Many of us are aware that shortly before and during WWII many Jews went to great pains to hide from the Nazis. One common tactic was to convert to Catholicism. This was also a practice at other times in Jewish history, such as during the Spanish Inquisition. This tactic was not always successful for various reasons, but one remarkable case was that of Dory Sontheimer and her parents. Their story of bravery, ingenuity, “chutzpah,” and, yes, luck is one among many, but it is still well worth telling. Read on.
Try to imagine this situation. You are 18 years old. You were born and raised as a Catholic. Your parents were Catholic. Suddenly, your life is turned upside down. You discover that your family was not Catholic after all, but Jewish. Even worse, some years later at the age of 57 you learn that the Nazis had murdered 36 members of your extended family, people you never knew or knew of. Of course, you have a million questions. But, your parents, the only two people who could have answered all your questions, are both deceased. What do you do? You want answers, but how do you find them?
This was the situation Dory Sontheimer faced. Eventually, she found the shocking answers in seven boxes, which had been gathering dust in the attic of her parents’ house. These boxes had been stored, and either hidden away or forgotten, behind some eiderdowns (a type of quilt or comforter). As Dory told a reporter many years later, “I am sure my parents wanted us to know about what [had] happened to them and therefore they left many tools so that we could find out. But, they didn’t [tell us] when alive out of fear.”
Dory was born in 1946 in Barcelona where her parents had met after having fled Nazi Germany. Her father had arrived in 1929-1930, her mother in 1933. Apparently, as soon as Hitler rose to power in 1933 they realized, being Jewish, they had to leave. They met in Barcelona, fell in love, and in 1936 they were married. Probably, they thought that having escaped Germany they were safe. But, not so fast. In a cruel twist of fate in 1939 Francisco Franco and his Nationalist (fascist) forces defeated the Republican forces and took control of the country. So, ironically Dory’s parents had fled one fascist regime only to find themselves in another. In Dory’s words, at that point “my [parents] knew they had to hide the fact that they were Jewish if they wanted to survive.” Discovery would likely have resulted in deportation to the “frontier,” which meant death. Their solution was to hide in plain site. They changed the family name to Sont and became Catholics. (Later, Dory changed the name back to Sontheimer.)
Dory attended the University of Barcelona from which she graduated with a degree in Pharmacy and Optics. She became focused on her career as a pharmacist and a successful businesswoman. Everything changed in 2002 when her mother died. While cleaning out the family house she made the aforementioned discovery.
The boxes contained a treasure trove of shocking information. There were numerous letters, passports and photos. The letters showed signs of having been censored. The photos were meticulously labeled with names, dates and locations. It was as if Dory’s parents, while posing as Catholics, wanted their true heritage to be preserved and discovered one day by Dory or perhaps someone else. The more Dory discovered, the more she realized she didn’t know and needed to ascertain. “It was shocking. I understood some things, but I realized I had to do a lot [more] research.” She commenced an album for her kids, and when she retired in 2006 she concentrated on researching her family fulltime.
She was particularly intrigued with her maternal grandparents. She knew very little about them. She had never even seen a picture of them. Her parents had only told her that they had died in the war. There had been nothing further discussed about them. She was shocked to find a lot of correspondence between them and her parents. She learned that in 1940 they had been deported from their native Germany to France. Like many others, they had tried to make their way to Marseilles, which due to its location at the southern tip of the country, had become the primary point of exfil to free countries or, at least, neutral ones. But first, one had to obtain an exit visa, which was very much in demand and very difficult to obtain. Exit visas were, quite literally, a matter of life and death. (This fact was portrayed extensively in the movie Casablanca.) Unfortunately, they were not successful.
Eventually, in 1942 they were deported to Auschwitz. Theirs was a familiar story. We can all imagine how it was for them. We have seen it depicted in scores of books and movies, the overpacked train cars, the inhumane conditions, the lack of food, water and proper sanitation, the brutality of the soldiers, the snarling dogs straining at their leashes. Dory related, “they were on a train with a thousand [other] passengers, transported like animals. Two days later, only 899 out of the thousand passengers got there alive. [Fifty-three] entered Auschwitz, and the others were directly brought to the gas chambers. My grandparents were among those. She was 59, and he was 65.”
Dory became obsessed with uncovering as much as she could about her ancestors. Who were they? What were their names? Where did they live? What had happened to them? She commenced to travel extensively. She managed to track down dozens of living family members, whom she interviewed. She wrote a documentary and two books about her findings. She wrote the books to serve as a “tribute to her family and all the [other] families who underwent that horror [of the Holocaust].” She gave talks at schools. She wanted young people to learn about the past so they don’t “make the same mistakes. This cannot happen again. Six million victims are six million personal stories. This was about giving a name and a face to those striped pajamas.” Amen.
Much has been written about Jews hiding from the Nazis in plain site, sometimes successfully (Schindler’s List and The Zookeeper’s Wife, and sometimes unsuccessfully (The Diary of Anne Frank). Many were smuggled to friendly countries, such as Sweden and England. Hitler had a soft spot for the Swedes whom he considered to be part of the Aryan race he was aiming to preserve. In addition, there have been many stories of Jewish children who were light-skinned being sent to live with friends or neighbors and “passing” as non-Jewish.
I have heard two firsthand accounts of the foregoing, which I would like to share:
- While on vacation in Denmark a gentleman told a group of us how during the war some of the fishermen in his coastal village, including his own father, would ferry Jews to Sweden under the noses of the Nazis. As a little boy he would lie in bed every night praying that his father would return home safely. He told us it was dangerous but the right thing to do.
- On a trip to Israel our tour guide told us how his mother, who was fair-skinned, had been sent to live with a woman acquaintance in a rural area of Poland. This woman risked her life daily to shelter his mother. Often, she would send her into town on some errand when she knew the Gestapo was about to inspect her farm. By some twist of fate, many years after the war his mother became the caregiver of the woman who had protected her as a little girl. Strange, but true.
Dory feels that the allies knew about the concentration camps. In her opinion, “there [was] news and leaks.” She regretted that they didn’t bomb the railways more heavily to prevent the Nazis from transporting Jews to the camps. “It [would have been] so easy,” she lamented.
Historians have been debating that matter for 75 years. What did the Allies know, and when did they know it? Why didn’t they focus their efforts more on the camps? Did they dismiss the stories as too farfetched to be true? Did their leaders not have enough sympathy for the fate of the Jews? Alas, these questions have never been resolved fully and may never be.