Hans Erman

Hans Erman
Nationality: German
Location: Atlanta • Berlin • Connecticut • Dayton • Des Moines • Georgia • Germany • Iowa • Israel • Jerusalem • Missouri • Munich • New Haven • Ohio • Palestine • St. Louis • Tel Aviv • United States of America • Wittlich • Wurzburg
Experience During Holocaust: Escaped the Holocaust

Mapping Hans' Life

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“So, I recall I taught school in Berlin – first in Munich, then in Berlin, and during the Nazi regime I took my class on field trips, and I happen to tell this story once in a while. I took my class in Berlin on a field trip and we walked along a very nice seashore close to Berlin, the Wannsee. And we came to a big public pool and as the way kids are – some 30 kids, you know, seventh, eighth graders, talking and laughing, and all that. Suddenly I hear that it got silent and I look around and say, 'What’s the matter?' And when we came to that swimming pool there was a sign: 'Jews not permitted.' So, that impressed that group of kids and they were looking at it and after a little while a youngster came to me – I’ll never forget it – and said, 'Mr. Erman, you know, my dad is Jewish, my mother is not Jewish, so I am half Jew.  Do you think I can go in up to the waist?' And this thing remains in my memory, and that’s the reaction of kids.” - Hans Erman

Read Hans' Oral History Transcripts

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Tape 1 - Side 1

PRINCE: My name is “Sister” Prince and I’m interviewing Hans Erman for the Oral History Project for the St. Louis Center for Holocaust Studies. Today is August 8, 1986. Hans, I believe you want to begin –
ERMAN: I started by mentioning that I miss here in St. Louis a visible, tangible monument to the Holocaust, and as an example and as a comparison, I would like to point to a monument which has been set up in Atlanta. A similar one exists in Philadelphia and in practically every major city where Jews are present. For instance, in Atlanta which is about one-third the size of the Jewish community in St. Louis, a group of survivors constructed that kind of miniature concentration camp in the Jewish cemetery and every year, every year, the Jewish community gathered around this monument and had a program. And you see in this program that the Jewish schools of the, my direction, played a part in that program. It was part of my job to bring together students from all the Jewish schools in Atlanta to this place and there were a few talks and songs and some program arrangements, and that continued year after year. This is a different year. This happened in 1968 and I think this was 1969, but it was always the same type of program that was conducted at the Holocaust Memorial Site in the Jewish cemetery in Atlanta.
PRINCE: I see. You’re showing me two or three different programs…
ERMAN: That’s right. It’s the same location, two different programs, but every year the Jewish schools played a part in this commemoration. Now here in St. Louis, I attended one year a memorial service in a synagogue. I think it was Shaare Emeth when Warren Green followed the normal procedure. He had some survivors present who lit six candles, had a few talks, one in Yiddish and some in English. But there’s nothing tangible, nothing visible like this thing that I showed you here, and I saw a similar monument in Philadelphia. I saw similar monuments in other cities where people know that there is some kind of a monument to the Holocaust. In some smaller places they have just a library in memory of the Holocaust, and in some places they have just a shelf of books on the Holocaust, but something visible, something tangible. Now St. Louis has a Jewish population of 55,000 or so and I think it’s a lack of sensitivity that the Jewish community in St. Louis did not rise up to the occasion of bringing about somewhere a visible remembrance of the Holocaust.
PRINCE: Hans, I wasn’t present – I became involved with the Center in 1979 in the fall and I think it was maybe four or five years old at the time. From what I understand, and you’re welcome to dig into this a little deeper, but when the people that started it here got together they thought about a monument and instead of a monument they decided that more of a living monument, like the St. Louis Center for Holocaust Studies, would be better. That’s what I understand. I know you have some thoughts and feelings about that which I ask you to talk about if you care to. But an educational and outgoing and outreach to the public and I think that that was what they had in mind…
ERMAN: Well, in answer to that question…
PRINCE: …as a way of spending money.
ERMAN: Okay. I would say this, that it may be unconventional for me to say that…
PRINCE: You say what you want.
ERMAN: …and I have some other unconventional ideas about that too. I do not believe that any kind of or any amount of talking or any amount of teaching in Jewish schools or in non-Jewish schools, in Gentile schools or in colleges and universities will decrease the danger of a Holocaust happening again somewhere on this globe. In other words, going to schools and telling what the Nazis did in Germany, in Poland, in Austria and in France and all over – I do not believe that all this talking will have any kind of influence, in case, under similar circumstances, under similar circumstances, the Jewish community would be confronted with an anti-Jewish movement. It may be in South America, it may be somewhere in Asia, it may be in Europe again somewhere, so I do not feel that this kind of activity has any real meaning in terms of effect on future generations and so on.
PRINCE: Well, what do you feel would have real meaning?
ERMAN: I don’t see anything if that can be done. If I start to analyze what I see as the reasons for the Holocaust that occurred in Europe between 1936 and 1945, I would say that under similar circumstances the same thing could happen in other parts of the world regardless of what we do or what we do not do. Otherwise, if similar economic, political situations would arise, I would not see that any other group of people would act much differently from what the Germans or the Austrians or the Poles or any other nation acted.
PRINCE: I don’t know that education, if we really think that – if centers like ours really think that you can prevent it, but if in some way you make people realize or help to make people realize what did happen, it can’t help but help.
ERMAN: Well, that is where we differ – I mean where our opinions are different…
PRINCE: I mean, I don’t think the effort goes down the drain particularly. I think there are people out there who need our help. There are teachers – I know, I’m speaking to – this is for the sake of the tape because I didn’t introduce you. You are a professor of Modern Hebrew Literature at Washington University and you handed me a biographical data of your experience as a teacher and it’s extremely full and impressive, to say the least. You’ve been director of a number of bureaus of education and principals of high schools in Israel and you began as a teacher in a day school in Berlin, Germany. So, I’m aware of whom I’m speaking to and I’m not trying to defend anything. And it’s just a very difficult, emotional, and…
ERMAN: Well, some people – many people – believe that education, discussing, talking, clarifying, analyzing would have convinced people that what was done was so wrong and that it should not happen again. I don’t believe that.
PRINCE: I think that the way that, if I were to chart out a study program, it would be to teach people that we have choices and if you give up those choices very early and you don’t understand about choices, especially with children. You have a choice of getting up in the morning. That’s your first choice, opening your eyes. Then you have a choice of what to wear and you have a choice of what to eat. You have a choice of going to school or not. And when you get to school there are many choices. On the playground you have the choice of being the one who decides to hit somebody. Or you have the choice – not always the choice, but the choice of taking it by being the victim, or the perpetrator, the bystander. And I think this is what we try to teach children. If you read the newspaper today or you listen to the news which from all three networks is just astounding sometimes, it’s how are we being manipulated as to knowing what’s really going on? What is the government doing? What are we really talking about when you’re talking about the fundamentalists or the evangelical moral majority? What does it really mean to us? It doesn’t mean good things. Rehnquist on the Supreme Court, he believes in the majority rather than the one. Well, this country is based on one. What’s that going to mean to us? Nothing, nothing terrific I don’t think, but this is more or less the kind of thing I feel, which should sort of be in schools anyway.
ERMAN: Right.
PRINCE: I don’t know that pointing up – you’ve been through it – I’m sitting here talking to you. How can I possibly – I can’t put myself in your place, I can’t know where you came from, which is what we’re going to try to do, to get…
ERMAN: I’ll try to show you.
PRINCE: No, I don’t mean on this. I’m talking about what we’re going to talk about, not your educational background but your origin and it’s very complicated. I don’t think that anybody can puzzle it out, but one can’t also throw up their hands and stop trying.
ERMAN: Well, people try the best they know how and sometimes it’s good and sometimes it’s not so good, and sometimes it backfires too.
PRINCE: Yes, talk about backfiring. Enlarge on what you said.
ERMAN: Okay, a thing that backfires. There has been a tendency in the Jewish community to engage in what you may call sometimes as a “witchhunt.” Take the case of Kurt Waldheim. In my opinion it was a great blunder by the World Jewish Congress to dig up these things at this point. It’s clearly backfired in Austria. Whether the man would have been elected or not, but many Austrians felt that it’s nobody’s business whom we elect. This man did what he was told to do. He was a small peg in a huge machine and after he served for many years as Secretary General of the United Nations, now they come and bring up certain things that happened 40 years ago or so. It was a big blunder and it backfired. A similar thing backfired in the…
PRINCE: How did it backfire?
ERMAN: Well that more Austrians voted for him who otherwise would not have voted for him.
PRINCE: Does that put fear into you?
ERMAN: Pardon me?
PRINCE: Does that make you fearful if you lived in Austria?
ERMAN: I mean, it’s a natural reaction of people who saw nothing wrong in what he did. He was a minor officer in the army and he fulfilled orders that he was given by his superiors and whatever he did, he did, and there’s nothing that should prevent him from becoming president of that country. In view of the fact, in view of the fact that after the war more than 50% of the whole officialdom in Austria – teachers, policemen, army officers, ministers were ex-Nazis. Under the Jewish chancellor, Bruno Kreisky, there were at least five or six ministers in his cabinet who were former Nazis and nobody raised any questions, nobody raised any problems about it. Now, suddenly the World Jewish Congress comes in and plays up certain accusations. In my opinion it was a blunder as it was a blunder for Jews to oppose President Reagan’s visit to Bitburg.
PRINCE: Just before we leave Waldheim, I’d like to comment on the fact that first of all I don’t know if it was so much what he did, that they were upset about was that he had lied. He had mixed up the facts, not mixed them up – he had deleted them and also he had been heading the United Nations. So, his case was just a little bit different and I think it wasn’t what he did because, as you say, they all did it, but he denied it and denied it until he couldn’t deny it anymore.
ERMAN: He omitted in his resume, he omitted two years or so. That was apparently a very routine way to avoid trouble and what have you. Another thing…
PRINCE: You wanted to talk about Bitburg?
ERMAN: We were talking about Waldheim. I assume that most every politician is doing some of these things – I mean is trying to tailor his resume or his past according to the possibilities that he sees for himself. By the way, before he became Secretary General of the United Nations, the Russians knew about his Nazi past, the Yugoslavs knew about it and they did not speak up at that time. And even now, nobody raised many questions about it. So, I mean, it was not unknown and there was, in my opinion, no reason to play it up right now, that’s all I say.
PRINCE: Now, you wanted to talk about Bitburg?
ERMAN: Well, Bitburg too. The administration, President Reagan made the statement that it was in the national interest – I repeat: “It was in the national interest of the United States for him to accompany the Chancellor of Germany on a visit to the Bitburg Military Cemetery.” And it so happened that among thousands and thousands of graves, the graves of a handful of former SS – SR members were discovered. Then Jewish organizations, even with the support of Elie Wiesel, tried to undercut and to prevent President Reagan from going there. These activities were not understood either by the Germans nor by anybody else. Why a few graves of people who by whatever reason whatever – coincidence, whatever chance were mixed up with the others, should prevent a president from a political activity which in his words “were in the national interest of the United States.” So, in my opinion, that too backfired and it made a poor…
PRINCE: How did that backfire?
ERMAN: In the sentiment of the Germans about the Jews.
PRINCE: So you think all of that caused more ill feeling?
ERMAN: It caused more ill will and more resentment than it did good.
PRINCE: Well does that have anything to do, in your opinion, of going back to what I say about choices? What do you choose about being quiet and not saying anything because, “Let’s just leave it like it is.” And going on to maybe say things. Is it being quiet – the Jews in America when it was going on in Europe were afraid to say.
ERMAN: Keeping quiet. Every historic event should be treated as an historic event, whether it is the destruction of the Jewish commonwealth – well, that is destruction of the Temple, whether it is the expulsion of Jews from Spain, or whatever event, should be treated properly in historic framework. Otherwise, excessive talking or excessive activity around one certain thing may not help to prevent it from recurring.
PRINCE: Well, Hans, would it be okay with you if we went to Germany right now, moved back in time a little bit, and talk about how that began and what you feel maybe should or could have been done there as far as speaking out? What kind of feelings do you have on that? You were born in 1914.
ERMAN: 1914, yes.
PRINCE: So, when you first – how old were you when you first…
ERMAN: I was a senior in high school when the Nazis came to power in 1933.
PRINCE: In 1933 you were a senior. Well, you want to just sort of jump in and see where you began to realize or change or…
ERMAN: I was the only Jewish student in my class of 18 senior high school students in my hometown, and many of those Gentile students were very good friends of mine.
PRINCE: Give me just a background, a little bit so people who will listen to this will have an idea. You were of what kind of town and the size and the makeup of it?
ERMAN: A small town of about 8000 population, one single high school and…
PRINCE: The town was, the name was?
ERMAN: W I T T L I C H.
PRINCE: Say it.
ERMAN: Wittlich, how to pronounce.
PRINCE: Near Cologne.
ERMAN: Near Cologne, right. And I grew up with those kids and we were good friends. We visited each other in our homes. We prepared our homework together and our general relationship was not only as good as yours with your Gentile friends or whatever high school you attended in St. Louis or anywhere else…
PRINCE: Similar, I went to a private…
ERMAN: It was better. For instance, to give an example: I don’t know how many Jewish friends or Gentile friends you had, but from all my experience I have seen that practically all Jewish families in this city as well as other cities where we lived – in Atlanta, in Chicago – have social contacts practically limited to other Jewish individuals. Now in my hometown and all over Germany, it so happened that Jewish individuals had as many, or more, Gentile friends whom they met socially, played socially, than Jewish friends. In other words, the degree of integration with the Gentile community in our area, in Germany, all over, was much greater than the degree of integration in this country and maybe in others. In this country I don’t see any degree of integration outside of business, from nine o’clock to five o’clock you deal with the Gentiles. After five o’clock, you go left, they go right, or vice versa, and there’s very, very little interaction between the two groups.
PRINCE: Unless it’s on civic boards.
ERMAN: Yes, I mean on civic boards, I mean certain political or certain community activities where people have to go.
PRINCE: See, but then they become social sometimes.
ERMAN: But I’m talking about social activities.
PRINCE: Sometimes it carries over but maybe not to the extent…
ERMAN: So, that was my experience, and then later on…
PRINCE: Excuse me, how did you happen to go to that school?
ERMAN: It was the only high school in town.
PRINCE: Oh, it was the only one in town, you said that – I’m sorry.
ERMAN: And later on when the Nazis grew and came to power, many of those friends asked me and I had trouble responding. I must admit that. They said, “Hans, if you were not Jewish, wouldn’t you join with us this same kind of Nazi student movement or so on?” And they had “X” number of good reasons why they had to join the Nazi movement, you know. So, but it was very hard to respond or not to respond because for all practical reasons, for many, many good reasons, they had to join. They explained to me that, for instance, it was certain economic conditions, they were bankrupt and the new party, the new Nazi party was the only party who had any promise for them to get out of the dump. And the only chance they saw to get ahead in life was to be with the majority party, you know – to get into college, to get into a good position, it was the only choice. They had very little other choices.
PRINCE: Did it ever come up in the discussion that the Nazi party had these feelings about the Jews?
ERMAN: Yes. They maintained at that time and apparently to a large extent, they felt that way and were convinced that way.
PRINCE: Convinced what way?
ERMAN: That the open antisemitism in that platform was not much more than a political ploy. In other words, it was a gimmick to attract people because antisemitism had been prevalent not only in Germany, but all over, even in the United States in the ’30s and ’40s, you know. There were strong antisemitic movements, Father Coughlin and all that and Henry Ford and his time and the Detroit Gazette, whatever his newspaper was. So these things were popular. So, they said the antisemitic problem is just a matter of politics. “Once we get to power or once we are in power, this will slowly be forgotten and everything will be okay.” And it so happened that the first few years – 1933, 4, 5, there was very little in terms of anti-Jewish agitation except some removal of leading Jews from economic positions, the removal of Jews from leading positions in universities and things like that. But, otherwise there was no, or very little, no physical harm to any Jew. Otherwise I would not have stayed for six years. So, that was the understanding.
PRINCE: Some of it goes back to what we were talking about before – choices. These men chose.
ERMAN: Well, the…
PRINCE: – because you could see the writing on the wall, really.
ERMAN: Well, some people had certain hunches, some people had experience. I know from my wife’s family who came from Poland. They had experienced persecutions and pogroms in Poland and Russia, and when they heard that there was a movement coming up and growing, so they felt somehow they saw the handwriting on the wall years before others and said, “Well if that starts here, then we’d better move on.” So they moved on, to America, to other places. But German Jews had no reason to be afraid for a number of reasons. Number one, German Jews – I’m talking now about the leadership – the leadership of the German Jews which was either spiritual leadership, rabbis, or political leadership, big huge organizations, they all maintained that the Nazis and their leadership at that time had no chance to maintain their power for any length of time. They said six months, eight months, maybe a year, then everything will collapse. And it was our leadership in Germany…
PRINCE: Jewish leadership?
ERMAN: Jewish leadership in Germany who encouraged us, everybody, to maintain positions, not to leave your job, maintain positions. “It will blow over sooner or later. Either by itself it will collapse or with the help of France, Great Britain, the United States. They will not tolerate this kind of thing and there is no chance that it will persist. So, hold your positions and stay put and wait it out.” That was the…so if we blame anybody for the fact that many Jews were caught finally in no man’s land and couldn’t escape anymore, the leadership of the German Jews must be blamed to a large extent for telling people not to emigrate, not to leave positions but to hold on to whatever they had because there must be a new emancipation, there must be a new movement for equal rights and it would be wrong to escape or to run away from those parrots.
PRINCE: Does that go back – does that idea and feeling go back, way back in history where Jews were in pogroms and thought, “This will pass; it can’t get any worse. We’ll stay,” or each thing that happened they’d think, “Well, this is the worst.” Who could imagine that they were going to burn people? Nobody could even think that up.
ERMAN: Nobody could think it up and apparently the reasoning was very simple, that Jews all over Europe had been persecuted for centuries, for hundreds of years since the year 800 and Jews fought a long, long time for equal rights in France, in Germany and in other countries.

