A Short Biography
Karola Koppel was born on July 20, 1915 in Mönchengladbach, Germany. Her parents, Mendel and Cicilia Koppel, had been married in Lodz, Poland, in 1902. They had intended to immigrate to Albany, Georgia, but stopped in Mönchengladbach, where they had relatives, and they settled there. They owned a shop that sold fabrics and recycled remnants. Karola was one of seven children, all of whom were able to leave Germany before the war broke out. (One lived in Czechoslovakia and left the day before that country fell to the Nazis.)
In a 1988 letter, Karola describes her five years under Nazi rule. "After Hitler gained power in 1933, there was not much change in the beginning. I still had the same teachers. They knew me since I entered the Lyceum, as they were the teachers of both of my sisters. In 1933 I was in the Unterprima (Junior class). All of my Jewish classmates had left the school, as no university was permitted to accept Jewish students. The planned education could not be continued. It was mentally very difficult for me to continue the 1 1/4 and study for the Abitur (diploma) in March 1934. What future was there for me as for all of Jewish people. For the country, for Germany I was not the same person anymore. When class started the teacher entered the classroom with stretched out arm, the Heil Hitler greeting. All of the students, besides me, responded to this Heil Hitler in the same way. In the eyes of the Hitler power, I was a different human being. Every time I felt as if I was hit with a whip, because I knew the meaning of this salute. In March 1934 I graduated, that is I made the Abitur with the grade of B. For my teachers, who had known me for nine years, I still was the same Karola Koppel. What to do now after I had the Abitur? The entrée to all universities in Germany was closed for Jews, though a few students, who had started their studies before Hitler came to power, could continue for a while. Slowly this too was not permitted anymore. You could not be a member of any organization, not be in a restaurant to spend some time with friends. More and more we lived in Jewish community only. We met at the sports club Maccabi for all our sports activities, like ping pong, soccer etc. To visit the coffee house where you had coffee and Coke we drove to Kaffeehaus Karemah in Düsseldorf about three quarters of an hour by car. It was a large private house, which was used for dancing and restaurant for the Jewish youth. Here we gathered often. The main topic was always: Where can we go? Which country will let us enter? Where will we be able to settle and start a new life? Where can we learn a profession or trade and practice it? We lived in a Jewish ghetto.
"Every day there were new laws regarding Jews. It showed the awful hatred of Hesse, Streicher, Goebbels, Baldur von Schirach, Goering and so many SA and SS Fuhrer and followers. Hitler succeeded with his talks and yelling to convince the masses of his idea of destruction, and to hypnotize the masses. They lost all reasoning.
"On the radio we could only listen to Hitler and since we lived close to Luxembourg, all listening to Radio Luxembourg was prohibited. Just the same, my father with tremendous danger, listened every day to Radio Luxembourg news, to listen to the opinion of foreign countries. Christian friends of my father who knew of Hitler's plan to destroy the Jewish population mentally, businesswise and mainly bodily, warned my parents to leave the country as soon as possible. It was not easy for them in their 60th years, to leave all their lives work behind. But we knew we had to get out as soon as possible to save our lives."
The Koppel family left Germany in July, 1938, four months before Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass. The two older sons, Max and Michael, had left Germany in the early 1930s, realizing that life was getting difficult for the Jews. On behalf of the family, they purchased a farm in Westwood, New Jersey, and had obtained the required affidavits after meeting with their congressmen in Washington. The family did not stay in Westwood long, and then moved to the Washington Heights area of New York City. Washington Heights had earned the nickname "Frankfort on the Hudson", since so many German Jewish refugees had settled there. Karola worked as a baby nurse and at other odd jobs. Her father died in 1962, and her mother died in 1964.
Karola met Joseph Loeb, a fellow German Jewish refugee, at a Purim dance at her brother Max's congregation. He had been incarcerated in solitary confinement in his hometown, Zweibrucken, on trumped up charges. When he was released, he immigrated to the United States, settling in Washington Heights. They were married on October 25, 1941. Joseph worked in the wine and vinegar industry. Later, they worked together in an import business, World Fruit Products, which he had founded. Their twin daughters, Joan and Jean, were born in New York on January 28, 1943. The family moved to Teaneck, New Jersey in 1951, so that Joan and Jean could get a better education. In New Jersey, Karola managed the family home and became the advocate for their son Jeffrey who was born on September 1, 1952 and was handicapped.
When her daughters entered college, Karola opened a fabric store and worked until they graduated. She then went back to work with her husband who passed away in 1975. In 1976, Karola moved to River Falls, Wisconsin where Jean and her family lived. While in Wisconsin, she took classes at the university, exhibited her baskets and woven art in a juried show and earned a prize for quality and design. In nearby St. Paul, Minnesota, she took a class in the weaving of woolen tallits, making about twenty, always in the colors selected by the recipients. Later, she gave two to much admired fellow congregants at Ahavas Chesed Synagogue in Mobile.
In July, 1980, Jean's husband got a job teaching at the University of South Alabama in Mobile. Karola moved there in November and became very involved in the activities of Jean's three sons. Judaism was central to her being, and she became active at the synagogue, attending services regularly and participating in study sessions and social events. Believing in the importance of teaching youth about the Holocaust and describing her experiences in Nazi Germany, she spoke to students at St. Paul’s and UMS and with students at the synagogue. She also joined the Jewish Christian Dialogue.
In 1988, the city of Monchengladbach, Germany invited Karola and its other former Jewish residents to be welcomed, honored, and receive an official apology. After one of her talks to students in her old gymnasium (high school), a very surprised student told her he had never heard about the horrors of the Holocaust.
In 1997, Karola moved to San Diego, California to be with her daughter Joan and her son Jeff. It was there that Karola was bat mitzvahed in 2002 at the age of 88, the oldest member of her congregation who had ever achieved this honor.
As her children grew up, Karola shared with them what her life had been like growing up in Germany. Some highlights included competitions in gymnastics and ping pong. She was most proud of accomplishing a feat no one else had done, being the last Jewish girl in her class to complete her high school exams and receive the arbitur. She was very disappointed that she could not achieve her next goal, attending university, since college education was, by then, denied to Jews. She also spoke of the fears that developed as Hitler rose to power and her experiences helping her family to prepare to move to America.
Karola dealt with the many moves she made in life. Her motto was, "Ibi bene, ubi patria," "Where it is good, that is my home." She was able to communicate to her children her experiences as a Jew through her metaphorical story about her moving boxes. After her move from New Jersey to Wisconsin, she stored the moving boxes. When she moved from Wisconsin to Mobile, she used those boxes again. In her last move, from Mobile to San Diego, she again used those boxes. The daughters still have many of them. To her, they symbolized that Jews should be always be ready to move.