After she settles herself into her favorite chair, Margot Karp puts on her spectacles.
The lenses, big and round, are rose-colored.
Margot, elegant in a black dress, stockings and dress shoes, lips a subtle shade of rose red, just turned 99.
She’s a sparrow of a woman.
When asked how tall she is, she deftly answers, “You mean how short am I; I’m 4 foot 11. In my heyday, I was five feet and one-half inch.”
Ninety-nine is a very long time to live, especially if you’ve been through what Margot has.
Margot doesn’t want to dwell on negative things – life is far too short for that – but she’s decided that at her age, there are things, important things, that must be said and recorded for posterity.
Even so, she’s a reluctant interviewee. When she’s reminded that this profile has been 10 years in the making, she looks astounded. Surely she hasn’t put things off that long.
Margot is a Holocaust survivor. In 1998, she told her story to Steven Spielberg and his USC Shoah Foundation Institute. She figured that going through the horrific details of the war years once was enough and has retained a public silence until now.
Margot, her younger sister and parents were Jews living in Dresden, Germany when Hitler came to power and began exterminating the European Jewish population.
It was 1933. She was only 13.
Her father, a merchant, was a native of Warsaw, Poland; her mother, a master tailor with her own atelier, was, like her daughters, born in Germany.
“We immediately felt the effects of Nazi policies,” she says. “My mother wanted me to study in Heidelberg, but all of my dreams vanished.”
By 1937, things were so bad that Margot’s mother killed herself.
“She was only 40,” Margot says. “She turned the gas on on the stove. This was not unusual; we knew many people who had committed suicide because of Hitler. The next year, my father took an overdose of pills, but I got him to the hospital in time.”
Shortly thereafter, the family, along with thousands of other Poles, was deported to Poland. Left on the Polish side of the border, they made their way to Warsaw to try to find members of her father’s family. They were unsuccessful.
“My sister had a visa for Palestine, so she went there on the child rescue that was sponsored by Youth Aliyah,” Margot says. “I was too old to do that.”
Poland, however, had other ideas for Margot and her father.
“They held us at gunpoint and told us to go back to Germany,” she says. “The Germans didn’t know what to do with us, so they put us in prison for illegal entry.”
As an inmate, Margot was placed in a sewing pool.
“My job was to sew buttons on cardboard cards so they could be sold in shops,” she says. “I used the scissors to try to open up my wrists.”
After three months, Margot and her father were released and returned to Dresden.
“Once there, we were told that we had two weeks to get out or we would go to a concentration camp,” she says.
A Jewish organization, Gemeinde, and Margot’s one-time fiance helped them get safe passage to Cambridge, England, where Margot worked as a cashier in a restaurant.
One of her customers provided her a reference for the U.S. Army, which she joined. Right after the war, she was deployed to Frankfurt.
“I censored the mail that was coming through,” she says. “They were looking for Nazis, specifically for letters to and from German scientists who were sent to New Mexico.”
She also served as a translator at the Nuremberg trials, poring over documents detailing atrocities from the death camps.
While she was in Frankfurt, she met her husband, Martin, at a USO club. They married in 1946; Martin passed away late last year.
They came to the United States in 1948, settling in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, after living with his parents in Williamsburg. Later, they moved to Queensview, where Margot still lives.
But they made one key step before their journey: They visited Eagle’s Nest, the Nazi Party’s outpost on the summit of the Kehlstein, a mountain near Berchtesgaden, Germany.
Margot brings out a leather-bound photo album. It’s filled with black and white prints. By one of the photos, she’s printed, in stark-white letters: “The view from Hitler’s house.”
“I was full of hate for him,” she says. “I wanted to see these things for myself – many people were going to these places for the same reason.”
The so-called nest is reached by a steep, winding road, which Hitler reportedly was terrified of.
“He was evil, but he also was a goddamned coward,” Margot says, adding that she and Martin ascended via Jeep without any anxiety or misadventure. “When I saw the barracks where the SS stayed, it made me realize that Hitler knew he was doing bad things because he knew he needed their protection.”
Once they settled in New York, Martin worked in the garment district, and Margot got a job in the office of the Abraham & Straus department store in Manhattan.
When her daughter, Carol, was born, Margot became a stay-at-home mother. Later, she got a job as the central files manager for TIAA-CREF.
“I was there for 32 years,” she says proudly. “I was 80 when I retired; I just decided that I had had enough of working.”
Margot has graciously accepted the course her life has taken; she doesn’t think about what might have been.
But she does miss Germany. “I love it,” she says.
As death thins the ranks of Holocaust survivors, Margot says it’s important to remember to never forget.
“It’s a part of history,” she says. “You will hear people talking about it, but I lived it.”
Margot, who is cared for part time by an aide, has hearing aids and uses a walker to get around, says that every second of life is precious.
“It’s incredible that I got away from Nazi Germany with my life,” she says.
She looks forward to the little things. Carol, who lives in the San Francisco area, calls her every day, and she eagerly follows the latest news of her granddaughter, who is 30.
“People always ask me how I have managed to live so long,” Margot says. “I don’t know that there’s any secret to it. But I do have a sense of humor.”
Astoria Characters Day is Sept. 13, 2020. Sponsored by Bareburger, it’s a free, public event.
Nancy A. Ruhling may be reached at Nruhling@gmail.com; @nancyruhling; nruhling on Instagram, nancyruhling.com, astoriacharacters.com.
Copyright 2019 by Nancy A. Ruhling