by Peyton Harris (Class of 2022)
This is part of a series of articles written by journalism students from Pine View School in Osprey, Fla., based on in-depth interviews the students conducted with Holocaust survivors.
In a series of chain reactions, George Erdstein believes his life — and his family’s — has been dominated by a cascading effect of luck, both good and bad.
“I was too young. I don’t have numbers on my arms. You could say I was lucky, but I experienced a certain aspect of the Holocaust being in New York with German speaking parents while the war was still going on. And that was, uh, embarrassing,” Erdstein said. “All I wanted to do was to fit in and be an American kid, on my birth certificate [too]. My name is G E O R G without the E at the end, that’s the German interpretation of George,” Erdstein said.
When Erdstein got his American citizenship papers at the age of seven, he insisted that his name was spelled with an E at the end.
“I’m sorry to this day, because I denied, you know, who I was at the time.” Erdstein said.
Erdstein was born in 1938, in Vienna, Austria, immigrating with his family as refugees to Washington Heights in New York.
“My story really is not so much about me, but it’s my family and I’m a part of it. How they reacted to the Holocaust had a lot to do with when I was born, which was, halfway between the takeover of Austria,” he said.
He was talking about an event called Kristallnacht, or “The Night of Broken Glass.” Nazis in Germany torched synagogues, vandalized Jewish homes, schools and businesses and killed close to 100 Jews.
“That night, my father had been arrested and they [Nazis] tried to get a confession that he had consorted with a non-Jewish woman at any time in his life. But even before he married, and he denied it, they beat him,” Erdstein said, musing over the luck that has defined his life.
“There’s a story of luck there as they were beating him and harassing him. An affidavit came from an uncle of his in New York, just like I’d say from heaven,” Erdstein recalled. “And it came to our apartment. My mother received this thing and she walked it over to the Gestapo headquarters, which is where my father was being held. The affidavit really was telling The United States that this uncle would make sure that my father was not a burden on the state going on welfare. And so the Nazis, he said, okay, we’ll let him out, but he’s got to leave the country immediately. Now, the affidavit was not for the rest of the family, only for him and his younger brother. And he left us. He had no choice in December of 1938 leaving behind my mother, my sister and myself, he had no choice. I would consider that kind of lucky that this affidavit arrived just when it did. Eventually, I think they would’ve killed him.”
Erdstein grew up knowing he was a refugee, but not of the horror his parents and older sibling had endured in Austria.
“I felt actually growing up as a teenager, I didn’t want to know anything about it… But as I got older, it meant more and more, more a part of me. Now I’m 83 years old and it means so much more to me now than it did then. So a lot of it, I found out for myself and even after he [Erdstein’s father] passed. And it was really after that I got involved with this Holocaust museum. I was a docent for a while and talked about my parents, but I had documents and I was putting pieces together and trying to patch things together,” he said.
Erdstein was asked to speak as a survivor of the Holocaust, a role he was initially hesitant to accept because he didn’t always feel that he was of the same position as many other survivors. He felt that he was essentially a football, something that bounced around and affected his parents’ cautious movements during the time.
“If I weren’t born just when I was, my parents probably wouldn’t have gone into hiding. Who knows, they would’ve tried to escape. They tell me I saved their lives. I don’t believe it,” he said, smiling as he shakes his head.
He pauses, “Can I tell you a story about luck?”
Erdstein taps his fingers against the armrest of the chair, thoughtfully contemplating the story he’s about to tell:
“Hitler took control of Austria in March of 1938. June 1 was my father’s birthday. He turned 39, and Jews of Austria were very stressed, but it was his birthday. And it was a beautiful day. And my parents were invited to friends’ in a suburb of Vienna. My mother was very pregnant with me at the time. So they went, typical of all Viennese, to like their pastries,” he chuckles.
“I love pastries very much this day. They go to this beautiful suburb filled with hills and my father had always been athletic. He loved sports. He said, ‘Oh, it’s so beautiful. It’s my birthday. I would love to walk in the hills. I’ll be back at a certain time. And then we’ll have our coffee and cake.’ My mother couldn’t accommodate him as she was pregnant. So he went on his own. And while he was gone, SS officers, Nazi officers came to the door, looking for the men. And they see the man of the house. And they look at my mother, say,
‘Where’s your husband?’
‘He’s not here.’
‘Well, we’ll wait for him.’ they said, they waited and waited.
It was time for my father to get back. But he said to himself, ‘It’s my birthday. I’m gonna walk one more.’ And that saved his life because the SS officers, they got impatient. They said they can’t wait any longer. And they took the man of the house. As they walked out the front door, my father walked in the back door, just like this. Stage, right stage left. They never saw their friend again. They heard he had been taken to Bachenwald concentration camp, not to be seen again. But my father’s love of nature saved his life that day. That was luck. Good luck.”
In his story of the most horrific genocide in history, Erdstein weaves his family’s ideas of luck into his own life, insisting that optimism is necessary. Erdstein is an author of several books relating to the Holocaust, including a fictional novel from 2007 relating to his own account of the holocaust.
“I was asked when I was interviewed on it, ‘What do I want people to take away from the book?’ And I think it’s an appreciation of life in a post-Holocaust world,” he said.
Erdstein has three children, one of whom is a rabbi, one who lives in Israel, and one who lives in Michigan. He said they feel the Holocaust is integrated into their lives as well. He feels that the history of the Holocaust, ugly as it is, must be preserved to move forward.
“Unfortunately, the Holocaust is more relevant than ever. We’re going through some very rough times right now,” Erdstein said. “Antisemitism has cycled, you know, through history. And we’re at a point right now. So I think the lessons of the Holocaust, and I think this exhibit here [motioning toward the Embracing Our Differences posters] I think is meant to support that, you know, breaking differences among everybody. And, you know, I mean, Jews are just one group of people. You’ve got Muslims who are being harassed, other people and, you know, we have to deal with [it],” he said.