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Survivor shares tale of family's escape from Nazi Germany

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Edith Lichtenstein
Edith Lichtenstein (holding kitten) sits with her brother Louis and two other child refugees at Scattergood Hostel, a temporary home for refugees created by Quakers in West Branch Iowa. Photo circa 1942.
Photo courtesy of TRACES

Edith Lichtenstein Morgan is traveling across the state this week to tell the story of her escape from Nazi Germany and the life her family found here in the Midwest.

She said she hopes to spread a message of peace and tolerance by sharing her family's transcontinental story. 

Morgan was two years old when her family fled Germany. Her father was a federal judge and an outspoken critic of the Nazi Party. He was put under house arrest in 1933 because, as Morgan put it, he refused to keep his mouth shut.

Morgan said her family knew they needed to flee. 

"On top of being politically liberal and anti-Nazi, he was also Jewish," she said. "So that was a double whammy."

Her parents hatched a plan. Morgan's mother was pregnant, and they decided that Morgan's father would ask for a short break from his house arrest to visit his wife in the hospital once she gave birth. And then the family would escape.

In March, the plan worked, and the family fled to Switzerland and eventually to Paris. 

But when German troops invaded, the family had to flee again. They were out of money, and didn't know what to do. 

Then they received the news that Morgan said saved their lives. A Swiss family who had cared for Morgan's brother offered to donate their life savings to fund the family's trip to the United States. 

"We always managed five minutes before it was too late to find some kind of salvation," Morgan said. 

When the family arrived in New York, a group of American Quakers invited them to stay at a Quaker hostel in Iowa that had been set up to care for war refugees. After a 10-month stay, the family moved to St. Paul, where her father accepted a position at Macalester College. 

Although the journey was a harrowing one, Morgan said the experience taught her about the power of compassion. She said she hopes her public talks will encourage Minnesotans to explore alternatives to intolerance and conflict.

Her speaking tour is part of a project led by the nonprofit TRACES Center for History and Culture. The group works to document the interactions between Midwesterners, Germans and Austrians during the 1930s and 1940s.

During her talks this week, Morgan has drawn parallels between her wartime experiences and those of modern refugees.

At an event earlier this week, Morgan said a Somali woman in the audience started crying when she heard her stories of escaping Nazi Germany.

"I know that she was quite emotionally taken by the experiences I had because hers were probably not all that much different," Morgan said. "In the end, war for civilians is always a very devastating experience."