Tape 1 - Side 2

ERMAN: We fought hard for equal rights and we attained equal rights. On the surface, Jews in Germany enjoyed 100% equal rights, according to the constitution and in business, in economics, in professions and universities. Jews could attain most any position they wanted to. There was only one place where Jews had trouble. That was the army. The army was traditionally very nationalistic, chauvinistic and there Jews had problems in advancing to higher positions of command. But, in all the other areas of life, the Jews had open door to almost every position.
PRINCE: For instance, back to the social integration – clubs?
ERMAN: Germany did not have the kind of country clubs situation that we have in this country, so you talk about clubs – I’ll give you an example from my hometown. My hometown did have clubs. They had a club – what do you call it?
PRINCE: A drinking club?
ERMAN: No, they had bowling clubs, they had volunteer firefighters, a male song choir, and my dad belonged to all these. In other words he would say, “Tonight we have choir practice.” It was a community choir where all those who could sing went and they sang – patriotic songs, whatever they sang. And volunteer firefighters – they had their practice once a month or whatever and there was no – I mean, that is all I know about social clubs. There was a tennis club and as far as I know, few Jews did belong to that.
PRINCE: Tell me about your family.
ERMAN: My parents had a clothing business.
PRINCE: They owned their own?
ERMAN: They owned their own home and they owned their own business.
PRINCE: The business was manufacturing or a store?
ERMAN: It was retail. It was a retail store and as far as I remember it went well until the later years when the Nazis started to boycott more and more and Gentiles were afraid, were afraid to associate with Jews. And they came or called and said, “We would come, we would like to come to you, but you know if we do, my son wants to get that position, but if I associate with you, he may have trouble getting into that position.” So it was kind of a hazard for many people to associate with Jews. The Jews became more and more isolated in 1936, ’37, ’38, until the war broke out in 1939.
PRINCE: Hans, there you were, a senior in high school, your friends explaining to you their reasons for joining the Nazi party – was that the first – what I want to know is what was the first change in your life from the beginning from what sounded like a very secure way of life?
ERMAN: Well, this was the first major turning point that temporarily, and I must emphasize that – temporarily, we felt that there would be a difficult time.
PRINCE: Who’s we? Your mother and…
ERMAN: Yes, and we Jews in Germany, there would be a difficult time for a number of months, maybe years. We would have to wait out, to ride out the storm until better times returned, until a new movement for our equal rights would come about, and we were sure it would.
PRINCE: What was your father’s name?
ERMAN: Albert.
PRINCE: Albert?
ERMAN: Albert.
PRINCE: Adelbert or…?
ERMAN: A L B E R T.
PRINCE: And what was your mother’s name?
ERMAN: Rose.
PRINCE: Rose. Did you have brothers and sisters?
ERMAN: I had a sister and she lives now in San Diego.
PRINCE: What’s her name?
ERMAN: Mitta.
PRINCE: Is she older or younger?
ERMAN: Younger. She’s a number of years younger.
PRINCE: Okay. When these boys said this to you, about joining the Nazi party – was there much discussion at home? Did you go home and discuss this with your parents?
ERMAN: Yes.
PRINCE: What did they say to you?
ERMAN: Well, they understood. I mean, we all understood that if we were not Jewish, if we were not Jewish, that chances were that we would also have joined the Nazi party because that was the – let me explain to you this – at that time Germany had, let’s say, four major, five major parties – political parties. And outside of the Nazis and outside of the Communists – the Communists were almost as strong as the Nazis, they all had their turn in forming governments and they all failed dismally to overcome unemployment, to overcome inflation, to overcome the economic problems of the country. So all the parties that my parents had belonged to or voted for, all of them were broke.
PRINCE: Dissolved?
ERMAN: No, not dissolved. Intellectually they tried it all. They tried as best they could to solve the problems of the country and there were only two parties left who never had a chance to try: the Communists and the Nazis. So, I mean, the middle class people saw their only hope in the Nazi party to let them try – let them try and see whether they can raise the country out of its economic depression. The Communists would mean a Communist dictatorship, like Russia, and the lower class felt that was the only way, but the middle class where most Jews belonged to, they felt that only the Nazi party could save the country from economic disintegration.
PRINCE: How did you feel about being Jewish and did you ever wish that you weren’t Jewish so that you could be part of what was going on?
ERMAN: This would be an illusion, this would lead to an illusion. How can you imagine that you are not Jewish?
PRINCE: Wish, wish.
ERMAN: This is a kind of wishful thinking we did not engage in. We were too realistic for that, you know. But we knew that if we were not Jewish, like our neighbors, that most probably we would not be Communists. We would either stick with the Catholic Church and vote for the Catholic party or we would work for the Nazi party. The Catholics, and we had many Catholic friends, they stuck to their religious party. They had their own party, the Center party, and the priests were very domineering and very influential in those towns, and they kind of gave orders. “You have to vote for this man, for that party, and so on and so forth, regardless of what happens.” And many people did.
PRINCE: I think they had to do that so they could keep their churches going.
ERMAN: The churches had to maintain their own level of existence and so most Catholics, they remained faithful to their Catholic party.
PRINCE: So that’s how everybody went along.
ERMAN: Everyone went along and the first Chancellor in Germany after the war, Konrad Adenauer, was one of those people who was confined to a concentration camp because he opposed the Nazi party as a Catholic, and he became the new chancellor of Germany after the war. I mean, these were the people who opposed the Nazi party.
PRINCE: Well some other people, they, the White Rose, which was a group of people who dissented.
ERMAN: White Rose?
PRINCE: The White Rose was an organization…
ERMAN: I never heard of that.
PRINCE: It was a student organization and they…
ERMAN: Oh yes? I never heard of that.
PRINCE: Hans, tell me about your background as far as Judaism was concerned in that little town.
ERMAN: Well, Jews in that little town were observant. We did not know the term “conservative.” We knew that Jews were either observant of not so observant. In bigger cities where I lived later – in Frankfurt and in Berlin – there we had two forms of Judaism. We had the Orthodox and we had the liberal, which was identical with Reform in this country.
PRINCE: If you say you were observant, would you just describe what you observed as a family and was there a synagogue?
ERMAN: Yes. The synagogue was built in 1912.
PRINCE: What was the name of it? Do you remember?
ERMAN: It was the Jewish Synagogue of Wittlich. It was built with the participation of all the government organizations in town, the mayor and the clergy – they all came to the inauguration and it was a big civil affair. And I happened to know the man who built the synagogue. His daughter was a classmate of mine in high school and she still lives in Germany. A cousin of mine met her some time ago. I mean, it was a beautiful structure and it was a practice for almost every Jew to attend synagogue Friday night and Saturday morning and, of course, on the holidays and this was common practice. There were a few youngsters, teenagers, who didn’t care too much or didn’t pay attention to whether it was Passover or Sukkot or so. But practically every Jew was involved in synagogue life.
PRINCE: Did you observe Shabbat? Did you…
ERMAN: Shabbat we observed. We had to attend school but we did not have to participate in certain activities like taking tests.
PRINCE: You’re talking about Saturday?
ERMAN: Saturday.
PRINCE: They had school on Saturday.
ERMAN: Saturdays were days of school. Schools met on Saturdays.
PRINCE: Six days?
ERMAN: Six days – all schools. Jewish day schools met Sundays instead of Saturdays but it was a regular school day. Otherwise we observed. On holidays I would not go to school.
PRINCE: So you went to school on Saturdays but you didn’t join in other activities, just your studies.
ERMAN: Just sitting, attending and listening what was going on, and friends would take notes for me or other Jewish children and we would take those notes home and prepare our homework accordingly.
PRINCE: Oh, you sat and listened but you didn’t write – you couldn’t write.
ERMAN: We couldn’t write. We were told that writing was not permitted.
PRINCE: And nobody bothered you about it?
ERMAN: No, no. Whenever a teacher announced that there is a test coming up in French or whatever, so I said, “Sir, I couldn’t take that test on Saturday. Can you postpone it?” He says, “Okay, okay.” He forgot that – you know, so he would schedule the test for Monday or Tuesday, whatever.
PRINCE: Where did you go after high school?
ERMAN: After high school there were only a few things. In 1933 there were only a few things open to Jews with any kind of hope to finish. Some of my friends went to medical school and they knew that they could not carry through. So, the only thing that was open was the teachers’ college, Jewish Teachers’ College, and there were two branches. There was one in Frankfurt and one in Wurzburg, in Bavaria. And later on – and that I would like you to take note of – in 1935, it was two years into the Nazi administration. The Jewish community of Berlin decided to establish a Jewish teachers’ college in Berlin to provide teachers for the Jewish schools. In other words, what I’m saying is: a) that many Jewish students, who for whatever reason left public schools or had to leave public schools, began to attend Jewish schools, either community schools or private schools, and there was a shortage of Jewish teachers. So the Berlin Jewish community, in all its wisdom, said, “We have to start a teachers’ college to provide teachers for the Jewish schools,” in 1936. Now that was three years into the Nazi domination.
And many young people said, “What are they doing? Why don’t they tell their people to leave the country, to go wherever they can go?” At that time, you could go out – I mean, you were asked to go out. They gave you – in the streets they gave you a ticket, a one-way ticket to Palestine, to America. It was to go but not to come back, you know. It was such a popular joke – a one-way ticket to this or that place. So, instead of that we said, “We want to maintain our positions, we want to maintain. We fought for independence and for equal rights and this will blow over, and we will start fighting again.” So, these are things that many people don’t know.
PRINCE: No they don’t.
ERMAN: They don’t know.
PRINCE: That’s the value of these tapes.
ERMAN: Many people thought – when I tell people I left Germany in ’38, they say, “So how did you get out?” “What do you mean, get out? They wanted us to get out. For six, seven years they asked us to go.” So, going out – at first you could take along anything you wanted to. Some people packed their furniture in big crates, in huge containers and transferred them to Palestine or wherever they went to. And when I left, I had an admission certificate to the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. And when I went to the administration in Berlin and said I had to take money along to pay my tuition and my maintenance, my room and board and so on. So they allowed me to take along so and so many thousands of dollars and to get along in Jerusalem on my own. In other words, they wanted us to go and it was not a matter of getting out, it was a matter of getting somewhere…
PRINCE: Getting in.
ERMAN: Getting in somewhere.
PRINCE: How did it come about that you did leave?
ERMAN: Well, conditions did get worse – economic conditions. My parents wrote me that their business was down. You know, as I mentioned before, Gentiles were afraid to go to a Jewish store. The business went down and in later years I sent every month from my salary a part of the money home to my parents from Berlin where I had a job as a teacher in a Jewish school. And I lived close to one of the main thoroughfares in Berlin, the Kaiserdamm, and in 1938 and early ’39, every night I heard the tanks, the military tanks rolling down that street and I felt that it was an indication of approaching war and that made me afraid. And when I said to the people that I am planning to leave next year, that this was my last school year here, they said, “Why should you leave? You have a good position and this and this and this and this – and the school is growing, you have more children from year to year,” and all that. So, I made my decision to leave in the summer of 1938. Not only that, I had my immigration papers to Palestine from the British government for four or five months sitting on my desk. I said, “Well, I want to finish the school year – never mind, never mind.” So I finished the school year in all patience, in all youthful innocence. I mean youthful, maybe stupidity.
PRINCE: So you left before Crystal Night?
ERMAN: I left shortly before Crystal Night.
PRINCE: Why did you pick Palestine?
ERMAN: That’s a good question too. I had been invited to come to the United States. I had a good friend somewhere on the East Coast.
PRINCE: From Germany?
ERMAN: From Germany, yes, a young fellow who…
PRINCE: Non-Jewish or Jewish?
ERMAN: No, no, a Jewish boy who wrote a number of times, “Why don’t you come, I have this and this.” So, I was a Zionist and not only was I convinced that, according to the philosophy of the Zionists, any place where Jews accumulate at a certain rate, where Jews achieve a certain number in the population, antisemitism will necessarily follow. So the Zionists said, as you probably know, that antisemitism, so to speak, accompanies the Jews wherever they go. There’s no Jew around, there’s no antisemitism. Once the Jews get there in sizeable numbers, then antisemitism starts. So, on that basis, I said, “Why should I transfer antisemitism from one country to another? So I’ll go to a Jewish homeland and fight for my own homeland.” So, I declined the offer to come to America and decided to go to Palestine.
PRINCE: How did your parents feel about that?
ERMAN: Well, my parents were very realistic, very realistic. We had relatives in France and we had relatives in Holland. When the Nazis came to power and soon afterwards, they started thinking and I wrote letters to my relatives and friends in Holland, and they wrote back that, “Of course, you can come any time you want to. You can stay in our house as long as you want to, but do not expect to find any kind of job as a foreigner here or there.” So, I mean, that concluded that chapter and there was no point in going to any of those neighboring countries, and what shall you do there – become a refugee and at night sleep under a bridge, as some did.
PRINCE: You were 28 now.
ERMAN: You mean 1928?
PRINCE: No, you were.
ERMAN: Oh, no, no. I was much younger than that. I was in my early 20s.
PRINCE: (TALKING ALOUD WHILE CALCULATING HANS’ AGE) – you were 24, right?
ERMAN: 24, right. So, I decided to go to Palestine and it so happened that I had good connections with the Zionist organization in Berlin and it took no time for me to get admission to the Hebrew University. Number one: that was one way to get admitted, that the British would not interfere, and number two: it was a way to get some money out legally and more or less in a very normal way to – by the way, I had been in Palestine as a tourist before. When we finished teachers’ college in 1935 – we finished teachers’ college and our whole – that’s interesting too – our whole class of graduates, somehow we managed to get a free trip to Palestine, our whole graduating class managed to get a free trip to Palestine, except the boat fare. We took a boat from Italy, from Genoa to Haifa. The rest was paid for. And we stayed in Palestine in 1935, but it was already two years into the Nazi administration. And guess how many of us stayed in Palestine? We had a group of some 20 or so.
PRINCE: How many?
ERMAN: One. One stayed for the simple reason that his parents had a business on the German-Swiss border and over the years they had transferred money, you know, illegally, I mean they could have because they were on the borderline. Every night or every day they could easily go over the border and they had a lot of money in Palestine already and they said to him, “Why should you go back? You stay here and start anew.” And so he stayed there. One other fellow, one other colleague wanted to stay and he said, “Why should I go back to get in all this trouble?” And his parents objected. His parents said, “No, you come back, you come back to Germany and you take your job.” We all had jobs. I had a job in Munich. So we all went…when people asked us in Palestine, “How come you go back to the Nazis?” Well, we all had jobs, we had signed papers that we would – some in Berlin, some in Hamburg, some in this, some here. So I went back. I mean, that indicates to you to what extent we not only felt secure, we were sure that there was really nothing behind that whole façade. If anything convinces you, this should convince you how we felt about the whole thing.
PRINCE: Let me throw a few little things up and see how you – what you think of it. Do you want to stop?
ERMAN: No, it’s a few more minutes.
PRINCE: Okay, you tell me when you want to stop.
ERMAN: It can go on another time.
PRINCE: Oh, yes we will, but I don’t want to hold you back. There was the April 1st boycott, I believe, and that’s one thing, and then the beginning of Dachau, which I know, didn’t take – the first people were not Jews. The first people were political prisoners.
ERMAN: I know, I was in Dachau. I know the place. With my bike from Munich I rode to Dachau. It was maybe a 10-mile ride by bike from Munich to Dachau.
PRINCE: Well, the reason I’m asking about those two particular things is they were in the beginning and yet you all still felt secure about everything.
ERMAN: Well, April 1st, 1933 – I remember that, as I told you, we had a store, a clothing store. And that morning – it was a Saturday, two SR men, two Nazi militia men, let’s put it this way, came and stood in front of the door – stood there, didn’t do anything, had no weapons, nothing. And it was interpreted as meaning that this is a Jewish place and people should not come, should not enter that place and should not stop there. So, the way we felt was that after years of talking against the Jews and against the Jewish dominance of business, Jewish dominance in entertainment, Jewish dominance in finance, Jewish dominance in the press, Jewish dominance in every field, that they have to do something, they have to do something. All right, so they came and stood there for a couple of hours and then disappeared. Some good friends said, “In spite of that, I’m going past and say hi to them and go in and go out.” They didn’t do anything. That was April 1st.
PRINCE: That was the boycott as far as your store was concerned.
ERMAN: As far as the store was concerned, and it was over. And then for months and years there was nothing to see, nothing to hear.
PRINCE: (HEAVY SIGH) Lulled, lulled.
ERMAN: Dachau and the other concentration camps – that was a very simple thing. At first, the Nazis had a list of certain categories of people who were singled out for action. Let’s say very vocal Communists, they were grabbed and put away. Certain vocal others who were very visible, you know, were grabbed and put away.
PRINCE: Others might be who? Like a Catholic priest?
ERMAN: Well, the famous case of Pastor Niemoller who said, “At first they went after the Jews, and since I was not a Jew I didn’t care. Then they came after the Catholics and since I was not a Catholic I did not care. Then they came after the homosexuals and since I was not that I didn’t care. When they came after me, there was nobody else left,” he says.
PRINCE: Didn’t care. But who did they take? They took the…
ERMAN: Right. So then they went after certain sick people and in my community, as I say, a small community, there was one Jewish man who suffered from epilepsy and he had to undergo, of course, sterilization. So the rumor spread that so and so was taken in and that he was sterilized and that was the end of it. And certain homosexuals or certain Jehovah’s Witnesses, certain groups –they were after, either sterilization or confinement in a concentration camp, but it did not affect me or my father or my parents or any of my relatives.
A few cases where Jews had romances with non-Jewish men or women, whatever the case might be, and they disappeared for a week or two because there was talking and so on. That was one of the areas where the Nazis stressed very heavily, that they wanted to keep the German race pure and they would not permit any kind of mixture between Germans and Jews or Germans and Gypsies and Germans and whatever. And, so certain Jews were rumored to have had relationships with non-Jewish partners and some of those somehow disappeared for a week or two or three, I forget. But these were rumors and as far as I know from my own community, that small town that I mentioned, nobody ever was arrested or taken to a concentration camp.

