It built up inside like the fire of a volcano, surging then receding—the
urge to take a closer look at my life could not be denied. This excitement,
this inner turmoil, had nothing to do with the ocean before me or the
white beach with its tropical vegetation, exotic and foreign to me. Nor was
the cause of my emotion the happy circumstance of seeing in the distance
my grandchildren—Michelle Brody, six years old, and Jason, in his eighth
year—running back and forth in the foaming waves under the watchful eye of
Irene, my tanned and beautiful daughter. A ship moved almost imperceptibly
in the glittering sun, its contours visible against the horizon. There was no
sound but the steady beat of the surf.
I had wondered why this, my first visit to Hawaii, didn’t stir the same
feeling I had experienced in younger years when I stood on the beach of the
North Sea , when the wind brushed my body, cooled my skin, and blew my
hair, and my naked feet felt the soft, warm sand. That was long ago, when
I was young and full of expectations. With a deep breath, I had greeted the
wide, limitless ocean and had felt its eternity. This surge of joy I had always
cherished so much; mysteriously it would well up when least expected,
and I did not know then how to summon it. But as my life unfolded, this
unidentified part of me could be called upon as an ever-present friend.
But now, suddenly, on a quiet afternoon in Hawaii, in the summer of 1977,
the almost forgotten excitement overcame me and erupted: the past would come
forth. The joy was a signal that I was ready to explore the world of my past.
Once, I remembered having the same experience when I was seventeen
years old. I described it in my diary as being in touch with the sublime. Sitting
alone in my room I had tried to identify the longing, the almost painful feeling
that fi lled my heart. Some years later I wrote to Friedel, my beloved friend
and future husband, about this indescribable emotion, which had overcome
me in the church during my confirmation ceremony:
Long afterwards I sensed the solemnity of this special moment,
a juncture in my life. This feeling of elation overcomes me
unexpectedly and involuntarily. I cannot define it and I wonder if
every person can experience this the same way.
And now, much later, I was going to see from a bird’s eye view the history
I had witnessed and lived. I felt the reason for unlocking this seemingly closed
door was a need to speak about myself. It was a victory over imposed rules
that were integrated almost permanently into my personality. The social
code of my time had been self-reliance and discipline, and to talk and act
freely according to one’s inner, personal condition—as we are urged to do
today—was simply not the custom. Aside from this, my own experience of
persecution in Nazi Germany had taught me to shut out thoughts and feelings
which did not serve mere survival. Twelve years under Hitler’s regime forced
me to trust myself and my husband only. Sharing fears and opinions with
others would have endangered them and myself, so we learned then to keep
to ourselves. My father had formulated this doctrine after he returned from
six months in a concentration camp: never expect another person to risk his
or her life for your sake.
All this had caused me to shut myself off in the very real sense. This was
going to change now. Would I be able to communicate with the past, with
myself and others? And what would I find out? Was it the first years of my life,
protected, happy and also blissfully ignorant, or was it later experiences that
had formed me? Visions of those early, peaceful years fl oat as happy memories
through my mind, and change slowly, almost reluctantly approaching the dark
time of my middle age. I felt myself clinging to the scenes of my childhood,
I wanted to hold on to them, dreaming of their return. It hurts to realize
that my early world was a dream world, that a tiger lurked unnoticed in the
shadows. I needed to tear myself away from illusions.
Where is the true beginning of life? Pictures of my early childhood,
recalled through my parents’ and grandparents’ tales, are succeeded by those
remembered of my awakening, the years darkened by Hitler’s regime and
World War II. I was faced with problems that, surprisingly, gave me strength,
awareness, faith, and humility. Looking back, I realized the effect of these
tribulations on my development and never regretted them. This, then, is the
story of my life and also of my birth as the person I am today.
The Family Blum
On the twenty-third of September, 1911, I was born into a Hamburg
family that consisted of my parents, Marcel and Gertrud Holzer; my brother,
Erich, then three years old; and my grandparents, Adolf and Elise Blum. I
remember my childhood as beautifully enriched by the presence and the
compassionate and loving care of my grandparents; I cannot imagine what
my life would have been without them. Their example and the influence of
their traditions still live in my heart.
