neugebauer in Copenhagen and asked how I could get out. He
said I could legally enter Denmark with a German passport, no visa
needed -- the Austrian passport was no longer valid.
I don't remember whom I bribed to get that German passport, but I
was ready within 48 hours. I was allowed to take only 10
Reichsmarks with me, about $5. For the first time in my life I
traveled by air and I had to fly first to Berlin to change planes
In Copenhagen I stayed in a hotel that Neugebauer had got for me,
perhaps with the aid of the Committee, whose names I never learned.
I was terribly distraught when I arrived and asked few questions of
the names of all those who were helping me. The emotional upheaval
throughout this, my first migration, was great. I had left behind
my mother and stepfather and my husband's parents. We were so
naive that we believed the Nazis would leave the older people
alone. How wrong we were!
My Danish friends, highly placed academics, obtained the French
visa for me through yet more highly placed persons (none other than
Nils Bohr, the Nobel prize-winning physicist, spoke to the French
ambassador) within the one week that the Danish authorities allowed
me to stay in Denmark. My friends had told me not to be afraid;
they would not let me be sent back to Vienna -- if the French visa
had not been forthcoming they would have sent me temporarily to
Iceland! The ticket for the boat to Antwerp and for the train from
there to Paris was supposedly paid for by a Danish Refugee
Committee, but the Committee may well have been my friends.
THE PARIS YEARS
When I arrived in Paris it was raining, miserable, but my husband
was there waiting to meet me. He took me to a restaurant for
students -- the waitress had her thumb in the soup. We had one
furnished room with no cooking privileges; a continental breakfast
was included with the room but we had to eat out at student
facilities each day. His stipend was small and, as a foreigner, I
was not allowed to work, so that for our first year in Paris we had
to exist at a very impoverished level.
I remember that during that first year (1938-1939) a number of
friends came fleeing from Austria through Paris on their way to
Australia or America. I am still in contact with some of them.
After one year in this single room, we found an apartment we could
afford and, expecting to be living there from then on, we had our
furniture in Vienna sent to us at our new address: 7ter rue
d'Alesia, Paris XIV. It was before the war started and such
shipments were still possible. This shipment from our parents
included a bed, wardrobe, two tables, floor lamp, crystal and
porcelain ware, and two valuable oriental rugs. Our parents had
also smuggled, in the shipment, items for friends of theirs. This
we did not want the French customs to see; I intended to bribe the
officials not to open the crates, but I did it so clumsily that I
offered the money after our crates were opened and goods other than
ours were revealed. We thus lost the bribe money and had to pay
extra penalties, but nothing very bad happened to us from this.
Our parents transmitted their jewelry to us, carried by a friend
named Torcziner, who may have had some kind of diplomatic immunity.
Torcziner was a Pole who had become great friends with my
stepfather when the two were prisoners of war together in Russia
and my stepfather had cured him of typhus. After their escape
Torcziner became a rich diamond merchant and he was repeatedly
helpful to us in our own escape from Europe.
OUTBREAK OF WAR
In September, 1939, Hitler invaded Poland and war broke out. The
French became hysterical. All male refugees from Germany and
Austria were interned, presumably to be sorted: the bona fide
refugees to be released, the others to remain interned. This never
happened. From the stadium where they had to assemble, about two
thousand were eventually transported to a detention camp that did
not yet exist. They were kept in an open field behind barbed wire,
in rain and cold, without shelter of any kind, not even a tent,
from September until December 1939. It was only in late November
or early December that barracks were constructed.
I had a nervous breakdown when they took my husband away, weeping
for days. Our small income was cut off, I had no work papers, was
not allowed to earn any money, had no funds, and knew practically
not a soul. My husband's superiors I knew ever so slightly --
the French are well known for their reserve -- but even so I had to
prevail upon them to provide for me.
I petitioned the College de France for help and did receive small
payments -- less than half the previous small income -- I don't know
whether from the College or from Leo's colleagues. I still could
get no work permit and found it necessary to create my own
livelihood by making and selling small handicraft items. I
designed and made a set of stuffed animals and took these to an
organization to which I had been directed by a colleague of Leo's,
and which published the magazine Le Jardin des Modes. They liked
the animals well enough to publish a picture of them and take
orders (see the copy of this picture); others of my stuffed animals
are pictured in "L'Album de Layette". Whenever orders for a half-dozen
or so accumulated, I filled them. I had no sewing machine so
that I had to hire someone else to do the sewing, but I designed
the animals, created the patterns, cut out the cloth, stuffed the
animals, and sold them through this organization. The total number
was not large, perhaps 100, half a dozen at a time, but every bit
of extra income was needed.
