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Jewish Heritage: The Oral Histories - Cuba Family Archives

MEMOIRIST:                    RENATE BIAL HEDGES

INTERVIEWERS:               SARA GHITIS

                                        RUTH EINSTEIN

DATE:                                JULY 2, 2008

LOCATION:                       ATLANTA, GEORGIA

ID#:                                    OHC10306

NUMBER OF PAGES:        38

Transcript (PDF)

HIGHLIGHTS/EXCERPTS

“First of all, one of the teachers used to always call us the ‘Jewish children’—never by name.  In one of the lectures, she explained about one of trees—the weeping willow—the reason why it’s hanging its branches and it’s called the “weeping willow” was because it was so sad because a Jew was hung on it.  Being Jewish, you sit there and you’re flabbergasted.  Then another example was the . . . I come into the schoolroom and the desk had written on it and the blackboard had written on it, ‘The Jews stink.  The Jews are our misfortune’ and slogans which one of the German newspapers used to bring, Der Stürmer.  Actually my friend Suse Rosenthal . . . and I went down to the principal who was Fraulein Dr. von Brixon with a big swastika stuck on her lapel.  But she was a very decent lady.  We knocked at the door and walked in and I complained about this and she said to me, ‘You better go back to your classroom.  I’ll be up in about five or ten minutes.’  She did come up and as usual when she came into the room, we all had to stand up, lift our arms and say, ‘Heil Hitler!’ We had to do it too.  Then she let them have it.  She said, ‘I understand that this has been written on the desks of our Jewish children and I can see it on the blackboard. Whoever did that will come forward right now with a sponge, take the sponge and clean it up.  I will tell you one thing, as long as our government says that the Jewish children are permitted to be present in our school, you will treat them decently.  The reason why they are still permitted in our school is because their fathers fought for Germany in World War I.’”  4, 5

On Kristallnacht:

“[The] tenth of November, I was going to school in the morning . . . I walked to the streetcar which would have taken me there.  I was walking over all kinds of glass.  I looked up and the windows from shops had been broken and some of the materials that were shown in the shops were lying on the ground. [I] walked over it . . . When it came, I got up into the streetcar.  I never sat down any more.  I used to stand on the platform where the driver was because a couple of times when I did sit, somebody came [and said], ‘Jewish child, get up, you don’t sit here.’  I never bothered to sit down any more.  We carried on going and we came to a place called Tauentzien Platz . . . it was a . . . the street went straight through that place but the buildings were all around it.  They were mostly dwellings and shops.  But behind those buildings, you used to see the synagogue—the he top of the synagogue—the copper top with the Magen David [Star of David] on it.  When we got there with the streetcar, the place was filled with people all staring in one direction.  The car had to inch its way through the people very slowly.  I was wondering, ‘What are they all staring at?’  I bent down to look and there was the synagogue on fire.  I could see the flames and the Star of David was melting.  It was tipping over . . . when I saw that, I got off the streetcar and I walked back home.  I told my mother, ‘I don’t know what’s going on’ . . .  That afternoon, they put explosives into the synagogue.  They had to blow it up two or three times before it collapsed.”  6, 7

Later that afternoon:

 “That afternoon, I was at my grandmother’s place.  I was in the kitchen, sitting there and the bell rang. You worried every time the bell rang.  What’s happening?  My grandmother went to open the door. I could see into the hallway from the kitchen. An SS man jumps in with a black uniform and closes the door quickly behind him.  He whispers to my grandmother and jumps out again.  My grandmother comes back and said to my mother, ‘He is somebody that used to come to our bar.’  My grandmother was running a bar downstairs in the building . . . in the house.  He said that they had orders in the SS to raid all the Jewish apartments and he didn’t want to my grandmother to be hurt so he came to warn my grandmother, ‘Please get out and get your family out of the apartment tonight.’  My grandmother was taken in by an ex-employee of the bar.  But he said he couldn’t take my mother and me because people were watching.  That was just too many.  Anyway, we walked the street and eventually we found a half-Jewish hotel.  We took a room there and spent the night.”  7

Renate worked in the Palestina Amt, a Jewish agency that helped Jews immigrate to Palestine before the war:

