A hidden witness to the Brown Shirts now prepares to go to Gaza

US Politics
on 12 Comments

As I wait to join a boat to Gaza with a group of European Jews, I am asked why? Trust me I say, I have to go, there is no choice. But why so adamant, what drives me? I have long pondered this question.

I was 18 months old on November 13, 1936 when I emigrated from Nazi Germany in the arms of my mother to sail on the SS Bremen to New York . Because of the ingenuity of my father, family money and contacts we were able to leave. You see, the United States had a strict quota system for refugees and before he was able to secure our visas, my father was required to have a sponsor who would provide him with a job. One was also required to have a place to live. When we came to America, my parents, near penniless, were severed from their beloved Germany, friends, family and affluence. Settling in New York with their little daughter, they found themselves at sea in a stranger’s land, unmoored from their station in life and terribly unhappy. They brought with them a darkness that became for me a personal symbol of the nightmare of Hitler’s Germany.

My exodus although not in my conscious memory is imprinted into my very being. It planted early in my childhood seeds of rootlessness, feeling disconnected, different and apart. The dark shadows of my refugee experience, reinforced by my parents’ unhappiness, my lonely and difficult childhood, makes clearer my passion and interest in breaking down barriers and fostering understanding between people. In addition, my empathy has always been with the underdog. This is no surprise for I felt like an underdog as a child.

Try to imagine a beautiful evening in the fall of 1934. My parents decide to take an after dinner stroll in the elegant neighborhood where they lived on Feuerbach Strasse in Frankfurt. Linden trees grew tall and the air was filled with blossoms. They walked along the quiet street when suddenly from nowhere out sprang a group of young men. “Brown Shirts “ they were called, a precursor to the SS, the feared Nazi police. That was how it began, the debauchery of Germany. The men marched up to my parents and simultaneously clicked their heels. They were no more than 18 years old, clean shaven angel faces hardly out of childhood indoctrinated with hate. Were they children once? Five brown shirts, high boots laced over brown pants, Nazi flags pinned on brown caps, swastika armbands in red white and black. In high spirits they were on a path to lunacy where linden trees would bloom no more.

One Brown Shirt stepped up close to my father, a finger on his nose. He laughed then circled about. “Come see the Jew nose,” he bellowed. The others cursed and mocked. My father, elegant in a tailored suit, silk tie and expensive overcoat wore fine black leather gloves. A small Florentine gold pin engraved with a diamond “L was visible on his tie. I would see it often as a child just as I had heard this story from my father so often. My mother pregnant with me wore a sable fur hat to match the collar and cuffs of her stylish coat. As I lay inside my mother, I became an unseen witness. Perhaps that can explain my lifelong vulnerability and sensitivity to racism and fascism.

Number two kicked, taunted, cursed, then punched my father in the face until he bled. The others kicked him onto the ground. The Brown Shirt angel faces in high spirits kicked some more and marched away. This episode was a deciding factor in my father’s decision to leave Germany. It took him two years to get us out.

My earliest memories are of a lonely child who did not know whether she was German or American. As much as I longed to be American, I felt different, sensitive to criticism from my parents who raised me in with a strong, critical hand. I tried to push the German part of me underground until I was ready many decades later to explore my history and roots. I cannot remember a time when I did not identify with the underdog, the oppressed and suffering. I learned oppression as a child and lived it through my parents. Who’s to say all the factors? I am a pacifist and believe that underneath the skin differences, cultural differences and past all the indoctrination and prejudice (more or less learned behavior,) we are all connected and long for dignity and personal freedom. We witness the generations of hate perpetuated between Israel and Palestine whereby the “other” is no longer human.

Is not my story everyone’s story? Am I different from a Palestinian or a Jew or Mexican? Am I different from a Syrian or African ? It is only the story that differs. Dig deeper and we find mirrors of ourselves in everyone. Now this elder hippy grandma shouts to all who will listen, NO MORE WARS, NO MORE GUNS, NO KILLING, NO BRUTALITY, NO OCCUPATIONS, NO MORE ORPHANS OR LANDMINES OR BATTLEFIELDS OR NAKED ROTTING CORPSES THAT HOLD SECRETS OF DREAMS SNUFFED OUT.

