When Shlomo Margaliot was 15 years old, his mother sewed a stack of Reichsmarks into his shirt and sent him on the most important errand of his young life: He was to purchase four tickets for a ship to Palestine, where the family planned to escape from Nazi Germany.
But when Margaliot reached the ticket office in Berlin, he learned that the ships were booked solid. Instead, he returned home with four roundtrip tickets on a German airline.
In 1939, commercial air travel was rare, expensive and widely considered to be dangerous. Margaliot’s mother took one look at the tickets and told him she would rather die on land than in the air. But eventually she agreed that the Nazis posed a greater risk than a flight across the Mediterranean. Margaliot, his elder brother and his parents arrived in Haifa three months before the outbreak of World War II. Their belongings, including a dark wood piano, followed by ship soon after.
Last year, that piano went on display at Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust Museum, bringing to light the Margaliot family’s unique survival story. Researchers at Yad Vashem said they had never heard of another Jewish family that escaped Germany to British Mandate Palestine by plane. Today, at 94, Margaliot can hardly explain his teenage instincts to purchase the airline flights rather than return home empty-handed — a decision that saved his family’s life.
“I still don’t understand it,” he said in an interview in his retirement facility in Kfar Saba, where he lives with his wife, Shulamit Margaliot.
Margaliot grew up in Chemnitz, Germany, the youngest son of upper middle-class Polish Jews who worked in the textile industry. His parents, Menashe and Bracha-Leah Margaliot, sent him to elite schools and paid for swimming and sports lessons. Margaliot had a private music tutor to help him learn the piano, a staple in every affluent German home, but he often shirked practice for football. When Yad Vashem invited him to visit the piano exhibit in August, he was too sheepish to play it for a TV crew.
In 1938, Germany ordered the expulsion of Polish Jewry. Margaliot’s parents hid in the home of an acquaintance, but his brother, Abraham, who was studying in Hamburg at the time, was deported to Krakow. Margaliot, then at school in Leipzig, returned to Chemnitz and reunited with his parents. Shortly after, Nazi forces and German civilians attacked thousands of Jewish businesses and synagogues in what came to be known as Kristallnacht. The Margaliot family began making plans to leave.
Despite the restrictions placed on Jews, Menashe Margaliot had a permit to travel back and forth to Holland, where his business was based. It was there that he was able to acquire immigration visas to Palestine, which at that time was under British control. Meanwhile, Bracha-Leah Margaliot was able to secure permission for Abraham to travel back to Germany to leave with the family. The family and their three containers arrived in Palestine about four months before the outbreak of World War II. They left behind dozens of other relatives who died in the Holocaust.
Margaliot’s family settled in Ra’anana, in central Israel, where his parents ran a poultry and dairy farm. Margaliot began an educational toy company, while his brother taught university. The family received some compensation for their property lost in the Holocaust, including, Margaliot said, a refund for the return trip airline ticket. When Margaliot got married he moved the family’s piano into the couple’s new apartment in Tel Aviv. They had two sons, but neither learned to play the piano. Nor did their grandchildren.
Last year, when the couple moved into the Kfar Saba retirement home, their son Dubi Margaliot helped them to consolidate their belongings. The couple donated most of their furniture to the Israeli military, but Dubi thought the piano might be of interest to Yad Vashem.
As it turned out, for decades Yad Vashem had been seeking a piano to place in a mock living room at the beginning of the museum. The so-called “paradox room” depicts German-Jewish home life during the Nazi rise to power. The room is cozy and well appointed, with both German and Jewish touches, like a bookshelf where tomes by the German poet Friedrich Schiller sit alongside a German-language Talmud. Yet, outside a false window in the room, footage of Kristallnacht rages.
The room serves several purposes, said Noa Or, a researcher in the artifacts collection at Yad Vashem. One is to show that German Jews saw no conflict in their identities. Another is to show how German Jews felt comfortable at home, even though outside conditions were “starting to collapse. They were very German and they couldn’t see the writing on the wall.”
For the most part, the “paradox room” is furnished with original pieces from German Jewish homes before the war, with plaques describing the fates of their original owners. However, Yad Vashem was never able to locate a German piano. Instead, the museum made due with another piano to illustrate the cultural life of the typical German Jewish family, where most young children learned to play the instrument.
Margaliot’s piano is now a central part of the “paradox room,” where the family’s story is described on a plaque. Earlier this year, Margaliot, along with his children, grandchildren and great-grandchild. came to Yad Vashem to visit the piano. Margaliot said he finds meaning in the fact that his family’s instrument is now part of Holocaust education.
“It reminds us of where we were born, the kind of education we got and how we lived there once,” he said.
Naomi Zeveloff is a freelance journalist based in Israel. She is the Forward’s former Middle East correspondent.