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“I Was Born in an Old Age Home” is the catchy title of East Bay resident Susanne (Sanne) Kalter DeWitt’s debut memoir, resonant with multigenerational ties and implications.
Her unusual story begins in 1934 in Munich, where her father, a physician, lost his livelihood when the Nazis refused to pay Jewish doctors within the German medical system. He managed to find a live-in position at the Jewish home, or Altersheim, where DeWitt was born.
“I had many ‘grandparents,’ mostly women, who indulged me with heaps of attention,” she writes.
It was a fortunate inner world within the more dangerous outside world. On Kristallnacht, Nov. 9, 1938, just before DeWitt’s 4th birthday, all of the residents were transported to Dachau, then a labor camp. Luckily, the Nazis got caught up in their own red tape and the group was able to return to the home after financial payment was received.
DeWitt’s 283-page memoir presents a broad sweep of historical details that have shaped her long and eventful life. Concise chapters sweep the reader from Germany to Holland, London and Wales, and from there across the Atlantic. There are chapters in New York, at Cornell University, where she did her undergraduate studies, and back to Germany again with her husband, Hugh, an astrophysicist, who had landed a Fulbright fellowship at Heidelberg University.
At the couple’s last stop, in Berkeley, DeWitt completed her graduate studies in molecular biology and genetics at Cal, started a family and became a member of Congregation Beth Israel. She traveled to Israel, India, Cuba and many other places; was an activist on behalf of civil rights and the Soviet Jews; and worked through health crises and family crises. She also helped establish the Israel Action Committee of the East Bay and published an online newsletter about Israel and anti-Semitism.
DeWitt’s book is a testimony to how she lived life fully, engaging in many of the personal and social issues of her time. Now 84, “I am approximately the same age as the residents in the Altersheim,” she notes in the final chapter, concluding, “I am constantly inspired by the wonderful people who saved my life.”
“My Soul Is Filled with Joy” is another type of Holocaust story, this one told by Karen I. Treiger, daughter-in-law of Sam and Esther Goldberg, who were among a minority of Polish Jews to survive the horrors of World War II. Sam Goldberg was one of about 100 prisoners who escaped the infamous death camp Treblinka, where some 900,000 were murdered. He met his future wife while hiding in the Polish forests, and together, with the aid of a Polish family, they avoided capture and survived the war, ultimately making their way to the United States.
Treiger had long known her in-laws’ story, but waited until she retired from her law career to undertake the writing of this emotional and thoroughly researched book. In 2016, the Seattle resident visited Poland with her family to retrace the journey of the Goldbergs, and was able to find the three elder children of the Stys family who had hidden them. They helped Traiger complete the Goldbergs’ accounts of what had transpired, in what turned out to be a timely meeting.
“If I had waited another year, I wouldn’t have been able to talk with two of the three who hid them,” Traiger told J.
Traiger, who will travel again to Poland in June to speak at the Polin Museum in Warsaw and the Krakow Jewish Culture Festival, has several Bay Area book talks scheduled this month: 11 a.m. Saturday, March 16 at Congregation Beth Israel in Berkeley; 3 p.m. Tuesday, March 19 at Rhoda Goldman Plaza in San Francisco; and later the same day at 7 p.m. at the Jewish Community Library and JFCS Holocaust Center in San Francisco.