Part of an ongoing series on Holocaust survivors and partisans in Northern California
When Edith Heine first went to school at age 7, she was terrified of everyone — teachers and students alike. She didn’t know how to talk to strangers.
“They asked me also my last name, and I didn’t know my last name,” the 83-year-old said in a recent interview with J. “We had to change it so often, and I was never allowed to tell my name. I had no idea what my name was!”
Heine is going to be sharing more of her story as the keynote speaker in Berkeley’s 18th annual Holocaust Remembrance Day, an online commemoration on April 8.
The young Edith didn’t know anything about school, or even how to interact with other children, because all she knew was the constant fear and stress of hiding from the Nazis in Amsterdam, where she was born after her parents fled their native Germany to avoid persecution.
Heine’s parents, Leo and Erna Levy, had been anti-Nazi activists, involved in a network of resistance, she said. Targeted by the authorities, they had gone to the Netherlands in the early 1930s.
“They applied for a visa to the United States. They knew they were not safe in Europe anymore,” she said. “But the Nazis had taken their business away, their money and even had taken their nationality away. They did that with the Jewish people. They had no rights anymore.”
Denied a U.S. visa, they stayed in Amsterdam. Five years later, in 1938, Edith was born; two years later, when the Germans invaded, the family was forced to go underground and stay on the move.
Heine remembers the war years with the clarity of a child who grew up in trauma.
“The Gestapo did always their roundups and were very noisy,” she remembered. “They banged on the doors, ‘Open the door!’ And if that didn’t happen immediately, they had very strong boots on and they kicked in the doors. Sometimes we had nothing to eat, we had to go from one place to another, in the cellars. And in another place where we had to go under the floorboards, we stood often in water there. I was starving.”
Five years of that life culminated in the hongerwinter, the famine of 1944-45. Unlike Anne Frank, who was also in hiding in Amsterdam, both Edith and her parents survived. (Heine didn’t know the Franks, although her first home had a yard that bordered theirs.) But the experience left a mark on her parents and her that was indelible.
“They constantly thought they will die. I had thought that also, my whole life. I’ve learned it’s to do with PTSD, but they didn’t know that at the time, about PTSD,” said Heine, who lives in El Sobrante. “I always thought I would never, never get old. When I was a teenager I thought I would be dead by 30. I never thought about my old age.”
When she was sent to school at 7, she was too frightened to attend and would play hooky and hang out with stray dogs. Eventually, though, she was sent to a new school for Jewish children, which she liked better. “I slowly but surely learned how to act with other children. It took a while.”
Heine said no one ever talked about the Holocaust at school. “We never did talk,” she said. “And I couldn’t talk about it, almost my entire life. When I came here, I started, slowly.”
Heine didn’t come to the United States until the early 1990s, after a life spent working as an actress and living in Spain, France, Germany and Israel.
It was here that she began to speak about her experience and open up emotionally. She was interviewed as part of the Bay Area Holocaust Oral History Project in 1995, and she also participated in the Holocaust Survivors Memoir Writing Workshop, where she was able to put her memories to paper.
Other speakers at the virtual April 8 event will include Berkeley councilmember and poet Terry Taplin, Cantor Sharon Bernstein and musicians Cookie Segelstein, Josh Horowitz, Mike Perlmutter and members of the Saul Goodman Klezmer Band. The commemoration is scheduled from 2 to 3 p.m. It’s free, but online registration is required.
The event is more important than ever, said organizer Rita Clancy of Jewish Family & Community Services East Bay. “It really makes us think about all that’s going on in the world, and how people overcame the hate,” she said.
Clancy’s daughter, Sasha Clancy McQueen, the grandchild of survivors, will be speaking as a representative of the next generation of descendants of Holocaust survivors.
For Heine, choosing to speak out makes her think of her father, who tried in vain to warn people against the Nazis in 1930s Germany. He told her there were many people who listened to him and understood, but it wasn’t enough. It’s a lesson that has resonance today, she said.
“He said many, many were in denial. They said the Nazis are not that bad. They only bark like dogs,” she said. “That was also a consequence of denial.”