A Holocaust survivor, a record collection and a firefighter revisited on Nevada City’s KVMR | TheUnion.com

A Holocaust survivor, a record collection and a firefighter revisited on Nevada City’s KVMR

Charles Atthill
Special to The Union
Alex Henderson looks over a portion of records collected by a WWII Holocaust survivor along with KVMR's Keith Porter.
Elias Funez/efunez@theunion.com


WHAT: Broadcast of Holocaust survivor James Rothchild’s collection of 5,000 albums

WHEN: 5 p.m. Sunday, July 1

WHERE: 889.5 KVMR-FM Radio or www.kvmr.org

In the summer of 2001, opera-lover Alex Henderson, now a Nevada County resident and at that time a West Sacramento firefighter living in Auburn, was made an offer he couldn’t resist.

He was offered a large collection of vinyl records.

Opera lovers were not that common in the fire service, but it was a fire engineer colleague and friend who, knowing Henderson’s passion for music, made the offer. “There’s this large record collection in my brother-in-law’s father’s basement. Do you want it? You will need a truck.”

Henderson borrowed a flat-bed and drove to Alameda. The weight of the collection of some 5,000 records flattened the leaf-springs of the truck.

For the next 15 years he randomly took out records and played them. He wanted to keep the collection together and donate it whole, but none of the colleges or conservatories were interested in a vinyl collection.

The main focus was opera, vocal music, especially German lieder or art songs, American-Jewish humor, and even recordings of German writers. And when he inquired of his friend as to the origin of the collection an extraordinary story emerged.

A survivor’s story

The collection had belonged to James Rothschild, a German Jew, who emigrated to the U.S. in 1946 and settled in Oakland. The facts of the story are startling — and horrific.

In 1943, Rothschild, his wife Gertrude, and their two-year-old son Peter were arrested by the Gestapo in Berlin and transported to Auschwitz Concentration Camp in Poland.

His wife and son were taken away. He never saw them again.

Rothschild survived to tell the story, a story at once gripping and appalling, filled with details of inhumanity and desperation, yet told with gracious openness.

In 1996, Rothschild recorded his memories of his imprisonment from 1943 until his liberation by the Russians on July 1, 1945. The videos, part of the Bay Area Holocaust Oral History Project, are now in the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington D.C.

During his captivity, Rothschild was in no fewer than nine camps, with names which startle with their familiarity yet shock with the grim reality they have in Rothschild’s account: Auschwitz, Birkenau, Monowitz, Gleiwitz, Theresienstadt.

Of prisoners who were put to work in the camps, 90 percent died within the first month, of starvation, malnutrition or sickness. Rothschild was one of the 10 percent.

He was educated, knew Latin and Ancient Greek, some French, and through his love of music a little Italian. He became a “schreiber,” or “writer”. The civilian prisoner responsible for reconciling prisoners’ numbers could not read. He became unofficial interpreter for French prisoners when the SS guard said, “You tell them what to do.” There were small perks: a pair of leather shoes, even if they made him look like BoBo the Clown; a little extra soup from the bottom of the pot.

His sister Anni, also a prisoner, had talked her way into becoming a medical stenographer in the infamous women’s Building 10 in Auschwitz, and survived. Their brother Walter was not so lucky.

Rothschild was 83-years-old when he recorded the interviews, 50 years after the events and dates he recalls with such astonishing detail. He frowns as he speaks, not so much it seems from the dreadfulness of the memories but from his determination to be complete and accurate.

Sometimes he smiles, a genuine smile of pleasure, usually with a fond recollection. He especially liked nurses, he says, with a grin. Sometimes the smile is wry, with little humor.

He was asked whether prisoners were able to hide anything on the journey to Auschwitz. But upon arrival at Auschwitz, greeted by a civilian prisoner who said quietly “It’s terrible, terrible,” they were stripped, their hair shaved. They showered and were tattooed (his tattoo number was 127068).

“How can you hide anything when you are naked?” he says.

They were taken outside to wait. And wait. It was June, the average low temperature 51 degrees. But for Walter it had been January, average temperature 23 degrees.

Rothschild is gentle, even genial, full of the charm for which he was known. Only once in the video does he vent helpless anger: a fellow prisoner had enraged others to the point where they set upon him.

“I could not do that,” he said, “but he deserved it.”

And only once does the emotion of a memory cause him to stumble: “You hear when people before they die their whole life goes before them. It happened to me. I thought of my sister, and my wife and my son.”

The camp was being bombed by the American Air Force.

Stark words capture his experience. Of the time before their arrest, as they tried to evade the Gestapo, he says simply “Those were awful times.” Once arrested, he says, they were relieved not to be on the run, not knowing what was to come but fearing the worst.

Liberation and a New Life

In Theresienstadt, his last camp, he met Hilde, whom he married in the Allied camp at Deggendorf after the liberation. They waited 10 days to get a room to themselves. And in 1946, they obtained visas for the USA.

They landed in New York, and traveled by train to Oakland, where they met other German Jews, and settled with their two children, full of optimism for their new life, horror turned to hope.

And he began collecting records, music a huge and important part of his life.

Among his favorites: Pavarotti, Dvorak’s New World Symphony, records from a German-language radio station, Marlene Dietrich, writer Thomas Mann reading his own work. But he especially loved Italian opera, and he went to Alameda Community College to learn Italian so he could understand the operas better. He shared his love of music with his children, taking them through the printed scores.

Hilde passed away in 1988, Rothschild nursing her through her last months. A year later he met Sandra, an Italian Jew, a nurse, who would be his partner until his death on May 7, 2001.

Listen to The Music

Alex Henderson, owner of Rothschild’s remarkable collection, met Keith Porter, a host of KVMR’s Classics Declassified program, singing in the Sierra Master Chorale.

They developed a plan to play some of Rothschild’s collection on one of Porter’s broadcasts. And on Sunday, July 1, at 5 p.m., you can hear tracks from the collection on KVMR 89.5FM, while Henderson tells more of the moving story of James Rothschild and the music that was his life.

Charles Atthill is a freelance music writer and KVMR broadcaster.

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