Survival And Sorrow

A new exhibit bears witness to Jewish refugees who came to Baltimore to flee the Nazis and remembers the loved ones they left behind.

March 15, 2004|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,SUN STAFF

The heavy, old-fashioned, Germanic traveling bag may well have weighed more than the 7-year-old girl who carried it in 1940 when she fled from the Nazi regime in Vienna.

Herta Griffel's passport, stamped with the Nazi eagle, described her as schlank, slim, slender, and called her staatlos, stateless. Her photo shows a lovely girl with luminous eyes and a halo of dark hair with thick, heavy braids. She's Herta Griffel Baitch now and the suitcase, just as her mother packed it, is displayed in the exhibit Lives Lost, Lives Found: Baltimore's German Jewish Refugees, 1933-1945, which just opened at the Jewish Museum of Maryland at 15 Lloyd St.

She was brought to America, like many of the children rescued from the Nazis, by the German Jewish Children's Aid Committee of Baltimore. She left with eight children from Vienna in November 1940. Her mother went to the train station with her.

"I knew when I left Vienna I would never see my mother again. I don't know how I knew it, I just knew it," says Baitch, in a quotation above the display of those few things she brought with her.

"We have tried to let the people of the story speak and tell the story wherever they can in the exhibition," says Anita Kasoff, the curator. "We feel the people who lived it can tell it in a much more compelling way than we as curators ever could."

With oral histories, memorabilia, photographs, artifacts and documents, the exhibit presents the experience of German Jewish refugees who fled to Baltimore from the Nazi death machine - and the community's response to them as they sought to rebuild their lives.

Erich Oppenheim stares down at photos of his parents in a display case. He left Germany in 1935, "the day after my bar mitzvah." He's 82 now.

"My brother, Manfred, and I came together," he says. "Just my brother and I. My mother, Flora, and my father, Isadore, and two brothers died in the Holocaust." They were Fritz and Ludwig. "Good German names," he says with sad irony.

Baitch, now 71, never saw her mother again. She only knows her mother died sometime after the Nazis transported Jews from Vienna to Minsk, a city the Germans occupied in the Soviet Union that is now the capital of Belarus.

"I came with this," she says. "This is my suitcase."

Her mother packed a nightgown she embroidered with the monogram HG, Herta Griffel. And she made the checked dress with a heart-shaped bodice neatly folded in the suitcase. Herta's plump-cheeked doll - with rosebud lips and bobbed blond hair combed forward like a Berlin vamp - wears a wine-colored dress her mother trimmed with white embroidery and tiny beads.

A gift book

"My teacher gave me the purple book, with the silver [clasps]. It's beautiful. It's a prayer book."

There's a Liederbuch, her songbook from school in Vienna, and a Trauer Album, a mourning book inscribed with her father's name in elaborate German calligraphy.

"That's the record of where he's buried and 50 years of yortzeit," Baitch says. Yortzeit is the anniversary of a death. It's when Kaddish, the mourner's prayer, is recited. A Trauer Album, often given by a synagogue or cemetery, lists the Hebrew date of the anniversary and its contemporary equivalent.

There's a picture of her parents on their wedding day in the museum display.

"I always looked at this picture," Baitch says. "And I said to myself they're not very young, and they weren't. I think they were in their early 40s."

She was their only child. Her mother, Beila, was a lovely woman with an oval face. Her father, Wolf, had thick, dark hair like his daughter, and an authoritative mustache. He had a grocery in Vienna.

"They were made to close it," Baitch says. The Anschluss, the annexation of Austria by Nazi Germany, took place in March 1938. On Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass, Nov. 9-10, 1938, Nazis smashed shop windows, burned synagogues and arrested Jews in a frenzy of pogroms throughout Germany and Austria.

"My father died before I left," Baitch says. "He was rounded up in the morning along with the men in the neighborhood and taken on trucks and returned at night. I think it was a work crew. And one night he just came home and died."

Years later, when Baitch and her husband went to Vienna to look for her father's grave, they couldn't find it at first.

They sought help from a woman who worked at the cemetery. She "came back ... with us and dug in the ground and [found that] his gravestone had fallen over," Baitch says.

In an old-fashioned photo portrait with Baitch as a little girl, Beila Griffel looks directly into the camera, appearing solemn, even sorrowful. Herta wears a simple cotton shift that her mother embroidered with flowers. It's in the display.

When she got to Baltimore, Baitch first lived with Clara and Joseph Baer on Bentalou Street near North Avenue. They took in many refugee children.

"They just loved everybody," she says. "It was a very welcoming, accepting, warm home."

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