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Gerda Wolff

Gerda Wolff
Nationality: German
Location: Berlin • California • China • Germany • Missouri • San Francisco • Schöneck • Shanghai • St. Louis • United States of America
Experience During Holocaust: Escaped the Holocaust • Family Survived • Lived in Shanghai Ghetto

Mapping Gerda's Life

Click on the location markers to learn more about Gerda. Use the timeline below the map or the left and right keys on your keyboard to explore chronologically. In some cases the dates below were estimated based on the oral histories.

“I knew this was the pogrom on the 9th of November. We went to bed and I [heard] clearly all over, the windows – broken.... but we did not know what was going on. The next morning we saw everything was broken – all the windows, all the stores, all the glass on the ground.” - Gerda Wolff

Read Gerda's Oral History Transcripts

Read the transcripts by clicking the red plus signs below.

Tape 1 - Side 1

Bernstein This evening we are going to start out with Gerta telling me about where she was born and her youth.
Wolff I was born in Schoeneck in Germany. It later became Poland. Left Schoeneck in 1921 as far as I can remember, I was a very young child. Went to Berlin, I was raised in Berlin, went to school, went to University, I studied medicine there. But under Hitler later on they didn’t let me. So finally after Hitler came to power in 1933 it was just the beginning of my teenage (what they call here in America, teenage), life. What was at first not very pleasant because of…
Bernstein Before we talk about the period starting at 1933, lets talk a little bit about growing up in Berlin. How many children were in your family…?
Wolff I had an older brother and …what else do you want to know about my family? My father was a banker and in the grain business, he was very successful. We lived in the nicest part of Berlin, at this time it still is Kurfurstendamm.
Bernstein Is that the area where you lived?
Wolff Rand street
Bernstein When did you first notice that things were changing? Was it because you were not allowed to go on to school or how did you first learn that things were changing with the Hitler regime?
Wolff Oh, right away after he came to power. Was the restriction, first was all the doctors, “No Jews Allowed” , to business “No Jews Allowed”, to universities “No Jews Allowed” so all had to quit. There were special stores where you even could not go, special restaurants, oh, lots of restrictions, if I can remember.
Bernstein Did you live in a Jewish neighborhood or a gentile neighborhood?
Wolff It was not Jewish, it wasn’t expected. But a good neighborhood.
Bernstein Did you have gentile friends when you were growing up?
Wolff When I was growing up, yes I had few gentile friends, but most Jewish friends.
Bernstein Were you aware of a time when your gentile friends stopped associating with you?
Wolff I didn’t notice that, but at this time I think, because of the schooling it was different. I enjoyed most Jewish friends that I can remember. It was an accident (laughter).
Bernstein So when Hitler came to power you were going to the University then.
Wolff Yes, University of Berlin in Valleke Strasse. I guess I wanted to study medicine and I went to two and a half years to the physical they call it, two and a half years. But after (inaudible) want to go into dentistry (laugher) I couldn’t go on anymore, wasn’t allowed. So… after that I was assistant at several doctor, professor Sachshausen. I was medical assistant and later on I was a dental assistant, most in surgery. But I remember at this time I was the highest paid assistant in Berlin. Especially in surgery, we did oral surgery.
Bernstein Were these Jewish doctors that you worked with?
Wolff Yes, yes, this doctor was Doctor Rudolph Meyer, in Valleke Strasse and I was with him till I left the place. He was picked up from the Nazi already before. Before we left Germany.
Bernstein Did the Jewish doctors have mostly Jewish patients?
Wolff Not all the time, no. My doctor had most patients from the government and I had to take all those papers out cut into pieces. That no records could be found from those people they aren’t supposed to go to Jewish doctors, period. They are not allowed to go to Jewish doctors. No
Bernstein Gentiles were not.
Wolff We had lots of gentiles from the government, very high.
Bernstein What can you tell me about the pre-Nazi Jewish life? Was your family an observant family or …
Wolff My family was very much the limelight, yes. My father, he had lots of employees, I remember, this time. Lots of parties, oh yes, but most of the time I was too young even at this time to go to parties or what. But we usually had Jewish organizations that we get to go. But it was already, like I said, when Hitler came I was still in school. I liked to read, I like to study and …
Bernstein Were your parents Orthodox or ?
Wolff They were Conservative. Oh yea they were Conservative.
Bernstein What can you tell me about what you remember about Hitler’s rise to power.
Wolff At this time we didn’t think it would be become this bad unless we have seen ‘Juden Rause”, “No Jews Allowed”, in German, of course everything. November the 9th it was a few weeks before we left. You see I got married in 1938 in January 1938 and my late father, he had booked the boat to go to China, and right after I got married, before November, we couldn’t go before November. Was everything taken … so we prepared our papers and was sent to give up what you had.
Bernstein Didn’t you tell me that you didn’t know that the had made those plans?
Wolff No, I did not know that he made those plans. Because when he finally talked to us about it, I could not even answer. My husband said ‘I never could go, it is never getting this bad.” This was from January to November, but I think two months before, he decided he would go.
Bernstein Now is it the kind of thing where you would sit around an talk about what was happening, or did you whisper about what was happening in your …
Wolff No, we still could talk, but it was always a worry. Like I said November the 9th was the worst. If we left November the 20th I think. Yet all our papers, now this comes a pick up, all the men to the concentration camp and my father, my brother they didn’t stay in our home anymore. We put them every night different kinds of homes to sleep.
Bernstein Where did they stay?
Wolff We had some Christian families, that helped us.
Bernstein So at that point they knew they were in very much danger.
Wolff That’s right. At home they were in danger, because the doorbellwas ringing at 6:00 in the morning, you know there is somebody to pick up, some men.
Bernstein And nobody ever came to your house?
Wolff Yes they came to our house, but not to pick up my father. But police came with a gun behind him to open, because they knew he was a banker, to open the drawers and yes we had money and take to us to the bank and so on. It was out. But like I said, we had our papers ready and every time I left the house, I took the papers around with me, because I just did not know if I would be able to go home again. So at least I had my papers. And then you had papers under your arm to go away to go out from Berlin, they left you alone so far I can remember/
Bernstein Were you in a constant state of fear at that point?
Wolff Constant state of fear. All the time, all the time.