Tape 2 - Side 1

PRINCE: I love it, I love talking to you. Okay, you’re talking about all these little isolated incidents that you and your family and your friends either denied or put in its proper perspective, as you could see it at that time. And they weren’t coming after you all, it was always someone else and yet the only thing that really got you was the rumbling of tanks.
ERMAN: Yes.
PRINCE: That’s what made you decide…
ERMAN: That gave it the last push.
PRINCE: So there was concern – there was beginning to be concern before that.
ERMAN: That’s right.
PRINCE: What kind of concerns because you…?
ERMAN: Well, I could not imagine all those years until the very, very end, maybe until now. I could never imagine that any German of any kind of persuasion could ever lay a hand on me.
PRINCE: Because?
ERMAN: Because it was just unthinkable. It was just unthinkable.
PRINCE: Unthinkable because a German wouldn’t do that or because it was just not civilized or because you were not…
ERMAN: It was unthinkable. So I never feared for any kind of physical harm, never.
PRINCE: Excuse me, did you ever read in the paper that this person had been taken off the street or beaten or…
ERMAN: I’ll give you two examples.
PRINCE: And what made you different from them?
ERMAN: Okay, okay. I had a cousin – I have a cousin who was a few years older but we were very, very close friends, to this very day. He lives now in Israel and whenever he comes here, he comes and stays here, and when I go there, I stay there. He was a member of a left wing organization, the Left Wing Labor Party. Left Wing Labor Party had a kind of militia group, like the Nazis had some militia, they had a militia, and he belonged to that group and he was a minor journalist. He wrote for a left wing paper in Trier. That was the next bigger town.
PRINCE: Trier.
ERMAN: Trier. You may have heard about that town on the French border. And every week he showed me that he wrote an article on whatever he wrote about. The first day or the second day when the Nazis came to power, he happened to live in Trier at that time, he decided to cross the border into France because he knew that he was on their list and he knew that he was not safe, that he might be picked up. I recall that when he joined that party and he joined that militia, that I talked to my mother and I said, “Look, he joined and don’t you think I should too?” And my mother said, “No, don’t.” And I listened to her and I didn’t. And it was mixed feelings. The same happened, or a similar thing happened to my wife’s brother. They lived in Dortmund and he also belonged to that militia, and the very first day when the Nazis came to power, he and two friends crossed the border into Belgium and Holland and this next day they came after him to look for him. In other words, those who were on the list, those who somehow had made themselves known as opponents, they were picked up – either picked up or they disappeared, or whatever. But somebody who had, so to speak, a “clean conscience,” I don’t know of anybody who was found.
So, I recall I taught school in Berlin – first in Munich, then in Berlin, and during the Nazi regime I took my class on field trips, and I happen to tell this story once in a while. I took my class in Berlin on a field trip and we walked along a very nice seashore close to Berlin, the Wannsee. And we came to a big public pool and as the way kids are – some 30 kids, you know, seventh, eighth graders, talking and laughing, and all that. Suddenly I hear that it got silent and I look around and say, “What’s the matter?” And when we came to that swimming pool there was a sign: “Jews not permitted.” So, that impressed that group of kids and they were looking at it and after a little while a youngster came to me – I’ll never forget it – and said, “Mr. Erman, you know, my dad is Jewish, my mother is not Jewish, so I am half Jew. Do you think I can go in up to the waist?” And this thing remains in my memory, and that’s the reaction of kids, “Can I go in to the waist – my waist?”
PRINCE: Oh Hans. You said before that if you kind of kept quiet and yet you were a Zionist, so they wouldn’t have any knowledge of that or…?
ERMAN: I don’t know to what extent they had lists of all these people. As long as you did not make yourself very visible as an opponent, that was my general idea. Now, in the school where I taught in Berlin, Herzl School, there were a number of Jewish teachers who told me that first they had been teaching in the public schools, non-Jewish schools and also that their husbands had been picked up and interned in concentration camps because they were members of one of those opposing parties. So I knew that some of these people had been picked up, some of them got out as soon as they got papers for Palestine or papers for the United States, immigration papers, they were released from their concentration camp. And that was a crucial matter, to get immigration papers into another country. That was a very crucial matter. (TAPE STOPS)
PRINCE: (LAUGHTER) I asked you – I’m not going to miss a word you say.
ERMAN: No, but it was not the kind of game that American youngsters are used to, that every Saturday night you had to have a date or so. I used to meet Jewish youngsters, boys and girls, in Jewish youth organizations.
PRINCE: This is in high school?
ERMAN: In high school. But, in my high school class there were two Gentile girls, both Catholic, as almost everybody was Catholic in my hometown. And one of those girls was a good friend of mine. We were very friendly. And the way it happened we met, if not every day, almost every day, and we walked up and down the streets all over town.
PRINCE: What was her name?
ERMAN: Joanne, Joanne.
PRINCE: Joanne. How did you say it in German?
ERMAN: Johanna. And nobody thought about it – thought anything about it. There was no law against it and she didn’t mind and I didn’t mind, and people kind of knew it was a very innocuous thing that two high school kids discussed their school work or whatever, so that was the story.
PRINCE: Did you ever really date anyone who was not Jewish, as we call it here?
ERMAN: No. I had one…
PRINCE: Did you know it just wasn’t a good idea or because you didn’t want to…
ERMAN: I mean, we were trained and it was – we were – it was a matter of education that a Jewish boy would not date or marry a non-Jewish girl, and so we knew that it was only a superficial friendship. (TAPE STOPS)
PRINCE: This is “Sister” Prince and I’m interviewing Hans Erman. This is the second interview and it’s August 22, 1986. In our first interview, Hans, you mentioned that you had ridden your bike to Dachau and could you tell me about that?
ERMAN: A good friend of mine in Munich, a man who later became the president of the Munich Jewish community, Hans Numf, a quite famous man. He migrated to America, attended college, made his Ph.D. in this country and went back – went back to Germany and to Munich and was elected to the presidency of the Jewish Community Center – of the Jewish community in Munich. And as young people we were good friends, and we rode bikes. On one of our bike trips we also rode through the town of Dachau and at that time there was already a concentration camp in Dachau and we could see the barbed wire and the walls and it was like an ordinary prison. And we knew – we knew that certain people had been confined to that place and we knew the categories. We knew that Communists and activists and the anti-Nazi militias – people who were picked up because they were on certain lists that the Nazis had and they picked them up and brought them over there. In other words, the Nazis had the lists and had a tendency to pick up all those who seemed to them to be dangerous to the young regime, the Nazis in Germany.
So we knew those people were being put behind bars and otherwise we didn’t feel that we were threatened because we were ordinary citizens and we had done nothing wrong. So we just rode by and it was an occasional happening. There was no particular significance to that. We didn’t know. At that time nobody, nobody could think of deportations, nobody could think of physical mistreatment, nobody could dream of gas and crematoriums and these things. That was so far removed from our thinking at that time as far as heaven and hell may be removed from an ordinary citizen’s viewpoint.
PRINCE: As far as what?
ERMAN: As a normal person wouldn’t think of…
PRINCE: Heaven and hell – is that what you said? An ordinary citizen. Wouldn’t it be nice if everyone could have stayed an ordinary citizen? How old were you then and what year was it?
ERMAN: In Munich I must have been 21, 22.
PRINCE: And what year was that?
ERMAN: The year was 1935.
PRINCE: Okay. When you were teaching school in Berlin and you had incidents with children, as you described in the last interview about Jews could not go in swimming and he said he was half Jewish, could he go in half way. How did you handle those things? Were you called together by a principal who said, “This is the situation and this is what we’ll say,” or was everybody just left to their own or did you have parents coming to you with – what were the problems?
ERMAN: We had in our Jewish schools, both in Munich and in Berlin, we had actually two types of students. One type of student came from a Jewish home which was basically very Jewish and observant and they sent their children because they wanted their children to receive a good, basic Jewish education. Then we had another group of children, youngsters who had gone to public schools, general public schools where they were together with Gentile children. And because of the general atmosphere in the classrooms and the anti-Jewish propaganda and some teachers, of course, were affected by that, so many parents decided to pull their children out of the public schools and send them to Jewish schools. So we had actually two groups of children. Some came for the right reason to a Jewish school because they wanted a good Jewish education. And some came for practical reasons to a Jewish school because they had been in public schools and either the children or the parents or both had decided, “Well, it’s not pleasant anymore, the teachers are upset and classmates say this and they make remarks and they give you funny looks and all this.” So we had that kind of student too. But basically…
PRINCE: How did you all feel about that kind of student at that time?
ERMAN: Well, that was a normal happening and there was nothing that was done about it and it was understandable and we knew that some kids came for the right reasons and some kids came for pragmatic reasons. So we tried, of course, to integrate both groups and the composition of the classes was constantly changing, constantly changing. There were always youngsters who quit because the parents either received immigration papers to the United States or to Canada or Australia, or immigration papers to Palestine. So, people left and other came in. It was a constant coming and going and every month I would say that two or three kids in every class would leave and two or three others would come in for one of the reasons that I mentioned. It was a state of flux and as teachers, of course, and our principal we all assumed that these things are the situation of the Jews in Germany at that time was a matter of great concern to the parents and to their friends. We assumed that in every home these things had been or were being discussed with their friends all over, and that children knew more than maybe it was desirable for children to know. And, here again, depending upon the viewpoint of the parent, some felt that this was a passing happening that after a year or two everything would come back to normal, as I also mentioned before. And others felt that it might get much, much worse and the time was ripe to get away.
So these two different polarized viewpoints came into play and, of course, in many instances people were torn. Suppose there was a “family X” and some of their friends said, “We have to get our things together, our furniture, our money, whatever we have and get out.” Another said, “No, you’re wrong, you’re wrong. We have to stay. We have to maintain position. That’s what our leaders, our rabbis, our communal leaders are saying from morning to night. We have to stay; we have to maintain our position and to fight for emancipation, for equal rights. In other words, it’s all a new ballgame. We lost, we lost one battle and we have to pick up our pieces for a second fight.” And so these things played into the mind and brains of the children too and some children were torn too, in this regard.
PRINCE: Could you tell in your teaching and their concentration that things were difficult for them?
ERMAN: Yes. I recall in Munich. I was a teacher in a Jewish day school, the Jewish School.
PRINCE: Did it have a name?
ERMAN: The Jewish School of Munich. If you want a German name: Israelitischer Folkschule Munchen, which is a long name. I can write it down for you later. Now, in that school originally there were children from families who were interested in intensive Jewish education. The children had Hebrew language every day, prayers every day and that was the curriculum of that Jewish school. Okay, some youngsters came from other schools who had quit the public schools, as I told you.
In addition to that job, I had a second job – a part time job, so to speak. I had to teach Jewish religion in a public school or in two or three different public schools in Munich where Jewish children had been students – ordinary, regular students. They had been excused from their religious instruction that was – let’s say – Protestant or Catholic or whatever, and they came to my class or my classes to get Jewish instruction. Now those kids were mostly children of more assimilated families who did not send their children to a Jewish school and they came just for an hour, an hour and a half, a week or so, to get Jewish religious instruction. In other words, what we have in this country sometimes going by the name of “Released Time.”
PRINCE: Released?
ERMAN: Released time. In some states they have a program called “Released Time.”
PRINCE: I don’t know what word you are saying. Released?
ERMAN: Released. Students were released from classes…
PRINCE: Oh, released. Okay.
ERMAN: …to get religious instruction. Now here in public schools in this country, under no circumstances, religion is not being taught. No religion is being taught. But in some states – I’m not sure about Missouri in this regard – in some states it was possible for religious functionaries such as priests, ministers, rabbis, to go into a public school and find in a number of rooms children who belonged to their religion. So a Catholic priest would go to, say, room number one or number two and would find Catholic children there in the public school on released time, and that was the kind of program they had in Munich. Jewish children came to a certain room and there came a Jewish teacher to teach them about Passover, Shavuot, Hanukkah, whatever. And in another room there was a minister teaching about Protestant religion and so on and so forth. So, those kids were students in a public school and I was always surprised that their parents were not smart enough to take those children out of that Gentile environment because I assumed that those kids had been subjected to a certain degree of abuse as Jewish students. I recall from my own school days that practically all teachers made every attempt to be fair, not to be prejudiced. But year after year apparently this situation must have changed with more and more teachers becoming aware of the new philosophy in the country and in 1935 in Munich I thought that those children should not belong anymore in a Gentile public school. But, as it happened, those children still attended the public schools together with the Gentile children and came out only for religious instruction.
PRINCE: And how did you find them?
ERMAN: Well, I found them perfectly normal. I mean, on the surface you couldn’t see any difference. I mean, my job was not to influence them one way or the other, to quit public school and come to Jewish school. My job was not to tell these kids to leave the country and go to another country. So, my job was just to teach about the Jewish holidays or the Jewish calendar or whatever.
PRINCE: Two questions: What year did they stop the – not allow the – 1938 is when they stopped allowing – is that correct – Jewish children from going to school?
ERMAN: Well, that depended on the local situation and the schools or – I don’t think there was ever any law that did not permit the Jews…
PRINCE: I think after Crystal Night.
ERMAN: It could be, could be. I don’t recall that.
PRINCE: What I asked originally was did you notice because of the transient happenings of your students leaving and going, changing. That’s what I asked. Did you notice a difference in their ability to learn, their ability to concentrate and more outbreaks of…
ERMAN: This uncertainty within the family makeup and the family situation was noticeable in every classroom, every session. From the very minute when parents began to talk about leaving the country, moving away, let’s say, from Munich or Berlin or wherever. Of course, the children knew that they were up against a new situation. They would have to study a new language and they would have to leave their old friends and to make new friends. It created, of course, a lot of psychological problems for every child. And noticeably, of course, some children became different in their attitudes to the school, to the studies, to everything they were around because they knew in five months, four months, three months, six weeks, “We are going to leave and a new life will have to start.”
They were much less interested in the things that were going on normally. Suppose we were preparing for – let’s say – a festivity and kids had part in a play. So they said, “By the time that play will come up, I’m not here anymore, so why should I memorize that part.” Naturally, kids could think ahead and could tell you in advance, “Well, it doesn’t make sense for me now to prepare for this festival or this exhibition or so, because when it comes around in five or six months, I won’t be here anymore.”
PRINCE: I’m wondering about feelings. I was wondering if the ones who were left were feeling lucky or frightened by being left, or the ones that were going felt lucky to be going or frightened to go – a little of everything?
ERMAN: Well, you might assume that these sentiments played an important role in the living conditions of children but for obvious reasons, nobody knew what was good in the long run. Nobody could imagine it, nobody could foresee whether it was the right thing to do, to stay – or whether it was the right thing to leave. Nobody could foresee. I mean, in retrospect, of course, it’s 100 percent clear. With 20-20 hindsight you know that those who left were the smart ones and those who stayed were the dummies. But at that time nobody could know and many people thought the other way around. Many people felt, and some of my closest relatives said, “What do you mean, I should leave my home and my factory and my business and all behind and go out with a few dollars? It would be ridiculous. This is foolish.”
PRINCE: When it was time for you to leave and you did leave in the spring, I think – or?
ERMAN: The summer of 1938.
PRINCE: The summer of 1938. Tell me about your parents and since you were a Zionist they probably were eager for you to go, but what about that?
ERMAN: Well, my parents, too, were quite ambiguous about this question. Both my parents were native Germans. My father was a veteran of World War I and they could not imagine that anything would ever happen to them. They saw the boycott in 1933 and they, like many others, were convinced that this whole thing would blow over, that it would take a few months, maybe years to change and so they did not plan from the very beginning to leave their spot. They had a home and they knew their neighbors. They grew up with their neighbors and they had friends among the Gentile neighbors and they could not imagine that anybody would ever knock on their door and say, “Come on, you have to leave, or you have to do this or that.” So my parents were determined to stay, to stick it out.
And when I talked about leaving and wrote in letters that so and so and this and this were happening, I had applied for admission, I had applied for this and for that. So, they said, “Well, you are old enough to know what you are doing.” And they knew that I was in touch with others and if he leaves and she leaves and so many others are leaving, maybe you are right in leaving and be sure to stay in touch with us and write to us and come back to visit with us. I mean, this was the normal understanding. Like a person who goes overseas for a while and plans to come back after sometime, as I had done before. I’d been to Palestine for about five or six weeks before and I had come back to Germany. That was in 1935. It was already two years into the Nazi regime. So they thought, all right, now I am going again and maybe after two or three years when everything comes back to normal, I’ll come back. So that was the normal thinking for these people.
Now, you mentioned before what did the people in Palestine know.
PRINCE: No, I don’t want to get into that yet. I want to stay with your parents. Tell me about your parents.
ERMAN: All right, my parents stayed and they were still home during the time when the Kristallnacht happened. And after the Kristallnacht, they became convinced that it was time to do something and they wrote that I should make efforts to get them out. Unfortunately, in Palestine it was kind of hopeless to get anybody out unless you had a lot of money. And I contacted anybody and everybody I knew. I made calls, telephone calls and personal calls and people who never knew of me and I never spoke to them, but just to see what I could do. And, of course, it was in the beginning hopeless to work up the amount of money that was necessary to get somebody out of advanced age. And, so my parents were deported in 1941 to Theresienstadt in Czechoslovakia. I don’t know whether I mentioned that before.
PRINCE: No, you did not.
ERMAN: In 1941 the Jews from my hometown were deported to Theresienstadt. And Theresienstadt was the only camp or the only place where the Red Cross could operate, and I had letters from my parents from Theresienstadt, brief letters through the Red Cross, and even after the war had broken out. Those letters went through Switzerland and…

