It all started a few weeks after World War I began. My dad was an officer in the German Army and I was born on October 9, 1914 in Frankfurt am Main and we met quite a few months later.My family can be traced back in Frankfurt to the fifteenth Century. Among my ancestors were the father of the famous Meyer Amschel Rothschild, whose sons were the 5 founders of the Rothschild dynasty.However, my part of the family did not inherit anything from them.
I attended what was called a “Humanistic High School” meaning that they taught classical languages . I studied French for 9 years, Latin for 6 and Greek for 3 years- no English. A point of interest: My class(in the whole of Germany) was the only class that began school with Kindergarden in 1919- in the year after the Kaiser abdicated – and ended with graduation in 1932- the year before Hitler came to power. In the German schools in those days- and perhaps even today- the arrangement was that the class remained together in an assigned classroom and the teachers visited this room in an endless parade from period to period- the History teacher, the Geography teacher, the German teacher etc except Gym or Chemistry for which obviously we had to go to their venues. As a result my classmates and I became the closest of friends since for 9 years we practically lived together and some of these friendships have lasted throughout our lives.
In Germany, Church and State were not separate. The denomination with the largest membership became the State Religion and since Religion was taught in school, in our case the Protestant Minister came in the classroom and Catholics and Jews had to meet their Priest or Rabbi in an- other room. This led to an unpleasant competition between the religions since instead of pointing out the many similiarities between them such as the Ten Commandments or the Golden Rule, they seemed to thrive on ridiculing the other religions and these “Men of God” taught dissention and hatred of other faiths . I, for one, received a false impression of Christianity from my Jewish teachers which took me many years to overcome and only after meeting Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. did I begin to understand other religions. As it turned out, I have been very fortunate throughout my life to see, hear and meet many prominent personages, some by coincidence or sheer luck, other through organizations I belonged to or because of many special interests in various subjects. I believe that the first “celebrity” I saw and heard speak was the German Reichspraesident Paul von Hindenburg who came to Frankfurt to give a speech at the famous Roemerberg, the center of old Frankfurt and all the schoolchildren were marched there to listen to him.
After graduation from HighSchool my parents sent me to London, England where a cousin of one of my Grandmothers squired me around and I found a family that took me in as a “paying guest” and I became intimately acquainted with London and its environments. In the middle of June the English celebrate the birthday of the Sovereign, regardless of when it actually occurs because usually the weather is pleasant and they can have pageantry and pomp. In 1932, I went to Buckingham Palace for this occasion to take in the festivities. And I saw the following, all in one parade: King George V and Queen Mary, the current sovereigns; The Prince of Wales, later King Edward VIII (Duke of Windsor); The Duke and Duchess of York, later King George Vi and Queen(Mother)Mary and Princesses Elizabeth, later Queen Elizabeth and her sister Princess Margaret and many others. So I saw 4 successive English Kings and Queens all at once.
After returning to Germany I was sent to the Deutsche Bank in Frankfurt to work as an intern to learn all about the Banking business. My next location was in Augsburg where I became an intern in a shoe factory that was started with the financial help of my maternal Grandfather and I was transferred from department to department- from the leather to the finished product . This was meant to be a preparation for my future connection with our family business, Gebrueder Feisenberger, one of whose sub divisions was a shoe wholesale house, O. Lietzman KG. In 1935 I entered that business, in Berlin, and for the next three years worked myself up to becoming a Vice President with check-signing privileges.
In the meantime, Adolf Hitler had become Chancellor of Germany and immediately started to make things rather miserable for Jews. Living in Berlin, I had numerous occasions to see Hitler, Goering, Goebbels, Hess, Himmler and each and every major Nazi Party leader. I stood under Hitler’s Balcony on April 20 for three years in a row – on his birthday a new postage stamp was issued there with a souvenir imprint and as an avid stamp collector I swallowed my pride and stood there with all his admirers. One year, I think it was in 1937, I saw Hitler in a way that hardly anyone ever saw him: In full dress, white tie and tails, during a performance at the opera that I attended and he showed up all of a sudden. It was a Gala performance and I was lucky to obtain a ticket. Later, in 1938, I was in Munich on a vacation trip by Motorcycle and I visited a special art exhibition entitled”Entartete Kunst” (Unworthy Art)which showed paintings and sculptures by Jewish and other artists who were no longer permitted to exhibit in Germany .Much to my surprise, while I was walking through the exhibit, Adolf Hitler and his train of followers showed up to view the art works . He was only 10 feet away from me and if I wasn’t the coward that I admit I am I could have changed the history of the world right then and there. (And mine, too)
While in Munich on the same trip I had another unbelieveable break. Coming out of my hotel, I became an eyewitness as Hitler, Mussolini, Daladier and Chamberlain left their “Peace in our time” conference to pose for pictures.
