JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-FORT SAM HOUSTON, Texas –
A 100-year-old Holocaust survivor and military nurse shared her story during a Holocaust Days of Remembrance observance at Brooke Army Medical Center, April 17, 2023.
Unable to attend in person, Hannah Deutch virtually spoke to a packed auditorium from her nursing home in New York.
Softly speaking in a German accent, Deutch described the terrible events leading up to the Holocaust and the resilience that enabled her to move forward despite her many losses.
Born in Dusseldorf in July 1922, Deutch moved to Bochum, Germany, when she was two years old. Her mother, a master hat maker, opened a millinery store and her father worked in business with major organizations and department stores.
Deutch recalled the Austrian-born Adolf Hitler, backed by the Nazi Party, coming into power as the chancellor of Germany on Jan. 30, 1933, and the Nazi-organized youth movement that followed to indoctrinate young “Aryan” people with Nazi ideology.
“He poisoned the children,” she recalled. “The boys were in the Hitler Youth and girls were in the League of German Girls.”
In April 1933, the Nazi Party started boycotting Jewish businessmen and liberal professions and passed numerous anti-Semitic laws, including the Law for the Restoration of Professional Civil Service, which enabled the government to remove Jews and other “undesirables” from civil service. A month later, university students burned nearly 25,000 volumes of “un-German” books including those authored by Ernest Hemingway, Jack London, Helen Keller and many Jewish authors.
Deutch recalled when bonfires lit up across Germany. “Jewish people saw what was happening and started going to consulates to get numbers to get out of the country,” she said.
Over the next several years, about 130,000 Jews left Germany seeking safety in South Africa, Palestine, Latin America and Eastern Europe.
A new wave of emigration took place after “Kristallnacht,” or the Night of Broken Glass, which took place Nov. 10, 1938. That night over 100 Jews were murdered, 30,000 Jewish men were imprisoned in concentration camps, and homes, synagogues and businesses were destroyed.
Unaware of what was to come, “I went to bed that evening and all of a sudden my bed was shaking,” Deutch said. “My mother was trying to wake me up. The synagogue across the street was on fire.”
“It was so bright it was like sunshine,” she added.
She recalls seeing the firemen lining the street in front of the building with their arms crossed, watching the synagogue burn. “No one lifted a finger,” she said.
The next morning, Deutch saw long, windowless police cars taking Jewish men away two by two. “After that, it got quiet around me,” she said. “I looked for my friends and they weren’t there. We didn’t know if they had been picked up and killed or got out.”
Overnight, people started walking over the mountains and across the border into Switzerland, Holland and France. In the weeks after Kristallnacht, more laws were passed calling for Jewish-owned property to be transferred to “Aryan” ownership and preventing Jews from attending German schools, having a driver’s license or owning a vehicle.
With the vast numbers of Jewish refugees, nations began limiting the numbers admitted across their borders. Fortunately for Deutch, her cousin arranged for the 16-year-old to go on the Kindertransport, or Children’s Transport, a series of rescue efforts between 1938 and 1940. Children ages 17 and under, mostly Jewish, were separated from their parents and sent to England to be cared for until their parents could join them, she explained, noting the majority of those parents never arrived.
Deutch, one of the oldest there, recalls being on the train platform with children crying and clinging to her. “They were hanging onto my skirt; they didn’t want to go with strangers,” she recalled. “They would ask, ‘When is my mother going to come?’ It was incredibly sad.”
The children traveled by train to various ports and then boarded a boat for England. Upon arrival in London, they were ushered into an auditorium and, one by one, children were sent home with foster families or relatives. Deutch soon found herself alone in the cavernous hall.
“I said to myself, ‘Dear God, what now?,’” she said. “I had 10 marks on me and didn’t know the language.”
Deutch’s ride finally arrived to take her to a boarding house. Kindertransport officials later asked her what she wanted to do for a profession. She told them a medical doctor or a nurse.
“I went to the hospital and put on a uniform, and I was a nurse,” she said.
On Sept. 3, 1939, the United Kingdom entered World War II and London became central to the British war effort.
Deutch and other German refugees were moved to a refugee internment camp on the Isle of Man, where she continued her studies and became a registered nurse. Grateful for England’s support, she enlisted in the British army in 1941. She recalls her commanding officer asking her if she’d like to be a cook or a soldier-servant, which was an orderly for an officer. “I told her neither. I am a nurse,” she said.
Deutch served as a nurse treating war casualties in London until 1944.
She recalled working in St. Thomas’ Hospital near Buckingham Palace during the height of the German “blitz” bombing in the summer of 1940.
“The bombs are flying and sirens were going off,” she said. “We were bombed out of the hospital.”
Deutch and others helped patients out of the hospital, saving many lives. “I remember Churchill came to visit, a cigar in his hand, and thanked us for our service,” she said. “That was something.”
Despite the damage from that bombing and others, the hospital remained open throughout World War II.
Deutch met her husband, a Canadian citizen, in 1943 at the Jewish Forces Club. She soon became pregnant and was sent on a ship convoy to Canada, where she remained until after her husband died in 1949.
While there, Deutch went to look at the list of survivors every day to try and locate her family, but only found two cousins. She later discovered her mother and stepfather had escaped via boat from Holland to Chile. The rest of her family remained behind and died in concentration camps.
Seeking to reunite with her parents, Deutch and her two sons traveled to Chile, where she worked at the United Nations as an interpreter while studying to be an accountant, then returned to Canada and became a social worker. She later moved to New York to work as an accountant in an advertising agency. Her sons are now 75 and 77 years old.
She concluded by thanking all present for their contributions to healthcare and to the military. “To save a life is God’s work,” she said.
Deutch continues to be a sought-after speaker and each year at this time, shares her story of survival to ensure no one forgets the 6 million Jewish men, women and children -- and countless others deemed inferior – who were murdered by the Nazi regime.