Later I designed and created lapel jewelry of leather and enameled
metal, which I sold to a Parisian store called Hermes; they
furnished the colored leather and took on most of what I could
produce. I also sold at irregular intervals necklaces to a
Hungarian who distributed them wholesale. After each sale I
treated myself at a patisserie. In 1957, on a visit to Paris, I
tried to find that shop but it was gone.
I also did a few jobs for "la Baronne (Rothschild)", when there
was something fancy she wanted, like a crocheted cozy. There was
an old baronne and a young baronne. The younger one was from
Austria, very pretty, and pregnant at that time. She needed
someone for occasional secretarial work who could speak both French
and German and I took down letters dictated by her. I had been
recommended to her by Dr. von Porada, a woman and later art
historian at Columbia University.
Leo was interned from September, 1939, until June, 1940, and
during all that time I saw him only once, at Easter. Even then, I
did not receive the required permit to leave Paris, such was not
given to foreigners; I just went without any permit to his camp at
Meslay-du-Maine (Mayenne). Leo had earlier surrendered his
Austrian passport and I my German one, and we had declared our
refugee status. The place was supposed to be a triage camp, one
where they screened out political refugees from possible spies, but
the French did nothing on that between the declaration of the war
in September, 1939, and the start of fighting next spring.
I tried to convince the authorities that my husband was harmless
and not a Nazi sympathizer. I failed despite testimonials and
recommendations from many colleagues and scholars. Winter passed.
Finally, in the spring, Leo was found "not to be a spy" and "libere
sous la condition de rester au camp," a contradiction of terms. I
heard of an action committee, formed on the initiative of the
Rothschild family, to assemble a corps of scholars and scientists
from among the internees, each to work in his own specialty under
the command of a captain and supervision of a French professor. I
succeeded in getting my husband's name included, with the
assignment to translate technical journals from German into French.
He was now in uniform, albeit a bizarre one with the large berets
of the "Chasseurs Alpins", a peculiar sort of "soldier without
arms", in French a "prestataire". When the Germans invaded Belgium
and Holland on May 10, 1940, the camp was broken up and the inmates
shipped to various locations in the south (some were caught by the
Germans). Leo was made a member of the 311e Compagnie de
Travailleurs Etrangers and sent to the College des Ecossais,
Montpellier, in the Provence. He was there long enough to send me
several letters at my Paris address.
From now on everything happened very fast. The Belgian friends
who in September, 1938, had helped me in Antwerp from boat to
train, came through Paris, now refugees themselves. I later
followed their one piece of advice: always carry on your person
anything of value. The news was terrifying: the Germans had now
invaded France, too. We had air raids and alerts, and I trotted
down the street to a shelter in the blackout. The speed of the
German advance was stupefying.
On June 7 -- I had forgotten in all that upheaval that this was my
husband's birthday -- a police agent paid me a visit at 7 AM. I
never figured out what he expected or wished to find out -- it was
just one more sign of the totally misplaced attention of the
FLIGHT FROM PARIS
A few days later I contacted two Austrian women I had met; they
were sisters-in-law and ran a small cafe-cum-patisserie on the Left
Bank, near the College de France. Our husbands had met at the
internment camp. We agreed we must leave Paris before the Germans
closed in. They knew more women in the same situation and had
formed a loose group in which they included me. I packed all my
husband's books in two crates, all our clothes and linens, and left
the luggage in the middle of the one-room apartment, for which I
paid three months rent in advance. Then I packed a rucksack and a
carry-on sort of bag, and two hip-satchels with food. I carried my
jewelry in little pouches I had made to fit inside my bra; some I
carried around my waist. My last night in Paris I spent at my new
friends' room in a dingy hotel.