“. . . one night everybody had already left [and] I was cleaning up.  That was after Crystal Night. A man walked in with a hat on and as he walks in . . . it’s about 8, 8:30 in the evening . . . he takes off his hat.  He was all clean-shaven so I knew he had just been released from Dachau concentration camp.  He said to me he was released with the understanding that he’s got to be out of Germany within 48 hours otherwise he’d be picked up again.  Could we help him?  I was 14 years old and the only thing I knew was the next day in the Jewish hospital in Breslau, they had a bunch of kids going there . . . and grown-ups . . . for physical exams for immigration to what was then Palestine or hachsharah in Holland or wherever . . . I took one of the forms there, filled out his name and all the information, put my name underneath, Renate Bial, and very carefully put the Palestine stamp on top of my name so nobody could read it if possible.  I told him to go to the hospital the next day for physical.  He did.  He got out within 48 hours.  But about two months later maybe, one of the fellows from the Palestine office said to me, ‘Renate, what is this?  You signed this form?’  The office in Berlin had said, ‘Who on earth’ . . . they found the signature . . . “’Who is this Renate Bial?’  They said if that would be caught by the Nazis, they could have closed the Palestine office altogether.  I apologized profoundly but said at least he’s out of Germany.”  10

Three days before Renate was scheduled to leave Germany on a children’s transport:

“. . . I get a note in the mail in Breslau from the Gestapo saying that they want to see me at 8:00 the next morning at the Gestapo building . . . The next morning I went there . . . they opened the gate for me, they closed it behind me, [and] led me into an office.  It was a huge room with one desk at the end with a fellow sitting there.  The door was open to next door where I could hear the typewriter going there.  There was no chair . . . the chair was on the other end of the room. I brought the chair over to the desk and I sat down, which was actually was already pretty cheeky in those days. The fellow was still writing at the desk and then he looked up and said, ‘You brought a chair.’  I said, ‘Yes.’  He said, ‘I want to know why you came to Breslau.’  I said, ‘Because my grandmother lives here, my mother was coming here—my mother was born in Breslau—so we moved to Breslau’ . . . He said, ‘You know we don’t permit any more Jews into Breslau.’  I said, ‘That’s fine, but where am I supposed to go? I’m with my mother and my mother was born here in Breslau.’  ‘That doesn’t matter—she came from Gleiwitz.  I want to see her—she’s got to get out too’ . . . [Renate made some excuses as to why her mother couldn’t come on Monday]  He started putting the fist on the table.  ‘I want your mother here on Monday and I want you to come with her on Monday.’  I said, ‘No, I can’t come on Monday because I’m leaving on Monday.’  ‘Where are you going on Monday?’ ‘To England, on the children’s transport.’ ‘Why didn’t you tell me that before?’  I said, ‘You didn’t ask me.’  I had real Jewish chutzpah on me . . . We were lucky; they didn’t take us.”  12-14

On the children’s transport:

“. . . on Monday, I left in the morning.  I went to Berlin.  In Berlin we were picked up at the station and met other children from all over Germany.  We . . . were housed overnight in a beit halutz.  I was given a bed with a mattress that was all crooked.  I fell out of bed twice that night.  The next morning we went to the station and there was a . . . one or two carriages on the train reserved for all the children . . . the train took us to Holland . . . it was a very, very hot day.  By the way, we were only allowed to take what we could carry with us . . . a suitcase . . .  I had a rucksack on the back.  What we were allowed to take was 10 German Marks . . . when we got into Holland, there was one of the Jewish Women’s Committees was waiting for our train.  They came with bottles of drinks . . . I think they had some cookies or something for us.  But we wanted the drinks; we were terribly thirsty.  I remember there was a boy going down the platform calling, “Apples, oranges, bananas.”  I called him over and said, “How much is an orange?”  He said, “Are you paying in German money or Dutch money?”  I said, “German money.”  He said, “In German money, it will be 75 cents, 75 pfennig.”  I said, “That’s too expensive.”  I only had 10 Marks on me.  I had to do without it.  Then we got to Hoek van Holland [Hook of Holland], Holland and the ship was waiting for us.  The ship’s doctor was supposed to look at us . . .  if we were healthy. All we did was one after the other pass by him and open our mouths. We had to go “Ahh” and he passed us. Then we got a bag with sandwiches, with a banana in there and an apple, and a container with milk and we were shown to our berths. We were worn out . . . It was pretty sad, it was pretty sad.  I looked after some younger ones, four or five years old.  Partially they were crying for their mommies and so on . . . it was pretty sad.  It’s something I wouldn’t want to go through again but it saved our lives.”  14, 15

On her arrival in England:

