Voices from the Archive

Joe Adamson, Refugee, Interrogator, Regular Dad, Finally Told his Story

Fri, 02/11/2022 - 10:59am

For much of their life, Allen and Peter Adamson didn't know that Joe, their easy-going, suburbanite dad, a VP at a New York plastics company, had a remarkable early history. He had escaped Germany at the age of 14 on the Kindertransport, served as an interrogator with the U.S. Army during the liberation of Mauthausen Concentration Camp, and helped in a U.S. effort to intercept secret messages encoded in German postage stamps.

Joe Adamson didn't talk much about these experiences to his family or anyone else because he didn't consider himself a Holocaust survivor, and he didn't consider himself a hero.

Joe died at his Stamford, Connecticut home at the age of 97 on January 17, 2022. His  family is eternally grateful that Joe was able to record his life story in October 2020 as part of USC Shoah Foundation's Last Chance Testimony Collection.

USC Shoah Foundation collected the bulk of its 52,000 Holocaust survivor testimonies between 1994—when Steven Spielberg founded the Visual History Institute—and the early 2000s. The collection effort was reinvigorated in recent years and in 2019 given new urgency with the Last Chance Testimony initiative, a race-against-time effort to record interviews with Holocaust survivors, rescuers, and witnesses who had yet to record testimony.

Joe was first scheduled to give his testimony in early 2020, just at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. "I talked with the team, saying, 'Who knows how long COVID will last. The only thing I know for sure is that my dad is 96, and I would hate to lose his story,'" Allen said.

So in October 2020, Joe spoke for four hours from Allen's home in Westchester, NY, with a USC Shoah Foundation interviewer in Los Angeles. His was the second of dozens of remote interviews recorded during the COVID pandemic, some with equipment shipped to survivor homes and others with local community partners who facilitate the recording. His testimony is contained in the Visual History Archive.

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From Peaches and Roses to Smashed Chandeliers

Joe Adamson was born Ernst Joachim Adamsohn in Königsberg, Germany on June 4, 1924. When his father died suddenly of a heart attack, Joe, aged four, his mother and his two older sisters had to move from their luxurious home into an apartment and then to Frankfurt-Oder to live with his mother's parents. In his grandparents' well-appointed Frankfurt-Oder home, Joe remembered eating breakfast under umbrellas in the garden where his grandfather, an attorney and judge, grew peaches and roses. Joe went on field trips and played soccer with his friends from his Jewish youth group. 

But everything changed as Hitler's hold on power grew stronger through the 1930s. Joe was taunted and beaten up in school by boys in brown Hitler youth uniforms. "They ruled the world, and we, as children, knew it and tried to stay out of their way," he said in his testimony.

Joe's grandfather remained convinced that he could keep his family safe, especially since he had been able to secure the release of two of his sons, Joe's uncles, after they had been arrested and transported to Dachau. When Joe's school in Frankfurt-Oder expelled its Jewish students, Joe transferred to the Auerbach Orphanage, a Jewish boarding school in Berlin. There he studied Jewish texts for the first time and enjoyed city life; he recalled sneaking into the 1936 Olympics with friends.

Then, on the night of November 9, 1938, a fire alarm sounded. The synagogue attached to the Auerbach school was in flames. Hundreds of other synagogues and thousands of Jewish-owned businesses and homes across Germany, Austria and parts of Czechoslovakia were ransacked and destroyed that same night and the following day in what became known as Kristallnacht.

Joe was summoned by his family back to Frankfurt-Oder. Like most Jewish homes and business in Frankfurt, his grandparents' home had been ransacked – chandeliers smashed, art destroyed.

"This was a great shock to my grandfather. He was a respected lawyer…The neighbors who came to his Christmas parties came to smash the house," Joe recalled. Shortly after, his grandfather, who was injured in the violence, had a stroke and died. 

But crucially, before his death his grandfather secured Joe a spot to leave Germany on what was known as the Kindertransport.

