Ernst Sigmund Selig was born on May 5, 1922 in the southwest city of Germany called Mannheim. He was 17 when the war broke out and had just recently moved to the city of San Francisco, CA, in order to live with some distant relatives. He was working for a newspaper company as well as a movie house when the war began. Some of his most memorable experiences include the first time he encountered the Nazi regime while living in Germany, being taught in school to adore Adolf Hitler, and even being bullied due to his religious background. Due to his family being killed in the Auschwitz concentration camp during his teenage years, he ended up moving to America where he was able to learn the English language which eventually allowed him to get drafted for WWII as part of the army. His military experiences include stories from his missions in France, Italy, Germany, and even northern Africa.
Father’s Business and Auschwitz
My father owned a textile wholesale house. We had one salesman who was out all the time. I think he employed about six people, and then under the get-rid-of-the-Jews process, father lost his business after I was gone. It was Aryanized. And somebody was designated to be my father’s successor. And I don’t know what he got for it. Less than a thousand marks. I mean, the inventory itself was worth more but that’s the way it was.
And then in – I think it was in ’38 – they were shipped to Southern France to a place called Gurs. All the Jews from Bardin were sent there. They were there a couple years, and then in ’42, they were shipped to Auschwitz, and then they were murdered upon arrival. When I say “upon arrival” that means if you look at the records of Auschwitz itself, you may find that there are arrivals but they are not listed as residents so they were killed the day they arrived. It’s a speedy process.
When Father decided that I needed to go to the United States, Mother wrote to Uncle Adolf and ask him for an Affidavit of Support. And he said, “No.” He had given too many already. He couldn’t do that. Because with every Affidavit of Support, you guarantee you are supporting the people who are coming. I mean very few people taken advantage of that because you look for a job to support yourself and they said, “But I’ve talked to my brother Moses, and Moses is going to give Ernst this Affidavit of Support.” So Uncle Moses wrote and wrote that he is willing to give an Affidavit of Support for the whole family. And Father turned him down.
And Father said he’ll only get ten cents on the dollar. And he doesn’t like to give away all 90% of his money. But it cost him his life because the Germans took the money then, and he got nothing for it, not even ten percent.
Your parents had the option to go to the U.S. with you?
With me? Yes, they had the option. That was back in ’37. The business was still going and doing well. I mean, Father bought a copy of Mein Kampf and read it studiously in 1933 and didn’t believe it. I mean, nobody can be that crazy and kill all the people. Well, anyhow, Father didn’t agree and cost him his life.
First Encounter with the Nazis
My childhood through the fourth grade was very peaceful. Then after the fourth grade, things started to get a little rough. Because we had an apartment in grandmother’s apartment house, and one day, somebody said, “There’s something going on in the street.” It was 1932, so I was about 10 years old. So we all rushed to the window and looked, and people were marching up the street. Because, at the corner – it was a very busy corner, it was a central streetcar stop – the pharmacist had raised the swastika on the second floor. The pharmacy was on the bottom, and he lived on the second floor. The socialist party marched up to protest him raising the flag at such a conspicuous place.
So the next thing happened, the brown shirts marched up from behind. But they were in uniform, and a brown shirt uniform contains a Sam Browne. You know what a Sam Browne is? It’s a leather belt and a shoulder strap, but you can detach the shoulder strap, and it makes a terrible weapon. So they went around beating up on the democrats.
Well, the next thing happened, the police department sent two riot squads. Now, one riot squad is 30 men on a truck with a lieutenant. But they sent two. So these 60 officers, they have not the regular Billy club, but bigger ones. And they went around, just beating people. “Get out of the street, get out of the street!” And a lot of blood was spewn by these poor people. And they tried to run away and hide, and mother told the maid to go downstairs and lock the door so they didn’t come in our house. That was my first encounter with the Nazis.
When you were in post-war Germany, did you have any experience with concentration camps?
No. I was in one concentration camp that was in Austria, and I walked through it. And my friend who was with me, she said, “I can’t keep up with you; you’re walking so fast.” I said, “I want to get out of here.” She said, “Well, I do too, but have you seen the buildings and all that?” I said, “Yeah, I have seen enough.” I mean, you see, concentration camps, it was a mean place. They hit people. They kicked people. They, I mean, I’ve talked to some people who have been in concentration camps. And back in ’45, they didn’t tell you much because they were too scared. They’re still scared. I know a man in San Francisco, and he was in a camp. He would never talk about it. They’re so frightened. I–, I–, I–, It’s beyond my comprehension to do the things that they did.
Setting Out Fires in German Villages
The Germans were shooting. My intelligence told me there are twelve armed Germans in that village where we were crossing. So I am not particularly worried about twelve Germans. We can take them out, you know, with riflemen. But Colonel Smith and I were not together so I couldn’t tell him that there are only twelve [Germans] in there, and he ordered a bombing attack. And the dive-bombers come in and drop their bombs, and the town goes up in flames. I caught up with Colonel Smith and then I said, “Look! There’s a big fire.” He says, “Yeah, I know. I started it.” That’s nice. I gotta go put it out. “So I went into town looking for the Fire Chief and I finally found the Fire Chief and the Fire Chief said, “I’m not allowed to go out and put the fire out because curfew is in effect.” I said, “I’m lifting curfew. Curfew is finished. I want the Fire Company to go out and put out the fire.” They say, “Okay! If so order us to, so be it.” So they started putting out the fire.
I see no need to have a whole town burn up, because we didn’t realize how many enemy was in the town. So a couple of hours later, we had the fire out.
The charge nurse for our ward was a First Lieutenant, and she had an assistant, a second lieutenant. And the second lieutenant got very depressed because all these young American men got wounded. So I decided, “Oh God! We can’t have a depressed nurse.”
So I decided that the next day, everybody would call her “Good morning, Lieutenant Sunshine. Have a great day!” (laughs) It took like fire. Everybody followed my instructions. They all said, “Good morning, Lieutenant Sunshine. Have a great day!” The girl changed her attitude completely. We needed to cheer her up because normally the nurses cheer you up, but in her case, it was the other way around.