Updated: Jun 28
When, as a boy growing up in Vienna, Herbert Murez first read Karl May’s popular novels about the American wild west and the friendship between a German adventurer and an Apache Indian chieftain, he could not have suspected that, at age 15, he’d be traveling alone to the United States and establishing a new and permanent home in California. Nor would he have imagined that his personal venture to America would not be voluntary. But this was a situation faced by hundreds of Jewish children who grew up in Vienna in the 1920s and 30s.
Herbert Murez was born in Vienna in 1923 to Salomon (1883-1943) and Sonja (Deutscher) Murez (1891-1971). The family, which included an older brother Josef, lived in a comfortable apartment one floor above street level at Franzengasse 1 in Vienna’s Fifth District.
Joe and Herb had bar mitzvahs in the Orthodox synagogue, where their father had a seat. Their mother did not approve of the segregation of women in the synagogue, so she went there only for her sons’ bar mitzvahs.
Herbert Murez, schoolboy
As Jews, the boys were ostensibly integrated into Viennese society, but Herb remarked that they did not have non-Jewish friends. Times were tough, there was much unemployment, and antisemitism precluded much socializing between Jews and Christians.
But the Murez family lived well. Herb’s father was a Vienna businessman who owned shoe stores. They lived in a rent-controlled apartment, and could not be thrown out as long as they regularly paid their rent. Over the years, the apartment was improved upon with the construction of a bath room and the addition of built-in furniture. The shoe business did well, too. And by trading shoes with the ticket vendor at the Vienna opera, Herb’s father was able to acquire opera tickets to several productions each season. These were always a special treat for the family.
Still, the shoe store kept Herb’s parents from observing the Jewish Sabbath. Saturday was the day on which most would-be customers went shopping, and it was the day of the week when it was most important for both parents to be in the store. Herb’s mother was as active in the business as his father; in some respects she even took the lead, since she had studied accounting as part of her education. She also had a background of active militancy for women’s equality. Before she met and married Herb’s father, she worked in an enterprise where, within a few short years, she rose from entry level clerk to office manager, while also organizing a strike for “equal pay for equal work.”
Although the shoe business prevented the family from observing the Sabbath, it did observe the major Jewish holidays.
Unfortunately, the political situation in Vienna became increasingly threatening during Herb’s childhood. Engelbert Dollfuss became chancellor of Austria in 1932, and in the two years in which he held office he destroyed the Austrian Republic and replaced it with an authoritarian regime based on Roman Catholic and Italian Fascist principles. After Dollfuss crushed a socialist uprising in Vienna, banned the Austrian Nazi party, and introduced his own version of fascism into the country, Hitler incited the Austrian Nazis to overthrow him, and Dollfuss was assassinated in a raid on the chancellery, in July 1934.
Kurt von Schuschnigg became the new chancellor and disbanded the national paramilitary force that had supported Dollfuss. Herb remembers that, at that time, the Nazi movement was “strictly speaking illegal, but only partially contained.” But, whether by inclination or design as a counterweight to the Nazi party, Schuschnigg continued to lean heavily on the conservative Roman Catholic orientation of most of the population, especially in the “provinces” outside of Vienna. He also leaned heavily on the memory of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy that ended at the conclusion of World War I. “Altogether,” Herb has stated, “Austria was not a democracy, but was governed with a somewhat lighter touch than, for example, Mussolini’s Italy.”
Herb attended the Elisabeth Realgymnaium in his district and got into a few fist fights with other students who called him “Saujud” [Jewish pig] while attacking him and his Jewish schoolmates. But Herb had other reasons for dissatisfaction with his school. “We were expected to assimilate a lot of data in our heads, but critical thinking was disfavored,” he recalled. “I have an inborn disdain for appointed authority over me, and as a child I practiced passive resistance.”
During this time the new Austrian chancellor, Karl Schuschnigg, attempted to keep Austria independent from Hitler’s Germany, but his subsequent concessions to Hitler could only delay and not prevent the country’s annexation into greater Germany. On March 12, 1938 German forces marched into Austria; a few days later, Hitler came to Vienna and was greeted by a huge and enthusiastic crowd.
Two months later, all Jewish students were thrown out of school, without being able even to finish their year’s coursework. Herb did manage to study on his own; he had been learning English in school, and his parents had engaged an English language tutor, so that, by the time he left Vienna, he could “make himself understood in English and have a simple English conversation.”
