My name is Herbert Karliner, I am the third child of a family of four. First was my sister Use, then my brother Walter, myself and my sister Ruth. I was born on Sept. 3rd 1926 in Peiskretscham (Selesia) near the Polish border. My parents had a general store and sold wholesale grains. We were religious and went to temple every Friday and Saturday. I even was the “Shamess” for the services. We had a really big and beautiful synagogue for such a small town. My family had lived there for generations. We went to regular school and had Hebrew classes in the afternoon.
Very early in life I learned about discrimination. I loved to play soccer and it came a time when the boys would just kick me because I was a Jew. Once, on a beautiful winter day, a German boy ask me to share our sled with him, and my little sister and I was more than happy to play with everyone. At the bottom of the hill, the German boy started to hit my little sister for no reason whatsoever and I got so mad I fought with him to avenge his insults, and hurting her. At night, the Gestapo came to pick-up my father and put him in jail because his son hit an Arian boy. When my father came back from prison, he spanked me so hard that I will never forget it for the rest of my life.
On Nov. 9, 1938, my father came down from the apartment to find our store vandalized and all the front windows broken to pieces. When we heard that the synagogue was burning, my father and I ran to it and we saw the S.A (brown trouper) burning all the prayer books and our Torah. My father tried to save the Torah, but he was pushed back by the S.A. We went back home and somebody came running saying that the Gestapo was picking up Jewish families. When the Gestapo arrived at home they only took my father and all the men of the town. The next day, my mother sent me to Gleiweftz, a town 12 kilometers away where our other relatives lived, to find out that they were all taken as well. I was 12 years old then. I went to the prison where they were and brought food and blankets. Each one of them had messages for me to give to their families, and it was very difficult for me to remember them all perfectly. The next day they were all sent to the camp of Buchenwald. My mother was frantic. We had to close the store, clean up all the mess on the floor and put wood panel to close the front window. We no longer were allowed to go to school, go to the movie theater and we were even kicked around just walking on the same sidewalk as the Arian people.
The only way we could get my father out of Buchenwald was to produce visa or permits to leave Germany. We were on the American quota, but the waiting period was much too long, but no other countries wanted to give us visas. My mother finally bought Permits for Shanghai. After 3 weeks, my father came home unrecognizable. In Jan. 1939 we heard that we could obtain permits for Cuba, and that seemed better and closer to the United States. So we bought 4 round trip tickets to Cuba with Permits at a very high price and finally left with all our belongings to Hamburg. On May 13, 1939 we finally set sail on the luxurious ship to freedom. We were about 8 members of our family. The Gestapo had told our parents how much they had to sell their business and our house…. It was so hard for my family to leave their home, their ancestral place and go to a strange country. But for me, it was another thing: I used to read a lot of books about America from Karl May and I was taken by a sense of adventure and discovery. We had a wonderful trip on the St Louis. The food was very good, we had very nice accommodations and only then did my father find the courage to tell us about his experiences at the camp. One of his brothers was sent in 1938 in Dachau and never came back. Very young, I already knew what it meant to go to a camp.
As we arrived in Cuba we found out that we could not land, and the nightmare started again. No more fun on board: panic, telegrams etc. were the current events of the day. We tried the American coast, but were not allowed to enter. For the fist time I saw the coast of Florida and I was so impressed by the beauty of the beaches, the palm trees, that I told myself, at 12 and a half, that I had to come back there some day. We sent a plea to Mrs. Roosevelt to allow only the children to enter the US, but it came to dead ears… We had to return to Europe knowing fully well what it meant. At the end, finally the happy news came that Belgium, France, Holland and England would accept us. We disembarked in Antwerp to change ships. My parents, the 4 children and one uncle went to France. The rest went to England.
Arriving in France my parents and my oldest sister were sent to a small village in Mirabeau (Vienne). My younger sister, brother and I were sent to a Jewish home for children (organization O.S.E.) in Montmorency. That’s where I started to learn French. Our director was Mr. Pasternack, a refugee and a psychologist from Vienna. A few weeks later I was sent to “La Toureile”, another home. That’s where I had my Bar Mitzvah… We were all a bunch of boys together, without our parents there, and it was very sad… I remember the beautiful party my parents had for my brother, surrounded with all our family from everywhere. We all got a Talis, a prayer book and each a little present such as a hammer, a saw, etc. It was very funny!!
On my birthday that year, Sept. 3, 1939, I received another bad news: The declaration of World War II. Not a very nice gift for a 13-year-old boy. Toureile reminds me of my first experience with the bombardments. We used to sleep in the cellar and the smaller children were all crying so hard. The OSE had to evacuate all the children to central France in “Chateau de Chaumont in Creuse. Since my French was not good, they sent me to work in the village as a baker helper. To go to work I had to walk 3 kilometers at 4 a.m. each way summer and winter. The work was hard, and after baking, I had to cut wood. I stayed there for 2 1/2 years, I also enjoyed playing soccer with the children of the village and the home. Our parents came to Chateau de Chaumont to visit us once in 1940. Since the accommodations and the conditions were not good, my parents decided to take back with them my younger sister. This good loving hearted gesture cost her life.
I received once, 2 weeks vacation, and decided to visit my parents and 2 sisters who were then living in the occupied zone of France. I walked 30 kilometers through the fields; had a peasant help me cross the border.
