Survivor STORY

William (Bill) Leopold Pulgram was born January 1, 1921, in Vienna, Austria, to Sigmund Pulgram, a tailor and manager of a fine clothing store, and Giselle Bauer Pulgram.

Growing up in Vienna, Bill lived a “free and secular way of life,” celebrating “festivals” rather than “holidays,” often with mixed marriages in his family. One day at school, Bill recalls that the teachers began showing up wearing Nazi insignias. Shortly thereafter, he and his fellow Jewish students were called to the school director’s office and told they were to leave school immediately and never return. Many of his teachers were surprised to learn that he was a Jew—antisemitism already had deep roots in Austrian society.

In 1938, Bill and a gentile friend, Fritz, were walking home from a boy scout meeting past the local Gestapo headquarters. The two boys were arrested, detained and interrogated separately. The Gestapo accused the boy scouts of being a communist organization and threatened to send Bill to a concentration camp. Bill’s identification card bore a photo of him wearing leather shorts and a traditional Austrian jacket: “You aren’t supposed to be wearing these kinds of clothes.” The Gestapo demanded to know the location of the leather shorts and jacket, and ordered Bill to return them to their headquarters the next morning. Bill told the agents that he still had the jacket, but he had given the shorts to Fritz. After a late night of interrogation, Bill returned home to tell his parent’s the story. Concerned that Fritz might now be in danger, Bill’s brother went to Fritz’s home in the middle of the night to retrieve the leather shorts. Sure enough, later that night, the Gestapo arrived at Fritz’s door to retrieve the shorts. “Can you believe it?” Bill recalls, “Ridiculous, little things like that!” <>

In an interview conducted by The Breman, Bill also recalls Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass—a “drastic, drastic event”—and his family hiding in their dark apartment to avoid the mayhem occurring in the streets. The family’s life in Vienna seemed to be over, and, “after Kristallnacht, there was no question that this was the end.” The Gestapo came to the Pulgram’s door the next day to arrest Bill, and only by sheer coincidence—he had accidentally injured his foot, and was bandaged, lying in bed—was he not taken. (It also helped that his father Sigmund had served in the Austrian army in WWI and put his medals and awards on display on his clothing and apartment walls in order to diffuse Nazi suspicion.)

In February of 1939, Bill was sent to live, and apprentice as a tailor, with the Marks family in Manchester England. The British family belonged to a Quaker organization dedicated to the rescue of Jews from Nazi-occupied countries. Bill had no choice but to leave behind his parents and younger sister, Lili (his older brother Ernst had left Vienna a year before). To this day, Bill regrets having “never fully thanked” the Marks family, and has tried to seek out their son, Michael or “Mickey” to express his gratitude.

As the war became more and more intense, Bill was placed in a British internment camp as an illegal or “enemy” alien. In November of 1940, he finally gained proper papers and passage and left for America; however, back in Vienna, his parents and sister were unable to leave. Their baggage was packed, their visas were in place, and their tickets were purchased, but the U.S. consulate was simply overburdened by too many refugees. Sigmund, Giselle and Lili Pulgram were deported to the Terezenstadt concentration camp, where Lili died. Sigmund and Giselle were then deported to Auschwitz, where they, too, perished.

Back in 1936 in Vienna, Bill’s uncle, Richard Bauer, had met President Roosevelt’s first director of public housing, Charles Palmer, who was touring Europe to look at different housing projects. Uncle Richard later sent a letter to Palmer, who was from Atlanta: “I want to get out” (of Austria). With Palmer’s assistance, Richard, Bill and his brother were able to find their way to Georgia. Through various connections, including Herman and Josephine Hyman of Atlanta, the brothers found their way to Rome, Georgia, where Ernst, a scholar in the romance languages, worked as a stock boy at a local furniture store.

Ernst Pulgram enlisted in the U.S Army and served in the South Pacific until he was sent home on medical leave. Bill, too, wanted to serve his new country, but was told that he was not a legal citizen and was sent home as an “alien from an enemy country.”

Bill was told that the only way he could join the armed forces was to request to be drafted. The Army accepted his request and placed him with a special services entertainment branch (he played the piano). From Fort McPherson, he was deployed to a base in Los Angeles, serving with, among others, a magician from New York, a dancer from Mexico, and a performer from a Russian Ballet. Their sergeant—also a piano player—took them through basic training in one week. Bill served for three years.

In 1946, at age 25, Bill enrolled at Georgia Tech under the G.I. Bill; he had always wanted to become an architect. His brother was in Cambridge, studying for his Ph.D. in linguistics at Harvard. The chair of the Tech’s architecture department introduced Bill to his future wife, Lucia, at a post-graduate dinner. They were married, and Bill joined the firm of Cecil Finch Alexander in Atlanta. He soon formed his own independent subsidiary of the firm, Associated Space Design for the design of interior spaces.

Bill and Lucia Pulgram have four children: Christopher, a violinist with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra; Anthony, an opera singer with the New York City Opera; Lawrence, an attorney in San Francisco; and, Dierdre, who lives with her family on a farm in Massachusetts.

When asked of his proudest accomplishment, Bill says, “My family. They’re wonderful children. And my wife, of course, she was part of creating them, of course.”

When asked of his Holocaust experience, Bill says, “There are many, many times I still dream, and I can’t forget….I have gone much further than I expected to.”

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William Pulgram