A wave of violent anti-semitism was unleashed by the annexation of Austria. Herb soon discovered that it was too dangerous even to go on a ski trip.”The Nazis had many gatherings in the mountains where people skied,” he said. “Everyone wore a prominent swastika, and if you didn’t, it was suspected you were Jewish. So you weren’t safe.” Although the “yellow star” requirement was not introduced until about one year following the Anschluss, everyone, even children, wore a prominent armband or other insignia with the swastika. But, at the same time, persons who were not “Arians” were prohibited from wearing or displaying the swastika, under threat of heavy punishment, including imprisonment in a concentration camp. It was obvious to the entire family that, in order to live in safety, they must leave the country. Fortunately, they had relatives in America.
Eager crowds welcome Hitler to Vienna, 1938
The shock of the events following the Anschluss was too much for Herb’s father. Herb recalls that he suffered what was described as a nervous breakdown and became largely non-functional. His mother now had to be both father and mother, and, “she rose to the occasion splendidly.” She knew that they had some relatives abroad, and she instituted a massive correspondence to locate them and seek their help. She wrote to known relatives in Poland and Russia to get addresses of relatives in Western countries, including the United States. Some of this correspondence was answered, some not, and, Herb recalls, some came “with protestations of sympathy but nothing helpful.” It was not an easy process, but she did manage to get a distant aunt in Chicago to give an affidavit for Herb’s older brother, Josef, and he was able to leave for the States in November 1938.
She found an even more distant relative in Los Angeles to give an affidavit for Herb. These affidavits were required for entry into the United States and constituted a written undertaking by a US citizen to be financially responsible for a would-be immigrant, lest he or she might become a public charge.
Herb left Vienna for the States in the spring of 1939. His parents were able to get away some weeks later, since there was a short window before the beginning of the war when England allowed persons seeking to emigrate to the US to wait in England until their quota numbers came up. His parents got out of Vienna, together, on one of the last planes to London. Although they were allowed to wait in England, they were forbidden to work. During this time they were supported by the English-Jewish community. Sonja’s number came up first, then Salomon’s, and in June 1940 they were finally able to enter the United States, and the family was reunited in California.
Herb had been 15 years old when he left for the States, with an affidavit from a step-aunt, Fanny Kleiner, who was living in Los Angeles. Herb landed in New York on April 4, 1939, and crossed the US by Greyhound Bus to settle in with her and her husband Theodore (Ted). “Uncle Ted” gave Herb a job in his garment factory. There Herb worked about 60 hours a week, including Saturdays, and was paid $10 a week. Ted took out $5 a week for room and board. “I was glad he did,” Herb said, “so I did not have to to have the feeling of having taken charity.” He later took other jobs in the garment industry that paid more, earning, for example, $15 as a cutter. As soon as they could, the family repaid the English-Jewish community for the expenses it had incurred on the parents’ behalf.
Herbert Murez, 1942
After Pearl Harbor and America’s entry into the war, Herb tried to enlist in the armed forces. It was a convoluted process, since the procedure for a non-citizen and “enemy alien” was to apply to the board handling the selection of persons for induction and asking to be considered. Herb filled out the necessary paperwork, but was rejected twice — for flat feet and a heart murmur. “The third time the requirements must have changed, or my health must have improved,” Herb said, “one or the other. I was taken into the Army and sent to Camp Crowder, a Signal Corps training camp in the Missouri Ozarks.” There he entered basic training which, he said, “involved breaking down the individual and reconstructing him as an army man.”
But he was called to Camp Ritchie even before he completed Crowder’s basic training program. At Camp Ritchie’s Military Intelligence Training Center, the training was more in keeping with Herb’s anti-authoritarian views. As Herb put it: “If the government wants you to use your brains, they have to treat you humanely.” In fact, Herb said, “Camp Ritchie was the most unmilitary place in the US Army, no spit and polish there, or there was a minimum of it.”
When he first arrived at Ritchie, on December 30, 1944, Herb worked in the supply room, under a sergeant who was an Italian from Hell’s Kitchen. He was there only 3 days, and then his class started.
Herb was in class 26; ironically, his brother Josef had been enrolled in the 24th class, to train in counterintelligence, but he had been hospitalized for scoliosis in November, and not been able to finish with his class. Because Camp Ritchie men were sworn to secrecy, even among family members, Herb was unaware of how close he came to meeting his brother at the camp in Maryland.
As part of the 26th class, Herb learned a little about interrogation and order of battle. The hardest thing was a night-time exercise, whereby men were taken out at night, with only a map and a compass, and had to find their way back to camp. The truck taking them out made lots of turns and detours, to confuse the men as to the direction they were traveling. And, in Herb’s case, the map he and his partner were given was in Japanese — even though it was a map of the terrain around Camp Ritchie.
