SCHWARTZ: This is Helen Schwartz and the date is January 14, 1986, and I am recording an interview with Manfred Nahser for the Center for Holocaust Studies.
Manfred, let’s start by your telling me something about the fact of your background, where you were born, who your parents were, when you were born, your age. Let’s start with some basics.
NAHSER: Well, to go back in time, I was born March 23, 1937 in a country called then Danzig, and the suburb where we lived was a Jewish community called Langfuhr. The street address I have no recollection of.
SCHWARTZ: Did you live there until the war began, in Danzig?
NAHSER: I lived there until the age of six, which was in 1943. I can remember backwards. In fact, I remember my first day of school when I had to put a dark cap on and I had a box of candy in my hand that was almost the size of my entire body because we had to share those at school. I remember one thing, the first day of school, I didn’t make. I spent the entire day on the streetcar. Why I did that, I have absolutely no idea, but coming home that evening, the punishment was very strong. I remember that as if I got it yesterday. I cannot much tell about the school surrounding. The teachers were all so monstrous tall. In fact, the whole world then was tall. I was basically scared and the reason for that, from my remembrance as a child, is that certain things were not spoken in my house. My father whom I physically never met, was supposed to have been always in the war. And my mother and grandmother were the only ones that I physically remember. My grandfather was supposed to have died years ago.
SCHWARTZ: Before you were born?
NAHSER: Before I was born, yes. From what I have been told after the war, Gesinski, which I have no papers to prove it, was my mother’s maiden name which I imagine from Polish descent. My father’s real name I do not know as of today except that his first name was Kurt, K-U-R-T, maybe Pavelek, I do not know. But they all were living in Danzig. My mother lived in Langfuhr and the rest of the family, from my father’s side, from the city of Danzig. In fact, I remember the street. It was called “Rhinegarten.”
SCHWARTZ: That’s the place where your father lived?
NAHSER: It was from the father’s side. We barely associated.
SCHWARTZ: But did you ever see any of your father’s family directly?
NAHSER: No, directly, never.
SCHWARTZ: But you knew about them. Is it correct that he was German and not Jewish?
NAHSER: He was full-blooded Reichsdeutsch. As of today’s standards, I would say that he was full-blooded German, and I believe that is what caused the difficulties at home, the secrecy, the hush-hush. We had bearded men come visit my mother and counsel her because I never saw him. Today I am sure those were rabbis from – don’t forget, I was smaller, agewise then six. I do not remember. I remember supper times, candle lights, singing, prayers.
SCHWARTZ: You were Jewish.
NAHSER: Yes, oh yes. And that is when grandmother came, but none of the male family members I have ever seen, ever.
SCHWARTZ: How long had your parents supposed to have been married before you were born?
NAHSER: I have a piece of paper that they got married in the early ‘30s because I was born in ’37. So maybe four to six years of marriage that I could prove on paper was established. Of course, all the papers were lost and through the Red Cross and some agency in Bern, Switzerland, we got some paper work together. But everything that I have has been documented that this is supposed to be the truth because our original papers are not available. Where they are, I have no idea. I remember playing in Langfuhr in certain areas that I have seen that are almost untouched today, but the imagination from then to today had to have been different things.
SCHWARTZ: You’ve never been back?
NAHSER: No, I have never been back to Danzig or the today country of Poland.
SCHWARTZ: Do you know how your parents met?
NAHSER: No. There are no pictures. One thing I must tell you, I do not know the date or the day, but when I was pulled out, out of the ruins in Langfuhr, when I came out, I had a three month old sister with me. The entire city was in flames, and as I remember there was not one building that actually stood. Now I have been told that there was a church building in Danzig, direct downtown Danzig, still standing. I have never set foot in it and therefore I do not know much about it, but that’s supposed to be the only building that was actually standing. Everything was on flames. Block after block as far as my eyes could see, and I think I was several days underneath the building that was on fire.
SCHWARTZ: What building was it that you were in?
