By Tia Lynn Ivey
Upon the front door of Dot Sparer’s home in Athens, Ga. hangs a sign that reads, “Please ring bell. Do not knock.”
Even in her late eighties, one loud knock on the door can transport her back to a horrific moment from her early childhood—when Nazi fists and boots busted down the door of her home in the middle of the night to carry her father off to prison for the “crime” of being Jewish in 1930s Germany.
Dot, born Dorothy Sachs, shared that traumatic memory, along with her family’s story of surviving the Holocaust and making their way to America with the help of a future president of the United States at an M-Powered forum last Sunday held at Morgan County High School’s Freshman Academy.
Dot, and her parents, lived in Koenigsberg, Germany during the 1930s, living through the infamous “Kristallnacht,” also known as the Night of the Broken Glass, when Nazi forces stormed Jewish communities, torching synagogues, ransacking Jewish homes, schools, and businesses and killing nearly 100 Jews in November of 1938. The Nazi-sanctioned destruction became known as the “Night of Broken Glass” because of the enormity of broken glass left behind made the streets look as though they were covered with crystals. Dot’s father was a renowned physician and University teacher who earned an Iron Cross Medal of Bravery during World War I serving as a medic for Germany’s army. But none of his credentials could spare him from the Nazi’s unrelenting scorn for the Jews. While Dot’s father was in prison, he was subjected to dehumanizing abuse. The Jewish men rounded up and arrested from Dot’s town were forced to clean up the remains of a Koenigsberg synagogue after the Nazis reduced it to rubble. According to Dot, Nazi soldiers even gave the Jewish men ripped pages from Jewish sacred texts to use as toilet paper. But many of the Jewish men imprisoned tried to keep their spirits up despite Nazi humiliation tactics.
“They made the best of a shameful situation,” said Dot, who remembers her father telling stories about the men reading the scraps of sacred text as a game to guess the authorship and original book from which it came. “It was a way to take their mind off what could happen next: lifetime imprisonment, torture, or being killed”
Before the “Kristallnacht,” and before her father’s imprisonment, Dot’s childhood was marked by subtler forms of discrimination, which a small child like Dot could barely recognize as abnormal.
“At that age, you think it’s just the way things are supposed to be. It was much harder for my parents,” said Dot, who was barred from attending German schools.
Dot described how Jews in Germany slowly lost their rights after Adolph Hitler came to power in 1933 long before the Nazis rounded up Jewish citizens to die in concentration camps. Under Hitler, Jews lost the right to vote, the right to own guns, the right to an education, the right to hold civil service jobs, the right to own farmland or businesses, the right to serve in the military, the right to German citizenship and were barred from working in the entertainment industry. Hitler regularly harped on any crimes committed by Jews to enflame anti-Semitic attitudes and justify new laws stripping Jewish people of their rights.
“When you are living in this kind of dictatorship, where you would be shot on the spot if you said the wrong word, there was no way to launch a rebellion with all the Gestapo and S.S. marching around,” said Dot. “You had to keep quiet and try to get our as fast as you could.”
According to Dot, many German Jews did not recognize the extent of the danger under Hitler until it was too late.
“My father thought Hitler was a clown,” said Dot. “He did not take any of it seriously until the very moment he was arrested and thrown into prison.”
Dot’s father, a World War I medic and accomplished physician, was one of many Jewish men rounded up and taken to prison, while the left behind women and children were pressured to leave Germany.
“The only way to get my father out of prison was to secure a visa to another country as proof that we would leave Germany,” said Dot.
Dot explained as the Jewish refugee crisis exploded, many countries were unwilling to take in Jews fleeing Germany and other parts of Europe.
“President Franklin Delano Roosevelt took a conference to discuss what to do about the Jewish refugees that were fleeing Germany and the rest of Europe by the thousands,” explained Dot. “But only one of the 33 countries in that conference agreed to accept refugees. The rest said ‘No, thank you,” including the United States.”
Dot’s family wanted to flee to America, but was thwarted by refugee acceptance limits, with Congress establishing a quota to accept only 95 people out of 40,428 applications for asylum at that time. “We didn’t have time to wait,” said Dot.“At the time an American poll indicated that 95 percent of Americans were against letting Jewish refugees come into the country,” said Dot. “Sounds familiar, right? With today’s news,” cautioned Dot.
Dot showed the audience pictures of Jewish refugee boats arriving to America that were turned away and sent back to Germany, including 20,000 Jewish children. She noted even Anne Frank’s family was among those rejected for refugee status in America.
“Many died in concentration camps after the boats were sent back to Germany,” said Dot.
Most of Dot’s family escaped that grim fate. On her seventh birthday, Dot’s family was granted passage to London, England, which freed her father from prison before Hitler’s “Final Solution” was enacted. They left Germany just three months before World War II broke out in 1939.
“All our money was frozen in German banks, we had to leave everything behind, but still my family was one of the luckier ones,” said Dot, whose extended family was split up all over the globe, in Israel, Africa, Australia, America, and England. However, Dot’s great-grandmother stayed behind in Germany, the family believing Hitler would not bother with the elderly. Unfortunately, they were wrong. At the age of 80, Dot’s great-grandmother was sent to a concentration camp where she eventually died.
While Dot and her parents escaped Germany, Dot was separated from her family when World War II was declared and London sent all children to remote English towns to keep them safe from incoming air raids. Dot and another boy, Peter, were taken in by strangers in a small village in North Hampton, who cared for them during part of the war while her parents had to stay behind in London.
In April of 1940, Dot’s family finally received approval to live in America, all thanks to a Kansas City family friend who called in a favor to then-senator Harry S. Truman, vouching for Dot’s family as a way to breach the America’s refugee acceptance cutoff. Truman later became the 33rd President of the United States. Dot considers Truman and her father as her two biggest heroes.
Dot described the crowded boat sailing toward America’s shores.
“When we sailed past the Statue of Liberty, the band started playing the Star Spangled Banner,” remembers Dot. “Everyone began singing and crying.”
Dot began third grade in Brooklyn, New York. She eventually moved to Athens, Georgia in the 1960s with her husband, the late Burt Sparer, and their twin children. Dot earned a master’s degree in magazine journalism, writing for numerous publications and taught writing at the University of Georgia and Georgia State University.
Dot is grateful for the chance to live a full and accomplished life with dignity after escaping the horrors of the Holocaust thanks to the persistence of her parents and kind strangers coming to her aid. She urged the audience to learn from the suffering of the past to enact compassion now to relieve suffering of the world in the present. And of course, if anyone should ever find themselves on Dot’s doorstep, ring the bell. Don’t knock.