Bernstein That did not begin until November 9tt or did it begin before November 9th?
Wolff It begin before, after November 9th last three weeks was the worst. I knew this was, by now, the pogrom on the 9th November. We went to bed and I (inaudible) clearly all over, the windows – broken and it was such a night on the street, but we did not know what it really was – what was going on. The next morning we seen everything was broken – all the windows, all the stores, all the glass on the ground, the streets.
Bernstein But you were in your home at that time?
Wolff In our home, yeah, but scared to death
Bernstein Was your father there at that …
Wolff Yes, he was home, but was scared to death, because we had no business.
Bernstein It was after November 9th that he started staying in different places?
Wolff That’s right. Even when we got married my husband could not, my husband is from Silesia, upper Silesia, he could not … He worked for department store, he was manager of two department stores, but from the same company in the small town Kozo. And all the stores, the businesses were closed for Jewish people. In the small towns it was even worse than the bigger cites. In Berlin, of course, you lived in Berlin, but you didn’t live in Berlin to make a living. I think he went on the road to sell, how do you say it, travel… he traveled a lot. I think it was textile, something like that, just because our money was taken away.
Bernstein Your husband was selling textiles?
Wolff At this time.
Bernstein What did he do before he sold textiles?
Wolff He was the manager, he ran two stores, two department stores, in a small town in upper Silesia, before he came to Berlin. The stores were all closed so…
Bernstein But you lived in Berlin and he would just travel to these stores, or…
Wolff No, no, no, no. This was all before we got married.
Bernstein That is right you were just married for number of months then, before all this happened.
Wolff That’s right. After I got married, of course, we lived in Berlin. And the country stores were closed. Otherwise we would have moved.
Bernstein And he was traveling selling textiles.
Wolff He was a traveling salesman, that was that was stopped too.
Bernstein Now so what you basically remember about that November 9th is lots of noise and not knowing what was happening outside.
Wolff Not knowing what was going on.
Bernstein Did you hide?
Wolff Did I cry?
Bernstein Did you hide?
Wolff No, no really. I was pregnant at this time, I remember that too. They didn’t tell me what happened.
Bernstein So they were keeping information from you? How did your father decide on Shanghai? What do you think?
Wolff` Because we had family in America, but it would have taken too long to get an affidavit. So at this time he heard that Jewish people, under Hitler, could go to Shanghai as long as they had the money to get out. And that is what we did. We took seven kinds of papers – nothing, just a passport, I think, and the money to get out.
Bernstein So what could you take with you?
Wolff Ten mark,
Bernstein How much is that worth?
Wolff Ten mark, nothing,
Bernstein Today is worth nothing?
Wolff Today ten mark, I don’t know, ten cents maybe, I have no idea.
Bernstein Just an incredibly small amount.
Wolff Oh, nothing, But at this time we still take along jewelry. My father was a must have bought lots of jewelry, because when we came to Shanghai he bought ruins. At this time the war was over between China and Japan and everything that was left was ruins. Four walls for each building. He bought those but everything he built, so he must have got money. I don’t know.
Bernstein He somehow got some money there. Did you bring …
Wolff From jewelry, not cash money, from jewelry.
Bernstein Did you bring luggage with you, could you bring clothing?
Wolff We really could, because I got married a short while and we could take along, I guess, one sheet, one pillowcase, per person so it is so much. Everything else was taken away. They took everything else away. The crystal and the china and the… oh, my goodness, the silverware, nothing…
Bernstein So that was left in Germany. Did you just leave it in your house or what did you do with it?
Wolff You know, when we packed, the inspection from the Nazis to come to the house to see what we packed…
Bernstein And they knew you were leaving and it was ok with them ….
Wolff Well, yes, we could leave, because we got all our papers ready. Sure we picked a time to leave. Everything was prepared, not to take, or not to leave.
Bernstein So then your husband had originally been managing some stores and then after you got married he was a salesman selling textiles.
Wolff The traveling salesman.
Bernstein How did you get to Shanghai?
Wolff By boat. By train first from Berlin to Genoa in Italy, by train. And then it is off the train and to the exams. So terrible. I was the only woman they put a x-ray koo-kay in the front. I was pregnant, that is what I (inaudible) something, money or whatever. It was terrible. They thought that I would not come out alive. I was the only one left in the train everyone had to go out. The train was completely empty. I was there with women that was searched, they searched, I had to get undressed completely. They examined everything.
Bernstein Now who all went with you from…
Wolff` From Germany?
Bernstein Yes.
Wolff My parents, my brother, my husband and myself.
Bernstein So your father arranged for five people to leave?
Wolff Oh, yes, yeah, yeah.
Bernstein And so you went by train and then why did they make everybody get off except you? I didn’t understand that.
Wolff Because it was the exam. They thought I had, I don’t have the belly, I have something else put underneath. Yes.
Bernstein How pregnant were you at that point?
Wolff Baby was born in May, it was November.
Bernstein So then you got to Genoa by train and then you took a boat.
Wolff Four weeks on a boat, Conto Biancomano.
Bernstein That is the name of the boat?
Wolff Conto Biamcomano, yeah. Four weeks on the boat.
Bernstein What were they conditions like on the boat?
Wolff Hummmm. I think we were glad to have peace and go to bed. It was the most important thing. The conditions were not too bad, but very, very many people.
Bernstein Were you sick during the pregnancy which made it worse on the boat or not?
Wolff I was very sick before we left Berlin because, I don’t know why. I was in bed the last three weeks before we left. I had to be in bed. Then I got a certificate from the doctor in case. I was very sick on the boat, very, very sick. I can’t remember any more. I remember this so well ‘til today. But we made it. We arrived, I guess on the 21st of December. I think it was the 21st of December or 23rd. I don’t know the exact date, but four weeks on the boat.
Bernstein Did you know anybody in Shanghai at that time.
Wolff Oh, no, nobody.
Bernstein What employment did your husband and your father do?
Wolff My employment, nothing. So we set our own business up. Like I said they didn’t do anything at the beginning. Like I said my father built all those ruins, had the house built up. After this was built we lived, each party lived in one room, one room. It was a house, one room. But we were so happy we could go to bed and know nobody would knock at the door.
Bernstein Where did you, how were you able to get food?
