RASKIN: Helen, why don’t you start at the beginning.
ERMAN: I was born Helene Rosa Laufer in Dortmund, Germany. I was the
youngest of five children…My father passed away when I was two and a half years old
and my mother was the main support of our family. And we had very normal upcoming
and happy family life. We went to school, really nothing out of the ordinary.
RASKIN: What kind of school?
ERMAN: I went to a Jewish day school and we had all Jewish teachers. All the
students were Jewish and later on when Hitler came to power, the school was enlarged.
Before this, it was only eight year day school and then it was enlarged and we had…we
had two, and I believe later on, four more years. So it became a junior high – not junior
high – like a…yeah eight…
RASKIN: Yeah, junior high.
ERMAN: Junior high, yeah.
RASKIN: Tell me a little bit about how the school was run. Was it German
ERMAN: Everything…everything was in German. All the subjects…actually
everything was in German…history, it was in fact, it was on a level, I would say, higher
than here the high schools. The German education was much higher than the regular high
schools here. And we had all subjects in German…everything…we had
labs…laboratories and I believe we had one or two hours of Hebrew.
RASKIN: This is at the upper levels you’re talking about?
ERMAN: Yeah. I think we had one or two hours of Hebrew – not modern Hebrew.
We learned how to use the prayer book. Modern Hebrew, I learned later on…we had in
Habonim. I was a member of the Habonim and there we had Hebrew lessons.
RASKIN: What kind of teachers did you have in the day school? Were they
religious teachers who taught you everything, or…?
ERMAN: They were not religious. No, in fact many were very liberal. We had
RASKIN: Different teachers?
ERMAN: Oh yeah. The first – I would say the first four grades we had the same
teacher and then we had all different…all subjects with different teachers.
RASKIN: And what kind of Jewish education did you get there?
ERMAN: Very little. Two hours a week.
RASKIN: Just Hebrew, or…?
ERMAN: Jewish history. Jewish history…Bible stories. Very little. Emphasis was
not on…on religion. Not like they’re here. You see this was a different…I think the day
schools were formed because of necessity.
RASKIN: And what was that?
ERMAN: Necessity – that the Jews were not accepted in regular schools and the
Jews did not feel free. And these were not only Polish Jews, you know, German Jews
and Statenlos (Stateless)…whatever.
RASKIN: I think…I don’t think you mentioned this time that your parents were not
ERMAN: No. My parents came to Germany when they were very young. They left
Poland and their families and brothers and sisters. And later my mother’s brothers and
sisters came to Germany too. So my parents came…they were not married when they
came. They came as singles to search the world, you know, to see what’s available in
Germany. And they, at the time, they went to school…
RASKIN: How old were they?
ERMAN: Approximately 14, 15, 16, you know, in their teens.
RASKIN: And they came alone?
ERMAN: They came alone. They might have come with friends, you know,
ERMAN: But they…they didn’t see a future in – Poland so they tried to see what’s
available in different parts of the world. They were very ambitious, very bright, you
know. Because the people who were not ambitious and not bright, couldn’t do it.
RASKIN: But they remained Polish citizens?
ERMAN: They remained Polish citizens, yes, yes…all the time.
RASKIN: Was that a matter of choice?
ERMAN: We just talked about it today…I don’t think they could have become
German citizens. I don’t believe so. Maybe with a lot of money and a lot of doing, they
could have. But they decided that they wanted…my mother always used to say, I
remember, “If something should happen, the Poles will save us.”
ERMAN: Yeah. That’s the way she said. So she must have felt secure, to be a
Polish citizen. How long she was, that’s a different story.
RASKIN: Right. But…so she had good feelings about Poland?
ERMAN: She had good feelings about being a Polish citizen, yes. Now all the
children were born in…in Germany. And they all went to schools. We loved music, you
know. There was no difference between us and a German who grew up, or who was
German from generation and generation back.
RASKIN: So that you’re saying that you and your…
ERMAN: As a second generation, yes…
RASKIN: Yes, that you felt like a German Jew.
