This season of Yom HaShoah, three Holocaust survivors recently shared their stories at a“Prejudice & Memory: A Holocaust Exhibit” housed at the Wright Patterson Air Force Base’s U.S. Air Force Museum in Dayton, Ohio.
“Prejudice & Memory: A Holocaust Exhibit” is comprised of the photographs, artifacts, and recorded memories of concentration camp survivors, their families, liberators, and “righteous Gentiles” (non-Jews who helped Jews during the Holocaust), who now live in the Dayton, Ohio, area. The Holocaust Exhibit in Dayton is one of several in the U.S. constructed to honor and remember community members’ connections with the Nazis’ institutionalized genocide of Jews.
This is Felix’s story.
Born in Frankfort, Germany in 1927, Felix describes his life as relatively normal. His father owned a textile business and Felix and his sister were ordinary children. Even after Hitler’s rise to power in 1933, Felix’s life did not change until 1936.
In 1936, the Summer Olympics were held in Berlin. Hitler was determined to use the Games to prove to the world the superiority of the Arian race. What he did not anticipate was the black American athlete, Jesse Owens.
Owens destroyed Hilter’s narrative of the “perfect race” by winning three gold medals. At the time, the national leaders would present the medals to the winners. Hitler could not bring himself to recognize Owens and stomped off the stage, leaving Owens standing on the winner’s platform.
Felix mentions that witnessing this reminded the Germans that Hitler was elected by a plurality of voters, not by a majority. He said, “The German people did not wise up though. He remained in power until 1945.”
From 1936 to 1939, Felix recalled life becoming intolerable. Despite the evil his family witnessed, he remarked that he, his family, and his countrymen still had hope. Hitler began instituting anti-Semitic laws that forbade Jewish children from attending public schools. Felix and his sister were forced to attend the private “Philanthropin” school in Frankfort.
It eventually became illegal to associate with a Jew. He says, “I remember playing with my friend when his father came in the room and told me to leave and never come back. I didn’t know what I did wrong. My father told me it was not my fault.”
The German government purposefully and maliciously turned on its own citizens, making them outcasts just because of their race.
The new laws made the Jewish people virtually invisible. They were ignored by industries, shops, and everyday citizens. Jews could no longer patronize butcher shops, bakeries, or any other business until after closing time, that is if the owner agreed to stay open. Even then, Jews were only given the remnants of the day.
Of the night of Kristallnacht, which occurred on November 9 and 10, 1938, Felix says,
“Hitler wanted to see what the rest of the world would do. They did nothing.” This inaction “gave Hitler the green light. He knew he could eliminate the Jewish population and nothing would be done to him.”
After Kristallnacht, any Jewish business still in operation was confiscated by the Nazis. Jews were forbidden to own cars, radios, watch movies, or attend public events. Within weeks, an organization was created to rescue predominately Jewish children from Nazi territories. From November 30, 1938 to September 1939, 10,000 children under the age of 17 were transported from Czechoslovakia, Austria, and Germany to Great Britain. Known as Kindertransport, this initiative was largely led by stockbroker and British Anglican Nicholas Winton. (One impromptu decision to cancel his skiing vacation one December night in 1938, and to instead join a friend in Prague who had pleaded his help, changed his life, and saved the lives of 669 children.)
At age 11, Felix’s life completely changed. On August 10, 1939, three weeks before World War II began, Felix remembers his mother “sitting on my bed with tears in her eyes knowing she would never see her son again.” He had received a ticket on the Kindertransport and was preparing to leave. Parents would tell their children that they would be along in a few weeks, giving some excuse like having to sell the house as their reason for staying. And, their children believed them. Felix was one.
Out of the ten thousand children rescued by the Kindertransport, 90 percent never saw their families again. At the time, Felix didn’t know this was goodbye.
As the train traveled up the Rheine reaching the Holland boarder, Felix recalls the train stopping and SS men coming aboard. They told the children they could never return, which brought cheers and praise from the passengers.
Once the train arrived in London, as the children exited the train, they quickly met their family members and/or sponsors.
But, Felix was never told to meet anyone.
As he watched the train station empty out, eventually some adults approached him and began questioning him. He gave them his name, which they could not find on their handwritten lists of passengers. “They did find a Felicia Weil, though, who was not my sister,” he said.
Felix had escaped hell due to a mistake.
The fate of Felix’s family was not as fortunate. In 1941, they were also put on a train, but this one was bound to a ghetto in Poland, where his father died. His mother and sister were then sent to a concentration camp where they became part of the six million Jews Hitler’s Nazi regime eradicated.
Felix was thankful a Christian family agreed to take him in and raise him over the next six years. Like many Holocaust survivors, he had family, an aunt and uncle, who brought him to America. He arrived on April 12, 1945, which is the day President Franklin D. Roosevelt died. He quipped, “I tell everyone FDR died when he heard that Felix Weil was in America.”
Felix was not in America for long, as he was soon drafted and sent back to Germany as part of the Occupying Forces, proving the SS wrong. After the war, Felix attended Kent State University and settled in Dayton, Ohio, where he and his wife raised two children. Retired from the art business, he travels the state recounting his story to educate younger generations of the atrocities dictators can inflict if allowed.
Felix points to the reality that Roosevelt was well aware of the evil Hitler was inflicting on the Jews, but chose to remain silent. The American people did not discover the truth until after the war had ended. This information just solidifies Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s statement: “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.” If Roosevelt had spoken up, perhaps this German Lutheran minister, along with millions of Jews and political opponents, would have not been executed.
Unfortunately, the Nazis still succeeded in murdering 1.5 million children before their reign of terror ended.
Winton kept his efforts a secret. It was only until his wife found scrapbooks about the Kindertransport in their attic that his efforts became public knowledge. Winton was Knighted by the Queen of England, who said, “It’s wonderful that you were able to save so many children.”
A partial or full audio tour of the museum can be heard on the Museum’s podcasts.
Video of Kindertransport and Sir Nicholas Winton: