On her own
Erika, Erika, geh zu Amerika.
The friendly jab — “Erika, Erika, go to America” — echoed around the 1930s Austrian schoolyard as 6-year-old Erika Schulhof Rybeck ’52 ran, laughing, away from her chanting classmates.
It was a childhood rhyme that, 14 years later, became a prophecy.
Sensing danger in Nazi-controlled Vienna, Rybeck’s parents sent her via Kindertransport to a boarding school in Scotland, then on to relatives in Yellow Springs, Ohio. She would spend the next 60 years searching for the parents who sacrificed their lives to save hers.
These are the words of Erika Schulhof Rybeck ’52. This story originally appeared in the Autumn 2014 University of Dayton Magazine.
It was 11 at night, Saturday, May 13, 1939, when a whistle blew and a train full of children pulled out of the station.
Mine was one of the faces pressed against the window to wave goodbye. I watched the two dearest people in my life — my parents, Friedrich and Gertrude Schulhof — waving white handkerchiefs so bravely until they disappeared from view.
It was to be my last glimpse of all that was most precious to me. I never saw them again — but I would not know that until many years later.
My parents’ love sustained me throughout my life, even though I never saw them after I was 10. So it is comforting and helpful for me to look back to those early years as a way of thanking them for the great gifts they gave me.
An only child, I grew up in the little village of Hohenau, Austria, on the Czech border. My father was manager and chief chemist of the Hohenauer Zuckerfabrik, the sugar factory that employed most of the locals.
As a 9-year-old, I was self-absorbed and took no notice of world events — including the tremendous changes happening across Europe in the late 1930s. If there was tension in my house — and looking back, there undoubtedly must have been — I was unaware of it. Children were not included in concerns of the adult world, and my parents, for reasons that I now fully comprehend, really pushed that approach to its limits.
As an adult, I found copies of correspondence between various adult relatives — some of them early on from my parents — with a consistent theme concerning the horrors of the times and what they were all going through. That theme was a conspiracy of silence, spelled out literally in some of the letters with the words, “Don’t tell the child.”
So, when my parents announced in 1938 that we were moving to Vienna to live with my grandmother, I was ecstatic. I adored my Oma. It never occurred to me then to question the reason for this move that was disrupting the whole pattern of our lives.
Yet, a flash of momentary uneasiness struck me. When we came down the stairs from our apartment, my mother turned to look back. My father, in a voice I had never heard before, said, “Yes, Trude, have a good look. This is the last home you’ll ever have.”
I did not even find it strange — although it was in fact exceedingly strange — that nobody was at the train station to see us off. Or even stranger that, as we were leaving to live in a different city, we boarded the train without a single piece of luggage.
Because my parents chose to protect me, I was not told:
That my family, though thoroughly assimilated and not affiliated with any religious organization, had a long and quite illustrious Jewish history;
That all the changes about to take place in my life were associated with the anti-Semitic obsession of the Nazis, to the extent that, under Hitler’s doctrines, my parents and I were considered Jewish;
That the Nazis had taken over Austria and, in taking over the sugar factory, had stripped my father of his position;
That, like almost all Austrians of Jewish background, we were in great peril.
Decades later, I learned that, within a day or so after we departed for Vienna, Hohenau Jews were rounded up and sent directly to concentration camps where all but one perished. It appears that someone who knew of the roundup plans and who was fond of my parents warned them of what was about to happen.
Early on, my parents said we would become Catholics. Just as I did not question my parents about why we went to Vienna, I had no problem when they said the three of us were converting. My Aunt Olga later told me, “Your parents converted to save you.” If true, their goal was certainly successful. Yet it also seems plausible, based on things my parents wrote, that religion gave them considerable solace during their terrifying ordeals.
Previously, my parents listed their religious preference as religionslos, or unaffiliated. I believe my father considered himself a freidenker, or free thinker. Both my parents were devoted to ethical behavior, great lovers of nature and proud of their family backgrounds, but before our flight to Vienna, they were not practicing followers of any organized religion.
