Palo Alto Weekly

News - March 30, 2012

A world of experience

Midtown's Edith Molton escaped from the Nazis, only to face prospect of internment in the U.S. during World War II

by Sue Dremann

Edith Molton sat in her Palo Alto living room, surrounded by the artifacts of her life: brightly colored pictures she has painted of places she visited, a few black-and-white photos of herself and her late husband, Stephen, and the usual collection of pictures of grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

"People have heard 1,000 stories," Molton said, waving away inquiries about her experiences in pre-war Nazi Germany.

But the 90-year-old Palo Alto resident has an intriguing escape story to tell — of being in the second-to-last group permitted to leave the country; of transcontinental travel through Siberia and Japanese-occupied Manchuria; and of sailing on a Japanese ship to the U.S. that was secretly outfitted with ammunition and weapons for the impending war.

"It was the first boat the Americans sunk when the war broke out," she recalled Tuesday afternoon.

Molton will speak about her escapades and her 56 years in Palo Alto Sunday, April 1, at 2 p.m., at the Lucie Stern Community Center, 1305 Middlefield Road. The lecture is free and sponsored by the Palo Alto Historical Association.

Tall and upright, Molton still moves with grace and speaks with a quick mind. She doesn't like to dwell on the atrocities she experienced in Germany: Kristallnacht, the two-day terrorization of Jewish men, women and children that began on Nov. 9, 1938; Jewish men being sent to concentration camps; and the smashing of the Jewish-owned business where she worked.

She was 18 years old when she left her hometown of Mainz, the west German city on the Rhine River where Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press. Immigration quotas to the U.S. were limited to 25,000 Germans annually. Although Molton and her mother had relatives in St. Louis, Mo., to sponsor their trip, their escape took four years, she said.

They tried and failed twice before to book passage to New York, hindered by the war in Europe. Their day finally came just after Molton saw Nazi officers destroy the wine factory where she worked.

"They were throwing the typewriters out of the top story; they pulled the plugs out of the wine barrels," she said. "My math teacher committed suicide that day."

Molton and her mother reached Berlin by train and boarded a plane to Moscow, a city still in ruins.

"This was 1940 — nothing was rebuilt from the revolution in 1917. It looked like it had ended yesterday," she said.

The refugees continued east by the Siberian Express, on a six-day journey to Manchuria in northwestern China. It was 5,400 miles of unbroken landscape — of endless fields rimmed by hedges along the railroad tracks "to keep the wolves out at night," she said. Peasants sold them strawberries when the train stopped.

The Manchurian city of Harbin was filled with thousands of people who had fled the Russian Revolution. Many were Jewish settlers.

"We went to (religious) services; there were 600 people in this huge building," she said. The Japanese occupied Manchuria, but it was not as harrowing as Korea, which was also under Japanese control, she said.

"It was very scary. The military was there. They boarded the train with bare sabers in their hands and guns," she said.

Molton and her mother took an overnight boat across the Sea of Japan, with good accommodations.

"Everybody else was in steerage. You couldn't imagine the conditions. They were sleeping on the floor by the hundreds," she said.

They stayed in the Japanese port city of Shimonoseki before heading to Seattle, Wash., on a new ship — the one they later learned was loaded with ammunition and guns. It took 14 days.

Reaching Seattle from Berlin had taken five weeks, but that wasn't the end of Molton's journey. She and her mother settled in St. Louis with their family members for two years. When the U.S. joined the war, she was working as a secretary for a pharmaceutical company.

"The bookkeeper told me, 'Keep a low profile now — you are an enemy alien now,'" Molton said, referring to her German citizenship.

At times she was caught between that citizenship and American anti-Semitism.

Molton started working for a large insurance company and wrote that she was German on her job application.

"They said they loved Germans," she recalled.

But three months later, a group of people came in carrying Bibles. They asked if the firm had any Jews working there. The receptionist said she was happy to say that they didn't, Molton recalled.

"That's where you made your big mistake," Molton said, picking up her purse from under the counter and walking out.

Family and friends urged the women to move to Los Angeles, where jobs were plentiful and there were glamorous movie stars. Being German immigrants and living on the West Coast during wartime, however, placed Molton and her mother under suspicion. The U.S. Department of Justice moved more than 11,000 German nationals and immigrants to internment camps under the Enemy Alien Control Program — 36 percent of the total internees — including some Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany, according to the National Archives and a 2003 book on internment by Tetsuden Kashima.

Molton and her mother lived a restricted existence.

"You had to be home by 8 p.m., and you had to go to the FBI to register; you couldn't travel by train or bus without asking permission," she said, noting the government feared Nazis had killed Jews in Europe and assumed their identities to travel to the U.S. as spies, she said.

Molton worked for the garment industry as a model for a few years, but her late husband, Stephen, said, "Being a model is not a job for a nice Jewish girl," she recalled.

The couple moved to Palo Alto in 1956 with their young son to get out of the smog and for her husband's career as a title officer.

Palo Alto wasn't friendly to strangers then, she said.

"It was such a sleepy town. Would you believe we had to wait six months for a telephone? And there was no public transportation," she said. Synagogue services were held at the First United Methodist Church and High Holidays were at the Buddhist Temple on Louis Road, she said.

Palo Altans in general were ignorant of Jews, she said. Molton recalled the wife of a visiting couple telling her, "You know, you look just like us."

"I don't know what they expected us to have, two heads? I don't know," Molton said. She and her husband were outgoing, so it didn't take them long to make friends, and one of her closest for 55 years was Roman Catholic.

The city now has more Jews than any place in northern California, and there is much more diversity. But there are still cautionary tales from that dark time in human history:

"The ones who were not furious Nazis were the people with very little education. Our maid, she risked her life for us," she said.

"The upper middle classes took to Nazism with both hands."

Staff Writer Sue Dremann can be emailed at sdremann@paweekly.com.

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