Sammy Sussman shares his journey to learn more about his great-grandfather, Otto Schirn, “a journalist in Austria [who] had spoken out against the Nazi government.”
When I was little, my mother told me a story about her “Bonpapa”: my great-grandfather, Otto Schirn. During her college graduation ceremony, Otto circled names in the program he thought were Jewish. He wanted to prove other Jews had survived.
Otto died before I was born. When I began studying at the University of Michigan in 2017, I knew only a few other facts about his life. I knew that he and his wife, Yvonne, managed to obtain two of the few emergency visas granted by the United States to Jews in 1941. I knew that she gave birth to my great-uncle Bob on the boat ride to the United States, and that his young family spent four months on Ellis Island waiting for Bob’s immigration status to be resolved.
In October 2019, while looking through my grandmother’s photo album, I got my first hint of the tragic and courageous life Otto once lived. I learned of the letter he received in 1945 that told him of the death of his parents, Josef Schirn and Taube Kriss-Schirn. The letter referred to them as numbers 61 and 62 — two entries on a Nazi transport list from Malines, France.
I also learned from a newspaper clipping that Otto was “a journalist in Austria [who] had spoken out against the Nazi government.” As an investigative reporter for U-M’s student newspaper, The Michigan Daily, I felt a connection in that moment that extended beyond my genes. I vowed to do all I could to understand Otto’s life.
The first article I found about him was in the Detroit Jewish News’ William Davidson Digital Archive of Jewish Detroit History. It announced a speech Otto was to give on Feb. 14, 1945, to the Detroit Women’s Division of the American Jewish Congress.
The letter about Otto’s parents’ deaths — the transport of numbers of 61 and 62, my great-great-grandparents, from Malines to Auschwitz — was postmarked by a Belgian government official that very same day.
When I shared the article with my grandmother, she remarked at how happy her father looked in his headshot. That photo represented an Otto that my grandmother never knew. That was Otto while he still believed his parents were alive.
Though my grandmother was 3 at the time, she still remembers the sadness that enveloped Otto. “It changed him,” she said of the burden he carried for the rest of his life.
From my grandmother’s files, I learned that Otto’s earliest memory was of watching German Emperor Wilhelm I declare the beginning of World War I. He and his father stood among a crowd of Berliners outside the Imperial Palace that day, unaware that the nationalism he was witnessing would eventually overtake German politics and tear Otto’s family apart.
As a student in Austria, Otto was at the top of his class. He was Vienna’s high school chess champion and became one of Vienna University’s first six doctoral economics graduates.
In a letter to my grandmother about his early life, Otto spoke of the antisemitism he faced. He speculated that he was intentionally passed over for academic positions because he was Jewish.
In 1936, Otto moved to Brussels with his father. He was soon offered a job at L’Avenir Juif, a Belgian Jewish newspaper. After a year, L’Indépendance Belge, a daily Belgian newspaper, reached out with a tremendous opportunity. Otto could return to Austria as the paper’s Viennese correspondent.
At the time, Austria’s Chancellor Kurt Schuschnigg was struggling to hold Nazism at bay. Otto and his editors knew Otto’s Jewish identity would put him in danger from Nazis. They issued him two press passes, one under his real name and one under a Belgian-sounding pseudonym, “Marcel Legrand.”
Otto kept the real press pass for the rest of his life.
From my grandmother, I learned that Otto spent his American life believing his reporting was lost. In a way, Otto believed “Marcel Legrand” (his pen name) was the first relative he lost to the Nazis.
But late last year, I found copies of this reporting in New York City, just 35 miles from my home in Bedford Hills, N.Y. I went with my mother, father, sister and grandmother to the New York Public Library over Thanksgiving to rediscover our family’s forgotten legacy.
Body of Reporting
The reporting career of “Marcel” was varied in the beginning. He reviewed a Viennese cultural festival. He wrote about minor trade agreements. He chronicled the mourning of Engelbert Dollfuss, the Austrian chancellor who was assassinated by Nazis in 1934.
As the months wore on, Otto’s reporting became bolder. In an article that hinted at his Jewish identity, Marcel explored the effects of Britain’s Palestine mandate on Jews throughout Western Europe.
“The surge of antisemitism coming from Hitler’s Germany did not spare other Jews of Central and Eastern Europe,” Otto wrote as Marcel. “This will undoubtedly be the scene of dramatic struggle the subject of which is … the fate of several million Jews.”
Marcel watched Hitler implement increasingly antisemitic policies in Germany. He watched Nazism gain traction among Vienna’s passively antisemitic youth.
In some instances, Marcel’s reporting was fearless. He mentioned two Austrian reporters critical of Hitler whom the Germans “silenced.” He was the first to report an attempted bombing of a Catholic event that the police had traced to Austrian Nazis.
Most notably, Marcel predicted Hitler’s desire to take Austria. “It is on the attitude of the Schuschnigg’s government and the moral support to be found in the great European democracies that Austria’s fate will depend,” Marcel predicted.
Marcel’s last article was from Jan. 20, 1938. On March 12 of that year, Schuschnigg’s government fell to the Nazis. Under the German Anschluss (annexation), Jewish reporters were banned from the press; Jews like Otto had their livelihoods and eventually their lives taken away.
A headline in the March 14 edition of L’Indépendance Belge suggested to its readers Marcel’s fate. “The German authorities now control the Austrian finances, press and radio.”
Kurt Schuschnigg, the betrayer of Marcel’s hopes, fled to Hungary. He would spend years in concentration camps before eventually becoming an academic and living out his years in America.
Hiding from the Nazis
A few weeks after the Anschluss, Otto approached his apartment to the sound of his mother’s pleading voice. Opposite her were three young men with Nazi armbands.
