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In early February, Marga Griesbach took a fall as she was packing for a cruise. In her home in Silverdale, Washington, across the sound from Seattle and the Kirkland nursing home in which COVID-19 was then silently spreading, the 92-year-old twisted too quickly while reaching for some T-shirts. As she fell, she felt her ribs crack and, for a split second, could not breathe.
Though the pain was tremendous, Marga was determined not to let anything keep her from the cruise that was to take her, along with her longtime German companion, Dieter, and next-door neighbor Selma, around southern Australia, New Zealand, and Hawaii through early May.
So she just kept filling her suitcase.
On the 15-hour flight from Vancouver to Auckland, Marga passed out as she was exiting the bathroom. When she deplaned in Auckland, she was greeted by a welcoming committee: airline employees who told her she could not fly on to Brisbane, where she was to board the boat, without first getting checked out at a hospital.
At a local hospital, she received a battery of tests, though not one for the coronavirus; it would be another nine days before New Zealand reported its first case. The doctors proclaimed that her blood work showed no reason that she couldn’t fly on. But when she returned to the airport, she was told by an airline representative that her sodium levels were still too low to make the trip. She was put in a hotel, and the next day taken back to the emergency room, where the same tests were performed; again, the doctor said she was fit to fly; again the airline representatives told her she couldn’t board the plane. For a third morning, she received the same battery of tests, which she passed, and was told by airport staff for a third straight day that she could not board.
In those late-February days in Auckland, stymied by authorities working at cross-purposes, unable to exert control over her situation, Marga experienced a bad bout of PTSD. She knew rationally that she wasn’t a prisoner, that she was free to come and go from the hotel in which she’d been housed between ER visits, but the feeling of being trapped in a country she wasn’t permitted to leave was chillingly familiar.
Marga Steinhardt was born in Witzenhausen, a town in central Germany, in 1927, five years before Adolf Hitler came to power. I met her in November 2019, when we spoke for hours in the Brooklyn living room of her daughter, whom she was visiting. As we’d parted, I’d asked if I might visit her in Washington in the spring to talk more, but she’d waved me off: She’d be on a lengthy cruise, she told me. If I wanted to come later in the year, when the weather was better, I’d be welcome; “That’s if,” she said, laughing, “I’m still alive.”
The Steinhardts lived on the Marktplatz of Witzenhausen, and Marga said she can remember looking out the window as a very little kid and watching Nazis and Communists “beating each other bloody” until her parents told her to come away. The only Jewish child in her class, she was forced to sit in a corner, but, she said, she wasn’t bothered by the isolation. “You just adapted to it.”
Therese, Marga’s mother, who was from a tiny village near Witzenhausen, had worked as a bookkeeper in the nearby city of Kassel, where she had fallen in love with a man who was later killed in World War I. She was, Marga told me, “a big Zionist” and remained religious into adulthood. Marga’s father, Max, had “forsworn all religions” as a boy, Marga said, having watched his own father, a Talmudic scholar, leave his mother to support the family while he immersed himself in religious texts. In the Steinhardt home, there was compromise: Therese insisted the family keep kosher at home, but she did not light Shabbos candles on Friday nights.
When she was young, Marga and her father often spent time together. A former interior decorator, Max had designed store windows all over Europe, including France and Switzerland. But after losing almost all of his hearing in World War 1, he had been forced to change professions, selling equipment to home butchers in neighboring towns. Marga would accompany Max on some of his work trips. “Sometimes we walked for hours to get to a village,” she said, “and he’d try to convince me to eat not-kosher salami, and I’d refuse. Then I’d rat on him, tell my mother.” Marga recalled a day when she told her father she wanted to be a librarian because she loved books and he shook his head: “ ‘You’re going to be a mathematician or a physicist!’ ” he’d crowed; she had been so good with numbers.
When she spoke of this memory, she paused and said: “In the end, I was nothing. I didn’t even finish school.”
Before his hearing loss, Max had had a musical ear; he loved opera and had picked up some French in his travels. But he resisted fleeing to either France or Palestine, arguing that the family would not find safety in either place. Max was also ambivalent about the United States, where some of the Steinhardts’ family had already resettled, because he spoke no English and couldn’t hear well enough to learn it. “He was very afraid about how he’d make a living if he couldn’t understand anybody,” said Marga. As circumstances worsened, Max relented and applied for a U.S. visa in the late ’30s. The Steinhardts were the 27,900th on the waiting list.
“I remember overhearing talk between my parents, and my father said, ‘You worry too much. It’s not going to get that bad. Hitler talks a lot. The world will not tolerate for Hitler to do what he’s saying he’s going to do.’ He just couldn’t believe it. Even later, when we were already deported, he would not accept that there were mass killings. He’d say, ‘Have you seen it? Can you prove it?’ ”
In 1937, an offer came: Marga could be adopted by a family in Hawaii. “They said, ‘It’s up to you, but then you’ll be their child.’ ”
“I was already 10,” said Marga. “So I said, ‘No, I’m not going to be adopted.’ ”
in the early evening of November 8, 1938, Marga and her brother, Alfred, five years her junior, were playing in the backyard of a Jewish friend when Therese arrived to collect them. “ ‘Something’s going to happen tonight,’ ” Therese said. “ ‘You and your brother have to come home.’ ” As they followed, Marga noticed that their landlord, who usually kept the lights dark in the evening, had left them on — a signal, she presumed, that there were Jews living there. The family barricaded themselves inside Max and Therese’s bedroom, a chest pushed against the door.
