Suitcase represents Shoa suffering, survival

Suitcase represents Shoa suffering, survival

Charlotte Gruenbaum Elwin as a child with her parents, Johanna and Otto Gruenbaum.     
Charlotte Gruenbaum Elwin as a child with her parents, Johanna and Otto Gruenbaum.     

battered relic of one child’s wrenching separation from his family during the Holocaust has acquired an aura of poignant sorrow due to a more recent sad occurrence.

It is a suitcase that symbolized freedom for George Elwin — first on a Kindertransport that sent him from Nazi Vienna to safety in an orphanage in England as a boy, then on a trip to New York at the end of World War II. 

Among its contents were several dozen letters and photos from Elwin’s correspondence with his family members while he was in England.

In 2002, seven years after his death, Elwin’s widow, Charlotte, donated the suitcase to the Holocaust Council of Greater MetroWest. Today it stands against a wall in the Harry Wilf Holocaust Memorial on the Aidekman campus in Whippany — a beaten relic with no handles, a top detached from its body, and a lining with cloth peeling away.

“It contained a lot of pictures and letters in it that my father had sent back to his parents. It was my father’s private case. It was something we never touched,” one of his daughters, Sharon Elwin of Fort Lee, told NJ Jewish News in a June 17 phone interview. 

“But he never had the opportunity to speak about it or document it or tell us anything much about his life,” said her sister, Audrey Pancis of Morris Plains, who took part in the phone conversation.

The life of Charlotte Elwin’s late husband, as well as her own bitter experiences during the Holocaust, left a strong impression on her.

A few days before she died on June 14 at the age of 86, “she told me, ‘I’m done,’” said Pancis. “She meant she was tired of life. She just couldn’t handle anything.” 

Six days earlier, two men in Water Department uniforms had come to her home in Clifton. “She asked for ID,” said Pancis, “and they showed her that,” but then things went terribly wrong. One of the men took her downstairs while the other ransacked her home.”

Though they did not harm her physically, the two men “cleaned her out of everything,” said Pancis. “They took all her jewelry, including the few pieces my father was given by his family.” 

Their mother “had a heart of gold and was a giving person,” said Elwin, but the bitter experience of the Holocaust clouded the older woman’s memories. 

“She was a very strong, independent, stubborn woman, no different from other survivors,” Pancis said. “I know her death was escalated from this robbery. She felt so violated. It reminded her of the way the Nazis came into her house to take her father.” 

“Kristallnacht was the biggest presence in her life,” said Pancis. “Everything was taken from her” that night of Nov. 9-10, 1938, when pogroms swept Germany and Austria. 

After the robbery, Pancis said, her mother “kept saying, ‘I am done.’ She had the strength to drive with all of her empty jewelry boxes to my house, and she said, ‘Audrey, I’m done.’”

Their mother was born Charlotte Gruenebaum in Giessen, Germany, on April 30, 1930. Eight years later, after the Nazi rampages of Kristallnacht, her father was taken to the concentration camp at Buchenwald. But because he had been awarded an Iron Cross for his German military service in World War I, he was released and allowed to leave his native land, said Pancis.

A year later, he and his wife were given visas to the United States, “but they didn’t know what to do with my mother,” said Pancis.

For a year Charlotte stayed with her older brother, Kurt, in Brussels “until he put her on the last boat out of Dunkirk,” said Pancis. At the age of nine, Charlotte was alone when she stepped off a Holland America liner in Hoboken.

“Her parents came to meet her but when she got off the boat she ran up and down the docks, unable to find them, even though her mother was right in front of her. They hadn’t seen each other in over a year. She was so emotional and so distraught that she just didn’t recognize her own mother.”

The family lived on East 96th Street in Manhattan, near where her father worked as an elevator operator at Mount Sinai Hospital. After finishing high school, Charlotte attended nursing school at Beth Israel Hospital. 

In 1953 she met George at a dance for German-Jewish singles in Manhattan’s Washington Heights, got married the following year, and moved to Clifton, where the two sisters grew up.

George, who was born in Vienna in 1926, never saw his parents after the war. His father, Viktor, died in 1944 in a displaced persons’ camp in Yugoslavia from a lack of insulin for his diabetes. In 1945, George’s mother (Alice), his sister (Ellen), and his grandmother all perished in Chelmno, a Nazi death camp in Poland, September 11, 1942. 

To council director Barbara Wind, the suitcase George carried with him on the Kindertransport represents a special part of its Shoa exhibit in the Wilf memorial.

“Other people were reluctant to lend us photographs or other artifacts, but there Charlotte was giving us the suitcase. This artifact has become so important to the exhibit itself. Students are so drawn to it because it makes them think, ‘What do you take when you know you are leaving but you don’t know when you are coming back, or if you are coming back?’” Wind said.

For all of his adult life, George Elwin was an insulin-dependent diabetic. Charlotte and their two daughters shared the stresses of “playing a big part in taking care of him” by making sure he was eating properly and taking his medications. Charlotte was a success in her nursing profession.

After his death, their mother “was more relaxed because she wasn’t on such a restricted way of life,” said Elwin. 

She attended Conservative services at Clifton Jewish Center and devoted much of her time to playing mah-jongg with friends, volunteering with Hadassah, and knitting afghans and sweaters. 

“She was the neighborhood granny,” said Pancis. “The Holocaust has been a very dominant theme in our household and always will be, but her world was her children. What kept her young and strong was being part of our lives.”

In addition to her two daughters, Charlotte Elwin is survived by her son-in-law, Jeffrey Pancis, and three grandchildren, Jason (Amy), Evan, and Kyle (Melanie) Pancis.

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