NAHSER: I think that was the building that we lived in. I remember at one time we lived downstairs. We were told – I remember we had to get out and move all the way to the top. Now when I say all the way to the top, it probably was a three story building, but to me it was much higher. The reason I do not know, but that’s what we had to do. We had to move to the top. Somebody else moved in downstairs. A lot of our friends then, I remember, were gone. They all left. For where I do not know but I never saw even the friends that I played with were – month by month they disappeared. Maybe I thought they were going on vacation, I have no idea. To make up today where they went would be a lie because I really then didn’t know. Nor do I know today. They could have left by force or free will. Whatever, I really do not know.
SCHWARTZ: Are you talking about kids?
NAHSER: Kids and grownups too. My mother – I told you from house to house where we went.
SCHWARTZ: Was your mother still with you then?
NAHSER: Yes, yes, she was still with me on – oh, I would say maybe a month. Now we had a lady by the name of Maria Schreiber. She took care of me and my little sister. And I would say this was the last four weeks before my sister and I left Danzig. Miss Schreiber or Feldschreiber, whatever we – I forgot what we called her. I really don’t remember. She informed us that mother was put into a camp for Dachau at that time. Now the war was still on. What the camp Dachau meant, I had absolutely no idea. She was ailing and there was a lot of tuberculosis going on at that particular time. We were very – And I haven’t heard anything else after that.
SCHWARTZ: So that was a month before the bomb?
NAHSER: That’s right, before the fire. When the fire came, Schreiber died. Only Chris and I – we were the only survivors in that basement where we were. There was nobody else alive.
SCHWARTZ: So Schreiber had left and your mother had left?
NAHSER: Well, mother left weeks before that and I’m guessing that it could have been four weeks. It could have been shorter or longer. I know that she took a small suitcase with her.
SCHWARTZ: But she didn’t take you or your baby sister?
NAHSER: No, she did not.
SCHWARTZ: Was Schreiber, Mm Feldschreiber, Jewish or not, or do you know?
NAHSER: I do not remember. I believe she was not because she screamed “Heil Hitler” more than anybody else that I had seen in my young years. I mean she threw that arm up every time she saw anybody. Yes, I remember she used the words “Heil Hitler” when we went to a store just to get milk. As soon as she entered, that’s what she used, but so did most of the other people there.
SCHWARTZ: Including Jewish people?
NAHSER: Some of them that I knew who were full Jewish, yes, did the same. Even armed guards all over the place at that time. This has to be before ’45.
NAHSER: Sometimes I see things and I cannot put them together at that time because it was chaos. You heard the marching, the music, the announcements in the streets. (SLIGHT CHUCKLE) It was really unreal for a child. You know, what are you supposed to obey? Anyway, back to that particular time, I remember that she told us to go downstairs, which we did. And we went into the building and then we heard a lot of noises coming and screams because the rooms next to us was also full with people. I imagine it was a bomb that hit and we just heard more noises but it wasn’t hot down there. It was comfortable. You know, I didn’t think much of being terrified or anything of that particular type. This is – now I begin to remember more because I was in there. I couldn’t dig out. My sister was screaming constantly unless she was sleeping and I couldn’t find any food. And I had to be there a few days. And the first people that I saw – later on I was told they were Mongols – were people from another country because I had never seen people like that before. And they had rags wrapped around. They had terrible clothes and they had sabers and when we were on the outside, I had never seen that many horses before, you know, in our area. And they didn’t stay long. They left and then neatly dressed people came and I found out later on that those were Russian people and they treated us well. They gave us cheese and –
SCHWARTZ: This is after the building was bombed?
NAHSER: Right, and somebody got us out of there.
SCHWARTZ: Were there other people who were still alive?
NAHSER: Not in this particular building where it got hit. Where all the other people were, they were all gone. There was no movement at all but a few houses back there were people that were alive. They were terribly burned, you know, hard. In fact, I had never seen any of my friends that I remembered playing with or grownups that we had associated. I had never seen another face, even till today, and this is 1986.
SCHWARTZ: People you knew?
