Raw materials: Betty Lauer
One of my biggest challenges in writing this book was to do justice to Betty Lauer's story. She lived through so much,
experienced so many close calls, so much danger, so many losses. The best way to experience her story in full is to read her
own account, Hiding in Plain Sight.
Her book doesn't cover much of her life after the war -- which is understandable; it took an entire book to relate
the story of those years. But in writing my account of her life, I wanted to find out more about the postwar years. And particularly,
what it was like to have lived through that and survived -- and gone on to live a "normal" life in America, having
lived through all of that.
To briefly recap: her father had been deported before World War II began.
He settled in America, and tried desperately to get his wife and two daughters out of Germany.
Betty (originally Berta)
and her mother survived the war and reunited with him in late 1946. Berta's sister Eva disappeared in Poland, and was presumed
killed by the Nazis.
Here is Betty's account of the postwar years.
Your book ends with you getting out of Poland and going to Sweden. I assume you came to America because
your father was here?
Yeah. My father came to America
before the war, 1938. He had an expulsion order, and he couldn't take us because it was very difficult to get into the United
States. At that time, we didn't know that there was a directive [by the US government] to slow it down. There was unemployment
So the only way my father could do it was with money. We didn't ahve enough money. He needed, I think,
three or four thousand dollars per person. With Hitler in power, and not allowing the Jews to take any money out. Our bank
account was blocked. We could take out for rent, to pay our bills, but to get money out of the country, that was impossible.
He managed to get out enough for himself, and that's how he got a visa.
When did you arrive in America?
I got to Sweden in April of 1946, and I got to the United States in December
And that's when you were reunited with your father?
When I arrived in the US, my father was at the
pier with my mother. My mother had left Sweden before me.
What had your
father done during the war?
He went with some friends
who also came with him, they knew each other in Germany.They started some business, but it didn't go. And then they went into
the jewelry business. They took a place in the Garment District because it was cheaper. And eventually they prospered.
He was living in New York City.
It must have been a
joy to reunite. But he'd had such a different experience of those eight years.
That, John, was an enormous
problem between my mother and my father. It was not so much with me. I was just so happy to get under his umbrella and to
get out of the cold! And maybe I didn't appreciate enough how difficult it was for my mother, but -- may I digress?
My mother died at 95, almost 95. And to the end of her life, she was thinking, "Where is [Eva]? What did they
do with her?" It never left her. Whereas with me, I was so busy embracing life!
Was there any survivor's guilt for him?
You know, of course there was. You know, a father
-- my father -- wouldn't say to his daughter, "I feel guilty because I left." I mean, he cried, and he embraced
me. Did he have guilt feelings? I don't know.
Do I have guilt feelings for living? My sister gave her life for us, and
Moskowitz, a shoemaker and violinist, he gave his life for us. Should I feel guilty? I would have to feel guilty for living,
and I don't want to. Because guilt, I don't think is a constructive emotion.
You could say that the best way to honor those who didn't make it was to live a good life.
Live a good life, and write the book. A woman from Burlington wrote an article
about me, she came to see me, and I held the picture of my sister in my hand, she took a photo. And she said, "Did you
always know that you were going to write the book?" And I said, "It was a sacred obligation." And she titled
the article "Sacred Obligation." It sounds melodramatic, but it basically is true.
I've always known that for
them, I need to say exactly what happened, and I'm so happy that I did.
Once you settled in New York City, what did you do?
I did not have a high school diploma. And my
English was poor. And I had worked for a physician, the German physician, and I had worked for the Red Cross during the Polish
insurrection. So I went to work as a lab technician in a hospital in Brooklyn, called Unity Hospital.
a license. I was sort of like an apprentice. I worked there for a bit, and I wanted to go to school, but I encountered problems.
Well, they said, you don't have a high school diploma. And then time just went on, and then my father had a partner, and the
two of them split up, and they had had a bookkeeper, and he said he would like me to be his bookkeeper. And that's what I
became. So I worked for my dad, and I went away on a vacation and met my husband.
In Green Mansions. Green Mansions was like Shangri-La. It was an adult camp.
You really went to socialize, to meet people. I had heard about it in Sweden. I met my husband's friend there, and through
him, I met my husband.
