Lilli Greenebaum is certain that had her family remained in Germany just one week longer, her father might have been taken on Kristallnacht. He had already lost his business, a marine insurance company that had been run by his father before him, to the Nazis. But he was not taken because the family arrived in the safety and relative comfort of New York City two days before the night of broken glass.
“I feel very fortunate that I was able to survive, that I didn’t go through the horrors that other people did,” Greenebaum said. “I feel blessed.”
It was October of 1938 and plans were set for eight-year-old Greenebaum and her family to flee Nazi Germany for the United States. Her parents were taking a short vacation. Greenebaum was staying with her grandmother and her younger sister, Katelore Meyer, was staying with their aunt. In a few days, they were going to return to Hamburg and set sail for New York City.
Their plans quickly unraveled when her sister was diagnosed with acute appendicitis. Her parents came back to Hamburg and her sister had an emergency appendectomy that night. None of the family was on the ship when it left Hamburg.
While Katelore Meyer was confined to a bed recovering from surgery, her father, Werner Meyer, went to the Gestapo to get permission to break their waiver to leave and remain in Germany while she recovered. At first, they told him the rest of the family could go and Katelore would be sent to follow after she recovered, but he refused to leave his daughter. Every day, he went back to the Gestapo to ask permission for one more day in Germany to keep his family together.
Eventually, patience ran out and the Gestapo sent Greenebaum and her mother, Vera Felicitas Meyer, to Holland. A few days later, Werner Meyer signed Katelore out of the hospital and the two joined Greenebaum and her mother in Holland. On October 29, they boarded a ship and departed for the United States, docking in New York City on November 7, 1938. Two days later, thousands of German Jews were terrorized, arrested and imprisoned on Kristallnacht.
Greenebaum spent the first eight years of her life in Hamburg before coming to the United States. Now 84 years old and living in the Chicago suburb of Northbrook, she has lived in the Chicago area for more than 50 years. She still has photo albums overflowing with pictures of her and her family in Germany when she was just a young girl. Along with those are photo albums from the dozens of trips around the world she and her husband, Jim, have taken over their 60 years of marriage. Those excursions include multiple trips back to Hamburg.
Beyond the physical remembrances, she carries a sharp memory filled with vivid detail both from her childhood in Germany and her return trips there decades later. Her connection to Germany is meticulously documented, both physically and psychologically.
If we had been in Hamburg at that point, my father might have been taken.”
Her father told her very little of what was happening in Germany as Hitler took over, believing she and her sister were too young to understand the political madness that was inundating the country. He didn’t explain why they were leaving.
“I think he could have explained a lot more to me,” Greenebaum said. “My sister was maybe too young but at 8 and a half, or at 8, I sort of knew what was what. I knew there was fighting. I didn’t know much about war but I knew people were doing something with each other. But no, dad just wanted to protect us. And he wanted to protect us for years.”
Despite her young age and her father’s protection, Greenebaum, now 84, has vivid memories of her time in Hamburg, the city where she was born and spent the early years of her childhood. Some memories were pleasant: sitting on a bike while her cousins rode her around; eating plums from the tree in the backyard of her aunt’s house. She remembers Passover when she was 7 or 8 years old, the first year she read the four questions for the ceremony in Hebrew at the table where her grandmother’s candlesticks sat. Those candlesticks still rest on her dining room table today.
Other memories were more traumatic: being forced into a home during an air raid; sitting in her living room and hearing the voice of Adolf Hitler on the radio; having stones flung at her by former friends who had found out she was Jewish.
Though she escaped the unimaginable horrors of the Holocaust and World War II in Germany, life in America brought its own challenges. Her father struggled to find work in the insurance business, his industry from Germany, because he was German and Jewish. After three months, the family moved to Philadelphia, where her father had been told the job prospects would be better.
He worked many different jobs over the years, but it was her mother, working as a masseuse, who mostly supported the family. Because of that, Greenebaum was often watched by her grandmother, who played a large role in her upbringing.
Greenebaum had to work multiple jobs to pay her way through college at Temple University, where she was studying to become a physical therapist, interested in helping people suffering from polio and other crippling ailments. When she struggled to raise enough money to pay for school, she turned to the Navy, where the message from recruiters struck a cord with her. It was her service in the Navy that led her to Chicago, where she eventually met her husband, raised her family and lived for the next six decades.
I remember going home one day and the children were up on the stoop in front of the house and started throwing stones at me. I couldn’t figure out why. And they said because our teacher said you’re a Jew, you’re no good.”
Though her immediate family went through a very difficult time, they were able to escape Nazi Germany before the Final Solution. Yet the family did not remain unharmed. Greenebaum’s aunt, Martha Camin, was sent to a concentration camp in 1943, where she remained until the Russians liberated the camp in 1944.
