Hilda Namm, 94, survived Kristallnacht and the Shanghai ghetto before coming to the U.S. (Photo/Liz Harris)
Hilda Namm, 94, survived Kristallnacht and the Shanghai ghetto before coming to the U.S. (Photo/Liz Harris)

A post-Kristallnacht escape by ‘the bravest person I know’

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Part of an ongoing series on Holocaust survivors and partisans in Northern California

Closing her eyes, traveling back in time to Berlin’s “Night of Broken Glass,” 94-year-old Hilda Namm shares her memories.

“My parents were anxious,” she says, speaking slowly and thoughtfully from her quiet Marin County home. “They had a yardage [fabric] store. Somebody told them to put the shades down; they saved my parents from having to replace the windows. After that, the Germans came in and took over the store. They gave my parents a small sum of money …”

But even before Kristallnacht, the 1938 Nazi rampage that destroyed Jewish businesses, synagogues and lives, the handwriting was on the wall, she explains. With the rise of Hitler, “Everywhere they had signs, ‘Jews not allowed,’ in the parks or wherever. So we felt limited, discriminated against.”

It wasn’t long before the family — a teenage Hilda, her brother, and their mother and father — fled the country.

As German Jews, they were “stateless citizens,” unwanted by other countries. Shanghai was their only choice at the time; an uncle arranged for passage on a ship leaving Italy.

“The Chinese were pretty good to the Jews,” Namm says. “They saved our lives.”

But life was far from pleasant in the foreign province, which took in an estimated 20,000 to 25,000 Jewish refugees between 1937 and 1941.

When the Japanese took control, “we had to gather into a ghetto. They built some cheap housing but you had to buy it. They put in restrictions when you could leave the ghetto and when you had to be back.

“They were very bad,” she says.

The weather was brutal, too. “It was hot in summer and there was lots of rain in winter. We had so much rain that it flooded the streets — you could see things swimming [and drowning], even babies.”

Still, things could have been worse. “You could go anywhere if you had money,” Namm says. “A lot of people didn’t have money, but my father had some. I think he was able to smuggle some money through his family in France.”

Her father opened a store “on the main street in the [affluent] French Concession. We lived behind it in one room. My mother saw to it that we ate. She would cook every day. There was always some food.”

Namm attended a Jewish school, where she learned English, in the British section of Shanghai.

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When the war ended, “the Americans came, and you could apply to get a job at an American firm,” she recalls. “I applied many times and finally got a job as a mail sorter.”

Namm spent nine years in China, finally leaving on a ship for America in 1948.

Her brother was denied a permit to enter the U.S. because he’d married a Russian woman. And since her parents were born in Poland, “they weren’t able to get a permit,” either. “They could only go to France to relatives.”

Of her father’s 10 siblings, Namm says, “most of them died fighting the Nazis.” Her mother also lost family members.

When Namm’s ship docked in San Francisco — a place she knew only “from movies” — “the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society came to the ship and interviewed me. Because I was alone, they sent me to a residential hotel on Post Street,” giving her enough money to last “a week or so.”

“It was a little scary,” she says, “but I didn’t think about it. I thought about looking for a job.” She scoured the newspapers and “found a job pretty quick” as a stenographer, a skill she’d learned in China.

In short order, she also met her future husband, Manfred Namm, a fellow Berlin native who also came to American via Shanghai. They married in 1949 and had two children, Evelyn and David.

Manfred “worked in a butter and egg plant in San Francisco,” Namm says, but grew restless and ended up opening a wholesale sandwich shop, A1 Box Lunch, and two snack shops in the Financial District.

The couple lived in the Sunset District and were members of Conservative Congregation Ner Tamid. They moved to Marin — “away from the fog” — in the ’80s and joined Reform Congregation Rodef Sholom, where Namm became involved in the sisterhood and still attends services. She also spent lots of time at the Osher Marin JCC, where she still swims, enjoys senior lunches and other activities.

She belongs to a number of Jewish organizations, and is a generous donor to nonprofits and institutions both domestic and Israeli. Namm is a major contributor to the building fund for Rodef Sholom and JCC campus, and supports Chabad of Novato Rabbi Menachem Landa’s drive to build a synagogue.

Prior to Manfred’s death in 1995, she and her husband revisited Berlin, where Namm struggled with her emotions. “You feel homesick,” she says. “In another way, you feel hatred for the Germans.” She doesn’t blame today’s citizens for the past. “Germany has changed,” she says.

Namm also visited Shanghai with her brother, Paul Polkowski, 96, who eventually immigrated to the U.S. and lives in Sunnyvale. That, too, stirred memories.

Namm’s next emotional journey will be her bat mitzvah at Rodef Sholom. Refusing to let macular degeneration or difficulty walking get in her way, Namm has been studying and meeting weekly with Cantor David Margules in preparation for the upcoming ceremony.

“It’s important to her,” says daughter Evelyn Namm. “She’s the bravest person I know.”

Liz Harris

Liz Harris is a J. contributor. She was J.'s culture editor from 2012-2018.