NAHSER: That’s right.
SCHWARTZ: Who do you think the Mongols were?
NAHSER: I don’t know.
SCHWARTZ: They were riding horses.
NAHSER: Oh yeah. That’s how they came in. And I am sure that people – they got to be some in this world who were there at the same moment I was – who probably would say, “That is true.” Because there were too many others, even though there were only a few, but there were people who were alive at that particular moment because as I will go on with my story, you will see that there were people alive. I never saw Schreiber again.
SCHWARTZ: Now let me get it straight. She was down there with you, or she just told you to go down?
NAHSER: She told us to go down and on the way coming with us, but after that, that was the end. What happened, I do not know. Like she just disappeared in the air because the room where we were, there were nobody else except a whole bunch of black coal for heat. No water, no food.
SCHWARTZ: It was the basement of the building?
NAHSER: I would say that’s what it was, yeah. There was only one way out, that’s going back a wooden stairway. That’s basically all I remember from that time at home until my trek started. We were fed by those Russian soldiers and again, there was cheese and black bread. And we were told to leave the area and now I remember all the other civilian people, people with no uniforms on. We went to a part where the trains were. These were not like passenger trains. These were regular trains. You know, you just open the side and you haul merchandise in and things like that. But there was just part of the Langfuhr towards the sea, and I don’t remember the name of that city or the little town where it was, where we had to go. But we walked and I had a pack on my back. That pack was packed for a long time. It had clothes in it. And I kept that on me and I carried, I remember, a teddy bear. And then my little sister, I carried her in my arms.
SCHWARTZ: How did she survive? A little kid cannot eat cheese and black bread.
NAHSER: No. Somehow during that time, she made it. I cannot – I did not feed her then at that time.
SCHWARTZ: So someone else must have fed her.
NAHSER: I don’t know who. Okay.
SCHWARTZ: And she was three months old?
SCHWARTZ: An infant in arms?
NAHSER: That’s absolutely right. I mean, she was an infant, period. And of course she survived, she lived. You know, and that’s what we have talked about, what I went through. Of course she didn’t remember anything. But when I went to this train depot or whatever it was, and all the people sick and old and some children, I remember the train actually went in motion and we took off and we were fed soup.
SCHWARTZ: On the train.
NAHSER: We were fed soup, yes. And my sister was taken care of by another woman at that particular time. As we were going down, I don’t know if the war was ended or not. I really don’t know, but I remember that machine guns or whatever noises. It was going on left and right and the train got stopped. It must have been a couple of days because we had day and night, we had day and night.
SCHWARTZ: Was it crowded or did it have a place to lie down?
NAHSER: In the beginning it was not crowded, but you see it stopped every now and then, and more people got on to it. Okay? In the ending it was crowded. What I remember crystal clear, I was holding my sister and I had my pack on my back like I always did, and had this old, ugly looking teddy, all of a sudden the train stopped and part of the train was off the track and people screaming like crazy. We were in some sort of a town and I do not remember the name of it. I have absolutely no idea. The only thing is that I remember a tremendous pain and I could feel blood coming out of my chest. I mean really, I had a hole in there. And the bullet entered in the front and came back and (INAUDIBLE) came in right here and went out the back. But my sister didn’t get hurt. So, I crawled with her out from that area where the train was and I took mud, you know, to stop it. I just dropped it on me on the front, not in the back, and kept on walking. And we came to a place where there was a big room and they had people sleeping there already. They were laying on blankets, you know, real nice. I don’t know how big the room was, but to me it was the hugest room that I have ever seen. It could have been like a school dormitory or a gymnasium or something like that. And there were blankets available. They were laying on a big stack, and I took my sister and myself and cuddled her up. Now she started screaming and I would imagine she was very, very hungry. And that is the time when I started feeding her. I went and I got whatever I could find. I remember potato peels out of the garbage can. I chewed and then spit in her mouth, and she ate. She was okay. I got up, I left her laying there and I went and scrounged for some food, and I found some. I don’t remember today what kind of food it was, but we both ate and finally we went to sleep and we slept. In the morning she woke me up. She probably was hungry again. All those people were still sleeping, you know. And I went to the one closest to me and tried to wake that person up and that’s when I realized that those were all dead people, you know, wrapped in blankets and they were really neatly laid down, all the way around the walls. Now, what I was told – well, I saw a sign and the city, after two days of traveling from there to wherever I already wound up in a city called Schwerin. Schwerin is today called – it’s in Mecklenburg. It’s in East Germany.
