We share thoughts from a Boulder Holocaust survivor on Israel, survival, and a long life, well-lived

Oct 26, 2023 | Article, Newsletter

We share thoughts from a Boulder Holocaust survivor on Israel, survival, and a long life, well-lived

Oct 26, 2023

In her home nestled on a quiet cul-de-sac high above Boulder, 96-year-old Marion Kreith has closely watched news reports about the horrific events in Israel since October 7. She uses words from a language she knows well to describe how these days have felt to her.

“Déjà vu,” she says.

“I’m horrified and heartbroken with a sense of hopelessness,” she continues. “I just feel, ‘Here we go again.’”

For Marion, the attack on innocent Jews in Israel is truly “déjà vu.” She was born in Hamburg, Germany, in 1927. As a Holocaust survivor, her childhood was marked by antisemitism, uncertainty, disruption, the detention of her father, war, and ultimately escape from Germany to Belgium…to France…to Cuba…and finally, to the United States.

Ask if those years have left a lifelong imprint on her, and she nods yes. But she will correct you if you suggest that growing up in Germany during World War II has left her fearful.

“It’s not really fear,” she says. “It’s just that, even after all these years, I have a constant awareness below the surface that something awful might happen.”

And yet, Marion talks about her long life, with its extraordinary experiences—a life worthy of a screenplay—without a single ounce of bitterness.

“I have immense gratefulness for the richness of my life,” she says. “It has been exceedingly and unexpectedly full.”

Early years in Germany

Marion and her younger sister Ada were born to small business owners in Altona, Germany, a borough on the western side of Hamburg. Her father, John Finkels, owned a store that her mother Rose ran, selling lingerie, bed linens, and fabric. They had a comfortable life, but by the time Marion could start school in 1933, Jewish children were barred from German schools, so she enrolled in a Jewish parochial school that was distant from her home.

When she walked home from school, she remembers “never knowing if you would be pelted by stones from other kids.”

Marion's first day of school in Germany, circa 1933

Marion’s first day of school in Germany, circa 1933

By the time she turned 11 in 1938, she remembers conditions becoming more “frightening.” Her father’s friend, who was a physician, was no longer allowed to practice medicine. Afraid that he could not make a living in the U.S., her father kept the business open until it became clear that, as Marion recalls, “it was safer for Jewish men to be gone.”

John traveled to Brussels, leaving his wife behind to pack up their belongings in huge wooden crates that would be shipped to the U.S. Rose turned the family business over to the German government, and, with her two daughters, joined her husband in Brussels.

In Brussels, the family found a home with an uncle. There, Marion learned to speak French, a language that would come to play a significant role in her future. But when Hitler invaded Belgium in May 1940, it was clear that no place was safe for Jews in Europe at that time, a fear that was confirmed on a day Marion still remembers clearly—May 10, 1940—the day her father disappeared.

Escape from Belgium to France to Cuba

On that spring day in Brussels, all German men were called to the courthouse to register their names with the Belgian government—or so they thought. Instead, they were loaded on rail cars meant for cattle and shipped to France, the cars marked with huge signs that read “German Spies.”

A couple of weeks later, Rose, Marion, Ada and seven other family members piled into a four-seater car and joined a stream of vehicles trying to get from Belgium into France. With six different nationalities among the 10 people in the car, they were stopped at every border town. At each town, one of the six nationalities was barred from crossing. By evening, they had ended up in a small hotel in De Panne, Belgium, just across the border from Dunkirk, France.

It was the night of May 26, 1940, the beginning of the Battle of Dunkirk.

“I remember lying on the dining room floor in the hotel with mattresses over us, listening to the bombardments,” Marion says. “By morning, the bombing had stopped, and what we heard was goose stepping as the German soldiers marched into the town.”

The attempt to escape Belgium had failed. They had no choice but to return to Brussels. Marion was 13 years old.

From Left: Ada, John, Marion, and Rose Finkel

From Left: Ada, John, Marion, and Rose Finkel

Months passed with no word on her father’s fate. The house they were living in was requisitioned by the German army, so her mother found an apartment. Then, quite by chance, they received a letter from John and learned he was being held in an internment camp near Marseille. He asked the family to try to get to Marseille where they might be able to get visas to Cuba.

Working with an underground organization that moved people from Belgium to southern France, Marion’s mother dressed her family like Belgian peasants going on a picnic and, with a group of other escapees ranging in age from seven to 84, they boarded a train to France. As they neared Bordeaux, word came that the train would soon be stopped and Jews taken away. Facing the strong possibility they would be arrested and sent to a concentration camp, the group got off the train in the middle of rural France and followed young Ada, whose innate sense of direction led them south.

