By Spencer Dobkin
At first glance, Ilse Jacobs is like any normal 86-year-old living in Delray Beach, Florida: She lives near her family, goes on cruises and hates the snow up north.
But Jacobs’ story is not like others, even though she did move south, and definitely hates snow.
Jacobs is from Lübeck, Germany, but was forced to escape during the persecution of Jews during the Holocaust. She and thousands of others fled Germany in search of a new life.
From Germany, to China, to Hawaii, to California, to Cleveland, Ilse Jacobs made her way out of Nazi Germany to live the American dream.
Many children experience movement in their childhood, but Ilse experienced her first move following the arrest of her father, Max Schapse, in Germany, and his subsequent escape to China. She and her mother spent four weeks on a boat in 1939 to reunite with her father in Shanghai, where she attended school again and learned English. The 6-year-old did not know she would spend the next 10 years of her life there.
Shanghai was one of few safe havens allowing Jewish refugees to stay during the Holocaust. The city accepted over 20,000 European Jews in the late 1930s and early 1940s, according to The Atlantic.
The building that Jacobs, her parents and multiple other families lived in would not be considered nice, spacious, or ideal by most standards: a one room schoolhouse for 20 people, where you “didn’t eat well, or shower in the winter,” as Jacobs described it. In cases of air raid sirens, the families went into the bunker of the jail across the street, later discovered by Jacobs to be dangerous due to weak water pipes.
“It wasn’t a good life,” said Jacobs, whose mother died of an intestinal problem in Shanghai. “If you wanted to eat you had to wash food in boiling water,” she added. Food on good days consisted of just ounces of cold cuts Jacobs remembers peeling from sandwiches. “They brought a chicken leg one time, that was Heaven,” said Jacobs.
Jacobs spent most of her time inside during the winter months, but one day was lucky enough to be on a playground where she met Liane Pruzan. “We became instant friends and we loved each other. It was very nice to have a friend,” said Pruzan, Jacobs’ oldest acquaintance.
The two met up in New York after Pruzan settled there and Jacobs had settled in Cleveland. A sense of freedom was becoming real, after the long ship ride Jacobs and her father were on, according to the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee.
Once in Cleveland, Jacobs began the process of becoming a citizen, which she completed five years later. By the time she was settled in Cleveland, Jacobs had travelled from a place of persecution to a world of possibility, where she started a family and started a new life.
She lived with her father until she met and married her husband Mark, with whom she had three children. Her youngest child, Evelyn Dobkin, 53, credits her mother for her happy childhood. “We were middle class, she stayed home and took care of the kids. It was a normal childhood for me, we had a nice house in the suburbs and everything was good,” said Dobkin.
Dobkin was very thankful that Jacobs put in the work needed to ensure her children lived a “normal” life. “Overall she kind of adapted and assimilated to being American… she took care of us even though she didn’t have much of a childhood herself and lost her mom in China,” said Dobkin.
Jacobs has lived in Huntington Towers, a mostly senior-filled condominium building, since her three kids all left the house. She spends her time played card games, seeing movies and going on trips with friends.
Jacobs’ retirement has allowed her to travel often, usually to the Caribbean on cruises with a group of her friends. Jacobs praises the new technology of cruise ships in comparison to the ships to and from China she was on which “make you get seasick with no stabilization.” The only entertainment on the journey from China to San Francisco in 1948 was a couple movies replayed several times, according to Jacobs.
Germany used to be a common destination to visit family Jacobs kept in contact with, but the flight to China is just “too far,” said Jacobs. “The flight is horribly long, I could never sit through that, even though I’d like to go back to Shanghai,” she added.
Her family is mostly separated between the Cleveland area and South Florida, allowing her to see family quite often. Dobkin almost moved out of Florida in 2004, but decided that keeping family together was more important than a career opportunity outside Florida.
Scott Michael loves visiting his grandmother when he has the opportunity.“I love to hear her tell me about her past, it’s so inspiring,” said Michael. Jacobs is a role model and inspiration to all around her that hear her story.