Speech, first delivered at Congregation Shir Hadash, 1994:
For the purpose of this project I have made several additions to my original speech.
My parents, Erich and Hildegard Samenfeld
My name is Gary Samenfeld and I will speak this evening about the history of my family in Germany and their emigration to the United States of America. Both of my parents came to America with their families to escape the Nazi concentration camps.
I will start with my father's family, as they came to America first in August of 1938. At the time they left Germany, the family consisted of my grandmother Dina Samenfeld, my father Erich Samenfeld, my aunt and uncle, Irma and Walter Jacobsohn, and my cousin Peter Jacobsohn.
In Germany, the Samenfelds had lived for generations in a small town near Minden called Lavelsloh. In this town, they had worked as cattle dealers and also served as the local butcher. The house where they lived was also a barn used for storing the cattle that would be taken to market. It also was the same building where they butchered the cattle. My Tante Irma once told me that she and my father would tie ropes on the cattle from one to the next so that they could line them up and leave very early in the morning and walk the cows miles to where they would sell them. My father also told me that when he was a boy he would deliver meat on his bicycle. He had a basket and it was very hard work. My father and my aunt also did other types of work too. For example, my aunt told me that they grew their own vegetables and that you could not get a plow into the piece of land that they had, so everything had to be done by hand. The lifestyle that they lived was very hard. When they were younger, my father and my aunt were often severely beaten by both of their parents.
Both my father and my aunt had to start working at a very young age because of my grandfather, Adolph Samenfeld's injury in World War I. Due to his injury, he lived the last fifteen years of his life as an invalid addicted to morphine, as that was all that the doctors at that time could do for him. Adolph Samenfeld died in 1933, the same year that Hitler came to power. Several years after the Nazis had come to power my father and uncle Walter both had their license to deal in livestock revoked due to the Nuremburg laws. My mother's father also was a livestock dealer and had his license revoked likewise.
My Oma Dina had a brother and a sister already in the United States who helped the family to come to America. So, on August 19, 1938, my grandmother, my father, my aunt and uncle, and my cousin Peter who was only six months old, left Germany. My Uncle Walter showed me an article from the local newspaper which said "it was a sad day when the Samenfeld family left Lavelsloh." They were the last of the Jewish families to leave. The family settled in The Bronx, New York on Sedgwick Avenue.
In New York, my father worked as a welder at the Brooklyn Navy Yard; his only education in this country was at the New York Trade School, where he learned welding. Uncle Walter worked as a butcher also in Brooklyn, and Tante Irma and Oma Dina took in sewing and knitting jobs in addition to working as domestics.
I would like to speak more now about my uncle, Walter Jacobsohn, who had known my aunt, Tante Irma, since childhood, and they were later married for fifty-six years. They both passed away several months apart in 1993 and 1994; each was eighty-four years old when they died. These were sad occasions for me and many others and I miss them both very much. When my uncle was seventy years old, he wrote his life story and dedicated it to his five grandchildren. (this story is further down on the main page) He then also told me many stories and answered many of my questions regarding our family history. My own father passed away in 1973, and I wish now that I could have found out more about him about his life in Germany and the early years in America. In 2002 I was able to find Elicke Sicilia, who was my dad's best friend in the army.
Not long before his death, while having dinner with me and my daughter, Michelle, Uncle Walter told us some stories that I would like to share with you all now. As I mentioned earlier, my uncle worked as a butcher in Brooklyn. That he even managed to get this job and survive the early years took nothing less than the most fierce determination. The company where he applied for work was owned by Germans, that is, they were gentiles who had come here some years before; most of the employees were also Germans. When my uncle was interviewed for the job, he was asked how he had even gotten out of Germany at that time, since all German men had to serve in the military. My uncle responded by saying that one of his parents was Jewish, so he was allowed to leave Germany.
Two days before Yom Kippur, he started this job. It was the only time in his life that he worked on Yom Kippur, as he was sure that he would be fired if he would ask for the day off. Uncle Walter soon came to earn the respect of his employers. Besides the Germans, there were a few other Americans working there, including a few African Americans. When my uncle started the job, all of the employees were called together and the foreman asked, "who would share a locker with Walter?" No one responded, but half an hour later one of the black men said to him, "Walter, I'll share my locker with you."
