Lucky, but not unscathed

Steffi Masur escaped the Holocaust when her father anticipated the war


June 4, 2014

By Sara Gilgore

As the SS Bremen journeyed toward the United States in July 1936, Steffi Masur’s childhood disappeared in the distance. Her friends, grandparents and other relatives remained in Germany, with her family’s former apartment and familiar city streets. With the exception of a helpful stewardess, 11-year-old Masur and her 6-year-old sister knew nobody on the ship. Their parents waited for them in New York City.

On the eight-day cruise, Masur slept in a cabin, ate meals in the dining room and watched movies. She played ping-pong with other passengers and told them, “I do not speak English,” when they tried to converse. While she felt sad to leave her home in Berlin, she enjoyed the adventure.

It also saved her life.

Steffi Masur, a German Jewish girl, would later learn she escaped one of the most horrific genocides in world history. She left Europe just years before the Holocaust, when the Nazi regime began the systematic extermination of Jews during World War II.

* * *

Today, nearly 78 years later, Masur lives in a quiet neighborhood in Evanston, Ill. She moved to the Chicago area in the early 1950s, and has stayed in this house for over four decades. She is a mother and grandmother. She loves languages, museums, the arts and the New Yorker. She is articulate, lively, kindhearted and genuine. She says her story is not one of horror.

But it is not inconsequential. Her experiences influenced her development and impacted her outlook. She harbors poignant memories from a unique standpoint; she watched from a novel place as her old world deteriorated. She was lucky.

Masur first recalls her life changing April 1, 1933, when Adolf Hitler officially came to power in Germany. People were instructed to boycott Jewish-owned business, as Jews were now considered personae non gratae, segregated and unwelcome in society. Masur transferred to a private Jewish school. Her family could not have non-Jewish household help. Her grandfather, a successful and well-respected factory owner in a small Silesian town, found friends turning against him. Her father, a physician, could not treat his previous patients. Masur remembers red streamers covering the placard for his medical practice, and Nazis marching through the streets in front of their apartment.

“It became a very militarized society very quickly,” she says. “Life became very circumscribed. For me, personally, it meant all kinds of losses. Good, good friends suddenly couldn’t play with me anymore. I’m not sure that I really understood what was going on, but I did know that being Jewish was just not possible.”

Masur says her family was not particularly religious, but following the initial persecution, became more observant of traditional holidays and more conscious of being Jewish. She grew to love her Jewish school, where she forged meaningful friendships. When she was the first person in her class to leave, she was devastated.

“I remember that they all felt so sorry for me that I had to leave,” she says. “Actually, it was so incredibly fortunate that I did leave, because so many of them never made it out. What is interesting to me is that I was very unhappy about leaving all that, because I was too stupid to realize what was coming. I think very few people realized, and that’s why there [were] such dreadful developments for many who could not imagine what was to be.”

As a doctor, Masur’s father had access to U.S. visas. Though it would be several years before the Wannsee Conference Jan. 20, 1942 – when Nazi officials orchestrated the mass execution of Jews in death camps, in the “Final Solution” – he decided to move the family to New York. It was the only American state that did not require that physicians pass a board exam.

Masur says her father explained that life would be impossible if they were to stay in Berlin. Although she was young, she understood leaving would be critical to living an unrestricted life.

“I had a very smart father,” she says. “He knew that Germany as a whole was a very anti-Semitic society. He said he wanted to be as far away from Germany as possible, because there was going to be a war – he predicted that.”

* * *

Following their voyage from Europe, Masur and her sister reunited with their parents in Manhattan, where they settled into an Upper West Side apartment near Riverside Drive, by the Hudson River. At the time, they were permitted to move with their furnishings from Berlin. In the 11th floor unit, Masur shared a room with her sister.

She says the move was comfortable, but the transition was traumatic. She was accustomed to living in a city, but New York was significantly larger than Berlin. The language barrier was also challenging at first, she says, joking that having previously studying French was not useful in the States. She remembers feeling “total bewilderment,” but after learning a few English phrases and developing friendships with her schoolmates, she was up to speed within a year.

Soon, Masur acclimated to her new life, which she says was “different, but not that different” from that of her previous home. She enjoyed “good things” like movies and ice cream sodas. She thought Manhattan was a fun place to live, even as a young girl.