Adolf Blum, my grandfather, was born in 1849; his hometown, Gross
Meseritsch, was situated in Moravia which, one year after his birth, became
part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire ruled by Emperor Franz-Joseph I.
Europe at that time was shaken by revolutions and wars; unrest between
European monarchies and various small and larger principalities would
continue for decades and, over sixty years later, culminate in World War I.
My Opi (that was my pet name for my grandfather) told us many
stories, but nothing about his childhood. I know that he was the fourth
child of Mina and Jonas Blum, and that he grew up in Vienna. He left
his family as a youth and went to Germany where he settled in Hamburg,
one of the ancient, free city-states on the North Sea. He founded his own
freight-forwarding business in 1875 when he was only twenty-six years old
and named it Adolf Blum, Transportation. A little later he took a partner,
Ludwig Popper, and the firm became Adolf Blum & Popper. Business was
booming in Hamburg; both the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the newly
formed German Empire profited in the aftermath of the Franco-Prussian
War which had ended just four years earlier. Merchandise and raw materials
fl owed through the seaport of Hamburg from England and elsewhere, and
the small firm grew steadily. Although Adolf Blum & Popper was known for
its reliability, it suffered a setback when Ludwig Popper was caught in some
impropriety. He was given a choice: go to prison or leave the country; and,
not surprisingly, he chose the latter. He emigrated to the United States. In
those days, it was not unusual for criminals and other so-called black sheep
to seek their fortunes in America.
Although Adolf now headed the firm alone and never again took a partner,
the name remained Adolf Blum & Popper. He must have accumulated capital
quite rapidly in the first years of business, for he soon thought of marriage,
and not to just anyone. He decided that Elise Goetz would be his wife. It was
quite daring of him to ask for her hand and quite an honor when his offer
was accepted. She was the eldest daughter of a well-to-do widow, Rosette
Goetz, who surely never would have consented to a marriage of her Elise to
so young a suitor as Adolf, had not her advisors approved of this honorable,
exceptional, and successful young man.
Elise’s mother had been born in Copenhagen in 1824. She married well
and had eight children, but her husband, Leopold Goetz, died in 1868 when
he was only forty-eight years old. She raised the children by herself, fortunately,
without fi nancial worries. Leopold had been a prosperous merchant, but it
is not known whether it was he who provided for his family so well or if
Rosette had inherited money from her father, who was Minister of Finance
at the Danish Royal Court. Not only did Rosette live comfortably, but at
her death, she left quite a bit of money. To be sure, she lived simply enough;
apparently she did not hire much domestic help for her large household. Her
eldest daughter, Elise, was in charge of the younger children.
When my great-grandmother Rosette died in 1908, she left a handwritten
will, a document that has been passed down from generation to generation.
It shows her to be a good-hearted, clear-minded person who included not
only her family in her loving thoughts but social organizations as well. Her
will specifi ed 500 crowns each to the Society for the Elderly, the Society for
Old Maids and Widows, the Food Cooperative, a public meal distribution
for the needy, a public school, and the Society for Cremation. In straight
German letters she wrote:
Beloved children, all of you,
Herewith I let you know my wishes to be executed after my
death: A capital of 15,000 crowns for Mihval in case she does not
marry; if she dies the sum should go to my heirs. Furthermore I
wish that my niece Aurelia, as long as she is not married, should be
paid 125 crowns per year. Bertha Fraenkel in Copenhagen should
get the sum of 125 crowns per year. Furthermore, I wish that the
sum of 15,000 crowns should be invested and that on the due dates
my granddaughter Elly Goetz, daughter of my son Theodor, should
be paid the interest thereof, either until her marriage or her death.
She should use the money for her personal benefit.
These, my wishes, I wrote and I made not other arrangements.
My silverware should be divided among my three daughters, all
other things my children should divide according to their wishes
and with each other’s consent in such a way that nobody is
Finally, I take my farewell of all of you, my beloved children
and grandchildren. I thank you for all your love and care by which
you have brightened my old age. Uphold the loving bond between
you, which was my joy and pride during my lifetime. Do not mourn
my departure. Although I weathered several storms I had a long
and beautiful life with you and because of you. I give you at the
end of my life my motherly blessings.
Your mother, Rosette Goetz, nee Simonson.