Next to the North Sea and close by the Dutch border, Sophie Yaari was born Sophie Nussbaum in 1925, in Emden, Germany. Her father owned a small grocery shop. Twice widowed in childless marriages, his third wife was Sophie's mother, twenty-six years younger than him. Their marriage produced three daughters; Sophie was the middle child.Sophie Yaari: There was a very nice Jewish life in Emden. We had our own school and a very beautiful synagogue. Emden had a real Jewish community--very close and warm--not assimilated like the Jews in Berlin. Some of the families were orthodox, but not all. My family was kosher and religious, but not strict orthodox; my father closed his shop on the sabbath and on Sunday too. Most Jews did not do that.
Sophie's entire family lived in Emden. In the 1930's the town had a population of thirty-four thousand, including a Jewish community of about one thousand, descendants of Jews who had settled there in the 15th century, following their expulsion from Spain.
All the Christian people shopped in our store, and we did business with the hotels as well; Emden was a harbor town, and there were many hotels. Then in January 1933, Hitler took over, and right away the boycott of Jewish businesses began. People stopped speaking to us--not everyone, but most. I was only seven years old, but I remember this very well. Children who played with us one day, the next day did not. We were Jewish.
So it began. S.S. men waited in front of the Jewish shops to take photos of any non-Jews who went in. They printed the pictures in the S.S. paper, Der Sturm, to make everyone afraid, and to be against the Jews, even if they didn't feel it in their hearts.
Some of our customers told us they didn't think too highly of Hitler; they wanted to buy in our shop, but were afraid to be seen entering. So I delivered the groceries to their homes in my doll carriage, or in my school rucksack. Sometimes I had to make three trips to a house in one day because I couldn't fit all the groceries in the carriage and still have room for the dolls.
Life began to be very hard for the Jewish people. Slowly more and more things changed. It didn't all happen in '33, but in '34, '35, every few months there were new prohibitions, and we felt them deeply. Then they started taking people to concentration camps. They began with the communists and political people, next were the Jews.
The life of our Jewish community was very important and warm, but even so, many people were leaving for America, Holland, Belgium, and other countries. But most German Jews were saying to each other, "This is our country, our home. Hitler won't last. In a few years things will be better. We will stay here." They felt themselves to be not only very Jewish, but also very German. It was terribly sad, and not very clever.
My sisters and I grew up in this kind of atmosphere--we heard everything, saw everything, knew everything. But we could not understand how people who came to our house, gave parties for us, went with us on picnics, whose daughters we played with in our house, suddenly were not our friends.
Our hairdresser lived on our street; my sister and I played with his daughters. Our two families had been friends since around World War One, when my father had helped them out quite substantially with food. Being in the grocery business, my father knew many farmers, and he could get eggs, cheese, and butter when they were scarce--he always helped everyone.
Now it was 1933, and my mother and I went to the hairdresser to have our hair cut--I remember it very clearly, even the wicker chairs we sat in while we waited. Mother had heard that he had stopped cutting the hair of Jewish clients, but he was our friend--she was certain he would treat us differently. We waited quite a long time while he attended to another client. When he finished at last, he looked over at us and shrugged his shoulders.
Mother said, "I don't understand. When the other people leave, then you can cut our hair."
"I'm very sorry," he said," but I'm no longer cutting Jewish people's hair." We had to go somewhere else.
That was merely sad. As time went by, our situation grew worse. There was always some new thing forbidden to us, and always more and more Jewish people leaving Germany. My father was afraid to emigrate; he was much older than my mother, and had three small children to look after.