“I remember . . . [t]hey had the [barrage] balloons up over London. I don’t know, but they were supposed to stop German attacks of the dive bombers because those balloons were on wires. They were filled with gas and they were crisscrossed all over London so that the dive bombers couldn’t come down.  I was thinking to myself looking at that, ‘This is stupid because they can just machine gun those things and they’ll fall down.’  But that was England . . . they didn’t know whether they were coming or going I think at the time.” 17

In England she stayed with her uncle for whom her mother worked as a domestic:

“On one occasion, I might have told you that before . . . we had the Rosé [String] Quartet come and play chamber music. They came for dinner . . .  my mother had cooked a very nice dinner. Afterwards they were playing and my mother had to clean up. My uncle didn’t even put a chair out for her to join everybody.  She had to bring a chair from another room to sit down. My mother was upset but she depended on him. There was nothing she could do about it . . . Professor [Arnold] Rosé came with the cellist and two other people.  When my uncle introduced me to him, I was 15 or 16 years old and I did a curtsey.  My uncle said, “Not every 16-year-old has the honor to shake the hands of such a great man.”  I didn’t know him from Adam.  I didn’t know who he was.  I started blushing . . . I could feel my face blushing.  Then he [Kurt] said, ‘Where’s Alma?’  Professor Rosé said, ‘Alma . . .  she’s gone to Holland.  She needed an operation from her sweetheart, the doctor that is practicing in Holland.’  She was caught and later on the book was written about her. What was it called . . . I’ve got it here—From Vienna to Auschwitz—because she was a leader in one of the orchestras in Auschwitz.  But Rosé later on had the quartet playing.  I used to go to the performances because I was very  . . . I liked listening to classical music.”   18, 19

“This one night my mother was yelling, “Mother!”  Woke her right out of her sleep.  She woke me up and I said, “What’s the matter?”  She said, “Something must have happened to my mother.”  She wrote a Red Cross letter to her mother which took months or so . . . six weeks, if not longer . . . before a reply came that was from a cousin who later on was also deported.  “Your mother, that particular night . . . your mother fell down some stairs and broke her arm. They took her to the hospital for injection for pain and when she woke up she was blind.”  That is when my mother heard her mother scream in the sleep in the middle of the night.  It’s hard to believe but I was right there when it happened, when my mother screamed.   . . . Berta Schenkalowski, was picked up from an address in Breslau . . . She was put into a transport, headed for Treblinka with a stopover in Theresienstadt . . . Treblinka I know was an extermination camp.  That’s about all I know about my grandmother.  I’m just hoping that maybe somebody at least took pity on her . . . I was secretly I was always hoping that maybe she still died in her bed . . . that something happened . . .”  20, 21

About surviving the first air raid in the London Blitz on September 7, 1940:

“It was . . . [a] beautiful summer day when the sirens went . . . When the bombers came over, there was the up and down of the siren sound. When the bombers went, it was the ‘all clear’ one . . . just one level sound . . . that Saturday afternoon the sirens went. We could hear airplanes and we could hear explosions, but very far away. Now we were living by that time in Hampstead . . . [b]ehind our building was [Primrose Hill] . . . on that hill, what the British had mounted were naval guns.  During that afternoon, we could also hear these naval guns going.  The house was shaking.  I remember one of the tenants saying, “That’s good that the house is shaking because then it gives a little bit.”  That evening after the ‘all clear’ went, in the evening my mother and I went out to this . . . hill which was right behind our building.  Around this hill there were buildings and all the windows had been blasted out from the naval guns. We were standing there and we could see on the horizon . . . the sun was going down somewhere else . . . was all red . . . the burning . . . they had [dropped] incendiaries all along the Thames [River].  That night was the start of the Blitz.  From there on during the day, we had an average of about six to eight alarms and all clears and during the night it was just one solid alarm.”  22, 23

“We had in our apartment building . . . they put a room aside with supports in the ceiling and sandbags outside that was air-raid shelter . . . We had two trunks down there with emergency clothing and we put some cushions on the trunks. That was the bed for my mother and myself during the Blitz.  This is how we got to know our neighbors. We had tea together and we got to know each other.  It was actually quite jolly excepting when one heard the airplanes. You were waiting for the bomb whistling down. Then on one occasion . . . [m]y mother was just getting dressed, the alarm went and we could hear the planes all over and bombings all over . . . my mother tried to get into her underpants to get dressed quickly and both her legs went into [one] hole . . . one leg there and I had to actually dress her. She started drinking. She had under her pillow case a bottle of brandy. Every time the alarm went she started to take a nip.  I said, ‘That’s it.  We’ve got to leave here just for you.’”   23