Soon, my parents promised me a “new adventure,” as they put it. My Uncle Fritz and Aunt Mia Treuer, my mother’s sister and brother-in-law, had invited us to live with them in America. First, however, I would be sent as “luggage in advance” and go to a wonderful boarding school in Scotland. I was led to believe that, after a short time, my parents would join me in Scotland, and then we would all go to America together.
How did I get out of Vienna, since Austria was already occupied by the Germans? The Kindertransport — a children’s train — was my means of breaking free. Sealed trains carried children from Prague, Vienna and Berlin across Germany to Holland, from where they were ferried to England. Most went to families, others like myself to schools or other institutions. I arrived at 3 Queen’s Cross, a Sacred Heart boarding school in Aberdeen, Scotland, four days after my departure from Vienna.
I knew no English, and no one else that I met, young or old, spoke a word of German. It was total immersion. Emotionally, I comforted myself with the understanding that my parents would be coming for me very soon. Looking back now, my heart breaks when I think of those dear people, their lives in tatters, writing cheerful letters and cards to keep up the spirits of their little girl so far away. With no income and their assets frozen, they spent precious money on sending me my favorite chocolates and crayons, even my favorite comic magazines.
In September of the year I came to Aberdeen, the Nazis invaded Poland. Britain in response declared war on Germany. Suddenly it became impossible for me to send letters directly to my parents, or them to me. To put it another way, my parents and I were now living in opposing camps. For a time, we exchanged letters through relatives living in Norway — until the Nazis invaded in April 1940. My parents’ letters dwindled. On rare occasions I received cryptic messages from them via the Red Cross.
This turn of events gave me a rationale for accepting the fact that my parents’ plans to join me and take me to America were not about to occur. Clearly those plans would have to wait until the war ended. My parents spared me from worrying about their fate by writing repeatedly that they were fine and that everything was in order, except for what they led me to believe were inconsequential problems and delays in getting travel documents.
As weeks, then months and finally years went by without my parents’ intended trip to Scotland to take me with them to America, 3 Queen’s Cross became my home and, from 1939 to 1947, the nuns there were my family. Thanks to the sheltering granite walls and the loving attention of the Sacred Heart community, I felt secure.
It has frequently been observed that children accept pretty much anything that comes along because they have no perspective of what alternatives life could offer. This was certainly true for me and my friends during the war years in Scotland. Looking back, war to us meant two bad things: poor food and awful cold. The best food was sent to the fighting forces; civilians got the dregs; and the convent, like other places, cut way back on heating.
At graduation, nobody said anything to me about my real situation. They didn’t tell me I was an orphan, penniless, without family, free-floating and anchorless. When the war in Europe ended, Uncle Fritz and Aunt Mia had written to me to expect the worst about my parents. The Sacred Heart nuns, apparently not wanting me to read what was not a certainty, intercepted the letter and never let me see it. (I found a copy in Mia’s files after she died in 1990.)
It was somehow determined that I would go to Craiglochart College in Edinburgh, Scotland, to prepare for becoming a teacher, at least until my long-awaited visa to America came through. For years and years I tried unsuccessfully to get that visa. American consuls in Glasgow and London kept stalling. Time after time I was told everything was just about in order, but officials always found something missing: No birth certificate, so I had to write relatives in London and Switzerland to send sworn statements about the date and place of my birth; no affidavits from Americans affirming they would not let me be a financial burden to their country, so Aunt Mia obtained those and sent them to me. After more delays by the consul, he said those affidavits were out of date and had to be renewed. When all I needed was the visa, he claimed my number had not come up — my number under an Austrian quota.
Finally, after 10 years of waiting, my U.S. visa finally came through, and I could embark on a ship across the Atlantic and on to the next phase of my life.
I arrived in New York in July 1949 when I was 19 years old. In America, I reinvented myself for the third time. Often I was in denial that I was an orphan, that I had a strange childhood, that for years I had had no home, that I had missed adolescence, that most of my family were gone and that I had unfinished grieving to do.