The next morning we left on foot, 14 women and a six-month-old
baby boy, the mother pushing the baby carriage -- it had to be
abandoned the next day. All of us were "aliens" to the French and
as such forbidden to leave our place of residence -- we risked being
arrested. However, two million Parisians also left, the same day
and the next -- if you can imagine such an exodus: Those who had
gasoline went by car, others by bicycle, or on foot. No trains
were running. Our group walked 30 kilometers the first day, going
south without a goal, just fleeing. As we learned later, those who
left Paris the following day were pursued by German planes, and the
highways were strafed by machine guns. The day after that Paris
By that time we were somewhere in the center of France, somewhere
to the west. On rare occasions trains moved and were mobbed by
throngs that happened to be nearby. We spent days and nights in
cattle cars, occasionally moving. The confusion and misery are
indescribable, literally hundreds of thousands of women and
children were on the move everywhere. Soup kitchens were set up in
the villages. Public buildings and theaters had the floors covered
with straw to provide a night's rest. To wash was impossible. I
will never forget the railroad station that was used as a toilet
all over, railroad cars stalled on every track, people squatting
between them. Parisian city buses were in evidence on all roads
and later stayed in the southern provinces for a long time. The
further south we got, the more the locals became incredulous of
what they saw. We tried to stay together, for comfort if for
nothing else, but eventually we had to split up.
In our group, I was the only one who knew where her husband was
and where she wanted to go. I headed for Montpellier; others
decided for Toulouse, or Nice, or random destinations. It took a
week to get to Montpellier, ordinarily an overnight ride from
Paris. The first time I had to pay for a train ticket was from
Narbonne to Montpellier. I was now practically penniless. I
arrived in Montpellier very early in the morning and it was cold.
I wore my raincoat and my hiking boots, my hair was cut very short
for fear of vermin, the heavy rucksack made me bend forward. When
I handed over my ticket, the ticket taker greeted me with, "Merci,
In Montpellier I found a public bath and showered for the first
time in a week. I found a reception center with coffee and deck
chairs -- no beds were available. After a short rest I made my way
to the outskirts where the "College des Ecossais" -- the Scots'
College -- was located. That was my husband's "barracks" -- a lovely
spot. We had not heard from each other for several weeks and my
husband had been terribly worried; it was a happy reunion but it
was not to last.
The wife of a fellow "prestataire" arrived the same day, though by
a different route; we decided to band together and went looking for
a place to stay. I guess it speaks for both of us that we became
friends for life. Catherine was the wife of Sandor Gero:, a
Hungarian chemist, whom Leo had first met at the camp, and who
later anglicized his name to Alexander Gero and became a professor
at Hahnemann Medical College.
On a major country road a small vacant hut looked promising; we
located the owner and indeed rented it for very little. Catherine,
luckily, had sufficient funds, and financed me for the next several
weeks. The hut, with a minimum of furniture, was not clean enough
for Catherine's taste. While I went shopping for groceries, she
set about cleaning it up. Returning with my purchases I found a
group of soldiers who were stationed at a road block nearby staring
with fascination in our direction, obviously highly amused. No
wonder. They could see right through our one-room cabin and there
was Catherine scrubbing the floor, in the nude. Her clothes were
much too precious to scrub floors in -- she, too, had only a minimum
The window of the cabin gave onto a lower-lying garden, surrounded
by a wall; the door was accessible from the street. The following
day, our husbands obtained passes and came to visit, in uniform,
mine in the morning, Catherine's in the afternoon, while we
alternated running errands in town. That night we had to battle an
invasion of soldiers who had procured a ladder to try to get in the
windows from the garden. The threat of a full slop bucket finally
deterred them, but we did not dare to sleep. The next day their
commanding officer accused us by letter of inciting his men, and he
promised to chase us out of there; this he did by denouncing
Catherine and me to the authorities. We had to leave Montpellier
and were assigned a "forced residence" in a small town just far
enough away to make it impossible to see our husbands. This was a
medieval place called Lunel; it may have been picturesque but by
the end of June it was a hot and miserable place. After a few days
we got word that the whole "Compagnie des Savants" -- they were
considered a military unit -- was moved from Montpellier to a
village in the Pyrenees, Rivel. There were rumors that the
"Compagnie" might be shipped from there to North Africa! We
decided to join them despite the risk of arrest, and we left Lunel
by bus, going west. Under different circumstances it would have
been a beautiful trip; I remember two overnight stops, one in
Beziers, the other perhaps Carcassonne. We were lucky; no
gendarmes confronted us.
In the tiny hamlet of Ste. Colombe, near Rivel, we found lodgings
with the mayor and his wife, who did not mind feeding two more
people beside their six children. The mayor's wife, and whole
family, were Catholic, and when she went to church on Sunday, I and
Catherine went along too. Some women in the village of Ste.
