Surviving siblings

Sisters Margot Manasse (right) and Charlotte Wulkan (left) pictured with their late sister, Ruth Singer, are Holocaust survivors and the sole living survivors of their generation.

Surviving siblings reflect on the Holocaust

 

The United States Holocaust Remembrance Day on April 28 marked an important milestone in world history. While it is a time to reflect and remember those who perished, it is also an opportunity to commemorate those who survived. 

Margot Manasse and Charlotte Wulkan are two sisters who persevered against the odds.

Born in Chemnitz, Germany in 1923 and 1924 respectively, the sisters were the youngest siblings in the Unger household. Their Orthodox parents, Leah and Sigmund, had three boys and three girls. 

For the first part of their childhood, they lived a normal happy life with school, friends, family and faith. Their father was a small business owner and loved by his children. 

“We had great admiration for our dad, he was a wonderful dad and very patient,” Margot said. 

Things began to change in 1933 when Adolf Hitler came to power. One day, Sigmund was warned by a German man that he was on a list and needed to leave at once. He fled overnight and his children had no knowledge of his whereabouts nor any contact with him for eight months.  

Education was important to the Unger family and the second oldest son, Kurt, was ready to attend college. He couldn’t attend a school in Germany because of his faith, so he was accepted to a German-Jewish university in Czechoslovakia. In October 1933, the family moved to Brno to be closer to Kurt and were reunited with their father. 

Rebuilding their lives in a new country proved to be an uphill battle as they had to learn a new language, make new friends and recover financially. Their father changed his occupation, taking a job as a rabbi in a congregation. Their lives changed again in 1941.

From 1941 to 1944, the three sisters, Kurt and their parents were forced to live in the Theresienstadt Ghetto, where Sigmund presided as the chief rabbi. While men and women were separated, Sigmund used his prominent position to keep his wife, son and two younger daughters with him in one room. 

In July 1944, Kurt was selected for the men’s transport and sent to Auschwitz.

“We cried bitterly when he left,” Charlotte said. “His last words to us were, ‘Take care of Mom and Dad.’ We loved him very much.”

A few months later, Margot, Charlotte and their sister, Ruth, were also transported to Auschwitz. Luckily, they only stayed there for three days.  

“It was indescribable,” Margot said. “The only thing that kept us going was that we thought our parents were still alive and we wanted to see them again. Otherwise, life was unbearable.”

The three sisters were then transferred to Oedarian, a labor camp in Saxony where they held different jobs. Charlotte worked in an ammunition factory, Margot filled up lorre cement trucks with shovels, and Ruth made cement. They worked hard performing manual labor 12 hours a day for six months.

The sisters wanted to work together, so they asked Edith, the Kappo (a Jewish prisoner who functioned as an informant and liaison between the Jews and Nazis), if Charlotte could work with them in the “Aussenkommando” (outside). The request was approved and she was transferred so they could work together.

During the war, some Germans showed kindness towards them, even at great risk to their own personal safety. One of the male workers who Margot called “Green Little Hat” because of the green hat he wore with a feather would bring her food that she shared with her sisters.

“He brought me a sandwich with ham and three apples every day,” Margot said. “He asked Ruth when my birthday was and what I wanted. She said, ‘Salt.’  He got salt and brought it to me.”

Another German man said they were going to the gas chamber and offered to hide Margot, but she refused to go because she didn’t want to be separated from her sisters. 

The odds of surviving Oedarian were slim. Only 300 out of 3,000 people transferred there survived, including all three sisters. 

As the war was coming to an end, the sisters were transported in trains from Oedarian back to the Theresienstadt Ghetto. They were happy to return because they hoped to be reunited with their parents and brother.

“We had hope, we thought our parents would be there when we arrived,” Margot said.

What they didn’t know was that three days after they were sent to Auschwitz, their parents were sent in The Last Transport to Auschwitz. Unfortunately, their parents and Kurt did not survive.

Luckily, their other two brothers escaped the concentration camps. Their eldest brother, Alfred, left before the war. He immigrated illegally from Czechoslovakia to Palestine (Israel), where he married and started a family. 

Their other brother, Manfred, escaped under a train car to Holland, Casablanca, and then went to France at the age of 17. After the war he settled in New York, where he lived the remainder of his life.

The five surviving siblings were reunited after the war and remained close the rest of their lives, with frequent long distance phone calls and trips to visit each other.

When the war ended on May 8,1945, the sisters were placed in Deggendorf, a deportation camp. There they were rehabilitated and met their future husbands. Charlotte married Ernst Wulkan, Margot married Hans Manasse, and Ruth married Kurt Singer.

After the war, the three couples were given assistance from the Jewish Family Service, who helped them with their immigration papers and gave them $10 each, the only money in their pockets. On September 11, 1947, they sailed to America on the SS Ernie Pyle to start a new life in New York.

Charlotte stayed for only three weeks in New York because she wanted to be with her future husband, who had a job in Los Angeles. In April 1948, after seven months of living in New York, the other sisters followed her and relocated to LA.

Residents of West LA since 1948, the sisters originally lived in Venice before renting apartments in a courtyard on 4th Street in Santa Monica. By the 1950s, they became naturalized citizens. As their families grew, they were able to build enough financial security to purchase houses not far from each other.  

For a while, the Singer and Manasse families lived a few doors down from each other in Mar Vista, where their children grew up and played together. The Wulkans bought a house near Westwood and years later, the Singers moved to the same street as the them.

Margot and Charlotte are now the sole living survivors of their generation.

“We are happy to still be alive,” Charlotte said.

In 2004, Kurt and Ruth passed away at the ages of 96 and 89. Hans Manasse passed away in 2005 at the age of 87 and Ernst Wulkan died in 2015 at the age of 93.  

Today, Margot and Charlotte still live independently at their respective homes in Mar Vista and Westwood. Margot just celebrated her 99th birthday with her daughter, grandchildren and great-grandchildren by her side. Similarly, Charlotte will be celebrating her 98th birthday with her family in May, which is Jewish American Heritage Month. 

The sisters stay in touch, seeing each other on a regular basis and talking on the phone several times a day with each other.  They are grateful to have each other and look forward to every day.

“I am blessed,” Margot said. “I have lovely grandchildren and great-grandchildren.”  

 

Holocaust Resources:

Days of Remembrance

ushmm.org/remember/days-of-remembrance

Museum of Tolerance

museumoftolerance.com