Felice Birnberg, my deceased grandmother. A wonderful woman with an amazing story.
Felice was born August 8th, 1924, in Vienna, Austria. Felice’s education was cut short as a child due to World War II. In 1940, Felice was 16 years old when Hitler and the Nazis took power. At the same time, Sofie and Nathan, Felice’s parents, were arrested for tax evasion. Felice stayed home in Vienna with her grandmother Devorah. A few months later, Felice and Devorah were deported to a concentration camp together in Latvia. Around the same time, Felice’s mother Sofie, was sent off to Auschwitz. Felice and Sofie had a very special bond so it was devastating for them both when they were split up. They did not know if they were ever going to see each other again.
The name of the concentration camp that Felice and Devorah were sent to was Riga. From 1918 to 1940, Riga was the capital of independent Latvia. Before World War II, about 40,000 Jews lived in Riga, representing slightly more than 10 percent of the city's population.
Felice later describes in a video that when she arrived at the concentration camp in Latvia there was pink ice. She explains in the video that the ice was pink because of the blood shed of persecuted Jews. Felice’s grandmother Devorah was soon killed by the Nazis following their arrival due to her age and frailness. Felice was then forced to go through her clothes. That was a traumatizing experience for Felice.
It was not for four frightening and dreadful years until the war ended and Felice was free to go back to Vienna. When she got back to Vienna she was housed in a Red Cross hostel for Holocaust survivors. Felice was optimistic that Sofie return as well.
Six months later, Sofie still had not come back yet and Felice’s friends were starting to doubt her optimism. Meanwhile, Felice was at a shabbat dinner with some of her friends. In the middle of the meal she felt this feeling inside of her. She then got up like a zombie and said “I am going home.” All of her friends told her she was crazy and that her mother was gone. Felice did not listen. She went back to the Red Cross hostel. When she walked through the door she saw a line of women sitting on the stairs leading up to her room, crying because of their lost loved ones. Felice went up to her room and when she opened the door, there, on the bed, was her mother. They immediately hugged and Sofie kept saying “I knew it, I knew it, I knew it.” They had not seen each other for five years. The odds of them finding each other after the Holocaust were so little that when they did find each other it was nothing short of a miracle. There were 5,000 women from Vienna who were deported to concentration camps. Of those 5,000, only 17 returned. Two of those 17 people were Felice and Sofie.
There is now a book written by an author who witnessed Felice and Sofie’s reunion. There is a whole paragraph on Felice and Sofie; “Among the survivors of the first transport to Lodz was Sofie Rosenkranz (born 1901). At the time of her deportation from Vienna she was forced to leave her daughter Felicia, then seventeen, behind. The young girl moved in with her paternal grandmother, Dora Rosenkranz, and both of them were deported to the Riga ghetto on January 11, 1942. Seventy-three-year-old Dora was murdered shortly after their arrival. Felicia, a stunning beauty, survived the ghetto and subsequent concentration camps, returning to Vienna on June 3, 1945. She was lodged at the former Piper Heim, together with the few of us who had returned by then. Only one day later, Sofie arrived in Vienna and was sent to the same house. It was late afternoon and we were sitting and talking on the second floor of the building. As she ascended the stairs, accompanied by the superintendent's wife, there was a kind of hush. The quiet was broken with Felicia’s voice crying “Mama, Mama,” and the older woman, beautiful like her daughter, running up the last few steps, laughing and crying as well, saying “I knew it, I knew it, I told myself to go on, I knew I would find you again.” As mother and daughter embraced, we all were witness to what can only be called a miracle, and it touched us deeply. For most of the returnees, however, there would be no such miracles. Just sorrow.”
After Felice and Sofie’s reunion, the Viennese Area Command gave them an apartment with couches, beds and food. The comforts of home. The American military gives Felice her first job doing office work while teaching her English. Felice’s job title was the Journalist-Interpreter 1st Secretary and her employer was 1st Ltd. George W. Scott Jr.
Felice and Sofie then immigrated to the United States in 1948. They took a boat and got lost at sea for a few days in the fog. Everyone on the boat was sick and throwing up from being tossed around, except Felice and Sofie because they were so happy.
Sofie and Felice arrived in New York to be greeted by family. Sofie and Felice lived with their cousin Alice in the Bronx. Felice’s first job in the U.S. was on 5th Avenue in New York City, in office accounting. The Firm once gave her two weeks of extra salary because they admired her so much.
In 1950, at Felice’s cousin Alice’s house, Felice met a man named Walt. There was an instant connection between them. After two years of dating they married in 1952. Though it was an arranged marriage, they loved each other very much.
After their marriage, Felice and Walt bought their own apartment. Felice continued to work at the office. In 1954, Felice and Walt had a boy named Neal who later turned out to be my father. Once my dad was born, Felice quit her job. Then in 1958, Felice and Walt had another kid, but this time a girl, Jill, who is now my aunt.
In 1959, Felice, Walt, Neal, and Jill all moved to Fair Lawn, New Jersey. They moved to Fairlawn because Felice and Walt wanted a more suburban lifestyle. Fairlawn was made up mostly of Italians, Jews, and Armenians. That is where Felice and Walt raised their family.
In 1980, once Jill was in high school and Neal was in college, Felice went back to work. She worked with Walt at his bakery called Mueller’s Bake Shop. In 1980, Felice and Walt sold the business and their house in Fair Lawn. They moved to San Diego and bought a Jewish deli named Kearny Mesa Deli.
Felice and Walt then lived out their days in San Diego with family coming to visit all the time. My dad recalls how he loved going to visit his parents there.
Around 1990 Felice and Walt moved to Las Vegas to retire. Walt died in 1994 at the age of 68. Felice died in 1998 at the age of 74.
Despite being a Jew in Europe at the time of the Holocaust, my grandmother lived a great life. She used her optimism and hope to survive the Holocaust and reunite with her mother. She immigrated to the U.S. with her mother a few years after the Holocaust. There she was able to practice her religion freely, marry the love of her life, raise a family, and send her kids off to college. “Hope for the best and prepare for the worst.” My grandmother optimizes that expression by the way that she lived her life, looked forward to the future with confidence, and found joy with the pleasures of family, home, and well-being.
As though I never could imagine experiencing the Holocaust, the fact perseverance, hope, and optimism not only allowed my Grandmother to survive despite all odds of which I am an existing product. I now know the power of perseverance, hope, and optimism.