PLATTSBURGH — No one with a pulse can be in a room with Doug and Evelyne Skopp and not witness the love between them.
It’s in the way they look at each other. The way they hold each other. The way they smile.
Their journey toward each other and Plattsburgh began in California and Germany, respectively.
DOUG’S FAMILY HISTORY
Douglas Richard Skopp is of American-Jewish ancestry and was raised in Los Angeles. His maternal grandmother, Rosa Fisher, emigrated from Odessa as a 16-year-old girl. She told him she didn’t come to America for herself or his mother.
“She said, ‘I knew you would have a better life,’” said Doug, SUNY Plattsburgh professor emeritus and college historian. “That had an enormous impact on me. She had sacrificed so much, and my mother’s life wasn’t so easy, either.”
Rosa began her voyage accompanying her 18-year-old sister, Sofie, who died at sea. In 1904 or 1905, Rosa got off the boat at Ellis Island in New York City.
“Between the two girls, they had $300, which was a lot of money. My grandmother had all the money. She couldn’t speak English and had a toothache. Someone took her to a dentist in the harbor.”
“Painless Parker,” as the unscrupulous dentist advertised, gave Rosa gas, put her out and pulled all the teeth in her mouth.
“When she came to, she had no teeth,” Doug said. “He said he would sell her a pair of false teeth for $300. So, she had no money. I’ve heard that story ever since I was a child.”
The destitute Rosa answered a newspaper ad placed by a 27-year-old widower seeking a wife and mother for his two children in Springfield, Ill.
“She finds a way to contact him,” Doug said. “He sends her money for the train ticket. And, she marries him. His name is Zigman Fisher. She bears him three more children, the youngest of which was my mother. They are married 50 some years before he died.”
Rosa was a seamstress, and Zigman was a shoemaker.
“They have a little shop in Los Angeles, where I grew up, and they raised me. They were observant Jews. I, as a child, had a Jewish education. My grandfather was blind. I read to him and went to him to the synagogue. I was his companion. I was his eyes.”
Doug said his grandparents’ story is every emigrant’s story.
“There are tough times. My mother and father divorced when I was an infant. Zigman came to Ellis Island a few years before my grandmother in 1903 or 1904. He had two children, a little boy and girl, and his wife. They were coming from Romania.”
A guard at Ellis Island asked Zigman where he was going.
“My grandfather said, ‘Where was Abraham Lincoln?’ The guard said, ‘Springfield, Ill.’ My grandfather said, ‘That’s where I’m going.’ He went to Springfield and set up his shoemaking shop there. His first wife is buried there.”
During the Springfield race riots, Zigman’s shop was located in a neighborhood that was torched.
“They fled to St. Louis, where one of my uncles was born,” Doug said. “Then, they went to Los Angeles, where my mother was born.”
In L.A., Doug slept in his grandfather’s showroom window at night.
“They pulled the blinds down and took the shoes out. At first, they lived in downtown Los Angeles. Then, my grandfather moved there when the kids were small. They all went to the school. I had many of the same teachers my mom had in high school.”
EVELYNE’S FAMILY HISTORY
Evelyne Schaudt was born in southern Germany just before the outbreak of World War II. Her mother, Rosalie Lamberty, hailed from the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg. Her father, Hans Schaudt, was German.
“I remember being little and going to air-raid shelters,” said Evelyne, a former assistant registrar at the college. “One time, we didn’t make it. We stayed in the place where we lived. It had what was a cellar. There were no windows in that part of the house. The front part of the house had windows.
“When the air pressure hit from the bombs, the windows fell in.”
She has distinct memories of the shattered glass blowing in but few of her father, a soldier and shadowy figure in and out of her early life. Her grandparents advised her mother not to marry a German.
“They said there will be war, and he will die in the war and you will not have a husband. He left home when I was 9 months old. He was drafted.”
Hans and Rosalie were part owners of an office-supply store. After he was drafted, his boss recalled him.
“He was drafted a second time,” Evelyne said. “I really have no visual memory of him at all. I know there was another person who came to our home now and then on two-week furloughs, I guess. I was just used to having my mom around. I resented that he was there. Who was this guy who sat at my table saying you have to eat this? I apparently didn’t like it.”
When he went shopping for milk, Hans, holding Evelyne’s hand, took her with him.
“My father got killed in 1944. Only one person in the class of 60 had a dad when I went to school. One child had a dad. Two whole generations of males were taken out in Germany.”
Most returning soldiers had missing limbs or were brain damaged.
“Any male in the war that came back undamaged was suspect,” Evelyne said. “He must have had connections with the Nazis somewhere. He got someplace where he wasn’t on the front lines.
“My father didn’t get killed on the front lines. He got killed in France on a mission. I think it was a spy mission. He was killed in Avignon, supposedly in an army car.”