Wolff We bought food. We sold what he had, jewelry. What he built. He opened up… and I don’t know how long it took to open up,,, the grocery store.
Bernstein Was your husband with him on that too?
Wolff Yes, my brother, my husband, all together in the business there, all together.
Bernstein Do you recall getting any help from any of the Jewish agencies? Did they help you in getting to Shanghai or once you got there?
Wolff No, no they didn’t help us to get to Shanghai. They helped us to go from Shanghai to America. That was different. Yes, later on. We did not live in camps, we were the few lucky ones who did not live in the camps.
Bernstein So where did you live?
Wolff We lived in our own place. Most people lived in camps.
Bernstein So you were outside of the ghetto?
Wolff No, this wasn’t a ghetto. We lived in a certain part of China, Shanghai, Hong Kew.
Bernstein I have a map right here. Let’s see if this brings back any memories for you. Here the Hong Kew district, right here.
Wolff Oh my goodness! This side, we lived on a bike road. (inaudible) wouldn’t let anyone put (inaudible) over there. That (inaudible) that is a cemetery here where my grandparents buried and my uncle buried.
Bernstein So your grandparents went too?
Wolff Later on. Later on we sent … they know how to get in already. But we sent papers.
Bernstein So you were in …
Wolff Ha, ha. My son was born in the French section, and you could tell (I know exactly) my goodness! It has been a long time.
Bernstein How did he happen to be born in the French section? Did they not have hospitals or anything in the …
Wolff At this time not. Not this time. There were 25,000 Jews from all over, from Poland, from Austria, from Germany, 25,000. At this time we didn’t have a hospital. When my daughter was born we had a hospital there. So I had a French doctor, Devon was his name. (laughter) I reach out for her… oh my goodness!
Bernstein Now with this, where were you lived was on a street and where was the actual ghetto then?
Wolff There wasn’t a ghetto. The ghetto was only because of, because when we want to leave our part, you had to have the Japanese passport, from Japanese consulate.
Bernstein Well then, you lived in an apartment.
Wolff Not in an apartment, in our own home.
Bernstein How did most people live? Because you said you got to… you were…
Wolff We were the lucky ones because we were able to be on our own, but most people lived in the camps. It was a good thing because …
Bernstein What were the camps like? Can you tell me about that?
Wolff` Camps. There was many in one room, I don’t know, they just have beds. They got their food, CARE packages.
Bernstein And from the very beginning you were able to have your own place?
Wolff Yes, we never lived in the camp. (inaudible) never. What is that?
Bernstein I got it out of a book.
Wolff From a book!
Bernstein Yes, and so I made a copy of it and I thought I would show it to you.
Wolff Yes.
Bernstein The book is called Nazis, Jews and Shanghai. So I was just doing a little reading and I saw that, and I thought that would be good.
Wolff What are we founded the Jewish community too. Like I said my late husband’s brother, oldest brother, he was a founder of the Jewish community, in Shanghai.
Bernstein One thing I wanted to get back to, how are your related to Bernard Baruch?
Wolff Barnard Baruch was my grandfather’s first cousin.
Bernstein Did you know him?
Wolff I didn’t know him personally, no. No, I was … he never wanted to do anything for his family in Europe.
Bernstein Oh really?
Wolff You know, he changed his religion too.
Bernstein You know, I was wondering about that.
Wolff He did.
Bernstein So he was not really interested in his family.
Wolff No, he was not a very outgoing person.
Bernstein While you were in Shanghai, did you learn Chinese?
Wolff Not very much. Only a few words what you really needed for I had, like help. They are called “Amah”, they are very, very inexpensive. She did the wash, she cleans the room and …
Bernstein Let me just get back to one thing. Did you have help when you were in Germany?
Wolff Oh, yes, of course.
Bernstein Up until the time that you left, or did…
Wolff No, at the time we left, no more.
Bernstein How long before you left did you stop having help?
Wolff They stopped us having help.
Bernstein They stopped you?
Wolff Yes, of course. They called it “rassenschande” is the (inaudible) word in German, “rassenschande” .
Bernstein What does that mean?
Wolff “Racal integration “ sometimes. The Jewish and Christian too.
Bernstein Oh that is right, so you couldn’t have them …
Wolff No, no it was really hard, all of a sudden to do everything by yourself.
Bernstein Was that for very long before, was it a matter of years or or..
Wolff Yeah, a couple of years, sure. But it was between ’33 and ’38 is still five years. I didn’t know at the beginning, right away. I don’t think at the beginning right away, no. But this I can’t remember anymore, it is too much to think.
Bernstein How old were you when you got married?
Wolff 21 I think.
Bernstein So when you went to Shanghai, you were 21 – 22?
Wolff Yeah, yeah.
Bernstein Were you involved in any education when you got to Shanghai? Did you want to go to school or anything?
Wolff Well, I had the baby right away. No, I wanted to go at first, I thought I could, but was impossible. I became very sick in Shanghai. I was very, very sick in Shanghai. I was already between life and death twice.
Bernstein Because of the pregnancy or because of ….
Wolff No, no, no, no, tropical disease. Tropical disease. I went down to… I was 84 pounds, I was unable to walk.
Bernstein So you attempted to go to school there?
Wolff I wanted to go first, but it was impossible. At first, very hard, first of all was the language. And then we weren’t in the district anyway. To get out it was too much complication. I thought when I come to America I might go on again. But it was complicated too, because you have to know the language very well. Even if you learned everything in school in Europe, you learned everything in school, foreign language especially, French and English. I even took up Latin when I wanted to become a doctor in medicine. You need it for medicine.
Bernstein Now those that wanted to go to school or say those that were young children, what kind of schooling could they get within that district?
Wolff My son started school, Sassoon. He was seven, he started first year in Shanghai.
Bernstein Was it within that district, that Hong Kew district?
Wolff Oh yes. Sassoon, yes.
Bernstein Everything was within that area.
Wolff We had the school. But you see, before we bring this up, I remember from the school, in the meantime war broke out, the Second World War, see we are already much ahead.
Bernstein Lets not go on to that, lets wait and we will catch up. When you first go there, not talking about your son, but other young children that were ready to go to school at that point.
Wolff My son was the first refugee child born in Shanghai.