He had just passed the bar,and had some sort of a job. He had finished law
school after the war, and passed the bar, and went away on a little vacation. And we met, but nothing. We didn't connect.
But I became friendly with this friend of his. I came back from Green Mansions, and he came to visit. And he said, "Did
many guys take your telephone number?" I said, no! He said, none? I said, no.
He couldn't understand that.
he said, "I'm going to fix you up." And eventually he brought Larry, and we realized we had met very casually at
Green Mansions. And I shortly knew that that was it, but at the time, that was 1948, he worked for a lawyer, he was making
25 dollars a week. And I was making 65 working for my father.
And we moved in with my parents for one year
so we could save up some money and get our own apartment.
We were married 55 years, and had two kids!
Oh yes, about school. We lived in Queens, and I marched myself up to Queens
College. I was very wise, but totally uneducated. And I took a college entrance examination. I did quite well except for the
math, and I was accepted. I went to school for ten years. I got my bachelor's, I got my master's, it took me ten years. My
husband supported me in all that. I think I was very fortunate that my husband was able to sustain it, and I didn't have to
go to work until I finished. I don't know how we managed, but we managed.
Like most Americans, I've had a pretty comfortable life. Never been in peril. Was it strange to have been through your
experience, and almost everyone around you had never lived anything of the sort? Did you feel like you were from another planet?
You are so right. There was a lot of self-denial, because -- I don't remember whether it was my dad, but he said people
don't want to speak about it. And Jewish people didn't want to hear about it, because anybody with sense has to
say to themselves, "There but for the grace of God..." So it took a while for the country to be able to deal with
this, this is so horrendous.
Your friends and acquaintances hadn't shared your experience, of course. Did you just not talk about it?
I did not talk about it, because I had said to you [in an earlier interview] I don't go anywhere to speak about it
unless they read my book. I can't look at the cold eyes. I am talking with my heart and my gut. And then I look at cold
eyes, and they don't even know what I'm talking about! I can't subject myself to this, you know? This is what I found.
I could always share with Larry. I was very fortunate. Now, thinking back, I don't know whether he always really listened,
but he heard me.
He accepted you as an equal, and even if he couldn't
understand it, he could accept it.
He also did a lot of reading. But I'm saying, he had many other things on
his mind. He was a trial lawyer. And sometimes I just needed to talk, and he never stopped me. I don't know what he was thinking,
but it was comforting for me that I could at any time just talk. So this was good.
I didn't talk to m children
too much, because my husband said, "They are American children, and let them grow up as Americans without that load."
So they didn't really get into this until they read the book. They both knew -- how could they not? -- about my sister and
about the friends and all our relatives. But not really all that much.
When were your sons born?
My older one 1952, and my younger one 1956.
When they were growing up, even though they hadn't heard your story, did they sense anything about
You imbibe in a family. We've had a good family. But I had these things they call "schticks."
Bread, you can't throw away a piece of bread. And other things, wastefulness, and I had a thing about -- they thought I was
very European, you know. No television during the week. And (chuckle) they remember that. And my husband used to tell our
friends that -- they were horrified at this woman with these rules. And when he saw how shocked they were, he said, "You
know what's more? I'm not allowed to watch television either, until ten o'clock at night."
Because as the kids were doing
homework at night, I didn't think it would be fair for my husband to come home and watch television. But ten o'clock, everybody
goes to their respective rooms, and he wanted to watch the news. He never had a problem with it, but all our friends did.
They thought it was anti-American, or antediluvian, or something.
to ask about your smile. You smile a lot.
You know, I do. And I don't know it, I just do. But I've been told that
my eyes are always sad. I don't know. But I do smile easily. I'm a positive person, you know, and I feel that I have so much
to be grateful for. I'm not going to go around -- it is my natural way. I was always that way. When I was little, I smiled.
I tell you what my rabbi said here. I belong to a Jewish community center
in Hanover. He said, "Betty, how did you manage to get to this point without hate?"
(She pauses for a long time,
and sighs.) I don't have it.
If I could get hold of some of the poeple who did these terrible things,
I would immediately denounce them, report them. I wouldn't kill them; I'm not a killer. But I've never been given that opportunity.
Who should I hate? It's not an emotion that I'm conscious of having.