4/23/2014

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A Witness to History: 'We thought this is it'

A Witness to History: 'We thought this is it'

BOISE, Idaho (KBOI) -- When it comes to the long shadows of history, maybe none are longer than those cast by the Nazis in Hitler's rise to power.

Rose Beal was just 11 when life in Frankfurt turned hellish for the Jews living there. 

"We were told not to play in the streets anymore," she says, sitting for a rare interview in the well-upholstered living room of her Boise condo. "We were attacked by non-Jewish kids, the very kids we played with just weeks before."
 
Like a cancer, the anti-Jewish sentiment built slowly. The Nazis spread anti-Semitism through the media of the day, primarily movies, often denigrating Jews as vermin or worse. Beal says her grandmother could sense the growing persecution and worried about the safety of her children and grandchildren.
 
Beal says her grandmother died six months after Hitler's rise, never knowing how many members of her own family would perish in the death camps.
 
On November 9, 1938, the Nazi antipathy for the Jews in their midst spilled over, provoking a two-night rampage that targeted Jewish businesses and synagogues.  Nearly a hundred Jews were killed and thousands arrested.  
 
It was the now-famous "Kristallnacht," or Night of Broken Glass. So named because windows were broken and houses of worship torched. For Beal, the message was crystal clear.
 
"Today we are going to kill all the Jews. And we saw all the broken glass and this furniture broken and people beaten up. We had no reason to believe otherwise, and we thought this is it," she says mournfully.
 
The killing spree marked the onset of the Holocaust. For Beal and her two brothers, life in Frankfurt became a game of cat-and-mouse, living by their wits, surviving mostly on luck.
 
But that luck ran out one night when the secret police arrived at their door and arrested them. They were put aboard a train bound for Poland, fairly certain they were headed for a concentration camp. Storm troopers met them at the border, shooting their guns in the air and causing a near-panic.
 
"They addressed us as 'Pig-Jews,' says Beal, still in shock at the horror she experienced that night. "We were so tightly packed there, people fainted and two people died and they couldn't fall down because the crowd held them up, and it was horrible."
 
Beal was frantic.
 
"At one point, I lost it," she says quietly. "I started crying, yelling, carrying on."
 
One of her brothers calmed her down by assuring her they would survive. It turned out he was right because luck once again played a role in Beal's life.
 
A wealthy relative in the United States had agreed to sponsor them, according to the immigration rules at the time. Soon, Rose and her brothers were aboard the President Harding bound for America.
 
"This is the part I get all emotional. When we sailed into New York harbor and I saw this beautiful skyline and Lady Liberty, it was incredible," she says, her voice rising.
 
Cousins took them to a diner in Times Square, a symbol of prosperity even in the Depression. 
 
"Horn & Hardart. And for fifteen cents you got some pie and a drink," she says marveling at the memory. "I felt this country is incredible."
 
Horn & Hardart was a fixture in the Big Apple, a newfangled eatery called an automat where customers put money in slots and pulled their menu items from behind sliding glass doors. The experience cemented for Beal the promise of what would be her adopted country.
 
At first, she couldn't get a job as anything other than a live-in maid. Employment was difficult for women of the time, especially those who lacked a formal education.
 
Eventually, Beal found herself working at Bullock's department store in Los Angeles. It was the so-called "Mad Men era," when women rarely rose above the station of salesgirl. But Beal managed to break through the glass ceiling as the new chief furniture buyer for the company, the first woman to hold that position.
 
Still, in the back of her mind, she was determined to muster the courage to see the death camps where so many of her relatives had perished. It took years to plan the trip, the first of many.
 
"I got physically ill at Auschwitz," she says, shuddering at the memory.
 
She walked into the gas chamber and got the shock of her life. 
 
"I looked and got hysterical because there were no shower heads," she says.
 
No shower heads meant no showers. So it was clear to this Holocaust survivor that the holes in the ceiling weren't for water but gas.
 
Tens of thousands had stood where she now did. Perhaps some of her own relatives. 
 
"I later learned that it took twenty minutes for them to die," she says, shaking her head.
 
Suddenly, the only sound in the living room is from birds chirping in a park across the way. 
 
A reporter asks, "Did you get a sense, there but for the grace of God go I?"
 
"I still have that sense," she says. "But here for the grace of God go I."
 
Over the years, Rose Beal has embraced the role of Boise's only Holocaust survivor. She says the stories she has told sometimes have been a surprise even to members of her own family.
 
She's also proud that Boise is the only city in the United States with an Anne Frank Memorial. Beal saw it as her duty to get involved as a volunteer, giving tours and lecturing.
 
For her efforts, there are plans for a permanent expression of the city's gratitude. When the memorial is expanded, the new park will include a garden dedicated to Beal. 
 
She beams at the thought, although she admits she is embarrassed by all the fuss. 
 
And then she adds, "There will be roses." 
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