Colombe had done washing and were hanging it out, and the mayor's
wife scolded them for working on the holy day. When we parted, I
gave her a very long chain of coral, that could be made into
several shorter necklaces for her daughters. When the Geros
eventually made it to America, Catherine sent the family a food
package. The mayor was a remarkably educated, non-xenophobic man.
However, after a week during which we could see our husbands daily,
he informed us that the commanding officer of the "Compagnie des
Savants" insisted on our leaving the area. Was he afraid of
espionage? Or did he feel sorry for the other men?
We were of course supposed to get back to Lunel, the town I
remember most vividly for the clouds of mosquitoes and the open
sewers into which the slop buckets were emptied daily, as often as
not from the upstairs windows. We had no intention of going back
there. Again we took the bus, this time going east. Somewhere
between Carcassonne and Arles we met a woman friend of Catherine's
from Paris who miraculously was driving a car with enough gasoline
to get to Marseille; she had two other women with her -- we joined
Marseille overflowed. The population, then normally 900,000, had
at least doubled. It took hours to find a dingy room in a dingy
hotel in what turned out to be an ill-reputed neighborhood.
The next morning I found my way to the main post office, hoping
against hope to have a "poste restante" letter from one of our
husbands. I don't remember how they were to know our destination.
Instead of a letter I found my husband! The shock was so great I
let out a scream that could be heard blocks away, as witnesses
later told me. He had quite a tale to tell. Catherine's husband
had received a notification of some kind from the American
Consulate in Marseille shortly after our departure from Rivel. It
was easy to persuade the officer at the Rivel camp, who could not
read English, that this was a summons to appear at the Consulate
(which it was not). My husband carried an equally unimportant
notice from the American Consulate in Paris, dated May, which he
also managed to pass off as the real thing. They were given travel
orders, but not to Marseille. They were to present themselves at
the regional military command, in order to be properly demobilized
-- they were, as I have said, considered soldiers (without arms),
and received indeed military pay, a few pennies a day. Both men
felt that they probably would not be able to bluff their way out of
yet another camp and so threw away that travel order together with
their uniforms, bought the cheapest civilian outfits in the first
town they reached, and set out for Marseille. Alex, Catherine's
husband, financed Leo's needs as Catherine financed mine. The men
had arrived in Marseille the day before, just as we had; the room
they had at last found was one block away from ours and equally
disreputable. We went to find Catherine, then switched rooms --
Catherine moved in with Alex, Leo moved in with me. Two weeks
later we were given notice -- the landlady could no longer afford to
subsidize us; she made her money renting by the hour.
It was July now; we moved into a slightly better neighborhood,
each couple into a small room but to our comfort in the same
building. The place had bedbugs and I remember that we put all
four legs of the bed in cans with kerosene. I also remember that
the bed linen was changed only once a month.
Single women refugees were gathered together by the French and
detained in Hotel Bompard. The French had the funny idea that
single women were likely to be spies. One woman, Alice Toch, a
Viennese whom I had known from Paris, was taken from that hotel to
a hospital, and I, by writing letters, got her out of there and out
of detention. She later reached the US.
Leo applied for and got a demobilization stipend. The French
records were in such disarray that Leo was confident they would not
realize that he was essentially AWOL from the prestataire company.
It was a pittance, but every little bit helped.
By August the food situation became serious, rationing was severe,
long lines became the norm, the black market flourished. Of course
we had no money to buy there. By and by I had sold all my gold
jewelry; an American committee for Aid to Refugee Scholars (exact
title not remembered) helped somewhat. I made stuffed animals of
oilcloth as long as basic materials were available. I could sell
all such that I could produce, as at that time there were few
sources for the French to buy toys for their children. However,
eventually, there was no material available, and I had to stop.
How we really managed is still a mystery to me.
There was a frightening episode of a cat bite with some
bizarre twists: In the summer of 1940, when I was shopping in a
small grocery, I stepped on a cat and it gave me a bad puncture
wound. Within two days it was so painful that I could not put my
weight on that leg -- though it was painful, one could not see any
great swelling. I went to a hospital and a woman doctor there said
she could not see anything wrong and sent me home without
treatment. Later we found, not a doctor but a dentist from Vienna,
who painted my whole leg with iodine and ordered me to drink
whiskey and keep an alcohol bandage over the wound. I stayed in
bed for at least a week with the leg elevated -- I was in pain but
I was drunk much of the time and remember only that I said over and
over in French, "Je ne veux pas mourir a Marseille." Eventually
the pain subsided and I recovered.
