Eric Kahn was born in Wiesbaden, Germany, in 1929. As a child, he was forced to wear the yellow Star of David whenever he went outside of his house. In 1945, the Germans forced him, his father, and brother to board a train for the Theresienstadt concentration camp in Czechoslovakia. After the camp was liberated by the Red Army, his family moved to New York. He became a mechanical engineer, married his wife Ruth, and settled in Swampscott with his two children. His daughter, Lisa, lives in New Jersey and is married to Rabbi Eric Traiger; they are the parents of Baila and Ashie. His son Mark lives in California.
Eric, could you tell us about your family and upbringing?
My father, Max, who volunteered for the German Army during World War I, had a wholesale brush business, and my mother, Irma – who was born Christian and converted to Judaism before I was born – grew up in Wiesbaden. My father came from an Orthodox family and we observed kashrut and went to synagogue and kept Shabbat. My father’s family had been in Germany for hundreds of years, and my mother’s family tree in Germany goes back to 1200. After my father’s premature death in 1949, my mother provided a loving home for my brother Gunther and me for many years.
When did you realize that Jews were in danger in Germany?
After the Nuremberg Laws in 1935, the Germans decreed that Jews couldn’t go to public schools anymore. So they opened a Jewish school and the teachers were really good – they had been fired from their previous positions at public schools. I had great friends in school until June 10, 1942. On that day, my schoolmates were deported to the Sobibor extermination camp. I was not sent because my mother was born Christian, even though she had converted to Judaism. I am the only person in my class who survived. Everyone else was murdered by the Nazis.
How was life after that?
I got a final report card in June 1942 and from then on I had no schooling. During the day, we couldn’t do anything – I couldn’t ride a bike or go to a park. I did a lot of reading. Every time we went out kids would throw rocks at us, and yell “Jew, Jew, Jew.” My parents tried to leave for the U.S. but they couldn’t get a sponsor. We also tried to go to Greece and Sweden and England, but nothing worked out. We stayed in Wiesbaden until my father, brother, and myself were sent to Theresienstadt. My mother was able to stay in Wiesbaden because she had been born Christian. The so-called “Aryan partners” were not deported. There were three other families like that in Wiesbaden.
On Feb. 10, 1945, we had to report to the railroad station in Wiesbaden and they put us on a passenger train in Frankfurt. There, they put us on a cattle car train – about 40 people in each car – it was a three-day ride. The doors were locked from the outside and there was no room to lie down and we were in darkness. The only food we had was whatever we had brought along. Once a day, they opened the doors from the outside and people relieved themselves on the tracks.
What was it like in Theresienstadt?
It was run by uniformed Czech policemen and the SS. When I was there, they brought in the Red Cross and used it as a propaganda tool. The Nazis wanted to show the world that all these rumors about killings in concentration camps were not true. They arranged a movie, and filmed prisoners. They had an orchestra put on performances and plays.
They did not gas people to death there, although a gas chamber was under construction. We were starving and there was a lack of medical care. Supposedly there were three meals a day, but it was just watery soup. Everyone once in a while you’d get a piece of bread or a potato.
Did you know what was happening to the Jews taken by the Nazis?
We did not know until the war was over that extermination camps were in operation and that the people that were deported were murdered. We didn’t know. We didn’t hear anything. There were some rumors but we didn’t have facts. Even in Theresienstadt, there was no knowledge. People there did not know that Jews were being killed in Auschwitz and the other camps. Tens of transports of 1,000 prisoners each were sent from Theresienstadt to Auschwitz in 1943 and 1944.
When was the camp liberated?
The Red Army liberated the camp on May 8, 1945, the last day of WW II. There was some shooting in the morning, but the Germans were retreating. I was on a roof picking weeds and I heard some shots, and a bullet whistling by – and then it was quiet. It was a nice, sunny May day and birds were singing. That evening a Russian tank showed up in the main square and that was the end of the war for us.
Your whole family survived?
Yes. My father and brother and I survived. But right after the war, nobody could leave the camp because there was a typhoid epidemic in the camp. Transports from Bergen-Belsen [extermination camp] brought it in. We were quarantined until the middle of June.
When we left, we had no transportation. It took us 10 days to go from Theresienstadt to Wiesbaden. We got rides by horse-drawn carriages, trains, and a U.S. Army Jeep. We reunited with my mother and in July of 1946, we came to New York.
Where did you settle?
Initially we stayed at a [Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society] home in the Lower East Side, then we lived in Brooklyn, in a small house owned by Edward G. Robinson’s brother. He was a dentist, and we lived above his dental office. He couldn’t believe we hadn’t heard of his famous brother [the actor]. We lived in New York until 1957. I worked fixing cameras during the day and at night I went to evening high school and graduated in 1948. I worked days and went to CCNY City College at night. I majored in mechanical engineering. Because I was working full-time fixing cameras, I went to school at night, and it took six years. Then I went to work for Curtiss-Wright in New Jersey, reviewing hardware for aircraft engines. In 1958, I was hired by GE in Cincinnati – I did design engineering work, jet engine gearboxes. I transferred to GE in Lynn in 1959. I married Ruth in 1961 – my love from Peabody. I worked at GE for 33 years, and retired in 1990 as manager of a sub-section. I did design and development engineering on jet aircraft engines. It was a satisfying career.
You’re still actively involved in Judaism?
Yes. I lead the minyan on Thursday nights at Shirat Hayam [in Swampscott]. It’s a service for people who have to say Kaddish and keeps up the tradition. I was privileged to serve as president of the former Temple Beth El from 1982 to 1984.
You talk to groups, and students about the Holocaust.
I started to speak publicly many years ago about the Holocaust – mostly in memory of the kids who I went to school with who didn’t survive and were killed by the Nazis. The first time I spoke it was to a youth group at Temple Israel. Then I spoke in public schools – in Swampscott, Marblehead, and at North Shore Community College. I told them the story of what happened during the Nazi persecution of Jews.
I wanted to try to prevent hate from spreading and make them aware that it is important to speak up and not be a bystander when bad things are happening.
Are you concerned about the resurgence of anti-Semitism in America?
I’m concerned about the tendency to extreme nationalism, because the Nazis were driven by that philosophy. I’m concerned about the excesses of nationalism. I’m not sure if Trump is intentionally doing this, but I think the idea of going to a one-man dictatorship seems to appeal to Trump, so any tendency in that direction is bad for America. It leads the country away from democratic principles. In Germany before Hitler, democracy was a big ideal and they had more or less achieved it until Hitler came along and blamed the Jews for losing the first World War and initiating the Holocaust.
What’s the future for Jews in America?
I am optimistic. Whatever tendencies are in the opposite direction will play themselves out. I don’t think America will ever become a Nazi-like dictatorship. We have the Constitution; there is a common sense among the people, and they will not allow this to happen.