Things didn’t go so well after that. All German firms, even those still owned by Jews, that had 50 or more employees were forced by law to hire one of the “old Nazi Fighters” i.e. members of the Nazi Party when it was first formed in 1923.The people who then were eager to join the National Socialist Party (Nazis) were dope addicts, criminals, cripples, unemployeds and unemployables and many of them were unable to find a job even through 1938, hence the law. Our firm, Gebrueder Feisenberger in Berlin as well as the one in Frankfurt had enough employees to qualify and so, one day, a man in brown uniform with a swastika armband showed up and announced “I am your new employee” It so happens, we were very lucky since the new worker turned out to be a quiet, unassuming person who bothered no one; he seemed to have a wooden leg and had a bad limp but he did his work efficiently and to our satisfaction.
One day, in the second week of November 1938 he approached me and said: “Mr.Schwab, you have been very nice to me so I would like to do something for you. Please don’t come to work tomorrow! There will be “spontaneous” riots against the Jews and I do not want you to get hurt.” So, the next morning I heard Sirens and fire engines and all sort of noise from the street and a lot of commotion and since I had inherited from my brother Fred his little motorcycle I just couldn’t sit there so I dressed in my leather jacket and goggles and helmet and leather gloves and took off towards the streets from where all the noise had come. There I witnessed people getting beaten up , a synagogue set afire and the windows of every Jewish owned store and business smashed and the stores looted- this is what later became known as “Kristall Nacht-Crystal Night. No one bothered me- and therein lies another story: I looked like one of “them”. Had I been Black, I would not be here to tell the story today.
One observation which may also explain Hitler’s popularity at least in the years before the war is very interesting: Because in the Thirties working class people could barely afford a radio and surely not an automobile, Hitler and his henchmen invented a “Peoples Radio” and a “Peoples Car” (Volkswagen) The radio was cheap enough for the average person to buy, it had only one flaw: you could only listen to one station- the one that the Government controlled. The Volkswagen, by the way, was the Nazi’s method to mass-produce automotive engines and supplies and thus they became proficient to build tanks an other war materials. This actually was against the limitations imposed by the Versailles treaty.
I am telling this because I happened to own an expensive radio, outlawed by the government and risking a jail sentence I listened to “foreign” stations. So after my trip through the riot torn streets of Berlin I turned on this radio to find out from England and Switzerland what actually had occured where I was. It turned out that most male Jews all over Germany had been arrested and sent to Concentration Camps. So I called my mother in Frankfurt and asked her:” How is Dad?” She used a “clever” code and answered: “He went on a trip”. I told her not to worry and that I would take the next express train to Frankfurt to be with her. Shortly after I arrived there, to be exact, at 2 am the next morning, there was a loud knock on our door and two black uniformed SS men with Swastika armbands asked for me personally- me, who had not lived in Frankfurt for 5 years! They must have overheard our “coded” conversation and they arrested me and took me to a police station where I was “booked” for “loitering”. This was a typical Nazi method to make even their most heinous crimes look “legal”. With their overpowering weaponry and ever tightening laws they could have done anything they wished to do without asking for permission but nothing was done without giving it the cloak of “legality” by naming it some sort of a crime, even “loitering”. I was taken to the Frankfurt Convention Hall, the “Festhalle” where I found hundreds of Frankfurt Jewish men getting ready to be taken by train to Weimar and from that station being herded roughly with beatings and insults to the Buchenwald Concentration Camp.
I remained there a prisoner for 5 weeks. I was shaven bald, received a striped prison uniform and a number which I will never forget: 10052. In those days they did not yet tattoo prisoners. After a couple of horrible nights in which I saw more people killed than the average Viet Nam veteran I was assigned to a barrack and ordered to transport large boulders. When we had carried them to the designated place, we were ordered to take them back where we had picked them up in the first place. After 3 weeks I was ordered to the front gate and told: “Good News, you are going to be released!” But that turned out one of their funny, Nazi Humor gags that they specialized in and I was marched back to the general camp where there were 5 large structures. each housing 2000 prisoners on shelves. After long searching I found my father and we were together for one more week after which he was released. I finally got out one week later since my family after all the problems had applied, thanks to an American uncle for U.S. Immigration permits and the Nazi in those days had only one desire: Get rid of Jews. Get rid of them any which way: If they leave on their own free will, if they die a natural death, or if they had to kill them- get rid of them. In our case our great fortune was that the American papers were in the pipeline; a few more months and we would have never gotten out.