Survivor: Charlotte Seeman

Charlotte Seeman — then Charlotte Leiter — spotted the barbed-wire fence ahead. She and her companions — a young woman from Vienna as well as the woman’s boyfriend and uncle — climbed over and continued walking. It was a cold night in December 1938, and they had crossed the German border near the intersection of Belgium and Holland. They were headed to Holland but didn’t know their way. After awhile they saw a sign in French and realized they were in Belgium. They circled around and kept walking. When they heard dogs barking and saw searchlights scouring the area, they laid down motionless on the snow-covered ground. They then crossed more barbed-wire fences, still unsure of their direction. Finally, after hours of walking, they saw a sign with words that weren’t French or German. They had reached Holland.

Glimpsing lights in the distance, they made their way to the village of Venlo. Charlotte and the uncle entered an inn, while the woman and her boyfriend waited outside. Charlotte phoned her brother in Amsterdam. She went back outside to tell her companions, but didn’t see them. “The people are gone,” a bystander said. “The Germans picked them up.” 

Charlotte was born on Nov. 17, 1920 in Vienna, Austria, to Mina and Bernard Leiter. Her brother, Israel, was born in 1906, and her sister, Peppi, in 1913. Charlotte’s father, who was from Brody, Poland, was stationed in Austria during World War I and never left. He had a business making brushes from animal hair.

Charlotte went to public school until age 14 and then attended a private school where she learned typing, bookkeeping, English and shorthand. 

On March 15, 1938, Charlotte was walking to school when, amid commotion and shouts of “Heil, Hitler,” she saw Adolf Hitler riding by in a car.  The Anschluss, or annexation of Austria, had begun three days earlier. Charlotte rushed home along back streets. 

Charlotte never returned to school. Her father, who was sick with stomach cancer, was bedridden, and Charlotte stayed close to home.  

On Nov. 9, 1938, a loud knock on the front door awakened Charlotte and her parents. A downstairs neighbor, someone her mother had often helped, though they knew he was SS, came looking for Charlotte’s brother. It was Kristallnacht.

The next day, Charlotte saw piles of books smoldering on the street and neighborhood shuls vandalized. 

Charlotte’s brother, Israel, and his wife immediately left for Holland. Soon after, Charlotte decided to join them. 

Charlotte and her travel companions left Vienna by train early on Dec. 12, 1938. They arrived in Cologne, where they spent the day in the Cologne Cathedral pretending to pray and avoiding attention. At nightfall, they rode the trolley to a stop near the border. 

Charlotte’s brother arrived in Venlo and took Charlotte and the uncle to Amsterdam by train, cautioning them to be silent.

Charlotte lived in the small apartment her brother shared with his wife and mother-in-law. All four received 6 guilders and 25 cents a week from the Committee for Jewish Refugees and were not allowed to work. 

They pooled their guilders to pay rent and buy some food. They also managed to send small food packages to Charlotte and Israel’s parents in Vienna. 

Charlotte’s father died on May 22, 1939. 

On Saturday nights, they attended a dance at a Jewish center. One evening they overheard someone talking about smugglers. Charlotte and her brother befriended the man, Abraham Seeman, as they hoped he could help their mother escape Vienna. Although that didn’t happen, a romance ensued. Abraham, who was originally from Poland, had been living in Amsterdam since the early 1930s.  He and Charlotte married on Sept. 11, 1940, in Amsterdam’s Great Synagogue and lived in an apartment behind Abraham’s shoe repair shop.

The situation for Jews continued to deteriorate. When Germany invaded Holland on May 10, 1940, ration cards were instituted, as were curfews. Still, Abraham sometimes went out at night to watch Allied planes flying overhead on their way to bomb Germany. 

One evening he saw a young couple standing near his shop, taking refuge from possible falling shrapnel. He invited them in for tea. And that’s how Charlotte and Abraham became friends with Lucie and Jan Kloek, though it was forbidden for Christians and Jews to socialize.

As the Nazis stepped up deportations of Jews, Charlotte asked Lucie if she and her husband would consider hiding them. They agreed, and on Dec. 5, 1942, Charlotte and Abraham moved into the attic of their narrow four-story apartment building, not far from Anne Frank’s secret annex. 

During the day, Charlotte and Abraham moved freely around the Kloeks’ third-floor apartment, helping to care for the Kloeks’ baby daughter. At night, they retreated to the attic. Sometimes they heard screaming in the darkness. “It was very, very scary,” Charlotte said. 

One night, when Jan and Lucie were at the hospital awaiting the arrival of their second child, Charlotte and Abraham heard pounding footsteps and a loud knock on the door. They didn’t move. They knew it was the SS. 

Jan appeared later that night, “white as a sheet,” according to Charlotte, and helped them onto the roof and into the attic of the adjoining building, where they lay on a pile of coal. “We were waiting for the SS, but they never came,” Charlotte said.

Jan then moved Charlotte and Abraham into his carpentry shop. By day Abraham donned coveralls and worked as Jan’s assistant while Charlotte hid in the bathroom. At night they slept on the sawdust-covered shop floor.

Six weeks later, Charlotte and Abraham returned to the attic. In February 1945, however, with severe food shortages and worries about their two small children, Lucie and Jan decided to go to Groningen in northern Holland, where their families lived.

The Kloeks helped Charlotte and Abraham obtain false papers as Christians. They rented a vacant apartment where they slept on the floor and, with no electricity, used a tin can for a stove, fueling it with wooden cobblestones that Abraham collected on the streets. They had little food.

Then, on May 5, 1945, Charlotte and Abraham walked outside to see Canadian troops marching down the streets. Amsterdam had been liberated. They met Jewish soldiers who gave them cigarettes, white bread and margarine. 

After liberation, Abraham worked odd jobs. Their son, Barry, was born in September 1948, and in December 1948 they immigrated to New York, where they lived for 10 years. 

In 1958, they moved to Denver, and in 1965 to Los Angeles. In 1970, they opened a Levi’s store in San Fernando. 

With the help of Rabbi Harold Schulweis of Valley Beth Shalom, Charlotte arranged for Lucie and Jan Kloek to be recognized by Yad Vashem as Righteous Among the Nations. Charlotte is still in contact with the couple’s daughter, Maja.

Abraham died in 1998 and Barry in 2010. 

In September 2012, Charlotte moved into the Los Angeles Jewish Home, where, at 92, she enjoys knitting, attending lectures and “everything that is available.” She spends every weekend with her family, which includes two grandsons, Michael and Danny, their wives and her four great-granddaughters.

“As long as God will give me, I will live,” Charlotte said.