From Breslau to Neumünster: A Long Journey Home

From Breslau to Neumünster is not so far, but it is a longer journey if the route is via, Spain, Switzerland,New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco. But that is the route my mother-in-law, Stefanie Steinberg, now 93-years young has taken.

Stefanie was born in Breslau and spent a happy childhood there displaying remarkable talent as an artist. But when the storm clouds of Nazi hegemony threatened the idyllic existence–indeed childhood itself–ended for her> In her own words:

My father realized that Germany was becoming a dangerous place, and suddenly the government no longer permitted him to treat Kranken Kasse patients, his primary group of patients. He began to make preparations to take us out of Germany. During that time, he was again given the permit to treat the workers because he had been a decorated officer in World War I, and had been given the Iron Cross. Wisely, he had the foresight to take his family out in 1936. He brought us to Barcelona, Spain, where he set up a medical practice, having brought his radiology equipment with him. Six months later, the Spanish Civil War broke out, and the women and children of foreigners were forced to evacuate the country. Father could not leave until much later, and had no possibility to work in Switzerland. My mother, brother, and I had small bags packed, and we went by refugee boat to Marseille, and from there by train to Zuerich, Switzerland. With the help of Julius Schueller and the International Council of Jewish Women, I was sent to Kinderheim, Wartheim, in Heiden, Canton Appenzell as an unpaid helper, a Practicantin with two other teenage girls and about forty children. My mother went to Dijon, France, to work as a secretary for a woman professor, and my brother was sent to live with a family in Switzerland who treated him poorly. Much later, my father went to New York to try to set up a medical practice there.

When I first arrived at the Heim, I was quite shell shocked, and the other people there called me the Steffie who does not talk. After a while, I began to thrive, and even taught the children a calisthenics class outside. After I had been there about a year, the children put on a play for the delegates of the Council of Jewish Women, and I painted the whole backdrop, a forest scene. When the delegates saw what I had painted, they helped me to get a scholarship to attend an art school, called the Kunst-schule Muench-Winkel in Zurich. I was able to attend that school for about a year, until 1938.

In the summer of 1938, my mother and I boarded a boat in Le Havre, bound for New York. My brother could not leave Switzerland until he graduated from the Institute Juventus in Zurich. He came in October of 1938, just a few weeks before Kristallnacht. When we boarded the boat, I had just had my 17th birthday. It so happened that I met my future husband, Ulrich Steinberg, whom I would marry 7 years later, on the boat. Unfortunately, when we arrived in New York, I didn’t attend high school, I went straight to work. One of my first jobs in New York was in a ladies hat shop on Diekman Street, sewing felt onto hats. For that, I was paid $5.00 a week, far less than someone who was born in the US would have been paid. Sometimes I had to work until 10:00 at night, and Uli would pick me up from work and bring me home half asleep, using the subway.

My next job was at a store called Jane Engel, on Madison Avenue, an elegant store not far from where we lived, where I was paid $7.00 a week. I worked there for about three years. I would usually walk home for the lunch my father prepared for me. His doctor’s office was then on the ground floor, and we lived on the third floor above his office. Later, I worked painting on ceramics and on silk ties. When my father became sick with cancer, I worked in the mornings, and in the afternoon I visited my father in the hospital. My brother took mornings off in order to visit him. When my father died, at Mount Zion Hospital, where he had volunteered in the outpatient department, the hospital would not release his body because my brother and I did not have enough money to pay the fee. Eventually they released him, and my brother and I moved into his small office and living quarters.

I decided to leave New York and worked my way to California, where I looked up Uli in the phonebook. We married a few months later, in April of 1945, and lived in his tiny bachelor apartment.

For a while, I painted on silk ties, and then I painted a blouse for myself. I wore it to the Ambassador Hotel gift shop on Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles, and asked the owners to give me some of the blouses, called “dogs” that they could not sell. I painted them, and they sold like “hot cakes”. I painted more and more blouses, and even painted a ball gown for the actress Joan Fontaine to wear in the movie, “Emperor Waltz” (about Franz Joseph) which she starred in with Bing Crosby. The famous movie designer, Edith Head, had asked me to paint the ball gown. We then rented the top floor of an office building, and hired 10 artists to paint my designs. We sold our creations all over the US. We painted on blouses, ties, bras, girdles, swim suits, undergarments. It became a big company. At that time I also took classes at the Art Center School. Then a large Chicago company brazenly copied our best selling flamingo blouses. After the lawsuits, money ran low, our company folded, and I worked as a designer for a factory that made decorated clothes. Shortly after that, we moved to San Francisco, and began anew.

In San Francisco, I had the chance to take classes at San Francisco State University, which was in walking distance from our apartment. I took classes in drawing, painting, and art history. I became a member of a long established organization called The San Francisco Women Artists, served on its board for many years, had many paintings and photographs exhibited in their gallery over the years, and became its president for two years as well. I am still a senior member, after more than 50 years, and they chose to feature a painting of mine in one of their most recent exhibitions.

My works were also exhibited in various San Francisco museums, both painting and photography, and while an active member of the Bay Area Photographers, I received numerous awards for photo montages in black and while photography.

In 1989, I joined CLIR, the Center for Learning in Retirement which is part of the University of California. This gave me the chance to attend excellent classes taught by University of California professors, in art, photography, and in how to use the computer to enhance the quality of photographs. I still attend lectures and events there which are intellectually stimulating both because of the high caliber of the lectures, and because of the quality of the other seniors attending, who have become friends over the years.

In my free time I still enjoy painting and taking photographs of subjects which capture my attention. I enjoy visits from my two daughters and sons-in-law, my grandchildren and my great grandchildren. I also take care of my cat, Blackberry, and my garden both in front and in back of my house which I consider to be my personal, private paradise!

Today (October 28) In Neumünster, a wonderful exhibition of Stefanie’s life journey ones for edification of high school students. Pastorin Ursula Sieg, with the enthusiastic cooperation of my wife,, Vickie, and Stefanie herself, has put together this wonderful interactive learning opportunity. Vickie and I have already met with groups of students doing projects that center around the exhibition. As I write, Vickie is putting the finishing touches on her exhibit-opening speech, and soon we will drive to Neumünster for the event.

At home in San Francisco, Stefanie still is an active artist who lives independently. In a very real way, she has come back home to Germany triumphant over the forces of evil that inflicted years of pain and hardship on her and so many. It is a source of pride to her and all of us who love her that her life journey will teach valuable lessons to a new generation of Germans.

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