Hannah Goldrich in the flower garden she tends. Photo by Todd Cooper.

Laying The ‘Stumbling Stones’ In Heilbronn

Eugene resident and longtime art jeweler Hannah Goldrich examines her Jewish heritage through Stolpersteine

It is a home set off from street traffic by a large yard. You might miss it as you drive by. That yard fronts a rustic looking house with a spacious and inviting porch in a leafy southeast Eugene neighborhood that even has a bamboo forest on the street corner.

Hannah Goldrich and her husband, Daniel, have called it home for more than 50 years and have had four children, eight grandchildren and three great grandchildren grace its rooms and hallways. The interior has a comfortable, lived-in air to it with art from the couple’s many travels, especially to Mexico, and the backyard is dotted with flowers that she tends to. 

“It’s kind of a funky house,” Hannah Goldrich says.

Goldrich long ago made a name for herself as a jeweler with exhibits throughout the Pacific Northwest. She often sees the jewelry she made adorning the ears of strangers, and she has taught extensively at Maude Kerns Art Center. It’s been a gratifying life, and the days now usually end for Goldrich with The New York Times and a game of Wordle. 

Her life almost never happened.

How Hannah Goldrich and her Jewish family made it from Heilbronn, Germany, to the United States is a remarkable four-year story that starts in 1937 and includes fortuitous timing at almost every step of the way.

The Victor family — father Max, mother Trude, older sister Ursula and Hannah — fled persecution in Germany, where strict anti-Semitism legislation such as the “Nuremberg Laws” were becoming entrenched and just ahead of Kristallnacht (the “Night of Broken Glass”) in 1938 as well as the opening of concentration camps. They made stops in Switzerland, Holland and England. From England the family journeyed to Cuba in 1940, just a year after the “Voyage of the Damned,” a ship full of Jews seeking to escape Germany, was turned away in Havana, and after two weeks’ detention in a camp on that island nation, the Victor family moved to the Dominican Republic for nine months before, finally, landing in New York City in 1941.

Hannah Victor was only two years old when the family fled Heilbronn and began this odyssey. She first returned to her birthplace with her family as Hannah Goldrich in 1985 for Begegnungswoche, a week of intensive dialogue and tours of their former community, at the invitation of the people of Heilbronn. She returned again June 29 for a Stolpersteine ceremony, the laying of brass plaques honoring victims of Nazi persecution in front of the house where she was born and in a community where Goldrich can trace family lineage to the 1800s.

“I felt really good about it,” she says from the dining room of her Eugene home. “I have felt different about Germany. A lot of places in Germany make sure you don’t forget. That’s gratifying to me.”

The Stolpersteine Project

Without memory, there is no culture, and Stolpersteine is just one of many memorials to victims of the Holocaust. The project began in Germany in 1992, and now exists in 20 languages and 24 countries.

The grassroots project, started by German artist Gunter Demnig, honors the victims of the Nazis by placing a small brass stone, inscribed with the name and life details of a victim, in front of the victim’s last known residence. The stones measure 10 by 10 centimeters. 

The name Stolpersteine translates to “stumbling stones” — and they are intended to be stumbled upon, serving as a reminder of the suffering and loss.

Europeana, a web portal created by the European Union that is dedicated to digitizing and promoting European history, notes that the Stolpersteine project also serves as a way to educate the public about the horrors of the Holocaust. Many of the victims eternalized by the stones were ordinary people, the website explains, and while the majority of Stolpersteine commemorate Jewish victims of the Holocaust, others have been placed on behalf of victims that include the Romani, the LGBTQ+ community, people with disabilities, Blacks and people who were persecuted for their religious, political and social beliefs.

It is the commemorating of ordinary people — victims of atrocities — that is vital, says Rabbi Ruhi Sophia Motzkin Rubensteinof Eugene’s Temple Beth Israel.

“It’s really important to memorialize the fact that they were a part of society,” she says. 

Demnig placed the first Stolperstein on Dec. 16, 1992, in front of the Cologne City Hall, 50 years to the day after an order was signed to begin the mass deportation of Jews and Roma from Germany. In recent years, the Stolpersteine project has expanded to honor men, women and children who were forced into exile before and during World War II. The Colegio Pestalozzi school in Buenos Aires, Argentina, founded in 1934, became the first site outside Europe to host one in 2017, honoring in this case the hundreds of German Jewish children who found refuge there in exile.

