Survivor STORY

Henry Birnbrey writes about his experiences:

"I was born in Dortmund, Germany in 1923. During 1937 and 1938 my parents made applications for me to emigrate to Palestine, New Zealand and the USA. The USA visa came in first and an emergency visa was issued to me the week Hitler invaded Austria, as the various agencies feared that this invasion would be followed by war."

"I left Germany on March 31, 1938, leaving my parents behind."

"In the meanwhile, my father had already been arrested. He was accused of having made statements against the government. He was released with the promise to abandon his business and livelihood. Consequently we lived without income during the years 1937 and 1938."

"After I left Germany, my father was picked up again on Kristallnacht (Nov. 9, 1938) and he died a couple of months later from the wounds received when he was picked up and arrested. My mother died a few months later."

"The death certificate of my father stated the cause of death as "heart failure" and only in 1999 did I finally locate the documents that verified what happened in 1938, but too late to entitle me to compensation, which had been denied because their records showed a natural death."

"I supported myself by working in a clothing store, later managing a shoe store and in 1942 I went to work for a local accountant. In 1943 I joined the US Army. In 1944 I was with the Normandy invasion forces. During my service in the army, but towards the end of the war, I found a train of cattle cars full of Jewish concentration camp survivors and people who did not survive. We opened the cars and were shocked to see the condition of the occupants of these cattle cars. During this same week as we were advancing toward the Oder River, we passed ditches full of corpses of concentration camp inmates who had been marched to the West to escape the Russian advance."

"Around April 1945 I became a counter intelligence agent and interrogated German POWs and citizens."

"The Birmingham Section of the council of Jewish Women sponsored my immigration to the US, and the social services were provided by the Jewish Children Service here in Atlanta. I moved to Atlanta in January 1939. In Birmingham and Atlanta I lived in foster homes."

"After the war I found out that most of my family had perished in the concentration camps. My mother was one of 10 children and out of that family, two first cousins survived. These cousins had made aliyah in 1937. My father was one of three brothers and again, 2 first cousins survived. One had made aliyah to Israel in 1938 and the other one survived behind the Iron Curtain. The rest of the family perished. I found documents in the Berlin archive that showed when these people were born and when they died. What I was not prepared for was the detail of information which included the place they were assembled, the number of the transport which took them to the concentration camp and all sort of sordid details."

In 1946, Henry opened an accounting firm, then was able to go to law school on the GI Bill. From his early days in Atlanta, Henry has been actively involved in Jewish community affairs, Zionist organizations, Jewish philanthropy, and has been part of the board of the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta since the beginning. Henry's deep concern for the continuity of the Jewish people is evident in his involvement with the Greenfield Hebrew Academy.

Henry met his wife, Ricky, at a Young Zionists convention. She passed in 1988, and Henry has since remarried. The Birnbreys have four children and twenty-five grandchildren, plus two of Henry's cousins from Cuba, for whom he signed affidavits allowing them to come to America.


I arrived in the United States in April of 1938. I was sponsored by the American Council of Jewish Women, Birmingham Chapter, and I spent nine months in Birmingham, Alabama, and then moved to Atlanta in January of 1939. In the meanwhile, in November of 1938, was the infamous Kristallnacht, the Crystal Night in Germany, in which our synagogue was burned down. And I did not find out all of details until much later, but the moment I came to Atlanta, I was notified that my father was dead. Only years later did I piece together exactly what happened to him. As a matter of fact, when I filed a restitution claim for my father's life, the Court said that everything I said was a lie. And this was a post World War II Court. They said I had no evidence and there was no evidence in Germany that he got killed and that my whole tale was all was a lie.

Making a Living and Education

Well, when I came here I was being supported by the community, which just went completely against my nature, so I immediately got a job. The first Saturday I worked as a clerk in a clothing store near Five Points. I made two dollars and thirty cents; I always remember that number. I went to work at eight in the morning and got home around midnight. I was getting 5% of what I sold. I held jobs ever since, and going to school. And what happened is in Germany, some of our education was so far ahead of American education, particularly in mathematics; they didn't have a math class to put me in when I was 14 years old. And so when they gave me tests and credits, the last two years of high school I went to school one or two hours a day, mainly in English courses, English literature and so on and I worked the rest of the day. So I always held down part-time jobs, first in a pawnshop, then in a wholesale dress house and then for an accountant and learned the trade, so to speak, and I went to Georgia State at night.

To Germany as a Soldier

During World War II, I wanted to get to our hometown but I could not because the British Army was over there and we were a little bit south of there, but my experience as a soldier I think is worth mentioning. First of all, we were in the neighborhood of Magdeburg on reconnaissance. And we had, we had this horrible odor. We didn't know what was happening. And it turned out to be one of the freight trains full of Jews being shipped from one concentration camp to another. And therefore I was able to personally witness this terrible inhumanity that was taking place. And all of these were my fellow Jews and brothers and everything else. They were almost, they had been reduced to such a non-human state it was impossible to communicate with them. I mean, all we could do is to try to get them food and ask for help. There was nothing we could do. These people were half dead, half crazy. I mean they'd been locked in these cars, were lying on the floor. It was just a horrible thing to witness, and something I'll never forget as long as I live.

Henry Birnbrey