Bernstein But those that came that had young children, when you got there that were 6 or 7 …
Wolff This I don’t know. I don’t know.
Bernstein You don’t know what kind of education they were able to get, ok. Do you remember having any interactions with Chinese society?
Wolff My husband had, yes.
Bernstein What kind?
Wolff The business, in business. You know when he did the buying, he bought everything from the Chinese people, sure.
Bernstein But then he sold it to his own people, I guess?
Wolff His own, yeah.
Bernstein Looking back on it now, was that a hard period for you?
Wolff When we left Germany and came to Shanghai, I mean the way we lived before and the way we lived in Shanghai was one room. We came from all the society we lived in Germany, which was a big change, but we have the happiest people on account we have peace. That was the most. We didn’t care about luxury. We didn’t have anything!
Bernstein So you were not despaired at that point?
Wolff No, but ten years was a long time. We had to wait till the war was over and …
Bernstein Do you remember, were there radios when you … did you have a means of communicating?
Wolff In Shanghai?
Bernstein Uh-huh.
Wolff I think, yea we had radio. Oh, yeah, we had radio.
Bernstein And were you aware of world events? Was that the kind of thing where you would all sit around the radio and listen to all …
Wolff (inaudible) December the 7th, Pearl Harbor, I seen from my window, the flames shooting up in the sky.
Bernstein Other events, were you very much aware of?
Wolff Yes, very much. The Americans, by accident, dropped a bomb in our settlement and lots or our Jewish people got killed, by accident.
Bernstein Scary?
Wolff Very scary. The bombs … we had during the whole war, we had blackouts. We had to go to bed, put sheets in front of the windows, no lights. At the door we had a chair with thermos bottles with water, with some bread, some things. We went to bed during the night, we had to get undressed just to know when you had to get dressed again, but you dress in the dark. I had my name … a chain with my name on, like a purse with some money.
Bernstein And you went to bed with that every night?
Wolff Every night.
Bernstein For how long a period of time?
Wolff I don’t remember.
Bernstein Why did you have the water and the bread by the door?
Wolff We have to go out! In case we had to leave in a hurry. It would give us something to … water and bread, at least eat.
Bernstein Did you ever have to go out during the night?
Wolff Umm, yes, we had to go.
Bernstein And that was for why.
Wolff We had to go all down to … we didn’t have a cellar, but we had to … the first floor.
Bernstein And that was an air raid or what?
Wolff Air raid. Through the night the bombs fell, yes. One Sabbath it was the daytime, it was summer time. I lived on the third floor, I remember, I went up to get something because it was for the baby and it was up. I just wanted to go … I reached the door and all of a sudden the bomb fell through the ceiling. Without announcement, an air raid. Just hit me in the on the street where I was, because the bomb fell through.
Bernstein How were you alerted in the other situations? That time you were not alerted. How were you alerted in other (inaudible)?
Wolff I don’t know what an air raid means.
Bernstein It is a noise. Isn’t it that comes on.
Wolff EEEEEE. Like a tornado warning? And one, two, three, you got … you got so …I had a baby and I no except that … everything for the baby was by the door, just to take.
Bernstein Grab it and go.
Wolff Grab it and get out. Not a pleasure, not at all.
Bernstein How was it living in a Nazi ally country? Were you fearful because of that?
Wolff What do you mean, I don’t understand?
Bernstein At that point Shanghai was China, it was an ally of Germany and since what had gone on in Germany, did you have fears about any of that coming…
Wolff Yes, because the Japanese people wanted to do the same, we found out. They did already the same, but somebody was against it. The Japanese people was very much against it. Otherwise it would have the same like in Europe, a Holocaust, the same.
Bernstein So did that occur to you while you were there, or did you find this out afterwards?
Wolff No, we found out while we still were there.
Bernstein So that must have made you …
Wolff Oh, my goodness!
Bernstein Very frightened…
Wolff Yes, very frightened.
Bernstein How different was your lifestyle in Shanghai as opposed to when you were in Berlin?
Wolff Oh, my goodness. Very simpler for us, very simple, but we had our Jewish people at restaurants, with music, we had a roof garden in the summertime and dancing. Later on my Father formed a grocery store, and a restaurant, it had music too, dance music. It was … it was really not, in one way, not too bad. After a certain number of years, when you get adjusted to the life.
Bernstein So culturally there were things. Did the musicians have concerts or anything like that?
Wolff All European people.
Bernstein All European people. They had concerts and music. How about artists, did they continue painting or anything like that?
Wolff I can’t remember it.
Bernstein Did you view yourself as being in danger at that point in your life?
Wolff Yeah, there was a war on and the bomb fell. We had some shelters, bomb shelters, bomb shelters built too. I remember my husband’s brother, he was at the front of the Jewish community. He was a very rich man and stayed rich there too. He came by capital after… I don’t know how he put,,, I mean we brought him over, but he could bring money. I don’t know how the way it was.
Bernstein So you brought over your husband’s brother and your grandparents also?
Wolff My grandparents, my mother’s sister and husband. My mothers second cousin and husband. We brought over lots of people.
Bernstein How long was it after you were there that you brought them over?
Wolff I don’t know.
Bernstein Was it a matter of months or years?
Wolff A year, two years, maybe. At this time it was really hard to get in. So they had to have their papers.
Bernstein How were you able to communicate with your relatives, they were still in Germany then right?
Wolff It was very, very hard during the war to know what was going on. Later on we found out that most of the family there were killed in the gas chambers. We got the list sent to Shanghai.
Bernstein Now the ones that you brought over, they were in Germany until you brought them over?
Wolff Yes.
Bernstein They were lucky. But you left late and they left later than you.
Wolff They left later than we did. But … … Yes, but like I said, we did not know what was going on. We had no writing to each other, so it was impossible.
Bernstein You mean letters didn’t get through? Well, how were you able to let them know about arranging to get them over?
Wolff Oh, at this time yes. But later on … in the middle of war, it was very hard for communication at all.
Bernstein So it was really before the war that they came?
Wolff Yeah, that is right.
Bernstein Did you remember having to work at maintaining your dignity, or was that not something or was that something that you thought not much about while you were there?
Wolff I didn’t think too much about it.
Bernstein Even though the lifestyle was very different?