Renate went to work as an au pair girl for a woman in Leicester:

“I had a room there and this lady . . . was teaching me English. There was a book, a children’s book . . . I was looking up every word in the dictionary and put the writing of this . . . the translation over it so that I could read the whole sentence afterwards.  But she wouldn’t let me even have a drink of water unless I asked in English. She told me what to say and I had to repeat it and then she would let me have the water.  Everything that I wanted and needed to do, she had me repeat in English and what do you know, in three months, I spoke English.  It was unbelievable. Anyway, that’s how I learned English.”    26

Renate became a tour guide after the war:

“While I was in Austria . . . I was living in a guest house . . . [d]uring that time . . . coffee was very hard to get, if not impossible . . . I bought a tin of instant Nescafe with me . . . I was sitting there knitting and having a cup of coffee when a young fellow comes up to the table and asks me, ‘May I sit with you?’ which is the habit over there.  I said, ‘Yes, of course, sit down.’  We got talking.  After a while, I noticed he seemed to be a Nazi.  I said to him, ‘Tell me something. You believe in Der Stürmer?’  He said, ‘Yes!  That was a good paper.’  I said, ‘You believed in what they quoted in Der Stürmer, that the Jews stink and the Jews are our misfortune and the Jews . . . when you eat from the Jew you will die of it?’  ‘Yes, definitely!’  I said, ‘Would you like a cup of coffee?  I’ve got some coffee here from England.’  ‘Yes, I’d love to have some coffee.  It’s so expensive here.’  I went into the kitchen . . . brought him back a cup of coffee.  I said, ‘Please have your coffee.’  He drank.  I said, ‘You know I’m Jewish.’  He said, ‘No, you’re not Jewish.’  I said, ‘Yes, I am.’  I had my Jewish-German identity card on me which I’ve still got in my bedroom today.  I showed it to him.  I said, ‘There it is, the proof that I’m Jewish.’  He said, ‘I don’t believe it.’  I said, ‘I hope you’ll die from the coffee because you believe it.’  I said, ‘Now you may leave my table.’  He went over to another table where other people were sitting.  ‘May I sit here?’  They said, ‘No.’  He went to another table.  They said, ‘No.’  In the end, he had to leave because nobody wanted him.  You see, you still to this day, well to this day . . . that was in 1950’s, late 1940’s probably . . . you got the bad ones, you got the good ones.”  35, 36

BIOGRAPHY:

Renate Bial was born in Gleiwitz, Germany (now Gliwice, Poland).  Her father was Fritz Bial, who died in 1929, and her mother was Lucie Ostrowski Bial.  Renate and her mother lived a middle class life and Renate had many friends, both Jewish and non-Jewish.  The family was moderately observant, and Renate remembers the synagogue and its rabbi, Dr. Samuel Moses Ochs. 

Renate experiences several examples of antisemitism in her school and she saw the aftermath of  Kristallnacht in Breslau, Germany when she crunched across broken glass lying all over the sidewalk as she tried to go to school and saw the New Synagogue on fire.  After that Renate wanted to leave Breslau and join her uncles (her father’s brothers, Kurt and Richard) in Vienna, but her mother refused.  Her uncle, Kurt and his wife, did leave Vienna and eventually settled in England.   It was Kurt who later got Renate onto a Kindertransport (children’s transport) and got her out of Germany just before the war began.  Lucie, Renate’s mother, later joined her in England, although her grandmother, Berta Ostrowski Schenkalowski, was not able to get out and was eventually murdered by the Germans in Treblinka.

In England, Renate began to learn English and took a variety of jobs until her mother joined her and they lived with Kurt in Kensington, London.  When the war began, Kurt and Wolfgang (Renate’s uncles) were both interned as ‘enemy aliens.’  They were sent on the HMT Dunera to Australia where they were held for the rest of the war.  Renate and her mother were not labeled ‘enemy aliens’ or interned and were living in London when the Blitz began in May 1940.  Renate recalls the sounds of the sirens and the large anti-aircraft guns that blasted away so heavily the house shook and the windows broke.  They could see the skyline of London glowing red along the Thames River.  They suffered six or seven alarms every day and a continuous alarm all night.  At night they took shelter in the basement.