Night-time exercise at
The basic course wound up with a study of German organization. Then he was assigned to a group that focused on document analysis. The documents studied — German orders, etc. — came from North Africa. The task of the Ritchie students was to extract intelligence of importance beyond the immediate moment. There were about 15 to 20 people in this section. In the Camp Ritchie classes, rank did not count, while expertise did. One of the students in Herb’s section had been transferred in from the general staff school in Ft. Benning, Ga. He was a lieutenant colonel, whereas the instructor was a buck sergeant. Lectures were very complex, with a heavy emphasis on concepts.
There was not a lot of time for leisure activities and socializing. “The Camp Ritchie study routine was intensive, with much homework after class,” Herb said. Between classes and reviewing his class notes, he was exhausted, since he was doing “brain” work about 15 hours a day. But he did go in to Hagerstown a couple of times for a good meal, and to Baltimore, from where he took the train to New York. In New York he met up with his brother, who, because of curvature of the spine, was never assigned overseas, as Herb was. Since the brothers were both mindful that they were not to speak of their military intelligence assignments or training, they did not.
Of the men in Herb’s class who studied document analysis, only ten completed it successfully. The rest, he said, were probably reassigned to infantry.
The class concluded on March 3, 1945, and Herb was assigned to the European theater. He traveled to Britain on the SS Normandie, which had about 25,000 servicemen on board. The ship did not travel in a convoy, because it was capable of enough speed to outrun the U-boats plying the North Atlantic. Instead, the ship followed a routine of changing directions slightly every few minutes in an irregular and non-repetitive manner, to keep U-boat captains from getting an accurate fix for launching torpedoes. During this crossing the news came over the radio that President Roosevelt had died. Herb said that everyone aboard ship was shocked and saddened, and a chaplain organized an impromptu, nondenominational memorial service.
One day when Herb was on deck, he noticed that the ship was headed westward instead of to the east. He asked the crew about it and was told that, in order to avoid U-Boats in the area, the ship was not going to Bristol, as intended, but to Edinburgh, instead.
From there he was sent to France, crossing the channel and landing at Le Havre. The city had been liberated, and he had a little leisure there, before being sent on to Paris, where SHAEF was now quartered. There the men were assigned to teams; Herb and his intelligence team were housed in a small house in the Paris suburb of Le Vésinet, where Military Intelligence was installed in an enclosed park. Ironically, before its occupancy, the park had originally housed a sanatorium for the mentally ill and then been taken over by the Germans as a Gestapo headquarters.
One day, while still at Le Vésinet, a captain came in and called for a detail of 4/5 enlisted men (including Herb) who were language specialists from Camp Ritchie, to drive straight through to Saxony where plans had been found that looked “suspicious.” Herb recalled:
The trip through Bohemia and Saxony to pick up the plans was a wild ride, two jeeps going night and day, with no guidance except a few maps. It was known that the area would fall under Russian occupation, but the war was not quite over and conditions were somewhat chaotic. […] We stopped only to refill gasoline which we brought in several cans, and for bathroom breaks.
A V-2 trajectory plan
They were met on their arrival by American troops who gave them some rolled-up documents. Herb saw at once that the word “Flugbahn” (“trajectory”) was prominently printed on one of them and said to his Captain that they gave details about something aeronautical, well above his ability of interpretation or analysis, and they should be taken to Paris. The Captain agreed: “Pack up and let’s move.” These turned out to be the plans of the Germans’ V-2 rocket, the world’s first long-range guided ballistic missile.The men took the plans, and the two jeeps returned to Paris as hurriedly as they had come,, driving night and day. Their last can of gasoline got them to SHAEF headquarters, all in one piece.
After Germany’s surrender in May 1945, the Americans started to set up a major German documents center in Berlin; until then, Herb’s unit was sent to Fürstenhagen, Germany, to work — analyzing, abstracting, and circulating documents to the appropriate offices. Herb recalled that “about 95% of these materials were junk, but some were of value.” They were, for example, given a bunch of documents to translate because they showed complicity in war crimes; Herb remembers some with Hitler’s signature. And one was a field order for the occupation of the Rhineland, ca. 1935, that stated that if the French occupation troops interfered with the incoming Germans, the Germans were not to interact, but were to pull back, instead. In fact, Herb said, the French had been ready to mobilize, but the English were not, so the French did not follow through, and Hitler was successful in his takeover. Herb has said that this field order, personally signed by Adolf Hitler, taught him what he considers “the most important insight and lesson of my military ‘career.’ It is this:
Evil must be resisted. It will not go away by itself. There has to be a will to resist, in whatever manner resistance is possible under the circumstances. If the bully perceives that there is no will to resist, the bully will only become more daring and aggressive. The longer the necessary resistance is delayed, the higher will be the ultimate price to be paid.