Wolff It was completely different. But you got used to that, because when you are young you can change very fast, different kind of lifestyle.
Bernstein What do you remember about the war breaking out?
Wolff Like I said December 7th, Pearl Harbor, I remember very well. And they did not tell too much about … the papers too, we had also, I guess, papers to read. But we did not have any connection with our families at all. Only the people that came to Shanghai, that is all as a family … who wanted to come or who didn’t want to come they all got killed in the concentration camps (inaudible) Shanghai. It was heartbreaking. Everybody was gone. My husband’s father, his mother died of natural causes, his sisters, my uncle, my aunt, my cousins, oh my goodness, (slapped hands together) everyone.
Bernstein And they just didn’t think they needed to leave?
Wolff No they didn’t think. We found one cousin alive. Went from Germany to Israel and came back, so we found him and he is still in Berlin now. He was on the underground. He went on to Israel, then he came back to Berlin. My parents went back to Berlin, too, after the war. Because like I said, we came to America, by government affidavit.
Bernstein Lets wait because I have some other things to get to before we talk about you coming to America, so at that point you can tell me about when they went back to live in Berlin. Can you tell me anything about the Japanese occupation? Being under the Japanese occupation.
Wolff Yea, what do you want to know? They were not very friendly to us either.
Bernstein But even though they weren’t friendly, were they like the horrible things that the Nazi’s would do? Were there any of those kinds of things?
Wolff Well, I mean, we did not know. We found out later on. Certain people from the Japanese did it, and lots were against it. And the man who was against it, I forgot his name, was terrible to us in person, but he was against this what other people want to do to us.
Bernstein Lets go back to when you were in Germany. Do you remember any bad experiences that happened to you personally with the Nazis before you left Germany?
Wolff` Yeah, what I said.
Bernstein Can you tell us an experience?
Wolff They came to our house, the police, and there was a gun behind my father.
Bernstein Anything involving you, not just your family?
Wolff Well, I was still too young, I was a child. They didn’t want anything from me and special females.
Bernstein But you did go out during the day and you were out and about.
Wolff Yes.
Bernstein And you did not get harassed.
Wolff No, no, I did not. Always had my case with me, always my papers with me. You have your case and I have been schlepping this a long time. (laughs)
Bernstein Back to Shanghai, do you remember making friends with any of the other refugees that were there?
Wolff Oh, sure, certainly. All the people are … know you from Shanghai… they are all friends.
Bernstein You were friends in Shanghai?
Wolff Of course, I have lots of people from Shanghai, I met in Shanghai.
Bernstein I remember there were about a dozen, I didn’t realize that you met them there. I thought maybe you ended up in St. Louis and found out there had been other ones there.
Wolff No.
Bernstein Were there any organizations in the ghetto, like sports clubs, youth groups, religious organizations, any thing like that?
Wolff I don’t remember.
Bernstein The people that you were closest to, as a support system, was it your family, or were there some close friends that you made outside of your family?
Wolff I still don’t understand what you mean.
Bernstein A support system, meaning people that you became very close to. You know, when you had problems you would go and talk to…
Wolff No. I had lots of family of our own there, so …
Bernstein And your family was pretty tight, pretty close?
Wolff One brother… two brothers, I got two brothers there that come too. But those two brothers they were already in a concentration camp. We got those out.
Bernstein Two brothers….
Wolff Max and Solly, Sam, but we called him Solly, his name was Solomon, and in Europe, man’s name.
Bernstein And they were friends or they were family?
Wolff No, this was my husband’s brothers. Yeah, the whole family, We go so many people over there, its unbelievable, really.
Bernstein I remember hearing something about that there were like four Jewish communities within the Shanghai community. Can you tell me anything about that, like a Russian community, a German community… was there any breakdown that you can remember as far as within that Hong Kew?
Wolff No, I can’t remember.
Bernstein How did you entertain yourselves? What were the highlights when you all were…
Wolff At home? At home not too much. Our family had a restaurant downstairs. So the evening we went down and sometimes we went to like coffee houses in Europe. So our people went there too, we had the ground restaurant, we roof garden restaurant with music, once or twice a week was dance, Saturday. We made our own … it was not too bad. It was not too bad.
Bernstein What reasons would you have for leaving the area? You said you had to show them your papers when you left your district. What would be the reasons…
Wolff The passport. We would leave just to go to settlement, to the other settlement, to the town, to the city. To Shanghai.
Bernstein You would need to have it. Were you limited in how often you could leave or anything?
Wolff We had the passport, I guess four weeks, it had gone for six months and there was a new plan. Standing in line, the police department to get your passport.
Bernstein You had to get a new passport every few weeks?
Wolff If you want to leave the settlement, yes.
Bernstein I see, so every time you leave the settlement you had to get a new passport?
Wolff Not every time. I mean because you have a year your passport. Expired after certain kind of months or whatever. I don’t remember it too well any more, all along. But I know we get renewed very often.
Bernstein Did you leave the district frequently?
Wolff Oh, yes, we went to the city. Shopping or…
Bernstein So you do shopping outside of the district?
Wolff Yeah. the distance, it was very distant. We went by bus (laughter), not by car, by bus.
Bernstein You didn’t have cars within your district?
Wolff No, we didn’t have a car (laughing), not in Shanghai.
Bernstein When you left, did you have curfews that you had to be back within a certain time?
Wolff Yes, there was a curfew, right. A certain time we had to be back. In our district you could be out as long as you want in the evening. There was not a curfew. The curfew was (inaudible) after the war ’45, the was over ‘45? Then it was much nicer for us.
Bernstein So, during the war…
Wolff There was curfew, sure there was curfew.
Bernstein Even within your district?
Wolff Oh, yes.
Bernstein How was information or misinformation spread? Was it word of mouth or newspapers, …
Wolff About the war? Condition of the or what?
Bernstein War news.
Wolff Sure, from house to house. People talk about it … all the time.
Bernstein Were there newspapers?
Wolff Yes.
Bernstein In different languages, the newspapers?
Wolff I think English. In box it was English.
Bernstein Oh and you learned English when…
Wolff In German, wait a moment, in German language, we had a paper too. Um… 33 years back or more…36, 35 years back. Oh my goodness to remember that, that is a lifetime.
Bernstein But they did have newspapers?
Wolff Oh, yes.