Uncle Walter started the job on a Tuesday and was told that he would be paid $18 per week. He started his workday at 4 o'clock in the morning, following an hour and a half commute and he worked very long hours. On the first Friday that he worked there, he was called to the owner's office. Uncle Walter told me that he was sure that somehow they had found out that he was really 100 per-cent Jewish and that they would fire him. That was hardly the case, though, as his boss told him that he worked so hard that they would pay him $22 per-week and they would pay him for Monday when he had not even worked yet. It was this kind of spirit that brought success in the "new country" to Walter Jacobsohn, Erich Samenfeld, and my other uncle, Kurt Keller, who married my mother's sister Lore. Walter Jacobsohn was used by his bosses as an example for the other workers to follow, and his skills were so much that he was later promoted to foreman.
About a year and a half after my father's family had come to New York, Uncle Walter was able to save enough money to bring his mother, his brother Hans, and Hans' wife Hilde, to New York as well, after first living in Panama for a year. Hans and Hilde had continued living in Germany even after the "Kristallnacht," as did my mother's family. Uncle Walter said that the letters that Hans were sending from Germany were absolutely frantic as he begged his brother to get them out of Germany before it was too late. One of Uncle Walter's aunts and her family perished in the Holocaust despite his efforts to save them as well.
My father, Erich Samenfeld, served in the United States Army from 1943 to 1946. As I mentioned earlier, he had been a welder at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, so he did not have to go into the army, but he told me that it was something he felt that he had to do. He was 31 when he joined the army and eventually he achieved the rank of Sergeant. My father was very proud to have fought in France and Germany and do his part to defeat the Nazis. Previously I said that I had talked to Elicke Sicilia and he told me that my dad was driving a jeep that struck a land mine. Mr. Sicilia told me that my dad should have gotten the Purple Heart for that but he was not the type to complain.
Not long after my father returned from the war, he and my uncle came to Milwaukee, Wisconsin to start their own cattle business. A year later, the rest of the family, which now included my cousin Harold, left New York for Milwaukee. My dad and my uncle worked very hard, getting up at 2AM, and were most successful with their business. One year after moving to Milwaukee my father married my mother, Hildegard Pfifferling.
Now I will tell you about my mother's family. Everything that I know about her family, I know from her.
My mother, Hildegard Pfifferling, lived in the city of Halle on the Saale. The family consisted of my mother, my grandparents Karl and Julchen Pfifferling, and my Aunt Lore, who was 8 years younger than my mother. When my Aunt Lore was in the first grade, my mother had to go to her school one day and bring her home, as Jews were no longer allowed to attend public schools. My grandfather and his three brothers, Adolph, Julius, and Fritz, were like my father also in the cattle business.
My mother's family emigrated to America in August of 1939 and settled in Milwaukee after a brief stay in New York. My mother's family left Germany on the last boat to leave Germany before Germany attacked Poland and World War II was officially begun. My mother told me that all of the Jews on the ship were afraid that it would turn around and take them all back to Germany. She explained to me that the Jewish people could not come to the United States just because they wanted to come here. Even though the danger was great, one could not come to the land of freedom without having someone to sponsor you. You had to have relatives who were already here, who had accumulated enough money to support you so that individuals would not have to be any kind of burden on the government.
Tante Lore also told me that she and my mother were scheduled to be part of the Kindertransport which was a rescue effort to take Jewish children under the age of 17 (my aunt was 8 and my mother was 16) out of Nazi-occupied territory and bring them to England. Shortly before they were to leave Opa Karl received the visa to come to America.
This was a long process for the Pfifferling family which began when my mother's first cousin, Margot Berg, came to live with relatives who had come to Milwaukee many years before. Margot arrived in Milwaukee in 1934 and, when she had saved up enough money, she was then able to bring over her sister, Liesel Berg, out of Germany in 1936. The two young women were able to get their parents, Alfons and Meta Berg, who was my Oma Julchen's sister, out of Germany in 1937. Two years later and not a minute too late, the four of them brought my mother's family to safety.
