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.
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.
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…
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.