Tinysign­sofhis­to­ry­inabundle­oflet­ters

The Jewish Chronicle - - Comment - Rabbi Jonathan Wit­ten­berg

IT ALL be­gan when my fa­ther’s youngest sis­ter St­effi died in Jerusalem. Ex­traor­di­nar­ily, the chevra kadisha re­spon­si­ble for her burial found a rest­ing place for her on the Mount of Olives right next to her el­der sis­ter Eva, who had died some 65 years ear­lier, in 1943. My fa­ther would some­times speak about Eva, how she be­came ill in im­pov­er­ished wartime Pales­tine, how the doc­tor said she needed red wine and meat, how she died any­way. He called out for her of­ten dur­ing his own final ill­ness. But now I stood for the first time by her grave and read be­neath her name a fur­ther in­scrip­tion, one I had not an­tic­i­pated see­ing there and one that must have been or­gan­ised by the fam­ily soon af­ter the war, be­fore East Jerusalem be­came Jor­da­nian ter­ri­tory. It was in mem­ory of Eva’s grand­mother, my great-grand­mother, Regina Freimann, who per­ished in Auschwitz.

Soon af­ter­wards, I was go­ing through the con­tents of the flat in Rechavia where the fam­ily had lived for al­most the whole time af­ter they fled to Pales­tine in 1937. They were all gone now and I was help­ing my cousin with the sad task of clear­ing out two gen­er­a­tions of be­long­ings. In a case in­side an old trunk lay a small, off-white linen bag. I opened it and with­drew a bun­dle of doc­u­ments. They were mostly hand­writ­ten, in Ger­man, on frail air­mail pa­per. There were bills, lists and let­ters; the ear­li­est were dated 1938, the last 1947. I be­gan to read: “…Ernst too has been ar­rested… Af­ter that, we heard no more… I am most anx­ious for our dear chil­dren.”

I have been trans­lat­ing and think­ing about those let­ters ever since. The names were not un­fa­mil­iar; my fa­ther had men­tioned them to me — So­phie, Trude, lit­tle Arnold: “So­phie vis­ited us in Pales­tine; we told her not to go back.” “My hus­band’s a Czech na­tion­al­ist”, she’d replied, “they won’t let the Nazis through”. My fa­ther had also asked me to pre­pare a list of the He­brew names of the rel­a­tives who per­ished, which we placed next to the me­mo­rial lamp each Tisha b’av. But he didn’t dwell on these painful mat­ters and I, like so many oth­ers, failed to ask when those who could have an­swered my ques­tions were still alive.

I feel mind­ful now of the tal­mu­dic dic­tum about bring­ing speech to the lips of the dead. Sadly, there may soon be few sur­vivors left and the clos­est to the sound of their own voices will be words like these, in hand­writ­ing hard to de­ci­pher on fading pieces of thin pa­per. I in­tend to ex­plore as much as I can and then pub­lish this tes­ta­ment to fam­ily love, to the man­ner in which they en­coun­tered their fate, to the destiny of our peo­ple.

My fa­ther’s mother was one of six chil­dren. Their fa­ther, Rabbi Dr Yakob Freimann, head of the Ortho­dox rab­bini­cal court in Ber­lin, died sud­denly in 1937. His wife Regina later wrote that she was glad he was spared the ter­ri­ble years that fol­lowed, and that she prayed daily that his spirit would hover over the fam­ily to guide and pro­tect them. Three of their chil­dren, in­clud­ing my grand­mother Ella, found refuge in Pales­tine. She had been liv­ing in Bres­lau when her hus­band, my grand­fa­ther, who owned a tim­ber mill, was tipped off that he was high on the Gestapo list. They set the ta­ble for tea as if they were go­ing on a brief ex­cur­sion and left the city that evening, never to re­turn. My fa­ther was 16. I once asked him if he had any good mem­o­ries of Ger­many. “No,” he replied; the Nazis had dom­i­nated it all.

My grand­mother’s sis­ter Wally and brother Al­fred also sought safety in Pales­tine. Al­fred had been a judge. For­bid­den even to en­ter the court­room over which he had un­til re­cently presided, he de­ter­mined to leave Ger­many at once. He went to Italy but, when his wife saw Mus­solini’s fas­cists, she in­sisted they move on to Jerusalem.