ERMAN: Definitely, yeah, yeah. Sure, I mean, and so we came…we went to visit
our grandparents but I never…we never learned the language, you know.
RASKIN: Your language was…
RASKIN: No Yiddish?
RASKIN: No Polish spoken in the house at all?
ERMAN: No. Very assimilated.
RASKIN: And even your parents, did they consider themselves…
ERMAN: It’s hard to say. It’s hard to say if they considered themselves German.
But they spoke German, you know. All their business acquaintances were
German…Gentile or non-Gentile.
RASKIN: Did you feel any kind of alienation in your household from the rest of the
Jewish community in Germany?
ERMAN: We didn’t because, you know, it might have been the previous
generation…for instance, my parents. But when I grew up, my friends were mixed. You
see, I had people from my Jewish friends were from German backgrounds. Some of
them were Russian backgrounds. Some of them were Lithuanian background, you know.
It was already a melting pot…in my time…when I grew up. So I did not feel anything.
But like I said, my parents might have. And as I remember most of their friends really
came from Poland, so…
RASKIN: So they did associate with you?
ERMAN: Yes, definitely. Their friends, like you have it here too, you know, the
people who came from Italy. They stay among themselves. The people who came from
Germany, at the beginning, they stay…and from Poland and then later on, you know, the
second generation – you don’t feel it any more the same that happened in Germany. So
there was, I think, at this point, there was not much difference.
Now I do remember, that the German Jews looked down on the Polish Jews. But it’s the
same here too, you know. The German Jews did not want any other people here in the
United States to come in. They might ruin their…their position, everything. Yeah, they
RASKIN: Did you see that as a child? Or is it something you can remember…any
incident that made that clear to you?
ERMAN: Did I see it as a child? No. As a child, I did not. But I was told stories,
you know. Stories that happened, that they were not accepted there. Same as here in
country clubs – the Jews were not accepted. It’s the same as was in Germany too. Polish
Jews were not accepted, so they formed their own…their own circle and they were very
happy, you know.
RASKIN: Your father…
ERMAN: My father was a businessman and we had stores in Dortmund and during
the war he was…the first war…he was drafted. And he smelled some acids.
RASKIN: He was in the Army?
ERMAN: He was in the Army, yes. And during his stay in the Army, he
accidentally…he smelled some acid and he burned his lungs.
RASKIN: He came out of it?
ERMAN: Yeah, he came out of it. But he came out a sick person. So after the
war…the war was over in 1918…after the war he was, he went from one sanitorium to
another because he was a sick man. And when he went to visit his parents in 1923 – and
at this point – he died…in Poland.
RASKIN: In Poland?
ERMAN: In Poland, yeah.
RASKIN: While he was visiting his parents?
ERMAN: While he was visiting his parents, yes. So my mother who was with
children in Dortmund, sold her store and gave up her house…and went to Poland. And
first she thought she would establish her livelihood in Poland, and after a short while she
saw it was not profitable.
RASKIN: Why did she go back in the first place?
ERMAN: First she was…I was in Poland with my father, right?
ERMAN: And then, I don’t know, somehow she felt maybe it would be a better idea
to be close to…to family…to her parents and to my father’s parents. And then she found
out, it’s much better to go back to Germany and so after a short while – I don’t know how
long it was – we all went back and she started to work again. We had a maid in our
household, a sleep-in maid, and she took care of us. And my mother was a very
ambitious person, and…
RASKIN: Did she immediately purchase this store when she went back to Germany,
ERMAN: She must have. She must have, and…
RASKIN: And then built up the business.
ERMAN: Built up the business and built up the business very well, because she
bought a large apartment house. It was like I said, she had to feed five children. She had
to clothe five children. She had to send five children to school.
RASKIN: But by the time the business came to an end, how big was it? How
many…was it one establishment then?
ERMAN: It was one, yeah, at this point…it was one establishment. It was a textile
RASKIN: The name of it?
ERMAN: Jacob Laufer. Now when Hitler came to power like all the stores were
boycott, all the Jewish stores, and windows were smashed and SS and SA people were
put in front of the Jewish buildings.
RASKIN: When would you say this started happening?
