By Ron Leir
Erwin Ganz was only nine when he fled Germany in 1939, thereby escaping the Holocaust, but his memories of that terrifying time are still fresh. Ganz, who resettled in America, went to Weequahic High School in Newark and Seton Hall University for an accounting degree, shared those memories at an assembly program hosted by Belleville High School last Thursday.
Since retiring from The Ronson Corp. after a 60-year career in 2009, Ganz has visited more than 40 schools, colleges, churches and synagogues, to tell his story.
Young people, especially, he said, “need to know what happened during the Hitler regime because when I’m gone [along with other survivors], the only way to find out is from books.”
In February 1933, Ganz explained to the Belleville students, “Hitler came to power and blamed the Jews” for Germany’s economic ills: rampant inflation and high unemployment. When he was five, Ganz said, his father “lost his job as a bank executive in Frankfort because he was a Jew,” and the family moved 100 miles away to Berncastel- Kues where his grandmother owned a small department store and his dad worked there.
Famous for its vineyards and wine production and an ancient castle atop a hill, “it was like a fairy tale town,” Ganz said.
But below the surface lurked the political realities of the day: “There were no more than 30 Jewish families there and the local public school refused to enroll me because I was Jewish – there was rampant anti-Semitism.”
His parents found a Jewish school – 35 miles away in Willich – and Ganz and his brother commuted there and back by train. When they’d walk out of the train station, they’d be “harassed by the Hitler Youth who, on occasion, stole our books” as police stood by and “did nothing.”
It was during this period, he said, that “Jewish men were taken from their homes and beaten on the streets” and the German state secret police, known as the Gestapo, placed signs on Jewish-owned businesses, reading: “Do Not Buy From Jews.”
One morning in March 1938, Ganz recalls being told by his mother that, “my dad left in the middle of the night to escape the Nazis who were looking for him.” He later learned that an American relative had agreed to “sponsor” his dad’s admission to the U.S. by placing money in an escrow account. Armed with that information, Ganz’s father managed to scrape up enough money for a passage to the U.S.
Only after he had set sail did word arrive in Germany that the aged relative had died. But a Jewish aid society arranged for shelter and work for Ganz’s dad in the U.S.
Back in Germany, meanwhile, Ganz recalled returning home from school on Nov. 9, 1938, on an “overcast and gray” day and was surprised to see his mother waiting for him at the station.
“She was holding a banana, which was considered a delicacy in Germany then, and she gave it to me as a distraction from the terrible sight I saw when we got home – windows broken, glass all over the street and front yard – and inside the house, the Nazis had ripped frames, destroyed pictures, slashed sofas and chairs. There were hatchet marks on the door frames. In an upstairs bedroom, coal-fired stoves had been ripped from their foundations and thrown on the beds.”
Similar signs of destruction at Jewish homes and businesses – including Ganz’s grandmother’s store – were everywhere, he said. It came to be known as Kristallnacht – the Night of Broken Glass – when, around Germany, paramilitary units looted several thousand Jewish-owned shops, burned hundreds of synagogues and began roundups of Jews bound for Nazi concentration camps.
At his grandmother’s store, Ganz said that many of the Nazi Youth involved in laying waste to the business “were children of customers who shopped there,” but their parents were reluctant to stop them “because they were afraid they’d be turned in to the Gestapo by their children.”
The Gestapo came to Ganz’s house “to take my father away,” Ganz said, but, luckily, he’d already fled to the U.S.
Conditions continued to worsen: From a tavern next door to the Ganzs’ house, “every night, we could hear the Nazis singing about killing Jews,” he said. The Jewish school in Willich “was destroyed.” The Nazis confiscated jewelry held by Jews who, by then, feared leaving their homes.
Things got so bad, said Ganz, that “our devoted housekeeper, who was Catholic, brought us food in the middle of the night.”
In April 1939, Ganz, his brother and mother left for the U.S. aboard the ship, the Franklin D. Roosevelt, and in 1940, his grandmother followed. “She got out on the last boat that left Germany,” he said.
When he made his first return visit to Germany in 1974, Ganz visited his old home in Berncastel-Kues and the new owner – after being assured that Ganz wasn’t going to try and reclaim the property – showed him around. “I could still see the hatchet indentations made by the Nazis in 1938,” he said.
On the site of his grandmother’s store was a tavern; the town’s synagogue had been converted to a machine shop – “but,” Ganz said, “you could still see the Star of David on top” – and, in Willich, the synagogue “was still standing” but a sign outside said it was a “Jewish Museum.”
The attendant gave Ganz a tour of the building and spoke about the onetime Jewish presence “as if it was something that happened a long time ago.”
“I would never live in Germany again,” Ganz told the students. “America is the best country in the world. America saved my life and my parents’ lives and I would do anything for it.”