Posts Tagged 'holocaust'

Dispatches from 20th century immigrants, part five: Hanna

Merry Christmas! Happy Hanukah! Loyal blog readers will recognize today’s featured immigrant – 96-year-old Hanna Bratman, a writer from the memoir-writing class I teach for older adults in downtown Chicago every Wednesday, grew up in a Jewish family who owned a butcher shop in Mannheim, Germany. “We had many Christian people working at the shop, and we had lots of Christian friends and neighbors, too, “she told me, explaining how friends would join them at their house for Christmas every year. “The Christkind wasn’t the one to come to give presents, though – it was Santa Claus!”

Things changed for Hanna’s family and friends after Hitler took office. Hanna escaped on her own before World War II. She was only 19 years old when she arrived, alone, in the United States. Others in her family didn’t make it out in time.

That’s Hanna, the author. (Photo by Nora Isabel Bratman)

”On Santa Claus day in Germany, I found myself on the train from Mannheim to Trieste, Italy where the MS Saturnia ship was to take me to safety to New York,” Hanna writes, explaining that when she arrived in Trieste, she was told the refugee ship had docked in Genoa instead. “So we were transported to Genoa on a train at night. That’s where I met MY LOVE: my future husband, Eugene Bratman, was also on the MS Saturnia, escaping to resettle in America.”

Eugene and Hanna married and continued heading west to find work and acclimate to new ways of living – including skiing on Wisconsin hills rather than European Alps. “After moving to Chicago, Eugene and I invested in ski boots and skis, and as often as possible went to Wilmot Hills, where at that time they had a tow rope that I mastered quickly,” she writes. “On 3-day holidays, we took the train to Iron Mountain, Michigan for 2 or 3 days. We did this several times and stayed in the same hotel always by the railroad depot. We ate pasties just like the locals.”

Once their daughter and son were born, Eugene and Hanna stuck closer to home. “With the children, we only traveled to Wilmot again, where I spent most of my time on the Bunny Hill,” she writes, pointing out that Eugene had a lot more to adjust to when it came to skiing. At home he’d skied in the highest range in the Carpathian Mountains, a mountain range that forms a natural border between Slovakia and Poland. “Eugene was a graceful, very experienced skier, well known in the Tatra Mountains.”

Their first baby was born in 1945. Baby furniture was hard to come by, but they did have a pram, and Hanna writes of dragging the buggy up and down from their second-floor apartment at 1059 Dakin, usually with the baby in it. She sterilized glass baby bottles and nipples in a large soup pot she’d brought from Germany five years earlier. “Rudy Joan, our beautiful but fussy infant had to put up with an inexperienced easily panicky mother,” she writes. . “We had no family to ask for advice or help. My very few new friends were busy with their own families.”

Rudy slept in a cradle that Hanna describes as “a transformed beautified extra-large laundry basket.” Their ship’s trunk was covered with a tablecloth and topped with their beloved radio. “The baby slept through many radio concerts and night parties,” she writes, remarking on how precious the public radio station that played classical and jazz music was to them. “Our Blaupunkt radio was tuned to the latest new transmission station WFMT which we loved and supported with a donation of $15.00, a big part of our budget.”

The radio was Hanna’s domain, she says. “And the phone on the buffet was my lifeline to the world.”

Hanna and Eugene’s children grew up strong, thanks in part to advice from their pediatrician’s wife, who Hanna would regularly call with questions. “The strict rules were to feed a baby only every four hours, not a minute sooner to establish a routine, no excuses,” Hanna writes. “Rudy was an early gourmet, she preferred her mother’s breast to boiled water.”

Rudy also liked undivided attention. “In the evening, as soon as Eugene turned the key in the entrance door, she would start crying,” Hanna writes, referring to her baby as a Schreihals (an incessant loud crier). “One day she cried and cried and when I looked she had thrown up and was all covered with vomit, face, eyes, ears, hair, clothing a mess, her face red with rage” Hanna took one look and panicked, reached for the phone and called the doctor. From her essay:

I told the condition of that baby who can hardly catch her breath and had a mess of stuff running out of all openings. This good doctor listened patiently and finally said reassuringly:” Have you tried to clean her up?” End of phone call.

These days Hanna celebrates holidays with her lively and talented children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. She had little desire to return to Germany, but the couple did make one trip to the Carpathian Mountains Before her love Eugene died in 1997.

