Survivor STORY

Hilde Hoffman was born March 17, 1920, in the eastern city of Leipzig, Germany.

In her early years, Hilde attended a private school with mostly gentile children, one of whom was her best friend, Lotte. In her interview, Hilde tells of her sorrow when their friendship became more and more distant, as Hitler took power and his anti-Semitic views became powerful. Hilde recounts the days she spent confined to her house; as a Jew, she was not permitted in certain shops, parks, and other public places, including her beloved zoo.

In 1936, when Hilde’s class was to graduate and receive their certificates, Hilde and the other Jewish students were not allowed to take part in the ceremony. Instead, it was requested that they arrive at the school before dawn. They were made to wait at the bottom of a staircase, in a dark schoolhouse, as the headmaster sent a janitor down the stairs to bring them their diplomas. Although Hilde recalls that she was a good student, and many of the other Jews were even better, all of the Jewish students were graded as a “D”.

As the Nazis gained power, Hilde was sent by her family to a country house to live in hiding. After Kristallnacht, her parents were sent to a concentration camp, but Hilde made her way to England to become a wartime nurse. Her father managed to get out of the camp and make his way to England, but he was in poor health and died shortly thereafter in a London Hospital. Hilde’s mother died in the concentration camp.

In England, Hilde was re-united with a childhood friend of her family in Germany. He had immigrated to America years before, and was stationed in London with the U.S. Army. They fell in love and were married.

In 1946, the couple moved back to the U.S., to Asheville, North Carolina, where her sister-in-law lived. They spent many of their post-war years there, and had two daughters, Jackie and Julia. Hilde taught Sunday school and helped start a pre-school at the local Jewish Community Center. In Ashville, she saw parallels between the discrimination against blacks in the South and that of the Jews in Europe. A prestigious neighborhood in Asheville would not allow Jewish families to live there, but after the success of the pre-school, many in the neighborhood began to submit applications for their children to attend; shortly thereafter, the neighborhood began to allow Jewish families to live there.

Another of her first impressions of life in the South was a “Whites Only” water fountain in the town square. Hilde was shocked by this and refused to drink from it, as it reminded her of the segregation she encountered as a Jew in wartime Germany.

Hilde moved to Atlanta in 2000, where one of her daughters lived, and continued to participate in Jewish life by volunteering in a literacy program at the Jewish Tower. Hilde move to New York to be close to her other daughter. Hilde’s interview conveys telling lessons on themes of community and tolerance—from the injured German officer who refused to accept her blood donation in a London Hospital, to her mother’s “Flowerbed Anecdote,” in which “not one pushes out the other.”

Life Lessons and Perspectives

Well, we were Zoo Friends and always went to the zoo. We had season tickets for many years. And to get there from our house we had to go through a park and on the end of the park was the zoo. And we went through there several times a week and it was a very pretty park. And one day my mother stopped at one of the beautiful flower beds and said, "Come and look at these beautiful flowers, Hilde." And I thought to myself, "Why is she calling me over there? We go through this park so many times I've seen all these flower beds." And I said, "I know what they look like." She said, "No, I want you to come here and really look at them. You see how many different kinds there are and what a beautiful flower bed they make? They're planted right next to each other and not one pushes out the other. That is what people have to learn -- to live together no matter what kind they are, no matter what color they are, because they make a beautiful flower bed that God wanted them to be." And I've never forgotten that.

Racism and Race Relations

Oh, it was wonderful. My husband said, "I give you a tour of the town." So we went to town on the bus and we got off at the main square. And it was really warm. It wasn't really hot, because when I came wasn't hot summer yet, but for somebody who had lived in Germany and England, the spring in Asheville was already hot. So I was very hot and I said, "I'm dying of the heat. I need something to drink." And he said, "Over there, the other side of the square, there is a fountain. Why don't you go and get some water?" So I went to the fountain and when I got there, there was a sign on it, "whites only." I couldn't believe my eyes. I went back and I said, "What does it mean? Does it mean tomorrow there'll be a sign that says 'no Jews allowed?' Am I back in Germany?" And I was terribly upset. And he said, "No, you don't understand, things are getting better. That is from time ago, and go have a drink." I couldn't go have a drink. I felt just awful. So anyway, he showed me around the town, which was very pretty, but for weeks I couldn't get over this business, whites only.

And then I was very, very lucky, after I had my children. I think Jackie was about four or five and Toni was about three. We went to the first sit in where you could have, where black people were allowed to have refreshments on counters like in Woolworth or in restaurants. And so we went to Woolworth the first day and we sat in with the black people. And that gave me such a wonderful feeling, to think things are really changing and getting better all the time. And they did get better all the time and it was very, very nice. And the preschool at the Jewish community center became quite a success. And the fact that we had non-Jewish children mixing with Jewish children was a step that they never had expected, and I felt so happy about it, I can't tell you.

Coping

I just wanted to ask you what effect it had that you had to go through these very traumatic separations from your parents and going to a new country. What effect did that have on you?

I think It had a devastating effect, because I was for a long time I was very, very depressed and hopeless, because I didn't see any way out. But the fact that I was with people that were understanding and very friendly and kind helped me a lot. And after awhile, when I realized that I was completely powerless to change things, I realized that it was about time for me to go up and make a life for myself and associate with people and leave behind me everything that was horrible. Because I told myself numerous times when I started being depressed and really feeling down that if I give in to this, then Hitler has still won and I wasn't about to let him win with me. So that helped me a lot.

Hilde Hoffman