Early one morning when she was a child, Sibylle Heidrich stepped out of her house in Aurich, Germany, and noticed smoke in the sky. The smoke was coming from up the road, behind a row of houses. It took a moment for her to understand what was happening.
“We suddenly realized — oh,” she said, “the synagogue is burning.”
As she stood outside watching the scene, a flatbed truck passed by. People were crowded in the back. She saw her neighbor among them. Someone explained that the people were all Jewish, and that they were being taken to the local stadium. She never saw them again.
“Some things you never forget,” she said.
Now 89, Heidrich wants to travel to Israel to apologize on behalf of the German people.
‘No woman was safe’
Heidrich grew up Sibylle von Campe, in Halle Westfalen. Her father, Alfred von Campe, was a civil servant. When Adolf Hitler and his Nazi party rose to power in 1933, her father refused to join. He was demoted and sent to Aurich along with other government officials who refused to join the party.
When Germany annexed part of Czechoslovakia in 1938, however, he was sent east to the newly German territory to help install a government. She remembers him returning from work one afternoon and showing her a Nazi party membership card with his name on it — they had conscripted him into the party.
War broke out the following year, and Heidrich spent most of it in that border region between Germany and Czechoslovakia.
When German soldiers advanced into Eastern Europe and Russia early in the war, they inflicted merciless violence on the civilian population. When the tide of the war turned and Soviets began advancing into German territory, they repaid the cruelty in kind.
“No woman was safe,” Heidrich said.
When it became increasingly clear that advancing Soviet troops would reach their town in 1945, her father sent her west.
Alone, she flagged down a passing car and arranged a ride. She eventually made it to a farm in central Germany. Her parents stayed behind. When Soviet troops arrived, they arrested her father and put him in prison. He died there five days later.
A long journey
For several weeks, Heidrich worked on that farm in central Germany with no knowledge of what had happened to her parents. Then one day, she saw her mom, Margarite Wesener, standing in one of the farm’s fields wearing a backpack. She had escaped, and told Heidrich what had happened to her father. She and Heidrich set out for British-controlled western Germany.
They eventually made it back to Halle Westfalen, where Heidrich had grown up. She became a midwife, and estimates she delivered 1,000 babies there. Everyone in town knew her, she said.
In 1970 she began a correspondence with an Ohioan named Hans Heidrich. He proposed without ever having met her face-to-face, flew to Germany, married her, then brought her back to Ohio.
They stayed there for about a decade, then decided to build and sail a boat down the Ohio River to the Mississippi, into the Gulf of Mexico, and on to Ecuador, where her brother had settled. They stopped in Gulfport Harbor to service the boat, however, and loved the area and decided to look at houses. They saw a house in Long Beach with a swimming pool and a centuries-old oak tree, and decided to sell their house in Ohio and buy it.
Heidrich has lived in the house ever since.
From midwife to Reagan translator
Heidrich continued to work as a midwife in South Mississippi, delivering more than a 1,000 babies here, she said. She keeps bound books of birth records on her living room shelf, along with black and white photos of her parents.
She happened to be in Berlin in 1987 when president Ronald Reagan gave his famous speech asking Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to “Tear down this wall!” Heidrich watched the speech from the crowd, translating from English to German for those around her.
She keeps photos of Reagan in her house, along with sketches of traditional German houses, carved wooden trinkets from Ecuador, and knick-knacks from Mississippi. She is an avid churchgoer, although she does not subscribe to any one denomination. She still sits underneath the ancient oak tree that first drew her to Long Beach.
Her nephew Alfred von Campe, who lives in Massachusetts, sees her about once a year. They disagree on politics and religion, but have fun when they are together.
Von Campe said they got together in Miami with other members of their family earlier this year. They went to a cabaret show with music, juggling and “a little bit of risque dancing.” He said Heidrich loved it.
“You’d think it was against her values, but she really, really enjoyed it.”
Heidrich said her memory is getting worse as she ages, but images from her time in war-torn Germany are as vivid as ever. The scene of the burning synagogue has haunted her, and she wants to travel to Israel with a message.
“I want to apologize to the Jews for what Germany did,” she said.
When Heidrich’s friend Charles Wambolt, who runs the Fatherless and Widows charity in Long Beach, learned that she wanted to travel to Israel, he began looking for a way to get her there. He discovered a group called March of Remembrance Houston. The group’s goal is to remember the Holocaust, reconcile descendants of “perpetrators, bystanders and victims,” and stand against anti-Semitism.
Now Wambolt and Heidrich are trying to raise enough money to pay for a trip for her to visit Jerusalem with the group. She turns 90 this month, and wants to celebrate her birthday there and commemorate the founding of the State of Israel, which occurred on May 14, 1948.
“She’s gone through a lot of hardships,” Wambolt said. “She’s thankful in a way that other people aren’t.”
About the trip
To help fund Sibylle Heidrich’s trip, donations can be made through the Fatherless and Widows charity. The organization has a fundraising site set up at youcaring.com/fatherlessandwidows-775750