As we saw in my prior post, I had learned more about Hilde Blumenfeld Meinrath, thanks to connections made through her granddaughter Gabriela. I learned that after spending four years in New York working as a German-English translator, Hilde decided to return to Germany in 1932 for what was initially supposed to be an extended visit with her family. But then she met and married her husband Ludwig Meinrath and decided to stay longer. She found employment as a translator and secretary for the American author, William March.
But everything began to change after Hitler came to power.
As Hilde reported in her Shoah Foundation interview, her employer William March was attacked by Nazi youths because he was mistakenly identified as Jewish and ended up in the hospital. He decided to leave Germany and urged Hilde to leave before it was too late; he invited her to come and work for him in New York. .1
Meanwhile, a month after Hitler came to power in April 1933, Hilde’s husband Ludwig, who had been working as a representative for German companies making ribbons and wool products, lost his job as a sales agent because he was Jewish.. So Hilde and Ludwig agreed it was time to leave Germany.2
But Hilde and Ludwig disagreed about where to go, according to their son Roberto. Hilde wanted to return to New York, but Ludwig feared that he would be unable to make a living there with only a high school education. He had a cousin Helmut in Rio de Janeiro who persuaded him that life was wonderful there, so they went to Brazil in 1934, even though neither of them knew any Portuguese.3
Hilde continued to be a true go-getter. Roberto wrote:
Upon arrival in Rio by ship, and literally one block from the harbor, was Rio’s largest high rise of the day (some 20 stories). On top of the building was a large advertising poster for US Steel. My mom walked right into the building to find out whether US Steel would be interested in a German/English secretary, not knowing that at that time Brazilian secretaries were mostly male. Of course, at that time, Rio was Brazil’s capital and … home to the president of US Steel, who immediately hired her at a salary that was higher than what cousin Helmut was then earning, after a year in Rio. Anyway, due to my mom’s high salary, my father was able to dedicate his time to learn Portuguese and to become a wholesale textile salesman for several companies.
Hilde and Ludwig’s first child (Gabriela’s father) Pedro John Meinrath was born in 1936; according to Roberto, his mother insisted that Pedro have an American/English middle name, presumably because of her fond memories of living in the United States.
Meanwhile, back in Germany, conditions worsened for Hilde’s parents and her sister Gretel and her family. After Kristallnacht in November, 1938, Salomon Blumenfeld and his son-in-law David Katz were arrested and sent to Buchenwald.4 After they were released, Hilde used her connections and borrowed money to bring her parents to Brazil. Hilde stated in her Shoah Foundation interview that when her parents arrived in Brazil, her father looked emaciated from his time in Buchenwald, despite the fact that his son-in-law had given Salomon half of his own rations so that Salomon would survive. 5
Hilde’s parents lived with her and her family in Rio for a short time, but according to Hilde, the climate there didn’t agree with them, so she and Ludwig purchased a small house in Petropolis, a city in the mountains north of Rio for her parents, and they moved out of their apartment in Rio and moved to a rented room. When the war in Europe started, Ludwig’s import business suffered, so Hilde had to work full-time to help support the family. Pedro, who was just a four year old at the time, stayed with his grandparents in Petropolis, and Hilde and Ludwig would come on the weekends to be with them all. 6
Here are two photographs that Gabriela shared with me of Pedro with his maternal grandparents Salomon and Malchen Blumenfeld:
Ludwig and Hilde’s second child Roberto came along five years later in 1941—he was, as he wrote, “a surprise baby.” Hilde’s job at the US Embassy ended up being important in saving Roberto’s life. When Roberto contracted diphtheria when he was three years old, his mother Hilde was able through her job at the American Embassy to obtain life-saving penicillin, which was not otherwise readily available in Brazil at that time because of the war.7
According to Roberto, after the war ended in 1945, Ludwig was able to restart his import business, and Hilde and Roberto moved to Petropolis. But Hilde’s parents at that point decided to leave Brazil because there was no kosher food or orthodox synagogue in Petropolis; they went to New York where Hilde’s sister Gretel was living. Hilde and her sons stayed in Petropolis until 1950 when Hilde and Roberto moved back to Rio. Pedro stayed in Petropolis where he went to boarding school until he graduated and went to university.
Roberto described his life in Rio as an idyllic adventure for a young boy; he sadly described the changes that came to Rio in the 1960s:
I basically grew up as a single child in Rio, right in between Copacabana and Ipanema beaches. Once or twice a week, I helped fishermen bring in their nets with piles of fish and, as compensation, got a free take home fish. At that time, Rio had trees everywhere, few cars, cobblestone streets and tramways (which I took every day to school). With the advent of the car industry in Brazil in the sixties, Rio’s streets were asphalted and widened, trees had to be cut down as most of the buildings had been built without garages and cars had to park on streets and sidewalks. I miss old Rio, new Rio is sort of a tourist mecca only because of the beaches and the largest city park in the world.
Hilde and Ludwig belonged to a liberal Jewish synagogue in Rio, and Hilde insisted that Roberto attend after school classes in Hebrew and Jewish history. Roberto described an experience that ended up being a turning point in his life:
Because our synagogue was not very large, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur services were held in the headquarters of one of Rio’s great soccer teams… and while watching the team practice during the 1959 Yom Kippur service, I was asked whether I would be interested in representing our congregation in the year-long youth leadership training program in Israel. I jumped at that, as I sought personal freedom from what I felt to be a fairly strong-willed mom.
Roberto’s trip to Israel in 1960 allowed him to meet and get to know Hilde’s sister Jenny and her husband Sigmund Warburg. And thus he was able to give me information about Jenny and Sigmund and answer the questions I’d been hoping to answer when I wrote the blog post about the three sisters back in May, 2022. More on that in my next post.
But first a photograph that Gabriela shared with me of Hilde and her sons taken at her 100th birthday party in 2011. She died six years later in 2017 at the age of 106. She was truly a remarkable woman.
- The references in this post to the interview of Hilde Meinrath and the information contained therein are from her interview with the Shoah Foundation, March 18, 1998, which is in the archive of the University of Southern California Shoah Foundation Institute for Visual History and Education. For more information: http://dornsife.usc.edu/vhi Roberto, Hilde’s son, also told me this story in his emails to me. ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- All the information in this post attributed to Roberto Meinrath as well as the quotations were shared through emails sent between February 11 and February 16, 2023. ↩
- Phone conversation with Michael Katz, March 9, 2023. ↩
- See Note 1, supra. As we will see in a later post, William March helped get Gretel and David Katz out of Germany and into the US. ↩
- See Notes 1 and 3, supra, . ↩
- See Note 3, supra. ↩