When Marga left for school the next day, she saw torn prayer books in the market square. As she walked on, she saw people gathered in front of the synagogue. “As I came down, a couple of people upstairs threw a piano through the window from the Jewish teacher’s apartment.” Then she saw the synagogue itself. “The front door was open, some pews had been pulled out and were smashed; every place prayer books, prayer shawls. I was petrified. Then somebody saw me and yelled, ‘A Jew girl!’ A couple of them started running after me. I turned around and ran to get home.”
That afternoon, Marga, who described herself as “a very curious child,” walked back to the synagogue and went in through the women’s entrance, then into the genizah, the area where the congregation kept old books that, according to the Jewish faith, could not be destroyed because they might contain the name of God. Marga looked at all the religious texts and schoolbooks going back decades. “I was only 11 years old,” she said, “and it just hit me how old the Jewish congregation was and that there was no future.” That night, as the violent Kristallnacht pogroms swept Europe, the Witzenhausen synagogue was burned to the ground.
In the fall of 1941, the Steinhardts received their yellow stars and were informed that they were being relocated to Latvia. Everyone had been instructed to pack a large suitcase, a carrying case, and a knapsack. “We never saw the suitcases again,” she said. When the train stopped in Riga, the Jews were told their hand luggage would be brought to them once they’d settled into the ghetto. “That’s the first we heard that we were going to be in a ghetto.”
The ghetto they were going to be in had most recently been home to tens of thousands of Latvian Jews, who themselves had been relocated there earlier that fall. In the days before the arrival of the German Jews, around 30,000 of the Latvian Jews who’d been living there had been taken into the nearby Rumbula Forest and shot.
The Steinhardts’ group began a long, silent march from the station through deep snow in the early-morning hours of December 11. “We suddenly came to this barbed wire, very high, double row,” Marga said. “Men with machine guns were marching up and down along this. There was a big gate, and ahead of us, the whole street as far as you could see, it was red ice. And still nobody said a word.”
The Steinhardts were directed to a narrow room along with 16 other people. Inside, they found a set table, forks still in potatoes, a now-frozen tableau of the meal that had been in progress when its eaters had been ordered to walk into the woods. “I said to my mother, ‘Did you see the blood?’ She said, ‘I hoped you hadn’t noticed.’ ”
Some members of the Steinhardts’ transport would go on to pillage the belongings of the ghetto’s former residents, illegally bartering the clothing and shoes they found for more food. “Except for my stupid family,” Marga said. “We didn’t take anything; we had not totally realized what was going on.”
The relocated Jews shared a communal kitchen, subsisting on ever-thinner soups. In January, they began receiving small portions of rotten potatoes, fish heads, and, in spring, rhubarb leaves. Adults were put to work, and Therese’s job was in the kitchen; she could bring some potato peels home. Later, when she baked rolls, she was allowed to shake out flour sacks and take that flour home.
That first spring in Riga, observant Jews gained permission to celebrate Passover. “They got some flour. They baked matzo,” Marga remembered. Just as miraculous to Marga was that her father, who’d spent his life rejecting religion, led the community’s seder. “He knew it all by heart, and he sang beautifully,” she remembered. There were other glimpses of normalcy: Someone in the ghetto had a record player, and a handful of musicians, Latvian Jews who’d survived the massacres, occasionally put on chamber music concerts. In her memory, there were teens who met up in an empty house, ate black-market candy, and danced. Marga didn’t approve at the time. “Maybe I judged them too severely.”
The SS regularly held Appells in which everyone in the ghetto was forced to stand in the street and sometimes were selected for transport. In March 1942, families in which fewer than half their members were working had to step forward; more than 2,000 were selected, told they were being sent to clean fish; they were instead driven by truck into the forest and shot. Marga, though she was still technically in eighth grade and attending the school that had opened in the ghetto, figured that the next selection would cull families in which fewer than 75 percent were working, so she asked to be given a job and was soon washing windows in an industrial laundromat. There, she ate better. “We had wonderful soup at lunch every day and some of the old Latvian women took pity on me — I was very skinny, not 15 yet. I would get half of their sandwich; it was paradise.”
