by Alyson Mizanin (Class of 2023)
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.
Amidst a flurry of Sarasota parkgoers sits 92-year-old Lora Tobias. Shaded from the bright afternoon sun, she makes herself comfortable in a jumbo red camping chair and keeps her hands busy, flicking through photographs and historical records that lay in her lap. Among them are black and white pictures of weddings, first days at school, and secret meetings in the woods — all of them carry stories she shares with excitement.
Her eyes light up when she picks a book out of the pile. It’s the 2018 edition of the Schriesheimer Jahrbuch, which roughly translates to “Schriesheim Annual.” A castle adorns its front cover.
“This is where I resided — Schriesheim,” she said. “I was the last Jewish child born to the village, before the Nazis.”
Born in 1929, Lora lived her first nine years in Schriesheim before she, her parents, and her maternal grandfather fled Germany in 1938 to escape Nazi rule. Now 93, Lora and her experiences bespeak resilience, determination, and a zest for life and all it has to offer.
Schriesheim was home to Lora’s family for close to three centuries. Her first recorded ancestor was a Jewish man named Baruch, who moved to the village with his wife and children in 1652. When Lora was born, twelve Jewish families lived among the village’s four thousand residents. They had a synagogue — the only evidence that it existed is a picture of Lora standing in front of it.
Recounting all the non-Jewish friends her mother had, Lora notes that there was little discrimination in Schriesheim when she was young. She recalls friends and neighbors joining her family’s Passover festivities, and because the family maid was Christian, Lora left her shoes out to receive Christmas presents.
Things began changing when Lora started attending Lutheran kindergarten.
“Every morning when we attended school, instead of saluting the German flag, we saluted a swastika,” Lora said. “Then we’d all say a prayer to God, asking to safeguard Hitler and keep him safe from enemies and give him a long life. That’s how we started the day.”
The Hitlerjugend — Hitler Youth — often came into Lora’s kindergarten classroom, encouraging the students to “be good German boys and girls and swear allegiance to Hitler,” she said.
Lora remembers kneeling bedside one night and reciting prayers for Hitler after finishing her Hebrew ones.
“My parents had to explain to me that I couldn’t pray for Hitler anymore — that I was to say my Hebrew prayers, and that I was a Jewish child, but I had to try not to call attention to myself,” she said.
Lora grew lonely as she moved up through the grades. Her former friends began either avoiding or harassing her.
“I wondered, ‘Why? Why am I different? Do I look differently, just because I go to a different place to pray?’” she said. “I just wanted to belong. Why couldn’t I belong? What’s the difference — that I went to synagogue on Saturday?”
She fondly recalls her first grade teacher, for he treated her like all the other children. It was during first grade that she remembers walking through the Schriesheim woods with one or two of the only other students who’d interact with her, pretending to be Hansel and Gretel.
Second grade, however, “was a horror,” she said. Her teacher vehemently hated Jewish people. He forced her to sit in the corner of the classroom, surrounded only by empty desks.
“He treated me as though I’d contaminate the rest of the students,” she said. “I remember one time I’d raised my hand and wanted to answer a question, and he shouted at me and told me, ‘You sit down, you dirty Jewish pig.’ He encouraged the other children to abuse me at recess time… I had to hand in my homework, and I’ll never forget — he’s standing there over a garbage pail, ripping up my homework, as if my paper was contaminating his hand.”
Avoiding physical and mental torment was close to impossible. Children threw stones at Lora during recess. She’d often hide behind a woman who sold cookies to the students; years later, Lora discovered that her protector was the grandmother of Schriesheim’s former mayor, Hansjorg Hoeffer.
To return home at the end of the school day, Lora needed to escape the school yard, cross the street, and run home. Her route to safety was a nearby Catholic church; she’d run to the backdoor and through the church to meet her uncle out front, and he would help her get home.
Lora went to a private school in Heidelberg for third grade. She rode the morning train to get to school in fear, hoping that nobody else from the town was on it — if she was caught, she’d be beaten up.
All the while, her parents’ business dried up, as nobody wanted to associate themselves with the family. Brownshirts would stand outside their front door, recording the names of anyone who dared support the business. Such names were announced by the town crier and later displayed in the heart of Schriesheim alongside signs that read “No Jews Allowed.”
“I remember the Nazis coming in and ripping our telephone out of the wall,” Lora said. “The radio was confiscated. All our letters that we got from family in the United States were censored. Lines were blacked out. I couldn’t understand this. How could I be a threat to the country? I’m just seven years old. How do I threaten them? What do I possess? What did I do? Why am I a danger?”
