Gisa Oloff, 91, at home in Palo Alto. (Photo/Gabriel Greschler)
Gisa Oloff, 91, at home in Palo Alto. (Photo/Gabriel Greschler)

‘Everybody has a story’: A Nazi annexation, an escape through Europe, and survival

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

In 1939, when Gisa Oloff was in elementary school in the Memel area of Lithuania, she was startled when her teacher walked in and gave the Nazi salute.

Earlier that year, Lithuania was given an ultimatum by Joachim von Ribbentrop, foreign minister of Nazi Germany: Give up the Klaipėda region, also known as the Memel territory, which had an ethnic German majority — or face Nazi invasion. In March 1939, the Lithuanian government agreed to the deal. (The rest of the country came under German control two years later.)

Soon after the annexation by Germany, Oloff’s life turned upside down. She was kicked out of her German-speaking school, along with three other Jewish children in her class. Eventually, all Jews were expelled from the country.

“Life changed dramatically,” said Oloff, 91, who lives at the Moldaw Residences in Palo Alto. “All of a sudden, I had no life. I didn’t know what to do with myself. And I was a little kid.”

Oloff’s family was fortunate, however, because they were affluent. Her father owned a textile business with clients around the world, and her mother owned a hotel. Knowing that his family’s life was in danger, Oloff’s father, Leo, sent almost all of his money to a relative in the United States for safekeeping and used the rest for the family to escape Lithuania.

“He was brilliant, my father,” Oloff said repeatedly during an interview.

Hitler enters Memel, Lithuania, in March 1939 following the German annexation. (Photo/U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum-National Archives and Records Administration-College Park)
Hitler enters Memel, Lithuania, in March 1939 following the German annexation. (Photo/U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum-National Archives and Records Administration-College Park)

Leo originally planned on bringing his family through Germany to the United Kingdom, then to the U.S., but was told by confidants that this route was a death trap for Jews.

So the family, including Gisa, her two older sisters and a younger brother, crisscrossed through Northern Europe, traveling through Latvia, Estonia and Scandinavia, finally making it to the U.K.

“Sometimes we would stay a week or two, and sometimes we had to get out overnight,” Oloff remembers. The family holed up in hotels along the way. She described the experiences while fleeing the Nazis as “horrors.”

From there, part of the family boarded the Queen Mary, a ship that ended up saving many Jews from the jaws of the Nazi death machine, and set sail for New York. Oloff’s mother, Judith Golden, flew separately to America with the couple’s 5-year-old son, who had developed rheumatic fever.

The family spent a short while in Indianapolis before moving to New York City, eventually settling in the Upper West Side of Manhattan, on West 98th Street, Oloff recalls. Oloff says she looks back at that time fondly, with one exception: It was hard for a teenager — or for anyone — to get a cigarette in those days since so many resources were going to the war effort. In 1948, when she was 20, Oloff met Joseph Oloff, a former captain in the U.S. Army.

Gisa Oloff's husband, Joseph, in his Army uniform.
Gisa Oloff’s husband, Joseph, in his Army uniform.

“He was a blind date,” she recalls. “I hated him. I thought he was obnoxious. But then he called me and he said, ‘Would you like to go horseback riding?’ I accepted, [but] I told my mother I’m never going out with him again. But I did. He was much nicer than I [first thought]. And that’s what started it.”

The couple married and moved to Long Island, and Oloff worked as a translator until she got pregnant. The couple had two children, Lawrence and Joan. In 1988, Joseph died from cancer. While Oloff was grieving, her house burned down.

Oloff’s children urged her to move from New York to the Bay Area, where they both lived. Finally she gave in.

“The first year I hated it,” said Oloff, who moved to Silicon Valley almost 30 years ago. “I was very angry with my children. But then I got used to it.”

Four or five years ago she moved into Moldaw. Her children live close by and visit often. Oloff has six grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

Oloff’s experiences have left her with a bitterness toward Germany that lasts until this day. It’s also left her with a sense of worry about the current political tensions in the U.S., with a rise in anti-Semitic incidents. She mentioned the Charlottesville marchers of 2017, when neo-Nazis and white nationalists chanted “Jews will not replace us!” and the Nazi slogan “Blood and soil.” She said such unsettling events remind her of the fears she felt growing up and running from the Nazis.

“Everybody has a story. I was very fortunate,” Oloff said. “Very unfortunate, [too], in some respects.”

But for Oloff, her family is what makes it all worthwhile in the end.

“I am very lucky. My children are wonderful to me.”

Gabriel Greschler

Gabriel Greschler was a staff writer at J. from 2019 to 2021.