“This was in spring, so there was no snow, but the chair lift was operating for tourists.” She writes that the people operating the lift recognized her husband immediately. “These people had been Eugene’s ski buddies in the 1930s — they gave him a royal welcome and free rides.”

Dispatches from 20th century immigrants, part three: Anna

Anna Nessy Perlberg was born in Czechoslovakia. Her mother, Julia Nessy, was an opera singer, and her entire family was devoted to the arts. Her father was Jewish, and when Hitler seized Prague in 1939 she and her two older brothers and their parents left their beloved city for New York.

Anna met her poet husband Mark when they both were students at Columbia. They were married in 1953, and a few years later Mark took a job with Time Magazine that sent him to its Chicago bureau. Anna found work in education and social work. Her last stint was as Director of Blind Service Association (a Chicago non-profit I cherish), and years after retiring she enrolled in one of the memoir-writing classes I lead. Here’s a story she read in class about her first years in Chicago.

by Anna Nessy Perlberg

Anna Perlberg reading-8

Anna Nessy Perlberg reads from The House in Prague. Photo by: Diana Phillips, courtesy Lincoln Park Village

It was the middle fifties, and Mark and I had just moved to Chicago. My mother was with us for the holiday. The Czech conductor Rafael Kubelik was also in Chicago. He learned that mother was visiting us and so he came to visit her at our house.

He and mother had concertized together and although there was a difference in their ages — mother was quite a bit older than he — they were good friends.

When he arrived, they embraced and mother introduced Mark and me to him. Then they started to speak in Czech and to recall old times. Suddenly, Kubelik put his face in his hands, saying “It’s almost Christmas Eve, and I don’t have a vanocka.” Vanocka is the Czech version of the German stollen — a sweet cake-like bread, filled with almonds and raisins.

Kubelik looked so sad. Mark and I stared at him and then looked at each other. Simultaneously we had the same thought. After a minute or so, we excused ourselves, saying that we had an errand we’d almost forgotten, but that we’d be back.

We jumped in our car and drove to the Czech section of town on Cermak Street, a street, by the way, that was named after Anton Cermak, an immigrant from an area in Austria-Hungary that is now part of the Czech Republic. (Cermak was mayor of Chicago from 1931 until 1933, when he was at an appearance with Franklin Delano Roosevelt and died from an assassin’s bullet intended for the President-elect.)

in the 1950s there were three Czech bakeries on Cermak. The first one was all sold out of vanockas. Same for the second one. But the third had one left. When we told the Czech saleslady for whom our vanocka was intended, she wrapped it with special care and put a huge red ribbon around it.

Then back in the car and to our neighborhood. We were pretty sure that Kubelik had already left our house, but he had told Mother where he was staying. We drove to the Belden-Stratford Hotel, and told the people at the desk that we had a special delivery for Mr. Kubelik. They sent us up to his room.


Golden Alley Press published The House in Prague.

We knocked and when he opened the door, I said “Vesele Vanoce” (Merry Christmas) and we handed him the vanocka. He was surprised, then understood and hugged us both.

I think of it now, and like to remember that on that occasion Mark and I made someone special feel especially happy with a simple gift of a loaf of special Christmas bread.

The House in Prague, Anna Nessy Perlberg’s memoir of leaving Prague in 1939 and making a new Life in America, was Published this past summer. With immigration in the news, her story is very timely – her publisher, Golden Alley Press, says Anna’s book allows readers to “witness the family’s escape and voyage to Ellis Island and Anna’s struggle to become an American girl in a city teeming with immigrants and prejudice.”


Mondays with Mike: The House in Prague

Some people talk about Holocaust fatigue—I’ve felt it myself.

Anna Perlberg reading-8

Anna Nessy Perlberg reads from The House in Prague. Photo by: Diana Phillips, courtesy Lincoln Park Village

And then I found myself in a beautiful apartment, on the 49th floor, with glorious views of Lake Michigan, noshing and celebrating the publication of The House in Prague, by Anna Nessy Perlberg.

The event was sponsored by Lincoln Park Village, and the fantastic space was provided by one of the Village’s generous members. Lincoln Park Village sponsors many of the writing classes Beth leads for older adults. That’s how Beth—and eventually I—met Anna: She is in one of Beth’s classes.

