Freedom on DisplayMay 01, 2021 ● By Joshua Baethge
A recently-opened exhibit at the Frisco Heritage Museum tells the inspirational story of how a couple escaped from Nazi Germany and made their way to the Texas prairie. Fleeing to Frisco: How One Jewish Family Escaped Nazi Germany and Rebuilt Their Lives shines a light on Leo and Irma Wollenreich. It is a moving story with a uniquely Texas twist.
Mr. Wollenreich was a wealthy cattle trader living in Straubing, Germany. He was a decorated German World War I soldier who mingled in high circles. None of that mattered when the Nazi regime came to power in the 1930s. He was forced to sell his business and his home for much less than what they were worth. On Nov. 10, 1938, he was taken into “protective custody” after the infamous Kristallnacht pogrom (also known as the “Night of Broken Glass”) in which some 30,000 Jewish men were arrested and sent to concentration camps. Two days later, Mr. Wollenreich was taken to the Dachau concentration camp and held for nearly a month. He had been beaten badly and required the aid of a cane to walk for several years. Though he would eventually recover physically, the emotional scars lasted a lifetime.
The specifics of Mr. Wollenreich’s case are not entirely known. At the time many Jews were released if they could show proof that they were emigrating to other countries. It took two-and-a-half years for Mr. and Mrs. Wollenreich to escape. They fled to Portugal and eventually took a ship to the United States. With the help of his cousin, the couple was able to set up a cattle ranch in Lebanon, Texas, near present-day Frisco. A historical marker near the intersection of Gaylord Parkway and Preston Road denotes the settlement’s former location.
What makes the museum exhibit even more compelling is how the story came to be told. For years, Frisco residents Jesse and Lupe Sanchez had many of the Wollenreichs’ possessions boxed away. This was not well known until their son, Mike Sanchez, joined the Heritage Association of Frisco board. He is a musician who had loaned the museum some interesting items from his own collection. In conversation with museum staff, he mentioned what his parents had.
Initially, Jesse Sanchez was not keen on sharing the items with the museum. He was concerned that putting such personal items from their late friends on display would be a violation of their trust. Eventually, he came around to the idea and agreed that it was an important story to share with the community. “We needed the world to know about this,” Mike Sanchez recalled telling his parents.
The story of how the Sanchezes came to be friends with the Wollenreichs begins with a teenage Jesse Sanchez working at an area farm. He had found work building fences and mowing pastures at the former Phillips Ranch, near the eastern side of Lake Lewisville. At first, he would ride with another friend from his downtown Frisco home to the ranch about 10 miles away. After his friend got sick, Mr. Sanchez often found himself hitchhiking. An area farmer would usually pick him up and take him at least part of the way to work. As fate would have it, one day Mr. Wollenreich picked up Mr. Sanchez. In his broken English, he asked the young farmhand if he would instead come work at his ranch. “He said, ‘Well, I’ll pay you 50 cents an hour,’” Mr. Sanchez recalled. “I said, ‘Well, OK. I’ll work for you.’”
Mr. Wollenreich had a farm on Highway 380 but lived in Frisco. He would take Mr. Sanchez to feed the cows. Not long afterward, Mr. Wollenreich sold the ranch and bought another closer to town. Mr. Sanchez negotiated his salary up to $1 per hour. Eventually, Mr. Wollenreich gave him a $125 per month salary to feed and load cattle. He would often help Mr. Wollenreich take cattle from barns to a packing house on Harry Hines Boulevard in Dallas. Once, the men were hauling a big bull and two cows. The trailer overturned and the 1,500-pound bull escaped. The scene was mad: As cars came down the road, the animal would attack them with its horns. The incident made news when Dallas Police officers arrived on the scene. Their guns were seemingly useless against the massive beast, but eventually a sheriff got it down with buckshot. Mr. Wollenreich still got paid for the bull.
Mr. Sanchez didn’t learn about Mr. Wollenreich’s history in Germany until years later. He said it wasn’t a topic that he spoke about much. In fact, it was Mrs. Wollenreich who first shared the full story with Mrs. Sanchez. The two women had grown close over the years. The couple never fully got over the trauma of Kristallnacht, and for the remainder of her life Mrs. Wollenreich continued to have nightmares about the Gestapo coming to get her.
Lupe Sanchez (her maiden name was Liscano) and her family had come from West Texas to North Texas to pick cotton, traveling to fields in Melissa, McKinney and Frisco. The day after she turned 17, Mr. Sanchez introduced himself to her. “I had seen him, but he hadn’t seen me,” she recalled. When her family returned to West Texas, the two corresponded through letters. Her parents had forbidden her from dating anyone, and the teen was terrified that her parents would prevent her from ever seeing Mr. Sanchez again if they found out. A few months later, he visited her intending to speak with the young woman’s her father about marrying her, but she decided that was a bad idea. Instead, she snuck out a window and the couple eloped on Dec. 18, 1955.
With no children of their own, the Wollenreichs treated Mr. Sanchez almost like a son. When he married, Mrs. Wollenreich fixed up a small home on the ranch for the young couple to live in. The Wollenreichs later made provisions for the Sanchezes in their will, bequeathing them the house and countless other items.
Among the items on display as part of the Frisco Heritage Museum exhibit are family photos, Mrs. Wollenreich’s original cookbook, a 300-year-old lamp that used to reside in the family home and other personal effects. Sadly, there are also hand-written letters from Mrs. Wollenreich documenting the search for her mother, Luise Hesslein, in Germany. Records indicated that her mother made attempts to emigrate to both the United States and Cuba. She was a widow who had lost her only other child to a drowning. The last-known record of her was from April 1942. She had been forced to take a train from Wurzburg, Germany, to the Izbica ghetto in Nazi-occupied Poland. This was where many Jews were taken before being transferred to concentration camps. It is likely that she was considered too old to be a good worker and was killed shortly thereafter. Mrs. Wollenreich filed paperwork to have her mother officially declared dead in 1947.
According to Frisco Heritage Park Administrator Rayna Alam, the items on loan from the Sanchezes have allowed the museum to tell a much bigger story. While the Wollenreichs were widely known during their time in Frisco, their backstory was not. A single name on a pink yamaka helped Donna Anderson of the Heritage Association of Frisco begin to put together a family tree. She and Ms. Alam were able to connect with surviving family members in Ohio and New York. That lead to more research, which greatly expanded the scope of the exhibit. “Once we started doing the research, it just kept getting bigger and bigger and bigger,” Ms. Alam said. “If it wasn’t for the Sanchezes having those things and letting us borrow them for the exhibit, it certainly wouldn’t be on the scale that it is, because we wouldn’t have known any of this.”
Ms. Alam’s hope is that the success of this exhibit will show others in the community that they can trust the museum with their personal stories. This may lead to the start of a new program where more locals tell their histories, which the museum would be able to share with the entire community. “It’s all about having that conversation and starting that conversation in the community,” she said, “almost like getting to know your neighbors.”
Fleeing to Frisco: How One Jewish Family Escaped Nazi Germany and Rebuilt Their Lives is open to the public during regular museum hours, 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Tuesday through Friday and 9 a.m.-4 p.m. Saturdays. The exhibit is scheduled to run through Aug. 31.
Joshua Baethge is an award-winning writer whose work has appeared in publications large and small across the country.