Werner Richheimer | Milwaukee, WI
I was born in 1937 in Karlsruhe, Germany, and I lived in a three-story building with my family. My grandfather had a kosher meat market on the ground floor of our building. November 9th, 1938 was a turning point for Jews in Germany. It was Kristallnacht, the ‘night of the broken glass.’ Our synagogue was burned down, and my grandfather’s kosher meat market was destroyed. My sister was eight years older than I was. She wasn’t allowed to return to school and we had to wear armbands with the Jewish star insignia on them. If you were a Jew living in Germany at that time, you could no longer leave. The Germans didn’t want Jews in Germany but they wouldn’t let you leave.
Before Kristallnacht, the Germans had a numbering system that was posted every week in newspapers. If your number was on that week’s list, you could apply for a visa. My aunt, my mother’s sister, had her number come up in 1937. She decided to leave on her own, and she had a cousin in Staten Island who was willing to sponsor her. She eventually raised me and my sister in Milwaukee.
Much of my memory of my childhood during the Holocaust comes from the detailed diary that my older sister Lori kept during that time. Two years after Kristallnacht some policemen with clipboards rang our doorbell. My sister was vacuuming the floor. My father came to the door and they said, ‘Give me your name.’ He said, ‘Siegfried Richheimer.’ They said, ‘Give me the names of the rest of the family,’ and they checked us all off. They told us we had 15 minutes to gather a few things and we were going to be transported to a nicer place to live.
The train wasn’t a regular train. It was a cattle car train, boxcars that have slots cut in the sides so when they transport animals they don’t suffocate and die. They pushed us into these cattle cars, body to body—no place to sit, just stand. They put two pails on each side of the door and then locked the door. We were on this train for three days and two nights. A lot of people died on the train. Elderly people who couldn’t stand, died. On the second day of that trip, they let us all out of the train in the morning, but they didn’t allow the men to go back on board.
We were very worried about my father, but the train started rolling. Eventually, we got to a concentration camp called Gurs. The railroad tracks extended into the camp so that when you left the railroad car you were already inside the camp that was enclosed by ten feet of barbed wire, an electrified fence. My father and grandfather arrived on a second train. The Gestapo had some tables set up in the front of the train, and they told us to get out and to form three lines. The first line was for women and children, the second line was for people that were younger and were able to work. And the third line was for the elderly. My grandparents were in that third line and immediately taken to a large field and executed.
They took my mother, sister, and me into a large building. They made us strip off all of our clothes. They cut off all of our hair. Then they gave us pajamas: a top and a bottom with white and black stripes. If you have seen the photos from when they freed the camps in 1944, you probably saw skin and bones people dressed in these types of garments. My father was taken to another part of the camp where the men stayed. My mother never saw him again. The children were able to see their fathers once every few months. If my mother wanted to say something to my father, it would come to my sister, and if my father wanted to say something to my mother, it would come to my sister and back to my mother.
We were in the Gurs for two years. I was there from when I was three-and-a-half years old to five-and-a-half years old, but I remember Gurs. I remember there were a lot of rats because I was very scared of rats. I think if something terrible happens in your life, even at a young age, you remember some of it. I don’t remember the train ride, but I remember the conditions. I remember the guard at the end of the door with a machine gun and a German Shepherd dog that prevented us from leaving the barracks.
Next, we were moved to Rivesaltes, a different concentration camp where we lived in a concrete block barrack. The sleeping conditions were better because my mother, sister, and I slept together in a wooden cubicle. It was about eight feet deep, six feet wide and four feet high, but we were together.
I talk to students about my childhood experience because I want people to remember there was a Holocaust. There was a lunatic that came to power that was able to brainwash his own people into believing what he wanted them to believe. The world in its current state has not learned from the horrors of the Holocaust. It’s scary.
My parents were given the option to have me and my sister leave. At this point, my mother was just skin and bones, and my father was a little better than that. My mother made her decision right away, but she wanted to check with my father. So we asked the guards if we could go visit him, and my father insisted that we leave. I was five and a half years old at the time. I was old enough to know that we were leaving my parents. I remember my sister and my mother crying profusely because my mother was very sick by that time. We found out afterward that two weeks after we left, my parents were put on a train to Auschwitz. My mother died on the train, and my father was put to death in Auschwitz within a few days after he arrived there.
The Quakers took us in a truck that had an open back that was covered with straw. They told us that we had to stay close to the cab of the truck because the Germans would sometimes stop the truck and look for Jews being transported. We made it to an orphanage in France. My sister was thirteen by this point and worked to take care of some of the young children. They offered to pay her a little for the work, but she said, ‘I don’t want the money, but if you can get me some yarn and some knitting needles, I’d like to make some sweaters and hats for the children so that they can be warm in the wintertime.’
The Germans would come to the orphanage and take all of our food, so we were always hungry. Every day my sister took the children out into the fields, and she noticed that cows were eating grass. She thought she’d try eating it, too. I was six years old by then and asked, ‘Can I try it?’ She said, ‘Not until I try it first.’ She didn’t have any indigestion from it, so the next day she took some dandelion leaves and she ate those. She didn’t have any problems with that, so all of us children started eating grass and dandelion leaves. It wasn’t delicious, but it kept us alive.