One morning in November 1943, Marga heard people whispering that something big was about to happen. By then, she was working at the army clothing depot, outside the ghetto, and at work, she and a small group snuck away to find out what was going on. They saw trucks of people being taken out of the ghetto and worried they were going to be killed. That evening, as the workers were being driven back to the ghetto, their bus driver turned from the usual route toward a forest where Marga knew Jews were often shot. She briefly believed that she and her group were being taken to be killed — “I tell you, that feeling … you don’t even think anymore; you just turn to stone.” They weren’t, but when her truck returned that night, she found the ghetto empty. Her parents and Alfred were not in their dwelling; everything was dark. “I thought, Well, they’re gone. They’re gone.” Marga searched, checking in with the few others who’d been left. On the verge of giving up, she saw three people walking toward her across a square. It was her parents and brother. “We were the only intact family left.”
In that moment, she said, she felt “a great warmth.” During their years in the ghetto, she and her father “were not the best of friends,” she said. “I blamed him in a way for us still being there.” Plus, she said, “I was a teenager. We were rubbing each other the wrong way, living in close proximity.”
The night their family was spared selection, they raided the belongings of their former neighbors, whom they would later learn had been sent to Auschwitz. “We opened the suitcases because we had nothing,” she said. “That was when we finally robbed the dead. We had learned.”
Marga turned 17 on August 5, 1944, in Riga. The next day, at five in the morning, the Steinhardts were brought with the rest of the remaining inhabitants into a courtyard. The Soviet army was drawing so close that they could hear the cannons, she said, and the Jews had recently had their heads shaved.
“Our name was called,” Marga said. The Steinhardts were sent to Stutthof, a small concentration camp originally built in 1939 to house Polish prisoners but expanded in 1943 to include a gas chamber.
Marga and her mother were marched past a pile of shoes and into a women’s barrack that was filled with Lithuanians. The bunk beds, stacked up in three tiers, were already filled. “So we all spread out on the floor,” Marga said, “practically one on top of the other.” There was a washroom attached to the barracks, but it was tiny and, Marga said, had already been claimed as territory by the Lithuanian prisoners; everyone else used a pit outside. It was the filth that haunted her. They weren’t allowed outside the barracks at night but were desperate to relieve themselves and tried to make their way to the pit. Sometimes they couldn’t hold it and would defecate on those lying on the floor. “You can’t erase that,” she said. “It was just awful.”
“A lot of people were extremely hungry,” said Marga. Breakfast was “brown liquid” that barely resembled coffee and sometimes a hunk of bread. A vat of thin soup would be brought out around 11, then sit for hours before being served. One day, a woman ran up to the vat and tried to help herself early. The guards grabbed her.
“She was filthy, as we all were,” said Marga. “Full of lice, fleas, dirt, and also — we couldn’t keep ourselves clean, so — dry defecation on her body. And they just threw her in the soup and kept her in there for, I would guess, 20 minutes.” When guards finally lifted the woman from the pot and began ladling out the broth, people lined up to get some. “I just couldn’t. From that time on, I was unable to even get my bread down. It was constantly as if my throat was closed.”
During the days, the prisoners sat silently in sand teeming with lice and fleas. “We just had nothing to say anymore and pretty much just sat there like dummies.” One day, Therese was idly scraping with her fingers when she felt something. She dug out a lipstick and kept it, said Marga, noting that they held tight to the smallest of belongings.
In September 1944, there was a selection of women in which the youngest were culled. Marga and a few other girls impulsively ran, hiding in the barracks. “I slipped under a straw sack. Guards ran after us, looked around, gave up, walked back, and let us be.” None of the young women were sent from Stutthof that day. But on the men’s side, 600 boys were readied for transport. Marga’s brother Alfred, then 11, was among them.
That night, Marga asked an SS guard if she could speak to her brother at the fence. “I asked him if he still knew the address of our American relatives,” Marga remembered — on 75th Street in Ozone Park and on Gerard Avenue in the Bronx, Marga still knew, 75 years later. Alfred patted his pocket, reassuring her that it was all there.
The next morning, he and the other 600 boys from Stutthoff were taken to Auschwitz and, there, straight to the gas chambers.
In late September, the SS told prisoners they were seeking volunteers to work on a job outside the camp. “I said to my mother, ‘Let’s try to be sent away to work.’ Because I can’t go on here.’ ” Therese worried that her daughter’s emaciated frame would keep her from being chosen for the job. “She put the lipstick on my cheeks,” Marga said, “and some on her cheeks, to make her look younger, and make me look older and healthier.”
Marga approached the SS guard, who asked how old she was. She lied and said 19. He replied that she didn’t look over 15. “I said, ‘Look, I haven’t had enough to eat since we were sent away in 1941, so of course I didn’t grow as I would have otherwise.’ He could have shot me for that.” But he didn’t. He told Marga she could join the work group. Therese, too, was allowed to join the group of workers.
The next day, guards told them to undress and prepare for showers. “When we heard that,” said Marga, “nobody said a word anymore.” They had heard of the “showers” that were death chambers. When they were guided to a large room, she said, “we were barely breathing.” But there were shower heads on the walls, and water came out of them.
Dressed in new striped uniforms and wooden-soled shoes, the 300 women were marched out through the camp early the next morning. Marga remembers it: “As we were walking through the gate and into the men’s camp, I saw a man in a yellow jacket. There was nobody else around but this one person. As we came closer, I recognized it was my father.”