Al­fred was burnt to death there in 1948 in the no­to­ri­ous at­tack on the con­voy of schol­ars head­ing for the Mount Sco­pus cam­pus of the He­brew Univer­sity. My fa­ther, who loved Eng­land, never for­gave the Bri­tish for stand­ing by and do­ing noth­ing. An­other sib­ling, Ernst, was im­pris­oned for sev­eral weeks in Sach­sen­hausen af­ter Kristall­nacht, but fi­nally man­aged to ob­tain tran­sit visas to Bri­tain for him­self and his fam­ily. Im­me­di­ately prior to the out­break of war, he sought per­mis­sion to prac­tise his pro­fes­sion of medicine.

He was in­formed by the Cen­tral Of­fice for Refugees that, “the Home Of­fice au­thor­i­ties have given us to un­der­stand that in the event of a na­tional emer­gency the for­eign doc­tors liv­ing in this coun­try… may be al­lowed spe­cial con­ces­sions”. His ap­pli­ca­tion was duly sent to the Bri­tish Med­i­cal As­so­ci­a­tion but, in the event, he trav­elled on to Amer­ica.

My grand­mother’s re­main­ing sis­ters, So­phie and Trude, per­ished along with their fam­i­lies. So did their mother, Regina. Among the doc­u­ments I would later find were their final let­ters.

Mat­ters didn’t be­gin that badly. So­phie, who was beau­ti­ful, el­e­gant and wealthy, wrote on July 11 1938 from Holleschau (now in the Czech Repub­lic) to her mother in Ber­lin: “It’s a bad year here for pre­serv­ing fruit… On the other hand, I’ve put away ten ki­los of black­cur­rant com­pote and five of blue­ber­ries. I’ve still got so much jam from last year that I’m go­ing to leave it un­til the rasp­ber­ries be­fore start­ing again.”

It’s strange how much such a small de­tail has af­fected me. I keep see­ing my fa­ther teach­ing me how to bot­tle fruit in those large glass pre­serv­ing jars which, un­til a cou­ple of years ago, were thought to have gone out of fash­ion for­ever.

Just a month ear­lier, Trude had writ­ten from Posen, where her hus­band was a doc­tor in the Jewish hospi­tal, com­plain­ing she hadn’t re­ceived the cus­tom­ary greet­ings for her birth­day. Nev­er­the­less, she had cel­e­brated in style with a least half-a-dozen dif­fer­ent kinds of cake, real cof­fee and cream. I aban­doned the dic­tionary; only an old cook­book and floury hands would tell me what Blechkuchen and Muer­bekuchen had tasted like and even then, of course, they would never come out any­thing like as good. No doubt they were ex­tremely rich: “Of course we were un­healthy when the recipes be­gan ‘One takes 20 eggs’,” I re­mem­ber my fa­ther once say­ing.

I have only two other let­ters from Trude, both sent from the ghetto town of Ostrow-lubel­ski in the Lublin re­gion, an area ini­tially des­ig­nated by the Nazis as a kind of Jewish reser­va­tion, prior to the decision that ex­ter­mi­na­tion was sim­pler. On Oc­to­ber 31 1941, she wrote: “It’s my best time of day when I go to bed (that is, the sofa) and read. Sadly the light doesn’t al­ways work all that well; we have electricity only in two rooms and as the cur­rent is pro­vided by a mill there isn’t al­ways light and when there is, it flick­ers a lot.

“We also have two petroleum lamps but we don’t light them very of­ten as petrol has be­come very ex­pen­sive. Ev­ery­one strug­gles on as best they can. Most peo­ple live off the sale of old stuff which gets sent to them.”

MAT­TERS WERE clearly go­ing to get far worse, but this was the last any of the fam­ily heard from her. Af­ter the war, her brother Ernst wrote to the pres­i­dent of the city of Poz­nan, ask­ing if they could tell him any­thing of the fate of their for­mer res­i­dents. A cer­tain M. A. Dropin­ski in­formed him that they had been taken from Ostrow-lubel­ski to the nearby town of Lubar­tov on Oc­to­ber 9 1943, and from there to Tre­blinka. He re­quested an ad­min­is­tra­tive fee of 200 zlotys for the pro­vi­sion of this in­for­ma­tion.

Mean­while, my great-grand­mother, stuck alone in Ber­lin, was hop­ing to join her three chil­dren in Jerusalem. A let­ter was sent to her on Novem­ber 9 1938 — the very morn­ing be­fore what was to be­come known as Kristall­nacht, the Night of the Bro­ken Glass — by the Palaestina Treu­hand-stelle, which rep­re­sented Jews try­ing to ob­tain per­mits to en­ter Pales­tine: “Ow­ing to the limited num­ber of cer­tifi­cates made avail­able by the Man­date Gov­ern­ment, it will, ac­cord­ing to cur­rent sched­ules, not be pos­si­ble for the fore­see­able fu­ture to ob­tain a pen­sioner’s certificate to em­i­grate to Pales­tine.”