About Lillian Rosengarten

Lillian Rosengarten is author of the forthcoming book “Survival and Conscience: From The Shadow Of Nazi Germany To The Jewish Boat To Gaza."(October 2015, Just World Books) It has been published in German as: “ Ein bewegtes Leben: Von den Schatten Nazi-Deutschlands zum judischen Boot nach Gaza” (Zambon 7/14) Contact: [email protected]

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12 Responses

  1. pabelmont
    August 22, 2010, 11:57 am

    A beautiful testimony. Good luck with your voyage to Gaza.

  2. Richard Witty
    August 22, 2010, 1:43 pm

    Compassion as the response to suffering!!!!

    • Mooser
      August 22, 2010, 3:50 pm

      And how, exactly, are the Israelis showing compassion in response to Palestinian suffering?
      Please tell us.

    • Chaos4700
      August 22, 2010, 5:55 pm

      Then for God sakes, Witty, chain yourself to an F-16 before another Palestinian child gets murdered with it.

      • Richard Witty
        August 22, 2010, 8:03 pm

        You ignorant clowns.

        My comment was in support of the sentiments that Lillian presented.

        The witness still needs to be made to ALL perpetrators of violence. Apparently Adam erased my subsequent post asking if Lillian will similarly present a condemnation of violence on civilians directly to Hamas when she has an opportunity.

        As, I was, and remain critical of Phil for his failure to query Hamas when he attended a press conference in Gaza.

      • Chaos4700
        August 23, 2010, 9:04 am

        “You ignorant clowns.”

        This got through moderation? Really?

        Well, I suppose if you guys didn’t let Zionists have their personal attacks against us, they’d have nothing to be posted.

  3. Mountainaires
    August 22, 2010, 2:03 pm

    Moving article; I admire Lillian Rosengarten so much. She has the courage of her convictions, a rare but incredibly brave thing.

    Didn’t know if you’d seen this, apologies if it’s already been posted, but it’s related to the courage of Lillian, in the sense that it takes courage to speak out, to tell the truth in the face of community condemnation and coercion to keep silent.

    link to guardian.co.uk

  4. Elliot
    August 22, 2010, 2:12 pm

    Thank you – your eloquence rings true! As the child of Holocaust survivors myself, I appreciate your stand. You shine a light on a hopeful response to the pain of Holocaust. Israel need not be a traumatized victim; American Jews need not support Israeli violence.
    In pastoral arts, the wounded healer has special, curative powers. Your voice is much needed today and always.

  5. Susan Johnson
    August 22, 2010, 3:09 pm

    Lillian, Thank you for sharing your harrowing story so beautifully. I too am a grandmother who hopes for peace…shouts for peace, justice and equality.

    While in the West Bank in 2004 I witnessed young Israeli soldiers taunt, humiliate and abuse Palestinians. Their feelings of superiority and entitlement were as obvious as the guns they carried. They reeked of power…power given and instilled in them at such a young age. They could be the “brown shirts” you speak about.

    While in Gaza last May these young Israeli soldiers were not to be seen. (I was relieved they would not be there) ….What was seen was destruction left by those very same soldiers when they unmercifully carried out “Operation Cast Lead.” It was a traumatic sight. Becoming better informed of the inhuman conditions forced on the people of Gaza was equally traumatic…loss, loss and more loss…in every aspect of their lives: health, home, employment, freedom. Perhaps the most shocking loss is the forced confinement in Gaza….Palestinians in Gaza are stuck in a prison; their jailers hoping one day they will conduct a “head check” and find the prison empty of life. Their prisoners, weary of the oppression and snuffed out dreams, have disappeared.

    Israel does not have a moral army…let alone the most moral army in the world. How can any army, or a navy or air force be considered moral? A look at the West Bank and Gaza proves them to be immoral. I submit that their government is immoral as well.

    Lillian, I wish you and your fellow travelers safety and success as you sail to Gaza. I know why you go. I leave for Gaza August 24. It was not a difficult decision to make!

  6. MRW
    August 22, 2010, 7:37 pm


    DITTO. Big, fat ditto.

  7. Les
    August 23, 2010, 6:43 pm

    As late as the German invasion of Poland, there remained members of the German officer corps who, when discovering anti-Semitic acts being done by the men under their command, reminded them that “We are Germans and don’t do such things.” Lillian Rosengarten also has class.

  8. Joseph Glatzer
    August 24, 2010, 12:11 am

    beautiful, brilliant post

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