When Richman was 15 in 1938, she was forced to flee her native Vienna to escape the increasingly frightening conditions Jews were facing in the recently Nazi-occupied city. Richman eluded Hitler’s forces, making her way to America, where she didn’t speak the language, all the while never knowing if she would ever see her family again. Her experiences, from her early childhood up to her high school graduation, are detailed in her new book, “Escape from Vienna.”
When the La Jollan was in her early teens, Hitler invaded Austria “very suddenly.” Her happy childhood, which she describes in depth in her book, was quickly turned upside down.
“From one day to the next, we didn’t know if we could even stay in our home,” she said.
The family, she said, had no electricity for some time and Richman couldn’t play her beloved piano to avoid drawing attention from the invading authorities.
“Everything was in a state of confusion,” she said. “All of a sudden, if you were a Jew you had to have a certificate. It was chaos.”
Though Richman and her family had so far been lucky enough to escape the eyes of the Nazis, her father jumped at the chance to send her to America when her uncle, who lived in New York, offered to take her in. It was a generous offer, and she was fortunate — but it meant she had to say goodbye to her family at the age of 15, without ever knowing if she would see them again.
The journey would have been daunting for a well-traveled adult. Procuring a visa under the cover of night, boarding a train traveling straight through the heart of Germany, then taking a boat to another continent — all with very little money for food or lodging — wasn’t easy, but Richman knew it was necessary. At one point, she said, she felt there was a reason she had to endure the hardship. Lying in a strange hotel in a strange city, she started to cry, but, she said, she “knew God wanted me to live.”
Her challenges didn’t end when she arrived in New York. Not speaking the language and feeling like a burden on her uncle’s family prompted Richman to throw herself into her studies so she could both fit in and find a place of her own. Eventually landing a scholarship to Russell Sage College, she majored in sociology and, in 1944, she married her husband, Gene.
Years later, Richman’s love of music would resurface — in the form of an interest in folk music, leading to a master’s in the subject from the University of Hawaii. She has since recorded two albums, with some of her songs catalogued on the Smithsonian’s Folkway Recordings label. It all stemmed from the piano she cherished in her childhood home. That piano didn’t survive the war, but thankfully, Richman’s parents and siblings did. They were able to reunite in Israel some years later.
Thinking back to her experiences, Richman decided one day that she would sit down and record them. Four weeks later, “Escape from Vienna” was finished.
Now, as Richman sits in her La Jolla home, recalling tribulations the likes of which most of us in subsequent generations will never see, she seems calm and contemplative. She made her escape — now she only has to make music.
For more information or to order the book, visit www.amazon.com.