Rosalie was told, as many were, her husband died instantaneously from a shot to the head.
Through her child’s eye, Evelyne recalls everyone wearing black clothes in mourning.
Though trained as a nurse in Switzerland, Rosalie managed the store, above which she and Evelyne lived in a cold-water flat in Ebingen, now Albstadt.
Germany didn’t acknowledge Rosa’s nursing license. As a widow with a child, she didn’t have the time to retrain as a nurse.
“Her dictum was, ‘You must have a job if your husband dies and you have children to support.’”
Rosalie sent Evelyne to a foreign-language school near Geneva to learn French. Through a Frankfurt-based agency, Evelyne was placed as an au pair with a London couple to learn English.
It was at Vorbach, a foreign-language school, where Doug met Evelyne. She was studying to be a foreign-language secretary.
“The headmistress believed you needed native speakers,” Evelyne said. “They explained to us the language we were supposed to learn. Doug taught American literature and the American language.”
Doug’s grandparents sensitized him to and raised his consciousness about the struggles of immigrants and of Jews throughout history.
“I had excellent teachers at school and was very determined to make this my life’s work as a teacher. I studied history. I dropped out of college in 1960 to go to Germany 15 years after World War II. There were still all the scars and wounds of the war very evident. Of course, this was the place where millions of human beings were tortured to death.
“The Nazi machinery was directed not only at Jews but gypsies, gays, lesbians, Jehovah Witnesses, political enemies and Catholic priests.”
Of the more than 11 million who perished, 5.5 million were Jews.
“The state determined your worthiness based upon your physical appearance,” Doug said. “Your biology was your destiny. Jews were thought to be enemies of the state and of civilization itself. This is all a hoax Hitler and his regime perpetrated on the world. And, unfortunately, he found willing executioners among the people he ruled.”
For two years, Doug lived with a German family who had saved Jews during the war. A Dartmouth professor helped him locate the family, who operated a small orchard in southern Germany.
“I learned to speak German with this family. I didn’t get paid. I lived with them, and they supported me. They helped get into the University of Freiburg in the Black Forest. I finished a year, then came home to finish at Dartmouth. In the meanwhile, I met my wife.”
“He was supposed to be 26,” Evelyne said. “He was really 19.”
BOUND FOR AMERICA
After Doug finished teaching her class, they started having coffee together. When he returned to the United States, they corresponded through letters. He called once at 2 a.m.
“Before he left, he had proposed,” Evelyne said. “I guess he was astonished when I said yes.
“There was just something about him, a sort of innocence. It wasn’t naiveté. There’s an innocence and honesty about him I hadn’t found in anyone else. I believed all the stories he told me. We would be happy. We will be fine.”
Evelyne was sponsored to come to the United States by Michigan cousins, who sent care packages stuffed with rice, lentils and beans once the war ended.
Doug visited her in Detroit, where she worked in a bank. Since they were both struggling separately, they decided to marry.
“We married in Tunbridge, Vt.,” Evelyne said.
About 30 members of Doug’s family died during the Holocaust. For him to marry a German woman was outrageous, yet Evelyne was welcomed with open arms into his family and vice-versa.
“Doug is dearly loved by his family,” Evelyne said. “My mother felt she was a Luxembourger all her life.
“They are like the Vermonters. They have their own opinion. They express it.
“She loved my dad. He happened to be German. I don’t know how my dad felt about the war. According to my mother, he did what he had to do to keep from getting shot.”
After Hans’s death, Rosalie stayed low under Nazi radar.
“She chose the middle way,” Evelyne said. “You tell no one what you’re really thinking. You said yes or no. You stay neutral. You dislike something you can’t do anything about, keep it to yourself. It may come back to haunt you. That stays with me.”
Hans and Rosalie, both Seventh Day Adventists, met in a college in Collonges, France.
Evelyne and Doug met at Vorbach and began their life in Plattsburgh in 1972.
Though their legacy lives on in their son, Andrew, and his progeny, it is fitting that Doug and Evelyne’s long careers and contributions to the community are commemorated in the Doug and Evelyne Skopp Memorial Holocaust Gallery at SUNY Plattsburgh. It is a permanent gallery established by colleagues, alumni and community members, who gifted more than $25,000 toward the Douglas R. Skopp Endowment for the History Department and to fund the Skopp Competition on the Theme of the Holocaust.
“How blessed Evelyne and I have been to be in this community and to have the students and college,” Doug said.
“We are both grateful beyond measure.”
Email Robin Caudell: firstname.lastname@example.org
ON THE WEB
The Douglas and Evelyne Skopp Holocaust Memorial Gallery Dedication Ceremony: www.plattsburgh.edu/alumni/collegefoundation/holocaustgallery.php