The ringleader of the group stepped forward. “Where’s Otto Schirn?” he asked. “We need to speak with him.”
Otto’s mother learned that the three men didn’t know the family was Jewish. They had learned something far more dangerous: they knew the true identity of Marcel Legrand.
As Otto waited outside the doorway, he heard his mother speak. Forty years later, in a tape, Otto’s voice cracked as he remembered what his mother said.
“Please, please don’t do anything to my son,” she begged. “He has nothing to do with what you want.”
As Otto waited outside the apartment, his mom bribed the Nazis to leave Otto alone. She smuggled him to his uncle’s apartment that same evening.
Otto received word while still in hiding that both his real name and his pen name had been placed on the Nazi blacklist. The Nazis never learned Otto was Jewish — because of his reporting, they considered him an enemy of the state.
When Otto’s Belgian editors learned of this danger, they arranged for a Belgian tourist bus carrying a false passport to meet Otto in Cologne, Germany. After a hair-raising train ride from Austria to Germany, Otto was smuggled out of the Third Reich.
Europe in Darkness
In Brussels, Otto became the secretary general of the Conseil des Associations Juives (Council of Jewish Associations). He represented Belgium at the last World Jewish Congress before the war.
One of his duties was to help Belgian Jews determine the fates of their Polish relatives. He met my great-grandmother, Yvonne, when she came to his office for help finding her Polish aunts and uncles.
Months later, they were a happily married couple on honeymoon in the Belgian countryside. Yvonne never learned what happened to the Polish relatives.
Belgium was overrun in May 1940 and the couple fled to France. The Nazis were soon there, too.
As an Austrian refugee, Otto was placed in the French Saint-Cyprien concentration camp by the now Nazi-controlled authorities.
While Otto suffered under conditions he later described as “atrocious,” Yvonne pleaded with the camp commander for Otto’s freedom. She told the commander she was pregnant, and Otto was a young father.
After a few months, the commander relented. Otto was set free. He never learned what happened to the others in that camp. My research indicates most were murdered after being transported back to the Reich.
Fleeing to America
Another early childhood memory I carried into my research was of my family’s visit to the Ellis Island museum.
As we left the museum, my mom told us her family’s story: Otto and Yvonne fled Lisbon in one of the last ships to the U.S.
At the time, I gave no thought to the many miracles Otto’s life represented. He was my mother’s beloved “Bonpapa” — his survival seemed preordained.
I never understood how many times Otto came close to death. They travelled through Belgium, France, Spain and Portugal at the height of the war. I never thought about the thousands of other refugees who had no relatives eager to learn their stories.
Otto’s press pass, refugee card and Belgian passport gave some insight into this fraught journey. For five decades, Otto kept these ties to Europe in the upper left-hand drawer of his desk.
Looking through the pages of that passport, I get a sense of the desperation Otto felt. He obtained over 20 visas to various countries throughout the war. At one point, he pursued visas to Switzerland and Thailand — anything to flee the impending crush of the Third Reich.
Over the past 75 years, my family has grappled with the meaning of this history. We’ve let Marcel Legrand’s memory fade while fighting to keep Otto’s story alive.
Otto dedicated his American life to simple acts of remembrance and prevention. For 30 years, he served on the American Zionist Council. He promoted investment in the young State of Israel, believing this to be the fulfillment of his Jewish faith.
Otto helped found the Los Angeles Holocaust memorial: six black pillars representing the six million Jews lost, permanently installed behind the city’s Holocaust museum. For many years, he served as president of the American Survivors of the Holocaust.
Otto remembered how Marcel’s reporting failed to halt the rise of Nazism. He dedicated his life to making sure his adopted country never went down the same path.
Soon after immigration, Otto traveled the United States giving lectures about antisemitism, the Holocaust and Jewish history. This work brought him to Detroit in 1945. It continued throughout the rest of his life.
Following in the footsteps of Dr. Stephen Wise, his friend from the World Jewish Congress, Otto became an advocate for civil rights. He began lecturing on the importance of civil rights and racial equality in the early 1950s.
In his most public moment of activism, Otto spoke on NBC’s The Joe Pyne Show to urge the ratification of the United Nations’ Convention on the Prevention of the Crime of Genocide. (The U.S. Senate ratified this convention in 1988).
Generation to Generation
My grandmother was the first family member to shoulder Otto’s legacy. In graduate school, she wrote a 25-page paper summarizing his life. It was through interviews for this paper that I was able to learn most of Otto’s story.
My grandmother’s master’s thesis dealt with the trauma felt by families of Holocaust survivors, using her own family as an example.
My mother was the next bearer of family history. She wrote about her “Bonpapa” for a college history course, analyzing how his experiences informed influenced his American identity.
“There was an air of sadness about him,” my mother told me recently. It was a sadness no measure of postwar happiness could ever undo.
Now it’s my turn. What lessons can I draw from an 80-year-old story? What can I learn from my family’s brave activist and what from our courageous journalist?
The memory I’ll always carry is of the first photo in my grandmother’s album. It featured five people in formal, 19th-century attire. They look at the camera with no recognition of the relatives that would stare back at them through history’s one-way mirror.
Above them are notes in my grandmother’s handwriting.
“Otto’s grandmother,” reads one. “Otto’s mother,” reads another.
It took me a while to recognize the meaning of those words. Though I thought this research would bring me closer to my grandmother, she needed those notes to recognize the grandparents she never met. She was no more connected to them than I was.
I continue to struggle with the reality of Otto’s life. It seems impossible that he exhibited such bravery; it seems unthinkable that he had to experience such tragedy.
I view Otto’s life as a story of the “two” men, whose articles, photos and memories my family has clung to for so many years. I view it as a reminder of the past, a cautionary tale what might come without brave Jews like Otto and brave reporters like Marcel.