The family housekeeper, Sancha, was forced to leave because of the passage of the Nuremberg Laws, which prohibited Jewish people from hiring those under 45 years old. Still, Sancha would sneak into the house in the middle of the night to sit next to Lora’s bed. Lora last saw Sancha in 1936, when she met the family in the woods one final time.
Having already escaped Germany with his wife, Lora’s maternal uncle found strangers to sponsor the family and give them affidavits in the name of finding safety in the United States in 1936. In the meantime, Lora’s family started selling their belongings — including their familial 21-room house, which her great-grandfather purchased in 1840, and the nearby vineyard.
“It was like a fire sale — everybody suddenly wanted to come in,” she said. “When it came to money, everybody wanted to come into our store. Nobody wrote names down. Nobody was ostracized.”
Lora, her parents, and her maternal grandfather later got visas from the American government. Her passport — issued June 2, 1938 — is particularly unique; a law went into effect June 1 that all Jewish passports needed to be inscribed with the letter “J,” but Lora’s doesn’t have one.
Before receiving visas, all people needed to undergo mental and physical exams. Because Lora’s other maternal uncle — Uncle Ludwig Oppenheimer — suffered from spinal meningitis as a child, he was unable to receive one. The family was at a crossroads but ended up leaving him with money and sending him to a nursing home with the hopes of bringing him to the United States in 1939. Hitler’s invasion of Czechoslovakia prevented that from happening. She later discovered that Ludwig died in the Gurs concentration camp in 1940.
The family was escorted to the Heidelberg train station with torches on their last night in Germany. Before taking the train to Berlin, Lora and her father visited her paternal grandmother to say goodbye. She gave them her prayer book, which Lora later donated to the Holocaust Museum.
“The last time I saw my grandmother and my father’s sister was at the train station, waving goodbye to us as the train sped through,” Lora said. “After we left, they went to Holland and were rounded up. The Dutch people betrayed them, and they ended up in cattle cars sent to concentration camps. Most of the family in my parents’ wedding picture were all sent to different concentration camps… Only two of my cousins survived, hidden by fundamentalist Christians. They’re the only relatives who survived from such a big family.”
A historian in Schriesheim found records regarding Lora’s deceased family members only because their history in the village dated so far back.
“I was glad to know what happened to them because at least I could acknowledge that they were dead and how they died,” she said. “I wish I could tell them, ‘We survived. I’m still here. They didn’t destroy us.’”
Lora and her family arrived in the United States October 6, 1938 — a hurricane caused their delay. They lived by the beach in Belle Harbor, New York, before moving to Lancaster, Pennsylvania.
When World War II broke out, Lora’s family had to register themselves as enemy aliens because they were German nationals. Having been so young, Lora didn’t understand the war; rather, she was growing more accustomed to the United States. With Franklin and Marshall College nearby in Lancaster, she visited the college library to borrow books and learned how to swim at the college’s pool.
Lora was sixteen years old when World War II ended. She graduated high school and went on to earn bachelor’s and master’s degrees, teaching fourth grade in the Bronx before becoming a reading specialist and teacher trainer. She and Sigmund Tobias married when she was in her early thirties.
Lora has visited Schriesheim many times. The Jewish cemetery in the village is maintained to this day. Lora remembers offering to send funds, only for the mayor to promise her that they had it covered.
In Germany, little square blocks called tipping stones serve as reminders of those who’ve died. Each one carries a different name; they’re in the pile of pictures Lora keeps with her.
“The names are for my family, for the deceased people — my mother, my father, my grandfather, my uncle, and me. I said, ‘I’m still very much alive!’” Lora said with a laugh. “They put them in front of homes that were owned by Jews; we may be gone, but we’re not forgotten.”
During one visit, Lora and Sigmund went back to her former Lutheran school.
“I walk up the steps and I’m speechless. I just don’t know what to say. I spread my arms and in my best Italian, I yelled ‘Ritorna Vincitor!’ That’s from Aida, and that’s the way I felt — ‘I have returned victorious!’” Lora said.
She notes that she has always been open to sharing her story; doing so is important to her “because it’s true,” she said. “You can’t deny it. It happened to me. if you don’t believe me, I can show you pictures. I can tell my story.”
Lora beams as she talks about her two children and two grandchildren. When considering their futures, she envisions a world that will treat them and their peers indiscriminately; the fact that this has yet to happen “sickens me,” she said.
“I hope the generation of my granddaughter will do something to save this world, to care about it. It’s for them that we need a positive future — not a destructive outlook on life where you hate other people,” Lora said. “We’re all in this world together, and if we don’t preserve it, it’s not going to last. I want my grandchildren to have good lives and a wonderful world without hatred.”