Bernstein What about books? Did you read much?
Wolff Yea, I liked to read as a child, I was reading Dostoyevsky and others, study books. You don’t know all of those…
Bernstein Dostoyevsky, yes.
Wolff Stefan Zweig.
Bernstein Zweig, right?
Wolff Yes.
Bernstein Was it hard to get materials to read?
Wolff I think it was easy..
Bernstein You don’t know if there was a library where people could exchange books or people just traded books among themselves?
Wolff We had, not a library, but we had some bookstores that you had to rent books, because I remember.
Bernstein Now when you got to Shanghai, how many Jews were there at that point?
Wolff When we got to Shanghai how many ….?
Bernstein It got much bigger though?
Wolff It got bigger and bigger and bigger.
Bernstein Ended up being like 25,000. When did you all decide to leave Shanghai? Why did it take 10 years? OK part of it was because of the war.
Wolff We had to wait till the war was over till we could apply. And then slowly they started to get the people out. We had to wait till our turn came then I had a baby in the meantime in ’47. We had to wait again until our child was nine months old.
Bernstein They wouldn’t let you leave until she was nine months old?
Wolff They wouldn’t until she was nine months old. Then you had to have examination that you are well. Any people with lung disease could not come to America. It was restricted to, you had to be well.
Bernstein How did you come to America?
Wolff By boat.
Bernstein Who came with you? You said your parents went back to Berlin.
Wolff My parents went back to Berlin. We came, my husband, the children and myself.
Bernstein Why America?
Wolff I don’t know why America, but because all of this (inaudible) most went to America, most.
Bernstein Who made the decision? Did you make it together or did your husband always want to come or …

Tape 2 - Side 2

Wolff I couldn’t remember the question. But most people wanted to go to America from Shanghai. Only a certain quota could not go , like my husband’s brother could not come to America because one of his children was born in the same city the parents were born, but they came to Poland too. So on account of one child was on the Polish quota, the parents decided to go to Australia.
Bernstein So they lived in Australia?
Wolff Yea, in the meantime, of course, everybody’s there except the children. My niece and nephew …my nephew was, I guess five years younger than I am.
Bernstein And they lived in Australia?
Wolff Yes.
Bernstein The whole family, do they still?
Wolff The children, yes. But not the brother and sister-n-law. They’re older. My husband was the last one of eight sisters and brothers, he was the last one.
Bernstein You came to America and the reason it took so long was just you had to wait your turn and also because the baby had to be nine months old before coming. Were you anxious to get out of Shanghai when..
Wolff Oh, yes, yes. But we went first to San Francisco. We arrived in San Francisco, we had three weeks on the boat. I forgot the name of the boat now. We arrived in San Francisco March 23, 1948.
Bernstein Before we get to San Francisco let me ask you a couple of other things about China. Do you remember anything about the Chinese Revolution?
Wolff No.
Bernstein What was your perception of living in China? What was like the reality of China? The question I mean is was it like an isolated community that you were part of? Could that have been in anywhere or was it mixed in with the Chinese?
Wolff Where we lived were most … I mean, there were Chinese people living there too, but they were on the outskirt. Hong Kew most was a very small settlement. The most … our people lived there. It was not like a ghetto.
Bernstein It was an isolated colony.
Wolff It was isolated, of course.
Bernstein And it could have really been anywhere. It wasn’t like…
Wolff It could have been anywhere, absolutely. But this was set for our people to live there.
Bernstein Did political events of China effect the refugee camp at all?
Wolff No.
Bernstein Were you at that point like very politically aware of what was going on as far as China was concerned?
Wolff In Europe? What was going on in Europe? Yeah, we knew.
Bernstein No, when you were in Shanghai, were you very much aware of what was going on outside of your… of the Hong Kew district?
Wolff In Shanghai, the city?
Bernstein Yes, in the city.
Wolff Well, there was not much going on, I mean there was peace. When the was going no peace at all. The bombs flew over there, it seemed like of flew over us. But after the war.
Bernstein After your experience in China, do you have particular kinship with the Chinese because of your experiences there?
Wolff You mean here in America? Every time we go to a Chinese restaurant I tell them I lived ten years in China, my children were born in Shanghai. They say, really? (laughter)
Bernstein So you like Chinese food?
Wolff I like Chinese food, but not on account we lived in China. Because the food in China was different like it is here. (laugher) There was a beautiful Chinese restaurant, not in our Hong Kew, it was more in the city, in Shanghai. Han Bak, I remember it so well. Dinner Chinese people eat there is big families and in China, the Chinese people are very rich or very poor, there is not a middle class. But the heavier the Chinese man was the richer he was. Would you believe it?
Bernstein It was what?
Wolff The heavier he was the richer he was.
Bernstein The Chinese were heavy?
Wolff When he was really heavy, you know he has money under his belt.
Bernstein That’s funny. He was a heavy man, ate a lot. Do your children have any recollections of Shanghai?
Wolff My boy.
Bernstein How old was he when he left there?
Wolff Seven, no six, he turned seven in May.
Bernstein What kind of things does he remember?
Wolff Sometimes we ask him, my son is now 45… not very much really. He knows he went to school, but not very much really.
Bernstein Do you have any mementos or memorabilia or documents at all from Shanghai that you brought with you when you left there?
Wolff Yes, I think so. Our papers, (inaudible) papers to get over here. Oh, yes, I have all those papers.
Bernstein Any mementos that you brought with you from there?
Wolff China, and I have some other little things, I had much more, but it gets in the way.
Bernstein Little pieces of things that you brought with you. Now 1941… I read somewhere that there were miserable conditions in Hong Kew and they called it semi-internment. Meaning that almost a semi, kind of an area that you couldn’t get out of freely or easily. Do you have any recollections of that?
Wolff This was the part I meant to leave our settlement. At one time it was … at one time we could not leave at all, I think. Then they open it again. No, one time we could not leave at all.
Bernstein For how long a period was that?
Wolff I can’t remember that. Then on a Saturday, they gave us our passport and we could go.
Bernstein Did you feel confined when they told you that you couldn’t leave?
Wolff Not too much, It was quite a big area that we lived. No, not too much.
Bernstein Now your parents went back to Berlin and why did they go back to Berlin?