Tape 2 - Side 2

PRINCE: Did they acknowledge that they were receiving your letters?
ERMAN: Yes, they acknowledged that they received my letters and there was a number of words they could write – some 25 or 30 words that they were limited to in their messages. And then for a number of months or maybe a year or two, I did not hear from them. And later on I received a letter from a relative that my mother had passed away the same year when she arrived there. She had been sick before but shortly after her arrival in Theresienstadt, about a half a year later, she passed away. And my father continued living for another year and a half and passed away. Now, later on we were notified that we could ask for the death certificates from the government of Czechoslovakia and I did. And I wrote to Prague to the government of Czechoslovakia and asked for the death certificates of my parents and they sent me both death certificates with the cause of death and whatever the reasons were, the date and all that. So I received those death certificates in Tel Aviv.
PRINCE: When was “later on?” Did you mean after the war?
ERMAN: That was after the war, yes – in ’45.
PRINCE: And what did they say they died of?
ERMAN: Well, I mean, it may have been – I don’t recall exactly what it says. I have those certificates somewhere – pneumonia or – I really don’t – natural causes, natural causes – weakness, general weakness or old age. I mean, natural causes. They listed sometimes three or four of these items – were listed as causes of death. And in that same place, my mother’s sister had been living and she passed away in that same place. And my father’s oldest sister who was maybe as many as 12 years older than my father, survived Theresienstadt, survived! I had a chance to communicate with her later on when she was liberated from that place and she then after some time of rehabilitation, she joined her daughter in Holland. Her daughter had married a Dutch man and they were hiding – they were hidden during the war years. Their son was born and this daughter of my aunt invited her, and my aunt went to her and lived with her for a number of years after the end of the war, after 1935.
We knew more or less what happened in that place, that people did live. Everybody used the skills that he had to make a living or earn some money. So, it so happened that when my father grew up he had learned tailoring and he was a men’s tailor. Later on he developed that into a men’s clothing store. But he went back to tailoring and when somebody had, let’s say, a torn piece of clothing, they came to him and he would fix that, you know. And he could earn some money. And all those with whom I communicated told me that he had worked very diligently to support himself, his wife as long as she was alive and help his relatives – his older sister and others who were around because he had a skill that was applicable in that particular place.
PRINCE: So he remained productive as long as…
ERMAN: He remained productive and active for as long as he could make it.
PRINCE: …and helped others.
ERMAN: I mean, in some respects, unreasonable as it may sound, it was kind of a consolation for me that my parents had not been sent to some of those camps where I don’t know what happened, but according to the stories life was much more…
PRINCE: Difficult?
ERMAN: Difficult. That they had died of natural causes, if you can name it that way. I don’t think they had proper medical care. I don’t think they had medications they needed, but at least nobody grabbed them and pushed them in whatever somebody wanted to do.
PRINCE: How did you get the – was the – when they stopped writing and you didn’t hear from them for a year and a half, it never picked up again.
ERMAN: No, it never picked up again. Well then I didn’t know. I mean, that was a complete separation. There was no way of doing anything. It was in the middle of the war years and you just had to sit tight and wait for developments.
PRINCE: What about your sister?
ERMAN: My sister came to Berlin when I was in Berlin and she tried to go to Palestine, as I did, but she was rejected because she did not fit into any of those five categories.
PRINCE: Which were?
ERMAN: Which were – let’s see if I can put them together. One category was agriculture preparation. We had to attend a hachshara for two years and become familiar with agricultural practices and had to know some Hebrew. The second category was that of youngsters who were below the age of 16 who were eligible for youth aliyah. I mean youngsters who could go to – as a matter of fact, unlimited numbers –could have gone to Israel – unlimited numbers. Youngsters were permitted to go. That was the great accomplishment of Henrietta Szold that she pushed that through with the British government, that young people under the age of 16 could be admitted to Palestine outside of the quota. And, of course, as far as Germany went, Germany was happy to let anybody go who wanted to go and could go, so that was the youth aliyah. Number three was the student category in which I fitted in. Number four category was the category of craftsmen. If you had a profession, let’s say, a carpenter and you had machinery that you could take with you and you could prove to the British government that you could come to Palestine and immediately start working and make a living. All you needed was 250 British pounds and then they would give you immigration papers to go to Palestine. It was the craftsmen’s category. And category number five was the so-called capitalists’ category where you needed 1000 British pounds. If you had that amount of money then the British believed that you could rent an apartment and you could live for some time and find a job or whatever, and…
PRINCE: Not likely to become a public charge.
ERMAN: That’s right. You would not add to unemployment, whatever that may have been. And these were the five categories that you had to fit in.
PRINCE: May I ask who selected those categories – the Jews in Palestine or the British or…?
ERMAN: Now you are touching on a very, very sensitive topic. I remember one thing that I will never forget and that sometimes causes me a lot of anguish. I happened to be on one of those committees when I served as teacher in Munich. I was also chairman or president of a youth organization. At that time they called it the “Religious Zionist Youth Organization,” and there was a committee of the chairmen of all the youth committees in Munich. And we had to decide who goes and who doesn’t go, and we had monthly meetings and we knew the quota, let’s say, for the month of January was 30. And we had to see and interview, let’s say, 200 people and make a decision who among those 200 fits best into that category. And, of course, at that time we didn’t know, but now I know that we made life and death decisions.
PRINCE: You were on Judenrat.
ERMAN: Pardon me?
PRINCE: You were on Judenrat.
ERMAN: We knew 30 certificates of immigration were available but 200 applied, so only 30 could be selected. There was no way around it.
PRINCE: And you were aware that people were trying to get out.
ERMAN: People were trying to get out. Now, the truth is at that time, that if you could not get to Palestine, you could still get to a number of other places. You still could get to the United States, to Canada, to South America. Many did go through HIAS to South America. A cousin of mine…
PRINCE: What does HIAS stand for?
ERMAN: HIAS stands for Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society. And they trained people, and there was a training center close to Berlin which I visited at one time because my cousin was working there. We go off on tangents because you take interest in these things, so I might as well bring it in here. She and her husband were trained as agricultural farmers in that place to go to Argentina, and they did from that center in Berlin, or close to Berlin. They went to Argentina and they were given a plot of land to cultivate in Argentina. After some time they found it too hard and they quit that place and went to Buenos Aires, and my cousin lives in Buenos Aires to this day. In other words, there were different places to go. And so when we rejected, let’s say, out of 200, so and so many (OVERTALK) it did not mean that now the world was locked up. I mean, there were so many other places and we knew, we knew, and many admitted that, “Well if you do not give me those papers, my parents have connections with this and we are planning to go here or so.” I mean, it was not locked in. We know that some who were rejected apparently did not make it to any place.
PRINCE: Who originally put down those categories? The British or the…?
ERMAN: The British.
PRINCE: The British put it down.
ERMAN: The British, according to their own politics or under Arab pressure, they permitted only a certain number of Jews to come to Palestine.
PRINCE: And they selected those categories?
ERMAN: They didn’t select, but they determined the number.
PRINCE: Of each category?
ERMAN: And the Jews said, in this particular case, Jewish groups…
PRINCE: Who decided the categories?
ERMAN: The British.
PRINCE: The British? So they decided everything.
ERMAN: The British decided the type of categories.
PRINCE: Uh huh, and the amount.
ERMAN: And the amount. But in some categories there was no limit. (OVERTALK) Youth aliyah was no limit, students – as far as I know – there was no limit as long as you…
PRINCE: Had the money.
ERMAN: As long as you had the money. And schools had openings, which apparently they did, and capitalists – as many as people who had that money.
PRINCE: So it was – that’s very interesting because it’s like – it was like the Germans with the Jewish councils which they called Judenrat, they would put down what needed to be done and how many people would be deported and then the Jewish Council was supposed to carry it out. In this case, the British put it down and the Jewish people (OVERTALK) in each town or city carried it out.
ERMAN: That’s right. In other words, in this particular category, where agricultural preparation was the condition – agricultural preparation and knowledge of Hebrew were conditions. The British, let’s say, allocated to the entire country of Germany, let’s say, 1000 a month.
PRINCE: Okay, but – excuse me for interrupting, but when you first started talking about that I thought, “That’s ridiculous,” what if you would – I mean, you didn’t have time to learn even if you were interested in that, you know.
ERMAN: Oh yeah, people knew. People knew for years that they had to prepare themselves.
PRINCE: Oh, these were not new categories.
ERMAN: No, no, they had been in existence for years, in other words, the so-called Chalutz movement of pioneers to Israel, to Palestine. The Jewish authorities in Palestine were interested primarily in this type of immigrant, the type of immigrant who could be sent to a kibbutz, to an agricultural area to do the agricultural work with their hands.
PRINCE: So they wanted to be prepared when they got there.
ERMAN: That was an old, old concept that had nothing to do with the Nazis, even before the Nazis came to power. Somebody wanted to go to Palestine, the Jewish administration in Palestine more or less insisted that people who want to come had to have that kind of preparation unless they came with their own money and established themselves as doctors or so.
PRINCE: They would be useful when they got there.
ERMAN: That’s right, that’s right.
PRINCE: Let us leave this for a minute and as long as we’re talking about money, you mentioned that you couldn’t get your parents out because you couldn’t raise that kind of money. What kind of money – give me an idea of what that might have been.
ERMAN: I think at that time 1000 British pounds was 5000 dollars.
PRINCE: And that’s what it would have taken?
ERMAN: That’s what it would have taken.
PRINCE: For one person?
ERMAN: For one person. For two people, I think 10,000 dollars, which was an awful amount of money in 1935 – 1938, ’39.
PRINCE: Yes, it was. Tell me what eventually happened to your sister.
ERMAN: My sister found a way. She heard about a program where the British offered to take maids – household help – to help in British homes as maids. My sister heard about that program and she applied for a job and she made it to England as a household help. And she lived in England during the war years and she got married in England and lived there for 10, 12 years and then she and her husband decided to move on to the United States and they came to New York. And they lived in New York for a while, for a number of years until last year my sister moved to San Diego where she still lives.
PRINCE: Now, let us go to – how did you get to Palestine?
ERMAN: I mentioned to you that I had the papers early in 1938 and I left the papers on my desk for weeks and months. I wanted to finish the school year through the summer, and I did. In the meantime I applied for a number of things: legal transfer of – to give you a round figure – 5000 dollars to maintain me in school for the duration of two years, paying tuition and paying my upkeep. And, of course, I had to book transfer on a boat. At that time you went to Palestine by boat from an Italian city – either Genoa or Trieste, so you had to book your passage on a boat. I had a passport because I had been to Palestine about three years before, three, four years before. I had a valid passport which was valid for five, six years or so.
And so I prepared very slowly and I prepared a big box to carry my radio and books and certain things and my clothes and other things along – a big box. And there were certain ways to get your stuff out and in, through customs and so on and so forth. And I had done all of this in consultation with others who had done it before and in consultation with specialists who knew how to handle these things. You had to go through the German comptroller so that you would not take out foreign currency and nothing that had sort of value. And then it had to go through customs in Palestine – British customs in Palestine. So it had to be organized in a certain way. And certain companies had a good reputation in handling your – it’s not luggage – your – what would you call that? Your possessions. So big boxes were used, sometimes the box was as big as a whole room that you could put your furniture in and have the whole thing transferred by boat to Paris then. Those who went early, say between ’33 and ’35, they could take out almost anything they had –huge, huge crates and came to Palestine and rented an apartment and could furnish everything right away, including the refrigerator and what-have-you, a washing machine. And, as the years went by it got harder. I don’t know why and when but later on you were happy when you could take out your clothes and radio and smaller items, books and things like that. And you had to make a list and explain why you take this along, why you take that along and so on and so forth. And all of my things arrived properly in Jerusalem.
PRINCE: With you or were they sent…?
ERMAN: They were sent separately. I mean, maybe on the same boat, I don’t know. But I had to go to the train station in Jerusalem which was a very, very dangerous thing to go to and it was in the center of the Arab neighborhood. And I remember the taxi driver who took me to the train station said, “You should know, my friend, that I cannot wait for you. I drive to that station, I drop you off, and I leave you there, I drive away. So you have to find a way to get home on your own.” So, I had to go to the train station, identify my things and I opened it up and, low and behold, everything was there except one thing was missing, a silver watch. I had had it, a silver watch from my grandfather in Germany and I kept it as an heirloom, you know, and it was hidden in one of the pockets of my coats, and that was the only thing that was gone. How that disappeared, I don’t know. One of the people who searched these things apparently found that watch and put it in his pocket. So that was the only thing that was missing. In Jerusalem I rented a room. (OVERTALK)
PRINCE: How did you get to Palestine? You went by boat.
ERMAN: By boat. In other words, we took the train…
PRINCE: Was it – were you with someone you knew?
ERMAN: Yes. It so happened that at the same time two other teachers from our Herzl School in Berlin had decided to leave, the same quota, the same student quota, a man and a woman. And, they were on the same boat – on the same train and on the same boat.
PRINCE: How did you feel leaving Germany?
ERMAN: (SIGHS) How do you feel about leaving Germany? Well, we had the feeling at that time, not only I – it was almost everybody. It was a general feeling. We had the feeling that we wanted very happily to say “goodbye” to Europe. That was our feeling because in our understanding it was all of Europe that was not good for us. We wanted to say goodbye to Europe, that was the feeling – not just Germany. None of the other countries was very friendly to us, none of them. So, the feeling was, “Let’s get out, we have to get out and see what happens – wait and see what happens.” Now some of us were very, very Zionistic, as I was, and planning to work for the building up of the Jewish homeland. Others went out with the hope of eventually going back to Germany and picking up wherever they left off. As I mentioned, my friend, Lum – Hans Lum from Munich, later on went back and later on became the president of the Jewish organizations.
PRINCE: Were you sad or were you angry when you left?
ERMAN: Well, this is a very difficult question to answer. I mean, of course, we were all angry at the circumstances that forced us to leave our homeland. And basically anybody who is forced to leave his homeland where he spent his youth and all that, has to have a certain degree of sad feeling. And to this day many, many, possibly most Jews who go back to Germany for whatever reason, feel that they were robbed of something, of all the excitement of their youthful years and all these things they were robbed. I mean, we were thrown as young people into a cauldron, into a difficult situation where we had to struggle which many, many other people do not have to struggle. If you compare that with youngsters who grow up in a free country, go to dances and go normally through life with all the pleasures and so on and so forth. We were, we were for years thrown into a very, very hot pot, you know, and just struggled. So we felt that we were robbed of our youth, so to speak.
PRINCE: Why do you think so many people refused to admit the bitterness?
ERMAN: Well, everybody has different opinions and therefore has to find his own way and to make some peace with his circumstances. Some people blamed the Germans, the Germans who elected this party legally – I mean legal elections and brought into power. So you can blame the whole German people as a people who are ruthless and cruel and all that. Others blame just the Nazis who were of that nature and I have the feeling that what the Germans did in electing that party was the thing almost any country would do under similar circumstances. If similar conditions would prevail in most any country, similar things would happen and people would not think of the consequences of what might happen to this minority or that minority – black or yellow, whatever. So, they would say, “We can’t give anymore; we have to try a new approach.” So, my feeling is this, personally, and that’s very personal. I don’t know whether many would share that, but since you asked me, I have no reason to hide it. I feel that the same as a person can flip over and go berserk, “amok,” as they call it, a whole people can do it. Like one person who was a normal person, let’s say a year ago, has a nervous breakdown and goes berserk and starts shooting like the incident the day before yesterday in Oklahoma. So a whole people can go berserk. I mean a large part of the people. I mean, not everybody. Let’s say 30 percent, whatever, are carrying the ball. So, that’s my feeling which actually does not mean that every German was cruel, every German was ruthless, every German was involved in atrocities or so on and so forth.
PRINCE: There were a certain amount of bystanders.
ERMAN: Bystanders who just couldn’t do anything about it, like we couldn’t do much when the war in Vietnam was going on. We regretted it maybe and some were activists and marched here or there, but basically we couldn’t interfere anywhere with anything – with planes or ships or U-boats or whatever. So, many Germans were just bystanders and couldn’t do anything about it.
PRINCE: All right. What was the trip over to Palestine like?
ERMAN: The trip over was very well organized. I mean, we took the train to Trieste, I think we went, and we had a day or two in Trieste. We walked around the city and looked at the stores and walked around the streets and then we boarded the boat, the Roma. It was an Italian boat by the name of…
PRINCE: Roma?
ERMAN: Roma. And it was a 33,000-ton ship, quite big, and it took three to four days to Haifa. And we went down in Haifa and then we came to an immigration center where all immigrants who have no direct address to go to and no relative or friend to go to could go. And the bus was waiting for us in Haifa and took us to that immigration center in Haifa.
PRINCE: Was the mood on the boat, was it sad or was it an adventure kind of thing or was it…?
ERMAN: Well, to answer that question, I must tell you that there were people aboard who were of all ages. Young people, of course, were like young people. They – for them it was an adventure, you know, some who had been to Palestine before, like I had been. Others went for the first time and there were older people who looked with different eyes on these things. I had my way, so to speak, outlined on paper. I went straight from Haifa after a day or two to Jerusalem, and I collected my first check from the university. My money was already there, you know. And I could rent an apartment and I could buy some furniture, and could make myself comfortable in Jerusalem.

