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Jewish Heritage: The Oral Histories - Cuba Family Archives

MEMOIRIST:           ERIKA HELFGOTT KOMISAROW

INTERVIEWERS:     RUTH EINSTEIN

                                MARC KOMISAROW

                               BRENDA MOONEY

DATE:                     JUNE 15, 2003

LOCATION:             ATLANTA, GEORGIA

 

Transcript (PDF)

Biography

Erika Helgott Komisarow was born in Berlin, Germany on August 16, 1925 to Mordecai and Chana Goldfeld Helfgott who were originally from Poland.  She had a sister, Jutta that was 20 months older. When she was eight years old her family left Germany after her father was arrested and sent to Oranienburg Camp. Her family left through Belgium to go to Paris to stay with cousins of her mother. While in Paris the girls attended a Rothschild Jewish school, Lucien d’ Hirsch.  When the war started the girls were in Switzerland.  When they returned home they found out that their father had been interned at Vel d’ HivVelodrome d’ Hiver and then sent to Pithiviers Internment Camp.  He later joined the French Army Auxiliary.   

Eventually, Erika and her sister using fake identification crossed the border into Vichy, France.  Their false papers were created by the mayor in a small town near the border who happened to be part of the Maquis which were the rural French guerilla resistance.  Once they crossed the border they were reunited with their father.  Their mother would later join them.  Even though her father was in the French Auxiliary Army he was still held in an internment camp.  While in this camp he was rounded up and taken to Drancy and then later to Auschwitz-Birkenau where he died in 1944. 

After their father was taken, their mother sent the sisters to Montauban, France where they were helped by the Archbishop of Montauban, Pierre Marie Théas.  He put the sisters in a convent where they stayed for several months teaching catechism until it became unsafe for them to remain.  When they left Montauban the sisters were put into the care of the French Jewish Scouts, the Sixième, The Sixth Column.  Erika’s sister was given a job as a governess in Carcasonne, France and Erika became a cook for a family.   The father of the family was part of the Milice, a French collaborator.  This location was not a safe place for a Jewish girl so Erika was moved.  All this time, the sisters knew the location of their mother as she also went to the convent. Erika was sent to Toulouse where she was a nanny and attended the College de Vizac sp. She was reunited with her mother for a while and her sister remained in Carcasonne working at a market.  When school was released in 1944, Erika went to Carcasonne to work with her sister and later their mother joined them there.  All three returned to Paris in April of 1945.

Upon returning to Paris, Erika began working with the American Signal Corps doing secretarial work.  She then applied for a job with the Oeuvre de Secours aux Enfants, [OSE] in order to help the children returning from the concentration camps.  There were actually only four children that returned from the camps. The rest that returned were adults who looked like children because of their physical state after being in the camps. Erika’s job was to take their case histories.  Jutta, her sister, decided in 1947 to come to the United States.  When she left she gave Erika her job at the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, The Joint.  Erika worked at the Joint for six years until she followed her sister to New York City, New York in 1953.  Her mother joined them permanently in 1954. 

Upon introduction to Edward Komisarow,Erika and Edward were married in New York City and then moved to Ft. Wayne, Indiana.  In 1963, the family moved to Jacksonville, Florida where Erika first realized legal segregation existed.  In 1966, they moved to Atlanta, Georgia.  While in Atlanta Erika worked thirty years for her brother-in-law’s company Atlanta Family Restaurant running the Shoney’s in the Atlanta area.   She had two sons, Marc and Eugene(Gene) and two grandchildren.  The Komisarow family joined Beth Jacob synagogue. Erika died on July 6, 2006. 

Scope of Interview

Erika Helfgott Komisarow discusses her life as her family was forced to move from Berlin, Germany to Paris, France in 1933 after her father was arrested and sent to Oranienburg Camp.  She recalls her life and her parents’ occupations and their life as Jews while living in France before the war began.  She recalls the events surrounding the beginning of the war and the fact that she was in Switzerland when the war began. She recounts the fact that her father was interned at the Velodrome d’ Hiver (Vel d’ Hiv) and then sent to Pithiviers.  He later joined the French Auxiliary Army and was sent to the South of France.  She recounts how when the Germans invaded France they were forced to leave their home and hide in another apartment. She recalls how neighbors around them were arrested and taken away.  Erika describes how she was sent to cross the border into Vichy, France with her false papers she made herself.  Erika talks about the events of her capture by the French and German soldiers and how they released her because they did not believe she was Jewish.  She describes her eventual reunion with her father, her sister and mother, but she details how this did not last as her father was arrested and sent to Drancy and later Auschwitz-Birkenau.  Erika provides details of how her mother, sister and herself avoided capture and were in hiding for the rest of the war.  Erika describes the efforts of the Archbishop of Montauban, Pierre Marie Théas, the French Jewish Scouts—the Sixième—The Sixth Column to hide them in convents and homes doing work and other jobs until the end of the war.  Erika recalls returning to Paris after the war and the need to work. She details the various jobs that she held in France after war working for the American Signal Corps, the Oeuvre de Secours aux Enfants, [OSE} and American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, The Joint.  She describes witnessing the Jews that returned from the concentration camps and the physical state that they were in and was thankful that she did not have that experience.  She recalls her sister and mother’s decision to move to America and her eventual joining them in New York City.  She describes her life in America living in New York City, Ft. Wayne, Indiana, Jacksonville, Florida and Atlanta, Georgia.  She reminisces on her life with her family, her job, her synagogue and her life as a survivor here in Atlanta.


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