At the same time, I found great comfort in my aunt and uncle. After arriving at their home in Yellow Springs just outside Dayton, I was taken upstairs to my bedroom. It had a window. Beside the bed, there was a large desk. I had arrived. I had a home.
I earned my bachelor’s degree from the University of Dayton and began a teaching career. In 1954, I became an American citizen and married Walter Rybeck, an editorial writer at the Dayton Daily News. Two sons, Rick and Alex, came along in rapid succession. In 1961, when Walt was named Washington bureau chief for Cox Newspapers, we moved to Maryland, where we still live.
Many of us who survived the war years in Europe as children only started coming out of the closet, so to speak, when the Child Survivors of the Holocaust was formed some three decades after the war. Why had our “silent generation” taken so long, until we reached our 50s, to come to terms with our unique experience?
We were the lucky ones, people told us.
Children, it was widely assumed, were too young to have been traumatized. We bought into the myth of how lucky we were and got on with our lives, suppressing emotions that did not agree with this assessment of our good luck.
Sure, we were lucky that we escaped and were not gassed. But was it good fortune that many of us lost parents and relatives, lost our homes, country and native language, and lost contact with anything familiar or secure?
Once childhood trauma became recognized as a reality, issues and memories I had packed away came flooding back. For years and years I could not speak German or even understand letters I had saved from my parents, but amazingly the language of my first decade returned.
When World War II ended, correspondence between Austria and Britain was again possible. My Aunt Olga Kraft wrote to me in Aberdeen in October 1946. She did not address me as a child, breaking the old conspiracy of silence, and gave me my first inkling that I might be Jewish:
In fall 1941 began the unhappy transports to Poland. We tried every means to permit your parents to locate outside Vienna, to no avail despite his World War I injuries and medals. They were given only two days notice.
Papi and Mutti talked touchingly about their love for you, dear Erika, wishing you to be happy and content. They were so courageous, consoling and comforting us.
Every week Aunt Gretl, Aunt Ella and I each sent them 20 shillings from the money they had left with us. After a short while they asked that we send no more. Then I learned that only Jews were permitted to send money to Jews. Others could be jailed, lose their jobs or their pensions if the Gestapo found out.
Uncle Fritz and Aunt Mia’s efforts to rescue my parents were also truly heroic, raising funds when they were almost penniless, writing to every possible saving organization, buying tickets, all to no avail. At times these efforts came tantalizingly close as they got papers and even plane or ship tickets to New Zealand, the Philippines, Turkey, Norway, Portugal and China, as well as to the United States, only to be thwarted by the advance of Hitler’s war machine, by bureaucratic deception and ineptness, or quirks of fate. Time after time their high hopes failed to materialize.
For years, I wrote every possible organization, in America, Austria and Israel, trying to discover why, despite the Germans’ meticulous record keeping, nobody could tell me of my parents’ last days. The Red Cross confirmed they were deported from Vienna on Oct. 23, 1941, on a train headed for Lodz, Poland. There, the trail ended.
It was not until 2002 that, thanks to my son Rick and his wife, I finally learned their fate.
When the Lodz Ghetto was liquidated, my parents were not deported with Jews from Vienna because they chose to go with a group of Christians who were deported to Chelmno on May 9, 1942. According to my son’s research, Chelmno was not a concentration camp, but purely a death camp prior to the invention of gas chambers. Prisoners were forced to disrobe before entering the cargo hold of trucks, which were sealed off. Truck exhaust was then piped in as it drove around until people stopped moving. Bodies of those who perished were dumped in a nearby forest.
Although the news my son and daughter-in-law discovered was tragic, their careful planning, the pains they took to get the facts, and even the news itself gave me comfort. No longer would I have to await letters telling me, “Proof of death is not available” or “No information has become available yet.” Knowing the awful truth was a relief after spending most of my life trying to fathom how my wonderful parents could have vanished into thin air.
For the first time since their horrible deaths, hidden in mystery for six decades, I finally felt free to grieve for them as their lives were validated during a most moving performance of Defiant Requiem: Verdi at Terezín. It was Sunday, May 1, 2011, in Bemidji, Minnesota.