Tape 3 - Side 1

PRINCE: So you said it was kind of a normal…
ERMAN: It was kind of a normal transfer from one thing to another. Going back to the schoolroom as a student, some classes I enjoyed very much, some classes I did not enjoy too much, as things go. I knew enough Hebrew to follow lectures. I had no problem with that and so I attended classes. Now, of interest to you may be coming back to one of your questions before, “What did people do in regard to the happenings in Germany?” Well, frequently, if not everyday, at least once a week, we had demonstrations in Jerusalem in front of the British Consulate. Hundreds of people, thousands of people marched in front of the Consulate to bring our parents, our relatives, from Germany over here. Demonstrations were relatively quiet. In other words, just marching with signs and things like that.
PRINCE: Did you take part in them?
ERMAN: Oh yeah, most every time. I mean we marched in Jerusalem to the British Consulate, sitting there and waiting without much response from the British, and it was just apparently a hopeless situation. The British knew about it, there was no question about it, and the country could have absorbed hundreds, thousands, hundreds of thousands of people, either permanently or at least temporarily. But because of the British politics and possibly the pressure of the Arabs, the British were adamant and did not budge even the number of immigration papers nor the categories that they had set up, so things remained the way they were. It was wartime and the British were at war with the Germans, and apparently they sat behind their closed doors and wouldn’t budge an inch – not budge an inch. And Jews in Israel, of course, some were lucky that some relatives did get out one way or the other or could come to Palestine or could go to the United States. I mean, these were the conversations that we had.
PRINCE: Explain the White Paper.
ERMAN: The White Paper. The White Paper was a declaration by the British government to give Jews a certain number of immigrants. If I’m not wrong, it was 100,000.
PRINCE: To get to Palestine?
ERMAN: To get to Palestine. And then close the doors forever.
PRINCE: If you noticed, I interrupted you. You were about to say how many.
ERMAN: I think it was 100,000 that they allowed to come in within a certain time. And to appease the Arabs, they said, “That is the end of it. Beyond that, we do not permit any kind of immigration to Israel.” And the second bad part of the White Paper was that the British limited the purchase of land to certain areas that had been primarily Jewish before. In other words, the Arabs had insisted that no Jews should come to any Arab territory to buy land. So the British documented that by saying that a Jew could buy land only, let’s say, in the neighborhood of Tel Aviv, Haifa, or here or there. So, immigration was definitely limited to a number of people. Beyond that nobody could come and land could not be bought outside of Jewish territory. I think these were the main restrictions that the White Paper contained, immigration and the purchase of land.
PRINCE: All right. With you, I see here I’m back looking at the – what do you call this?
ERMAN: You call it resume or curriculum vitae or…
PRINCE: And…
ERMAN: Bio – you call it bio.
PRINCE: And, so from 1940 to 1950 you were a teacher in the public schools in Tel Aviv. It sounds like probably things went very nicely.
ERMAN: Yes. As far as that goes, I could not complain. I attended the university and I got a job and I started teaching. My Hebrew was good enough to at least be permitted as a temporary teacher in the public schools and from that day on I taught since 1940 to 1954.
PRINCE: And did you feel comfortable there? Was it what you thought it would be to live there?
ERMAN: Well…
PRINCE: As a Zionist you had dreams?
ERMAN: Yes. So as a teacher, I mean, the education system in Palestine at that time, of course, was different from the education system that I had left behind in Berlin. But one can adjust to minor differences. I recall, if you’re interested, some differences I recall, an incident in a public school in Tel Aviv. Kids had to pay tuition and if parents couldn’t pay the tuition, youngsters were sent home. So I recall a case where the principal came to my classroom and called a boy, “Michael, come here. Michael, I’m sorry I have to send you home. Tell your mom, your dad, that the principal told you to go home. Your mom knows why.” So Michael left the room and went home. So these were daily occurrences. Now that was during the Mandate, the British Mandate when that was before there was a state. It was still Palestine. But that happened. These things happened. The schools were maintained by the Jewish community and the Jews did not have enough money to maintain all these things, so the students had to pay tuition and these things would happen.
PRINCE: How did you – did you tell me how you heard that your parents, while you were there – how did you get word?
ERMAN: Well, I got a letter later on when I moved to Tel Aviv. I got a letter from an aunt who survived.
PRINCE: This was after the war?
ERMAN: It was after the war, after the war. I told you that the oldest sister of my father…
PRINCE: Right – survived.
ERMAN: My father’s oldest sister.
PRINCE: And she wrote you?
ERMAN: And this was a second person, not an aunt, she was maybe a cousin of my father. I’m not sure anymore. She was abroad and she wrote a more detailed letter. She wrote – I think I have it – she wrote a very detailed letter of the last days of my mother and my father. She was apparently at their bedside and could exactly describe how and when all these things. So she wrote me to Tel Aviv and all she knew was that I happened to be principal of a school in Tel Aviv and the address said: Mr. Hans Erman, Director of School, Tel Aviv. No street, no number, nothing. So the letter went first to one school in Tel Aviv. And they apparently didn’t know what school…
PRINCE: Didn’t know you. (LAUGHTER)
ERMAN: In one school apparently somebody was smart enough to ask around, “Does anybody know who this man is?” “Yeah, yeah, he’s at the – that school.” So the letter came to my school and that’s the way I got that letter. In other words, after years of separation because nobody knew anything except apparently my parents had told everybody, “Our son is in Tel Aviv. He teaches and is principal in that school.” So, that remained in their mind and that’s the way I got this letter.
PRINCE: Amazing.
ERMAN: Yeah. Just Hans Erman, Principal of School, Tel Aviv, and in German, in German.
PRINCE: In German.
ERMAN: In German.
PRINCE: Tell me a little bit when you read it.
ERMAN: Well, when I read it, when I read about the death of my parents, I cried which apparently was natural and I went home and I was married already.
PRINCE: You were what?
ERMAN: I was married. It was after I got married. I married a few months before the war ended, in Tel Aviv, and I told my wife. I showed her the letter, you know, and we cried together. And my wife’s mother was apparently under similar circumstances. She had no notice, no notification from her mother, one way or the other, and she was hoping that she would get something about her mother too. We heard more and more that certain people had survived one camp or the other camp. So, I mean, these things remained a constant conversation piece.
PRINCE: All right. Let’s go on and discuss a little bit of statehood and…
ERMAN: Statehood?
PRINCE: …Israel, and how it grew or what were you aware of there.
ERMAN: Well, the Jews in Palestine at that time realized to a large extent that it would come to a showdown between the Jewish population and the British. The British had shown all along a number of things. Number one: they were not interested in the growth of the Jewish community in Palestine. Not in numbers, not in economic development, and certainly not in military preparations. In other words, when the Jews offered – the Jews in Palestine offered to organize a Jewish brigade to fight the Nazis under the British flag, the British objected. The British did not want a Jewish unit in their army. They knew that once the war ends that unit would become the nucleus of a different.
PRINCE: May I ask you – of course, Jews probably wanted to fight against what was going on in the world but they also knew that they were doing that to form a nucleus.
ERMAN: So, we followed one advice that was given, if I am not mistaken, by Ben Gurion, at that time the leader of the Jewish population. Ben Gurion said, “We have to fight the Nazis as though we had nothing against the British, and we have to fight the British administration as though there were no Nazis.” Now this sounds contradictory in terms. It sounds implausible, impractical and impossible. But that was the general idea. We have to fight on two fronts.
PRINCE: Brilliantly put.
ERMAN: What?
PRINCE: It was brilliantly put.
ERMAN: Yeah. So many people really asked, “What does it mean? You can’t easily sit on two chairs which are separated a certain distance.” But that was what it meant. The British did not permit a Jewish brigade, a Jewish unit, so Jews had to enlist in British units regardless, some in India, some in Greece, some in North Africa, regardless. And many Jews did not see that that was the right way to do it. Many young Jews, and I among them, decided to stay in Palestine, to wait for the end of the war and then fight for a Jewish homeland, right then and there. Because we heard all kinds of stories that wherever Jews were part of a British unit, the British would discriminate against non-British subjects. For instance, the story was told that when the British had to leave Greece, when they had to evacuate their troops from Greece, that trucks were sent to bring back the troops to the boat, that they were very strict. That first the British got on the trucks and then maybe Australians and then maybe South Africans, and Palestinians were left behind. They were left to the mercy of the Nazis who captured them as prisoners of war and so on and so forth. So, after you heard two or three or four stories of that kind…
PRINCE: The Palestinians in those days were Jews…
ERMAN: Were Jews, of course.
PRINCE: …while today they’re…
ERMAN: That’s right. At that time they were Palestinians and we had Palestinian passports. On our passport it says, “Palestine.” (TAPE STOPS)
PRINCE: Today is August 29th and this is the third interview. This is “Sister” Prince and I’m talking to Hans Erman.
Okay, we’re going to look at some pictures that Hans has when he first came to Palestine in 1935, ’38.
