Walter Benjamin Kaufmann and Elsie Barbara (Herzfeld) Kaufmann
Walter Benjamin Kaufmann was born on Nov. 13, 1909 in Munich, Germany. As an only child of Berthold and Friederike (Freitag) Kaufmann, Walter grew up in a Jewish, upper middle-class but mostly secular household. Elsie Barbara (Herzfeld) Kaufmann was born on October 30, 1912, in Munich to George and Betty Herzfeld. Elsie had a younger sister, Marianne, born in 1915. Like the Kaufmanns, the Herzfelds were also mostly secular – German first, Jewish second. Both family trees dated back hundreds of years in Germany.
Walter and Elsie met in Munich and were married on Christmas Eve 1934. Alfred Michael arrived soon after, born in 1936. Walter became a retailer of home goods – as part of a family business – and the young family lived a comfortable life in these early years. Walter was also extremely musical – excelling on the piano and was blessed with a wonderful voice. The couple enjoyed skiing as one particular pastime.
During the mid 1930s, as life for Jews grew increasingly intolerable, Jews throughout Germany were deciding whether to remain or leave. Indeed, two of Walter’s cousins, Fred and Ernest Freitag, emigrated to the US in 1935. The decision to leave was difficult for most. It often meant leaving some family members behind who were too old or set in their ways. Most could not imagine the horrors that were yet to come. That changed violently on November 9th, 1938 during Kristallnacht, the infamous Night of Broken Glass, a pogrom against Jews across Germany orchestrated by civilians and the SS.
Aware that there were Nazi plans to arrest Jewish men before Kristallnacht, Walter had gone into hiding. Just prior to Kristallnacht, the Gestapo arrived at Walter and Elsie’s Munich apartment looking for Walter to arrest him for the crime of being Jewish. When they did not find him at home, the SS told Elsie that if her husband was not back by tomorrow, they would return and shoot her and her young son. Elsie contacted Walter; he returned home. The next day the SS returned, arrested Walter, and sent him to Dachau, a concentration camp located 10 miles outside of Munich.
At Dachau, Walter tried to cheer up the other Jewish prisoners by singing and leading them in song. Reminding the inmates of their humanity was antithetical to the tyranny imposed by the Nazi guards, who responded to Walter’s music by knocking his teeth out with rifle butts and beating him severely. He was nearly killed.
Meanwhile, suddenly alone, afraid, and 26 years old with a 2-year-old son, Elsie courageously acted to try to save her husband’s life. She went to the local SS headquarters several times over the next weeks, never knowing if she would be assaulted or killed there and somehow – she would never say how and her family in later years would not ask – convinced them to release Walter from Dachau. Elsie at her core was tenacious – never accepting no for an answer – a trait that would save their lives. On December 1, 1938, weeks after he was arrested, there was a knock on their apartment door. There stood Walter – battered but alive.
Walter and Elsie immediately made plans to flee Germany for Belgium. After deciding that the best way out was by air, they said goodbye to their parents who they were never to see again. (Walter’s father Berthold had died of natural causes eleven months prior. Three years later, on November 25, 1941, Friederike Kaufmann, and George and Betty Herzfeld would be murdered in Kaunas IX – a death camp in Kaunas, Lithuania).
The young family arrived at Munich airport with counterfeit travel documents and proceeded to board a biplane – destination Antwerp. Before the biplane could takeoff, it was stopped by machine gun toting SS guards who demanded to see each passengers’ identification documents. Elsie recalled years later that she thought they would be shot dead in the next moments. One (non-Jewish) passenger realized what was happening, distracted the SS, and the flight was allowed to leave.
The Kaufmann’s, with their son, Alfred, ‘settled’ in Antwerp, in a small basement apartment for the first half of 1939. During that time, Elsie contracted a severe case of Trench mouth disease and almost died. They contacted Walter’s cousins in New York, Fred and Ernest Freitag, to try to get an affidavit – a financial guaranty that Walter and Elsie would not be a burden on the USA. Fred and Ernest contacted another cousin, who had some financial wherewithal, and that cousin signed the affidavit. The Kaufmann’s boarded a boat headed to the US in the summer of 1939 with $12, a few clothes and some family photographs and arrived at Ellis Island (and becoming Kaufman) as war was breaking out in the Europe they had fled. (Marianne, Elsie’s sister, was able to flee to South Africa.)
The Kaufmans moved into an apartment in Washington Heights in NYC, barely speaking any English. The next few years were unceasingly difficult. Walter found a factory job in Chicago; Elsie stayed in New York. They could not make ends meet and little Alfred then 3 years old was placed with a foster family in Pennsylvania for the next two years. Walter – a natural salesman – eventually gravitated to a series of sales jobs. In the late 1940s, the family with Alfred reunited with them in 1942, moved to Massachusetts where immigrant friends from Munich had settled. Walter worked for Prudential for many years – selling insurance policies to other immigrants initially. In 1949, the Kaufman family joined Temple Sinai in Brookline where Walter was a cantor until his death. Elsie found work in a secretarial position for a man who lost his only son on Iwo Jima. For many years, Elsie took care of her sister Marianne who had left South Africa for the US after the war and suffered greatly from the stress of the pre-war and war years. A frequent visitor to the Kaufman household was a cousin, Max Lorand, who had survived being machined gunned on a work detail outside of Auschwitz. The Kaufmans also befriended a young man – their landlord for years in Brighton, MA (1953) – who as a 19-year-old G.I. was in the first wave of U.S. soldiers on Omaha Beach on D-Day. Elsie baked him cookies every week – her way of saying thank you for ‘rescuing the world’ (her words).
Walter made a point of fasting every year on December 1st – the anniversary of his release from Dachau. Elsie died on that date, December 1st, in 1995; Walter passed away in 1979.
Bruce Kaufman shared that his parents never complained, but rather instilled a level of resilience and perseverance in Alfred and Bruce that drove them to succeed. Elsie had remarked to both sons when they were young: “They can take everything away from you, but they can never take away your education”. Indeed. Alfred went onto Harvard University and would earn a PhD in Physics. Bruce studied at Cornell University and works in the investment field. Walter and Elsie’s legacy continues through their many grandchildren and great grandchildren. They would be so proud.