Wolff Because they had Polish boarder. My father wanted to get his money or try to see if he could get his money. So my father left after the baby was born, one week after my baby was born, in June. And my father passed away in March. He was already sick when he left us.
Bernstein So he passed away the following March?
Wolff Yes, it was March. When we were on the boat in Shanghai, they knew it. I called (inaudible). They kept if from me. My husband knew it by the cable. He didn’t tell me anything until we arrived in San Francisco.
Bernstein What about your mom?
Wolff My mother lived on in a (inaudible) quarter. She came here too, to St. Louis.
Bernstein Were they able to get anything back in Berlin? You said he wanted to get his money and things.
Wolff Yea, I mean they had a very comfortable life. The (inaudible) government, oh yes, the government supported them, gave them money. You know I get money now too, I get a widow pension from Germany. Not much…nothing we are supposed to talk about.
Bernstein So actually the government supported him, but he could not get his hands on his money and things.
Wolff The government did not support him, I mean we get our money from the government now, because they took it, they had everything. They everything away from the Jews.
Bernstein So he couldn’t get anything back after he went back.
Wolff No, but they lived comfortable and they had a nice place to live, my mother told me.
Bernstein She came here when?
Wolff In September 12, 1949.
Bernstein Oh, so it was just maybe a year after you got here.
Wolff Yes, yeah.
Bernstein Now you went to San Francisco. Before we get to San Francisco, let me backtrack one second. Were there relatives outside of Germany that you communicated with while you were in Shanghai?
Wolff No. Everybody was gone. There was nobody left anymore.
Bernstein All your relatives were in Germany?
Wolff After the war there was nobody left or anything.
Bernstein All your relatives were in Germany, there were no relatives in surrounding countries or anything like that?
Wolff No.
Bernstein You went to San Francisco and what did you do in San Francisco?
Wolff In San Francisco we stayed only from March till May because the Jewish Federation didn’t want to support Jewish families with children because the community was not too strong in San Francisco unless they knew they could support themselves. At this time my husband was not sure what he was going to do, what he will do. So they gave us a choice of where we should go or could go, from which communities. (inaudible) So when they mentioned St. Louis, he said oh, I’d heard the song the St. Louis Blues, and that is where we wanted to go.
Bernstein And that was how you came to St. Louis. Now at the time that you came here, did you realize that there were some other people from the Shanghai ghetto, or was it through your years here that you met them?
Wolff When we came to Shanghai?
Bernstein No, when you came to St. Louis.
Wolff Came to St. Louis. In San Francisco, there was lots of people who went to St. Louis too. Then yes.
Bernstein Did you need to have a sponsor here when you came to the United States?
Wolff Yeah, yeah. We came by cooperative affidavit, affidavit from the government, not a private affidavit.
Bernstein So you did not need to have relatives or any body in the United States. And it was just that the boat went to San Francisco and that is how you started in San Francisco. So a group of you came together to St. Louis,
Wolff Yeah, I don’t know the group. When we came to St. Louis, we only knew one family here, from St. Louis, from Shanghai. So we just made the decision of our own. A decision of our own to come to St. Louis. When I was in St. Louis, I found our from… like I said, when we left Shanghai, my uncle and aunt, they went to Canada, if I remember too. And then from Canada, they wrote to us that there family here, living in St. Louis, that I did not know. I found a cousin, a second cousin, I found here, Bernes,.. Bernstein ,,, oh, Bernstein! (both laughing). That’s right, Bernstein Department Store. Bernstein, a good time. They called it “Bernie’s”
Bernstein What did you say about good time?
Wolff Well, I mean when still the white people lived in this neighborhood, not like the schwartza live here now.
Bernstein So your uncle in Canada wrote you here and told you that you have cousins here?
Wolff Yes.
Bernstein So at first you were here and didn’t even know you had relatives here in town.
Wolff When we heard we called up and we drove over with streetcar, I can remember. (laughing).
Bernstein And it must have been how many years since you had seen that cousin?
Wolff Ten, fifteen years.
Bernstein That must have been an exciting reunion?
Wolff Yes it was, it sure was. We were children and now we children have children.
Bernstein Was that someone that you were close to as a child?
Wolff Not really close to, but it was a big cousin, I was a child still.
Bernstein So it was an older cousin.
Wolff Yea, yea, At this time he wasn’t old, but he was older.
Bernstein Now are you in touch with any people you knew from Shanghai?
Wolff Here is St. Louis?
Bernstein Well, or around the country or around the world.
Wolff Only with one cousin in Seattle, from Shanghai, a second cousin, not a first cousin. And my cousin Rose, in New Jersey. But she wasn’t in Shanghai. Her parents were in Shanghai. It was over there lots of family. Everybody else died in Shanghai, here in St. Louis. I have only one first cousin in on the east coast. It is quiet, very quiet tonight.
Bernstein Now are you involved with any international organizations, groups of people that were in Shanghai, like you knew about this convention.
Wolff I knew about it. There was one time we were invited, but my husband was in hospital.
Bernstein Would you have gone, do you think if he hadn’t been ill?
Wolff I don’t know, I don’t know. He would have been away from his business. He wasn’t so interested because he knew all the people but reunion, not reunion. People lived here, people lived there. You know all the people there try to talk, but you didn’t know every body, of course not. You had communication with few.
Bernstein Would you have had more of an interest than he did?
Wolff I would have more interest than he, yes.
Bernstein Now when you got here what did your husband do?
Wolff It was terrible. It was disgraceful! You know, like I said, when you come from a society in Europe all of a sudden, and then it is said to you later on, “In America , it is only a shame when you don’t work.” Whatever you work, whatever you do here, it was ten lost years, don’t forget it was ten lost years in Shanghai.
Bernstein So he was how old then?
Wolff By then he was 38, 39 that he came.
Bernstein And you were younger than that, right?
Wolff I was seven, years younger than him about 32, 33.
Bernstein So what did he do?
