**2015 Keystone Press Award winner | First Place | Personality Profile**
Ambler >> It was November 1938, less than a year before the Nazis invaded Poland, and 11-year-old Ellen Nussbaum was startled awake at 5 a.m. to the sound of two gestapo officers knocking on the front door of her parents’ home in Berlin, Germany.
When her parents finally opened the door — themselves having just woken up — the officers informed them that Ellen’s father, Leo Nussbaum, was under arrest.
“They had no reason for the arrest that my mother could find out,” remembers Ellen, now 87. But Leo, a prominent business owner, knew the score. He had committed no crime, true, but the Nussbaums were a Jewish family living in a rapidly changing Germany.
Reason played no role in this.
Still groggy with sleep, Leo “asked to be allowed to freshen up,” Ellen recalls. “So, one of the officers stood in the bathroom with him, his back against the window. The other officer stood outside with his back against the door. It seemed like a lot of people had jumped out of windows [to escape arrests] at that point. They wanted to prevent it.”
As the officers escorted Leo from the building, he called out to his family, “I have a cousin in Louisville, Kentucky. I don’t know his address. See if you can contact him to help me.”
“No name,” Ellen says, “no address.”
It would be months before she saw her father again.
That was 76 years ago, but Ellen remembers it as if it were yesterday. In fact, those few short early morning moments would shape the rest of her life. Some months later, she would leave Berlin with her mother, Gertrude — and would never return.
Sitting on the couch in her quaint apartment in Artman assisted living facility, Ellen shows no sign of the turmoil she experienced during World War II. In fact, she’s all class, poised and postured, smiling tenderly in a spotless, cherry red cardigan, with a string of pearls around her neck.
Her banter is witty, her insights bright.
The only hint of the harrowing ordeals she endured can be found in her densely dark, melancholy eyes and the way she nervously offers another cup of coffee when the conversation turns too serious.
Now a published author who has penned five nonfiction books — including two biographies on Nobel Peace Prize laureate Elie Wiesel — and countless autobiographical short stories, Ellen has spent a lot of time poring over the events of her early life, perhaps looking for some meaning in it all.
“I am really amazed at the process of the mind,” she says, her hands folded neatly on her lap. “You put things away — you think — and then something sets it off again,” memories come flooding back. “I’m beginning to think everything is somehow connected.”
She comes back to this often, the idea of connectedness, the thought “that everything that happens in life is meant to, maybe.” Though, she admits, “some things are hard to accept.”
Following his arrest, Leo Nussbaum was taken to Buchenwald concentration camp, where he remained for 11 weeks and served as a hard laborer in a rock quarry. The work was brutal, and later in life, the conditions of the camp would cost Leo his legs — not to mention his finances.
It wasn’t long before the family discovered “the purpose of arresting [Leo] was to get him to sign over his business to his non-Jewish partner,” Ellen says. Such arrests were commonplace during the time, a symptom of a Nazi movement termed Aryanization, defined as a systematic removal of Jewish citizens from business life in Germany.
Leo’s business partner, Ellen says, “knew it was all wrong,” but there was nothing he could do about it. During the months that Leo was in Buchenwald, the partner “tried to help my mother and me, sending us a little money because we had no funds after my father was arrested. He was very decent to us.”
But life was dire without Leo, and matters were getting worse by the day. His final words to her still haunting Gertrude, it was clear the only hope for the Nussbaum family was to get word to the cousin in Louisville — a man no one had ever met; a man no one even knew how to reach.
As an act of outright desperation, Gertrude “sat down and wrote a letter to the mayor of Louisville,” Ellen recalls. It was a shot in the dark, but Ellen’s mother mailed the letter and hoped for a reply.
“The mayor,” it turns out, “was German born,” Ellen says, “and he happened to play cards with our relative every Thursday night in a well-known deli in Louisville. The next time they [played cards] the mayor pulled out this letter and said, ‘This came for you. I didn’t open it. Take a look.’
“The mayor was the connection that would help us get out [of Germany].”
Acting fast, the relative, Karl, immediately sent papers and affidavits claiming responsibility for Ellen’s family — Leo included. Gertrude promptly took the paperwork to the American consulate, but was met with yet more difficulty.
“The people at the American consulate were very nasty,” Ellen says. “I always thought they looked down on the people who were trying to get out so desperately. They made all kinds of conditions. They told my mother, ‘In order for your husband to receive a passport or a visa, he has to appear in person.’ And my mother said, ‘That’s a little difficult since he’s in Buchenwald.’”
In the end, it seems, it all came down to money.
“My mother found an American lawyer,” Ellen says, “gave him a heap of money and bribed someone at the consulate.”
Leo was out of Buchenwald in a day.
However, it wasn’t a pleasant exit. His keepers made sure to instill lasting fear in Leo.
“They released him,” Ellen recalls, “and said, ‘Don’t think you’re getting away from us. We’ll find you no matter where you go.’”
