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Eva and Otto Pfister papers

Document | Digitized | Accession Number: 2018.448.1

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    Eva and Otto Pfister papers

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    The Eva and Otto Pfister papers consist of diaries and immigration files documenting German Jewish refugee Eva Pfister’s experiences in France and New York, her efforts on behalf of her non-Jewish German refugee husband, Otto Pfister, and their socialist colleagues, and the anti-Nazi work of the Internationaler Sozialistischer Kampfbund (ISK). Eva’s four diaries document her teenage years in Goldap, her life as a refugee in France separated from Otto, interned in Gurs, waiting in Montauban for her opportunity to emigrate, her escape over the Pyrénées to Lisbon, and her immigration to the United States aboard the Nea Hellas. Her immigration files document her efforts to obtain visas for her ISK colleagues stranded in southern France.

    Eva’s “Goldap” diary documents her teenage years in Goldap and her experiences with anti-Semitism.
    Her January-May 1940 diary documents the period between Otto’s detention in a French internment
    camp and the eve of Eva’s internment in Gurs. She did not know at the time whether Otto was still
    alive, and her entries, directed to Otto, focus on their first meeting at the vegetarian restaurant in Paris,
    the early development of their relationship, and her reflections about their separation and the
    uncertainty of their future. Her “Blue Book” diary dates from May to September 1940, and her entries
    were addressed to Otto who, unknown to Eva at that time, had been taken prisoner by the Nazis in
    Luxembourg. Eva’s entries include descriptions of Eva’s internment by the French government as an
    “enemy alien” at the Vélodrome d’Hiver and Camp de Gurs and descriptions of her release and refuge in
    Montauban. Documents inserted into the diary’s back pocket include Eva’s certificate of liberation from
    Gurs and seven letters from Eva to Otto. Documents inserted into the diary’s front pocket include
    photographs of Eva, Otto, and the gravestone of Otto’s mother and a postcard from Eva to Otto. Eva’s
    “Lisbon diary” includes descriptions of her escape over the Pyrénées, her efforts in Lisbon to obtain a
    place on a ship to America, and her reflections on board the Nea Hellas to New York.

    Immigration files comprise Eva’s file titled “Visa efforts” and include correspondence and documents
    pertaining to her work in America to obtain visas for her ISK colleagues stranded in southern France,
    inclusive:  1925-1950
    Credit Line
    United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Collection, Gift of Kathy, Peter and Tom Pfister
    Collection Creator
    Eva Pfister
    Otto Pfister
    Eva Pfister (1910-1991) was born Eva Lewinski in Goldap, East Prussia (now Gołdap, Poland). Her father died before she turned eight years old. Although her parents were Jewish, she declared her departure from the religion at age 13 and never again participated in Jewish religious observances. As she explained to her disappointed family at the time, when she wanted and needed to feel close to God, she would go out into the woods, into nature, or listen to music, and her religious feelings would be genuine. Following her graduation from high school in 1926, she studied in France at Nancy University, where she became fluent in French. She returned to Germany where she became a student of the Gottingen philosopher Leonard Nelson and the educator Minna Specht. Along with her oldest brother, Erich, she worked with a group of non-Marxist socialists formed by Nelson called the Internationaler Sozialistischer Kampfbund (ISK) that fought against the rise of Nazism.

    Because of their Jewish heritage and anti-Nazi activities, Eva and her family had to flee from Germany in 1933. She and her brother formed and operated a vegetarian restaurant in Paris during the 1930’s, the proceeds of which were devoted to ISK’s anti-Nazi publications and activities. She met Otto Pfister in that restaurant in 1935, and he also became actively involved in anti-Nazi work. When the Nazis invaded Belgium and Luxembourg in May 1940 on their way to their invasion of France, Eva was detained by the French government along with other women of German origin in Paris. She was interned first in the Velodrome d’Hiver in Paris, and then in the Camp du Gurs in southern France. She managed to get released from Gurs on June 19, 1940 and made her way to Montauban and Marseille. In Marseille, she was able to get a visa that had been obtained for her through contacts in America because of the danger she faced as a political refugee and because of her recognized potential to provide help to others when she reached America. After escaping from France to Spain on foot through the Pyrenees, she travelled from Lisbon on the small Greek liner Nea Hellas and arrived in New York in October 1940.