Refuge Amid the Bombs

In January or February of 1939, Joe's mother took him to the train station and sent him off, with only a tiny suitcase, via train and then boat to Southampton, England. There, two nuns met the 14-year-old boy and brought him to Westgate-on-the-Sea, just across the English Channel from Belgium. He arrived not speaking any English and started school, living with the Hymes family, who had two sons. But as the war on the continent escalated, Mr. Hymes moved the family west to a farm in Tiverton in Devon. There, Joe learned farming skills and worked as a busboy in a restaurant.

In 1940, Joe met his Kindertransport sponsor in London, who arranged for him to attend the Leeds ORT Technical Engineering School, a Jewish vocational school in northern England. There he studied tool and die making and received a small stipend—enough for the occasional newspaper-wrapped fish and chips on the weekend.  

Meanwhile, Joe's mother and sisters had managed to escape Germany, with all finding work as housemaids in England. In 1941, Joe moved with his mother and sister into a walk-up flat in London’s Hampstead borough. Joe became a mechanic for the Singer Corporation sewing machine company and soon after started a job making Lancaster Bombers.  

Taking shelter from German bombs was a regular part of life and Joe worked as an air raid warden, spending nights in the London Underground. At the same time, his mother often invited soldiers from the U.S. for Sunday lunch, and one day one of them recruited Joe to work as an interpreter and interrogator.

‘Is This Freedom?’

Working with the 32nd Bomb Squadron for the U.S. Air Force, Joe traveled with the troops across Europe and arrived at Mauthausen Concentration Camp a day or two after it was liberated on May 5, 1945. "They still couldn't believe that there were American troops there," Joe said of the prisoners. "I think they were in such a state of malnutrition and knowing that every day they had faced death anyway, they couldn't quite realize, 'is this freedom? Are we free to go?'"

Joe was tasked with interrogating German prisoners of war. "They were arrogant throughout these hearings and throughout the interrogation. No matter what you asked them, what their affiliation was, they [said they] had nothing to do with it, they didn't know, they didn't realize it, they're good people," Joe said. 

On his next assignment, working for the U.S. State Department, Joe intercepted and examined German mail, looking for coded messages hidden in postage stamps. He returned to England around 1947, and by 1948 was on the Queen Elizabeth to New York, U.S. visa and single suitcase in hand.

A Life of Hope

Joe found work as a toolmaker at PrePac, a plastics company in New York City and soon reconnected with Ruth Fainstein, a woman who had worked with him intercepting German mail. A native of Leipzig, Ruth had escaped to Amsterdam and then London during the war.

Joe and Ruth wed on December 23, 1949. They had two sons, Allen and Peter, and moved to Rye Brook in Westchester County, New York in 1963. Joe worked his way up at PrePac, from factory foreman to vice president, overseeing marketing and packaging for products such as Barbie dolls and Matchbox cars.  

For Joe's 95th birthday, Allen created a family tree with research help from his nephew Eric, who at the time was working at the American Jewish Council in Berlin. During the process, Joe began to speak more about his past and ultimately agreed to record his story with USC Shoah Foundation.

After Joe’s death, Allen showed some of his father's USC Shoah Foundation testimony at a memorial. He also had an abridged version of the interview created for the Adamson family, which has asked that donations in Joe's memory be directed to USC Shoah Foundation.   

"Somewhere, someday, some people might look at [this testimony] and it might teach them to live a life of hope," Joe said in his testimony. "My contribution, that small percentage I can give to future generations, might help the fight against racism and against cruelty. And that should never be forgotten." 

Joe Adamson was preceded in death by Ruth (Fainstein) Adamson. He is survived by sons Allen (Madelyn) and Peter (Susanne) Adamson, and grandchildren Eric, Philip, Jacob, Julia, Josh, Elissa, and his partner in later life, Ruth Millet.


Julie Gruenbaum Fax
Julie Gruenbaum Fax was a senior writer and editor at the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles and has co-authored six personal history books. She is currently writing a book about her grandmother’s Holocaust experience.