Ilse Marcks recalled a happy childhood in Vienna, Austria. Her father Herman worked as a tailor and her mother Elvira helped in his shop. Ilse had many friends, both Jewish and non-Jewish.
On March 12, 1938, German troops entered Austria where the majority of the population welcomed them eagerly. The next day, Austria was incorporated into the German Reich. Anti-Jewish persecution was immediate. The Nazis confiscated the family’s tailor shop, appropriated most of the family’s possessions and threatened Herman with incarceration if he did not leave the country immediately. By the late 1930s, most countries strictly limited the number of Jews permitted to immigrate or barred them altogether. Herman struggled to find a haven. Then he and Elvira learned that the distant port of Shanghai, China did not require immigrants to have entrance visas. In August 1939, Ilse and her parents traveled to Italy where they boarded a ship bound for Shanghai.
When Ilse and her parents arrived in the teeming port city, they joined a community of about 17,000 Jews who had fled to Shanghai from Germany and Austria after the Nazi takeover. At first, Ilse and her parents were lodged in a crowded and dingy refugee shelter run by the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC). Soon, however, Herman was able to find them a tiny room in a rundown section of Shanghai called Hongkew where many European Jewish refugees lived alongside poor Chinese laborers. By the late 1930s, members of the refugee community had begun to re-establish themselves as professionals or small business owners. Refugee-owned restaurants, shops and cafes dotted the streets of Hongkew. Herman managed to find some tailoring work that brought in a small income and Ilse attended school. Still, the family was desperately poor. Food, clothing and medicine were scarce and sanitary conditions were primitive. As the war progressed, conditions worsened and the refugees grew increasingly isolated. “Once the war started we had no idea what happened in Europe until the war ended,” recalled Ilse.
On November 11, 1944, Ilse married Heinz Marcks. Heinz had come to Shanghai from Germany in 1938 after being interned in Dachau. Ilse wore a secondhand dress she purchased in the shop where she worked as a salesgirl and Heinz managed to borrow a car so they could drive to the synagogue in style. “Of course there was no gasoline,” said Ilse. “So the engine was converted and it ran on charcoal.”
When the war ended in 1945, the refugees in Shanghai were stunned to learn of the devastation of European Jewry. Everyone had lost someone. Ilse and Heinz decided to build new lives for themselves in the United States. They arrived in 1948, settling in Houston where Heinz’s mother had come just four weeks earlier. Ilse soon found a job in a wholesale house and Heinz worked as a mechanic. Ilse’s parents arrived in Houston in the early 1950s. In 1954, the Marcks’s daughter Sheila was born. Their son Randy followed two years later.
Heinz died in July 2001. Since her retirement from the Texas Research Institute for the Mental Sciences, where she had worked for many years, Ilse served as a volunteer at Holocaust Museum Houston.
Herman Wiszniak, survived
Elvira Presser Wiszniak, survived
Heinz Marcks, survived