Ilse Lindemeyer can tell you stories, lots of stories.
The Paul’s Run resident has been a refugee, an accused spy, a factory worker, a German interpreter and a Nazi hunter for the U.S. Army.
That was all before she was 21.
Her life has been anything but boring, she said during an interview last week at the Bustleton Avenue home for retirees.
Born Ilse Engelbert in Frankfurt, Germany, Lindemeyer’s also been a wife, mother and grandmother. But most important, she’s a survivor.
She got out of Nazi Germany as a child and was the only member of her family to survive the Holocaust. She made it through — but just barely — the bombing of London during World War II and lived through internment after she was accused of being a spy for Germany.
A book about Lindemeyer’s life was written by a young family friend who is now only a little older than Lindemeyer was when she left Frankfurt and everyone and everything she knew.
Gabrielle Marlowe, 13, used Lindemeyer’s reminiscences to put together I’m a Survivor, which the Jenkintown teenager’s family privately printed.
It’s a slim volume, rich in details of what happened in Europe before, during and after World War II.
A BUDDY SYSTEM
Gabrielle and Lindemeyer are members of Congregation Keneseth Israel in Elkins Park, Montgomery County. Gabrielle’s mother, Lise, teaches the story of the Holocaust in the Cheltenham Township schools. Some years back, Lindemeyer agreed to tell her story to Lise Marlowe’s pupils, and Lindemeyer and the Marlowes are now friends.
Although she now seems at ease discussing her experiences, Lindemeyer said it wasn’t until she went to a reunion of Holocaust survivors during the late 1980s that she ever really talked about that part of her past.
Even at the reunion, she had little to say.
“After a couple days, a couple doctors got hold of me,” she said last week. “They wanted to know why I was there if I had nothing to say.”
Lindemeyer said psychiatrists and psychologists privately urged her to tell the story that young Gabrielle wrote down.
“I started to cry,” she said. “I was very upset.”
The doctors persuaded her to tell the story.
“I want people to know what it was like during the Holocaust through the eyes of a child,” Gabrielle wrote in the opening of Lindemeyer’s biography. “It’s hard to imagine that, at my age, Ilse had to leave the people she loved the most and lose everything just because of her religion.”
THE DARK DAYS
When Lindemeyer was a little girl, the Nazis began their persecution of Germany’s Jews. That persecution had begun in the early 1930s as something her family had thought would blow over. After all, the family had been in Germany since the 1700s and her father, Siegfried, was a decorated war hero. But when it became clear to them, and to the world, that continued life in Germany would be dangerous, Lindemeyer’s parents enrolled her in Kindertransport, a program in which Jewish children could be sent to foster homes in the United Kingdom.
Only 10,000 could be taken, so names were selected randomly.
“It was a lottery,” Lindemeyer said.
She was chosen, and on the day in May 1939 when she and other children were to take a train out of Frankfurt, her parents and other relatives were forced to wait behind a gate. That’s when she got a special gift.
Lindemeyer, who was born in 1927, always wears a small medallion on a necklace that her 91-year-old grandmother quietly gave her as she was getting ready to leave Germany. It has an image of Moses on one side and a Hebrew prayer on the other. To this day, the tiny, colorful piece of jewelry looks new, although Lindemeyer imagines it could be hundreds of years old. Her grandmother told her she had gotten the piece from her grandmother.
As she was about to board the Kindertransport train that would take her to England, Lindemeyer’s grandmother told her to wear it always and that it would always protect her.
Lindemeyer has always done just that.
Her last image of her father was him jumping over the gate and crying, “Don’t take my baby,” before he stumbled. It was the first time she had seen her father, who was wounded in World War I, without his cane. Her last image of him was seeing him fall.
She never again saw any members of her family. They all perished. While in England, she lived with a childless middle-aged couple and learned English.
A RISKY PHOTO
After she was there for a while, she wanted to send a picture of herself to relatives in America — which was not yet at war with Germany — who possibly could get that photo and news of her to her family. That’s when she got into some big trouble.
“I did something stupid,” she said.
She asked a friend to take the photo, and as she posed, a police constable asked what she was doing. The constable almost immediately suspected her of being a spy, not only because of her heavy German accent but because there were British army tanks passing behind her.
That led to nine months of internment on the Isle of Man in the Irish Sea. After her foster parents gathered signatures of support for Ilse, she was released and returned to England. She sewed uniforms in a factory. That’s where she met her future husband, Herbert Lindemeyer. It also was where her life was saved by a rat.
Germany regularly was bombing London, she recalled, and she and another girl were in the factory during a night raid. They might have stayed had they not been frightened by a rat and run out of the building.
“We were looking for a soldier to kill the rat,” she said.
Before they could find one, a bomb smashed the factory they’d just fled.
STARTING A NEW LIFE
She and Herbert were married in England and both joined the U.S. Army, which needed interpreters after Germany surrendered, she said.
The couple helped the Army track down Nazis who had gone underground after the war. Lindemeyer was a mail censor and sifted clues from the letters she read.
In one instance, she used letters from the wife of an ex-Nazi to uncover a plot to smuggle stolen jewelry out of Germany.
When she and Herb, who had family in Philadelphia, decided to move to the United States, their Army service smoothed the way.
“If you’re good enough for the American Army, then you’re good enough for us,” she said immigration officers told them.
The Lindemeyers had two children and two grandchildren. Ilse Lindemeyer has lived in Philadelphia since moving to the States.
Before leaving Europe, they found an old Frankfurt neighbor of Ilse’s who had saved family mementos for them. She said last week that she never would have seen some of the photos used in the book that Gabrielle put together had that neighbor not preserved them.
Ilse had been planning to write a book but lost her notes in an accidental fire at her Fox Chase home. Family kept her from staying in the house to retrieve those notes as the fire burned. She later learned she would have died had she risked doing that.
“As usual,” she said, “I was a survivor.” ••
Gabrielle Marlowe’s “I’m a Survivor,” the story of Holocaust survivor Ilse Lindemeyer, can be found at Jewish community centers in the region.
Reporter John Loftus can be reached at 215-354-3110 or firstname.lastname@example.org