She ran over to him. “I yelled into his ear, ‘We are being sent to Bromberg!’ I figured at least that way he knows where we are.” She hugged him and quickly rejoined the march.
In 2007, Marga received a call about a crematorium in Reutlingen, Germany, where employees had kept detailed records of the 127 bodies that had been sent there for incineration. Her father’s had been among them. Max had been taken in November 1944 to the Hailfingen labor camp. The day he arrived, he had bent over to pick up a pile of sugar beets and been shot dead.
Marga and Therese spent the fall repairing the railroad tracks in Poland: swinging a pickax, laying rails and ties. In January, guards began gathering prisoners outside. Among them were some high-spirited Hungarian girls who’d been sent to camps only in May 1944. “They were very new to it,” said Marga. “They were lively; they were argumentative. The rest of us, we had been cowed. We were quiet.” One of the Hungarian girls had been pregnant when she’d been deported, and Marga had been stunned by how the SS women had made a fuss over her newborn girl, dressing her up and carrying her around. “We’d thought they would just kill the baby right away or send the mother back to Stutthof,” she said. “But no.”
The baby and her mother were among the prisoners who were sent, along with Marga and Therese, on a forced march between camps through a frigid European winter. As they walked, civilians ran alongside them; the Russians were coming and residents were fleeing. At first, the SS women took turns carrying the infant, but by the end of the first day, one of the SS women simply deposited the baby in a snowbank on the side of the road. The mother screamed, said Marga, but “it didn’t do any good. That was it. The SS women were tired of carrying it.”
This single moment hit her sharply. “I didn’t have very many human emotions left,” she said. “But all the while we were going along, I hoped somebody saw that baby and picked it up. I hoped maybe one of the other refugees trying to escape noticed it. It was still light out. Even long after, I sometimes think back on whether that baby is alive someplace, not knowing where it came from.”
On another day, Marga heard English along their route and broke with the march to approach the speakers, asking in broken English for bread. She was handed biscuits, and when she brought them to share with Therese, she noticed that the SS guards had moved on without them. A small group of prisoners had been left behind. Some settled in to sleep in an empty stable, but there was shooting in the night. When Marga walked out of the building, she saw a dead man holding a package of raw sauerkraut, man and cabbage frozen solid. “I went over and picked up the sauerkraut.”
That night, the women were sleeping in the stable when more shots were fired. “The stable door opens up and there’re two guys in German uniform demanding to know who was there.” One of the women answered in perfect German that they were refugees who’d taken shelter. The soldiers conferred in Latvian. “Then the tragedy happened,” Marga said. “We had one stupid Latvian woman in that stable, and she got so excited when she heard Latvian that she started talking, told them that we were Jews.” The Latvian SS reported the group. They were back to marching through the snow.
A few nights later, under a pitch-black sky, Therese, whose frozen feet had been hurting her terribly, stopped walking and told her daughter that the pain was too much. “I can’t go on,” Therese said. “I’m going to stop.” Marga pleaded with her mother but to no avail.
Marga made a choice. “I don’t know what got into me,” she said. “I just started pulling her to the side. We got off the road. There was a little structure, a cover for a pump. Nobody saw us go. The group marched on, still probably about 30 or 40 women. And there we were.”
They were in the middle of the German countryside. It was January 30, 1945. Somewhere in the U.S., Therese’s mother, Emma, who had fled to New York in 1939, was marking her 70th birthday.
Marga saw a house and decided their only option was to ask for shelter from the night. They found the one-room home filled with people. One was the woman who lived there, in bed with a German soldier. In another bed were her five children. On the floor were a couple of White Russians now fleeing the Soviet army; another woman introduced herself as a refugee. Marga and Therese said that they, too, were refugees, then settled onto the floor, lying awake in terrified silence.
It had been back in Riga that Marga, who as a child had been deeply religious, said that she had lost her faith in God on a night her mother had come back from work looking ashen. Therese had been assigned to clean up a former Jewish children’s hospital the SS was converting into a military facility. She had had to scrape the walls of the dried brains of babies and children, formerly invalids at the hospital, whose heads had been dashed against them.
But on her grandmother’s 70th birthday, lying on a floor with her mother in a room with a Nazi soldier, Marga found herself praying in Hebrew. “I didn’t know what to do,” she said. “You’ve got to remember that although I was 17, I’d never had to do any planning for myself. As a child, I was sent to school, then the ghetto, then the camps. You just did what other people said. You had no choices to make. I didn’t know how people who lived freely in a society functioned.” What Marga was hoping was that Therese would know what to do. But when she woke and told Marga that she was going to tell the truth, then turn themselves in to the police, Marga objected. Therese was firm: “She said, ‘It hurts like you have no idea.’ ”
“I couldn’t stop her,” she said. “She got up as it got light and said, ‘We lied to you last night. We’re not refugees. We are escaped prisoners. We are Jewish. We are going to the police and going to give ourselves up.’ ”
The people in the room, Marga said, remained silent as she and Therese walked out the door. Excruciatingly slowly, they shuffled toward what they thought was town, looking for the police station and asking at doors for bread and clothes with which they could replace the garments that identified them as Jews. Therese’s complaints about her pain had begun to slow, which Marga found strange but also a relief. When one woman permitted them a bed for the night, Therese took her shoes off for the first time in days. Her toes and one of her feet had turned black from frostbite. She was no longer complaining of pain because she could no longer feel her feet. Posing as refugees, Marga took her mother to a military hospital, where Therese would have her toes, portions of her heel and a piece of her right foot amputated. Marga, pretending to be a Polish refugee, found shelter with a local family.
