Holocaust survivor celebrates major milestone
We at USC Shoah Foundation are wishing a happy birthday to Charlotte McKern, who was among the roughly 20,000 Jews from Germany and Austria who survived the Holocaust by taking refuge in Shanghai, China.
Today, the resident of Sydney, Australia turns 100.
Born Charlotte Cohn on Jan. 10, 1919, the centenarian grew up in Berlin with her parents and two older siblings. The daughter of a solicitor, she was raised in comfort and attended a private school. In her 1995 testimony with USC Shoah Foundation, Charlotte recalled a happy childhood that ended abruptly when Adolf Hitler was named chancellor of Germany on Jan. 30, 1933.
The next day, she was greeted at school by a girl wearing a blouse adorned with a swastika.
“She said, ‘Have you heard the joyful event?’” Charlotte said in her testimony.
Not long after, Charlotte got in trouble for scrawling “Death to the swastika” on a classroom blackboard.
“It could have cost me my life,” she said. “I was called to the school officials and I was warned that the Gestapo will get in touch with me.”
As antisemitism in Germany intensified throughout the 1930s, Charlotte’s parents encouraged her and her siblings to leave the country. She spent some time with her sister’s family in Italy, but that country’s dictator, Benito Mussolini, soon adopted anti-Jewish laws, forcing them to seek another avenue of escape. They obtained visas for Shanghai and wound up on a ship to China.
Once in Shanghai, Charlotte’s family life flourished. She and her sister sent for their parents and grandfather, all of whom made it over safely. It was there where she also met her first husband, Robert Grosslight, a physician who’d been released from the Dachau concentration camp in Germany to leave for Shanghai.
When she contracted typhoid fever, he treated her.
“At this time I decided I will marry Robert,” she said in her testimony, with a chuckle. “He didn’t even know yet.”
They were married on a humid Shanghai day on Sept. 1, 1940. He borrowed somebody’s oversized hat to protect his face from the sun; she fashioned a wedding dress out of white curtains.
For a while, things were good. Robert worked at a hospital; her father took a job as a judge who sat on an arbitration board to resolve disputes within the Jewish population.
“Shanghai was quite amazing. It was like a little Jewish state with its own hospital, with our own arbitration board, concerts and operas,” she said. “We managed somehow – little Israel, in a way.”
On Dec. 7, 1941, the Japanese military attacked Pearl Harbor, and everything changed. The Jewish population was forced to a “designated area.”
“They never called it ghetto,” she said, but that’s what it was.
Koreans who served in the Japanese military made surprise visits with bayoneted rifles. Once, when Robert was working, one such officer briefly stormed into her room.
“They terrorized us and kept us under constant control,” she said. “They had a sort of jail for people whom they thought were against them. … They were like a police state, but they didn’t kill us.”
Ironically, the bigger mortal danger turned out to be the American military.
“More people were killed by the American bombs than by the Japanese,” she said.
Shortly after the war, in Shanghai in 1946, she and Robert had their son, George Grosslight. The family moved to Sydney, Australia, and Robert started a medical practice. But he soon developed heart disease and died in 1955 at age 41.
“That was worse than Shanghai and everything,” Charlotte said.
She later met Howard McKern, a prominent chemist; they married in 1963.
“I’m grateful every day for him,” she said in her 1995 testimony. “Luckily, he says the same about me.”
Howard died in 2009 at age 92.
As hard as life was in Shanghai, Charlotte said she never lost hope.
“The community spirit was very good,” she said. “We thought one day it will finish and we will live. We were optimistic. I never believed in dying.”