ERMAN: It started about ’33…it started at the beginning really. At the beginning
he…attacked the Jews the first year. And then there was a very quiet – very tranquil
period – and then at the end, again. So I would say as far as I remember, the first two
years were harsh and rough on the Jews and then he had different problems so he let the
Jews alone for a while. And then at the end, it started again.
RASKIN: And do you remember anything specific in relation to the…to the stores,
in terms of…?
ERMAN: Oh yes. I remember that our windows were smashed and we had to
barricade it; things were stolen from the windows. And, (what else was there?)…and
people just did not come in to buy, you know. And we had very loyal customers who
came year after year…stopped coming in. And people who owed money did not pay
their…pay, because they say – nobody, you can’t do anything so why should we pay.
But there were some decent people like…like you always find decent people who did pay
whatever they owed and so later on, my mom said, “It doesn’t pay to keep the store
open,” and she sold whatever was available and at the end she lived from our building.
Now at this time, the kids…I was the only one who was still at home. All my other…my
sister was married and my one, my youngest brother right away fled because he belonged
to the Reichspanner.
RASKIN: What was that?
ERMAN: Reichspanner. This was a Communist organization, uh, not Communist,
but in between Communist and…so he belonged. And in fact before, right after he left,
they were searching our house because they wanted to arrest him. Everybody who
belonged to a different party – they came and…
RASKIN: Who came?
ERMAN: The SS came to our house and searched for my brother because they were
planning to arrest him.
RASKIN: And where was he?
ERMAN: He fled, he fled right away.
RASKIN: But the rest of you were there, or were you…?
ERMAN: Myself. No – my sister was already married.
RASKIN: You were there…
ERMAN: No. She was not married. I was there yes, I was there. My sister was in
Berlin. Yes, and my older brother was not home. My younger brother wasn’t home
RASKIN: But you were there and do you remember what happened?
ERMAN: Yes. They knocked at the door and marched in to our house. “We’re
looking for your brother Leo Laufer.” “My brother is not here.” “Where he is?” We
said, “We don’t know.” And they looked every place. They looked for weapons. They
looked for money. They looked for foreign currencies. They looked for reading
material, you know, everything that might have been in connection with the
Reichspanner – everything. But of course they didn’t find anything. So they said, make
sure that everything stays the way it is. Don’t bring anything…any foreign reading
material in or…or against the Nazis, or something.
RASKIN: And when do you think that took place?
ERMAN: It took place – might be ’34 or ’35.
RASKIN: That early?
ERMAN: Yeah, very early, very early.
RASKIN: But they didn’t do any damage to your property at that time?
ERMAN: No, no, no, not at this…because they didn’t find anything. If they would
have found something…now I know that many of our friends or people…you just…Jews,
Gypsies and Communists. Communists who belonged to a party, but not only the…the
Reichspanner and the Communist party were arrested and some of them were tortured
and some of them they killed. This was…everything was at the beginning, like I said.
RASKIN: Is this something that…?
ERMAN: This has nothing to do with concentration camps.
RASKIN: I understand. Is this something that you were then aware was happening?
I mean – from your own experience that you…that you heard about it at the time?
ERMAN: Yes, yes. I was a youngster at time but I was aware of it and I, I…even
one of my uncles was arrested too and then he was let free.
RASKIN: For his political beliefs?
ERMAN: Yeah. At the time, yeah.
RASKIN: And what happened to those people then before the concentration camps?
The ones who were…
ERMAN: Some of them…some of them were killed. Some of them were let out
after a long period of time. If somebody could get an affidavit or a certification to go
either to the United States or to Israel (to Palestine at the time) they were let out so
everybody…it was always a struggle to go someplace – to get someplace – to get out of
it. But there, unfortunately, there was nowhere…anybody…nobody wanted the Jews.
There was no place to go.
RASKIN: Now, in that time you are…you started to make a plan to go to Palestine.
Why did that happen? Why did it happen that you…?
ERMAN: First, I belong to the Habonim. Second, there was no future in Germany.
