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Rural Missouri Magazine

Living to tell
One Holocaust survivor shares her story

by Heather Berry

Survivor Erika Mandler hopes sharing her story will help stop the atrocities of World War II from being repeated.

Friday, March 11, 1938, would forever change 15-year-old Erika Raab’s life.
After dinner, Erika’s father turned on the radio to hear the president deliver news her family had long feared would come.
Young Erika and her family lived in Vienna, Austria, and their president was telling the country that he was surrendering Austria to Adolf Hitler.

“We were horrified,” says Erika. “My mother said, ‘This is the beginning of the end of us.’”

Whether they liked it or not, the Raab family was about to be affected by the Nazi Holocaust.

Once hesitant to tell her story, today the Chillicothe resident relates her story of
tragedy and hope to all who will listen.

“To forget is the greatest sin,” Erika shares with groups. “I am here to tell my story because my mother and father cannot speak for themselves. So many wonderful, innocent millions were killed for no reason other than because they had a different religion.”

Hitler had been in power for five years and was expanding his plans to create a master race — an effort that would result in the murder of nearly 6 million European Jews. From his rise to power in January 1933 to his suicide on April 30, 1945, Hitler made life a living hell not only for Jews, but for anyone who didn’t agree with his plan of ethnic cleansing.
“You cannot imagine the instant change in people,” says Erika, now 86. “Overnight, my non-Jewish friends were told by their parents that they couldn’t be seen with me or couldn’t call me. And all I could think was, ‘Why am I so different now?’”

Jews were no longer allowed to attend college. Parks now displayed signs that read “Dogs and Jews not allowed.” All Jews were required to wear a yellow Star of David on their sleeves.

Soon hiding from the Nazis was all any Jew thought about. Erika’s parents, who owned two hotels and restaurants in Czechoslovakia, planned to leave Austria. The Raab’s knew they wouldn’t be allowed to take Erika and her brother Kurt with them. So, in the spring of 1938, they left their children in the care of a grandmother who lived in Vienna and hoped they see them again one day.

“We later found out our parents business wasn’t going well and they had closed up the hotels and moved in with a cousin in Czechoslovakia,” says Erika. “We soon realized if we didn’t try to get to our parents now, we might not get another chance.”

Erika and her brother, Kurt, pose for a formal portrait in Vienna. This was one of the only photos Erika was able to save following her escape from the work camp, Novaky.

In September, Kurt found a way to cross the Austria/Czech border illegally for 400 German marks. One hot night, Erika and Kurt took a train to the last station on the border.

“The guard asked for our passports and told us to follow him,” says Erika, recalling how German soldiers abetted their plan of escape.

The guards took the Raab children to a field and told them to follow the light on the horizon that would lead them through a “no-man’s land” to the Czechoslovakian border.

At dawn, they reached the border, only to be sent back to Vienna by soldiers.

Devastated and exhausted, Erika and her brother began walking. As they plodded along, the siblings noticed a prayer bench under a cross in the middle of a field. “So there we sat, two Jewish kids under the Virgin Mary and a cross, and we began praying for a miracle,” says Erika. “And soon, we saw two figures walking toward us.”

Those figures were officers of the Czechoslovakian Army. They took pity on the youths and got them train tickets to Trencin, where their parents were now living. The duo arrived to teary parents who thought they’d never see their children again, recalls Erika.

Life, while not free of Hitler’s influence, went on for the Raabs. During the next year, Erika’s parents got an apartment, and her mother began cooking for families. Kurt, fluent in English, gave private lessons while Erika found a job as a tailor’s apprentice. Young Erika even had a suitor named Erich Jokel and, in June 1940, the couple was married at her parent’s home.

The newlywed’s joy was short-lived. Soon after they married, Erika’s husband was forced to work on the railroad. In the spring of 1941, he received a letter stating that he was being relocated for work. Instead, the train he boarded took him to Auschwitz, the notorious Nazi death camp.

“I never saw him again,” says Erika. “I found out later that he’d been taken to his death.”
In March 1942, Erika, her parents and her brother were taken to Novaky, a work camp where 1,600 Jews were imprisoned. The work camp was guarded by the Slovakian army. “We felt Novaky was probably paradise compared to camps in Poland or Germany because we got to stay together as a family in a small room with four bunks.”

One of the physicians at the infirmary, where Erika’s brother worked, was Dr. George Mandler, who had arrived at Novaky six months before Erika’s
family — and who soon fell in love with Erika.

George and Erika, left, see the Statue of Libery for the first time as they enter New York Harbor.

While not ideal conditions, the family was happy to be alive and together. But one dreadful day, that nearly changed. It was the fall of 1943, and every inmate at the camp was told to line up outside the barracks. The commander read the names of 300 prisoners who were to be sent to Auschwitz. Horrified, all four members of Erika’s family were called out.

According to Erika, George stepped forward immediately and told the commander, “If this woman goes, I go.” Since the commander needed the doctor, he agreed to allow Erika to stay. But Erika insisted her family stay as well. George pulled all the strings he could, and the commander spared Erika’s family certain death.

“The horrifying part was that for us to live, four other people had to replace us,” says Erika with tears in her eyes.

The family stayed at Novaky until the following fall, when the Slovakian Army suddenly opened the gates of the camp and told the prisoners they were free. At that time, many of the men, including George, chose to join the army and fight the Germans.

The next six months, Erika says, were some of the most horrible of her life. The only place they could hide safely was in the steep mountains of Slovakia.

The couple dug trenches into the mountainside for shelter, using tree branches as mattresses. The snows were heavy. Food was scarce. Lice plagued the couple. And to add to the difficulty, Erika was pregnant.

In March 1945, George and Erika joined Russian paratroopers for a march to the eastern side of the mountains, recently liberated by Russia. It was their only way to freedom and it would take five, grueling days of walking in waist-deep snow to get there.

“I was 7 months pregnant now and could hardly go on,” says Erika. “To keep my strength up, George would pour sugar in my mouth as we walked.”

After marching day and night, they ended up in a small village and were welcomed by the Russians with fresh food, milk, clean clothes and much-needed medical attention.

Weeks later, Erika gave birth to a baby girl who died after ony two days.

In the coming months, George and Erika learned the fate of her parents who were taken to concentration camps where they later died. She did find out, however, that her brother, Kurt, was alive.

George and Erika registered to emigrate to the U.S. and four years later, headed to New York City.

George and Erika pose with their daughter, Camilla, who was born after the couple arrived in Chillicothe.

“When we arrived in New York harbor, we couldn’t believe we were staring at the Statue of Liberty and that we were alive and free,” exclaims Erika.

Upon their arrival, the two obtained their American citizenship. Erika began work as a dressmaker and George got his license to practice medicine. Desiring to head further west, George answered a medical journal ad that brought him to Chillicothe in 1951. He and Erika made the north-central Missouri town their permanent home.

For many years, George wouldn’t talk about the many atrocities of the Holocaust. It wasn’t until after George passed away in 1994 that Erika really thought about the importance of sharing their story.

Encourged by her second daughter, Camilla, born in 1954, Erika began sharing her experience with schools and church groups about how enduring the human spirit is and how deadly intolerance can be. She says it’s important for everyone in the world to know what happened so it’s not repeated.

“When my generation is gone, who will be here to talk about it? We must tell our stories and we must never, never forget.”

You may contact Erika Mandler at 1616 Clay St., Chillicothe, MO 64601 or by sending an e-mail to her at cmkerno@yahoo.com.

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