My granfather, Karl Pfifferling, endured the most hardship of anyone in my immediate family. On my Opa Karl's side of the family alone, thirty people died in the Holocaust. The youngest of them was my mother's ten year old cousin, Marion Steinberg. The worst crime I can think of is what those pigs did to the children.
Marion had been the same age as my Aunt Lore. Paula Rosenberg, Marion's grandmother, was also my grandfather's sister. Paula and her husband, Julius, perished in the gas chambers of Treblinka in August of 1942. The Rosenberg's daughter, Lottte, her husband, Bertold Steinberg, and Marion all died in the gas chambers of Auschwitz. Opa Karl had three brother's and three sisters. Besides his sister Paula, his brothers, Julius and Fritz, died in the Holocaust. Julius Pfifferling, was shot to death in 1938 in the Buchenwald Concentration Camp. He was 55 years old. He went over the electric fence and was killed, he wanted to end his life. Fritz died shortly after arriving in Shanghai. Opa also had numerous (30)aunts, uncles, and cousins who were murdered by the Nazi's.
When I told my mother that I was writing this speech about the family, she told me of her experience on October 29, 1938. On that night, my mother was baby-sitting for two year old Alex Zuckerman. Mr. Zuckerman was out of town on business and Mrs. Zuckerman was out for a while. The Zuckermans were Polish Jews. They had not become citizens of Germany even though they had lived there for years. The Zuckermans were considered by the Nazis to be "Stateless Jews." The Gestapo came that evening to take the boy and his mother away. Mrs. Zuckerman was still not at home yet when the Gestapo arrived. My mother made a point of telling me that she made sure that the little boy had his boots on, as the Gestapo were going to take him away wearing only his slippers. Meanwhile, Mrs. Zuckerman came home and was taken away with her son. The readon the Gestapo came that night was because they had arrested Mr. Zuckerman at the train station. My mother was told that she had to go to the train station to identify Mr. Zuckerman. She was allowed to go home first and my grandfather said that he would not let her go alone, so he went with her. My mother was forced to identify Mr. Zuckerman or the Nazis would also have taken my mother and my grandfather. The Zuckermans, as "Stateless Jews", were taken at once to the Polish border to an area where Jews were unwanted by both the Germans and the Poles. My mother and my Opa Karl were marched to the police station for questioning. They were followed by two Gestapo officers who warned them that if they tried to run, they would be shot. They finally got back home at about midnight. My Oma Julchen had been terrified that she would never see her husband or eldest daughter again.
The night of November 9-10 is known as the "Kristallnacht", the night of broken glass. On this night, my mother was away from home working as a housekeeper for a family of Jews who were Italian nationals. My mother was 16 years old at the time, my Aunt Lore was 8. On that night, my Opa Karl and his brother, Julius, were taken to the Buchenwald concentration camp.
My mother's uncle Julius Pfifferling had lived with his wife, Dora, across the hall from my mother. The two of them had no children of their own, and my mother and aunt were like daughters to them. Julius Pfifferling, was taken to the Buchenwald Concentration Camp and was shot and killed while trying to escape while plunging himself into the electric fence. Dora later escaped to England. Karl Pfifferling was released from Buchenwald after three weeks. Opa was able to get out of the camp because of his outstanding service in the German Army in World War I. Opa Karl had been a very high ranking officer in the first World War and had earned a decoration known as the "Honor Cross." My grandfather was also a prisoner of war. When he was taken to Buchenwald, he brought with him a letter that was signed by former president Hindenburg. The camp authorities informed my grandfather that if he agreed to leave Germany, then they would let him go. Needless to say, he was very lucky, as there were other men in other camps who were also veterans of the German military whose service was ignored by the Nazis.
The last month that my mother lived in Germany, the family was confined to their dining room and bathroom, where my Oma Julchen had to do the cooking on a hot plate. They were forced to live this way because gentiles were already occupying the rest of their apartment.
There is more that I could say about the preceding generations of my family, but I think I've said enough about them for now.
Like most families, we did not always agree on everything, and had many arguments too. But I've always loved them and had the utmost respect for them and their perseverance, for their struggles to "make it" in America, and everything else that they had to overcome.
I have always been very proud to be their son, their grandson, and their nephew.
Thank you for listening to their story.