PHILADELPHIA — When the doorbell rang at 2 a.m., Ilse Korona already knew who was outside of her family’s Vienna apartment.
Hours earlier, Korona, then 18, told her parents she would answer the door if the Nazis came back that night.
As she pulled the door open, a Nazi soldier stood before her with a gun pointed at her face.
“He said ‘Let me in.’ I said ‘You’re welcome to, but you’re a little late,’” she recalled. “He saw the mess and turned around and left.”
But he never left Korona’s mind.
“For years I woke up at 2 o’clock in the morning and heard the bell ring,” she said. “For years.”
And for decades, Korona has kept her story of that night — known as Kristallnacht — and her memories of the Holocaust to herself. Not even her husband, who died in 1985, or her only child, who died in 2017, knew what she endured.
Now 102, Korona, who’s lived in Philadelphia for 76 years and in the same Rittenhouse Square apartment for 36, is starting to tell her story. Last year, she participated in a video interview for the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Oral History Archive and last month, she shared her memories with the Inquirer.
Korona’s daughter-in-law, Wendi Krimsky, with whom she lives, said it was questions from Korona’s grandson and the recent birth of her first great-grandchild that moved Korona to speak about her experiences.
“We want this little girl to know about her great-grandmother,” Krimsky said. “And I want people to know that there’s still people alive that actually did go through all of this.”
Korona is among an estimated 40,000 Holocaust survivors still alive in the U.S., and one of an estimated 2,000 in Pennsylvania, according to the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany (also known as the Claims Conference), which negotiates for compensation on behalf of Holocaust survivors.
Greg Schneider, executive vice president of the Claims Conference, said many Holocaust survivors who initially couldn’t bear to talk about what they experienced do so later in life as they start to understand the importance of their stories.
“Think of how painful it must be for her to do this. She’s pushing herself to do something she didn’t talk about for decades and decades, not even with her husband,” he said. “That, in and of itself, is a lesson in bravery and heroism we should all learn from.”
Korona grew up as the youngest of three daughters to a couple who owned a men’s hat store in Vienna. Life was good until March 1938, when German troops invaded Austria and flooded the streets of their town.
“I remember when the Nazis marched in, I looked out the window and everything was red, white, and black with the flags and everybody screaming,” Korona said. “I can still see the picture. It was unbelievable. So many people were marching. It was so well organized.”
Korona remembers seeing Adolf Hitler in the parade of troops that marched through Vienna.
“He was standing on his car, with the hand like this and I didn’t know what to do with myself,” she said. “I was hiding in a doorway. They were awful times.”
On Nov. 9-10, 1938, the Nazis conducted a wave of violent anti-Jewish attacks — known as Kristallnacht, or The Night of Broken Glass — during which they destroyed Jewish homes, synagogues, and businesses and took tens of thousands of Jewish men to concentration camps.
Korona remembers walking downstairs from her family’s apartment on Nov. 10, 1938, and being confronted by a group of Nazis.
“They asked the concierge ‘Who is she? Is she Jewish?’ She said ‘Yes,’ and they said ‘OK, let’s start with her,’” Korona recalled.
Inside her family’s apartment, the Nazis forced everyone to kneel before them as they destroyed their home and took all of their belongings.
“They cleaned out everything they could, everything, and they broke all the mirrors because they thought they would find money in the back of the mirrors,” she said. “You cannot imagine what they did. It was awful.”
When they left, Korona’s mother wanted to clean up, but Korona cautioned against it.
“I said ‘No mama, we can’t do that because they might come again,” she said.
And at 2 a.m., that soldier who put the gun in Korona’s face did come, but left when he saw there was nothing more to take.
For six months after Kristallnacht, Korona remained in Vienna with her parents, oldest sister, and brother-in-law (her middle sister had fled to England months before).
“I could not walk in the street because if you didn’t wear the swastika pin they knew you were Jewish,” Korona said.
Once, when she did go out, she was forced to wash dishes for the Hitler Youth of the Nazi Party.
