When he was four, Leo Ullman ’57 was living away from his parents as a refugee with his “war family,” the Schimmels. After Germany invaded the Netherlands during the Holocaust in 1940, Ullman spent his days hiding from Nazi soldiers.
Ullman returned to Andover to present in Kemper Auditorium last Friday evening. A survivor of the Holocaust, Ullman recounted stories of living in secrecy and how his childhood in Nazi-occupied Holland shaped his life.
One of the few remaining survivors of the Holocaust, Ullman is the author of “796 Days,” a memoir which chronicles his family’s experiences in the Holocaust and his eventual escape to the United States.
“I felt there’s a real need for people to tell the story of the Holocaust. There are very few of us left, I am probably the youngest at this point, and soon there won’t be anyone to tell the story and the story’s very, very important,” said Ullman in an interview with The Phillipian.
He continued, “It’s important in terms of teaching about tolerance, in terms of teaching the tremendous evils of propaganda and how effective it can be. It’s very important in today’s world to see the relevance of what happened [during the Holocaust] in terms of controlling the media and controlling the courts and the legal process: that’s relevant today.”
Growing up in a Jewish household in Amsterdam, Ullman and his family lived comfortably until the Nazi invasion in 1940. Ullman’s parents decided to go into hiding after his father received labor camp summons in July of 1942. Hoping to protect young Ullman, they contacted a family friend who placed him with the Schimmel family, who were total strangers. The Schimmels did not know who Ullman was – only that he was Jewish – but decided to welcome the boy into their home.
Ullman said during his presentation, “[The Schimmels] knew that if anybody knew that they were hiding a Jewish child, they would be killed… They took the ultimate risk and provided me a loving and good home, I never knowingly suffered, and it was a wonderful experience for me, needless to say I wouldn’t be here without them, and many other people who were hidden did not have this benefit.”
In the meantime, Ullman’s parents contacted a welfare client of his mother’s who hid them in the attic of their apartment building.
“My parents, in the meantime, found a hiding place in an attic on the main street of Amsterdam… the attic [was] where my parents were without light, heat or electricity. They paid for that hiding place, and they lived there somehow for basically 796 days… They couldn’t make any noise when the people below them were around,” said Ullman in his presentation.
Ullman was reunited with his parents with the help of the Dutch Resistance, a secret coalition in the Netherlands that gathered intelligence from allies and destroyed communication lines.
Ullman said, “My parents, through the Resistance, learned my whereabouts and so they came to get me. At a given moment, the doorbell rang at our house and my war mother had a pretty good feeling who this would be. And we opened the door, and there were these terribly gaunt people who I didn’t recognize, and they claimed to be my parents.”
Unable to speak English when he first arrived in the United States with his family in 1947, Ullman found his transition into American culture challenging at first.
“It was very difficult for me. First of all, I didn’t speak a word of English… The principal of the local grade school told my mother that for the first two weeks, some of the other kids would beat me up but after that it would be okay,” said Ullman in an interview with The Phillipian.
When Ullman arrived at Andover as a new Upper in 1955, he chose not to share his Holocaust background with his peers as he mainly desired to fully assimilate into American culture.
“I did well at Andover, I loved the people and I went to Harvard, and that would never have happened but for Andover. So whatever happened in my life, I feel is very largely attributable to my time at Andover, which I loved,” said Ullman.
He continued, “I never talked about my Holocaust background at Andover, it was never something that I trumpeted at all… At Andover at that point, there were maybe five Jews in our class of 220 and maybe a couple of blacks, and that was really largely it. So it was a different environment and for me, it was okay.”
Despite being placed in an unfamiliar environment, Ullman found comfort in playing the cello.
“What was really amazing was that every Sunday I was allowed to go into Boston and take [cello] lessons with a member of the Boston Symphony. Getting off campus was such a badge of honor, even the quarterback on the football team couldn’t do that. So, that was really terrific,” said Ullman.
Ullman was first motivated to speak out about his story after his parents shared their story with him and his brother.
“[My story] really started coming about when my parents celebrated their 40th wedding anniversary… at that point, my mother wrote her story and that was cathartic for my parents… from that point on, it was a matter of interest to me, and at a given moment I felt I had to write a book about all this because otherwise it would be totally lost, and my kids wouldn’t know about it, my grandkids wouldn’t, my nephews, nieces; nobody would know the story. So I felt it was important to write it, and I feel good about doing that,” said Ullman.
Upon graduating Andover in 1957, Ullman attended Harvard College and Columbia University. He went on to serve in the U.S. Marine Corps and become the Founder and C.EO. of Cedar Shopping Centers (now Cedar Realty Trust), a real estate investment company.