Margarete (Gretel) Marcus – her story is one which needs to be told often and by many, lest we forget. Gretel was my Oma (German for grandmother), she always asked me to write a book about her life, but for now it will have to be a blog. Oma used to sit me down or bake with me and tell me stories of what it was like to live in Nazi Germany in 1939, just as the war was about to break-out.
It was always the way she told the stories that used to impact me more than the stories themselves. It was about the heartbreak she felt when her mother put her on a train to get to a boat where they could get to freedom. Oma HATED leaving her family, knowing that her parents were going to be taken (and subsequently killed).
She left with only the clothes on her back, a few possessions she could hide and a broken heart and much fear of the unknown.
It was one particular story that really resonated with me. Her father was a very religious Jew; he prayed every day, observed all the Jewish holidays and he also served his country in WWI. Oma, her brother and mother lived for 6 years not knowing if their father would return alive as he was a POW. As a thank-you for his service, the Nazis killed him. It was easy to find the Jewish soldiers that had served in WWI.
Oma said she missed him every single day of her life. The bright side of that however was that she had a brother who stepped in and took very good care of her. Hanz (yes, they were called, Hanzel and Gretel) was her entire world and a wonderful protector whom she adored. He was able to get out of Nazi Germany as well. She also relayed the story of how she sat in a café with her husband and saw right above his head a sign that (translated) said “no Jews allowed”. She was terrified but her husband said, act like you belong and finish your coffee and we will leave quietly. The way the story was told, I could sense her fear…my Oma was a great story teller. I was always so honoured that she wanted to share her stories with me. This was a woman that could have and should have written novels about what life was like as the anti-Semitism began in Germany.
Her journey out of Germany was filled with additional challenges like being turned away the first time she came to Canada by then Prime Minister, Mackenzie King, who said, “one Jew is too many”.
Their boat then had to find refuge elsewhere and it was finally in Israel that she found solace; a homeland that saved many Jewish people from certain death. It was there that she left her then husband, as they realized that they did not have the same life goals. But he did introduce her to my Opa (grandfather in German). Talk about progressive for the 40’s?!! They lived in Israel for several more years, had my mom in 1945 and in 1952 came to Montreal, Canada (with a stop in England). It always baffled me that they not only came to a very cold climate but to a country that was so hateful not too many years before. The response I always received was, it was where their friends and then her brother and his family were going to build a new life. And that was how it was.
Oma was required to get an education as a young woman in Germany, so she became a seamstress – which was her saving grace for the rest of her life. Oma sewed all clothes for herself and her family in Israel and even made a living at it. It was that which brought her to some extraordinary places in the world, so she could help with Haute Couture fashion shows. She loved to tell me about the famous and beautiful people she clothed. Her collection of fashion was something to behold. Oma was always dressed well, lipstick on and a perfectly combed head of hair. I admired this incredibly talented and brave woman my whole life.
The lessons I learned from her were many but those that are the most profound to me: never give up; work hard because no one can take your accomplishments away from you; don’t marry a coward, you will need that partnership more than you know and love your family above all else. Though she gathered many possessions over time, and many exclusive and beautiful pieces of high end fashion, it never changed who she was or her values. The love she had for her family was always most important.
The last time she and I spoke, Oma was dying of heart failure but still asked for her comb, mirror and lipstick. She told me to find “my match” and to keep following my dreams because she always believed that I would get anything I wanted in life.