RASKIN: Well tell me before you go further – how did you get involved with the
Habonim? And at what age? Or…
ERMAN: Very young. I was a leader. I belonged to the group and then I became a
fuhrer, you know, a bundesfuehrer. I had a group under…under me. I was in charge of
younger children and…
RASKIN: What was that then? What was the Habonim in Europe…in Dortmund?
ERMAN: Habonim was like Shomer Ha-Atzir. It was a political Bundesveramt,
RASKIN: For young people?
ERMAN: For young people. We made tours on Sunday, yeah…Sunday. And we
learned Hebrew. We learned history. We were a group of youngsters who came together
– who had one aim – to go to Palestine – to build the country – to build up our homeland
and we started when we were young. And later on when we were older, we had one aim.
RASKIN: How did you get to join this when you were young? Is that…was that a
family tradition, uh, of Zionism or did you just…?
ERMAN: You had to belong…you had to belong to a group. Either you belonged to
a Zionist and at this…this time, everybody belonged to some kind of a group. You know,
RASKIN: In the school you mean?
ERMAN: In the school…in the city…and (PAUSE) You really had to belong. You
see, here you have the…the synagogues. You belong to a synagogue and there the
youths congregate. Right? Now in…in Dortmund, synagogues was really only for a
religious purpose. There was one liberal large synagogue and there was a few small
Orthodox synagogues. So this took care of your religious belief. But the…the youth had
to do something else. They had to…to be occupied. So the Habonim was established
and the Werkleute.
There were four groups – Zionist groups in Dortmund. One was the Shomer Ha-Atzir,
the Habonim, the Werkleute and the Mizrachim. The biggest group were the…Habonim.
And this was my group, right. My brothers and sisters belonged to it too. And now these
groups were, uh, founded from leaders really from all Germany. They had seminars in
the house where they sent people who…where they studied Zionism and they learned
how to…to form these groups and get the best result from it. And in – what we did – we
met twice a week and one, it was a social affair and it was a learning experience. We
danced the Hora and we sang songs – not Hebrew and German songs – and we went on
trips and we had Jewish history – and Hebrew we studied once a week. So – and one
time there…many of the groups who went on hikes on the weekend…some of them were
attacked…and with stones and with sticks, and some of them got hurt. So there was…a
decision had to be made – should we go, continue our trips, because there was some kind
of danger and parents did not want to let the kids go. So our group made up our mind
that we are going to be ready for them. At night, instead of going to bed, we had stones
and sticks under our beds and we were…
RASKIN: When you were out in the woods?
ERMAN: Yes…when we were out hiking in the Herfbergen…in some kind of a tent
and we were ready for our attackers to come. And they came like expected but instead of
finding a sleeping group there, they found people ready to fight back and some of them
were really wounded. And the next day it was in the paper that the dirty Jews attacked
our German Nazi people, SS and SA so…and then…afterwards we felt great because you
know, at least we accomplished something. But from this day on, we…our hikes stopped
because we…we really were afraid that something more serious might happen.
RASKIN: So this was really young people attacking adult…
ERMAN: No…young people attacking young people. Some – maybe a few years
older. Maybe 20 years old attacking 16 and 15 years old. Hitler Youth.
RASKIN: In which way? Who was 20?
ERMAN: The Germans…the Nazis were in their 20’s and we were, you know, from
16 to 18 and 20, we might have been. Or there might have been some older people
among us too.
RASKIN: That was a pretty brave thing to be doing though.
ERMAN: Yeah. We felt great.
RASKIN: Yes, yes.
ERMAN: I still remember like it happened today.
RASKIN: Really? How many of you were there that day…that night?
ERMAN: We might have been 40 people.
RASKIN: And you were how far from Dortmund?
ERMAN: Usually around 10-15 miles. We had to walk…we had to hike, you know.
RASKIN: So you were in the mountains?
RASKIN: And you just lay there waiting for somebody to come?
ERMAN: Uh huh, uh huh – and they came – like expected.
RASKIN: And what…what were you aware of at the time?
ERMAN: That they hated the Jews. (LAUGHTER)
RASKIN: But didn’t you…?