At the start of March 1945, the Russians were close and the German military was evacuating the hospital, taking patients into freight cars. Marga went to the railroad tracks, searching the cars that were being loaded for Therese. On one car was printed kassel, the name of the town where a young Therese had once loved another man who’d died in another war. Marga was sure that that’s where her mother was, and when she climbed aboard, she found her. “She was so happy to see me,” Marga remembered. “She thought she had lost me.”
The train moved west, and when they stopped in another German town, Therese was readmitted to another hospital. Marga went to an employment office, again presenting herself as a Polish refugee. She found work as a maid, living with a family that owned a pharmacy downstairs.
“Boy, were they Nazis,” Marga said of that family. “They had a bust of Hitler, a copy of Mein Kampf, a copy of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.” The woman of the house, Marga said, “hated Jews like anything.” When the woman told Marga that “Jews smelled so badly that they’re recognizable from ten meters away,” Marga said she was grinning inside, thinking, You must be smelling me.
The Nazi pharmacist eventually also took in Therese, as well as some German soldiers who had orders to drive west to fight the approaching Americans. Out of gasoline, the German army was using wood alcohol to power their trucks. Marga asked if the soldier could take her and Therese with him, and he agreed. “There were concentration-camp prisoners being marched along the road and lots of dead bodies,” said Marga. “It was just this mass of humanity. People had horse buggies, they had motorbikes and bicycles. They were on foot. We were moving very, very slowly” Somewhere along the way, the German soldiers began to drink the poisonous wood alcohol they were supposed to be using as fuel.
When they stopped for the night, Marga heard the soldiers planning to take their weapons, fire everything they had at the Russians, then capitulate to the Americans. “They said, ‘The Americans, the English and the Germans, we are all going to unite to fight the Russians.’ ” Marga, unimpressed by the plan, felt she needed to get herself and Therese away. She hauled her mother and their belongings to the side of the road and ran up, past slow-moving traffic, to find another ride.
When she found a buggy with an extra seat, Marga ran back to fetch Therese, but found her looking stricken. Two SS men were next to her, one with a revolver hanging on his finger. As Marga approached, Therese cut her eyes sideways, gesturing to her that she should stay away. Marga ignored her. Therese hissed that the SS soldier was named Max Steinhardt. “He recognizes me but cannot yet place me; hurry, get us out of here.” Steinhardt, it turned out, had been an SS officer in the Riga ghetto for whom Therese had worked. He had hated her especially because he shared a full name with Therese’s husband and loathed the idea that his moniker could have been Jewish. All this time later, this was the man standing over Therese holding a revolver. Marga grabbed her mother and lugged her toward the buggy.
It was the 2nd of May and she was witnessing the end of the war in Germany. When she saw her first American soldiers, they were watching as a German general and his officers, about to be taken prisoner, tried to extract a horse and buggy from a muddy path. Marga listened as one of the Americans said, in perfect German, “You thought you could win the war; you can’t even get your old cart out of the dirt.”
On the day that Germany surrendered, Marga managed to secure a hospital bed for her mother, whose feet were badly infected after the amputation. Marga said she was sure she would never be unhappy again. “I was 17,” she said. “And I had managed to save my mother’s life.”
Marga and Therese settled for two and a half years in Lübeck, a German town where a community of survivors gathered. “Life didn’t start there,” said Marga. It paused. “I always had the feeling that the German earth was soaked with Jewish blood,” she said.
In 1947, Therese’s brother arranged for Marga and Therese to travel to Sweden; they spent eight months in Stockholm, but “it was still a transition. Life didn’t start there either, really.”
It started, she said, in 1948, “when I came to the United States, leaving from Stockholm the day after my 21st birthday.” Marga and Therese put down deposits to secure their tickets; Marga had saved some money from working in Stockholm, but most was borrowed from family members and they arrived in debt. When they got to New York, she said, “minimum wage was 40 cents an hour and a subway ride had just gone up to ten cents.”
Marga settled in the East Bronx, Therese not far from her. Therese worked as a paid companion — “really a housekeeper” — and Marga got a job packing hairnets for the Henry K. Jacobi Company on West 22nd Street in Manhattan. “We lived on a hot dog at night, a cone of ice cream, sometimes a luxury meal at a cafeteria: a nice cup of soup and slice of dark bread and a cup of coffee for 35 cents.” She briefly went to school at night, but then got promoted and didn’t have time anymore. “I never had that education I always dreamed about.”
