'I've got to save the children'
Seventy-six years on, Gisela Feldman talks to Michael Pettifer about the night Nazi officers took her father, her life before and after Kristallnacht, and her long voyage on the SS St Louis.
“Have you seen this?” Gisela Feldman points at a framed certificate on her wall. It’s a certificate from her local tennis club – where she attends a fitness class twice a week – recognising her continued dedication to keeping fit.
Gisela is 91 years old. She lives on a quiet suburban street in Didsbury, Manchester – a lifetime away from the horrors of her youth. It is a place she can openly and proudly proclaim her Jewish faith without any fear of repercussions, which wasn't always the case.
It soon becomes clear that her mental faculties are just as impressive as her physical fitness, as she begins recalling, in great detail, the harrowing events she lived through 76 years ago.
“I lived in Berlin with my 13-year-old sister, Sonja, and my parents,” she says. “In many ways we lived a normal life – my father owned a grocery store, and my sister and I went to the local school.”
She stresses that she lived in a largely Christian neighbourhood, where she would regularly play games with German, non-Jewish children in the street.
“Soon after Hitler came to power a Brownshirt (German paramilitary officer) stood outside my father’s grocery shop and told people not to buy from Jews,” she says. Despite this, Gisela’s German neighbours, in a show of solidarity, ignored the order. “They still came and bought from us,” she says.
Gisela’s nostalgic tone changes as she moves on to the “turning points” of her time in Berlin. One was the infamous event known as Kristallnacht, when more than 7000 Jewish shops and 250 synagogues were viciously attacked by German paramilitary troops.
After Kristallnacht, things changed for Gisela and her family.
“My father was beaten up once or twice and we had to close the shop.” And then she talks about the moment her life changed forever.
“They came to us in the middle of the night, a knock on the door,” she says, referring to events that took place on 28 October 1938. “Two policemen told my father to get dressed and
get his passport.”
Gisela remembers how her younger sister began screaming when she realised that her father was about to be taken away from her. Gisela’s reaction was reflexive, more pragmatic than her sister’s.
“I quietly disappeared into the kitchen and made sandwiches for him. I don’t know what made me do it – my sister still talks about it.” Her father, she later found out, was escorted to a train and deported back to Poland. The family never saw him again.
“My mother told us: there is no future for us here. She bought four tickets to board the SS St Louis – the cruise ship that was bound for Cuba – in the hope that my father would be allowed back into Germany temporarily to board the boat with us.
“Unfortunately, the Poles weren’t very organised and they sent the wrong brother back – my uncle.
“My father was on the phone, constantly crying and saying, don’t take my children away. I remember my mother simply replying, 'I’ve got to save the children'.”
SS St Louis
On May 13 1939, Gisela, with her mother and sister, boarded the St Louis in Hamburg. She remembers the early days of the voyage as an exhilarating experience.
“For the kids it was quite exciting,” she says, explaining that the ship was like a 'luxury liner'.
The atmosphere changed when they arrived – 10 days later – into Havana harbour, Cuba. Gisela remembers the hostile reception well, recalling how Cuban officials kept them in the harbour for days, repeatedly telling them that their visas were not valid.
“At this point, things became desperate,” she says. After a number of countries refused them entry there was the increasing possibility that they would have to turn back toward Germany. A number of passengers, fearing they would have to return to life under the Nazi regime, tried to commit suicide.
“I saw a man running past me with blood dripping from his wrists and jumping into the water.” Gisela explains that as they crossed the Atlantic once more, it was necessary for passengers to take turns on suicide watch.
They finally reached the shores of Southampton, England, one of only four European countries that were willing to accept the passengers of the St Louis.
On my way out of Gisela’s house, I apologise for the lengthy interview – over two hours have slipped by.
“You must be tired,” I say.
“Oh, not really.” Gisela points at her fitness certificate and smiles.