    Eva then worked tirelessly in NY (with the help of a special group of Americans including those working with the Emergency Rescue Committee) to assist other refugees in Europe who were desperately seeking the life-saving visas to permit their escape from Marseille to the U.S. As part of her efforts she met three times with Eleanor Roosevelt to advocate for the issuance of visas for particular individuals, including Otto Pfister, and corresponded with others, such as Albert Einstein, who knew and could vouch for the character of the refugees who were seeking visas. While in New York during the war, Eva also worked with the Labor Section of the U.S. Office of Strategic Services (OSS), headed by Arthur Goldberg, helping to gather anti-Nazi intelligence information in secret correspondence with an ISK colleague, Rene Bertholet, who was engaged in resistance efforts in Europe. Some of this information was also transmitted to the British secret wartime organization, the Special Operations Executive (SOE). She married Otto Pfister following his immigration to the United States in April 1941.
    Otto Pfister (1900-1985) was born in Munich to Catholic parents. Although he did well in school as a child and loved to read, his family did not have the money to allow him to continue his formal education. At the age of 14, he was apprenticed as a cabinet-maker. Health problems prevented him from being conscripted in the Germany army in World War I, and he produced hand-dovetailed ammunition boxes as an apprentice in Munich during the war. Having been deprived of higher education, Otto developed a desire for leaning and seeing the world. He chose not to adopt his family’s Catholic religion, but instead found God in the miracles of nature and in the capacity of human beings to build, create art and music, and help each other.

    When he was 20 years old, Otto left Munich and his family for Rome where he worked at his craft and learned to love the Italian language, music, opera, art, and people. When Mussolini took over, he packed up his tools and moved to France, first to Nice and then to Paris where he absorbed the French language, poetry, and music and worked at his craft during the 1930’s. He met Eva Lewinski in 1935 in the vegetarian restaurant she and her brother Erich operated to support their anti-Nazi work, and Otto and Eva began a relationship. Otto became actively involved in anti-Nazi work with the ISK in Paris, including dangerous resistance work following Hitler’s invasion of Poland in 1939 and the outbreak of war between Germany and France. He was captured by the Nazis in Luxembourg on May 9, 1940, as German troops marched through Belgium and Luxembourg on their way to Paris. Pretending to be a French citizen, he was confined with French army officers in a prisoner of war camp (“Oflag”) in Silesia. He managed to survive, obtain his release, and find his way back to Paris. He made his way south to Montauban and Marseille where, through the help of Eva, Eleanor Roosevelt, and others in America, he managed to obtain a visa to come to the United States in April 1941.

    Otto married Eva Lewinski in New York and enlisted for service in the U.S. Army and the OSS. Shortly after the tragic death of their first child in childbirth, he was sent overseas and served in England, Belgium, and France. His unit followed the allied troops into Paris after its liberation. Otto and Eva were reunited in New York after the war.
    Eva & Otto : resistance, refugees, and love in the time of Hitler / Tom, Kathy, and Peter Pfister.

    Physical Details

    German English French
    8 folders
    System of Arrangement
    The Eva and Otto Pfister papers are arranged as two series:

    Series 1: Diaries, 1925-1941
    Series 2: Immigration files, circa 1940-1950 0

    Rights & Restrictions

    Conditions on Access
    There are no known restrictions on access to this material.
    Conditions on Use
    The donor, source institution, or a third party has asserted copyright over some or all of these material(s). The Museum does not own the copyright for the material and does not have authority to authorize use. For permission, please contact the rights holder(s).

    Keywords & Subjects

    Corporate Name
    Gurs (Concentration camp)

    Administrative Notes

    Donated to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in 2018 by Kathy, Peter and Tom Pfister, the children of Eva and Otto Pfister.
    Record last modified:
    2023-06-14 13:43:36
    This page:

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