There was also an episode with the ration card that was dispensed
monthly. Leo's disappeared only to turn up years later in America
in a book where he had inserted it as a bookmark. At the time it
was a near catastrophe -- I had to beg for bread from various
acquaintances, who did not have food to spare. We both lost a lot
of weight. It was after several months of almost starving that
someone gave us two eggs, which I fed to Leo. He got very sick
with high fever; he wasn't used to such rich food.
There were two American Consulates in the "Free Zone", Marseille
and Nice, and the refugees eventually all gathered in those two
cities. In the fall of 1940 we had several interviews at the
American Consulate, where our original applications had at last
arrived from Paris. The consul kept asking for more and more
information and documents, far beyond reason. It became generally
known much later that the State Department had issued directives to
discourage Jewish refugees as much as possible. I remember several
specific chicaneries. Everybody we knew had the same experience.
As one example, the consul said to a doctor friend of ours, "I
will personally see to it that you will never get a visa." That
doctor, an Austrian, did finally get to the US.
Winter came early; we had no warm clothes. A woman of our
acquaintance (Mrs. Ornstein, an Austrian whom I had known in Paris)
decided to risk travel to Paris, into the Nazi-occupied zone, to
liquidate her husband's business and her large apartment, and she
agreed to arrange for my luggage -- hopefully still where I had left
it -- to be mailed to us. It arrived in December and included
welcome clothes. Up to then I had had to borrow a coat for the
Consular visits from a woman I barely knew, and she would then have
to stay home that day. I also got a bad case of sciatica from the
constant cold. The winter of 1940-41 was very severe, water pipes
burst, the snow remained on the ground. Gas use was restricted to
a couple of hours a day. Our room had a tile floor, and a single
window which could not be closed all the way. We cooked on a
one-burner hotplate -- if and when we had something to cook. To this
day I cannot look at a garbanzo bean! There was no gasoline, so
the fishing boats could not go out and Marseille had no fish. When
an enterprising merchant imported carp from somewhere, the Central
European refugees were the only ones to eat them; the people of
Marseille despise fresh-water fish. The seafood most available was
oysters. Once we got dates from Algeria -- they were full of worms
but we could not afford to throw them out; cooked in water they
made a sort of marmalade. We congregated in small coffeehouses
where it was warm at least; there was of course no coffee. There
was so-called Cafe Nationale, a roasted something, finely ground,
perhaps bark or nutshells or some grain.
There is a particularly frightening aspect of events beyond one's
control and that is the matter of rumors. There were many at all
times, and they varied from day to day. Rumors concerning possible
moves by the Germans, concerning ships that might or might not
sail, escape routes, the fate of friends, of the detention camp of
Gurs [in the south of France], how to obtain visas or transit visas
through Spain involving -- what else? -- bribes. It was not rumor
but a fact that a German commission sat in Aix-les-Bains, close by
in the so-called "Free Zone", examining all exit-visa applications
addressed to the French authorities, in order to apprehend
At last we had satisfied the American consul and in early March
were granted the immigration papers. Czech and Hungarian nationals
had been the first to receive the coveted exit permits, starting in
February. For us, the scholars at the Vatican University did it
again -- we received the Spanish transit visa in record time,
because they prevailed upon a highly placed Spanish Cleric to
intervene for us. This Spanish visa got us in turn the Portuguese
visa, both of which were the prerequisite for the French exit
permit. All this is an oversimplification -- in reality the
situation resembled closely the notorious Catch-22.
I had had an exit visa for some time, provided by an Assyriologist
colleague of Leo's, ambassador from Finland to Vichy. We had been
trying to get one for Leo too, but it turned out that such visas
for men were being delayed, I think it was due to pressure from the
Germans. Some others, who did not want to wait, left without
papers, at night, with guides, over the border into Spain and on
into Portugal. We did not want to wait. Our chemist friend,
Sandor Gero:, showed us how to bleach out the ink of the title Mme.
and write in M.Mme. It worked, and this combined exit visa was not
challenged. We had no passports, having surrendered them when we
first came to France as ex-autrichiens (ex-Austrians) and we had
been given a sauf-conduit (safe-conduct) to leave France (This was
a different piece of paper from the exit visa).
ESCAPE FROM FRANCE
It was the end of March, 1941, when we left France by train. I had
some precious cooking oil left when we departed, which I gave to
friends who had to stay till July. The train was not crowded.
When we got to the border we had to show the exit permit to the
French authorities. The Spanish police made us all get out of the
train and take our clothes off, and they searched us. There was no
trouble at the Portuguese border.
Our books and bedding and clothes and my stepfather's coin
collection, which had been smuggled out to me in Paris, were
shipped about a week before our departure, going not through Lisbon
but directly from Marseille to Martinique and then to NY (This was
about March, 1941, before the US entered the war; later, after
December, 1941, no such shipments would have been allowed). This
stuff was in NY when we arrived. Most of our other things were
never collected, but I had sent an oriental rug to friends in
Bordeaux from Paris; it took months for them to relay it to me.
The friends in Bordeaux included Torcziner (also identified as one
of the Belgian friends). They had meanwhile left Bordeaux but
somehow the rug was eventually forwarded to us in Marseilles,
arriving a couple of days before we were to leave for Portugal. I
could not possibly take it with us, our luggage had already been
sent on -- I sold it on the spot for a fraction of its worth, but it
was enough for me to buy a warm karakul coat, which I had for many
years thereafter, and it paid for our expenses in Portugal.
We were in Lisbon for one week, where we stood in front of food stores
like in a dream. We liked it there, as there was
plenty to eat -- we ate all the time after the starvation in
Marseille. I remember our standing in front of the sweet shops in
Lisbon, with our tongues hanging out. We had not seen such food in
a long long time.
From Portugal we could write to our parents in Vienna through the
Swiss Red Cross -- no correspondence had been possible from France
-- and had time to get responses from them, even tho we were there
only one week.
In this time we checked the various shipping lines and found space
for our four parents on an Italian line and made reservations for
them. My parents already had passports and could leave, and did
leave, Vienna in November, 1941. War between Germany and the US
broke out in December, 1941, and, coming from an enemy country, my
parents were not allowed to enter the US but had to go first to
Cuba. There they had to pay "landing money" of $350 each as well
as $350 each for the passage. We paid half the $1400 for our
parents and my stepfather's friend Torcziner, who had arrived in
the US a few months earlier, paid half. Leo's parents did not have
passports, could not get them, and in 1942 were sent to the
Theresienstadt concentration camp in Czechoslovakia, where they
died, as we only learned after the war, as we never heard from them
After a week in Lisbon, we sailed for New York on the USS
Excalibur, a ship that held 350 passengers; it was a one-class boat
on which we had a comfortable cabin, with the fare paid by our
sponsor Otto Neugebauer.
THE NEW YORK YEARS
We arrived in New York on April 9, 1941, and were met by Leo's
sister and her husband, Gertie and Ernst Schiller. Ironically,
this was not the end of our trials. A flaw in my immigration
papers, which nobody had noticed before (the expiration date had
not been entered) resulted in our detention on board ship; the next
morning we were transferred to Ellis Island for a hearing (this was
resolved because my passport number was one immediately following
Leo's and his had the date properly entered). My barely existing
English made it hard to follow the proceedings and I was in terror.
But the matter was resolved.
We stayed with the Schillers in Brooklyn for two weeks until Leo
found a furnished room on the upper west side of Manhattan with a
kitchen nook and a bathroom. Each room was occupied by a different
family; there was an Irish family above us but most were refugees
living the same way we were, and we visited each other frequently.
The Finnish landlady allowed us to wash our clothes in her kitchen
As for our life in New York, I would love to forget the first two
years. The efforts, begun in Lisbon and pursued constantly, to save
our parents, were only partly successful. It took years to find
out what happened to my husband's folks. I believe he never really
got over their loss.
We lived on the $100 or so per month that I earned; whatever money
Leo could earn beyond our minimum expenses we put to paying on the
loans for transportation and other expenses -- it took us a couple
of years to pay these debts off. After two years in the Manhattan
room, we got a real apartment, a fifth floor unfurnished walkup on
Manhattan. Here we got our first cat.
A few weeks after our arrival, Leo got a job at the New York City
Library, cataloguing cuneiform tablets, having been recommended to
the position by the linguist Schwartz. Leo was there about a year
and then worked for the Asia Institute, privately funded and run by
someone mainly interested in Persian art and staffed mainly by
European emigress. He was there a few years but had a couple of
short part-time appointments, one at Dropsie College in
Philadelphia to teach Akkadian and the other at Johns Hopkins in
Baltimore to teach the Bible and Akkadian (he replaced Albright,
who was on sabbatical).