I emphasize this point in my talks to middle and high school students about my holocaust experience,” Herb concluded. “History bears me out: Hitler got away with his bluff.”
The Fürstenhagen center was still a mixed British/American unit, although the Americans outnumbered the Brits there by about four to one. This would change when the new Document Center opened in Berlin. There it was established in the American-occupied zone in Berlin’s rural district of Zehlendorf, and housed in a large underground complex that the Gestapo had formerly used as a telephone surveillance facility.
The original purpose of the Berlin Document Center was to collect and coordinate all the Nazi regime’s records in one single location, where they could be easily accessed for use in the Americans’ denazification programs and in the Allied war crimes trials. The heart of the collection was the 10.7 million membership cards of the Nazi party. They had been housed in the Nazi party headquarters in Munich, but, as the war ended the Germans had transferred them to an empty warehouse, where a paper mill was to turn them into pulp. Fortunately, the mill ran out of acid after less than 10% of these cards had been destroyed. When the Americans recovered the rest, the cards were scattered helter-skelter on the warehouse floor. Herb recalls that, in order to prevent them from falling into Allied hands, hundreds of thousands of SS and SA personnel files had been thrown down an old salt mine shaft that had an accumulation of salt water at the bottom. Although they had been recovered and stored in boxes by the time they wound up at the 6889 Berlin Document Center, they were still damp. “It was a tremendously tedious job,” Herb said, of examining and deciphering these waterlogged papers, and [… re-alphabetizing] them and the reconstructed copies.” Second Lieutenant Clemens von Klemperer, son of the famous conductor Otto von Klemperer, oversaw the entire project. He was, Herb said, “the most soft-spoken, gentlemanly officer I believe I ever encountered in the US Army.” Herb monitored a crew of German workers on this project, drying and reordering the documents. The project was still underway when Herb left for home. “I don’t know what happened to the collection,” Herb said. “I do know that the political winds had subtly shifted, with the beginning of the Cold War.” The Americans’ interests now shifted to getting hold of German scientists before they fell into the hands of the Russians — regardless of their Nazi background.
Working with the Nazi membership files at the Berlin Document Center, 1945
(Over the years the collections at the Document Center were, in fact, woefully neglected. Eventually, the records were transferred to microfilm and sent to the National Archives, and, in 1994, the original collection was turned over to the German Federal Archives. The underground Document Center was then turned into a parking garage.
Herb served in the document center from June/July 1945 until February 1946 and was quartered in a row of houses near the Wannsee. The winter of 1945-46 was, he recalled, the coldest within memory. Ordinary jackets and overcoats were simply insufficient. He acquired a pilot’s fleece-lined jacket in a swap of some kind. “I remember no details [of the transaction],” he said, “except that cigarettes were involved.” At the time cigarettes were worth more than money, even more desirable and tradable than the occupation currency issued by the US Army.
Herbert Murez, 1946
In addition to personnel and Nazi membership cards, the Berlin Documents Center held a collection of issues of the Voelkischer Beobachter. Because this was the official newspaper of the Nazi party, it was widely read by the German population throughout the war. Even so, Herb talked to several hundred Germans during his service in Berlin, and not one admitted to knowing about the murder of civilians and the operation of the work and death camps. But Herb knew better: the Völkischer Beobachter contained numerous articles about the atrocities inflicted in the ghettos and concentration camps in Poland and elsewhere, and had gleefully printed accounts of mass killings in Poland. “It was,” he said, “a case of collective amnesia.” Fortunately, he has added, when Konrad Adenauer became the first chancellor of West Germany, he insisted on the return of stolen property, the payment of reparations, and the unvarnished teaching of what had gone on during Nazi rule. “This way,” Herb said, “the following generations were not afflicted by the collective amnesia of Nazi party horrors.”
During Herb’s service in Germany, the roads were choked with displaced persons trying to get home or to escape from the East to the West. The soldiers had an unwritten rule in their mess hall to give the DPs whatever they wanted to eat; Lt. Col. Helm, the Commanding Officer of the Berlin Documents Center, simply looked the other way. Strictly speaking, it was against Army regulations to give GI food to non-soldiers. Many of the displaced persons were Slavs, slave labor survivors and concentration camp survivors, not Germans. He remembers seeing how one German slipped a slice of bread into the pocket of one of these homeless men. Herb inquired with the Red Cross about an uncle of his father’s, who had been held at the Theresienstadt camp. He learned that he and his wife had survived the war and were back in Vienna. Herbert managed to get orders to go to Vienna, ostensibly to inquire about a job with the Military Government of Austria, but really to reconnect with his uncle, who was now living in an old age home there.