ERMAN: The first thing that most every Jew had to do when he came to Palestine was to get military training and that was part of the so-called Haganah which later on developed into the Israel Defense Forces. That was the nucleus of the future Israeli army. We had some kind of a uniform and this was our Jewish commander and this was the British commander, the British general in this picture. Here you see us with the rifles and the guns and some exercises that we had to participate in.
PRINCE: What I’m looking at are – it says 1940 –
ERMAN: 1940, yeah.
PRINCE: …and I’m looking at men standing in uniforms with a most unusual cap on.
ERMAN: You see, the British had this type of helmet.
PRINCE: That helmet that they – it looks almost like a safari type helmet.
ERMAN: Right.
PRINCE: Then I see this must be British because he has a beret on.
ERMAN: Well, I have the same kind of beret on here too.
PRINCE: Oh, that’s you?
ERMAN: That’s me.
PRINCE: Oh, wait, let me look closer.
ERMAN: Apparently it was optional whether we had…
PRINCE: But this hat? It’s almost like a chef’s hat without the pouf on the top. Is it more Turkish?
ERMAN: These were remnants of the previous Turkish administration. Apparently they had come down for different officials. So some had this type of head cover and some had…yes, that’s me…some had the beret type. And once a week or so we had to appear at a certain place and we were taught and we had to exercise.
PRINCE: What were you taught?
ERMAN: Well, primarily rifle, machine guns, hand grenades and these things.
PRINCE: How did you feel about that?
ERMAN: Well at that time it was a necessary thing to do. As a matter of fact, the first night I came to this suburb of Tel Aviv. At that time it was called Televinsky. Now it is called Telashamaya. When the state came into being they changed that name. It was as essential as here you go to the supermarket to buy food. We had to live. I mean, you had to defend yourself. There was nothing you could do about it. The first night I came to this place and I rented an apartment. They knocked on my window. It was my turn to go out and stand guard that night at 12 o’clock. In other words, once a week you get a certain turn and then you had to go out and watch.
PRINCE: And this was watching against the Arabs.
ERMAN: Against the Arabs, against possible Arab attacks, and it was…
PRINCE: And did they?
ERMAN: Occasionally. There was shooting. Sometimes there were fights and depending upon who was stronger, sometimes we had to retreat, sometimes they had to retreat.
PRINCE: Did you feel like you were learning to fight the Arabs or the Germans?
ERMAN: The Arabs we were fighting.
PRINCE: No, no, no – when you took your training.
ERMAN: Well, at that time we were defending ourselves but we were not fighting anybody, we were defending ourselves.
PRINCE: Good point.
ERMAN: Our own lives and the lives of our friends, relatives, families, and so on. So it was not our purpose to fight anybody but to purposely defend ourselves in case – in case of danger to our lives. This was the first thing we had to engage in.
PRINCE: Were there many young men like yourself who’d come from Europe?
ERMAN: At that time most immigrants came from Central and Eastern Europe. There were many from Poland and Romania and Hungary in those groups, Germany…
PRINCE: You happened to be a Zionist, but others were not, I’m sure.
ERMAN: Well, some came because it was the only way they had to get out of Europe and later on, whether they became Zionists or not, that’s a different question. You asked, “Why or how did you become a Zionist?”
PRINCE: Yes, before the tape was on, I…
ERMAN: Yes, before the tape was on live. And if you want, I can answer that now.
PRINCE: Be my guest.
ERMAN: As a student of history, I felt that through the centuries in the Diaspora since the Jews were expelled from their homeland in the year 70, that wherever the Jews appeared in considerable numbers, antisemitism became prevalent. And whenever the Jews left one place of persecution and went to another place where there was no persecution, after a number of years antisemitism became noticeable and sometimes dominant. So, that was Herzl’s theory, that Jews cannot escape their destiny. Wherever they go in considerable numbers, they take with them the ground for antisemitism and Jewish persecution. So my conviction was that it did not make sense to escape from one place of trouble, go to another place and carry the germ and the bacteria of antisemitism with me to a new place. The only place at that time – it was my conviction that the only place where Jews could possibly build their own life and be free from the scourge of antisemitism was in their own homeland. And that’s what we thought we were fighting for at that time, to build our own homeland.
PRINCE: Okay. We did – this is on the tape already except that you used some words this time that you did not use before.
ERMAN: We talked about that?
PRINCE: Um-hum, but that’s okay. It’s interesting that you used the words “the germ and the bacteria of antisemitism” because those are the same words that Hitler used in describing the Jews. So, you’re using them in terms of…
ERMAN: In a different sense.
PRINCE: You are using them to describe the antisemitism that is directed at Jews.
ERMAN: That’s right; that’s right.
PRINCE: He used them directed at Jews.
ERMAN: During the Middle Ages for hundreds of years, Jews migrated back and forth between France, Germany, Poland, Russia. They were expelled from one place and went to another place.
PRINCE: You feel that this is Herzl’s theory.
ERMAN: Philosophy.
PRINCE: But you’re quoting it and you just agree. You have no personal experience that pushed you in that direction; that’s what I’m looking for.
ERMAN: Well, here’s what actually happened to me in my lifetime. When I was a youngster, Germany was quiet in terms of antisemitism. There was very little noticeable.
PRINCE: Up through your senior year.
ERMAN: Up to my – well, let’s say up to the year 1929 or 1930 when the Nazi party began to grow considerably, it was not noticeable. But I knew from history that in the Middle Ages there had been strong antisemitism in Germany and many Jews left and went to Poland. At that time the Poles welcomed the Jews and at first they were friendly and then later on they turned the other way. And from Poland Jews began to move back to Germany in bigger numbers. And my parents, I remember, talked about that. They said, “If more and more Jews would come from Poland and other Eastern European countries, they will bring along more antisemitism.” And that’s what happened in Austria and in Germany. In other words, with the migration of more Jews coming to Germany, that was one important factor that increased the danger of antisemitism in Germany. And there is no question about that Hitler himself first became an antisemite when he saw Eastern European Jews, the Hasidim in their long garb and their black garb, walking around in Vienna, and he asked himself, “Can we consider those people as Germans?” And he said, “No, they are not Germans, they’re foreigners.”
PRINCE: Let’s talk about this country for a minute.
ERMAN: It’s too young to talk about.
PRINCE: It’s too young to talk about?
ERMAN: The first 200 years in every place there was – Germany, for instance, in the Middle Ages, around the year 1000, there was no antisemitism. There were Jews but there was no antisemitism. It takes more than 200 years for anything of that type to grow. In addition to that, there is a big difference between the United States or the North American continent and European countries. The main difference is this: United States is multiracial and Jews and Hispanics and Orientals – Chinese, Japanese, Koreans – and what have you – the Jews are just one small part of the multiracial picture. But European states, like Germany, were homogenous, very homogenous, and any foreigner who looked a little bit different or spoke a little bit differently, or dressed a little bit differently, he was conspicuous as a foreigner and that made a big, big difference. So, that’s one of the differences between the United States, Canada and European countries.
PRINCE: All right. Thank you. Let’s go back to the book.
ERMAN: These are pictures of the illegal immigration. Here a boat came to the shores of Palestine in the city of Netanya up to 1940, and the British were watching here, and here you see a British serviceman with his submachine gun, watching the shore, that nobody could escape this way and apparently get outside too.
PRINCE: So is this the ship?
ERMAN: Yes, this is the ship, the ship of illegal immigrants.
PRINCE: So, they didn’t get to get off because he was there?
ERMAN: They – the British took them off.
PRINCE: They took them off.
ERMAN: I mentioned to you that some of these immigrants just lay on the ground and didn’t want to move, they wanted to disappear, but they didn’t want to follow the British. So, they had to carry them away on stretchers and then they put them on buses and took them to camps. Some were sent to Cyprus, some were sent to the South Pacific.
PRINCE: And here they are behind a barricade again.
ERMAN: Yes. So these were pictures from that time.
PRINCE: Uh huh. Now these pictures look like…
ERMAN: My school classes.
PRINCE: Yeah, your school.
ERM AN: Another picture I want to show you – I taught a high school class and that was already in 1948. It was the year when the State came into existence and I recall those kids. That’s me and this was our principal and this was our school secretary. Those kids had to come to class, let’s say, everyday, but occasionally one of the kids would come – by the way, you see some Orientals among these kids.
PRINCE: Yeah. By Orientals, explain what you mean. You do not mean Chinese?
ERMAN: No, I mean – let’s call it Mediterranean Jews – Moroccans and Yemenites and from Algeria, from Egypt, from Iraq. Some people call them Sephardim, Sephardic Jews. Some people Oriental, some call them Mediterranean. I mean, now these Oriental – we usually refer to Japanese but that’s the terminology. They came sometimes and said, “Mr. Erman, we have to leave to be at 10 o’clock at a certain place.” And it was not for me to know that they were engaging in some military operation against the British. It was enough for them to come to me and say, “We have to go,” and I knew what the story was. And these were young kids who participated or trained in military activities.
PRINCE: Now would they – which organization would they have been in? There were three main ones, the Haganah…
ERMAN: Etzer and Lehy were the three groups.
PRINCE: Now, I only know the other names, the Haganah, the Stern…
ERMAN: Stern was also called Lehy for the Hebrew town was Irgun.
PRINCE: And Irgun.
ERMAN: Irgun. That was Begin; that was Prime Minister Begin’s party. They were the Irgun. Later on became Likud party. And you say “Stern gang.” Their leader was a man by the name of Stern. He was a university student and he was leading that underground of Jewish groups.
PRINCE: But those were the two names…

