This article was written in December, 2013 by Ann Powers for the Holocaust & Intolerance Museum of New Mexico (renamed New Mexico Holocaust Museum in 2020). It has been edited slightly with respect to the museum name and personnel, but is otherwise as originally written.
In World War II millions of people went into hiding to escape the Nazis. And, so did a dollhouse.
The New Mexico Holocaust Museum is honored to now be the permanent home of “Hidden Treasures,” an incredible exhibit showcasing a 158-year-old dollhouse hidden away during World War II, while its German-Jewish family owners fled to New Mexico for safety from Hitler’s regime.
The dollhouse dates back to 1853 in Bad-Homburg, Germany (near Frankfurt am Main) when its first room, a small kitchen with a table and meat block with cleaver, was created for Frederika Frohman, future wife of William Ilfeld.
Five additional rooms were added for subsequent generations of girls: a living room for Frederika and William’s daughter Laura, a bedroom for Laura’s daughter Edith, a well-furnished kitchen, and the largest room for Edith’s daughter Lilo. It includes an old-fashioned coal stove, a waffle iron and bone cutlery. The fifth and final room, a bathroom, was created for Lilo’s daughter Lora in 1967, complete with furnishings from Germany.
In 1936, Lilo Lang was to inherit the heirloom at age 16. Tragically, she was forced to leave it behind as the family escaped Hitler’s oppressive rule mandating Jews could not practice their professions.
Lilo’s father, Gustav Lang, had been a dentist in Germany. The Langs (Lilo, her father, her mother Edith and younger brother William) were able to emigrate to Las Vegas, NM, thanks to the sponsorship of an uncle, Ludwig Ilfeld , a prominent citizen of that town. The Ilfelds had settled in Las Vegas in 1875. The town became their base for what became a state-wide mercantile empire.
“If Ludwig wouldn’t have sent us an affidavit to come over to New Mexico we wouldn’t be alive,” Lilo says. “He saved the life of four people. We were very lucky to leave at that time before it got so very bad in Germany with deportations to the death camps. Before Hitler, we lived in our beautiful town, a spa well known throughout Germany and many other European countries. Our comfortable life stopped when Hitler took power. We lost our home, our money and my father’s office.”
The Langs left behind Lilo’s paternal grandfather, who died the day after Kristalnacht at age 89.
“He was too old to emigrate with us,” Lilo says. “My father’s sister, who remained to take care of him, died in a concentration camp.”
It wasn’t an easy start for the Langs. Gustav could only practice dentistry in the U.S. after learning English, attending dental school here and getting certified. He was not allowed to take his surgical implements out of Germany. Lilo graduated from Las Vegas high school.
“I picked classes I felt I needed to become a good American,” Lilo recalls. “So, I also learned to smoke and how to chew gum. I gave up smoking 50 years ago. The whole family did.”
The Langs were the only German immigrants in Las Vegas at the time. Lilo recalls that people were kind and curious about them. Her Uncle Ludwig invited Lilo and her brother to perform on the button accordions they brought over from Germany. She wore a dirndl dress and her brother wore lederhosen. They played at the Elks Club, the Rotary and the Masons.
Lilo was fluent in English before her arrival and met her future husband, Dr. Arnold Waxman, through family friends. After living in nearby Mora for several years, they settled in St. Louis, MO. However, she describes New Mexico as her first love.
“As a teenage immigrant I was looking forward to New Mexico,” she says. “For years while in Germany, I read books by Karl Mai depicting the American West with cowboys, Indians, mountains, horses, cattle, wolves and coyotes. I love New Mexico. I think for myself, my first love is New Mexico , the land, the New Mexicans, the Indians, the wide open spaces, it’s beautiful. I get goose pimples when I think of New Mexico.”
In the meantime, the dollhouse was hidden in a Christian neighbor’s attic in Germany while Lilo’s family fled to New Mexico. The dollhouse remained a secret in that attic for ten years, unbeknownst to the rest of the neighbor’s family, as well as to the Nazis. Then, Ludwig Ilfeld’s son Carl, an American serviceman stationed in Germany, recovered the dollhouse and shipped it to St. Louis, MO to be reunited with Lilo.
Following tradition, Lilo’s daughter inherited the dollhouse and enjoyed it for many years. However, she was unable to keep it. Now 91 years old, Lilo is donating the dollhouse to the Holocaust and Intolerance Museum of New Mexico to be its permanent home.
“We are thrilled to have the Hidden Treasures Dollhouse exhibit and grateful for Lilo’s extreme generosity,” says 2013 Museum Director Jerry Small. “These are the kinds of efforts, stories and participation that truly sustain the museum in our mission to build bridges of understanding among people of all cultures, faiths and beliefs through education.”
This is not a conventional dollhouse with a finished exterior. Rather, it’s a collection of rooms with their original wallpaper, all beautifully furnished and placed on shelves inside a custom-made cabinet. Its electric chandeliers, lights and a grandfather clock are functional. Figures, or the dolls living in the house, are placed in the rooms enjoying their surroundings. Objects that do not fit in any of the rooms occupy a separate shelf.
Visitors will be able to enjoy Lilo’s recorded guided tour, during which she describes each room’s objects and the relatives for whom they were created. George Brudos of Albuquerque built the large display cabinet housing the exhibit. Lilo leads an active life in St. Louis, MO in the summer and Naples, FL in the winter. Her husband Arnold passed away in 2004.
The museum is grateful for this unusual historical gift. It opened to the public on November 22, 2011.