Contributed by Victoria Hess — Nov. 2010
Oy vey! It can be very difficult to transcribe family lore when there are so many people who know about it, and they don’t always agree! In this case, I spoke 15 years ago with Gaby Grunebaum about her experience with her children in Nazi Germany. This is her story.
But that discussion was very brief, so last week, I was directed to her grandchild, Vicki Koppel, who was very close to Gaby. After making adjustments to my early draft, Vicki directed me to her Uncle Michael (my second cousin), one of the principles in this story, who modified it further. Some of this mess is untangled, but some of it isn’t. Enjoy!
About 15 years ago, I had dinner with Gaby Grunebaum, the wife of my first cousin once removed Erich. Over the course of dinner, she told amazing stories of her final years in Hamburg: stories which I wish I had recorded. One of the most touching was of how she sent her children to Switzerland to be looked after by strangers, as the Nazi influence became more and more accentuated in the years leading up to WW II.
From the time Hitler assumed power in 1933, through Kristallnacht in 1938, life in Germany changed dramatically for all, but especially for the Jews of the country. During those years, Gaby and her husband, Erich Grunebaum, bore two children: Ernest Michael Grunebaum, born Dec. 1934, and Eva Irene Grunebaum Koppel, born Sept. 1937. The story that Gaby told us was brief: that she took each of these children to Switzerland not long after their births, leaving them with Swiss nannies to be kept safe in that neutral country.
Irene & Michael’s Ancestors
Recently, I had a chance to speak with Victoria (Vicki) Koppel, Gaby’s granddaughter, who clarified the story for me. It is mostly correct, but there is more.
Neither Michael not Irene were actually born in Germany. Knowing that things were going badly for Jews in Germany, Gaby and Erich had decided that their children should be born in Britain, so they would have British, not German, passports. Two months before each child was due, Gaby traveled to London for her confinement with a nurse to assist her with her infant. After recuperating, she returned to Hamburg with her child.
When Michael was born (1934) , things were still not very difficult for the Hirschlands of Germany. In fact, until they fled years later, the elders of the Hirschlands, at least, felt their connections through the Simon Hirschland Bank made them safe. Gaby’s husband managed the Hamburg Branch. I recall being told as a child that Franz Hirschland of Harrison, NY, my grandfather, began warning his siblings and their children to leave Germany many years before they finally did.
The stories begins to differ a little here. Vicki told me, confirming the brief discussion I was with Gaby 15 years ago, that about 1.5 years after Michael’s birth, in 1936, Erich urged his wife to leave Germany without him, so that she and their son would be safe. Gaby, being the feisty young woman she was, refused. Instead she took a train ride with young Michael to Basel, which was right on the Swiss-German border, and shared a train station on both sides. She literally got off the train in Germany, and walked under the tracks to Switzerland, where she was met by a nun from a Swiss convent that ran a summer camp for children, and during the years proceeding war took in children to keep them safe for the duration. She handed her son off to a nun, and didn’t see him again until 1938.
Michael’s recollection of what he was told about his history is that he had rickets, and was sent to Switzerland with a nurse, who delivered him to a children’s home there. It was felt that Switzerland would be better for his medical condition. He denies that his mother delivered him, or later his sister, but that in both cases the children were handed over to nurses in Hamburg to be taken to Switzerland. Michael doesn’t remember much of his time in Switzerland: he was very young. But he remembers having his first soft boiled egg there, and he remembers also that there was some discrimination at the children’s home. Some of the children there were Swiss, and others were not. The German children were definitely treated differently.
Of course, being home with her husband, Gaby became pregnant again, and again went to London to birth her daughter Irene, in September 1937. She returned to Hamburg, and the family tried to flee Germany not long after, infant on her lap. After their passports were confiscated by German officials, Gaby again made the trip towards Basel to hand her daughter (Vicki’s mother) off to safety under the train tracks at the border.
Fortunately, Gaby did not have to wait the duration of the war to be with her children again. After successfully escaping Hamburg in 1938, she met up with the children in London, and began a long and difficult journey that got them finally settled seven years later in the United States. Michael said each child was brought to England by different family members: Irene came over with his material grandparents, who had taken up residence in Switzerland, and Michael was brought over by Margot Hirschland Panofsky and her husband Alfred, Elsbeth Hirschland’s brother.
Little Irene had only been separated from her mother for months. Gaby used to say that “it gave Irene a ‘gypsy spirit, adaptable anywhere,’ but that is certainly only the upside of the equation,” according to Vicki. But Vicki told me that her uncle was about four when the family was reunited, and greeted his parents in London by saying: “How nice that we meet again” while sticking out his hand to be shaken like a well-raised German boy. Apparently this separation affected Michael for some time.