After Adolf Hitler came to power and began his reign of terror, Helga Jonas’s father found it hard to believe that his family would ever be caught up in Hitler’s genocidal war against Jews. After all, hadn’t Martin Jonas been a loyal German, fighting for his country in World War I?
But that mattered little to Hitler, himself a World War I veteran. The Jonases were Jews and therefore destined for a concentration camp. Jonas, a Berlin businessman, tried without success to find a country that would accept the family.
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Still, Helga says, “We felt protected as Germans. I grew up among Jews and non-Jews, attending public schools. I remember seeing many Nazi parades, and one where I saw Hitler standing in his Mercedes, the people lining the streets in adoration, saluting and shouting, ‘Sieg Heil.’ But when I was in about seventh grade, I had to leave public school. In the middle of class they pulled us out.”
Oppression grew. “I saw synagogues burning. The Jewish-owned pharmacy across the street was vandalized and shelves were being overturned. I remember peeking through the Venetian blinds. This was the beginning of Kristallnacht.”
Under Nazi law, Helga recalled, “We were not allowed to go to public schools, parks, pools or the movies. We played marbles in the street, hop-scotch and we had scooters. People were taken away and didn’t come back. We were not aware of the concentration camps at that time.”
“Everybody tried to get out. Most countries didn’t want you if you couldn’t prove that you wouldn’t be a burden,” she said. But as Jews, the Jonas family funds were frozen. They were trapped. The U.S. was one of the worst offenders in not accepting Jewish refugees and, despite urging, refused to bomb railways leading to death camps on grounds that the military needed to concentrate on winning the war, according to history books.
Helga Carden, her married name, is among 11 Santa Barbara area Holcocaust survivors who tell their stories in a film to be shown by the Santa Barbara International Film Festival on Saturday at 7 p.m. at the Marjorie Luke Theater. The title: We Played Marbles: Remembering a Stolen Childhood. Louise Palanker and Jennifer A. Reinish are credited as directors..
By a stroke of luck, on short notice, Helga was saved from the camps by the now-famed Kindertransport program. Between November, 1938, and the fall of 1939, when war broke out, about 10,000 children from Germany, Austria and other countries were given sanctuary in England. Helga’s father was ailing with a heart condition stemming from the war. “I knew I would never see my father again,” she said. “I was 13.”
Helga boarded a train with about 200 other children and arrived in Holland, not yet overrun by the German army. There, “We knew we were safe.” Once in England, Helga went to live with a Jewish family near London, where she remained until she was 17 and left to attend nursing school in London. She occasionally got a 25-word form letter from her parents. The last one, in 1944, was from her mother, Emma. It said that Helga’s father had died and that she was going to “go away.” That, Helga knew, meant that she was ordered to a concentration camp.
Martin Jonas had been taken to a pre-concentration camp collection center, where he died from lack of proper medical care, Helga said. Emma was shipped to the Theresienstadt concentration camp as a slave laborer and put to work in a factory, when many died of disease, Helga learned. “The Red Cross visited to inspect but they only saw what (camp officials) wanted them to see,” Helga said. But Emma lived until the camp was liberated by the Russians. “She said she survived because she wanted to see me again.” While in nursing training, Helga was living in a hospital dormitory, sleeping on a mattress and holding her breath each time a German buzz bomb’s rocket engine would cut out, meaning that it was about to plunge into the city, somewhere.
Helga pretended to be English due to wartime hostility toward the Germans. She said she learned to speak flawless English. (Now her voice has reverted to a German accent.)
It took nearly two years after the end of the war before mother and daughter were reunited in England, after eight years of separation. Emma arrived with no money and spoke no English, but found work as a companion, then bought a highly prized sewing machine and went into business mending clothing and bedding for Londoners.
Postwar London was down and out, while Berlin was regaining its cosmopolitan flair, Helga said. “Defeated Berlin recovered a lot faster than victorious London,” she noted. Times were difficult in the post-war London, due to rationing and a severe housing shortage, Helga said.
Her love of skiing led her to Canada, where she found life a lot easier than in dowdy London. “After three winters, I’d had enough and headed for Los Angeles,” she said. While on a skiing trip to Mammoth, she met John Carden and they married in 1971. She eventually trained to become an anesthetist at a Los Angeles hospital. There, the girl who’d fled Hitler “made a very good living.” She and her late husband moved to Santa Barbara in the 1980s. Her mother died in L.A. in 1971.
We sat on the sunny deck of her Riviera home and sipped wine. Does she harbor hatred toward Hitler and his followers? She shook her head. “It was all too long ago. Hatred doesn’t do you any good. It does you more harm than anything else. Tolerance is so important, as to religion, color and so on. My best friend here is a non-Jewish German.”
On the other hand, she disagrees with those who urge to “let it go.”
“But we don’t want to let it go. We don’t want to have it happen again.” She and other docents lead student tours of the Portraits of Survival photos of Holocaust survivors at the Jewish Federation of Greater Santa Barbara, located 524 Chapala St. You can arrange tours by calling 957-1115.
“These stories of real people will be used to teach students for generations to come about the most horrible consequences of bullying, prejudice and bigotry,” Santa Barbara schools superintendent Brian Sarvis said of the film. “They are a testament to the human spirit and honor the memory of the millions who did not survive.”
The documentary includes a photo of Helga taken when she was about two, in a checkered dress, smiling at the camera.