Herb also went to Vienna’s Fifth District to see the apartment he had grown up in. He went in his American army uniform and explained to the woman now living there that he wanted to come in and look around. She, like most Viennese now living in former Jewish homes, was afraid that he wanted to throw her out, but he merely wanted to revisit the old rooms. Little had changed there, except for the furniture. Later on he would be paid restitution for this home. He had no desire at all to return there. “To see the destruction in Vienna and my old apartment left me with an empty feeling,” Herb said. “I knew this was a reflection of my past but no part of my future.”
In fact, the visit to Vienna brought with it a revulsion to the war in which he had been a part:
War was the ultimate insanity, and I wanted to get home to the US and be an insane asylum inmate no more. Indeed, for many years after I was discharged I did not want to talk about my military years — except to apply for GI educational benefits. Gradually my attitude turned 90 degrees: if I don’t talk about what happened, who should?
Herb received an honorable discharge from the army on June 13, 1946 and, after working at a number of inconsequential jobs, decided that it was time to get an education and select a profession. At the time of this realization the Veterans Administration was offering a combination educational development and aptitude test. It was, Herb remembered “a three day monster, consisting of mostly true/false and multiple choice questions.” He had never had such a test in Austria, where all tests were essay tests, but, he must have been “good at guessing,” since the VA gave him the equivalent of three years of undergraduate college. He credited this, in part, to the fact that he had become a voracious reader during his time in Europe, where his reading was “disorganized, to be sure, but massive.” “On the aptitude issue, the finding was clear: I should either pursue the study of journalism or law, both professions in which you can and should be disdainful of appointed authority. I chose law, mainly because you can be your own boss more than in journalism.”
Since he was working during the day, he had to find a school that offered night classes. He finally found Pacific Coast University School of Law, a school in Long Beach, which had an extension in Los Angeles that catered to midlife people, largely in law enforcement, who wanted a legal education. The dean of the school, Dr. Carl Manson, told him that the school would accept the equivalent of three years of undergraduate work, but that he could not waive the requirement of a high school diploma. Herb was able to find a high school principal who gave him his high school degree after his completion of a single night course.
Dr. Manson told him that there were three important things he could do with his time: work, study, and lead a social life, but he added that it was possible to do only two of the three. “He was right,” Herb said, “absolutely right, and I did not lead any kind of social life during the years when most men and women form lifetime connections.” He graduated with a baccalaureate degree “with distinction,” which was later converted to a “Juris Doctor with Distinction.” He passed the California Bar exam on the first try. While waiting for the results, he made an arrangement with a practicing attorney to help him with his paper work in return for his helping Herb “with all the things a novice lawyer should know but does not.” As a result he was able to establish his own practice without working for someone else. He spent most of his career practicing law in Los Angeles county, while also teaching Civil Procedure and Remedies courses as a law professor at Beverly Law School. In due course he retired from active practice and became an arbitrator for FINRA (Financial Industry Regulatory Authority), policing the securities industry.
Herbert Murez, ca. 2020
Herb says that he did not do as well with his personal life. His first marriage to Anita Phillips in 1960 deteriorated rather quickly, although it did give him a son with whom he has maintained a strong relationship. In fact, he said, he found happiness relatively late in life, when he married Freda Swedlove in 1978.
Herb is now fully retired. His wife Freda died in 2012, and he regrets that, “she cannot enjoy retirement with me.” He now has a close relationship with Hilda Fogelson, a Holocaust survivor from Berlin. She is one of the 10,000 Jewish children who were brought to England as part of the “Kindertransport” [Children’s Transport] in the nine months prior to the outbreak of the war and thereby saved from being sent to the German death camps. She and Herb now spend a lot of time together, including enjoyable morning walks. “She has become a very important person in my life,” Herb says, “and makes it more enjoyable.” At age 98, he remains active, and he still speaks to middle and high school students about the Holocaust and about his experiences as a Jewish refugee from Nazi-occupied Vienna.
i.) The information in this article, unless otherwise noted, comes from Herbert Murez’s conversations and correspondence with the author, Beverley Driver Eddy, between 28 Dec. 2021 and 21 Mar. 2022.
ii.) Herbert Murez in conversation with George Fogelson, 13 Feb. 2022.
iii.) Herbert Murez in conversation with George Fogelson, 13 Feb. 2022.
iv.) Herbert Murez in conversation with George Fogelson, 13 Feb. 2022.
v.) George Mandler, Interesting Times: An Encounter with the 20th Century 1924—. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, 2002, 97.