And it was the inclusion of exiles that prompted Lewis Santer, a nephew of Goldrich, into action, and to work with Goldrich to have the Victor family remembered with a Stolperstein on the sidewalk in front of the family home in Heilbronn. Often, it is local groups, residents of a particular street or school children who come together to research the biographies of local victims and raise the roughly $130 it costs to install each stone. 

On June 29, Hannah Goldrich proudly stood by the four stones honoring her family and delivered prepared remarks, in front of the house in Heilbronn that somehow survived ferocious Allied bombing in 1944, bombing that destroyed much of the rest of the city.

The Stolpersteine stones honoring the Victor family in Heilbronn on June 29. Photo courtesy Hannah Goldrich.

The Journey

“I was born in the house we are standing before, Wartburgstrasse 50, on March 31, 1935. It was an easy birth at home since my Jewish family was no longer allowed in the hospitals.”

So began Goldrich’s remarks, and so began the Victor family’s journey.

Later in 1935 Jews were barred from serving in the German military, and the Nuremberg Laws were enacted under which Jewish people were no longer considered German citizens. The following year saw Jewish doctors banned from practicing in German institutions and the opening of the Sachsenhausen concentration camp, among other indignities. The Buchenwald concentration camp opened in 1937.

The pure hatred of Jews in Germany had been evident throughout the early 1930s, as German author Hans Franke noted in his 1963 book The History and the Fate of the Jews in Heilbronn. There were boycotts of Jewish shops and businesses, public burnings of books written by Jews, public insults hurled at Jews and violent assaults on Jewish people.

 Of a terrorizing incident in 1931, Franke recounted that “students occupied all of the entrances to the Berlin University and assaulted all of the students who looked Jewish, quite a few of whom had to be taken to the hospital. Although this attack went on for some hours, the president of the university made no effort to contact the police!”

And of the boycotts, Franke wrote: “It can be shown statistically that before 1933 this insidious boycott was already severely affecting the Jewish population. Because of this boycott, unemployment rose at a faster than average rate, particularly among the Jewish intelligentsia. Also, Jewish shopkeepers became poorer and already were being cut off from their means of support.”

 Max Victor — an economics professor with a Ph.D. from Heidelberg University — was clearly among the intelligentsia. He was forced out of his teaching position and had to find work anywhere he could. There was nowhere left to turn in 1937, so he left for the U.S. to begin the process of obtaining visas for the family (he had a sister in New York City) while Trude, Ursula and Hannah traveled to Switzerland, where Max had set up a Swiss bank account.

That would not be a simple process. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., notes that between 1938 and 1941, “U.S. law allowed only 27,370 immigration visas per year to be issued to people born in Germany or Austria. If you wanted to present your paperwork and be interviewed by the U.S. consulate in the hope of getting a visa, you needed to register and join the waiting list.”

The Victor family reunited in Amsterdam in the spring of 1937, then moved to Ardenhaudt, Holland. From there, it moved to Chipstead, in Surrey County, England, in 1939. 

Between the Holland and English dates — “The fateful year of 1938,” as Franke put it — there was Kristallnacht  Nov. 9 and 10. It was the state’s response to the assassination in Paris of German diplomat Ernst vom Rath by Herschel Grynszpan, a Polish Jew.

The Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles notes that 200 synagogues were destroyed, 7,500 shops were looted and 30,000 male Jews were sent to concentration camps during the two-day rampage. The riot was supposed to look like an unplanned outburst of anger toward the Jewish people. “In reality, Kristallnacht was state-sponsored vandalism and arson,” responds the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. “Nazi leaders actively coordinated it with Adolf Hitler’s support.”

The Victor family was away from that, but it had a voyage to Cuba in 1940 aboard the SS Orduna to worry about. It was not a given that the family or other passengers would step foot in Havana.

In 1939 the German liner MS St. Louis set sail from Hamburg, Germany, to Cuba with 937 passengers, almost all of them Jewish. The passengers learned upon their arrival that the Cuban government had canceled visas for all the passengers and were demanding a $1 million ransom to disembark.

This was the “Voyage of the Damned,” a voyage made famous by a 1974 book of the same name by authors Max Morgan-Witts and Gordon Thomas and made into a 1976 movie, also with the same name.

The Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center in Skokie, Illinois, explains in its current exhibit that the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) attempted to negotiate with the Cuban government, but it backed away for fear that “paying would encourage other regimes.”

“The ship’s sympathetic captain delayed returning to Germany, sailing towards Florida while the JDC appealed to the U.S. and other governments. America refused to relax its immigration quotas.”

Great Britain, France, Belgium and the Netherlands each admitted a percentage of passengers upon the ship’s return to Europe. Still, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum notes that 254 passengers on the St. Louis were killed in the Holocaust.

The SS Orduna did not have the problems of the St. Louis, but the Victor family was interned at a detention camp named Tiscornia. According to the German American Internee Coalition, the Cuban government (in cooperation with the U.S. government that helped pay for the program) interned 114 Germans, 350 Japanese and 13 Italian Cuban resident aliens at the camp during World War II.

“That was a completely foreign land,” Goldrich says, but adds with a chuckle that her sister Ursula did develop a taste for avocados during the two-week stay.

Upon release from the detention camp, the Victor family went to Santiago de los Caballeros in the Dominican Republic. Victor spoke fluent Spanish, and the family settled for nine months.

“It was not torture,” Goldrich says of the time in the Dominican Republic. “It was pretty good.”

Finally, in April 1941, visas were issued for the Victor family and they set sail to New York City via Puerto Rico. They would settle first in the Kew Gardens section of Queens, New York, then in Westchester County, and they would go on to productive lives.

Life in the U.S.

In 2004 the Hannah Goldrich 50 Year Jewelry Retrospective was held at the late and lamented Jacobs Gallery in Eugene. She told Eugene poet Maxine Scates in an introductory artist statement that Holocaust-era refugees often became artists “because it’s a way of being remembered — your work will exist even if you don’t.” She added that “I want my work to last forever, to be passed down through the generations.”

Almost 20 years later, nothing has changed for Goldrich on that front. She smiles at the thought. “I see my work all over, all the time,” she says. “I see ears before I see faces.”

Goldrich did not set out to become a jeweler. She graduated from Antioch College in Ohio, a private liberal arts school, and later earned a master’s in secondary education at Harvard, but the art of jewelry making was too much of a pull to ignore.

While jewelry making was not in the family’s history, art itself certainly was. Max Victor would retire from the leather business in the U.S. and spend the remaining 13 years of his life painting before dying at age 83, and Goldrich fondly recalls visiting art galleries and museums with her father as a young girl.

“His love was art and he was an art collector,” Goldrich says.

Trude Victor was a gymnast in Germany, and in the U.S. she worked in physical therapy, primarily with children diagnosed with cerebral palsy, and lived to age 99. Ursula Victor Santer would go on to earn a Ph.D. in microbiology at Yale University. She died of cancer in 2003 at age 70.

Neither the parents nor the Jewish community they lived in spoke much of the war, the Holocaust or of being exiled, Goldrich says. “Everybody knew,” she points out, and everyone had to rebuild.

“They managed to have very good lives, which they deserved,” Goldrich says of her parents. “In retrospect, it was hard for them, but they were exceptional people.”

Two of many exceptional people, notes Rabbi Ruhi Sophia. Ruhi Sophia recently officiated the memorial service of a 101-year-old Jewish woman who came to the U.S. from Europe in 1941 as a 17-year-old girl.

“There were survivors who didn’t tell their stories,” says Sophia, who uses the biblical Hebrew word Sho’ah (catastrophe) rather than the English word Holocaust (derived from the Greek holokauston, a translation of the Hebrew word ‘olah, meaning a burnt sacrifice offered whole to God). “As we lose them to old age, it’s important to remember that the Sho’ah was perpetuated by humans against other humans.” While the Sho’ah can be seen as an event that came out of nowhere, Ruhi Sophia adds, “Any society can be susceptible.”

Goldrich echoed that sentiment June 29 in her prepared remarks in Heilbronn.

“The displays in many museums, the Holocaust, memorials and now the Stolpersteine project are a model for the horrendous costs of war,” she said. “Our country could learn from these efforts for our blunders.”

Zikhrono livrakha. May the memory of those lost to the Holocaust or exiled in World War II be a blessing.