Throughout the month of May, Ardenwoods celebrated Older Americans Month by honoring the lives, memories and experiences of each of its wonderful residents — all of whom have fascinating stories to tell. But, now that the month has come to a close, there’s one resident in particular whose extraordinary journey we’d like to spotlight.
Born in 1920, Hedi (Politzer) Pope spent much of her youth dancing across the stages of her home in Vienna, Austria, performing at venues large and small throughout the beautiful walled city. But, in November 1938, her life forever changed overnight, when Nazi Germany swept across the region in a pogrom known as Kristallnacht — or the night of broken glass, named for the shards of broken windows that littered the streets outside Jewish-owned businesses, buildings and synagogues.
“I was 18 years old when Hitler wiped my homeland off the map,” Hedi said in a 2018 interview. In a separate oral history piece, conducted in 2019 with her alma mater, Miami University, she recalled walking through the streets of Vienna, making her way home from dance class, as Kristallnacht began in the city.
“I remember it,” she said. “I came home late — much too late. My parents were frantic, but there was so much going on in the inner part of the city, that you just, you couldn’t walk the usual way. It was horrible.”
The following day, her father didn’t come home “and we didn’t know where he was,” Hedi explained, speaking this time to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in 2012.
So her family waited. Days passed, but he didn’t return home.
“Any time the phone rang or any time the doorbell rang or something happened, [we hoped for] some news from father. That was a very difficult time, very difficult,” she said. “And even though there was Ausgehverbot, which meant you couldn’t go out, I went out. I was very blonde and blue-eyed, and I tried to look like somebody with an attaché case going to the lawyer, which I did. We tried to get father out.”
Finally, after about 10 days, the Politzer family received word: “‘I’m fine. Don’t worry.’ That sort of thing,” Hedi recalled. For the few weeks that followed, into December, her father was able to maintain a line of communication with his family. Around Christmas, he wrote to insist Hedi and her sister Ava “go on with their trip to America” — a plan to emigrate set in place before the November massacres occurred.
“Father wrote again – again and again: ‘The girls should go, and I wish them a wonderful trip,’ and so forth, ‘but don’t make any change of plans on account of me,’” Hedi explained, speaking in a separate 1997 interview with the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. “We went after our passports. We had our affidavits. We had two cousins in this country who had been here many years … plus an old friend of my mother’s. Of course, it was a difficult thing to do. But it was the right thing to do.”
The two young women made their way to Rotterdam, in the Netherlands, and boarded a ship named the Veendam on Jan. 13, 1939. “The Atlantic is very rough in January,” Hedi recalled, though she remembered also feeling excited, as any teenager might, at the thought of moving to the United States.
Though most of the voyage was over rough and choppy seas, the skies cleared just as they entered the harbor in New York City. “The sun was out, it was very cold, but there was the Statue of Liberty against a blue sky,” she remembered. On Jan. 25, they arrived in the United States with $40 each, and traveled directly to their cousins’ home in Newark, New Jersey.
“The first letter from our mother … brought the sad news that my father had died in Dachau,” the first concentration camp built by Nazi Germany, Hedi explained. “Somebody appeared at her door with a box of ashes from her husband, so it was a rather horrid news to her. And, of course, it was very difficult for us to make our way in this country with that news coming.”
Despite this unimaginable tragedy, Hedi’s spirit — and her love for dance — persevered, and, by March, she was rehearsing for the Broadway opening of “From Vienna,” performed by The Refugee Artists Group at the Music Box Theatre. The troupe comprised actors and dancers from Vienna, whose performances often poked fun at politics — and specifically criticized Hitler himself.
Under close watch of the regime, “they were told to ‘Get out of here, but fast,’” Hedi explained, and many made their way to the United States. “People on Broadway said: ‘Let’s see if we can do something with that group.’ And I knew somebody there, so I got to be taken into that group. … We had rehearsal money that was enough to live on,” more than other refugees were making at the time, “and we had language lessons. It was good.”
But, worried about the sustainability of this work long-term, Hedi began to consider enrolling in college or university. And soon, she received word that she’d been accepted into Miami University in Ohio on a scholarship. By this time, her mother, aunt and uncle were able to secure affidavits to emigrate, and all three arrived in the United States in April 1940.
Graduating in 1942 with a degree in physical education, minoring in dance, she then went on to earn a master’s degree from Wellesley College the following year.
“I graduated in ’43, and, of course, the war was very much on,” she explained. “My mother, of course, very desperately wanted me to stay in New York, but nothing came through in New York. So I [accepted a job in] Spartanburg, South Carolina, [at] Converse College and had three very happy years there as an assistant professor. And that took me to 1946,” when she married a U.S. soldier from Boston.
It’s “a very interesting story,” she said, “because I corresponded with my husband for a year before I met him. He was in the South Pacific, and my best friend [whose husband was in the navy] was stationed in the South Pacific. She took a job with the Defense Department in Washington. And every time I went from Spartanburg to New York, I stopped over in Washington and visited with her and we had fun,” taking pictures and sending the photos to her husband in the South Pacific. “And this Lieutenant Pope saw my picture and wanted to know whether I was free and available. … So he wrote me a letter and I wrote back, and we went back and forth for a year.”
When the war ended in 1945, Lt. William Pope came to visit Hedi in Spartanburg “and stayed and stayed,” she recalled. “And I said, ‘Don’t you think you should see your mother and father?’ He said, ‘Yeah, I think I’ll do that.’ … But he was back within a week, and we became engaged and married in June ’46. And the funny thing is: He kept all my letters, and I kept all his letters. And when we celebrated our 50th anniversary, I put all this together into two books and gave it to my children. So they have all that correspondence, which is kind of a nice story.”
After marrying, the couple moved to Alexandria, Virginia, where Hedi decided to pursue her dreams of opening a dance studio.
“I did what I said I was going to do when I was 10 years old: I was going to have a dance school,” she said of her company, CODA: Contemporary Dancers of Alexandria. “I opened it in 1947, and it was a really flourishing business. I’m very proud to say that I had as many as 250 students. … I carried on until about 1980,” when she retired from the company.
When The Holocaust Museum opened in 1993 in Washington, D.C., Hedi was among the first to volunteer, manning the information desk, answering questions, taking ticket stubs and greeting guests.
“I love to give a little briefing to the groups there,” she said in 1997 while she still volunteering at the museum. “I love these little older teenagers, juniors or seniors in high school: I give them the briefing and tell them about ‘no eating or drinking’ and that sort of thing — and then I very briefly mention that, when you go on the fourth floor and you see the takeover of Austria, you [now know] somebody who’s been there. And their mouths just drop open.”
She also worked with the museum to share stories and personal artifacts from her time in Vienna, including giving interviews for its oral histories project. Many fellow survivors, however, including her friends and family members, couldn’t understand why Hedi chose to volunteer somewhere that brought back such horrible, personal memories. Sometimes, she admitted, she would find herself standing in the Kristallnacht exhibit, and goosebumps would appear across her skin.
“It’s shattering to me,” she said. “Sometimes I stand up there, and people … look and then they walk right by. And I feel as though I want to shake them and say, ‘Hey, read on!’ … But that’s probably impossible to impart on anybody else. That’s just something you have to have experienced yourself. Nobody else can feel the way you do with things like that.”
Nevertheless, she felt that it was important for her to be there — to share her story, as someone who survived.
In 2013, Hedi moved to Ardenwoods in Asheville, and, having celebrated her 102nd birthday in March 2022, she remains an active member of the community.