Fred Heim remembers walking on cloud nine the day he was sworn in to the United States Navy, a cold Chicago day in December 1944.
“Joining the Navy was the most important thing in my life,” Heim, 86, told the Journal. “The day that I was sworn in, I will never forget it.”
Born Friedemann Cheim in 1926 in Berlin, when he was sworn in, Cheim was only five years removed from what ended as a traumatic and horror-filled adolescence in a city and country drowning in anti-Semitism.
In the elegant Studio City apartment where he now lives with his second wife, Gail, Heim recounted his childhood in Nazi Germany and his service as a young adult in the U.S. Navy. This year, with the 75th anniversary of Kristallnacht and Veterans Day occurring back to back, Heim is one of a handful of living Jews who experienced the “Night of Broken Glass” only to later join the Allied forces in opposing Germany.
He began by describing how unbearable it was to live under a Berlin gripped by hatred. “As you walk out of temple on the High Holy Days, you are looking up and down the street to see if there are going to be any Nazis who are going to do anything,” he said.
Heim, his parents, Sol and Adda, and his sister, Suzanne, attended the famous Fasanenstrasse Synagogue in Berlin. Rabbi Leo Baeck was one of the leaders of the liberal synagogue.
Just before Kristallnacht, the Nov. 9-10, 1938, pogrom against German Jews that ignited the Holocaust, Sol received a tip that German authorities and mobs would particularly target adult Jewish males. He took the tip seriously and disappeared for six weeks before reuniting with his family.
On the morning of Nov. 10, as the 11-year-old Heim rode the elevated train to school, it made one of its normal stops just across the street from his family’s synagogue. He watched in horror as it burned. The interior of the pillaged synagogue is now one of the most famous photos of Kristallnacht.
“That has some profound effect on you,” Heim reflected, describing how he believes growing up as a hated citizen of his home country impacted him psychologically.
He and his immediate family escaped Germany one week before Germany invaded Poland, briefly stopping in the Netherlands before traveling by passenger ship to New York City.
“Going to America was everybody’s dream,” Heim said with a smile.
Shortly thereafter, his family moved to Kansas City, where Heim said he had relatives, and also where he — thanks to his sparse knowledge of America at the time — “thought there were Indians.”
He quickly fell in love with America and was particularly shocked when people in a Kansas City movie theater hissed when President Franklin Roosevelt appeared on the newsreel.
“I got petrified,” Heim said, thinking what would have happened if people in Germany openly criticized Hitler. “I didn’t know what it was like living in a democracy. That was a moment I’ll never forget.”
After he finished high school, Heim studied briefly at the University of Chicago before deciding that he needed to fight.
Heim enlisted in the Navy. After training in Chicago; Gulfport, Miss.; and Corpus Christi, Texas, Heim was sworn in as a radio technician. He was on a ship that patrolled the Caribbean Sea, which was infested with German submarines.
Although he wanted to fight on the front lines, the war ended before he got a chance, with Germany surrendering in April 1945 and Japan following suit in September. But Heim doesn’t shed any tears over not fighting in combat. “I think by that time I had become a typical Navy sailor — all I could think of was, ‘I want to get out,’ ” he joked.
After earning a master’s degree in business administration at Harvard, Heim journeyed westward in 1951, fueled in part by an image of California that he formed as a child watching American films in Berlin.
“I had an image in my mind of California,” Heim said. “I just wanted to come here, and I can’t tell you why.”
Heim quickly became a force in the business and political world. After working some low-level jobs for a military industrial company and a sales company, he became a successful player in the electronics and computer world, but soon left behind his entrepreneurial pursuits to enter politics. His first position was under then-City Councilman Tom Bradley.
After Bradley was elected mayor in 1973, he appointed Heim to the Los Angeles Board of Harbor Commissioners, where he helped operate one of the nation’s busiest ports.
“I was not universally loved, but we reorganized the harbor,” Heim said. “There was no funny business anymore.”
Heim’s 12 years at the harbor were not unlike his life — full of ups and downs. Now retired, Heim enjoys spending time with his wife and traveling; he has returned to Germany several times.
He sometimes ponders how growing up in Berlin impacted him — and still impacts him. “What happened to me, was, I can’t say I got used to it, but I actually sort of denied it until the last 10 years,” Heim said, pointing out that his wife, Gail, helped him recognize the repercussions of his youth and of Kristallnacht.
“I think you are not acknowledging the trauma of living for six years under Hitler,” she remembers telling her husband. Thanks, in part, to physical and verbal abuse he faced as a Jewish child in Berlin, Heim said he developed an extreme aversion to physical confrontations.
Gail Heim said that on Sept. 11, 2001, Fred told her that the fear from the terrorist attacks made him feel like he did on Kristallnacht.
Nowadays, while Heim’s hatred for today’s Germany has waned, his love for the country that took him in has only grown.
“I was beside myself with joy [when I came to New York,]” Heim said. “I still remember watching the Statue of Liberty and saying to myself, ‘Don’t you ever forget this moment.’ ”