Susan Rothschild, Eastchester
photo by Toshi Tasaki
As a young child in the small city of Beuthen, Germany (now Bytom, Poland), Susan Heimann Rothschild, today 82, began to see and experience horrible things that she could not understand. “Jews Not Allowed” signs suddenly appeared in public parks and pools. German children threw stones and spit at her. Her mother was deliberately run over by a Nazi.
“Her legs were mangled and my father took her to a Catholic hospital and begged the surgeon to save her legs,” Rothschild says. “She had to learn to walk again at a nursing home in Berlin, since no facility treated Jews in my hometown by then.” The little girl lived in constant fear. “I felt helpless. I was afraid my father would disappear.”
Rothschild’s father, Moritz Heimann, who had fought for Germany and received the Iron Cross during World War I, was an affluent businessman before the Nazis took over his successful textile store. “My parents did not believe what was happening,” Rothschild says. “They were proud, patriotic Germans.”
Rothschild’s 10th birthday was marked by Kristallnacht (also known as the Night of Broken Glass), a night when Jewish stores were looted, synagogues torched, and homes destroyed. “Whatever the Nazis did, they did loudly,” Rothschild says. “I remember hearing them banging on the doors and their boots marching. On Kristallnacht, they destroyed my birthday presents, smashed my mother’s Meissen porcelain collection, and killed my canary. Then they arrested my father”—along with 30,000 other Jewish men, most of whom were sent to concentration camps. Her father managed to be released through an administrator they knew in the police department. “There were good Germans,” she notes.
Then, Rothschild says, “we all had to have identification cards with photographs taken of the left side of our faces with our ears showing. That’s how people said you could tell a Jew.”
Her family, which included an older sister, was desperate to get out of Germany. Her father obtained transit visas to England with the hopes of getting his family to Palestine, where they shipped all their belongings ahead. In 1939, they crossed the channel. “As the ship left the harbor, a band played Nazi songs,” she says. “My mother cried because it was her homeland, after all.” By the time their entrance visas to Palestine came through, the war had started and transportation ceased.
They always felt unsettled in England, where her father died the following year of a heart attack during the Blitz of 1940. “There were raids every night. On some nights, we slept in the underground, for protection.”
She met her husband, Bob Rothschild, when she was playing at a friend’s home. He was also a German Jew who had escaped to England via the Kindertransport, a rescue effort that brought thousands of refugee Jewish children to Great Britain from Nazi Germany between 1938 and 1940. Five years later, they started dating. Bob worked as an apprentice at a pastry shop, one of the few jobs available to German refugees in England. His parents immigrated to the United States, as did Rothschild’s older sister Kate; Rothschild, her mother, and her fiancé followed in 1948.
Before moving to Eastchester 35 years ago, they lived in New York City’s Washington Heights, where they owned a bakery and raised two children. Rothschild went on to work in the corporate world, while her husband, who died 10 years ago, became a successful manufacturer of displays for the wholesale jewelry business. Their son, Gerry, is an Emmy-award-winning musician and their daughter, Karen, is a mathematics specialist.
Back when they first immigrated to this country, they were immersed in their fellow German immigrants’ lives. “The neighborhood was filled with so many Germans that they called it the ‘Fourth Reich,’ but we never discussed anything that happened amongst ourselves. We were all just trying to get past it and build a new life. I felt I had lost all my roots and all I wanted was to live an ordinary life.”
Through the years, Rothschild and her husband did share their experiences with their children as they got older, but it was only when she retired that she became committed to sharing her story. “I wanted to do something meaningful,” says Rothschild, who started the speaker’s bureau of the White Plains–based Holocaust & Human Rights Education Center 16 years ago. “Volunteering is my way of expressing my gratitude that I wasn’t one of the six million.”