Within 24 hours of leaving Buchenwald, Leo darted to his home in Berlin, packed everything he could carry and high-tailed it for Antwerp, Belgium, where he caught a ride on a ship called the Europa. The next time Ellen saw her father was when she and Gertrude reunited with him in Louisville.
Fear of the gestapo still hanging over him, one of the first things Leo did in Kentucky was to choose a new name for his family. He opened up a phone book, searched through the listings under the letter N and, seemingly at random, chose the surname Norman.
“He liked the name,” she says, “so he changed his name from Nussbaum to Norman. It was funny — my mother would say only criminals change their name.”
From there, and thanks to the generosity of Karl, the Norman family began a safer, albeit humbler life in America.
“[Karl] was tremendous,” Ellen says. His family “arranged for us to have a house that we paid off. They were wonderful to us. When the grandchildren got new clothes, [I] did, too. They gave me music lessons, voice lessons.”
Leo tried to build his business again — in Germany, Ellen says, he sold construction machinery — but the competition was stiff in Louisville, and health complications made matters worse.
“He lost both legs as a result of the rock business in Buchenwald,” Ellen explains. A mixture of diabetes, arteriosclerosis and the hardships endured in the labor camp “took a lot out of him. He had to have both legs amputated in Louisville.”
For a moment a tender silence takes hold of the small apartment in Artman.
“The worst thing,” Ellen says, finally, “was coming here and seeing the wheelchairs again. It brings back memories. And now my husband is in one, too.”
She offers some more coffee.
Time went on. The Norman family adjusted to life in America. Ellen attended the University of Louisville and got a job working as a clerk for NBC, first in Kentucky and then in New York, where she met her husband and took the surname Stern.
After time, she started writing about her experiences.
Some of her short stories caught the attention of the Jewish Publication Society, which asked her to write a juvenile biography on Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis.
The book met relative success, and the JPS asked Ellen if she’d be interested in writing a biography on Elie Wiesel, author of the moving, iconic Holocaust memoir “Night.” At the time, Ellen was working as a religious school secretary. She wasn’t sure she was qualified to write about Wiesel, wasn’t even sure he would want her to.
But then, one day, she received a phone call at work: “‘This is Elie Wiesel. I like the way you write. Will you come and see me so we can talk?’
“I’ve never been the same since,” she says.
In Wiesel, Ellen found someone who understood the mark left on her by the events of World War II. She admits she felt that her experiences were slight compared to his — Wiesel famously survived imprisonment and unspeakable brutality in Auschwitz and other concentration camps — but the two expatriates found comfort in one another.
“I went to New York to interview Wiesel,” Ellen recalls, “and for over two hours we talked about our fathers, who had said we’d never leave Europe … Wiesel of course had much more horrendous experiences [than me]; he was in the camp, he lost everybody. But there was something there like a homecoming. We understood where we came from, had an understanding of each other.”
Still, for Ellen, humility reigned. She couldn’t fathom writing about such a man, so prolific, so brilliant — and a Nobel Peace Prize laureate to boot. Just knowing Wiesel was monumental. But to chronicle his life?
“I said this to him: ‘How can I understand you?’ Here I was, a reformed Jew,” who still felt like that same little girl pushing a doll carriage around the streets of Berlin. “‘You come from a totally different milieu. How can I write about you?’
“He said, ‘You can find me in my books.’”
So Ellen read his books — all 35 of them. More interviews and correspondences ensued, and when all was said and done, Ellen wrote two biographies on Wiesel, the first simply titled “Elie Wiesel”; the second, “Elie Wiesel: Witness for Life.” During a trip in Washington, D.C., Wiesel lost the manuscript to one of those biographies on a train, Ellen says. Thankfully, she had an extra copy.
“The nicest thing,” she says of knowing the author, “is he has stayed a friend. Sometimes you write about people and they don’t like it. But he just wrote me a greeting for the Jewish New Year.”
It is now time, Ellen says, to put history behind her: “I don’t want to write about the past anymore.”
The Artman resident — whose last published work, “The French Physician’s Boy,” was an account of the 1793 yellow fever epidemic in Philadelphia — is ready to focus on the here and now.
“I felt I’d done enough,” she says. “And the world has since then [World War II] gotten into different shapes, unfortunately. So I would just like to be on a more positive track.”
Though, she admits with a laugh, “I haven’t reached it quite yet.”
Leo Norman passed away in 1965, but not, Ellen adds, before meeting his two grandchildren, Lawrence and Michael, who both now live in Montgomery County and visit their mother often. Ellen’s husband, Harold, is never far from her side.
And as for the past that she’s ready to put behind her?
“It was awful,” she says. “We didn’t know what was happening to the rest of the family [back home in Berlin]. And when we found out, it was bad. Oh God.”
Even so, Ellen Stern can find silver linings in almost any memory — “[life’s] been pretty darn good since then; we’re darn lucky and blessed” — and her faith in mankind, though tested, has never wavered.
“People are not all bad,” she says, simply. “People are not all bad.”