Leslie Przybylek, Curator of History, Heinz History Center:
You know, as a curator, I deal with the stories of so many pieces here that on any given day I may have a different favorite artifact.
But there’s a couple of small pieces here at the beginning of the exhibit that really speak loudly about the experiences of people during the war, some who weren’t Pittsburghers at first but who become residents of the city as the war goes forward.
One of those is a small German passport that was stamped 1940. The photos in it give you pictures of Barbara and her son Norbert Weikersheimer. Barbara is about 35 years old when the photo’s taken. Norbert’s about nine or ten. It’s in a case related to other Jewish materials connected with the Prelude to War.
In fact, as I mentioned, the passport is dated 1940 and Barbara and her son are Jewish and they’re trying to get out of Germany. What’s in the case beside them is another passport. It’s for Barbara’s husband Erwin. In fact, if you look at the dates on these two documents, Erwin gets out of Germany a year before, actually about 16 months before Barbara and Norbert. And you look at them and at first you think how could this husband leave his wife and son behind in Germany. And of course there’s a larger story behind this.
The family ran a dry goods store in a small town, not a large Jewish population, in Germany. And as things got worse and worse, they had to close the store. They moved to one of the larger urban areas. In 1938, in November, just a few days after an event that has come to be known as Kristallnacht, that is the “Night of Broken Glass” – it was an organized kind of rampage throughout Germany where Jews in the country were attacked. Erwin, the husband, is arrested and he was sent to Dachau which was a concentration camp but not yet a death camp at that time but even then Barbara and Norbert had no idea where he was. And because the camps had not totally become what they would be later in the war, after three months, Erwin is released. But his release is on the proposition that he leave, he leave Germany. That’s how he ends up getting released. It’s not an easy thing to do. He gets sponsorship in England and he goes. He has no choice. He has to leave. But the arrangements are such that he can’t take Barbara and Norbert with him.
So Erwin goes and Barbara and Norbert are left behind and for another 16 months, they try to get out of the country. They book passage a couple times. The trips fall through. And of course this passport is finally the evidence that they do eventually make it out. They flee through France, Spain, and Portugal, to England, and the family eventually makes it, first to New York and then they have relatives here in Pittsburgh, in Squirrel Hill. And so the family will eventually settle here in Squirrel Hill.
I look at that passport and I look at the photos of Barbara and Norbert. She’s 35 and he’s a 9-year-old, 10-year-old boy. What must that have been like for them? You know, first she goes through this whole episode where her husband disappears and they don’t know where he is and he comes back. He clearly wasn’t in the best of health when he returned and he has to leave. So here she is with a child, left there to figure out the rest of it largely on her own.
To me it symbolizes both the situation that how many people faced that kind of thing in Germany, the Jews in that country and in others in trying to escape. You know, it’s also the larger story of women especially here in Western Pennsylvania facing something that they just certainly could not have imagined before. Your husband or your brother or your father, the men in your street, your neighborhood are gone so now you’re the breadwinner. You’re the factory worker. You’ve still got to keep the home going. You’ve got to make everything work.
This exhibit is called “We Can Do It” and that’s kind of the real spirit of “We Can Do It” to me. These people who had to persevere regardless. They had to find a way to make it work, to keep going. In the case of Barbara and Norbert, that passport symbolizes their chance finally to get out of Germany and start a new life here in Pittsburgh. They change their name. It becomes Weikers, not Weikersheimer. The collection is here in our Detre Library & Archives today under the Weikers Family and it’s just one more piece of this larger story of World War II and how it shaped the Pittsburgh region.