Ingrid Kelsey escaped Nazi Germany to the United States when she was 16 years old. For years she avoided all things German, until she recently returned to her native country.
By Jonathan Friedman / Assistant Editor
Thirty-year Malibu resident Ingrid Kelsey says every time she thinks about what happened in her life, she feels lucky.
When she was 16, the Jewish Hamburg resident’s quota number was called just two weeks before Germany invaded Poland and launched World War II. She was then able to board a ship headed for the United States. After the war began, Jews were no longer able to leave Germany, with most of those left behind eventually being killed.
“It is just incredible to think about how lucky I was,” Kelsey said.
Kelsey was born Ingrid Silbermann in Frankfurt in 1923. She grew up in Hamburg, a port city in which she said Nazism took a while to influence.
“It was an international city,” Kelsey said. “Hamburg was more detached [from Nazism] for a long time because it was closer to the rest of the world and it was accustomed to dealing with the outside world more than inland [Germany].”
Although Nazism was not as overwhelming in Hamburg as it was elsewhere in Germany, it still had a presence. When Kelsey was 10, shortly after Adolf Hitler had taken power, she was excused from morning assemblies at school while the children did “Heil Hitler” salutes and sang songs about “Jewish blood being sprayed from knives.” After a teacher one day walked by her and asked Kelsey why she did not do the “Heil Hitler” salute, Kelsey’s parents decided to transfer her to a Jewish parochial school.
Kelsey said she does not remember any discussions among her classmates or teachers at the Jewish school about what was happening with Hitler and the rise of Nazism. At home, her father assumed it would all blow over, while her mother believed it was a serious situation and put her daughter on the quota waiting list.
On Nov. 9, 1938, Kelsey and her family realized just how serious the situation was when two Nazi officers came knocking at their door demanding Kelsey’s father. That day was Kristallnacht, or Night of the Broken Glass. Throughout Germany, synagogues and Jewish-owned stores and homes were looted by Nazi officials and Hitler’s storm troopers in what they said was revenge for the assassination by a Jew of an official at the German embassy in Paris. About 30,000 Jewish men were arrested that day.
Luckily for Kelsey’s father, a leukemia patient, he had been given warning that Nazi officials would be coming for him, and had gone to the hospital. Fifteen-year-old Kelsey, her mother and grandmother, too afraid to go to the door, went to meet the officers, and told them where her father was.
“What I remember is that it was something I had to deal with, so I did,” Kelsey said. “I’ve always said when I was in my 20s and 30s, I wasn’t as grown-up as I was when I was 15 or 16.”
Shortly after that, Kelsey’s parents fled to Sweden to live with relatives. They eventually met their daughter in the United States. For the time being, Kelsey was left to stay with her grandmother in Hamburg.
With Jews restricted from most forms of travel and from going to most places, there was not much for Kelsey to do other than stay at home and read and go to work. She assisted a Jewish lawyer who had clients that were charged with “race shame” crimes. One of her frightening memories came when she was delivering some papers for her boss.
“I remember standing on a hill and watching the SS march down the street,” Kelsey said. “There were hundreds of them. And I suppose to a young person, hundreds look like thousands.”
Then, in August 1939, her quota number finally came up to allow Kelsey to come to the United States. When she left, she hoped that her grandmother would eventually follow. But that did not happen. Kelsey has no idea what her grandmother’s last days were like. Kelsey’s boyfriend, Walter Lichtheim, was also killed. Kelsey communicated with both while she was in the United States through letters, but neither would ever write about politics.
According to the United States Historical Memorial Museum, there were about 500,000 Jews in Germany prior to Hitler coming to power. By the beginning of World War II, 300,000 Jews had left the country. Of those who remained, most of them were deported to concentration camps and extermination camps in other Nazi-occupied countries. About 170,000 German Jews were killed in the Holocaust.
Kelsey said she and the people she knew never thought death would be the fate of many of the Jews who did not make it out of Germany. “I don’t think, even when they [the Nazis] came to pick up the men to send them to concentration camps, that it was generally known that this meant ovens. We knew that there were prisons and they would probably be treated badly. But I don’t think anybody had any idea.”
Kelsey said her life in the United States has been wonderful. She was married twice and has two children. She spent many years trying to avoid thinking about the Holocaust. Kelsey never spoke German except for a few times with relatives and she tried to avoid everything German. But finally, Kelsey returned to her native country five years ago.
Kelsey said going to Germany was like completing a circle. But the thing that struck her most was how, after being leveled in the war, her former home city of Hamburg had been completely rebuilt, looking similar to what she remembered from her childhood.
“The destructive things we do and what it takes to rebuild, if only that energy could be used to build onto whatever is already there; imagine what we could accomplish,” Kelsey said. “That struck me most in going back there. What a terrible, terrible waste.”
May 8 is the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II and the end of the Holocaust.