Voices of the Holocaust
Author: Kurt Bedell
Posted: September 19, 2019

 Laureen Nussbaum elevates Anne Frank’s literary prowess, and her own story of survival.


Laureen Nussbaum wishes the world would remember Anne Frank for her potential as a budding author instead of only for her eye-opening chronicle of life as a Jewish child hiding from the Nazis during World War II. But she wouldn’t blame you if you hadn’t noticed Anne’s literary promise. Most American kids read an edited version of The Diary of Anne Frank. Only recently has the unfinished text of the book Anne Frank was working on been published. And that’s thanks in large part to the tireless work of Nussbaum, a Portland State alumna and emerita professor of German language and literature.

Nussbaum, herself a Holocaust survivor by subterfuge, made it her life’s work to get Anne Frank’s epistolary novel—Liebe Kitty or Dear Kitty, named after the imaginary friend she wrote to—published. With its European release in May, this 91-year-old retired professor and activist hasn’t slowed down a bit. She just wrapped up her own memoir, out this fall, entitled Shedding Our Stars: The Story of Hans Calmeyer and How He Saved Thousands of Families Like Mine. In it she chronicles the impact Hans Calmeyer, a German government lawyer, made saving at least 3,700 Jews from disaster by determining them to be not “fully” Jewish or not Jewish at all, in the eyes of the law.

BORN in Frankfurt, Germany, in August 1927, Nussbaum had a stable, predictable childhood. “We were a middle-class family. We were comfortable,” she remembers. But then things began to change.

As early as the spring of 1933, Nussbaum noticed a shift. Long rows of brown-shirted Nazis had begun marching through the streets of Frankfurt. Like many young kids, Nussbaum picked up what was going on around her like a sponge, not always realizing what was appropriate to share.

“One day I was caught in the hall of our apartment, with my father’s cane slung over my shoulder, marching down the hall and singing one of the Nazi songs,” she remembers. Her parents did not appreciate her impromptu performance. “I was told to please stop and never do it again.”

 As time passed and the Nazi crackdown on Jews intensified, there were other changes to Nussbaum and her family’s daily life. Soon, Jewish families were fleeing Germany for other parts of Europe and beyond.

By the fall of 1935, Nussbaum’s parents, the Kleins, decided to go to Amsterdam in the Netherlands, a neutral country during World War I, joining the Franks who had moved in late 1933. “There was this hope—maybe an illusion—that whatever would happen, the Netherlands would remain neutral again, like during World War I,” she remembers. “So, this would be a safe place.” But safety would prove to be a relative term.

In May of 1940, the German military invaded the Netherlands. Soon the German anti-Jewish laws were enforced in the occupied country. By the fall of 1941, Jewish families were excluded from public cultural events. Those who valued culture took to organizing performances for themselves and others in their homes.

It was through theatre and music performed in their homes that Nussbaum got to know the Frank family even more closely, and where she met her future husband, Rudi Nussbaum. “Rudi played the piano, and was good at sight-reading music,” she remembers.

With Anne Frank and half a dozen other young teens a play was performed in December 1941. Anne had a leading role. Nussbaum herself directed. “Anne was a lively girl and could learn her lines very quickly,” Nussbaum recalls. “But she definitely didn’t stand out. Her later fame did not cast a spell over these years.” Nussbaum admits that given her age she herself was much more interested in Anne’s older sister, Margot, who was just one year older than Nussbaum.

NUSSBAUM remembers being a high-energy kid who helped her future husband’s father with deliveries from the corner drugstore that he ran in their immigrant neighborhood in Amsterdam. “When a customer called and needed something, I would be ready to run or bike over and take it to the to the customer,” Nussbaum remembers. “So, I became sort of an errand boy.”

That’s also how Nussbaum got to know her future husband better. As the Nazi’s crackdown on Jews continued to intensify, as early as February 1941, roundups of young Jewish men had begun in the Netherlands. Rudi and his family decided he too must start to take precautions, moving out of his parents’ apartment and into the homes of various non-Jewish families. Already the “errand boy,” Nussbaum took to delivering the daily meals to Rudi that his mother had cooked for him.