“I remember we were very thirsty, and we came to a farmhouse, but you never knew whether the people would be friendly or would turn you in,” Marion recalls. “They didn’t have water to give us, so instead they gave us wine. I remember the 84-year-old in the group got totally soused!”

Eventually, the threesome made their way to Marseille where they were reunited with John who was still detained. Somehow, Marion’s mother managed to navigate the complicated visa process—French exit visas, visas for Cuba, and a transit visa for Portugal where they would board a ship.

“I had no idea what Cuba was, but I had a sense we were escaping so I had feelings of relief,” Marion says. “To me, it all seemed like a grand adventure as long as my mother was around because she made you feel safe.”

The family disembarked in Havana, thinking it would be a temporary stop before they headed to the United States. But they had arrived in Cuba in November 1941, just weeks before the war would expand throughout the world.

“Pearl Harbor happened,” Marion says. “And then we knew ‘No, this will be a longer stay.’”

The diamond industry in Cuba

By now, Marion spoke German and French. She thought she could resume her education in a Spanish-speaking Cuban school, but just after she enrolled the students went on strike. As the family began a five-year sojourn in Havana, Marion’s formal education, which had been frequently disrupted by war and relocation, came to an end. Instead of going to school, she would spend her teenage years working in the diamond industry in Havana.

Marion girdling diamonds in Havana, Cuba, circa 1943

Marion girdling diamonds in Havana, Cuba, circa 1943

Of the many survival narratives that have emerged from World War II, the story of how diamond merchant refugees supported by the Jewish Joint Distribution Committee worked with the Cuban government to relocate their businesses to Cuba is one of the lesser known.

Marion’s daughter Judy has documented the story as co-director of the film, Cuba’s Forgotten Jewels: A Haven in Havana.

It shows how thousands of refugees turned Cuba into one of the world’s major diamond polishing centers, working side-by-side with Cubans, who were grateful for the opportunity to earn a living wage.

To this day, Marion can describe in detail how a diamond is cut, girdled, and polished. She had the particular dexterity needed to do the job of girdling, rounding off the square edges of cut stones so that they could be polished. Her teenage years centered on her family, a small group of Jewish friends, and the drive to support her family—one diamond at a time.

When the Finkels’ visas to the U.S. finally came through in January 1946, Marion arrived in her new homeland with expert diamond girdling skills and little formal education. The family settled in Los Angeles, and Marion went to secretarial school and found a series of jobs, including one with the National Council of Jewish Women in Los Angeles, where she worked reuniting families that had lost touch during the war.

Marion and Frank Kreith in September 1951

Marion and Frank Kreith in September 1951

She met her husband through her family. During the war, Frank Kreith had fled Vienna on the Kindertransport. He had been a Guggenheim fellow at Princeton and was headed to the University of California Berkeley to teach mechanical engineering. When he proposed, Marion’s reaction was less romantic than it was pragmatic.

“I remember thinking, ‘Oh my gosh,’” she says. “Finally, here is a chance for me to go to school.”

A life, fulfilled

In Berkeley, Marion started her university education. After two years, the family moved to Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, so that Frank could take a position at Lehigh University.

In 1959, they moved to Boulder, and Frank began his career teaching at the University of Colorado.

Finally, at CU, she finished her B.A. and master’s degree in French—the language she learned when she had to flee her homeland.

Today, Marion’s home is filled with artifacts collected from her travels around the world to countries where Frank held short-term teaching positions or attended conferences, including Thailand, England, Turkey, Yugoslavia, a year in Paris, and Israel, where the family lived in Be’er Sheva, the home of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.

Marion Kreith

Marion on her 95th birthday

She raised two daughters and a son and was married to Frank for 66 years. He died in 2018, but Marion’s sister Ada, who knew which direction to walk when they were escaping from the Nazis in France, is still alive.

In telling her story, Marion often refers to her own mother and actions that may not have seemed heroic at the time but held the family together in the face of terrible odds—and still made her daughter feel safe.

“My mother was very strong,” Marion says. “I think she saved our lives.”

The years she spent fleeing the war did not leave Marion unscathed. She still has what she describes as “Jewish anxiety.” Ask her what it means to her to be a Jew, and she has one word: “suffering.”

“It seems antisemitism is in some people’s DNA,” she says. “And I don’t know why.”

And with that, she again returns to the topic of the war in Israel. What would it take for peace to finally come to the state of Israel and to the world?

“A miracle,” Marion says.