This let­ter was ef­fec­tively a death sen­tence. She might yet have man­aged to es­cape since, be­cause of the dili­gent ef­forts of her son Al­fred in Jerusalem, the req­ui­site pa­pers did fi­nally ar­rive the fol­low­ing year. But in the mean­time she had made the fa­tal decision to join her el­dest daugh­ter So­phie in Holleschau. No doubt the fam­ily thought that any­where must be safer than Ber­lin, and that their el­derly and re­cently wid­owed Mama must not be left to strug­gle on alone in such ter­ri­ble times.

But af­ter the Nazi an­nex­a­tion of the Sude­ten­land in Oc­to­ber 1938, es­cape from Cze­choslo­vakia be­came ef­fec­tively im­pos­si­ble, whereas, had she re­mained in Ber­lin, she might just pos­si­bly have been able to get away — un­til Pearl Har­bour and the en­try of Amer­ica into the war cut off that route as well.

I feel as if I have got to know my great-grand­mother through the many let­ters she sent to her fam­ily in Amer­ica. She ad­dressed her post west rather than east be­cause the only way of writ­ing to Pales­tine, which re­mained in Bri­tish hands, was via the Red Cross, where cards were strictly limited to 25 words.

She never once refers to a rel­a­tive with­out pre­ced­ing the name with the ab­bre­vi­a­tion “l” for liebe — dear. She al­most never writes about her­self but is al­ways so­lic­i­tous about oth­ers, their for­tunes, their em­ploy­ment and their spir­its. “Don’t mourn the past but work for the fu­ture,” she ad­vises them.

She had a pro­found, im­mov­able per­sonal faith. Ob­serv­ing that a par­tic­u­lar rel­a­tive was of a ner­vous dis­po­si­tion and had made all his fam­ily anx­ious, too, she wrote in Novem­ber 1941: “I main­tain the view that just as our dear God has or­dained them so shall things come to pass for the good, be­fall us what­ever fate has been de­creed.”

HER LAST mis­sive, a card sent from There­sien­stadt, is post­marked Fe­bru­ary 25 1944 and stamped with the Nazi ea­gle. Last time I was with a group in AuschwitzBirke­nau, the frogs in the pond next to the ru­ins of Cre­ma­to­rium Three sang so loudly that our me­mo­rial prayer could scarcely be heard. My great­grand­mother, whose ashes may have been in that very water, would have con­sid­ered that those frogs, too, were part of God’s cre­ation and were, in spite of ev­ery­thing, con­tin­u­ing life’s song of praise.

Af­ter the war, my grand­mother Ella must have learnt that a dis­tant rel­a­tive, Char­lotte Tuch, Trude’s hus­band’s sis­ter, had sur­vived un­der­ground in Ber­lin. Char­lotte replied to her en­quiry in Jan­uary 1947, apol­o­gis­ing for her de­lay: “As a re­sult of ev­ery­thing we’ve been through, my hus­band and I have been in such a wretched state, both phys­i­cally and men­tally, that we are only grad­u­ally able to an­swer the many let­ters from abroad. The last let­ter I re­ceived from Alexan­der, Trude and Arnold was in Au­gust 1941.

“Your dear mother and So­phie still re­ceived a let­ter in Oc­to­ber 1941, then they too heard no more… Your dear mother wrote the fol­low­ing words: In spite of ev­ery­thing, my faith in God re­mains un­shake­able. These words ac­com­pa­nied me through the long years of per­se­cu­tion and bomb­ing, when more than once our life hung by a silken thread, and gave me the strength to bear it all and to come through. We lived il­le­gally for more than two years, that is, with­out re­port­ing to the po­lice and with­out ra­tion cards and in con­stant fear of the Gestapo. But we re­tained the hope that when it was all over we would find our fam­i­lies. Only now, when ev­ery­one who has re­turned from the camps has been reg­is­tered with the Jewish com­mu­nity in Ber­lin, have we fi­nally buried our hopes…”

This bun­dle of let­ters is all that now re­mains to speak of my great-grand­mother’s last years and of So­phie and Trude, who were killed with their fam­i­lies. I read them not only as tes­ta­ments to mur­der, but also to the deep bonds of fam­ily and to the undy­ing im­por­tance of faith, nur­ture, and love and to the es­sen­tial place in our lives of such or­di­nary mat­ters as recipes and gar­dens. That is their vic­tory. Jonathan Wit­ten­berg is se­nior rabbi of the Assem­bly of Ma­sorti Syn­a­gogues UK

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