© 2024 NPR Illinois
The Capital's Community & News Service
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

She offers details of her mother's Holocaust memoir

Dachau gate
Susan Servais
Escape from Dachau
A new book details an escape from the German Holocaust-era work camp Dachau

Kathe Mueller Slonim wrote a memoir about her father’s escape from German work camp Dachau in 1938, but didn’t want it published until after her death. After she died in 2021, her three children worked to get that memoir printed.

Escape from Dachau: A True Story of Survival, Courage, and a Daring Escape in the Face of Unthinkable Evilwas released earlier this year by CSE Publishing.

Maureen McKinney recently interviewed Slonim’s daughter, Susan Servais, about the book. This is an edited, excerpted version of that conversation

If you could tell me why your mother didn't want to publish the story in her lifetime, because writing it must have been incredibly painful in the first place.

That is exactly why my brother, sister and I think she did not want to. First of all, you have to remember that not a word of what happened to my mom and my grandparents and their families during the Holocaust was ever spoken.

A young Kathe Mueller
Escape from Dachau
A young Kathe Mueller

It was a program called Return of the Lost citizens. My mom refused to go; she never wanted to step foot on German soil again. But in the year 2000, my brother, sister, and I thought it would be good closure for my mom to go.

So my mom wrote to the mayor of Stuttgart, where the invitation came from and said "I will go if I can bring my daughter and my 16 year old granddaughter, so that three generations can dance on Hitler's grave."

Now, of course, we know Hitler wasn't buried in Germany. But it was the philosophical thing that she was willing to go if three generations could go back and say "Here we are." So my mom took that trip.

And there were 20 survivors on that particular day, that particular trip. And as everyone else started telling their stories, and started telling what happened to them. All of a sudden, my mom opened up and was telling her memoir that I had never heard, that my family, my daughter, no one had heard. And when we got back to the United States, she wrote it down.

I understand why she wanted us not to do anything with it until she passed, because as you and I are speaking now, I have gotten a lot of requests from all over the world. To talk about this event, this memoir...what happened, it's very hard to continue to think about the details of what went on and what my grandfather and grandmother and my mom experienced. So I understand why she did not want to do that .

My grandfather refused to leave Germany. And by the time he woke up to what was really going on, they could not get out. But you have to remember that the Jews, over the centuries, were loyal and committed German citizens. They were not only doctors, lawyers, engineers and architects, but they contributed to art and music and technology. And you know, my grandfather served for Germany in World War I, as did most of my grandmother's brothers. And my grandmother and her sisters volunteered for the German Red Cross during World War I.

So my grandfather refused to believe that anything bad would happen to them because they were so committed and such loyal Germans. He had a successful manufacturing business that actually used the technology established in the U.S. by Henry Ford. He was very successful. He had a lot of friends. His customers loved him.

Once Hitler came to power in 1933, they started to leave. One of my grandmother's brothers came to the United States very early. Other brothers went to Luxembourg and Belgium. They got out of Germany, but my grandfather refused to leave.

"My grandfather did not survive the Holocaust. Even though he was alive." — Susan Servais, talking about her mother's memoir Escape from Dachau

In 1936, my mom was thrown out of her public school because Jews were no longer allowed to attend public school. And it was at that time, where the brown shirts started roaming the streets harassing and beating innocent Jews, putting swastikas on businesses and homes. And in 1938, they took my grandfather's business, his car, his home, everything.

And of course, now America had closed her doors to more Jewish immigrants. So Jews were desperately trying to go elsewhere — Argentina, Israel, other countries in Europe, wherever they could go. But it was very hard at that point to get out of Germany and they weren't allowed to leave.

Of course, on November 9, 1938, kristallnacht, when they started burning down Jewish synagogues and homes and businesses. And then the next day November 10, was when my grandfather was dragged out of his home and taken to Dachau.

The interesting thing about the family. My grandmother had a first cousin Immanuel Rosenfeld. He was a mathematician. He was really brilliant in banking and math. And he worked at the largest bank in Berlin, Reichsbank. Schacht was president of the Reichsbank. And he brought in my grandmother's first cousin, as the mathematician, the banker, the numbers guy, when Hitler took power in 1933, he took Schact from the Reichsbank to become his minister of finance and economics. And who did Schact bring with him – his numbers guy, Immanuel Rosenfeld.

And so Immanuel Rosenfeld, a Jew, cousin of my grandmother, actually worked in the government for the Third Reich for a very short period of time. Starting in 1934-1935, he saw what was happening to the Jews, Hitler's hatred and what was going on out there. And so he left his government position. He got scared. He changed his name to Max Immanuel and went into hiding.

Max Immanuel rescued Kathe Mueller Slonim's father from Dachau.
Escape from Dachau
Max Immanuel (Immanuel Rosenfeld) rescued Kathe Mueller Slonim's father from Dachau.

But he did one thing that was very smart. He did not get rid of his German government, Third Reich identification papers. He kept those papers. He applies to get out of Germany and, imagine this excruciating decision, because the day he got his papers to go to America, which was very rare at this point, he gets a call from my grandmother's brother saying that Adolf had been taken to Dachau, and he had to do something to get him out.

That is the basic part of the book, Escape from Dachau. Now he made this excruciating decision to risk his life, and in the middle of the night, drive the 500 kilometers from Berlin to Dachau to try to get his first cousin in-law out of the concentration camp. And it's important to remember, Dachau was the first concentration camp that all the other concentration camps were modeled after. It was started as a work camp for doctors, lawyers, engineers. These prisoners would be making the war machines.

