When the Holocaust History Museum was being planned in the early 2000s, the curators decided to set aside a space to replicate a typical living room in the home of a Jewish German family from before the war. "Yad Vashem uses artifacts displayed throughout its Museums Complex to tell individual stories of Jews from Europe – ordinary people like you or me – whose lives were devastated and changed forever by the Holocaust," explains Michael Tal, Director of the Artifacts Department in Yad Vashem's Museum's Division. "We searched for various pieces of furniture that would be found in a family room from this period. We located many items donated to Yad Vashem from several survivors. However, we were unable to locate a piano that survived the Holocaust. When Dubi Margulies contacted us, we knew immediately that we would display the artifact in this space. However, the true treasure was the story behind the piano: the story of the Margulies family and their unprecedented escape from Nazi Germany."
The story of the Margulies family begins like that of many other Jews residing in Germany before the war. Menashe Margulies and Bracha-Leah (Rachela) Markel emigrated from Poland to Chemnitz, Germany, where they met and got married. The couple had two sons: Adolf (Abraham), born in 1920, and Szalay (Shlomo), born three years later. In Germany, the family operated a textiles trading business, much of which was based in Holland. As such, Menashe received a permanent visa, which allowed him to enter and exit Holland as he wished.
Abraham and Shlomo attended German elementary schools in the mornings and a local Talmud Torah (Jewish religious day school) in the afternoons. Although initially unaffected by the Nazi rise to power, with the passage of the Nuremberg Laws and the expansion of the decrees against Jews, the family's economic situation began to deteriorate. Menashe and Bracha-Leah decided to send their sons to school outside of Chemnitz. Abraham enrolled in a high school in Hamburg, while Shlomo was sent to study in Leipzig.
In October 1938, all "non-German" Jews were expelled from Germany. Menashe and Bracha-Leah managed to escape deportation and went into hiding in the house of an acquaintance. Abraham was caught and deported to Krakow. Fearing for his family's safety, Shlomo returned from Leipzig to Chemnitz, where he found his parents in hiding.
The family quickly came to the realization that they needed to leave Germany. They decided to try obtaining immigration visas to Eretz Israel (British Mandatory Palestine). Menashe traveled to Holland, where he was granted visas for the family that stipulated they needed to enter Palestine no later than 31 March 1939. Bracha-Leah immediately began packing their belongings into a shipping container. Shlomo, then almost 16 years old, was sent to Berlin in order to purchase passage for the family on a ship bound for Eretz Israel. He took with him 5,000 Reichsmarks (RM), which his mother sewed into his clothes. However, when he arrived at the travel agency, he was told that there was no place on any ship bound for Palestine. A friend advised him to try to buy airline tickets with Lufthansa Airlines. Shlomo paid 2,544 RM for roundtrip tickets that would take his family to their ancient homeland. "Who flew in 1939? And to Palestine of all places! It was only months before the outbreak of World War II. Astonishingly, I paid and got a receipt."
Describing mother's reaction when he came home with the four airline tickets, Shlomo says, "At first she refused to go. She said that if she was destined to die she wanted to die on the ground, and not at sea. However, she finally realized that her family's safety depended on their departure."
Bracha-Leah went to the police to obtain a permit for Abraham to return to Germany in order to fly to Palestine with the family. Against all odds, her request was answered, and Abraham was granted permission to travel to Berlin. On 21 March 1939, Menashe, Bracha-Leah, Abraham and Shlomo Margulies were reunited, and the four of them departed Germany. After three days, including stops in Munich, Rome, Brindisi, Athens and Rhodes, the family finally landed in Haifa. The shipping container with their belongings, including their beloved piano, arrived shortly afterwards. This is the only case that Yad Vashem has knowledge of in which Jews were able to escape Europe and traveled to Palestine via airplane. Years later, Lufthansa Airlines reimbursed the family for some of the cost of their unused return flight back from Haifa to Germany.
Once in Eretz Israel the Margulies family began to rebuild their lives. However, many members of their extended family who remained in Europe were murdered during the Holocaust. To commemorate those lost family members, Shlomo and his late brother Abraham filled out Pages of Testimony – symbolic tombstones of every individual man, woman or child murdered during the Holocaust.
Last week, four generations of the Margulies family journeyed from across Israel to see their family's precious piano that is now on permanent display in the Holocaust History Museum at Yad Vashem. David "Dubi" Margulies, son of Shlomo Margulies, recounted how overjoyed he felt the day he learned that his family's piano was going to be displayed in the World Center for Holocaust Remembrance. "This is the perfect place to keep this precious artifact, for the whole world to see and remember," said Shlomo. "The piano is evidence of the life that once was, and stands as a testimony to my family's incredible escape from Nazi Germany in 1939."