When Marga was 23, she fell for a handsome man named Henry, whom she met at the Henry K. Jacobi Company, which his brother-in-law owned. Henry was Polish, something of a playboy, and had spent the war in France, where he’d served in the Polish army. Henry had been taken prisoner, and while, as a Jew, he would have ordinarily been taken straight to a concentration camp, the fact that he’d had an affair with his commandant’s wife somehow ensured him passage to a POW camp instead.
“He was something, that one,” Marga said, smiling. “It wasn’t his fault; he had so much charm.” The wife he still had in France was an obstacle to their relationship. So was the fact that he began traveling for work. “He started straying, it was quite clear,” she said. “And I wasn’t going to put up with it. So I decided I was going to look for somebody else.”
Marga tried the Catskills: “Nothing.” Eventually, it was Henry who — realizing his own limitations as a committed partner — put her in touch with a woman who was making matches.
The first setup, Marga said, was “a fiasco: The music he played, I couldn’t stand. He wanted to dance, I don’t like dancing. We didn’t go to a good restaurant, he went to some lousy place. He wasn’t interested in me, I wasn’t interested in him.” She told Henry that the yenta should stop giving out her number. Then she got a call from “an engineer who liked classical music and reading.” His voice was nice, and Marga told him he should come pick her up. She was living in a furnished room, and her neighbor, an older Russian man who “never got out of his undershirt, looked wild, and was constantly touting his Trotskyism,” answered the bell. Her suitor, Marga said, “almost turned and ran away. But we really hit it off.”
Ernie Griesbach, like Marga, had been born in Germany in 1927. But unlike the Steinhardts, the Griesbachs had been wealthy, had escaped to France, and then went through Lisbon to New York, arriving on April 8, 1941, on the SS Excalibur, four of about 15,000 Jews afforded safe passage out of Europe by General Franco. Safe but economically diminished, the Griesbachs had resettled in Flushing, where Ernie, who earned a degree in electrical engineering at City College, grew up to love music and his friends and the outdoors. Marga and Ernie’s first date was on October 25, 1953, and they were engaged on November 8. Ten weeks after that, they married.
Marga swears that she never really got the hang of self-direction. It was Ernie, she said, who “had always wanted to have a house. After we were married for a year, we put down a down payment.” They had two daughters, moved to Huntington, Long Island, and then to Maryland, where Marga became a housewife; her mother almost always lived nearby. “Ernie was the decision-maker,” Marga said. “I just followed along. Some people have long-range plans, but mine never really came to fruition. My plan for education just didn’t happen.”
For years, Marga said, she had yearned for a small life, a simple life. But when she was home doing laundry and housework, the smallness could wear on her. “I sometimes wished I could go back to work again,” she said. “I can’t say I enjoyed cleaning house that much, and I never liked cooking. But I loved gardening, flowers, color.” Sometimes, she said, she got really restless. “I had this idea: I want to run away to Atlanta. That was my rebellion when it got a little boring.” Marga had never been to Atlanta, but she kept thinking of how its big thoroughfare was called Peachtree. “I imagined peach trees on every street and that I was going to run away to Atlanta.”
In 1968, the Griesbachs moved to Connecticut for Ernie’s career. But something went wrong; the whole management staff, including Ernie, lost their jobs, and Marga began doing office work for an accounts-receivable clerk. Ernie bought out a small typesetting franchise; she worked for him while also doing tax packages at the other company: “They liked the way I put the tax packages together, and they offered me a job at the corporate headquarters.” As Max had known back in Germany in the 1930s, his daughter was a whiz with numbers. But then, she said, “I ran into something — I think it might have been a bit of sexism.”
In 1985, Marga’s manager left, and she was running the whole department. “But they never offered me the job of being manager. They found another guy who was ignorant about different state-tax allocations. Somehow I’d had a knack for this, but they hired a guy who didn’t know anything. I asked him one day, ‘Why did you take the job?’ And he said, ‘It’s the money; it’s not everybody who offers you $40,000.’ Well, I was making $26,000. And I went to the director of the tax department and told him I was very upset. And he told me outright, ‘I don’t trust you. You’re a woman, and you don’t even have a college degree.’ I gave notice on the spot.”
A month later, Marga said, “they contacted me and said would I please come back as an independent outside worker. I can tell them any amount that I want. I was stupid; I should have asked for a hundred dollars an hour. But I asked for $50. I worked there for a number of years during tax season because they couldn’t do it without me. That did give me quite a bit of satisfaction.”
For most of her adult life, Marga said, she suppressed her memories of the Holocaust. “I did not talk about it. I did not tell my children anything.” Her daughters, Leslie and Deborah, learned everything they knew — which wasn’t a lot — by asking their grandmother about what had happened to her feet, which were scarred and misshapen.
