MAITLAND — Erica Cantor has nostalgic memories of an early childhood that was idyllic in every way.
Born in 1929 in Stuttgart, capital of southwest Germany’s Baden-Württemberg state, Cantor said she was raised by loving parents in a modern city and has fond memories of life there.
“We practiced Christmas, which in Germany was a very long celebration that lasted the entire month,” she said. “I had a very happy childhood in Germany. I had loving parents.”
That is, until the mid-1930s, when very dark clouds formed over her family — and the families of all Jews living in Germany.
“In 1933, Hitler and the Nazi Party came to power,” she said. “In the beginning, Stuttgart was not impacted much. Then in 1935, all German Jews lost their citizenship.”
On Sunday, Cantor was a guest speaker at the Holocaust Memorial Resource & Education Center in Maitland, where she recounted how her family coped with the terrifying rise of Hitler and his “Final Solution.”
Barbara Weinreich, a member of the Center’s board of directors, said Cantor was invited to speak because it is testimonials like hers that help prevent the tragedy of the Holocaust from happening again.
“The beginning of genocide begins with disrespecting people — and taking away their dignity,” Weinreich said.
Cantor noted that her parents were of different faiths.
“My father was Jewish, although he did not practice his religion, which was common among German Jews at the time,” Cantor said.
Her mother, who was born in Prague, was Catholic. Her father had a medical practice — until he lost the ability to practice under the Nazi Party’s anti-Semitic laws.
“They began to put signs all over town that said ‘Jews are now welcome here,’ ” she recalled. “In 1938, my father decided it was time to leave and he applied for a visa to come to the United States.”
The problem was that visas were not approved on a speedy basis, she said, adding “It took sometimes years before you could leave.”
Their fate became even more ominous in November 1938, when the Nazis launched Kristallnacht, also known as the Night of Broken Glass. It was a pogrom against Jews throughout Nazi Germany and Austria on Nov. 9-10 1938, carried out by SA paramilitary forces and German civilians, as German authorities looked on without intervening.
“In November 1938 the Nazis became very aggressive,” she said. “They smashed the windows of stores all over Germany.”
They also arrested hundreds of Jews — including her father, who was then sent to the Dachau concentration camp.
“I remember my mother waking me up to say goodbye to my father,” she said.
Fortunately, “After a month my father got out of Dachau,” she said, although the harassment of local Jews continued.
“In 1939 I was also expelled from school because my father was Jewish,” she said.
At this point, her journey improved. In 1939, Cantor’s parents were able to send her to England on the Kindertransport (Children’s Transport), the informal name of a series of rescue efforts which brought thousands of refugee Jewish children to Great Britain from Nazi Germany between 1938 and 1940. There, she was taken in by a family in Manchester.
“My mother told me I was going on this wonderful adventure to England,” she said. Her foster mother spoke fluent German, and she was fully accepted in the local schools, Cantor said.
“I really didn’t feel left out at all,” she said.
In May of 1940, her father’s visa number finally came up, and as a result, “My family, my brother and I came over by boat to the United States,” she said. They had escaped the horrors of Nazi Germany.
The family arrived in New York City, and would later settle in Michigan. Cantor’s mother was able to join them that fall.
Not everyone in the family was as fortunate. Her grandparents were sent to a concentration camp in Czechoslovakia and did not survive.
“My grandparents died in January 1943, either from starvation or disease,” she said. “They died within a week of one another.”
Cantor’s family eventually settled in Braintree, Massachusetts, and she would become an American citizen in 1946 — the beneficiary of a willingness on the part of this country to take in European refugees from the horrors of the Holocaust, of World War II, and the Nazi genocide.
She would later have a highly successful career as an editor in chief at Harcourt Publishing, even following them when the company transferred their headquarters in the 1990s from New York to Orlando.
Now retired, Cantor said she was excited to have been given an opportunity to tell her story at the Holocaust Memorial Resource & Education Center, which she was visiting for the first time.
“I’ve never been here before,” she said, “and I was delighted to be able to do that.”
Michael Freeman is an Orlando journalist, playwright and author of the book “Bloody Rabbit”. Contact him at Freelineorlando@gmail.com..