I had some extended family who lived in the Italian-speaking part of Switzerland. They owned department stores, and during the war they helped the French underground, giving them money to buy weapons and clothing and food. The family members learned from the Red Cross that we were freed by the Quakers, but they didn’t know where we were. They talked to their connections in the French Underground and said, ‘I’ve been helping you for all these years. I want you to find my niece and nephew somewhere in France, probably in an orphanage. I want you to bring them to me.’ It took them six months to find us.
The French underground took us from the orphanage to a farm near the Swiss border in France. The husband and wife who ran the farm worked with the underground; they hid a lot of Jewish people. They had a cellar with a trap door. She had a large rug and sewing machine on top of the trapdoor. The German patrols would come there looking for food because they were always hungry, just like everybody else. They would take the food, come in the house and say, ‘Are you hiding any Jews?’ They pounded with rifles but never found us. We lived down in the cellar all day because of the patrols. But at night, they let us come upstairs, and we were able to eat with them. We couldn’t keep any food down; our digestive systems had just stopped working. So they gave us some milk to drink and whatever they could think of that we could keep down.
My aunt and uncle had visas for us to stay in Switzerland for three years. The husband and wife put us on their bicycles one night and took us to the border, about five kilometers from the farm. There were French guards on one side and Swiss guards on the other. Between them there was a concrete moat that had some water in it. The French guards carried us into the moat, and the Swiss guards took us out of the moat on the other side. My relatives were there with envelopes of money—they handed the money to the guards and we were in Switzerland and safe. We were free. The problem was we still couldn’t eat. They put us in the hospital for about six weeks. We were on feeding tubes until our digestive systems’ enzymes started working again, and we were able to function.
I talk with seventh and eighth graders and tell them what my family went through. At the end of the sessions, kids ask me, ‘Do you forgive them?’ It’s a good question. Are you at a point in life where you can say these people were terrible; they caused me and my parents and my grandparents and other family members a great deal of pain and suffering? I read a book by Elie Wiesel, and he explains it quite well. He said, ‘You can’t forget what happened to you, but you have to learn to forgive.’ Over a period of time I’ve learned to forgive. Whether it’s right or wrong, I don’t know. But it’s made me able to live with myself.”
My sister was an angel. She passed away in 1975 of ovarian cancer, not a day goes by when I don’t think about her. She raised me from when I was five years old until we got to Milwaukee, and then my aunt took over. No one can replace your biological mother or father, but my aunt came as close as anyone could. She was wonderful.
I attended Rufus King High School, then attended Marquette University dental school, which is how I met my wife Carol. I was in the Jewish dental fraternity, which hosts a dinner dance once a year and invited undergrad students with their dates to attend. That was my first date with Carol, who became the love of my life. We got married one year later. I served as a dentist in the army for a couple of years and then in my private practice for more than fifty years. Carol and I have four children and sixteen grandchildren.
My family home was in Karlsruhe, Germany. Years ago I heard from a man who lives in Karlsruhe. He was a volunteer with an organization trying to find out what happened to the Jewish families the Nazis forced out of Karlsruhe. He wanted to learn what happened to my family after the Nazis took us, and asked me if there was anything I wanted to know. I had always wanted to put a plaque up for my parents at my synagogue, but I didn’t know when they died. So I asked him to go to Berlin, where the Nazis kept their records. They kept very detailed records. That is how I learned that my mother died on the train on her way to Auschwitz and my father perished in the gas chambers.
My children and grandchildren asked me, ‘Don’t you want to go back and see where you lived?’ I didn’t want to go on this trip, but my nephew said, ‘This is really important. It’ll give you closure.’ I said, ‘Well if we do it together, I’ll do it.’ My nephew organized the trip, and we went there for about ten days. I knew the house was still standing because the man who contacted me from Karlsruhe had sent me a picture of it. I knew where the house was and we rang the doorbell, but nobody answered, so we kept going. One of my nephews found out that we had relatives all over Europe. We found the cemeteries and did services at all of them.
About forty years ago the Jewish Federation asked me to share my story with students. They didn’t have a lot of survivors telling their stories, and there was a huge population out there that needed to hear this history firsthand. I just couldn’t do it. Every time they asked I said, ‘Try me again in a year or two. I can’t do it now.’ I have never liked public speaking.
When I came back from Germany, I realized that I really have to do it. I needed to reach out and start talking about my experiences to people who are just reading history books. I needed to share my personal story with people. When you see the person in front of you who has gone through all of this, it means more.
I can’t tell you how many times after I was finished talking, students asked me, ‘Can I put my arm around you?’ It is always hard for me to talk about my early childhood, but I do it because I think it’s important that these kids know what happened. I guess I’ve been chosen to do it.
When I think about my parents telling my sister and me to leave the concentration camp with the Quakers, I can imagine how difficult it would be to give up your children. But they gave us this chance to live. Before my aunt died she said, ‘Don’t ever forget that what happened in Germany can happen here.’ I disagreed with her at the time, but now I’m having second thoughts about that. There is so much hatred in this country.
An interviewer once asked me, ‘If I had an opportunity to share a moment with my mother or father to let them know that I survived and where I was in life, what would I tell them?’ I think I would say that my children and my grandchildren and my great-grandchildren are here, in spite of everything that Hitler did to try to kill all the Jews so there wouldn’t be any future generations. I feel good about that. I feel good about that.
Werner’s story was produced by Jen Rubin and is part of a story series of people who teach about the Holocaust in schools. You can find the full series here.
A 2017 conversation with Werner Richheimer.