Marga would dream about the war sometimes — often about needing to go to the bathroom but finding only squalor. She couldn’t summon waking memories. At some point, her family begged her to write her story down. She tried but couldn’t manage. “Every time the thoughts came, there was a big bank safe in my head, and the moment something peeks out, I take the door and slam it shut.”
In the early ’60s, just before Christmas, Marga went shopping at a German deli for holiday sweets that she’d loved as a child. The store was jammed with German-speaking customers. Standing in the back of the store, she experienced a flashback to her childhood in Witzenhausen and the single hour a day Jews were permitted in the shops. SS women would often choose that hour to shop, buying up all the goods before the Jews could get to them. Therese had hated this indignity and had often sent her young daughter out with a shopping list in her place.
“I don’t know what happened to me” in that German deli three decades later, Marga said. “But I was standing there in the back, apparently in a trance. Suddenly somebody says to me in English, ‘You’ve been standing here a long time.’ ” After that, she said, “I found it almost impossible to get a German word out of my lips. I could read it, I could write it. I just could not speak German anymore.”
And while she traveled, she staunchly refused to return to Germany, until Ernie persuaded her in 1984, on a trip she remembered as “a total fiasco.” Even in her home country, she couldn’t find German words, and struggled to do simple things, including ordering baked goods. In Frankfurt, she saw scrawled in big lettering on the back of a building jewish pigs get out. They went to visit her hometown, but she couldn’t bear to stay overnight. After that trip, she said, she vowed never to return.
In 1990, Ernie sold his typesetting business and the couple retired to New Hampshire, where they fixed up a house with beautiful views and planted the kinds of big gardens that Marga had dreamed about. The next year, in November, two months before her 93rd birthday, Therese Steinhardt died. At the end, having had a series of strokes, she was, Marga said, “almost totally paralyzed” and had lost her own ability to speak, though her mind was still working. “It took her six weeks to starve herself to death,” said Marga. “They asked to put a feeding tube into her, but I said ‘No.’ ” At the very end, Marga managed to say a few words of German in her mother’s ear.
The next year, Ernie, diagnosed with prostate cancer, had a surgery that didn’t go well. His arteries were clogged, and he was in the hospital with blood poisoning when he suffered a heart attack and died.
Marga found herself living alone in the New Hampshire house. One of her aunts was traveling through with friends and asked Marga to dinner. Marga was seated next to a German couple who tried to speak to her in halting English. Marga, who had not spoken German for decades, found herself reassuring the man in her native tongue that he didn’t have to attempt English. Her language had come back.
It turned out that the couple she was dining with were from Lübeck, where she and Therese had lived after the war. “You must have had terrible times there,” the man said to her, and she remembered her reply: “No, I was free.”
After the dinner, Marga said good-bye to the couple and thought nothing more of their meeting. Until she received a letter from the husband, Dieter, urging her to visit them in Lübeck. As it happened, she was planning a trip to Europe as part of a public-radio opera tour. She was going to go through Germany for the first time since her disastrous trip back in 1984. “But I was going to be on that opera tour as an American, not as a German woman coming back to Germany,” she said. Dieter and his wife met up with her on that trip, and they all got along well, especially Marga and Dieter, who both loved art and museums. The three became close friends and traveling companions, and in their company and eventually with her children, Marga found herself able to return often to Germany.
Dieter’s wife, who suffered from dementia, died in 2014. The next year, during a trip Marga took to Witzenhausen, Dieter joined her, and the two decided they would continue to travel together; they remain close companions and speak every day for an hour. I asked her in passing about Dieter’s story — what his childhood in Germany had been like.
“Oh, you mean during the Hitler years?” Marga asked. Yes, I replied.
“He was not quite 15 when the war ended,” she replied. “He was a little Nazi. Hitler Youth.”
I think every life is like a novel,” Marga told me at one point. Among the things that have surprised her about her own narrative arc, she said, “is how I’ve had to get reconciled that I [am] best friends with a German. One who was an ardent little Hitler Jugend boy.” She understands, she said. “He was 2-and-a-half years-old when Hitler came to power, and his parents happened to be pro-Hitler. He desperately wanted to be a soldier and wasn’t quite old enough to serve and was envious of those who did.” But, she said, “after the war, he learned differently. He traveled all over with his wife, and they got other ideas and read a lot of books and realized how blind and one-sided it was, what he’d been taught as a child.”
Marga’s relationship to her own story has changed many times as well. Everything, after all, is subject to revision: She lost her faith but eventually prayed; she lost her appetite but worked to regain it; she lost her language until she found it once more. After years of refusing to examine the memories of her first two decades, in 2003 she visited Riga as part of a tour of Jewish ghettos. “When I came home,” she said, “all the memories were there. I just sat down and typed,” putting together a self-published book, in both German and English.
In that book, Marga writes of how back in Riga, she and another young woman used to talk about why they needed to survive. “We felt we had to keep trying to stay alive,” she writes, “because somebody had to tell this incredible tale.” But after surviving, Marga was for decades unable to tell her tale at all. She still wavers. While speaking to her synagogue about her story a couple of years ago, Marga found herself too upset by what she saw as the horrifying parallels to the Syrian refugee crisis to give a good talk. She was distracted and undone and has refused all public-speaking requests since. After our interview in November, she said she was surprised that her story had come easily. “Maybe I need to talk about it occasionally; is that possible?”
