INTERVIEW

The Jewish family on Hitler's street: "We didn’t know he was going to turn the world upside down"

Edgar Feuchtwanger's family escaped Germany after his father's imprisonment in Dachau. Here's what he remembers

By Chauncey DeVega

Published June 7, 2018 5:00PM (EDT)

Edgar Feuchtwanger, right, with co-author Bertil Scali (Other Press)
Edgar Feuchtwanger, right, with co-author Bertil Scali (Other Press)

It all feels too familiar.

There is a crisis in liberal democratic values around the world. In Europe, neo-Nazis and other fascists are marching in the streets and attacking Jews, Muslims, and others who they believe are a type of enemy Other.

There is a deep yearning for a return to the past and "traditional" "conservative" values among many white Christians in Europe and the United States because they feel that globalization, immigration, and changing racial and ethnic demographics are a threat to the "natural" order of things.

The president of the United States Donald Trump, has described neo-Nazis, Ku Klux Klan members, and other right-wing extremists and domestic terrorists as "very fine people". Individuals who are sympathetic to and even outright support neo-Nazis and other far-right wing ideologies are writing America's foreign and domestic policies from within the Trump White House and other parts of the United States government.

These are terrible echoes of how the Nazis and Adolf Hitler came to power in Germany during the 1930s. The past is indeed prologue. Edgar Feuchtwanger was a history professor at the University of Southampton for three decades until he retired in 1989. He is the author of numerous books, most notably "From Weimer to Hitler," Disraeli" and "Imperial Germany 1850-1918." Feuchtwanger also received the Order of Merit from Germany in 2003. His latest book, released last fall, is "Hitler, My Neighbor: Memories of a Jewish Childhood, 1929-1938."

As a Jewish child Feuchtwanger survived the rise of the Nazis when he and several of his family members were eventually able to escape abroad.  He is a firsthand witness to the evil power of Nazism and Adolf Hitler.

In this conversation, Feuchtwanger shares how he as a child made sense of the rise of the Nazis, what it was like to live so close to Hitler, reflects on the Nazi reign of terror and surviving events such as Kristallnacht, and what it was like to return to Germany as an adult.

This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

In Europe there are now Nazis and others of that type marching in the streets. In the United States there are neo-Nazis and white supremacists running amok and killing people. Did you ever think you would see such a thing again in your lifetime?

No. I don’t know whether it’s just bad as it was then, but it isn’t good, let’s put it that way.

It is almost unbelievable. You were an eight-year-old Jewish child living across the street from Hitler. 

We knew of course that Hitler was a bad thing for us, we knew that, but we didn’t know that he was going to turn the world upside down and kill people by the millions.  We just didn’t know how quickly. One can’t anticipate a thing like that.

Many Germans thought that Hitler and the Nazis were a joke, a hot flash of sorts who would eventually go away. They thought nothing would come of it all because the Germans are a "good people". 

This is the sort of mistake that people like my father made. He couldn’t really believe that it would go like this so he didn’t do the right thing. He should have got out much sooner.

Was your father--who was a newspaper editor--just in denial about what was really happening with Hitler?

Yes I think they thought it would be a passing phase, something that would go away. It’s something that would happen and go again, something like that I think they thought. What is also most remarkable is that my uncle Lion was very much in Hitler’s sights because, of course, he had satirized him as the character Rupert Kutzner in the famous novel "Success". This angered Hitler enormously. But Hitler never realized that we ‑ my father, me, the closest relations to my uncle - were living right under his nose.

You are a distinguished historian. I was wondering, as with Trump in America right now, evil takes place a little bit at a time. But when you’re in the middle of it you can’t make sense of it sometimes. Was it like that for the Germans?

I think so. That somebody like Hitler could turn everything upside down seemed almost impossible to imagine.

Some historians and some of Hitler's contemporaries described him as a very forgettable and not very impressive man. Are they correct? Was that your impression?

No. I knew he was a dangerous man. He wasn’t good for us. Nothing good could come from him to us. We knew that too well I think. But we didn't realize that it could come as fast as it did.

What was it like when Hitler moved in across the street?

I felt it was odd. I didn’t think all that much of it. I had a nanny called Rosie who used to take me for a walk every day. Fresh air was good for me. We passed Hitler’s front door just when he came out, and that’s as close I saw him, and of course he didn’t know who we were, and he looked at me quite benevolently and that was it. But we were right in the middle of the whole thing.

You lived across the street from Hitler for almost ten years. What was his presence like?

I remember that he wore an ordinary hat, a trilby hat. The people in the street immediately shouted, “Heil Hitler,” but he just lifted his hat a little bit, got into his car --and it was one closed car--and of course later on, it was all quite different. There were always at least three cars which were filled up with his bodyguards. Eventually the SS bodyguards took over the flat at the bottom of his block and you could no longer walk on the pavement in front of his house. You had to stay on the opposite side of the road.  But it wasn’t so initially.

One of the ways that the Nazis transformed Germany society was through the schools.

My elementary school teacher was immediately a fanatical Nazi. One of my friends used to be very friendly with me and then he wasn’t anymore.

Did your friends turn on you and become violent?

