Ralph Meyerstein, 85, fled Holocaust in Nazi Germany

May 29, 2006|By NIA-MALIKA HENDERSON | NIA-MALIKA HENDERSON,SUN REPORTER

Ralph Meyerstein, a refugee from the Holocaust who battled a German insurance company to make good on his parents' life insurance policies, died of leukemia Saturday at Northwest Hospital Center. The Owings Mills resident was 85.

Mr. Meyerstein was born in Dusseldorf, Germany, where he was expelled from school at the age of 16 because he was Jewish.

In 1938, storm troopers ransacked his family's home, throwing their possessions out the windows during Kristallnacht, the "Night of Broken Glass."

An anonymous donor arranged for Mr. Meyerstein to leave Germany for England in 1939. His parents stayed behind and wrote him letters, Mr. Meyerstein told The Sun in 2002 - advising that in the event something was to happen to them, their life insurance policies were in order.

In their last correspondence, a postcard dated Nov. 9, 1941, they wrote that they were being forced from the family home in Dusseldorf. Once they were settled, they would contact him again, they wrote to their son.

He never heard from them again, and learned from the Red Cross in the early 1960s what he had suspected: They had been killed by the Nazis in a death camp.

Mr. Meyerstein spent the rest of World War II repairing tanks in Ware, a small town north of London. It was there that he met and married Cecily Geyer, also a German Jewish refugee.

The couple moved to the United States in 1945, settling in Philadelphia with their only child. They eventually purchased a home in Levittown, Pa.

For much of his working life in Philadelphia, Mr. Meyerstein juggled two jobs - as a door-to-door salesman for Fuller Brush Co. and as a machinist. Later in life, he was a Kmart store manager for 10 years, retiring in the mid-1980s.

"He had so many hardships, saying goodbye to his parents and never seeing them again," his grandson Shaanan Meyerstein of Pikesville said yesterday. "But he found the courage to start a family and worked to make sure that my dad would be provided for."

For five decades, he lobbied the German government for compensation, writing letters, collecting documents and researching his parents' deaths. He had begun inquiring about his parents' policies with Allianz Insurance Co. shortly after the war ended.

In telling The Sun about his efforts to collect on the policies, he said in 2002: "They want for all of us to die, and they bury the claims with us."

In 2003, at a tribunal conducted under the auspices of the International Commission on Holocaust Era Insurance Claims, Mr. Meyerstein won and the company was forced to pay him a total of $8,000 for the two claims.

The struggle was a testament to his persistence, Mr. Meyerstein's grandson said.

"It would have been very easy for him to throw in the towel, but he wanted to see justice, however meager the actual money was," Shaanan Meyerstein said. "It was a huge victory for him and for us."

Mr. Meyerstein traveled to Germany several times, tending to the grave of his father-in-law, who died before the war, and the adjacent memorial to his mother-in-law, who was a Holocaust victim. He also talked to German schoolchildren about the Holocaust.

His last visit came in May 2005, when the city of Dusseldorf placed brass plaques honoring his parents - Alfred and Meta Meyerstein - on the curb outside of the rowhouse where he spent his childhood years.

Mr. Meyerstein loved to study history, plant flowers and listen to classical music. He was guided by a loyalty to his family that knew no bounds, said his son, Rabbi Michael Meyerstein of Pikesville, yesterday.

"He was the kind of person who gave of himself to those he was closest to," said Rabbi Meyerstein, spiritual leader of Adat Chaim Congregation in Reisterstown. "It was almost his personal mission to be of service to those he loved, to run errands for them, to make their lives a little easier."

Rabbi Meyerstein said his father carried the baggage and guilt of leaving his parents behind, even though it was their decision to send him away. Even with that, he managed to create a life on his own, seeking justice for his parents when it seemed he would never see it, the son said.

Mr. Meyerstein's wife died in 1997.

Memorial services will be held at 3 p.m. today at Sol Levinson & Bros., 8900 Reisterstown Road, Pikesville.

In addition to his son and grandson, he is survived by two other grandchildren; and his companion, Pearl Freedman of Baltimore.

nia.henderson@baltsun.com

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