Contemporary context alters not just how we tell stories but also what we hear when they are told to us. When Marga told me about her life last fall, I heard a narrative of dramatic escape and the proud commitment of a daughter to her mother. The sweeping enormity of the narrative — the woman in the soup pot; the baby in the snow; Marga’s realization that the flesh of Therese’s feet was dead — felt distant and shocking and all the more powerful because of it. By this spring, in the midst of a totally different kind of global catastrophe, the aspects of Marga’s tale I couldn’t stop thinking about were so much smaller: the familial back-and-forth about whether and where to flee; her impulsive choice to volunteer for work detail when it might have been a death sentence, the drive to hold on to a tube of lipstick scraped from infested sand. This was what leapt out: all these minute, intimate, individual calculations, the kind run by millions of vulnerable, terrified people, operating in a vacuum of information or leadership, against a government offering the opposite of protection.
This spring, when I did not know what would become of Marga, who’d gone on a cruise to Australia in the midst of the COVID pandemic, I played games in my head, imagining that of course she would live: She had survived the ghetto, the camps, the death march, the boredom of suburban housewifery, and the frustration of workplace discrimination. But her story also reminded me that this was a form of magical thinking: Yes, she had lived, but so many millions of others — babies and fathers and brothers — who were just as tough and funny and loving and extraordinary, had died. And all around this spring, people who had survived other catastrophes and injustices — segregation and civil wars and famines and plagues and, yes, daily indignities and ennui and broken hearts — were not surviving. It wasn’t because they weren’t strong or special; it was because they were human beings, with spirits we imagine to be indomitable, and bodies made of cells and blood and mucus membranes that can be invaded by teeny droplets.
During the last week of February, Marga did not want to tell anyone that she was sick.
After three days of being stymied at the Auckland airport, the emergency-room doctor finally lost his temper at the airline, hotly suggesting that if they didn’t trust his medical authority, they should stop sending passengers to him. The airline relented and permitted Marga to fly to Brisbane. There, she met up with Dieter and Selma and made it onto the cruise ship in the nick of time.
Once onboard, she began to reckon with the fact that she was certainly not well. Yes, she considered the possibility that she had COVID, which by then was weighing on the minds of everyone on the boat. But Marga didn’t have a fever or a cough, the symptoms everyone was talking about at that point. She just was finding it increasingly difficult to draw a breath and was feeling dizzy even after the slightest exertion. If she told anyone how bad she was feeling, she knew she would get kicked off the boat.
When Princess Cruise Lines halted all trips, and Marga, Dieter, and Selma were forced off their boat in Sydney on March 18, Marga was having trouble walking. Selma was the only one of them who had a cell phone that worked internationally. With it, she was able to book a flight for herself and Marga back to the U.S. via Auckland the next morning. But when they arrived at the airport in Sydney, they were not permitted to board the plane: New Zealand had just closed its borders due to COVID, they were told; they would not be able to change planes in Auckland.
Somehow, Selma and Dieter — who missed his own flight back to Germany in order to stay with her — managed to get them onto one of the very last Qantas flights from Sydney to California; four days later, Qantas would suspend all international service. Marga and Selma flew in to San Francisco, then on to Seattle.
When her son-in-law picked up Marga from the airport on March 21, he drove her straight to a Seattle emergency room. There, doctors found her chest so full of fluid that her lungs couldn’t expand. They discovered her four broken ribs and that she had pneumonia in both lungs and a pulmonary blood clot in one of them. They put a drain into her back, and by the time the ambulance came to transfer her to a different hospital, nearly a liter and a half had been drained from her badly compressed chest cavity. In the Seattle ER, she was administered a COVID test. It came back negative.
“I feel so much better,” Marga told me by phone more than a week later. Ruefully, she acknowledged that she should have talked to doctors about her breathing problems and broken ribs earlier. “I wasn’t listening to anybody,” she said. “I was going, come hell or high water. And I went and I’m back. The doctor called it the second resurrection.”
Dieter made it safely home to Germany; he is not sick. After a couple of weeks recuperating with her daughter and son-in-law, Marga returned to her own home. She is fine being alone through the pandemic, she says, “but I’d like to do my own shopping. The car battery is dead, so I can’t even drive anyplace. And I have orders to not have it charged or get a new battery because my children want me to stay home.”
“It will not be like it was before,” she says of a post-COVID future, whenever it may come. “For sure not.” Nothing is ever the same as it was, in Marga’s view.
“What is normal? Normal changes all the time,” she said. Look at her, she says. “I craved the ordinary life, to live like other people, to have small concerns and do little things.” But, she said to me, “normal is something elusive. It doesn’t exist. It was just a dream of mine.”
*This article appears in the May 25, 2020, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!
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