ERMAN: If we just came out, you know, we came out always be attacked we have
to…to do something about it in our own way. So this was the first and the last time.
RASKIN: It sounds to me though that you weren’t scared…you were almost…
ERMAN: Yes we were scared.
RASKIN: You were scared?
ERMAN: Sure we were scared because you never know what the outcome might
be…or not. We were scared.
RASKIN: And afterward you felt…
ERMAN: We felt good that we did it but we said, “Okay, we did what we had to do
and that’s enough.” And our parents said… “No more hiking.”
RASKIN: But the group itself was allowed to continue?
ERMAN: In…yes…in our…in our “Heim.” You know, we had one building, the
Judisches Kultur building. And there where we met. And we did meet in smaller groups
in homes too.
RASKIN: You didn’t have any intrusion from the German…?
ERMAN: No – this was…
RASKIN: That was permitted activity?
ERMAN: Uh huh.
RASKIN: So you didn’t have to be secretive about…
ERMAN: Because you see we were not a political organization. It was not
considered like the Reichspanner or the Communists. Our goal was to go to Palestine.
And Hitler at the time, let everybody out.
RASKIN: Oh really. So what kept…what kept people from going to Palestine?
ERMAN: What kept people? Some people felt, uh, Hitler is just somebody who is
here – gone tomorrow. These were some of the people that…and other people did not
have any place to go. To go to Palestine at the time – either you needed to be prepared to
Hachshara. And Hachshara meant two years or three years going either to learn –
agricultural, farming or to have a profession like carpentry or carpenters, or plumbers, or
you had to have money. I think at the time it was 1000…10,000 mark. I’m not sure. Or
you had to go to the United States – you needed an affidavit and…and it was hard to get
RASKIN: To go to Palestine, did you need any kind of an affidavit?
ERMAN: Yes. You needed a Zertifikat.
RASKIN: Yes – from whom? From a private person or from…?
ERMAN: Like I said, you got…you were entitled to get a Zertifikat if you
had…either you went to Hachshara or you had a profession, or you had a certain amount
RASKIN: Do you know who set up those rules? Would that have been the British,
ERMAN: Yeah. The British mandate.
RASKIN: I see. Okay – so you were…you were involved in the Hachshara as part
of that, and fully planned to go to Palestine even if nothing had happened.
ERMAN: You mean if Hitler would not have…
RASKIN: Well no, I mean, if the events that occurred in 1938 had not happened.
ERMAN: Oh yeah, oh yeah, sure…sure.
RASKIN: You were planning to go?
ERMAN: Yeah. But this was the result of Hitler, you know. If everything would
have been like it was before – we were very happy and satisfied living in Germany. And
so, in 1937, I went to Cologne and…
RASKIN: For what purpose?
ERMAN: Hachshara…Hachshara…to stay there for two years and to get my
certification to go to Palestine. And then in…
RASKIN: Tell us about the Hachshara.
ERMAN: The Hachshara?
RASKIN: What was it?
ERMAN: Hachshara was a group in Cologne. We were a group, I would say, about
40 people. We had…
RASKIN: All young?
ERMAN: Yeah…almost same age. Between 17 and 22. Children who finished
elementary or part of them…or some of them high school and we…the boys learned…the
boys and the girls too – they tried to learn a profession and we – we had to take care of
the…the girls took care of the house and the cooking and the cleaning. And we learned a
profession and – and we learned Jewish history again, and Hebrew.
RASKIN: So what was the setup there? Was it just a building, a school building?
ERMAN: It was a building where a group of 40 people were housed and the street
was – I forgot (SPEAKS QUIETLY)…Isn’t that something – you forget.
RASKIN: …and you learned – what? You…yourself.
ERMAN: I, myself, what I did – I learned the sewing. I was in the sewing
department. So I learned…I wasn’t too good of a student because I never liked it.
RASKIN: They chose that for you?
ERMAN: Yeah. No – I don’t know if they chose it for me, but you know,
these…this was necessary at the time…had to be done. So that’s what I was put in.
RASKIN: It was a necessary skill in Palestine.
ERMAN: In Palestine and…