For a while, she stayed in touch with friends who were still in Berlin. They had written a book of poetry for her when she left, which she still has today. The small collection is filled with rhymes, verses and folklore, translated to statements like, “as children we hope our friendship will continue.” Her classmates’ photographs and signatures accompany many of the poems, which are handwritten in old German script on weathered paper.

“It just indicates how significant my departure was, as compared to everyone else leaving later, which was much more expected and more routine, perhaps.” she says. “It’s amazing. They all wished me very well.”

As she sits at her dining room table, flipping through the book, she looks pensive, her eyebrows raised and eyes focused on the pages.

“I look at all these people and wonder how long they lived,” she says quietly. “You just wonder how many made it.”

One of these classmates, Ilse Rosenthal, was her closest friend. When the Nazis gained more power in Germany, and mail correspondence became more difficult, the girls lost touch. Unlike some friends, who immigrated to other countries on the Kindertransport, she was unable to get out of Germany, eventually lost in Auschwitz. A cousin later confirmed for Masur her friend had disappeared.

“My absolutely best, best friend died in a camp, and that’s something that I just cannot… will never, never get over,” she says. “So that’s something that sort of weighs on one forever, too, even as a child I think I felt I should’ve saved her, could’ve saved her… no I couldn’t have saved her, but I should have saved her, but I didn’t. So you don’t forget that.”

As years passed and the war continued overseas, Masur began to realize the significance of her leaving. Her grandparents successfully evaded Germany later, but she struggled to obtain information and maintain contact with other friends and extended family.

“They couldn’t really tell us what was happening,” she says. “We knew that they were in real trouble. We got that. When you lost track… you knew that that was the end of their life. People just vanished.”

* * *

During these years, Masur kept a personal diary about uprooting her life, her apprehensions in moving to a new country, and her feelings about leaving and missing her friends.

The sentiment is a stark juxtaposition with that of the diary her mother started as a young girl in 1914, in the weeks leading up to World War I. Masur says her mother “is rooting for the Germans, all throughout the diary.” She recalls an entry in which her mother described feeding the soldiers when they came to her town, feeling sad to see them wounded.

“It boggles your mind, actually, that she could talk about the glorious German victory,” she says. “It’s so ironic, when you look back and see it from our perspective. It’s sort of unbelievable.”

There were many Jews who fought in Germany during World War I. But within less than 30 years, the country became a different place.

In the seven decades since, Germany has continued to redefine itself.

Masur has visited Germany twice since the Holocaust. The first time she went back, before the Berlin Wall came down, she traveled with her second husband, also a German Jew. The city invited them to return, since they were Berlin natives. Masur remembers the contrast between East and West Germany, the East being dilapidated, with rubble sidewalks and streets.

Less than 10 years ago, Masur went back again with her children, at which point the country was completely run by the West – where she had lived before leaving. She saw memorials throughout the city commemorating victims’ lives and bringing attention to the events surrounding the war.

“One sort of wants to think that it’s changed, and it has, it really has,” Masur says. “We had a taxi cab driver, just one, who said, ‘Enough of these memorials, we’ve spent enough money on this.’ But he was the only one. For the most part, people were quite gracious and nice.”

Masur recognizes the German government working to make amends with refugees, helping them to move back.

* * *

While fleeing Germany enabled her to live a relatively safe life, she says her experience has determined many of her life decisions. She went to college in New York City, staying close to her family. She married two German Jews: the first was adamant about avoiding anything German-made; the second was more relenting, and wished he still lived in Berlin at times. She was more afraid of what it meant to be Jewish. She says if she were to see a group of Germans from her generation, she would likely walk around them.

“I never have really wanted to speak – to make friends, certainly – with German-born people of my generation,” she says. “Because you simply don’t know how involved they were or how they felt. This man, Hitler, just mesmerized the entire country. It’s very hard to fathom how this happened. But it did.”

Masur’s daily life has been affected by those events. Though she does not talk about her past often, partly because she does not believe anyone would be interested, she says she has been thinking about it a lot lately. With her bubbly disposition and sincere smile, it is at first surprising to hear Masur say she is cynical about human nature, having seen mankind’s rottenness.

“My mental state has been very affected by it, all my life,” she says. “You know that this insecurity – knowing that from one year to the next, the world can change around you – has certainly made a huge difference. I’ve become perhaps more realistic, more aware, more pessimistic. It doesn’t leave one untouched. It can’t, really.”