“Another time I had to scrub the pavement in the street and the people were standing around and calling us names, saying ‘C’mon you dirty Jew! Work faster!’” she recalled. “It was awful.”
But through it all, Korona tried to learn what she could, from crocheting to cooking, to make sure she was prepared to work wherever she ended up — if she could ever get out.
Korona’s English tutor even helped her write letters to strangers she found in U.S. phone books who shared Korona’s last name, in the hopes one of them might help get her escape.
Two people responded, but Korona couldn’t get to the consulate and so, she remained in Vienna.
One day, a friend told Korona about two Quaker women in England who were helping Jewish teenagers flee Austria. Korona wrote them and they sent her a special permit to travel to England.
In April 1939, Korona, then just 19, left with only the clothes on her back and her permit from the Quakers.
“I went to line up at the Gestapo for a day and a night. The Nazis stood there and one had the whip in his hand, shouting ‘Next! Next!’” Korona said. “He gave me a piece of paper and that was my passport.”
One of the Quaker women told Korona she’d wear a red scarf to pick her up so she’d recognize her.
“At the station a lady approached me with a red scarf and she had a dictionary under one arm and a bar of chocolate in the other hand,” Korona said. “They were just wonderful.”
She stayed with the women for about a week, until her sister, Margit, who was already in England, came to get her. For three years, Korona worked as a maid at the estate of Sir John Wardlaw-Milne, a member of British Parliament, before taking a job at a factory outside of London, where she made U-boat transmitters.
Korona’s eldest sister and brother-in-law eventually fled Austria to Italy, then to Philadelphia, where he had relatives. In 1946, they brought Korona, then 26, and her middle sister here too.
Once all three sisters were in the U.S., they hired a lawyer to find out what happened to their parents, who couldn’t leave Austria.
“We knew that they did not survive,” Korona said. “Nobody survived. Nobody.”
The lawyer determined they were taken to a concentration camp in Poland, where they murdered on April 19, 1942. Korona knew the name of the camp once, but long ago blocked it out.
In Philadelphia, Korona lived in Strawberry Mansion and worked as a hat maker before joining her sister and brother-in-law’s custom jewelry business.
In November 1949, Korona met her husband, Leo, a Holocaust survivor from Poland, at a shiva (she’s pretty sure it was a set-up by friends). Two months later, they wed and made a pact not to talk about what they saw during the Holocaust.
“When we got married we promised not to live in the past but to live in the present,” Korona said.
She would later learn from one of her husband’s friends that Leo, who was a furrier by trade, was in several concentration camps and only survived because he was able to line the Nazis’ uniforms with fur so they didn’t get cold. He’d also been married with two children, Korona said.
“His son, who was maybe 4-years-old, he was shot in front of my husband, and the little girl was with the mother and went to the you-know-where,” Korona said, referring to the gas chambers.
Despite never talking to each other about their experiences, Leo Korona did share his story with the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Oral Archive in 1981, four years before his death.
Leo and Ilse Korona had one child of their own, Gary, and both men joined the family jewelry business, which eventually became known as Korona Kreations and grew into a wholesale operation on Chestnut Street.
Korona worked until she was 81, and then volunteered at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital, crocheting hats and blankets for babies and cancer patients. She was also a talented oil painter and a voracious reader. Recent cataract surgery has kept her away from her books, but she hopes to get back to reading soon.
Despite divorcing from Korona’s son in 2008, Krimsky remained close with her mother-in-law, and in 2013, she moved in to help take care of her.
“Without Wendi I wouldn’t sit here. She is just wonderful,” Korona said. “She will get a halo from me.”
Krimsky also receives help from BAYADA, a not-for-profit home health care provider. Korona’s primary BAYADA aide, Angela Barnhill, of Southwest Philly, said she loves spending time with her.
“She is very tiny but she’s a force to be reckoned with,” Barnhill said. “You can just feel that spirit.”
And it’s that spirit Korona is channeling now to tell the stories she’s kept for so long, for one important reason.
“So that it shouldn’t happen again,” she said. “It should never, never happen again.”