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Jewish Heritage: The Oral Histories - Cuba Family Archives

MEMORIST:                        HENRY BIRNBREY

INTERVIEWER:                  SANDRA BERMAN

LOCATION:                        ATLANTA, GEORGIA

DATES:                               2001; DECEMBER 31, 2009

2001 Transcript (PDF) & 2009 Transcript (PDF)

BIOGRAPHY

Henry Birnbrey was born on November 29, 1923 in Dortmund, Germany. He was the only child of Jennie Jacobson and Edmund Birnbrey. His father had served in World War I, had a small textile business, and was active in the Social Democratic Party. After the Nazi Party came to power in the 1930’s and antisemitic actions increased, Henry’s mother began applying for visas for Henry to leave Germany.

In April 1938, Henry received a visa to the United States and arrived in Birmingham, Alabama. Henry was one of the “One Thousand Children” or “OTC,” which refers to over 1,400 Jewish children who were rescued from Nazi Germany and Nazi-occupied or threatened European countries, and came directly to the United States between 1934 and 1945. In January 1939, Henry settled in Atlanta, Georgia with the family of Fannie Asman and completed high school. Henry’s father died in early 1939 after being arrested and severely beaten on Kristallnacht. Shortly afterward, Henry lost contact with his mother, who also died.

After World War II began, Henry enlisted in the US Army in 1943. Henry was deployed to England in 1944 and served with the 30th Infantry division in Europe. He participated in the D-Day invasion at Omaha Beach and fought in the Battle of the Bulge. In the spring of 1945, his division crossed the Rhine Rover in Germany and quickly advanced to Magdeburg, Germany on the Elbe River, where they joined Russian forces in April of 1945. In the months immediately following the end of the war in Europe, Henry worked as an interpreter in counter-intelligence interviews. After a short occupation period, he was sent home to the United States with his division in August 1945.

After he returned to Atlanta, Henry opened an accounting firm and attended law school at Georgia State University. He became active in Zionist organizations supporting the establishment of the state of Israel and in the Jewish community of Atlanta. He was integral in founding the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta and supporting the Greenfield Hebrew Academy. Henry married and had four children. He and his wife also raised two children of a cousin. When his wife passed away, he remarried. Together, their family includes eight children and many grandchildren. Henry remains very active in the Atlanta Jewish community and has shared his experiences with audiences all over the world, including his hometown.

Scope of Interview (2001)

Henry describes his childhood and family in Dortmund, Germany. He discusses his involvement with Zionist groups, his bar mitzvah, and how life changed after the Nazis came to power. He explains how his father lost his business and how he came to the United States. Henry shares how he learned of his parents’ deaths. He recounts his service with the US Army in Europe during World War II. He details his experiences liberating a train filled with concentration camps survivors and translating as a counter-intelligence officer after the war. Henry reflects on his perspective of Germany and Germans. He shares what his life was like after the war. He describes Atlanta and its Jewish community in the 1940’s. He recounts the Temple bombing in Atlanta, his activism for the establishment of the state of Israel, and his experiences with antisemitism and racism in the United States.  Henry talks about his adopted family, his first wife and their children, raising a cousin’s children, and remarrying. Henry includes his family’s religious practices. The interview closes with his experiences filing reparation claims after the war and his thoughts on Holocaust denial.

Scope of Interview (2009)

Henry describes what it was like to leave his parents and home in Dortmund, Germany and come to the United States. He recalls examples of anti-Semitism he witnessed after the Nazi Party came to power in Germany. Henry reflects on adjusting to life in the United States. He shares what happened to his parents and why he decided to enlist in the US Army in 1943. Henry details his experiences in England, on D-Day and in the battles that followed. He recounts crossing into Germany briefly before being wounded and fighting in the Battle of the Bulge. Henry describes the train of concentration camp survivors his division liberated and a small concentrations camp he encountered. He relays his counter-intelligence activities translating in interviews with Germans after the war. Henry explains his motivation and perspective of why he enlisted after Pearl Harbor. He recounts his return to the US after the war. Henry reflects on his religious life, readjusting to life after the war, and the patriotism of his generation. He discusses travelling to Germany and his perspective of Germans today.

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