Reflections in broken glass: A Falmouth woman’s Holocaust story

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FALMOUTH — A tall man, meticulously dressed in a green tunic and highly polished boots, handsome, and with penetrating eyes, held Edith Herz in his gaze. She knew at that moment, her fate was in his hands.

Josef Mengele pointed to the right. Against all odds, the short, skinny and naked girl would, for the moment, be spared from the gas chamber.

Seventy-eight years ago on Nov. 10 — it was a Thursday, Edith Lucas Pagelson recently recalled – she stood in front of a mirror combing her hair for school. Her father, on his return from synagogue, let her know she would not be going.

On what would become known as Kristallnacht – the Night of Broken Glass – the Nazis had destroyed 7,000 Jewish businesses and burned 1,350 synagogues. Thirty thousand Jews were sent to concentration camps in one night.

Today, at 90, and living at the OceanView retirement community, Pagelson still tells the story of their odyssey of terror and survival. She does so, in part, by the sale of her book, “Against All Odds: A Miracle of Holocaust Survival.” Woven within is another story, one of devotion and love between mother and daughter. She believes it likely that neither would have survived without the other.

“I have a mother. She is strong. She can work,” Edith managed to say to the man known as the “Angel of Death.” Inexplicably, Mengele sent Edith to fetch her. They would remain together, see liberation, and finally emigration to the United States. Her father, from whom they had been forcibly separated, was dead. A sister, Suse, four years younger, was in England, one of the fortunate recipients of Kindertransport, a humanitarian evacuation effort of the British government.

While her story is compelling, Pagelson shies from the graphic description of sanitation conditions so poor that she and fellow prisoners eschewed the insipid coffee, using the only hot water available to cleanse themselves. Describing the barracks with its two-tier bunk beds, each filled with five women suffering dysentery and disease, she simply said of sleeping other than on the top bunk, “there were consequences.”

Edith, 12 years old on the Night of Broken Glass, had been scheduled to emigrate to America from her home in Worms, Germany. It was a much smaller effort, less organized than that of the British. Her adopted family awaited in Cincinnati, her bags were packed, only final approval was needed. It never happened. Perhaps, as her father told her, because a rich person had bribed an official and the glimmer of hope was extinguished.

Bitterness in her voice, she recounted the machinations of Congress on the Wagner-Rogers Bill, otherwise known as “a Jewish bill” that would have allowed 20,000 unaccompanied, German Jewish children to enter the country. Isolationists prevailed and the bill died in committee.

“Roosevelt never uttered a word in support,” she said.

Behind the story of atrocities, lies another layer.

In her talks with school children, she tells of the incremental indoctrination of hate seeded among the German people, of how children, once friends, shunned and bullied. Sent to the back of the classroom, Jewish children were harassed by teachers and forced to pledge allegiance the Nazi flag, calling out, “Heil Hitler.” Soon they were no longer allowed to attend public schools.

When asked if it could happen again, she nodded in the affirmative and said, “We are so divided.”

For three years Pagelson and her mother weaved their way with hordes of others in “transports” made up of cattle cars trained together across the German landscape. It was here, and in the barracks of the work camps, that the teenage girl got a first-row seat in the theatre of human nature.

Despite the enemy that united them, Hungarian Jews hated their German counterparts. Polish prisoners, “capos” of the Nazis, did their bidding to gain favor. Her mother once fought a would-be thief over a crust of bread.

“You either looked out for yourself or you died,” she said.

The lessons of those days has not been lost. Asked about the current refugee situation with the Syrians, she said, “They have got to be checked. … Before we could come to America we had a physical examination from the American Embassy. This was the law. At that point we got our emigration papers so we could work.”

But she understands desperation.

“Living in the shadow of death became too much for some prisoners. They lost hope. They gave up,” she said. Labeled “the walking dead,” many threw themselves upon the electrified wires surrounding the camps.

“My mother held me up, and I did the same for her,” Pagelson said.

Fate had a hand, too.

She recalled the signs at Auschwitz: “Cleanliness brings freedom!” Yearning for any semblance of freedom or cleanliness, she and a hundred other women entered a little red brick building. Clothing and shoes piled up, they waited in a room with an array of shower heads, but devoid of soap or towels. When nothing happened, German soldiers returned and angrily rousted them from the building.

The gas chamber had malfunctioned, against all odds.

Edith Lucas Pagelson, No. A2676, now lives comfortably in her apartment at OceanView. There she shares the admonishment of her father to “always be learning.”

“They can’t take knowledge away” was his mantra, she said. To the coffee klatch she often joins, Pagelson advises a positive outlook. She holds no animosity for the German people of today.

Of the scars she bears, she said, “I am afraid of dogs, I won’t wear red, black and, white in combination, and I won’t stand on line for food.”

Edith Lucas Pagelson at home at OceanView in Falmouth. Now 90, she was a 12-year-old in Worms, Germany, on Kristallnacht, the “Night of Breaking Glass,” when Nazis destroyed Jewish neighborhoods and sent the residents to concentration camps.

A copy of Edith Lucas Pagelson’s book, “Against All Odds: A Miracle of Holocaust Survival,” with a concentration camp dress worn by her mother.

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  • Tilling

    Moving story and I the title of the article is wonderful.