Dora Schindel arranged the escape of 48 intellectuals persecuted in Nazi Germany to Brazil in 1941. They forged passports to erase evidence of Jewish origins and pretended to be a team of technicians to get visas.
The exiles then founded a factory making wooden candlesticks, clothes hangers and toilet seats. Schindel, who turns 97 in November, took charge of the business side.
“We had no clue what we were doing,” she told an audience at the opening of an exhibition at the German National Library in Frankfurt called “I Am a Stranger to the People There.” Yet, she said, after Brazil joined World War II on the side of the allies in 1942, the company even won government contracts.
Schindel’s story of exile is one of 16 narrated in the show, which focuses on those who left Germany after the Nazis won power. There is the cheerfully embroidered bag documenting new experiences made by Irma Lange, who emigrated with her son from Berlin to the U.K. where they were interned on the Isle of Man as suspicious foreigners; and the story of Fritz Neumark, who became a professor of finance at Istanbul University.
No one knows exactly how many emigrated, though estimates put the figure at around 500,000. To Romania-born Nobel laureate Herta Mueller -- who herself fled to Germany to escape persecution under Nicolae Ceausescu’s dictatorship -- these exiles are the forgotten victims of the Nazis.
Letter to Merkel
Mueller, who is campaigning for a permanent museum in memory of the artists and writers who fled, wrote a letter to Chancellor Angela Merkel putting forward her arguments last year. Culture Minister Bernd Neumann in May pledged 745,000 euros ($939,000) toward establishing a “virtual museum,” an online research resource.
For Mueller, the 2009 Nobel Prize in Literature winner, a virtual museum is not enough.
“Hopefully this is a step toward a real museum,” she said at the opening of the exhibition, of which she is the patron. “Germany has to take responsibility for this, just as for the Holocaust.”
Mueller recalled the fate of writers like Stefan Zweig, who committed suicide in Brazil; the poet Paul Celan, who faced ridicule in German literary circles after his return from exile; Konrad Merz, who escaped death in Amsterdam hidden in a cupboard, and Nelly Sachs, who fled to Sweden a week before she was scheduled to go to a concentration camp.
Living witnesses like Schindel are becoming thin on the ground. She told her life story with an energy that belied her quavery voice and kept her audience spellbound.
Despite the difficulties of settling in Brazil, Schindel said she integrated, learned the language, and grew to love the people. She recounted the trouble she had readjusting to Germany when she returned from exile in 1955.
“It was a bewildering experience,” she said. “I couldn’t get used to the bitterness in people’s faces. There seemed to be no friendly faces.”
On her return, she worked for a lawmaker in Bonn and became involved with the German-Brazilian Society, devoting herself to improving relations between the two countries. She is, she said with some pride, “still active in the Society” at the age of 96 and considers herself “half Bavarian, half Brazilian.”
“I wouldn’t want to do without either side,” she said.
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(Catherine Hickley writes for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.)
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