A Simple Matter of God and Country

The Story

The Toledo Blade - Article Published Feb. 26, 2001

Woman who fled Nazis to make film debut


LIMA, Ohio. There was a time - a long time, when Liesl Sondheimer didn’t share her story with neighbors and schoolchildren and strangers.

As German-born Jews whose roots ran deep in their homeland, the Sondheimers fled to the United States in the fall of 1938, when they knew could not, would not survive another week in Nazi-controlled Germany.

"I did not talk about it until maybe 15 or 20 years ago," said Mrs. Sondheimer, 94. "I just couldn’t, and I wasn’t interested in reviving all the horrible experiences."

Now the Lima woman’s story is the focal point of a documentary produced by Lima native Daniel Stewart Levy.

The film will premier March 17 at the Veteran’s Memorial Civic and Convention Center here, and Dr. Levy hopes to distribute the film nationally through PBS, the History Channel, A&E, or other venues like the Holocaust Museum.

The documentary is called "A Simple Matter of God and Country", which was taken from Mrs. Sondheimer’s statement, "For the majority of Germans, it had always been a simple matter of God and country. Jews believed in the wrong God, and they lived in the wrong country."

Dr. Levy, an emergency physician in Santa Barbara, Calif., who owns his own production company, began working on the documentary more than six years ago. He wanted to make a film about more than the Holocaust alone.

"I hope and pray people don’t walk away from this saying how horrible the Holocaust was. I want them to realize how fragile freedom still is," he said.

The film explores the centuries-old roots of anti-Semitism in Germany. It tells how Jews could not even be German citizens until 1870, and how that quickly began to unravel when Hitler came to power in 1933. While the Holocaust is often thought of in terms of Germans and Jews separately, Dr. Levy said, thousands of those Jews were Germans too.

Mrs. Sondheimer’s family had been in Germany for 450 years. Her grandfather, Berthold Bing, was a prominent judge and industrialist, whose picture is on the House of Commerce in Nuremberg to this day. Her husband Martin was a successful physician, and the young couple did not want to leave Germany despite what was happening to them and their Jewish neighbors.

"We thought something so impossible just couldn’t stay, " she said.

The Sondheimers believed that because Martin had been a German officer in World War I, they would be safe. Still, they lost their comfortable home in Stuttgart early on, and were forced to move to a small apartment across the city.

In 1935, Hitler issued the Nuremberg Laws, which took away all Jews’ rights to citizenship. They could not shop in non-Jewish stores. Dr. Sondheimer could no longer treat any patients. His ability to earn a living was effectively terminated.

As a result, the Sondheimers made a brief exploratory visit to the United States - with a couple who was moving to Hot Springs, Ark., where they had relatives. Mrs. Sondheimer said that she and her husband were horrified by the way Blacks were treated in that city, and assumed such was true for the rest of the country. So they returned to Germany.

Yet over the next year, conditions for Jews there became intolerable. In September 1938, they bribed a clerk in the American consulate in Stuttgart for other's lower numbers on the waiting list for emigration to the United States. They fortunately made it out of the country with their daughters and many of their belongings.

Mrs. Sondheimer still feels guilt for the Jews whose numbers her family received. But still, she knows it was their only means of survival. "We would have been killed. Another month and we’d have been killed, " she said.

The Sondheimers spent a year in New York before settling in Lima, the only Ohio city they found that seemed open to having a new internist in town. They became U.S. citizens in 1943, and Dr. Sondheimer eventually had a successful medical practice. Mrs. Sondheimer, a social worker by profession, became significantly involved in community organizations to a degree that continues today.

"It’s humorous but embarrassing that I didn’t know her story. She just never talked about it," Dr. Levy said.

Mrs. Sondheimer said she only began accepting invitations to speak to groups after her husband’s death in 1982. She, her oldest daughter Hannah, and her son-in-law even returned to Germany in 1989, at the invitation of the new mayor of Stuttgart. Mrs. Sondheimer went as a matter of goodwill and curiosity. It was a bittersweet trip that her husband would never have made.

"He wouldn’t go back to Germany for anything in the whole wide world," she said. "He was more bitter. He was much more patriotic than I was. He had fought for Germany for four years. He couldn’t believe what happened like I could."

She has no relatives remaining today in Germany. All had left or were killed in the Holocaust. And she feels like an American - "100 percent American," she says without hesitation, when asked about her feelings of citizenship.

At 94, Mrs. Sondheimer lives alone in a modest home filled with the treasured furniture, dishes, and pictures she was able to take from Germany. She still makes regular presentations at area schools and clubs.

"I never refuse," she said. "I think people should know, and it makes me feel good when I go through the cash register line at Ray’s Supermarket and the girl working there says, "I remember when you spoke to my eighth grade class."

She has fielded silly questions from the youngsters like, "did you ever meet Hitler?" and more difficult queries from adults like, "Why did it happen?" and "Could it happen here?"

One boy at her great-grandson’s school in Washington asked whether she could believe in a kind and wonderful God after what happened in Germany.

"That was very smart and very hard to answer," she said. "I said, ‘Some people don’t, but that would be the greatest triumph of Hitler when we all would lose faith’."