The year was 1938. Susan Hamburger, then Susan Wollman, was barely 10 and less than enthusiastic about a fourth-grade assignment to create a Rosh Hashana card with greetings in German and Hebrew. She easily tackled the challenge of penning a bilingual message of good wishes for the coming Jewish New Year, but for some reason resisted decorating the card.
When Susan grew upset, her mother suggested her older sister, Lucille, then 15, finish the card by adding colorful borders. The resulting keepsake became one of only a few family possessions to survive the Holocaust.
“Considering how fast our parents were forced to leave Germany, it’s a wonder the card made it at all,” said Lucille (nee Wollman) Wolf.
The memento prophesied the family safely leaving a town then called Breslau. To the sisters—Susan, now 90, and Lucille, now 94—the card represents hope during a terrible time when they thought they might never again see each other. Their special page of family history is currently displayed just inside the main entrance to the Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center in Skokie.
Not long after the card was first shown to family members in 1938, the two sisters became painfully aware of their pending separation. Their parents already had sent their older sister, Ilse, to Holland, hoping to protect her.
Soon after Kristallnacht, Nov. 9, 1938—when the Nazi’s burned synagogues, vandalized Jewish homes, schools and businesses, and killed 100 Jews—a German police officer told the Wollman family they would have to vacate Breslau by Feb. 1, 1939.
“Our mother became involved in placing Jewish children from Breslau—young boys were at greatest risk—on the Kinder Transport to England,” said Lucille.
“When there weren’t enough takers, she suggested Lucille take an open slot,” added Susan.
“Our father didn’t want me to go,” recalled Lucille. “We had two days to decide. I kept asking Susan if she would be okay if I left. She and I discussed the matter. Imagine, two sisters, 10 and 15, deciding something like this?”
“I said, ‘Go!’” said Susan, reasoning that Lucille’s departure would make it easier for everyone in the family to survive.
Lucille was sent to an orphanage in Harrogate in North Yorkshire, England. She attended an elementary school for a couple of months, which helped her pick up some basic English phrases before being placed to work as an assistant nanny for a family in York.
In December 1938, Susan went to the family’s office supply store to pick out a quality pen, a birthday gift from her father. Before she could make her selection, the Nazi’s seized control of the store.
By February 1939, Susan and her parents emigrated to Guayaquil, Ecuador, staying for two years. For the journey, Susan wore a blue sweater knitted by Lucille. The family kept in touch with Lucille and Ilse through letters.
Susan translated Spanish for her parents and shopped for groceries. “In some instances, it was like being a parent to my parents,” she said.
The Wollman family eventually reunited in the United States, settling in Hyde Park. The parents found work at the Shoreland Hotel. Susan attended Kenwood Elementary School, and both girls graduated from Hyde Park High School.
The sisters married and followed different paths for more than 60 years. “We still remained close,” said Lucille. “We talked a lot by phone and got together for family holidays.”
Lucille became a registered nurse at Michael Reese Hospital. She and her husband, Henry Wolf, lived at 89th and Yates, where they raised their two children, Daniel and Steven. The family later moved to Homewood. When the Wolfs downsized and moved to a condo in Flossmoor, they donated several historic items—including the handmade Rosh Hashana card and a makeshift passport—to the Illinois Holocaust Museum.
Meanwhile, Susan earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Chicago. She married Rabbi Wolfgang Hamburger and lived in various towns in Texas and across the Midwest. In her 30s, she earned a master’s degree in education from the University of Nebraska. She worked as an education consultant and later for the State of Missouri, verifying income eligibility for public aid recipients.
“I felt pretty isolated in St. Joseph, Mo., after my husband passed away,” said Susan, who moved to Montgomery Place in 2014 to be closer to her sister and other relatives in the Chicago area. “I’m happy being here. I feel I’m now a much more outgoing person.” Susan serves on the Montgomery Place resident council and its welcoming committee.
Lucille and Henry moved to Montgomery Place in 2016. Now, the two sisters dine together every day. They recently celebrated Rosh Hashana together with Lucille’s husband, children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. “We’re happy to have each other, and to have our family,” Lucille said. “After so many years, we see that’s what’s most important.”