Beth’s posted about Anna before—and she’s heard, in person, Anna’s stories about her family being forced to uproot from a lovely home and a lovely life in Prague during the early days of Nazi occupation. Beth’s retold them to me.


Golden Alley Press published The House in Prague.

I’m inclined to say, here, “And you know the rest of the story.” I thought I did. And I did in a clinical sense. But hearing Anna read her accounts from The House in Prague—clean prose in the clear voice of Anna recollecting her nine-year-old self, describing what it was like to wake up in a great city that was stolen from its inhabitants. Soldiers outnumbering citizens on the streets. Cafes and other once-bustling hives of culture empty. Anna kissing the family home goodbye. Hair-raising brushes with the Gestapo. A stop in London. Ellis Island.

And a new life in New York City. Her father, a distinguished attorney who’d worked for President Masaryk in Prague, never practiced again. Her mother, an accomplished opera singer, lost her career. And little Anna saved up for a radio that she could tuck under her covers, to listen to the Hit Parade at night, trying to become an American girl just as fast as she could.

She did a helluva good job.

I could tell you more—the house itself is a story—but I recommend you get a copy of the House in Prague. I can’t really do it justice.

Moreover, hearing Anna tell her first-person stories of her idiyllic life in Prague, I was reminded that we’d like to think the forces that drove the Holocaust, modern day atrocities like Rwanda, or even our own history of slavery, are behind us.

But I don’t think anyone or any nation is immune. And so, maybe especially in the middle of some especially volatile election year rhetoric, it’s best that we all heed this passage from The House in Prague, recalling Anna and her mother sailing into the United States in 1939:

We stand together at the railing and watch as the harbor comes closer and closer. Mother lifts me up high to see the Statue of Liberty as clearly as possible. She says with a kind of fierceness, “Don’t ever forget this.”


A note from the author

That’s Hanna, the author. (Photo by Nora Isabel Bratman)

Loyal blog readers will remember Hanna Bratman, the matriarch of the memoir-writing class I teach for Chicago senior citizens every Wednesday. Hanna grew up in Germany. Her family was Jewish, and Hanna escaped on her own before World War II. She was only 19 years old when she arrived, alone, in the United States. Others in her family didn’t make it out in time.

Francine Rich from Blue Marlin Publications read an excerpt of one of Hanna’s essays posted here on my blog and was so moved by it that she volunteered to edit and compile Hanna’s collection of essays into a readable format. When she finished, she decided to go ahead and publish them into a book for Hanna. Francine’s husband Jude got involved, going online to find images and photographs from the time periods Hanna wrote about. Their son Dominick designed the cover.

Francine titled the collection”What’s In My Head” after something Hanna’s mother had said when tensions started building in the early 1930s. “Hitler won’t last,” Hanna’s mother told her daughter back then, reassuring her that things would change soon. “You know, they can take everything away from you, except of what’s in your head.”

Hanna’s family surprised her with the book last weekend when they were all here in Chicago for Yom Kippur. The best way to describe Hanna’s reaction is to excerpt a note she sent afterwards:

When my daughter Rudy announced on Saturday night after the Holy day dinner that she had an announcement to make, she made sure that I was listening. I expected her to probably announce that my Great Grandson Eli at 4 months was now able to sit in his high chair or slept through the night. The whole family and friends had assembled around the dining room table, standing room only. Rudy was next to me and reached into the bag that was hanging on the back of the chair. “Mom, You are the author of this book.” Applause. I am looking at the book, not quite comprehending what I am looking at. The first thing I recognized was the picture of the Synagogue in Mannheim, I still don’t realize, that this is the book of my stories. I am totally speechless, I am dreaming this, it cannot be true.

Hanna said she had come to the dinner with her daughter’s family and had quite a bundle to carry when it came time for her son’s family to drive her home.

That’s Francine on the right, publisher of “Hanni and Beth Safe & Sound” and “What’s in My Head.” Her husband Jude is on the left.

I am not only carrying some delicious leftovers but also 10 copies of my very own book. I hardly slept that night thinking of all the many people that have helped me to make this dream a very sudden reality, and all the friends and few relatives who would want to have a copy sooner rather than later. Given my age and energy level nobody ever expected that this book ever will become a reality. I, Hanna L. Bratman has reinvented herself as the author of her memoires, of a beautiful book. Francine I am adjusting to this. The word THANK YOU does not adequately describe how I feel.

