As a boy, Henry Birnbrey felt mixed emotions about moving to America. He’d be leaving his family behind, but heading to a place he thought would be exciting.
“I was a 14-year-old going to America,” he said.” I’d heard all about the cowboys and Indians when I was a kid. That’s all I knew about America.”
It felt like an adventure.
Besides, he couldn’t stay in Dortmund, his home town in Germany. He wasn’t safe there. It was 1938. The Nazis held full control.
He recounts vividly what it was like being a Jewish boy in a Nazi-controlled community. “Beating on the streets, I’ve seen it all,” he said. “They’d pick an old Jewish man and make him sweep the streets with toothbrushes. That kind of humiliation was common. Then people started disappearing… I witnessed the burning of books. It was very intimidating for a young child.”
He couldn’t play with other kids in the streets, he recalls. “Every kid was wearing a Nazi uniform, so if you were not wearing a uniform, you felt very alone,” he said. “We were not allowed to go into parks, swimming pools.”
Birnbrey’s father owned a dry goods store and managed a commissary for a local union. Birnbrey says his father died on Kristallnacht, the “night of broken glass” in 1938, when Jewish businesses, homes, hospitals and temples were destroyed by the Nazis and their supporters. “He was in a local prison,” Birnbrey said. “He died from a beating.”
He never found out what happened to his mother.
Birnbrey came to America as part of a humanitarian rescue mission organized to remove Jewish children from Nazi Germany and resettle them in safer countries.
In England, the effort was known as Kindertransport, or “children’s transport,” and resulted in more than 10,000 children finding new homes. In the United States, the program was much smaller. About 1,100 children were brought to America in an effort now often called “One Thousand Children.”
“I was one of the lucky people picked,” Birnbrey said. He was sponsored by a Jewish women’s group in Birmingham. He and two other children were put on a ship and taken to New York. He eventually was placed in a foster home in Atlanta.
He served in the U.S. Army from 1943 until 1945, he said. He was shipped back to Europe to fight against the Nazis. He “had a million jobs in the Army,” at one point helping interrogate German prisoners.
After the war, he returned to Atlanta and started an accounting firm. “I didn’t have a job, so I started my own,” he said.
Has he retired? “Yes and no,” he said during a recent chat in his Brookhaven home. At age 90, he still goes into the office for a few hours a day, he said.
He also gives talks several times a month at the Breman Jewish Heritage and Holocaust Museum in Atlanta. His talks make the Holocaust seem real to the students who come to the museum. “It is amazing,” said museum executive director Aaron Berger. “These kids are learning about World War II and the Holocaust in the classroom, and then they meet someone who lived through it. They really are in awe of him.”
After the war, Birnbrey didn’t want to return to Germany. “I was committed not to go back. I didn’t want anything to do with the bastards,” he said.
But years later, someone told him where his parents were buried. He has returned to pay his respects. On one trip, about five years ago, he was accompanied by three of his four children. They asked to see where their grandfather had died.
It proved to be too much.
“When we went into the torture chamber, I suffered a heart attack,” Birnbrey said. “The ambulance took me to the hospital I was born in.”