No, they didn’t become violent. I was told in secondary school that I had to go and listen to all the Nazi speeches. I also had to do the Nazi salute, stretch out my arm and such. I learned that. You get tired of holding up your arm and you can gently let it down on the shoulder of the boy in front of you, that I did learn.

Did the children want to do the Nazi salutes and say the slogans because it made them feel like grownups?

Yes, I think they wanted to do it. The whole thing generated more and more enthusiasm, no doubt about it. People were impressed by Hitler, no doubt about that, especially after he took over Austria.

Do you remember anything on the radio or from the films? The Nazis were masters of propaganda.

The cinema was one of the main ways of entertainment. There were no computers, no computer screens, and in the cinema, there was always massive Nazi stuff. Goebbels of course was the great Nazi propagandist.

Did your parents not listen to the radio because it was propaganda? Maybe to insulate themselves and you from it? 

You had to listen to the radio. What else could you listen to? The radio was also for propaganda. They knew it was propaganda, but what else could they do? You can’t shut yourself off from everything.

You’re Jewish, you’re a "gypsy", you’re someone who is not "Aryan" and you’re hearing these things on the radio and in the cinema.  You know that doom is coming, but you still have to pay attention to survive.

The problem was that people like my father, who was a very cultivated man, and has lived all his life amongst the books and was himself very much part of German civilization, couldn’t imagine it would go like that. He failed to see it.

What was your father like?

He was a very nice and very gentle sort of man. He was much more, I would call it, emollient than my uncle. My father wasn’t a man to fight things tooth and nail.

There are so many different ways to be brave and to stand up to power in difficult circumstances.

Of course. I remember the Night of the Broken Glass, November 1938 when my father was taken away to Dachau, to the concentration camp. We didn’t know were we ever going to see him again and he wasn’t a really well man. My father had a stomach ulcer and he had a big operation in 1937 where part of his was stomach taken away. He was made to stand out in the cold for hours on end and if you fell over, the guards would just finish you off. I remember very clearly how he came back, he was in very bad shape.

Why did they release him? How did he get out of Dachau?

The whole purpose of this incarceration was to frighten certain people to get them to leave Germany. Their aim was to make Germany clean of Jews and this was the part of the game, the main object of the exercise.

Your family survived Night of the Broken Glass. Did your family sense it was coming? What did they do? Hide?

Well, they couldn’t hide. They were still in the flat and the Nazis came around. They took my father away. Then of course they took his whole library away. They came with large boxes and put the most valuable part of his library because he was a book collector and had many old books. The Nazis called it, “Making secure.”  I remember my mother had the courage to basically tell them they were stealing.

Germany was one if not the most educated country on Earth at the time. How could such intelligent and cosmopolitan people become so easily seduced by the Nazis and their hatred? 

Let’s say from a German point-of-view the country was defeated in the first world war. The Germans felt they were humiliated by the Treaty of Versailles and suddenly there was Hitler who reversed it all and made them top dogs again. That’s what convinced them.

What was it like to get the Order of Merit from the Federal Republic of Germany? I know it’s a new Germany, and supposedly a different Germany, but what was it like to get that medal? What were you thinking?

When I was given that medal it was on the 30th of January 2003 and that was exactly 70 years after the day on which Hitler came to power, and then I was back in the German embassy and being given that medal. I found that quite satisfactory in a way.

You got the last laugh in a way. History comes full circle.

It does all come around, doesn’t it? It all comes my way in the end.

Did you go back to your old neighborhood? I know so much of Germany was destroyed, but did you even think about going back to your old home or the neighborhood?

Always. Yes, I went back there. I went back to the room which was my father’s library and from which you could see Hitler’s house. Out of the window you could see how it had been turned into an office full of secretaries, and typists, and so on, and I said to them, “You know who lived down there, at that house down there?” They didn’t know.

When you told them who lived there, what did they say?

Amazed.

When you went back as an adult to that room how did it feel?

I think I would say I was quiet. The whole thing has completely changed.

Some memories are just crystal clear like seeing Hitler as a kid, you never forget that. What were some things that came back in your memory while writing the book that perhaps you didn’t want to talk about? Did you have any moments where you said to yourself, “Oh, my God. Now I remember!”

I remember the family who lived in the flat above us and who I knew really well. One of them was almost like a mother to me and I was sitting on her lap all the time, and her sister married a big industrialist in North Germany. He used people from the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. I don’t know how it came about, but I went back to him and suddenly he unleashed himself. He said things to me that he couldn’t say to other people  He was sort of excusing himself for why he was involved with all those horrible events. He said things like, “But Hitler seemed a very energetic man,” and that sort of thing. I didn’t ask him anything. I was quite taken aback at him. I wanted to hear it all, but he obviously felt that he must unburden himself to me.

Looking at the world today what worries or frightens you?

What scares me is that there’s so many people around who think they can contract out. It’s like they don’t care, they don’t mind, and those are the people who elect people like Hitler and Trump for that matter. I think people who think they can just forget about it, who think they can contract out of the fate of the world as it were, scare me.


Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a politics staff writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at Chaunceydevega.com. He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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