Soon after our arrival I had a succession of two one-week jobs
making costume jewelry. To get these jobs, which we desperately
needed, I had to misrepresent myself as accustomed to fine solder
work -- as soon as they found out I lacked the necessary soldering
skill they fired me. My third job was making ladies' belts,
pasting leather to buckles -- I quit after one week. My fourth job
was making caps in a garment factory where all the workers were
German-speaking refugees. I started at $15/week (when our room
cost $7.50/week), making parts, and worked up to making whole caps
and got fast enough to earn about $30/week piecework. The boss's
wife was a Viennese actress and the couple had owned a cap factory
in Vienna. They divorced and she went to Hollywood and appeared in
some films -- her name was Scala. In the evenings, after a day of
working on caps, I did embroidery at home. After a year I gave up
this tiring evening embroidery and instead took a class in life
drawing, this to keep my sanity after that perfectly dreadful job
of sewing caps. And with the cap-making, my hands got so inflamed
from using scissors that I had to quit after two years. My fifth
job, which lasted several months, was painting roses on lamp bases,
for $35/week. In my sixth job, which also lasted a few months, I
painted trays and had more freedom to create any design I wanted.
Seventh, I set up my own studio on Broadway, where the Lincoln
Center is now (rent was cheap then), and for a bit under a year I
painted jewelry on consignment: porcelain base (metal not allowed
then) brooches and earrings with oil and enamel paints. I had more
work than I could handle myself and I employed a few others to
Eighth, about 1944 or 1945, Ettinger, a fellow refugee from
Vienna, whom I had met in France, and now a partner in a small
scarf factory -- scarves were fashionable then -- asked me to design
some for him. This was my introduction to freelance commercial
art. When Ettinger moved on to his real profession in law I soon
found other outlets for my designs, for which I got $75 each, and
prospered enough to earn $3,900 in one year and need a bookkeeper.
At one time, I could not go out on the streets of New York without
seeing many women wearing my designs, and this gave me much secret
Sometime about 1943 we got enough ahead financially to buy a car,
and Leo and I took driving lessons. I used the car to drive from
our apartment on 91st St. to my studio on 31st St. Parking was no
problem at that time. After the war we took several American style
driving vacations to the Catskills and New England.
In 1943 my mother and stepfather finally arrived from Cuba. It
had taken two years to get the proper papers to enter the US. Again
it was Torcziner who came through to bring this about, probably by
bribery. I bought a heavy-duty sewing machine and set it up in my
studio for my mother to sew custom-designed blouses for a
manufacturer, and this she did from 1943 till her retirement in
THE CHICAGO YEARS
In the summer of 1947 Leo was called to a position at the
University of Chicago. I was not happy to leave my by then
well-established textile-design studio in New York, but for my husband
the offered position was the long-hoped-for opportunity. I went
ahead in August and stayed with friends for a weekend to find an
apartment. Such was hard to find then and I had to pay extra under
the table to get one on University Ave. with three rooms, bath,
kitchen. We moved in in September; we didn't have much furniture or
possessions, except books, lots of books. We lived there till
1952, when we moved to a larger apartment. In 1956 we bought a
house at 5406 S. Kimbark Ave., where we lived till our move to
Berkeley in 1973.
Leo was first a research associate at the Oriental Institute of
the University of Chicago working on the Chicago Assyrian
Dictionary (CAD). He progressed to full professor in 1954 and
Director of the CAD. He worked 8 AM to 6 PM everyday on the CAD.
In the evenings he wrote books and papers -- he worked all the time.
He even took a typewriter and notes for evening work at our country
place. We had bought a farm in Michigan and went there most
weekends. We had to labor on maintaining the place nearly all the
daytime we were there -- by ourselves we planted 40 acres of pine.
The place was such a burden that we were glad to be rid of it
eventually. Exceptions to weekends at our country place were Leo's
trips to New York, to London and the British Museum, to Topkapi,
Turkey, to the Pontifical Museum, Rome, to the Corning Glass
Museum, where we met the chairman of Corning at dinner -- under
Corning's sponsorship, Leo wrote a book on early glass-making.
With his increasing number of articles and books, and editorship
of the CAD, Leo's reputation grew. He received such honors as the
Laing Prize (1964) of the University of Chicago Press for the book
"Ancient Mesopotamia" (the $1000 we spent on a trip); the John A.