The constant tension of the air raids caused them to move to Sheffield, then Oadby and then Leicester, where they were still bombed by the Germans.  Toward the end of the war, Renate and her mother moved back to London just in time for the Germans’ assault on the capitol with V-1 rockets, which were called ‘doodlebugs.’ 

Renate went to special training in Hounslow for three months where she learned technical skills.  She was put to work as a bookkeeper in a plant manufacturing undercarriages for Lancaster bombers.  Renate remained there until the end of the war. When V-E Day (May 8, 1945: Victory in Europe) finally arrived Renate and her friends danced in the streets of London and watched the fireworks. 

After the war she immigrated to Canada where she met and married her husband, Robert Hedges, and they had a daughter, Crystal.  She lived with Crystal and her family until they moved to the United States when her son-in-law Steve was transferred.  Renate came with them to Atlanta.  Here she worked for the Cobb County Sheriff’s Office until recently when she finally retired.  Recently, she learned of the fate of several of her friends from Gliwice and what happened to her grandmother.

SCOPE OF INTERVIEW:

Renate discusses her childhood in Gleiwitz (then in Germany, now Poland).  She recalls their largely secular middle class life although they did belong to a synagogue.  She recalls attending private schools in which, as the Nazis came to power, she experienced antisemitism from her classmates.  She also relates her experience with Kristallnacht, when she tried to go to school and crunched over broken glass and witnessed the New Synagogue burning.  She remembers that a sympathetic SS man warned her and her mother to hide.  They fled the house and took refuge in a hotel for the night.  She recounts her desire to leave Germany after Kristallnacht and her mother’s desire to stay.  She also recollects a terrifying visit with the Gestapo in Breslau just days before she was to leave Germany.

Renate did eventually leave Germany on one of the last Kindertransports to England and she recounts the traumatic experience on the train, in the hostel the first night and the children’s reactions to parting from their families.  Renate recalls the challenges of settling in England, learning the language, and finding work.  Although her uncle and brother were sent to Australia as ‘enemy aliens’ Renate and her mother were allowed to stay. 

Renate recalls enduring the Blitz and the endless air raids that so terrified her mother than they moved out of London only to have them follow them to their new homes.  Eventually they settled in Leicester until near the end of the war and returned to London just in time for the V-1 and V-2 attacks in 1944.  Renate went to work in an aircraft factory where she remained until the end of the war.  She recalls dancing in the streets and the fireworks on V-E day (Victory in Europe).

Renate recalled about immigrating to Canada, where she met and married Robert Hedges and lived until his death, when she moved to Atlanta to be with her children.  She recalls how she found out about the death of her blind grandmother, an incident with antisemitism in Austria after the war, and the fate of her friends during the war.

KEYWORDS

Aircraft production

Air raids—Great Britain

Antisemitism—Germany

Australia

Austria

Au pair

Barrage balloons

Bial, Fritz

Bial, Kurt

Bial, Lucie Ostrowski

Bial, Wolfgang

Blitz—London, England

Breslau, Germany

Brick industry and trade

Camp X—Whitby, Canada

Carin Goering Middle School—Gleiwitz, Germany

Children’s transports

Cobb County Sheriff’s Office (Georgia)

Domestics

Eichendorf Oberlyzeum—Gleiwitz, Germany

Enemy aliens

England

English teaching and instruction

Germany

Gestapo

Gleiwitz, Germany

Gliwice, Poland

Hachsharah

Hadassah

Hanukkah

Hedges, Renate Bial

Hedges, Robert

HMT Dunera (ship)

Holland

Holocaust, Jewish (1939-1945)

Holocaust survivors

Immigration

Internment

Isle of Man

Israel

Judaism—Fasts and feats

Kibbutz

Kindertransport

Kristallnacht

Leicester, England

Montreal, Canada

Neue (New) Synagogue—Breslau, Germany

Night of Broken Glass

Oadby, England

Ochs, Samuel Moses (Dr.)

Palestine

Palestina Amt

Patria (ship)

Poland: Death camps

Rose, Arnold (Professor)

Rose, Alma

Sabbath

Schenkalowski, Berta Ostrowski

Sheffield, England

Soldiers, Jewish

Soldiers, German

Theresienstadt, Czechoslovakia (transit camp)

Travel industry

Treblinka (Death camp: Poland)

V-1

V-E Day (Victory in Europe)

War materiel production

World War, 1939-1945

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