While Rudi had to worry about being targeted by the Nazis, Nussbaum largely escaped such scrutiny and was able to remove the hated yellow star, a symbol that identified one as Jewish, from her clothing in mid-January 1943. Because Nussbaum’s maternal grandmother wasn’t Jewish, her family was able to successfully plead its case to the highest civil authority in the Hague and Nussbaum and her sisters were declared not “fully” Jewish in the eyes of the occupiers. The man who reviewed and adjudicated their case, Hans Calmeyer, helped thousands avoid the bane of being labeled Jewish and is the subject of Nussbaum’s new memoir.

 After the family won its case with Calmeyer's help, life returned to relative normalcy for Nussbaum, considering it was still wartime. But there were still terrifying close calls with Nazi police and little time for fun and frolic. “I grew up very fast and started taking on responsibilities very, very young,” Nussbaum remembers. “As I’ve traveled and spoken to many students in America as an adult, invariably they’ll ask, ‘What did you do for fun?’ There was no time for fun. We had to survive. That was our focus.”

AFTER the war, Nussbaum completed her high school diploma, became a fledgling journalist for a while, and spent time at a Quaker school learning Latin and improving her fluency in English. Rudi also continued his education and they ended up back in Amsterdam together doing coursework in chemistry and physics. It was that training that set the stage for Rudi’s eventual career as a nuclear physicist.

After Rudi completed his Ph.D. in December 1954, the family moved to the United States. Following stints in Indiana and California, the Nussbaums decided in 1957, to take a chance on an emerging new school in the Pacific Northwest—Portland State College—the precursor to Portland State University. They loved the climate in Portland and the unusually collaborative faculty vibe they found in the physics department.

Nussbaum went on to earn a doctorate at the University of Washington in 1976, commuting between Portland and Seattle while raising a family and teaching German part time at Portland State. “Those were tough years,” she remembers. Eventually, she secured a full-time, tenure track position in 1978. “Learning a new language is so valuable because any language and every language is full of metaphors,” she says. “Metaphors enrich your view of life and help you understand the thinking patterns of people from other cultures.”

Nussbaum’s language expertise has helped in her endeavor to get Anne Frank’s authentic text published and the well-known childhood author’s literary potential appreciated. Her father, Otto, the only member of the Frank family to survive the war, had made editorial decisions when he first published The Diary of Anne Frank, which is so widely read today.

So far, Liebe Kitty has only been published in German in the countries of Germany, Austria and Switzerland due to copyright restrictions. “Anne’s work was an epistolary novel, not just a diary,” says Nussbaum. “And it’s remarkable. How a 14- or 15-year-old had the literary prowess and stamina to be writing with such an eye for what it takes to create literature is really amazing.”

HEARING the voices and perspectives of immigrants, minorities and anyone “othered” is critically important to Nussbaum, who sees ominous parallels in today’s immigration debate in the United States to the plight of the Jews in Europe during World War II. To her, there’s no difference between the immigration detention centers along the United States/Mexico border of our time and the ways that Jews and other undesirables were marginalized during World War II. “Concentration camps are what they are,” she says, referring to today’s immigrant detention centers. “I know it. There are no two ways about it.”

Yet, she still holds hope. Her husband, Rudi, passed away in 2011 and she now lives in Seattle and enjoys the company of her grown children and grandchildren. She swims regularly and stays involved in advocating for immigrant rights in her community. And all along, she sees the learning of multiple languages as critically important. “Learning another language gives Americans a healthy respect for the struggle many immigrants who come to the U.S. experience learning the English language,” she says.

Kurt Bedell is a staff member in the PSU Office of University Communications.

Laureen Nussbaum will give the talk “Resistance as a Viable Option, Exemplified by Hans Calmeyer, a German Official During World War II” on the Portland State campus Monday, October 14, at 3:30 p.m. in Smith Memorial Student Union, Room 238. The event is free and open to the public and is part of Portland State of Mind, the campus’ yearly festival of arts and culture.

Captions: Starting in 1943, the childhood of Laureen Nussbaum (left) and her sisters, Marion and Susi, was made easier through the intervention of lawyer Hans Calmeyer, who saved thousands of Jews in Amsterdam (top). Laureen Nussbaum worked for decades to get Anne Frank’s novel Liebe Kitty published. She was in Berlin in May to see the fruition of her efforts. Photo by Soeren Stache/dpa/Alamy Live News.