They were all so happy to see me, but of course my mother did not like the idea of me sleeping in the field etc. On my way back to the home my mother gave me some money and told me to promise her that I would stay in a hotel to sleep. I did. The hotel owner called the French police because I had no papers. I ended up in prison and the Jewish rep. had to clear me and had to pay a fine! I got “Hell” from everyone. After that I had to stay permanently at my boss’s house Mrs. Mme Mousselon. I slept in the attic. In August 26, 1942 the French police came to pick me up as well as all the Jews they could find, and took us to a French camp in Boussac (Creuse). That’s where I met a lot of Jewish children from different homes.
The Law, at the time was that they could not hold and deport children over the age of 16. I was one week short of my 16th birthday! They released me. I then was sent to another home “Le Magelier” (Creuse) and worked in agriculture. In this place we had to keep guard at night to check if the police was coming to pick us up. It was always a group of three; usually the older boys. One would stand at the road near the village the other one at the gate of this huge chateau and the 3rd one at the door of the chateau. Signals would be given. One time one of the boys fell asleep and almost cost us all our lives. Thank G-d the boy at the door saw the patrol coming, and we ran out in the woods. We always slept all dresses up with a small package for a 2-day supply.
Unfortunately many of the younger ones did not have time to escape and they all got taken by the French police and sent to concentration camps. This was in February 1943, the Jewish underground furnished us with false papers. Because of my strong German accent, I was to be from Alsace … My name was Paul Braun from Mutzick. The Underground tried to send us to Spain, but we could not enter. We were turn down at the border. Another attempt was made to send us to Switzerland, but we were again refused at the border: the reason this time was that we were children over 16! It was time to hide us somewhere in France, still with our alias names. I was sent at Treve (Rhone), 1/2 half a hour from the large city of Lyon. lt is 1943. There I really slaved planting grapes in rocky hills and work in the fields from sun rise to dawn, 7-days-a-week except for Sunday morning Mass. The underground was doing a lot of action in these areas, blowing bridges, train etc. and we had a lot of police going around. Once, they came to my place and asked for my papers. He got very excited when he saw I was from Mutzick. He was an old WW 1 (World War I) soldier who was stationed there. He started to ask me questions about the city which I had never seen, I was SO scared but I managed to get through it.
Toward the end of the war I came to find out that the Germans were looking for me: Since Alsace was now German, and they ran out of soldiers, they were looking for all the boys from Alsace.
As soon as the American troops marched in Lyon, I left my job and joined the French Forces. At least that’s what I wanted to do. I went to the Captain and explained my situation, my real name etc. but they refused to accept me. The captain explained to me that they were lots of Germans doing the same things to avoid prison and that they could not take any chances. I then rejoined the Jewish organization OSE and went to Paris. I stayed Rue Rollin with many a young people until I left for the United States. I found out that my parents and two sisters were deported in 1942, denounced by local people. (That’s another story).
The OSE sent me to Ecouie as a counselor to meet the convoy of Jewish children coming from all the different concentration camps. It was awful. Children from all nationalities: German, Polish, Czech, Hungarian etc. not even speaking the same language, not understanding one another and behaving like cave men; all sick and so pitiful. Among them was Elie Wiesel.
My uncle from Hartford, CT sent my brother and I affidavit to come to the US. I left in 1946. I immediately started to work. Very mediocre and hard jobs, low pay etc. but I was used to that and for free. I had to start again with a new language and nothing was simple. Little by little with determination I learned English and got on my feet. I had such a bright outlook on life. I still had in mind to see Miami and my dream materialized in 1949. I came to work for the winter season in Miami Beach. I was so elated when I bought my first car. What a feeling of freedom, I felt like I was flying but the euphoria did not last too long. I got drafted in 1950 into the US Army. After my basic training, I applied as a translator for Europe, but since I was working as a cook in the kitchen, and every body LOVED my cooking, they held me back under pretext until it was no longer possible. I end up with the last convoy to Korea; more war. But I stayed a very short time in Korea. I spent 9 months in Japan and received high recommendation from General Marc Clark. They wanted me to stay in the Army and teach cooking and baking; a career in the Army? Not me! Coming back to the States I worked the seasons; winter in Miami Beach, summer in the mountains. I settled permanently in Miami Beach in 1954.
In 1961, I married a French girl, also affiliated with the OSE. I opened my own business in 1966 after working for 12 years as assistant pastry Chef at the Fountainebleau Hotel.
I have two lovely daughters, Michelle (1964) and Debbie (1967). I am still very very happily married to Vera and life has been good to us. I sold my business in 1983, and I am now retired.
Now that I have more time, I became involved with the Holocaust Center and talk to school children about my experiences and the story of the Holocaust. I organized the reunion the 50th anniversary of the St Louis.
Everything that happened to me from the beginning of the Krystallnacht the St Louis, the war etc. did not make a bitter man out of me. On the contrary, if not a characteristic gift from my mother, I am a very honest, loving, giving humanitarian. I feel very strongly as a Jew, even though I do not practice, and I always tried to transfer to my children this sense of Judaism. Both my girls know more or less what has happened to me and our family, but they have not integrated these events as part of their life. They are both happy, first generation American with the past as history, and only their beautiful future ahead.
Thank G-d living in Miami they have all their lives been sheltered from discrimination since the Jewish population here is large, and they have not lived elsewhere. We all went to Israel and we all have a strong tie to the country. Not solely because I have family there, but for what it stands for and the price we had to pay to get it.
I have to say that through all the different OSE homes I went, I was very fortunate to have tremendous counselors. All hiding refugees as well, but all were professionals, doctors, psychologists, pedagogists, musicians etc.. They were the person I am today. Their education, experience, their dedication was above all. They taught us courage, history, Jewishness, music, all the values of life and respect for your fellowman. Most of all we were all together, and we feel a tremendous sense of family. That’s what kept us sane.