NEW ROCHELLE, N.Y. -- New Rochelle resident Bettina Graf will be spending Holocaust Remembrance Day on Thursday talking to students at Solomon Schechter School in White Plains.
As part of the White Plains-based Holocaust & Human Rights Education Center's Speaker's Bureau, she said talking to students is of utmost importance.
"We are the last generation they will ever see," she said. "After that, it is strictly from the textbook."
And so she talks, telling about her life and how, at age 11, everything drastically changed.
She was born in Vienna, Austria, in 1927 to a wealthy family. She remembers evenings gathered around the radio where the family would listen to news and shows. But on March 12, 1938, the news was ominous: German troops had marched across the border and had entered Austria.
Very quickly, bad things started happening. Her father's business was taken over -- he went to work one morning, and found the Gestapo at his desk telling them they were now in charge. Swastikas went up everywhere and tight restrictions were forced on Jews.
Graf remembers her mother picking her up at school one day and them walking and walking for hours, too fearful to go home.
"I wanted to go to the park and sit down like we used to do," said Graf, "But we couldn't. There were signs on every bench that said 'No Jews Allowed,' and that's when it really hit me. I loved the park. I loved to meet my friends there and play ball and have fun."
She also experienced "Kristallnacht,"which took place on November 9 and 10, 1938 when the Nazis burned synagogues, vandalized Jewish homes and businesses and the first mass arrest of Jewish men and boys took place. Graf had been in school but was subsequently thrown out.
Graf's father went into hiding -- he was a redhead so had felt safe walking about -- and worked very hard on getting the family exit visas to leave. Both her parents had relatives living in England and the U.S. and they were trying desperately to get affidavits and visas so they could go there.
After a year and a half of Nazi occupation, Graf's family was finally able to obtain passage on the last ship that left from Belgium to England, though there was much drama before then with her mother and sister getting arrested and thankfully released.
They lived in London during part of the intensive German bombing known as the "blitz" until September 1940. Graf remembers their tiny apartment on Adelaide Road in London that was infested with mice, and later, a nicer flat on Golder's Green Road. She also remembers the "smelly masks" they had to wear when bombs came raining down.
When they finally got passage on a ship bound for America, it was torpedoed by the Nazis (no one was hurt), then sent back to London.
They boarded again when the ship was repaired and came to New York where they were greeted by relatives they had never met.
Graf still remembers the lecture she got by one cousin on chewing gum and Kleenex which didn't exist in Austria.
From then on, all she wanted to be was "an American girl," she said. "I was so tired of being shipped around from place to place," she said. She got penny loafers and a beanie and started her American journey with public school.
The irony here is that her English was very poor and so she was petrified to speak in public. "I was scared of a lot of things," she said. "I was scared of the police, I was scared when the doorbell would ring, I always thought someone was coming to arrest me or my family," she said.
Now, however, her voice, though accented, is strong and clear. Her biggest message, especially to children is to take the hand of the child next to you. "I tell them, 'That hand feels just like yours does. No matter the color of someone's skin or their religion, that child gets cold or feels scared or happy just like you do. When you grow up, you must think about those similar hands and realize you must respect everyone because we are all God's children.'"
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