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Memoirs of a 103-year-old Holocaust survivor: ‘It was all over at an age when everything was supposed to begin’

The grandchildren of the Austrian teenager who escaped the Nazis during World War II and rebuilt her life in Argentina share her story with EL PAÍS

Gertrud Erdstein
Gertrud Erdstein and her daughter in 1946.Cortesía

At the age of 103, Gertrud Erdstein sleeps hugging a crocheted turtle given to her by her grandchildren. Her long, slender fingers caress the memory of another turtle, Otilia, with whom she fled Vienna under the Nazi occupation. It was 1939, Gertrud was 18 years old and had just finished high school. She did not yet understand the horror that was coming and that still haunts her today.

“It was all over at an age when everything was supposed to begin,” Gertrud told her granddaughter, Magdalena Goyheneix, when she was finally ready to tell her story. “One day, without explanation, we Jews were made to stand in a separate line at school.”

Oma, as her entire family calls her, refused to discuss that part of her life for decades. But Magdalena, her eldest granddaughter, awakened something in her that made her change her mind. Since then, the family has been trying to piece together Oma’s story, before she arrived in Buenos Aires in 1941.

Her father, Hermann Erdstein, was the founder of a chocolate factory that gave his family a comfortable life in 1930s Vienna, one of the most progressive cities in Europe, before the Nazis dispossessed them of their business and home — a building in one of Vienna’s most luxurious neighborhoods that the family still claims to this day.

At that time, Gertrud was engaged to a young man named Harry, the same age as her, and they planned to study medicine and travel the world together. She loved going to the opera, dancing, reading. She was beginning to develop a feminist way of thinking that she would retain throughout her life.

Gertrud Erdstein's birth certificate.
Gertrud Erdstein's birth certificate.Cortesía

But between 1938 and 1940, 117,000 Jews were forced to flee the country after Hitler annexed Austria. In 1939, Hermann and Minna Erdstein, Gertrud’s parents, knew they would not survive in a city where they were spat on, made to clean the streets, thrown out of places they once frequented, and where many of their friends no longer spoke to them. After the confiscation of their property, they tried to liquidate what valuable assets they had left to raise money and escape overseas.

“I remember sitting in the living room of my house and seeing people buying our paintings and tapestries for a handful of coins,” Gertrud told her grandchildren years later. “At one point, I rebuked a woman who offered a ridiculous price for the grand piano and she looked at me and said with contempt: ‘What do you want it for if you’re going to be dead soon, Jewess?’”

Her brother Erich, nine years her senior, managed to escape to Brazil as a stowaway. Her parents fled to Argentina, but Gertrud could not accompany them. “Being separated from my parents was heartbreaking. I was 18; it was the first time I had traveled alone and I didn’t know if I would ever see them again,” she told her grandchildren.

With a small suitcase and her turtle, Otilia, Gertrud ended up in London, where a family friend was waiting for her. When she arrived, she was refused shelter and sent to a refugee home, which between 1938 and 1940 would receive more than 10,000 Jewish children and young women fleeing from the countries occupied by the Third Reich. Some were cared for; others were exploited as domestic servants.

Teenage girls like Gertrud remained in England on a special visa to work as domestic servants. She was quickly assigned to a house where she was made to work more than 15 hours a day, going out into the fields in freezing temperatures to chop wood.

Gertrud Erdstein and her husband Erwin Forró in 1942.
Gertrud Erdstein and her husband Erwin Forró in 1942.Cortesía

In Argentina, meanwhile, her parents had settled in a boarding house in San Telmo, a tenement neighborhood in southern of Buenos Aires. Her father set himself up a cloth merchant and her mother found work as a seamstress. After two years, they were able to raise enough money to bring their daughter from England. Gertrud was no longer that teenager they had left behind in 1939. “The image I had when I saw them for the first time was very disturbing. I couldn’t believe how our lives had changed,” she recalled years later.

But she refused to feel sorry for herself. With her four languages and her academic background, she soon found work as a nanny in the home of an English family living in a residential neighborhood in Buenos Aires, where, years later, she herself would go to live and where she remains to this day. She took Argentinean citizenship and vowed never to return to Austria.

She met Erwin Forró, a Jewish immigrant who had fled Hungary, and the couple married a year later, in 1942, in Montevideo. She had two daughters whom she decided to give a bilingual and international education. Erwin did very well in business, after several failed ventures. He traveled around the country and in the north of Argentina, he discovered the origin of his fortune: orange plantations that gave him the idea of founding a juice concentrate company, a novelty at the time and a very successful one.

Many Jews who escaped the Holocaust found their way to Argentina, but so too did Nazis who took refuge throughout the country after the fall of the Reich. “The fear never left,” Gertrud confessed. “And since Argentina is Catholic and we were not practicing Jews, I felt it was best for my daughters to be brought up with the culture of this country. I did not want them to experience the persecution and suffering that we had.”

Gertrud Erdstein celebrating her 98th birthday.
Gertrud Erdstein celebrating her 98th birthday.Cortesía

Her marriage to Erwin lasted more than four decades, until she was widowed in 1987. She now has seven grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren who take care of her and, for the past few years, have been helping her to reconstruct these memories.

Until the Covid-19 pandemic, Gertrud played bridge and took classes in gymnastics, music, and pottery and even learned to use Facebook, where she found Harry, her first love, whom she had never forgotten. He was living in the United States, was a photographer and had married a woman named Gertrud. He visited her on her 85th birthday. They didn’t talk about the past, but their eyes filled with tears as they looked at each other again.

Gertrud is no longer able to talk as she once did, or to go for walks with her grandchildren. The pandemic affected her cognitive faculties but she is surrounded by love and care, which makes her days placid and peaceful. But at night, the ghosts return in the form of nightmares. She dreams that her house is occupied by Nazis who want to take her away. She wakes up in terror, clutching the crocheted turtle her grandchildren gave her. Then she feels relief, but a happy life today is not enough to bury so much pain from the past, even though she is still fighting.

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