This story is dedicated to Anita Rothfeld and all the opera lovers in this class
My first opera I saw in Landsberg/Lech in Germany in 1946. My friend, Bluma, and I arrived at the Displaced Persons’ camp late Fall 1945 after a torturous journey from Mauthausen concentration camp where we were liberated via Vienna, then to our city in Poland. After disembarking in my city, Lodz, while standing on the station’s platform not knowing where to go, where to turn, a Polish man who also got off the train turned towards me remarking out loud, “There are still Jews left. I thought they killed them all off,” not realizing that I was one of those Jews.
After about two months in Poland, Bluma and I, with a few Jewish survivors we met, made our way to Berlin to the American zone. In Berlin an organization gave us our first identity cards and sent us to a Displaced Persons’ camp in Landsberg in Lech in Bavaria.
There was already a UNRA hospital in the camp with three Jewish doctors who were also survivors. As soon as we arrived and identified ourselves as nurses, Bluma and I were recruited to work at the hospital. Both Bluma and I were full-fledged nurses trained in the Lodz Ghetto hospital.
In Landsberg we lived in the nurses’ house adjacent to the hospital sharing a room on the third floor.
I was soon promoted to be the floor nurse at the children’s unit. But there were no children. There were only young people. Some very young women were already pregnant. Much to our horror the first few babies born so soon after the war were terribly malformed. Most of them died. When a baby was born it was like a great miracle. No matter how sick or premature a newborn was, the whole hospital tried to save it.
We worked twelve hour shifts and received no salary. Dr. Nabriski who before the war was the doctor to the Lithuanian royalty, was the director of the hospital.
One day I was alone in our room. Bluma was on day duty. I heard footsteps running up the stairs. Soon after there was a knock. A young man of Greek background appeared at the door. There were only young people of many nationalities in the DP camp. Most of them were Jewish of very diverse backgrounds. There were a few Greek gypsies who aligned themselves with the Greek survivors. We didn’t even have a common language. Jews from North Eastern Europe spoke Yiddish whereas Jews from the Mediterranean countries spoke Sephardic, a Latino language, and some Jewish people spoke only their native country’s tongue. So, kind of a broken German became the language we communicated in.
The young man, a messenger for the hospital, handed me an envelope waiting by the door. Surprised, I opened the envelope that was addressed to me. I never before received any mail. Inside the envelope was a handwritten note in German. “I would like to invite you to see the opera this evening that is playing at the Landsberg opera house.” I was flabbergasted. Dr. Nabriski, the director and chief doctor of the hospital, tall, handsome; he lost his young wife in the camps. I sat down at the table and composed a reply. “Thank you for inviting me but I cannot go. I have nothing to wear.”
I placed the note in the same envelope as Dr. Nabriski’s. I didn’t possess an envelope or writing paper and handed the envelope to the young man to deliver to the doctor. After a short time I heard footsteps again. The same young man handed me another note which exact words I still remember. Quote: “I don’t look at the outside of the pitcher, but what is inside. Meet me at 4:00 p.m. in front of the hospital.”
The only clothes I had were used clothing sent from America.
I met Dr. Nabriski and we proceeded to walk the mile or so to town. There was solid, packed snow on the ground and it was very slippery. We needed to cross a bridge to get to Landsberg. Two young American soldiers were patrolling the bridge. We walked cautiously in our flimsy shoes, swaying our arms to keep our balance. The American soldiers in their heavy boots, to amuse themselves, ordered Dr. Nabriski to crisscross the bridge from one side to the other laughing heartily. It was most humiliating bringing back terrible memories that I experienced with my father in November, 1939.
Soon after the Germans occupied Poland, they imposed a curfew and for the Jewish people even shorter hours. Food became very scarce. We only had a few potatoes left and almost no flour. It was decided that my father and I try to go to Aunt Kreindel’s place. She had a grocery store before the war, and we were hoping that she would still have some flour left. The next day my father and I started as soon as we were allowed to walk the streets with the yellow stars on our outer clothes.
After walking a few blocks, two German officers appeared suddenly from a side street. Before we had a chance to step down, the officers confronted my father shouting in German, “don’t you know the rules” hitting and kicking my father off the curb into the gutter. The humiliation and the anger in my father’s eyes was unbearable, but he restrained himself, ot protect me, knowing well, that if he made a move we would been shot on the spot.
After the doctor and I crossed the bridge, we stopped briefly at Dr. Nabriski’s residence, a town house provided by UNRA, before proceeding to the Opera House.
I absolutely have no recollection what opera I saw or its title, but what follows still haunts me.
After the opera, Dr. Nabriski invited me for tea at his place in town. When I was about to leave the doctor put his arm around my shoulder and asked me to stay. I would not hear of it and insisted on going back to my place. The doctor reasoned and pleaded with me: it was dangerous, it was nighttime, the streets were empty, the curfew was on, I could be shot. But I was adamant. When the doctor realized I would not stay, he telephoned the American Military Police asking them to take me back to the displaced persons’ camp.
A few months later, in early 1947, a special plane arrived from Israel and took Dr. Nabriski to Israel to become the director of the Haddassa hospital in Tel Aviv.
Although I told this to my husband as I told him many other stories from my life, I was not thinking about it too often. But an incident a couple of years ago awakened my memories. I was at the GAP store on Broadway and Eighty-sixth Street trying on a light cotton sweater in front of the mirror. I couldn’t decide between the red or the navy when an elderly man with a woman helper paused to observe me. So, I told them my dilemma. “Get the red,” the man suggested authoritatively. He then took my hand and invited me to join him for dinner that evening. I just smiled and told him I was busy. The man would not leave insisting we made a date for another evening. I gave all kinds of excuses but the man persisted, saying that he missed a woman in his life. I pointed toward his attractive helper. “No,” he responded, “she is married” and he could not talk with her. I took his phone number and said I would call.
Since that time I think of Dr. Nabriski more often. He most probably just wanted to hold my hand and have me near him. But I was 20 years old and in my youthful arrogance enjoyed the attention of the Greeks whom I found exotic, with their darker skin, sideburns, scarves around their necks, some with knives in their boots.
After the incident at the GAP, images of Dr. Nabriski appear in my mind but seldom of my ‘Greek admirers’ in the D.P. camp. Except for a few photos, I don’t even remember their names, but I do remember Dr. Nabriski and the night after the opera.
Tonia Rotkopf Blair was born on September 18, 1925 in Lodz, Poland. During the Second World War she was in the Lodz Ghetto, then Auschwitz, then Mauthausen. Eventually she came to New York City and married her husband and they had two sons. She has three grandchildren. While her children were teenagers, she went to Columbia University and earned her Bachelor’s degree.