They were making the different equipment for the war effort. But many prisoners died in Dachau. Yes, it was a work camp. It was not an extermination camp with gas chambers yet. But the way they were treated, many prisoners died.

And my grandfather recalled the situation where they were brought out naked in the snow in the winter and hosed off. And that was their showers and many prisoners died from freezing to death or the treatment that they got.

What motivated Immanuel to do this?

Human nature is so unpredictable. There are those that run and those that decide to be heroes, to get involved to do what needs to be done, over their own safety and life. And the one huge puzzle that I will always have about the Holocaust was the collaborators, the neighbors, the friends that turned in their Jewish friends. The people that did not help, that did not band together to say we are not going to tolerate this. This is outrageous. That is part of the answer to what you just asked what motivated Max Immanuel to risk his life to save a cousin in law?

He was brave. He was willing to make the sacrifice. And it's just you know, one of the things that is Escape from Dachau. The book pays tribute to people like him that showed true bravery, sacrifice and resilience. What an incredible man he was. What an incredible human being he was. That trip, which is documented in the book, had to be terrifying because there were checkpoints all along the way.

Now you have to think about who are these Nazi guards at a checkpoint at 1-2-3 in the morning? Young Nazi soldiers who were afraid to do anything wrong because they would be taken out in the back field and shot themselves. So when this Max Immanuel comes through the checkpoint, scared as can be, but mustering up as much bravery as he can, and he opens his window. He hands them these documents that on the cover show that he is a government official for the Third Reich. He was passed through.

And in fact, the interesting thing is no one bothered to open that packet because had they opened it, they would see that his name in the packet was Immanuel Rosenfeld, clearly a Jewish name. And that would have been the end of him. They would have thought he stole the papers or whatever. So he had to get through many checkpoints to get to Dachau. And it must have been terrifying. But he was willing to take that risk.

How did he actually get your grandfather?

So, he arrives at the gates of Dachau and is sort of surrounded by these Nazi guards. What are you doing here? What is your business here? And again, he shows his identification.

He says, "Bring me this Adolf Mueller," in a very strong voice, as strong as he can. Now they probably thought he was going to take this prisoner and just shoot him right then and there. And they went into the concentration camp and found my grandfather and brought him out.

Susan Servais' grandparents, Betty and Adolf Mueller.
Escape from Dachau
Susan Servais' grandparents, Betty and Adolf Mueller.

His cousin did not recognize him. At that point, he was emaciated. He actually said, "Is this the right Adolf Mueller? Did you bring me the right prisoner?"

"Oh, yes, this is Adolf Mueller."

Then he kind of looked in my grandfather's eyes and immediately noticed, this is Adolf Mueller. And he roughly put him in the car, backed out, and off they went. And basically, that's how he got him out. He just demanded that this prisoner be brought to him. He's a government official here on government business. And this prisoner has to be brought out. And it worked.

Can you tell me about the situation of your mother's family? She, her mother, and your grandfather? How did they get out of Germany?

So first, let me back up and tell you that when my grandfather was dragged off to Dachau, my grandmother brought my mom to the Catholic Church, and the Catholic Church hid my mother.

Max Immanuel knew where my mother was. The Catholic Church — the Sisters of St. Joseph — they taught these Jewish children all of the prayers, all of the liturgy, and the Nazis would come into these Catholic churches, and they would line all the kids up, Jewish and not Jewish. They would question them. The Jewish kids knew as much as the Catholic kids. Then (Nazis) would leave. So my mom was hidden by the Catholic Church.

But we know that they drove from Dachau to Stuttgart, got my grandmother, got my mom and drove immediately to Luxembourg, where my grandmother's brother had been living for many years. And that is how they got out of Germany.

In fact, a number of years later, the head of the Sisters of St. Joseph, that priest, was actually executed by the Nazis, and no reason was given. Documentation doesn't say why, but I think we know why – because he was hiding Jewish children.

Many survivors of the Holocaust went to their new countries wherever they landed and they did very well. My grandfather never really survived. My memory of my grandfather is him staring out the living room window, smoking his cigar. I don't remember him ever smiling. I don't remember him ever talking, rarely speaking. They say that it has to do with what age they were when they went through this. Younger people were more resilient and, when they got out, they did okay.

My grandfather did not survive the Holocaust. Even though he was alive. He seemed to me as a child to be very sad and distraught over what happened to him. His sister, and her husband and their children, were sent to Auschwitz and perished. They were executed in Auschwitz. So he lost other members of his family. He didn't speak of it.

That is, like many survivors. It's too terrible to talk about.

Exactly. That's right. I know that my grandmother spoke to her brother. When they got to America, or (when) leaving, she explained things to my mom about what was going on and what was happening. Why they were leaving their homeland. Why all of their friends and neighbors had disappeared. But my grandfather never spoke a word.

Maureen Foertsch McKinney is news editor and equity and justice beat reporter for NPR Illinois, where she has been on the staff since 2014 after Illinois Issues magazine’s merger with the station. She joined the magazine’s staff in 1998 as projects editor and became managing editor in 2003. Prior to coming to the University of Illinois Springfield, she was an education reporter and copy editor at three local newspapers, including the suburban Chicago Daily Herald, She has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Eastern Illinois University and a master’s degree in English from UIS.
Related Stories