NAHSER: Now how I wound up there, (LAUGHTER) I have absolutely no idea.
SCHWARTZ: Do you think these people were on the train with you, that all these dead people, they had been taken off the train?
NAHSER: I don’t know.
SCHWARTZ: You don’t know.
NAHSER: I really – when I came off the train and got shot, I was in such pain that I – it is like another world what actually transpired, you know. I just know I was hurting very much and why I got punished, I have no idea. Then I had no idea I got shot because I didn’t know what a bullet would do. I had no idea. In the place called Schwerin, that is when my last name became official. There was a woman by the name of Nahser and gave us that name. Okay? Because I had a different type of name before that. I don’t know if it was my grandmother’s name, Gesinski, or not. I have absolutely no idea. The name Pavelek came up. Anyway, at that moment I was Manfred Kurt Nahser. Okay? On a piece of paper it was written and a sign was put around my – with a string. Okay?
SCHWARTZ: Uh huh.
NAHSER: And my sister and I separated – don’t forget she was still this little tiny infant – right there. To finish the story about my sister, she wound up in a city called Von Muehlitz in East Germany until she died. And what happened to that baby –
SCHWARTZ: How long did she live?
NAHSER: Crystal died in 1970.
SCHWARTZ: Did she live with this woman named Nahser?
NAHSER: I believe so, yes, yes. The communication maybe once every three years was very bad. And I could probably dig out some letters that I still have. We didn’t really communicate until maybe four years. We didn’t know where we were. That’s number one.
SCHWARTZ: Uh huh.
NAHSER: Okay. We found each other by accident and then there was no big writing because she did not know who in the heck I was anyway, you know.
SCHWARTZ: Your sister or the other woman?
NAHSER: My sister. And what she was told by this woman, who knows? I have absolutely no idea. We never saw each other again. And when she died – the notice I got was after the fact, you know – like the people here in St. Louis remember when I received the telegram. Now the telegram was supposed to have been from a husband, a man that she had married and I have many times sent mail to that address. Nothing in return. Some German fellow, I imagine, an East German.
SCHWARTZ: You mean since her death you never heard from him?
NAHSER: Right. So I never communicated with him and never got anything in return and I just had quit. And now, to me, the worst that ever happened in my life actually starts, my trip through Germany to Switzerland.
SCHWARTZ: Did you know where you were going, or were you just going?
NAHSER: I was – in the beginning I was just going because, you know, this (SMALL LAUGHTER) little fellow down the street nobody cared about. I call that in my mind a “Time of Survival” because I ate meat from a horse that was not dead yet. Others did too. I just followed the – we stole. When I say “we,” as you travel you find other people along the streets that are either like you or that was their way of living, homeless people. The center of Germany that my eyes have seen were horrible. Nothing but destruction, bad smells, still fighting, you know, bullets coming from any corner. As I came closer to the southern part and it had to be Munich, Munchen. More and more people had changed faces than from the northern part.
SCHWARTZ: How do you mean, changed faces?
NAHSER: They looked more like stone faces to me.
SCHWARTZ: Oh, uh huh.
NAHSER: No tears, no laughter, no one to talk to you. It was a time that I would never want to go through again nor wish anyone else to go through, because it was much worse than getting shot, much worse than not knowing where your parents are or if you had any by then. The only thing that I could hold onto was gone, which was my sister. I gave her my teddy bear too at that time, so I really was all alone. The instincts of a child at that time, for survival had to come from God because there is absolutely no way – where you get the guidance from? You know, it’s –