I fully well appreciate the many hours you have spend with me, a total stranger, the sacrifices of your family and to see the whole thing through including the publishing and printing.


Francine had dozens of copies made for Hanna. “I don’t want her reimbursing me,” Francine told me. “The book is being presented to her as a gift and should be “regifted” to others in the same fashion.”

Author Hanna Bratman will be appearing on Rick Kogan’s “Sunday Papers” radio show on WGN-Am 720 in Chicago this Sunday, October 16 at 7:00 a.m. to talk about her book and how it got published. If you’re awake that early on a Sunday morning, listen in!


Photo courtesy Audrey Mitchell

In honor of our infamous Illinois ex-governor, the topic for my memoir-writing students last Wednesday was “guilty.” Hanna, the matriarch of our class, came back with an essay that was, in a word, stunning.

You might remember Hanna from a previous blog post. Hanna grew up in Germany. Her family was Jewish, and Hanna escaped on her own before World War II. Others in her family didn’t make it out in time.

Hanna was only 20 years old when she arrived, alone, in the United States. The essay she brought to class Wednesday was about her first visit back to Europe in 1965, thirty years after she left.

This is our first trip back to the places where we had the first part of our lives, I to Germany, Eugene to visit his brother in Slovakia. I simply had to confront my past and verify that it really happened to me.

Before World War II, Hanna’s parents owned a butcher shop in Mannheim. After Hanna’s father died, her mother ran the shop. Then Adolf Hitler won the election, and things began to change.

Our delivery van was parked on the street and Heini was responsible for its upkeep. He had been with us for at least 25 to 30 years had started as a butcher apprentice and sausage maker. His wife Rosa had been with us for about 15 years, she arrived from the countryside the day I was born and worked as a sales lady.Rosa and Heini had met and got married in our house.

Hanna’s essay goes on to describe one memorable day at the butcher shop.

The atmosphere is tense. The problem is that Heini is sitting in our van every afternoon making a show of reading the Sturmer, the most anti-Semitic newspaper published in Germany. My mother and brother are very upset about this and my brother tries to talk about it and suggests that if he wants to read the paper in our van, he should read the local paper not the Sturmer. Heini is responding that the paper is an official publication and he can read it where ever. “It is not against you. It is about the other Jews. He keeps on reading it in front of our shop.

During their 1965 trip to Germany, Hanna discovers that Heini and Rosa survived the war and were running a Bierstube and restaurant.

I had to now confront them.

Eugene and I are sitting in a booth by a window .We are the only customers and we had ordered. Heini is waiting on us. He brings the beer.”Heini don’t you remember me? I am the Hannelore. Long silence. He calls Rosa to announce that I am there. He does not quite believe that it is the girl that he remembers. Rosa is crying.

They sit together to talk about their lives, then Rosa scurries out to prepare a special meal.

Rosa had made my favorite meal. Fresh asparagus and Schnitzel, a plum cake for dessert. I feel good, she remembered. We are talking and Heini tells me that he had been in the German army and how much they all suffered during the war. He tells that they had sent him to the Russian front which was brutal the worst. I am looking at him and heard him say. “The reason why I was sent to the Russian front is because I had worked for a Jew for 30 years. It was all your mother’s fault.”

Rosa started to cry again. Hanna remembers finishing the meal in silence.

All I could think of. It was your mother’s fault.

Hanna turned 90 this year. She lives alone, takes Para-transit or public transportation to get to class each week, and she affectionately refers to her walker as “Speedo.” I’ve had the privilege of meeting Hanna’s children, and they are smart, spunky and witty – just like their mom. The Chicago CBS station interviewed Hanna on her birthday this year, describing how she has embraced technology to write her memoirs. Hanna has macular degeneration – she makes regular treks over to the Chicago Lighthouse to use special software that enlarges the words on the screen.

This year marks the 70th anniversary of Hanna’s escape from Germany to America. “I’ll tell you this, Beth,” she says. “I’ve always been very, very lucky.” Hanna makes the rest of us feel lucky, too. Especially on Wednesdays, when Speedo escorts her into our classroom so she can share stories with us.

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