Tape 3 - Side 2

PRINCE: Okay, what were you saying?
ERMAN: Well, let’s review that for a moment. Haganah, Irgun, and Stern. These were the groups that you heard before. So Haganah was the semi-legal paramilitary group. It was under the auspices of the Jewish authorities, Ben Gurion and his friends.
PRINCE: But not the British?
ERMAN: No. The British somehow looked the other way and sometimes even cooperated with the Haganah, depending on…
PRINCE: The situation…
ERMAN: Depending on what they were talking about. Irgun and Stern were the so-called illegal groups. From the Jewish point of view, they were freedom fighters. From the British point of view, they were terrorists and the British killed some of these youngsters – not only killed, some were hanged in prison. I had some students who disappeared and later on the paper said that they were hanged. The British caught them with weapons in their hands and they were executed. So these are these groups that fought for Jewish independence in Palestine. That’s that chapter. And then the State came to being. And when the State came to being, the first few months there was fighting between the Haganah and the Irgun and the Stern gang until Ben Gurion really put down his foot and told them,” Either or – either you go with us or we have to eliminate you.” And there were shootouts between these and finally both the Irgun and the Stern gave up their weapons, their arms, and became, so to speak, part of the Haganah, the Israel Defense Forces.
PRINCE: Hans, you’ve had a wide range of teaching experiences and in different countries, different cities, and in very unusual times. So, therefore you’ve come across students, as we talked about, in Germany, in Berlin that were undergoing deep traumas and moving in their lives and losing maybe fathers and being uprooted.
ERMAN: Yes.
PRINCE: Now, you’re teaching students in Palestine, soon to be Israel, that are facing also danger, not related to their age or what they should be doing – dying. This must have been a very difficult thing for you to do, and I wish you’d give us some insight into what it was like.
ERMAN: It was part of life. For most of us who lived in Palestine at that time, we knew there was no escape. By the way, at this time the war was over, but…
PRINCE: The Second World War.
ERMAN: The Second World War was over.
PRINCE: 1948.
ERMAN: ’48. And most of these, or many of these, were either new immigrants who had come to Palestine in recent years or some had been there before, but I don’t think that any of these ever thought of escaping or running away from the dangers of life. In other words, between the end of World War II, in 1945, and the founding of the State of Israel in 1948, those three years, those were three crucial years for the history of the Jewish people, at least as far as the development of Israel was concerned. And most everybody felt that every effort had to be made to bring the project of a Jewish State to fruition. So, because it was practically unanimous that we had to fight whatever fight had to be done, and whether it’s against the British or whether it’s against the Arabs, we had to stand firm and even fight on two fronts which actually we had to do. We had to fight the Arabs on one side and the British on the other side, and there was no escape. Opinions were divided as to what the chances were in a real showdown. Whether in a real showdown the small Jewish population in Palestine at that time, half a million people, 500,000, later on with the influx of refugees from Europe maybe 600,000, against three times that number of Arabs in Palestine and the Arab states surrounding Palestine: Syria, the Hashimid Kingdom of Jordan, Egypt with the backing of Saudi Arabia – whether the small Jewish population in Palestine at that time could withstand an onslaught of the Arabs from all these sides and the stand of the British was uncertain. Nobody knew what the British would do in case of a showdown. The British were vacillating back and forth, sometimes supporting Jewish claims, sometimes supporting Arab claims.
In Britain itself, governments were changing and before elections British politicians would make statements that they were in favor of this or in favor of that, or against this, against that, so we never knew. A new government comes into being in Britain and you never knew who the Foreign Secretary would be and who the Prime Minister would be and what would happen after that. The British were unpredictable, so to speak. There were opinions in the Jewish population, which I said was called Gishoo, that we had to stand with the British regardless, and others felt that, no, the British were unreliable and we had to follow our own policy and if need be even fight the British. So, there was a lot of confusion along these lines.
PRINCE: Well, another thing is that while you’re fighting on two fronts, the British and the Arabs, a small population – you’re trying to bring in immigrants illegally because the British won’t allow it. And you don’t know who’s on those boats coming in, so you’re bringing in maybe some people who could help fight and then you’re bringing in people that would be…
ERMAN: A liability.
PRINCE: …a liability, a burden…
ERMAN: Correct.
PRINCE: And yet they’re wanting everyone because it’s a haven…
ERMAN: That’s right. There was no limitation on immigration as far as the Jews were concerned.
PRINCE: So they’re on three fronts.
ERMAN: Well, young people who came in and could not fight, say below a certain age, and older people who were too old to do any kind of serious fighting.
PRINCE: Not only that, but they must have had tremendous emotional problems…
ERMAN: Of course.
PRINCE: …from what they had been through in Europe.
ERMAN: At that time in Palestine, the first years of the State of Israel, people did not talk about emotional problems. When people are hungry, they look for food. When people are in danger that they lose their life, they are going to fight. There was no time to see a psychiatrist or to talk to a psychologist or consultant or counselor. These things were not on the mind of anybody. People came, “Fend for yourself. We give you a job, we give you arms to fight.” And it was a fight for life or death. In other words, emotional problems – nobody talked about those, nobody talked about emotional problems. I mean, whatever troubles people had internally – I mean, running away from their homeland or things like that and all the trials and tribulations they had before emigration and on the road and the high seas and all of these things, you knew that – everybody knew that hundreds and thousands of lives were lost, on boats that were not seaworthy – the fate of the St. Louis and many other boats which didn’t make it to shores of Palestine or to the shores of any countries. So we knew, it was a very…
PRINCE: The St. Louis went back to Germany.
ERMAN: Went back to Germany and many of these people, some were saved and some were not saved, some were put into concentration camps and disappeared and their fate is unknown. So we knew that. It was a serious fight and emotional things – if you ask me about the emotional problems, I have no answer because these things were not on the agenda.
PRINCE: And everybody was in really the same circumstances.
ERMAN: In the same situation, in the same circumstances.
PRINCE: Well, what I really meant by bringing it up was that many times they weren’t fit to be of help when you needed people so badly and you took everybody in that you could. So, it was a very busy country.
ERMAN: You were busy all hours of your waking day. And only later, let’s say 15, 20 years later, studies were made with regard to the emotional problems and the psychological problems that may have resulted from persecution either in Europe or from the troubles on the high seas or from troubles when you got to Palestine or Israel, or in the concentration camps or under the British. All these things were later studied. I don’t know to what extent. I don’t know with what results, but to this very day, to this very day, I have been thinking frequently about the following: I, as well as my wife, were in a period of transition. We escaped from Europe – we talked about that – which was not an easy thing to do. In other words, to find a new place to go. To get out of Europe was relatively easy, but to find a new place was the hard part. And later on, from Israel, we moved…
PRINCE: For you at that time it was easy to get out of Europe. I just want to make that clear for everyone because at times it was not.
ERMAN: That’s right. To get out before the war broke out was very easy. You just got on a train or boat and you went. But, the problem was where to go, who admitted you, that was the problem. So, I’ve been thinking about that and talking about it frequently. How did that affect our children? I mean, our own experiences somehow did not remain in our shirts or sweaters, you know. And apparently many of our emotions and many of our activities and many of our daily experiences reflected some of the problems that we encountered during all those years. And I wondered, in my own mind, and sometimes verbally, to what extent did these things influence our children? Did our children come away with emotional scars because of our own problems? Could we hide in ourselves the problems that we had to go through, or later on when we were settled, more or less, we had jobs and we were working, did we forget about it? And, could we raise children in a normal way like everybody else, or many others can do or are fortunate enough to do? Or did these things reflect in a negative way on our children? Did our children become, let’s say, less secure or neurotic or psychotic? Who knows? So these problems have been bothering me for many, many years until, thank God, now I see that these problems did not reflect negatively on our children or on our grandchildren. And I must say that studies may have been made and in some cases there may be people who show neurotic or psychotic tendencies and maybe trace back to some of those hard experiences that their parents went through. But, in our case, thank God, I didn’t notice anything in that particular vein.
PRINCE: Did you think about it when you were raising them?
ERMAN: Yes. I mean, it was not only a matter of raising the children as children, it was also a language problem. Over the years we have been talking among ourselves and with our children in three different languages. We have been talking with our children in German, we have been talking with our children in Hebrew, and now we talk with them in English. In other words, when our children went to school, during their school years, practically they picked up three different languages and in the case of our son there was no problem whatsoever. He picked up all three languages in a jiffy. He had no problems whatsoever. Our daughter, when she was four years old, she came to this country, the United States, she had a little problem in her first grade with English – a little problem, but that may have been as natural as anything else. Later on she said, “Well, because of German and Hebrew, I had problems picking up the reading of English.” But in the meantime, of course, she overcame that. She is a teacher now. So, I mean, whether that was part of the story or not, I wouldn’t know. But these things bothered me at different points of time.
PRINCE: And I’m sure you’re one of many that thought about it and you’re probably one of the luckier ones.
ERMAN: Well, as far as I can see in other families, friends of mine went through similar experiences. By the way, you turned the page, and this was my father’s oldest sister. My father was one of the youngest – there were nine in the family, and she survived the concentration camp, in Theresienstadt.
PRINCE: Oh, that’s the one that…
ERMAN: That’s the one that I talked to you about some time ago. This is her daughter, still alive, who lived in Holland – still lives in Holland. This is her son who got married recently and these are the three generations. This is my cousin, her mother – my aunt who died in Holland after she was liberated from Theresienstadt.
PRINCE: Back to the young children that you were teaching who got killed. Did you ever go to any of their funerals?
ERMAN: The children who lost their lives, either in actual fighting with the Arabs or children who were caught by the British with a smoking gun and were executed. All these things became known through newspaper reports and there was not a single case that I ever had a chance to attend the funeral of. But I met some of their parents later and of course you were very, very careful in talking about – I had a student by the name of Simon and I met the mother once and we were sitting next to each other at the dinner table. And, of course, we talked about all kinds of things and whenever his name came up, you know, tears would run down her cheeks and we tried to, to…
PRINCE: To not talk about it?
ERMAN: To get away and talk about something else. So, I knew at least half a dozen Jewish kids who lost their lives. From my hometown, the son of my teacher, the son of the man who taught me in elementary school when I was a second, third grader – his son was killed in Haifa. When the city of Haifa was liberated, so to speak, from the British and from the Arabs – that was in ’48.
PRINCE: No, I’m trying to – if he was your teacher and it was his son, he must have had him late in life.
ERMAN: Oh yeah. Well, that son was – wait a minute. His son, let’s say at that time, I mean, was about five or six years younger than – maybe eight years younger than I was. So, in 1948 he was a youngster maybe 17 years old.
PRINCE: But his father taught you.
ERMAN: His father taught me.
PRINCE: He had a late in life son.
ERMAN: I don’t think it was so late in life. But, anyway, in Haifa at that time seven Jewish youngsters were killed by the Arabs before that city of Haifa became a Jewish city, before the Arabs were either driven out or before the Arabs laid down their arms. And he was one of them. So I knew even more than half a dozen, maybe 10 Jewish youngsters either personally, personal friends, or students or neighbors or whatever who lost their lives in those fights either with the Arabs or were executed by the British.
PRINCE: Sabra is a…
ERMAN: A native born Palestinian or Israeli Jew.
PRINCE: Okay, and named that because of…
ERMAN: The fruit of the cactus. The cactus fruit is called a sabra. It’s an Arabic term.
PRINCE: It’s sweet on the inside…
ERMAN: It’s sweet on the inside and prickly on the outside.
PRINCE: Prickly on the outside. Did you notice – what were the differences between the Sabra children and the immigrant children?
ERMAN: Oh, there were differences. There were great differences. As a matter of fact, the children reflected the history of their parents. When I taught in those classes that you saw in the picture, those classes, and the children would speak Hebrew and the parents at home would speak Russian or Polish or German or Hungarian, in their Hebrew I could tell where their parents had come from. The Russians had a different pronunciation, the Poles had a different pronunciation, the Hungarian – in Hebrew. In other words, in their kids the mother tongue of the parents still was reflected in the way they pronounced their Hebrew. So these were the classes that we had. By the way, the Oriental Jews – I mean the Sephardic Jews too – they spoke with an Arabic accent.
PRINCE: Would you say that one group of children was more mature than the other for whatever reason?
ERMAN: Well, I discovered one thing in teaching the school in Palestine, in Israel. I discovered that we Jews in Europe – I mean I came from Europe – and now Jews in America have certain delusions with regard to the Jewish psyche, the Jewish soul of sort. We feel, many feel that in many ways the Jewish mind and the Jewish intellect and Jewish abilities and Jewish capabilities are a little bit, or even a lot, superior to the Gentile people. And I discovered in my teaching classes in Tel Aviv – Tel Aviv is a metropolitan area like St. Louis or so. I discovered that we have as many slow learners and as many juvenile delinquents in our Jewish group…
PRINCE: In 1948?
ERMAN: (LAUGHTER BY BOTH) In 1948, before and after that – as any other nation can have. I mean, as a matter of fact, we had in one school I taught in Tel Aviv, we had four eighth grades. I mean, we had, let’s say 160 youngsters in that age bracket and every grade had about 40 students. That was the average, 40. Sometimes I had even 42 in one class in eighth grade. And these eighth graders were graded according to ability. They were, let’s say, “8-A, 8-B, 8-C, and 8-D.” “A” was the best, “B” the second best, “C” the third, and “D” were the slow learners. And it was almost impossible to find a teacher for the “D” class, for the slow learners. I mean – and sometimes it was a very discouraging thing to see that Jewish kids – we thought Jewish kids were more mature, more intelligent – to see that, “No, that’s not so.” Among Jewish kids, whether they came from Europe or whether they were Sephardic or Mediterranean youngsters, we had the same number and the same percentage of slow learners and juvenile delinquents…
PRINCE: I thought that because of their backgrounds that maybe – that maybe their maturity – what they had been through – that a sense of responsibility might have been greater.
ERMAN: Well, some of the students I am talking about had been second, third, or fourth generation Palestinians. In other words, you couldn’t go by that. Sometimes new immigrants were better off or worse than old timers. I think you couldn’t draw any line in this regard.
Now, you talked about the State and when the State came into being. You may recall that at first it started with a vote that was taken at the United Nations in 1947, I think in late fall of 1947 at Lake Success in New York. The United Nations met and the vote was taken as to whether or not to permit the Jewish State to be founded in Israel, or the vote was on the question of dividing Palestine into a Jewish and an Arab state. I recall that that night we stayed up to listen to the radio to the casting of the votes at Lake Success at the United Nations meeting and we counted the votes. I mean it was said, let’s say, Argentina, “Yes,” Egypt, “No,” and so on and so forth. Britain abstained and the United States, “Yes,” and Russia, “Yes.” Mr. Gromyko at that time made a speech and he was in favor of a Jewish State, in other words, a partition, creation of a Jewish State and of Palestine. And, of course, that was the time to offer a toast now, to raise your glass and drink and be happy. And I remember people were dancing in the streets of Tel Aviv. We would get our own state. Now, it was hoped that since it was a decision by the United States, it would be carried out peacefully. The Arabs would have their state, we would have our state, and everything would go peacefully. Nobody could imagine that half a year later or so, a year later, that war would break out, that seven Arab states would attack the newly formed Jewish State and so on and so forth. So at first there was great jubilation and the Jewish population…
PRINCE: Did the flags go up immediately? I mean, or did…
ERMAN: No, no, no, no. For the time being first it was – people were still very reluctant to foresee a bright future. I mean, people knew it would not be that easy. The British were still there and the Arabs were still there and nobody knew exactly what would happen. But the idea of legally obtaining a Jewish State – legally laying the foundation for a brighter Jewish future, that was reason enough to drink and to be happy.
PRINCE: Did that mean then that the floodgates of Cypress would open and everybody could come in, or, I mean, all the immigrants could come in?
ERMAN: No. For the time being, the British stood fast on their resolution not to permit Jewish immigration into that country.
PRINCE: Well, why am I misunderstanding? If Israel was a state, then what did the British…
ERMAN: Well, that decision that I talked about in 1947 – this is ’46.
PRINCE: Oh, you’re still not…
ERMAN: It was the partition.
PRINCE: Oh, okay.
ERMAN: It was the partition vote…
PRINCE: Because it didn’t happen until April, ’48.
ERMAN: That’s right.
PRINCE: I thought – I’m sorry. I thought you’d skipped ahead.
ERMAN: May 15, 1948. That was the date only for one thing. It was the date for the British to leave. The British had made up their mind to quit and leave everything the way it was going naturally. The British, of course, knew that it would not be a peaceful goodbye and they were concerned primarily, I assume, with the idea of how to get out safely without fatalities, without problems. So they made every effort to arrange for the Jews and with the Arabs that their departure would be a peaceful thing, and it was. I mean, they withdrew from Jerusalem, from Tel Aviv, from major areas into Haifa, and lived in a 45 compound in Haifa the last few days and departed peacefully the night before May 15. And the next day, the Arabs attacked and we had air raids in Tel Aviv and all over. And the war broke out in ’48, the War of Independence.
PRINCE: Did you have to fight?
ERMAN: Oh yeah. We were all drafted and at that time our son was one year old. The way the regulations were set up, a father who had two children was exempt from military service. All the others had to serve, single people and fathers who had one child, they were all drafted.