Wilson Chair; Distinguished Service Professor (1969); President of
the American Oriental Society; Visiting Professor at the University
of California, Berkeley (1969). In the early spring of 1971 Leo was
invited to give four lectures in French at the College de France,
where he had been a refugee researcher 1938-39. Also in the spring
of 1971(?) he was invited to give four lectures in English at the
Univeristy of Jerusalem, one lecture a week; these were on a
different subject from those in Paris.
While Leo's career was advancing, I took total care of household
matters and had time left over to pursue my own career. Already in
New York I had expanded my freelance designing to include Christmas
cards. After we moved to Chicago, I continued with Christmas
cards, de-emphasized scarves, designed some neckties and
handkerchiefs, and initiated designing wrapping paper, which
designs I sold to about six regular manufacturers. From Chicago I
returned two or three times a year to New York to show my new
designs to my established contacts and they always bought most of
what I had produced. The wrapping paper I sold outright for about
$80 per design, but the Christmas cards, besides an initial fee,
also earned royalties for five years, up to $1,700 annually,
principally from two designs which were sold all over the country
by a large New York firm. I expanded into designing other
Christmas decorations (some were sold through ads in the New
Yorker) and wrote a series of articles for the magazine "Today's
Woman" and a local newspaper on how to do decorative wrapping and
how to create one's own Christmas decorations. I also did a few
illustrations for books and designed the dust jacket for Leo's
In the early 1960s I tapered off from commercial work to pursue the
art which was my main interest. In New York I had taken an evening
course on oil painting and produced about 30 such paintings, which
are now widely distributed. In Chicago I painted in watercolor but
in 1962 shifted more to making prints, and experimented some in
collage and three-dimensional layering. By the mid-sixties, I had
given up textile designing and devoted myself more completely to
painting and print-making, which I had persued on the side for many years.
After an introductory period of making
block prints and silk-screen prints, I developed my own technique
of using found materials, principally charred or weathered wood.
My first such material came when a neighboring Lutheran Church
burned and I found among the ruins large flat pieces of several
kinds of hardwood. Brushing the charred surface removed the
intergrain area and left the grain raised in a variety of
interesting patterns and shapes which could be printed out. I
later collected weathered pieces of wood from other demolition
sites. On some I used tools to deepen the grooves or change the
pattern. These yielded monoprints; each print unique.
Between 1961 and 1982 I exhibited at 126 shows: 6 solo shows, 27
invitational shows, and 57 juried shows, at which I won my share of
awards. My work was reviewed and written up in a variety of
newspapers; one writeup, with colored reproductions of two of my
works, was published in the Midwest Magazine of the
Chicago Sun-Times (May 28, 1972).
For five years, my pictures provided a major
part of the illustrations in a calendar sold in the Chicago area.
My art work was not an incorporated business, but was licensed, and
sales through art fairs, art institutes, and galleries often
brought me several thousand dollars in a year. But my greatest
pleasure came from learning that people I didn't know could think
enough of my works to pay for them.
THE BERKELEY YEARS
We came to California in early 1973, upon my husband's retirement.
We chose Berkeley because we had learned to love it during a
semester's residency when Leo was a visiting professor in 1969. We
bought a house at 946 Creston Road, with a panoramic view of San
Francisco and the Bay.
Shortly before Leo and I were to move to Berkeley, my parents
themselves moved to an apartment in Oakland to be near our future
home. But my mother died suddenly in November, 1972, and my
stepfather, heartbroken, died the following month. They are
inurned at Mountain View Cemetery in Oakland.
My husband went on working on research and writings that he had
saved for his retirement years. I joined several art organizations
and had my first show a year after moving to Berkeley. Shortly
afterwards, in 1974, my husband died suddenly.
It was three years before I recovered enough from his death to
function somewhat normally. I took many trips -- to Alaska, Sicily,
Morocco, Nepal, China, etc. -- during which I filled many
sketchbooks with quick renderings of the scenes, planning to
convert some to watercolor paintings later. For a few years I
created more prints, watercolors, and ink washes, and had shows and
sales. I even had a stint of creating and selling necklaces. But
worsening arthritis in my hands made all this increasingly painful
and difficult. In 1986 I had the first signs of a neurological
disorder which was later diagnosed as Shy-Drager syndrome.