Rachel Gross Herschthal was the youngest of three siblings in a close-knit Orthodox family. Her parents were strict but loving, enriching the lives of their children with music, Hebrew, and religious lessons. Her mother often took the children to concerts, but Rachel’s love was reading. She loved to spend summers with her grandparents in Frankfurt, who were more strictly Orthodox. Once, a man approached her grandfather and asked for Rachel’s hand in marriage. He told her all about the man, who seemed respectable and kind, and owned his own business. However, he expected Rachel to wear a sheitel if they were to marry. Upon hearing this, Rachel exclaimed, “Forget it!” “I wasn’t all that Orthodox,” she added.
As an adolescent, Rachel was a part of a Zionist organization and she attended meetings monthly. She dreamed of moving to Israel, but to her great dismay, her parents would not allow it, and she was not one to disobey.
Rachel’s first memory of Hitler was listening to the radio and hearing his antisemitic propaganda. Then the Nazi marches began, and supporters began spewing antisemitic rhetoric on street corners. Her brother and others spoke out with speeches of their own. Rachel was scared; the entire Jewish community of Karlsruhe was on edge. Their peaceful world was quickly fading.
By the early 30s, many Jews started to leave Germany. As a German citizen, the US quota was relatively open for Rachel, but her fiancé, Arthur Herschthal, was from the Czech Republic, and that quota was much tighter. So they waited.
Then in the fall of 1938, the Gestapo began deporting Jewish Poles back to Poland. Included in these roundups was Rachel’s father, who was Polish. Rachel never saw her father again. Shortly after, Kristallnacht occurred. Rachel and her mother awoke to an “indescribable” noise. It was their synagogue’s stained-glass windows bursting from the heat of fire. Then they heard the sounds of boots echoing through the house, so they hurried into the attic and hid there until the noises were gone. This was when Rachel realized just how terrible the future would be for Jews. During the chaos, Arthur was picked up and taken to Dachau. Devastated, Rachel took matters into her own hands and walked to the Gestapo office to request that her fiancé be released. She lied and said that they had visas for the US, and that they were to leave after marrying. Only a few weeks later, Arthur was released on the condition that he leave Germany immediately. He and Rachel were finally married on November 24, 1938.
Rachel’s siblings had immigrated to the US earlier in the year, but visas for the Herschthals were still not available. In the meantime, in early 1939, the Kitchener Camp was established in England by the Council for German Jewry as a place to rescue Jewish men who came directly from imprisonment in Nazi concentration camps. Arthur was able to immigrate to England, and Rachel received a domestic visa to work there.
Rachel worked in a seaside hotel kitchen and was able to see Arthur on the weekends. Once the war started, being located near the coast was perilous, so she moved to London and worked for a family who owned a fish and chips restaurant. After working for various other families, Rachel wanted a career of her own. She started taking beauty classes and eventually got a job as a hairdresser.
Once the war was over, Rachel’s brother and sister-in-law in New York were able to provide affidavits to sponsor the Herschthals, and they finally received their US visas. Boat tickets were another issue, which was solved when one of Rachel’s clients told her that her boss had first-class tickets that he no longer needed. Rachel and Arthur traveled to the US in style.
Rachel had trouble adjusting to New York life. She got a job as a beautician and enjoyed her work, but the people were unfriendly, everyone was always in a rush, and she absolutely despised the cockroaches. Things got easier once they were able to move to Forest Hills and live more comfortably. But Rachel did not feel at home.
Rachel’s sister lived in Birmingham, and Rachel found it peaceful, and the people were kind. In 1970, Rachel and Arthur decided to move to Birmingham. While life was good, Rachel was shocked by the way black people were treated in the South. She recalled seeing black men and women being moved to the back of the bus, and she knew it was wrong. The racism was reminiscent of the way Jews were treated in Nazi Germany, and it made her uncomfortable.
While Rachel and Arthur never had children, their memory lives on through their family and those that read their story.