Tape 4 - Side 1

ERMAN: And depending upon the commanding officer’s decision, everybody was sent to the spot where he could be most useful.
PRINCE: And where did you go?
ERMAN: So, I had to go through different stages. The first few days in military camp, time stood still, which means that you are sitting in a corner and waiting for orders where to go and what to do. All we knew is that in the morning we had breakfast, at noon we had lunch, and at night we had supper, and we had some cot to sleep on, or maybe just a wooden board to sleep on. The other things we did not know. Now some were sent to the front lines to the firing line at the front, to trenches. Some had training in tank warfare. Some had training in…
PRINCE: What did you do?
ERMAN: Well, I was lucky in one respect. I mean, since I had been a teacher, apparently the commanding officer made a decision to use me as a teacher. And that was a very important thing because many young servicemen who came did not know Hebrew. Either they came from Europe, spoke Bulgarian, Hungarian, Polish, Russian. Or they came from the Arab countries and spoke Arabic. But in an army, especially in wartime, you cannot have units who speak Hungarian, units who speak Bulgarian, units who speak Polish or German or Arabic. Arabic was especially sensitive. To speak it in the front lines, you know, you never knew who you are talking to. So I had, most of the time, I was placed in camps where I had to teach new recruits the Hebrew language.
PRINCE: And you had to teach them the military words.
ERMAN: Well, everything that – I mean, we had certain textbooks. The textbooks we had to use and military terms and, of course, everyday expressions, how to ask for directions when you are on the street and that was, so to speak, most of the time that I had to…I had to take my basic military training. After that, they used me as a teacher.
PRINCE: All right. And you then stayed in Israel until 1954?
ERMAN: Correct.
PRINCE: And then came to the United States. And now in 1986, I ask you to go back and talk to me about all the things that happened to you from Wittlich – say it right – you say it.
ERMAN: Wittlish.
PRINCE: Wittlish. (LAUGHTER)
ERMAN: It’s hopeless.
PRINCE: It’s not hopeless. (LAUGHTER) You mean my saying that correct?
ERMAN: Why did you say it (OVERTALK)
PRINCE: You said in the beginning it was difficult to pronounce Wittlich.
ERMAN: Wittlish.
PRINCE: Wittlish. (LAUGHTER)
ERMAN: Very good, very good.
PRINCE: I’m determined to learn. What – is there anything glaring that you would like to say that we have not touched on?
ERMAN: Over that entire period?
PRINCE: Well, that you feel – I’m sure that we could go on, or…
ERMAN: Is there anything that is of interest to you, personally or for the record or whatever that you would like me to touch on?
PRINCE: I think that we have covered at some other time, if you would like to talk about coming here and what that was like as an immigrant to this country, we can do that. But at this point, in going back, is there anything you’d like to sum up? Anything you’d like to offer?
ERMAN: Well, the major thing that I may offer at this point is that it took me about two years to prepare for the move from Israel to the United States.
PRINCE: And how did you decide to come to the United States?
ERMAN: There were a number of reasons. One reason was that our relatives, my only sister, lived in the United States at that time, in New York. And my wife’s only sister lived here at that time. And we felt quite isolated.
PRINCE: Her sister?
ERMAN: Her sister, yeah.
PRINCE: Deutsch.
ERMAN: Deutsch. Naomi Deutsch. They came to St. Louis in 1949 and had been here all the time. So that was one reason: my sister and her sister had been living in the United States and had been urging us to come over. Of course they read in the newspaper quite gloomy reports on the young State of Israel. And life in Israel, indeed, was very, very hard. It was very hard.
PRINCE: Hard in what way?
ERMAN: Hard in what way? Most everything there was a shortage in most everything you can think of. Food, clothing, most everything you can think of was in shortage. And our relatives sent us practically every other week a package, a care package. I don’t know whether that is a term you have ever heard before.
PRINCE: Certainly.
ERMAN: And those packages they sent us – foodstuffs, tuna, coffee, milk.
PRINCE: Powdered milk?
ERMAN: Cans, meat. Because they read in the papers – we didn’t ask for it – they read in the papers that there is a shortage of this and this and this. So one time my son needed a certain medication. He was a child of five, six years. And we sent a wire to our relatives to send us that medication because it was unavailable in Israel at that time. So our relatives here in St. Louis went to the drugstore and got that medication and mailed it airmail. It took three to four days to get to Tel Aviv. But in Tel Aviv I had to go to customs and get that medication out of customs and that took almost four weeks.
PRINCE: Oh my heavens.
ERMAN: When things like that, as just one example of how hard life was in Israel. So, I mean, you add up a few dozen of those experiences with food, medication, clothing that you didn’t have, you couldn’t get, not for any money. You could get food on the black market and it was very, very expensive and you were not supposed to buy. So I recall one instance and I may tell you that. I mean, just to give an example. A cousin of mine lived in Israel on a farm. She had a farm. She had chicken, she had turkey, and she had maybe some cattle too. And when I left she asked me whether I would like to take a chicken along to Tel Aviv. And I said, “Yes, if you want. I’ll buy it from you,” regardless of whether I paid or not. So I took that chicken and, of course, I had to take a bus from her farm to Tel Aviv.
And on every bus there were inspectors who would shake your baggage, whatever suitcase, whatever you had, to see whether you were bringing to town something you were not supposed to bring, something that was bought on the black market on a farm or somewhere. So, in order to be safe, I did not put my package next to my seat. I got on the bus and put my package somewhere in that net under the roof of the bus, so in case the inspector would come and look in that package, there was no name on it and I would not claim it as mine because if he would catch me it would mean a fine or prison or whatever uncountable thing was connected with that. So, I mean, after you had a few dozen experiences like that, I mean, you became discouraged, to say the least.
PRINCE: And if you have an opportunity to go somewhere…
ERMAN: And if you get letters from relatives saying that if you want to come, you get your papers and it would take a few weeks or so. And my relatives here in St. Louis had no problem getting us papers. They were very wealthy at that time already. And one day we said, “Well” – sometimes we said, “Send the papers and we will decide later.” And indeed, they sent papers and we didn’t act in time and the papers expired, one time. We wanted to think it over again, you know. So the second time we asked for papers and we decided to take the papers and make preparations for leaving. So, I took leave of absence from my job in Tel Aviv, leave of absence for two years in order to study. And I really planned to study and I did go to Chicago and enrolled immediately at the university at Chicago, Northwestern. And you see that’s where I got my degree.
PRINCE: Degree in what at that point? Teacher and Administrator.
ERMAN: Yes. I mean, I stayed in my profession.
PRINCE: What school did you attend in Chicago?
ERMAN: Northwestern. Doesn’t it say that?
PRINCE: No. Oh, oh, yes, yes. I’m sorry. I’m reading down “Professional Experience,” not “Schools Attended.”
ERMAN: Yes.
PRINCE: Yes, Northwestern, ’56-’58, M.A. in Education. And then you became a teacher.
ERMAN: That’s right. I mean, I taught all along to support myself.
PRINCE: I was going to say you were teaching at the same time.
ERMAN: I was teaching at the same time to support my family – my wife and two children, and went to school either night or early morning or weekends or vacation time, and got my degree there and later on I became Principal and Director of Schools and these things.
PRINCE: And, are you glad you came to this country?
ERMAN: Well, I must say that I am glad. We know that in the meantime there were a number of wars in Israel. As a matter of fact, they had five wars and I participated only in one. And four wars, neither I or my son was affected, which is kind of a consolation that we feel we got out of. So, in all these respects we are glad that we came.
PRINCE: I will look here and say on the “Personal Data” that you are listed in “Who’s Who in American Education,” “Who’s Who in American Jewry,” and “Who’s Who in Jewish Education.”
ERMAN: That’s right. And here’s my listing in that, in American Education.
PRINCE: So, from Wittlich, you have done magnificently.
ERMAN: You might say so. That is “Who’s Who in American Education.”
PRINCE: Well, Hans, I’d like to thank you very much…
ERMAN: My pleasure.
PRINCE: For sharing all this with us, and I look at this tape as a teacher who is still teaching…
ERMAN: Right.
PRINCE: …and this will go on and on.
ERMAN: (LAUGHTER) I hope so.
PRINCE: You were very gracious.
ERMAN: I hope so.
PRINCE: Thank you.

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