Walnut Creek woman has led two completely different lives
By Randy Myers
CONTRA COSTA TIMES
CONCORD – Within one hour, Erna Harding recites a variation of the same unsettling phrase.

“You have no idea what humans can do to humans.”

She repeats it 16 times.

The despairing lament haunts the conversation and begs to be framed in a larger context. Only the 103-year-old Harding — believed to be the oldest living Holocaust survivor in Alameda and Contra Costa counties — can accomplish that.

Glimpses of why this refrain dominates her thoughts appear as she reflects on her two very different lives — growing up in a wealthy family in Gera, Germany, and then the years after the Nazis ripped it away.

Harding turns 104 on Oct. 28. Meet her and you’d swear she’s not a day over 80. She possesses an agile mind and can, with the aid of a walker, move faster than you would expect.

Sitting in a reclining chair, an afghan draped over her legs, Harding’s face lights up when visitors pop into her room at the Concord Royale assisted living complex. Pictures of family members, her German hometown and birthday cards from her 100th adorn the walls.

“Oh, what an exciting day!” she exclaims, looking quite smart in a pair of plaid gray and blue slacks with matching jacket.

But it’s not this woman’s appearance that makes her stand out – it’s her resilient spirit.

She shares a story that some 250 other Holocaust survivors living in Alameda and Contra Costa counties know too well: Of having lived and lost during the Nazi reign.

Through the Jewish Family & Children Services of the East Bay, Harding receives monthly financial restitution from Germany. Some countries give Holocaust survivors money in one lump sum — $1,800 per a life snuffed out, said Holly White, marketing and communications director for the East Bay group.

Harding colors in verbal snapshots of her life: How her older sister, Margurete and her brother-in-law were killed in a concentration camp, how she was treated so poorly by the London family who took her in as a maid when she fled Germany; how she couldn’t swim in a pool in her homeland because she was a Jew, how her husband turned out to not be the man she thought she fell in love with; and how she delighted in skiing with her son in Switzerland.

Then there are the frustrating in-between gaps that even her 78-year-old son Peter can’t fill in. The Reno resident was about 10 when his mother sent him to boarding school in England, just before the Nazis rounded up Jews and gassed them in the camps.

The lack of cold details — such as dates — might be attributable to Harding’s hearing difficulty. The interview is a series of questions scribbled in longhand.

She speaks with a German accent, and loves to talk fondly about her mother, who died in a car accident before she left for London.

“My mother was wonderful, but she was very strict. Thank God, otherwise I wouldn’t have survived.”

She eventually relocated to New York and worked at Mount Sinai Hospital until she was 69. She was asked to stay on longer. She said no.

“I never got a raise,” she adds.

Her memory gets fuzzy about when she moved to Walnut Creek. She lived at another complex before settling into Concord Royale three years ago.

Her son plans to celebrate her 104th with her, but he said his mom isn’t much into birthdays anymore.

“She hasn’t wanted to live for so many years,” he said. “A birthday isn’t something that she enjoys celebrating. Life has not been too pleasant for much of her life. And she’s had enough.”

What is your birthday wish?, the reporter writes.

Harding takes the note and looks at it intently, her lips mouthing the words.

She looks up and declares: “To be able to pass away in peace … without illness or in my sleep.

“I wish I could do that.”