Theresienstadt was meant to be a present from the Führer to the Jews, according to an article from a German newspaper. In the eyes of the public, it was a bustling city with a café, schools for the children, a bank and a post office, as well as arts and crafts and music playing everywhere.
In a letter to Greenebaum’s father, Camin describes her experiences in Theresienstadt as very different than the “paradise ghetto” the Nazis advertised it to be. Her letter describes it as a place ravaged by sickness, hunger, devastating labor and constant fear.
“In 1942 Theresienstadt was said to have had 250-300 deaths daily,” the letter reads. “The first transports to Theresienstadt had it the worst. Everything was insufficient, the lodging miserable and noursihment [sic] abominable… Even if there had been enough able doctors, nurses, and especially voluntary help, there was still missing the most necessary of remedies, mattresses, bedding, laundry of all sorts, cleaning supplies and, above all, material for the workmen.”
One of the worst situations came near the end of the war, when large transports began coming to Theresienstadt from Auschwitz, Dachau and Buchenwald. Camin said the people arrived in “indescribable condition.” Most on the transports were already dead, and it became the job of those already at Theresienstadt to receive the new arrivals.
“I will never forget the moment we had to go to the railroad station to meet these people. After we opened the doors with force only the corpses fell against us. I was the first to be carried away as I was done for,” Camin wrote. “And then again the night duty. That was so horrible that I am unable to bring myself to write about it. No one would believe me anyway.”
At first, as Camin suggested in the letter, Greenebaum’s father did not believe his sister, as she tended to dramatize. Werner Meyer was utterly overprotective and kept the letter from his sister away from his children. Even when Camin came to see her brother in the United States in the 1950s, he did not allow her to visit her niece in Chicago. Greenebaum had just married, and he was afraid that she would tell stories that would put his daughter in a bad light with her in-laws. It was not until later that he finally believed his sister.
We have to go on. But we shouldn’t forget because I wouldn’t want this to happen again.”
Greenebaum’s aunt never came to Chicago, so she and her husband went to visit her aunt in Germany.
“She was extremely happy to see me,” Greenebaum said. “I was very happy to see her, but interestingly enough, we could only stay together for about two hours, because I think she had [post-traumatic stress disorder] and she couldn’t stay around people too long.”
The time in Theresienstadt scarred Martha Camin’s life. Years after she was freed from the camp, she was still haunted by the horrors of the past. One time, when Greenebaum’s husband visited her aunt on a trip to Germany, he was sitting and talking to her when a man came in and asked if he was Jewish.
“My aunt was frightened because she thought somebody was coming in and taking him away, thinking back to the war,” Greenebaum said. “And all they wanted was they needed another man, a minion, in order to have services. And that’s all that he wanted. But it frightened my aunt.”
Since then Greenebaum has visited Germany several times. The first time she went back, in 1969, she did not know what to expect or how to behave. The Germany she knew from her childhood and the one she discovered as an adult were different places. In the eyes of the new generations she found no traces of contempt or anger and felt confident to wear her Jewish star with pride. During one of her visits in Berlin, Greenebaum recalls running into a stranger who came up to her with the words: “You are Jewish, aren’t you? Oh good, I’m glad you are back!”
When Greenebaum returned to Hamburg in 1995, the Hamburg Senate invited her as an honored guest and paid for her stay. She also witnessed the ceremony in 1994 when Chicago and Hamburg became sister cities.
But not everyone can find the strength to return to the place where one was expelled. Even Greenebaum’s own uncle denied his origin as a Jew and as a German completely. Only shortly before his death did he seek his relatives out. Greenebaum herself believes strongly that as a Jew it is important to go back.
“If you don’t go,” she said, “Hitler has won.”
I feel very fortunate that I was able to survive. That I didn’t go through the horrors that other people did. I feel blessed.”
Greenebaum said people are often surprised by her willingness and eagerness to return to Germany. Many tell her that in her situation, they would sever all ties with the country. But she believes in the importance of going back and maintaining a relationship with the country as it stands today.
“I don’t like to generalize and you can’t blame a whole people for something,” she said. “There were a lot of Germans, I mean, yes, most of the people went along with the Nazis, but there were a lot who didn’t. And today’s generation is not the same as during the Nazi time. These are different people.”
More than five decades after her family escaped Nazi Germany, Greenebaum and her husband visited the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem, Israel. They submitted letters of testimony in honor of her grandmother and uncle. The children’s memorial there, glass with candles reflecting in the dark to create the impression of millions of stars, is a tribute to the millions of children who died in the Holocaust.
The memorial brought a flood of emotions for Greenebaum, both when she first saw it in 1993 and when she remembered it years later.
“I got very emotional thinking that could have been me,” she said before taking a long pause to gather herself. “And I still get that way today.”