My cousin, Bob Treuer, was a friend of the Bemidji Symphony conductor, and they worked together to dedicate the performance in memory of my parents and other relatives who had perished in the Holocaust.
The continuous prayer, requiem aeternam, was sung with fervor and emotion.
“Eternal rest give unto them O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon them.”
No grave, tombstone or acknowledgment offers proof that my mother and father existed — a truth I lived with for too long. What an honor it was for my parents to be remembered at long last in such a fitting fashion.
Adapted by Audrey Starr from Erika Rybeck's memoir, On My Own: Decoding the Conspiracy of Silence, published in 2013 by Summit Crossroads Press, Columbia, Maryland. Available on Amazon.com and at other retailers.
by Audrey Starr
The Kindertransport — literally, “children transport,” in German — was the informal name of a rescue mission that brought thousands of refugee children to Great Britain from Nazi-occupied countries in the two years prior to World War II.
Following Kristallnacht (“Night of Broken Glass”) — a series of coordinated attacks against Jews throughout Nazi Germany and Austria Nov. 9-10, 1938 — British authorities agreed to permit an unspecified number of children under age 17 to enter the United Kingdom unaccompanied on temporary travel visas from Germany, Austria, Czechoslovakia and Poland. Private citizens and organizations volunteered to pay for each child’s care, education and eventual emigration from Britain.
"The Nazis apparently were eager, before they developed their killing camps, to get rid of ‘useless and undesirable’ children,” noted Erika Schulhof Rybeck. “Especially heroic were the Jewish trainmasters. After tasting the breath of freedom, these leaders returned to take more youngsters on more trips. If any of the escorts had chosen to stay and escape, the whole enterprise would have been closed down.”
The first Kindertransport arrived in Harwich, Great Britain, Dec. 2, 1938, bringing some 200 children from a Jewish orphanage in Berlin that had been destroyed during Kristallnacht. Like this convoy, most transports left by train from Berlin, Vienna, Prague and other major cities in Central Europe. Jewish organizations inside Germany planned the transports. Upon arrival, children were placed in British foster homes, hostels, schools and farms. Often, these children were the only members of their families to survive the Holocaust.
Priority was given to children whose parents were in concentration camps or were no longer able to support them, or to homeless children and orphans. The last transport from Germany left Sept. 1, 1939, the day Germany invaded Poland, while the last transport from the Netherlands left for Britain May 14, 1940, the day the Dutch army surrendered to German forces. In all, the rescue operation transported 9,000 to 10,000 children, some 7,500 of them Jewish.
Sources: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Washington, D.C.; The Kindertransport Association.
by Audrey Starr
Erika Schulhof Rybeck landed in Ohio in 1949 a devout Catholic, and intending to continue her college education, she approached the local priest, Father John Anthony, for recommendations.
“He was understanding and with great kindness made arrangements for me to go to the University of Dayton. He even saw to it that I got a generous scholarship. At first, I rode back and forth with Yellow Springs residents who worked in Dayton but soon found a place that rented me a room not far from campus,” Rybeck remembered.
As a Flyer, Rybeck enjoyed singing in the chorus and helping in what she called “the little college store that sold cigarettes and candy,” often referred to as Brother Paul’s.
“I had no work experience at all; I had never worked in my life. I didn’t know the names of cigarettes, and I didn’t know American money, and that poor brother who was in charge — I must have been a terrible burden to him. Between classes the students would rush in and say, ‘Get me Camels,’ or ask for change for a dollar, and I didn’t know what they were talking about. It was a circus,” Rybeck said.
She and her husband, Walter, have visited Dayton a few times since they relocated to the Washington, D.C., area in 1961, but she hasn’t returned to campus.
“I must have been totally ignorant of just about everything when I came to UD, and I’m filled with amazement and gratitude that they took me on,” Rybeck said. “I am so grateful to the University and the opportunity it gave me to complete my degree and get on with my life.”