Sophie Prager was born on April 26, 1903 to Fritz Prager and Cilli Lissberger Prager and grew up at Josephsplatz 8 in Nuremberg. An only child, she and her parents lived in an apartment above H. Prager & Son, an upscale ladies’ department store that was owned and managed by her father and grandfather.
Sophie had an excellent ear for languages and for music and was an accomplished amateur pianist. She and her female friends organized a social club that they called the Kranzle, diminutive for Kranz, or circle. The Kranzle met monthly for coffee, cake and conversation.
Upon graduation from high school in 1921, Sophie Prager went to work at the Nuremberg branch office of a large German bank. There, she met Lilly Wertheimer, and they became lifelong friends. Lilly chatted about her older brother, Erich, and, in time, introduced Sophie to Erich. Erich courted Sophie and they were married in August 1925 and honeymooned in Zermatt, Switzerland. They returned to Nuremberg, where Erich was in partnership with his father, Ferdinand Wertheimer, in the business F. Wertheimer & Co. Sophie was busy with her new home, an apartment at Wodanstr. 76. L, her music and her friends.
In September 1927, Sophie and Erich had their only child, Franz Wertheimer. Lilly, who had married Ludwig Rosenblatt, from Nuremberg, also had a child in 1927, Peter. Sophie and her family lived a trolley ride away from her parents and from the Rosenblatt family. Along with the Wertheimer parents, Ferdinand and Emma, the families celebrated holidays together and motored for weekend outings in Bavaria and in Switzerland.
As the Nazi-imposed restrictions on German Jews increased, Sophie and many other German Jews responded to those spirit-sapping laws by creating a separate and independent religious, educational, cultural and social life. Leading German Jewish musicians, artists, opera singers and conductors formed the Kultureband, a culture association of German Jews. The Kultureband mounted cultural activities where only Jews could perform and attend. Sophie and Erich regularly attended their performances. When Jews were prohibited, along with dogs, from visiting public parks, Sophie and her friends rented a fenced piece of property nearby as a private park. Their families and other Jewish friends grew flowers and vegetables, enjoyed picnics and socialized. Sophie and Erich sent their child to a Jewish parochial school. Their ability to adapt and respond was made possible by their relative affluence.
After the deaths of the Wertheimer parents, Ferdinand and Emma, two Wertheimer siblings – Lilly and Else – determined to leave Germany with their families. Lilly and Ludwig Rosenblatt emigrated to Brazil in 1937. Else Wertheimer Bergmann and her husband, Ludwig, and son, emigrated to the U.S. in 1937, sponsored by a Bergmann cousin. Sophie and Erich continued to think that they could survive in Germany. Following Hitler’s success in annexing Austria in March 1938, Sophie and Erich recognized that the Nazis sought to rid Germany of its Jews. They found a U.S. sponsor and Sophie prepared a list of assets, including her jewelry, silver and other valuables, for the Exchange Control Board; those assets were surrendered as part of the Reich Emigration Tax. The family was scheduled to sail from Hamburg on November 16.
On November 9, 1938, gangs roamed German cities, destroying and burning Jewish synagogues, smashing and looting Jewish-owned businesses, and arresting Jewish men. By the end, scarcely a Jewish business or synagogue was left intact. Storm troopers also mounted an assault on Jews in their homes. The government had fairly accurate lists of the Jewish residents in Nuremberg, both because synagogue dues were paid through a state levied tax and because of the requirements in the Nuremberg laws. Awakened by a knock on the door and storm troopers pouring into the apartment, Sophie watched as the painting of her deceased mother was slashed, her piano and furniture were tarred and feathered with jam and pillow down, and her china and knick knacks were smashed. Erich and Franz hid behind large garden pots on the balcony. After the storm troopers left the apartment, Sophie could hear them entering other apartments in the building, including the building owner who lived in the apartment above. Through balcony windows, she watched as neighbors were led outside in their nightclothes and taken away.
To escape the tremendous destruction in Nuremberg, Sophie and her family took the train to Berlin because her father, who lived in a different part of Nuremberg and had not been affected, advised that Berlin had escaped the rioting. But his information was incorrect—when they arrived in Berlin, they found it was as devastated as Nuremberg. They returned to Nuremberg and waited several days until traveling to Hamburg, where they boarded the S.S. Manhattan and sailed to America.
She arrived, with her husband and son, penniless. The Germans had confiscated all of their assets as the price of departure. They headed to Kew Gardens, where other German Jews had relocated, to live with Erich’s sister and husband. Sophie, who understood little English and spoke no English, hired herself out as a housekeeper where she scrubbed toilets, changed beds, swept floors and cooked meals, using her German recipes. Later, she sold Swiss chocolates, door to door. At night, she taught herself English. She lived frugally and recycled and reused everything.
Miraculously, all of the Kranzle members escaped from Germany, and the group resumed their meetings. Sophie welcomed the security and community of her old friends, when they met for coffee or for concerts.
Sophie was a voracious reader of the Aufbau, where she read about the exploits of Allied Jewish soldiers, searched for friends and relatives in the aftermath of the Holocaust and shared in the lives of transplanted German-speaking Jews in the U.S. She never forgot friends and relatives, wherever they now lived, and corresponded, in her spidery German handwriting, and saved the letters she received.
Sunday was a day for family and friends. Sophie cooked the rich meals with which she had grown up. She always made a dessert, often with whipped cream and vanilla sugar, with proportions measured from teacups and spoons. When grandchildren arrived, however, she insisted that their meals be strictly American: cans of Seven-Up, spaghetti and meatballs from a can, packaged desserts, served on small tables in front of a black and white television. Sophie only spoke in German to her husband and son and her friends. With her grandchildren, she insisted on speaking “the Kings English”, and was proud to celebrate their achievements.
She died in October 1989.
Laura Wertheimer, March 14, 2021