Survivor Tells Story in “War Came to Me”

Cleveland Jewish News (03/12/2010)


Life in Vienna as the Broessler family knew it came to an end March 13, 1938, when the Third Reich annexed Austria. With the Anschluss came dramatic and harsh changes in the lives of Jews, who lost their property, bank accounts, jobs and places in schools. Jews faced random roundups and deportations to concentration camps; those left behind were banned from parks, streetcars and communal buildings and often were forced to carry humiliating signs and scrub the streets.

It was a “reign of terror” designed to make Jews emigrate, writes Lakewood resident Eva Broessler Weissman and Gregory Moore in the recently published The War Came to Me: A Story of Endurance and Survival. The 100-page book, published by University Press of America, succinctly places Weissman’s compelling story into historical context, explaining how her struggle was typical of the persecution and horrors Jews faced. However, her survival and subsequent reunion with her family in America was anything but typical.

Two months after the Kristallnacht in November 1938, Eva, 16, and her sister Ruth, 7, fled to Holland, where two different families of Dutch Jews – the Simonses and the Isaacs – looked after the girls.

When the Nazis invaded The Netherlands in 1940, the Isaacs, Ruth’s foster family, took her with them on a perilous escape to Switzerland. Eva ended up in hiding in Amsterdam with a Christian relative of the Simonses, carrying forged identity papers and becoming a courier for the Dutch Resistance.

Meanwhile, the girls’ parents, Thekla and Gustav, managed to obtain visas and flee to England in September 1939, one month before war broke out in Europe. Weissman, who is active in nonprofit work and recently received a lifetime achievement award from the Huntington’s Disease Association, had been urged by friends for years to write a book about her life. She met co-author Moore, associate professor of history and political science at Notre Dame College, when she spoke there about her Holocaust experiences.

She and her sister, now Ruth Newmark and living in California, provided an enormous amount of reference material, including their unpublished memoirs and videotaped interviews, to Moore, who wrote the six chapters of the book. Weissman penned the introduction and epilogue. Her friend Dr. Alan Tartakoff, a professor of pathology at Case Western Reserve University, describes the Eva he knows in the foreword.

The book contains a wealth of family photos and a helpful brief genealogy of the Jewish families involved. Also included is a thoughtful reflection Weissman wrote on her abbreviated but excellent education at a gymnasium in Vienna.

Appended is the letter Weissman wrote to Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, praising Erika G.L. Simons and Simons’s mother Johanna, the Dutch Christians who sheltered her and other Jews at great personal risk. Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial and museum, subsequently honored both for their deeds.

Vivid, personal anecdotes make the book more engaging. Particularly telling is the story of a pillow that Weissman selflessly gave to her younger sister when they were interned at a camp in Holland. To this day, whenever Weissman wants her sister to do something, she jokingly says, “You owe me. Remember the pillow.”

Her escape and survival Weissman attributes to luck and perhaps an instinct for self-preservation. But she’s proudest of what she calls her “noble deed.”

When the Nazis invaded Holland, the Simons family, like many other Jews, tried to flee. The Dutch family went to the harbor to find passage to England. Eva refused to accompany them because she had promised her parents, already in England, that she would take care of her little sister. At the time, she didn’t know that Ruth had already escaped to Switzerland.

Weissman also relates how, during her years in hiding in Amsterdam, she carried the identity card of a Johanna Cornelius Meijer, substituting her own photo for that of the Christian girl.

She never knew who Meijer was. Or if the Dutch Resistance, which provided her with the document, forced or asked Christians to deliberately misplace their identification, so that the “lost” ones could be used to help Jews. Fortunately, Weissman was never stopped and asked to produce her identity card.

“Had I been caught, I doubt that story would have held up. But the card was a security blanket for me,” she says.

When she talks to groups about her wartime experiences, Weissman says she stresses that even in bad times, “there were some good people.” Moore noted at a recent book signing that from a statistical point of view, it was almost a miracle that all four members of the Broessler family survived independently of each other.

Now that the book is published, Weissman is adamant that she will not spend the rest of her life talking about her past. Still, when she visits Vienna – she was last there a year and a half ago – she finds the city very enjoyable and more beautiful than ever.
Ten years ago, Austria invited its persecuted Jews to regain their citizenship, Weissman notes. She’s very ambivalent about doing so.

“I am so deeply rooted now in America. Certain things in Austria I remember kindly, and I respect the new generation. But am I not more obligated to America?”

But at times she thinks she should accept Austria’s very belated offer. “They deprived us of the most elementary rights of a citizen. They owe it (citizenship) to me.”