Confronting Nazis in the Trump Age: A Lesson From a Woman Who Escaped the Holocaust

Marianne Rubin, who fled Nazis in Europe ahead of World War II, vows to fight their resurgence after Charlottesville

Marianne Rubin, 89, attends a rally in New York's Union Square Sunday with her daughter, Lisa, who suggested the wording for her sign.
Doug Chandler

NEW YORK - It took U.S. President Donald Trump two days after the events in Charlottesville, Virginia, to condemn neo-Nazis and white supremacists as "repugnant" and un-American before abandoning his position and once again blaming "both sides" for the violence.

But the day after the clashes, when hundreds rallied in New York's Union Square against organized hate in the aftermath of Charlottesville, few if any of the protesters brought with them the memories that prompted Marianne Rubin to attend. As others at the rally listened to speeches, chanted slogans and expressed their sorrow and anger, Rubin stood on the fringes of the crowd with her daughter, Lisa Schnall, and a homemade sign: “I escaped the Nazis once. You will not defeat me now.” The sign drew attention from other protesters, many of whom took pictures of Rubin holding her creation.

Trump recently spoke of the "many fine people" who joined the white supremacists in Charlottesville while neglecting to mention the crowd's racist and anti-Semitic chants. Rubin's perspective couldn't have been more removed from that of the president. Recalling her early childhood, much of which was spent fearing the newly empowered Nazis and then fleeing her native Germany with her family, she said the events in Charlottesville brought back some of those chilling memories. Nevertheless, Rubin, who is 89 “and a half,” said she doesn’t compare Hitler and Trump, whose campaign was marked by what many consider racist demagoguery. “Hitler was beyond what any human being could do,” she said.

Until the age of five or six, Rubin, who is Jewish, grew up in Gross-Gerau, a small German town close to Frankfurt. But that ended shortly after the Nazis took power in Germany, when Nazis entered her home and beat her father, she recalled. As Rubin remembers the episode, the intruders also pushed her down, but as the men moved to an upstairs apartment, she slammed the door and locked it, a move that her father believed saved their lives. He soon sold his lumber company and moved the family to Wiesbaden, also near Frankfurt.

At that point, though, Rubin’s father knew they had to leave Germany, said Rubin, whose daughter at times helped jog her memory and sometimes filled in missing details. Other details were provided over the phone by Rubin’s son, Peter Schnall, a New York-based documentary filmmaker. The family soon moved to Italy, where Rubin’s father, according to Peter, operated and perhaps even owned a small hotel. In addition to Rubin and her parents, Rubin’s maternal grandmother also came with them, but she returned to Germany to help rescue other members of the family – a mission she never completed.

Although the family never learned how or when it happened, they do know that Rubin’s grandmother was seized by the Nazis and sent to Terezin, the concentration camp in what was then German-occupied Czechoslovakia, where she was killed. (Peter said he learned the details of his great-grandmother’s internment and death for the first time while directing and producing “The Defiant Requiem,” a documentary about Terezin and those who managed to survive the camp by singing in a choir.)

Meanwhile, Mussolini’s fascist regime soon forced the family to move again, this time to France, where they were able to board a boat for New York. A cousin of Rubin’s father lived in New York and sponsored the family, which settled in Washington Heights, a largely German-Jewish neighborhood in northern Manhattan.

The experiences in Europe remained a trauma for Rubin’s father, who changed their last name from Levy to Loory over his continued fears of anti-Semitism. Rubin eventually went to college in the city, became a social worker and had two children – Lisa and Peter – with her first husband, Albert Schnall. She later remarried and took her second husband’s last name, Rubin.

Even today, her own memories of Germany continue to scar her. While watching scenes last weekend from Charlottesville, where neo-Nazis and white supremacists chanted anti-Jewish slogans as they marched through the streets, Rubin, referring to her childhood, said, “I could see the Nazis walking down the street in their boots.” But it also hit her that the scenes on television were taking place in the United States, which made her wonder what could happen next.

Demonstrators carry confederate and Nazi flags during the Unite the Right free speech rally at Emancipation Park in Charlottesville, Virginia, USA on August 12, 2017.
Emily Molli / NurPhoto

Rubin’s daughter pointed to a generation gap, saying that for “those who haven’t lived through” what Rubin experienced, the past few months may well be the scariest time of their lives. Contacted later, Rubin’s son said he’d call the Trump era “very troubling” rather than scary. His mother is among the hundreds of thousands of Europeans who escaped fascism and arrived in a country that welcomed them, Peter said. “And now it doesn’t feel like the same country. The question is whether my mother would be welcomed here today. We need to always remember who we are as a nation and what we’ve meant to so many immigrants and displaced people throughout our history.”

It was Rubin’s daughter who suggested that Rubin go to the rally, “but that’s because she’s been kvetching for several months that we didn’t take her to any of the [anti-Trump] demonstrations,” Lisa said. Once Rubin decided to go, Lisa recalled, she asked her mother “what we should put on her sign, and she said, ‘F**k You.’” But Lisa suggested that it might say something that mirrored her mother’s experiences. For her part, Rubin said the reason she attended the rally was simple: “I went to let people know that what I went through must never happen again.”