Wolff He said he didn’t want to have any help from Jewish Federation. He was very proud in one way. He did not want it. He wasn’t used to anything like that. One day he came home and said “Do we have a white coat for me?” I said, “a white coat?” He said he wanted to go the hospital and start in the kitchen to work. Would you believe it? I was crying, I said, “Oh, my goodness! If somebody would find out what you are doing here.” I was afraid to tell some body. But at this time, it didn’t mean anything, He had to make money. He had to support a wife and two children. I could not work. I could not do anything. And, of course, with the language too, there was little we understood, but it was little language barrier, when you are not completely…you know when you speak more than one language. So he started downtown, Wools’ restaurant. I remember , on Second Street. After four weeks then he started to cook and (inaudible) people came to chef. He worked all himself and he worked himself up. He was very ambitious. And he ended up to be boss, general manager and vice president from a paid man.
Bernstein So he stayed in the food business, in that line of work.
Wolff We had our own business too. In the meantime. Mr. M
Bernstein What’s Mr. M.
Wolff Otto Michael’s was my brother’s name, so they called it Mr. M restaurant it was on Lindbergh. But we had only for about three years because the traffic was very bad. You could only get to it from one side. And you came from north to go to south, was bad in between, You could not make a left turn, so we lost lots of money. Then (inaudible) name. He was built up, up, up. It was maybe 30 – 40 years before he died.
Bernstein Did you ever work?
Wolff Here in St. Louis? I did some part time work in cosmetics, Famous Barr, part time work, 20 hours a week because the children were out of house and I was very lonely. The restaurant business is a very hard business. There is not a family life, so I want to do something. So I was trained as a cosmetic.
Bernstein Can you think of anything else that you want to add to that time in your life, that ten year period?
Wolff I had my two children there. My son was the first refugee child born in Shanghai. I mean we lived. We survived. But, of course, God Bless America, life here in America. We went back twice to Germany in 1970 and then in ’79. We went for this last trip. We went to Austria and to London and to Germany, Berlin too.
Bernstein So what was this like for you to go back?
Wolff (sigh) Very sad, you know, everything from the war and when I grew up in Berlin there was no Russian section, not a wall, nothing. There was one Germany. Not the eastern section and the western section, West Berlin, East Berlin. I did not know that. I didn’t grow up in this country.
Bernstein And you were from a large family and …
Wolff No, small family.
Bernstein It was a small family, but those people that were in the family, very few survived.
Wolff Yes, and then we left for Shanghai.
Bernstein Looking back on it what do you think the general feeling was of people? They just thought it just wasn’t going to get that bad and that is why they were not willing to leave?
Wolff That’s right. My husband didn’t think it would come our this bad and didn’t want to leave. I didn’t know what to do. After all I was married. There was definite change and later on when we came here and saw what happened, I was glad we made the decision.
Bernstein And you really have your father to thank for that.
Wolff Oh, yes, my father … that’s right. Like I said if all of our family would have listened to us, they would be alive … not any more alive today, because in the meantime we were young and they were older. Now we are old and now that it is done and now it is our time to go.
Bernstein Not yet. How did the Jewish agency help you coming from Shanghai? You said you did not want their help when you got here. How did it help you in getting here?
Wolff The government took over.
Bernstein So it was not really the Jewish agency, it was the United States government, you are saying?
Wolff I think the United State government. I don’t even know. It must have been because we came … we had cooperative affidavit. Yes American. You see at this time, when Roosevelt open the doors. I don’t know if you know about this, before your time, then most Jewish people that survived could get into America free without affidavits, without papers. Roosevelt , you know, he was very good to the Jews. He was not reluctant to save us.
Bernstein So in your recollection, you’re not aware of the Jewish agency providing you …with any of the Jewish agencies giving you help in getting to the United States?
Wolff No. We had the Joint behind us when we came to America but they didn’t want to support people with families, with children, unless you know you could, .. (inaudible) San Francisco. If my husband was sure he could support himself. But he wasn’t so sure.
Bernstein Then did they help you get to St. Louis?
Wolff Yes. This they did help.
Bernstein Did your parents have the political affiliations in Germany that you can recall?
Wolff Political?
Bernstein Were they involved in any politics?
Wolff Not really. I mean the election work and they would vote.
Bernstein What language was spoken at home?
Wolff German. English with the children.
Bernstein You spoke English at home in Germany?
Wolff Not in Germany. German, of course. And foreign language and what I know from school was French, English.
Bernstein Did you speak those at home?
Wolff No, not at all.
Bernstein So the language at home was German.
Wolff German.
Bernstein Did you have a Jewish education?
Wolff Yes.
Bernstein Religious school?
Wolff Yes.
Bernstein The main anti-Semitic experiences you recall were like when they came in to your father with the gun?
Wolff This was the worst, oh yeah. Things which you can’t forget.
Bernstein You had your own paper in Shanghai?
Wolff Yes. You have seen this article I showed you last time.
Bernstein Who published it?
Wolff I don’t know.
Bernstein Who wrote the articles for it?
Wolff It must some kind of journalist, I don’t know. I could not tell. He was very well known in Shanghai too, my father, and the Wolff family, my husband’s late brother was a founder of the Jewish community. What you call it. That is right. He was very interesting. We lost ten good years in Shanghai, that is for sure, ten good years. If he would have been in America in ’39 instead of Shanghai, he would have been a big man here. He would done something different. He was a young man when he came to Shanghai., in his 20’s.
Bernstein Did he not feel successful here with what he did?
Wolff He was a more successful man than most of those refugees from Shanghai. He made it to something , my husband. He was the most successful of the refugees, of all Shanghai people I know.
Bernstein Any yet he still didn’t feel like that was enough?
Wolff Later, yes. I mean, at the beginning he always said. “If I were”’ and then he started to improve, to advance and he knew he had lost 10 years.
Bernstein Did you feel that way too, that he could have done something?
Wolff I didn’t feel it because I didn’t do anything because I had children to raise, but he felt like that.
Bernstein Did you feel he was not as much of a success as you would have…
Wolff No, I think he was a very big success because I see compared to the other ones. Sure, we came here with nothing from Shanghai! I guess we had 100 mark, a hundred dollars or 200 dollars. I had nothing here, absolutely nothing here!
Bernstein You’ve come a long way right?
Wolff With used furniture, with furnished room, we lived here on Maple. Of course, it was a nice neighborhood. The Hamilton Hotel.
Bernstein Where in U City did you live?
Wolff We lived on Portland Place.
Bernstein This concludes the interview of Gerta Wolf by Terry Bernstein on May 31, 1984.

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