The power of a family archive
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- Cite this article as:
- Rosenberg, V. Arch Sci (2011) 11: 77. doi:10.1007/s10502-010-9135-9
Traditionally, an archive of family letters provides primary source materials for historians. The family archive described in this article does provide detailed insight into the suffering of several Jews in Germany and France before and during World War II. It serves as a memorial to several individuals who were murdered by the Nazis. It is also a moving testimony of the cost of war. As such, it can be seen as contributing to the wider historical record of the Holocaust. But in addition, this family archive also opened an entire series of new relationships with previously unknown blood relatives scattered across the globe, with an artist drawing the archive into a creative remembrance project, and also with individuals interested in the history of their community in Germany, which was my father’s birthplace. This family archive demonstrates values of archives parallel to their historical significance. It provides a meaningful illustration for how they can, in an unanticipated and unpredictable fashion, serve as a device for forging contemporary and ongoing familial, interpersonal, and social relationships. Ultimately, this archive of family letters, created in the midst of pain and anguish and death, has laid a new foundation of commemoration and remembrance.
KeywordsWorld War IIHolocaustLettersGursGermanyFranceFamily archive
In April 2005, my father, Alfred Rosenberg, died of natural causes at the age of 93. He left a personal archive of letters and documents.1 Among them were the 110 letters and postcards that were written to him by his brothers, his parents, and other relatives during the period of 1938–1946. Alfred’s brother, Julius, and his parents, Nathan and Johanna, wrote most of the letters. Other letters were written by his brother in Palestine (now Israel) and a cousin, Rita, who survived the war in Germany. These letters document a German Jewish family’s experiences during the Nazi Holocaust. The power of this archive derives from the fact that the letters were written as the shadow of the Holocaust descended on the writers, but before they knew of the horrors yet to befall them. These letters and other contemporaneous accounts of the Nazi terror form a genre of World War II literature ranging from the diaries of Anne Frank (Frank and Hardy 2003) and Victor Klemperer (Klemperer 1998) to family collections of letters sent from Europe to relatives in the USA that continue to come to light. For example, Daniel Mendelsohn’s recent book The Lost describes a search for the fate of relatives initiated by the discovery of a cache of letters. The power of these archives comes from their symbolic value as well as their actual value. Although not physically hidden, many remain untouched because of the pain involved in reading the materials. Only with the passage of time do they come to light in publication or translation.
Catherine Hobbs (2001) makes a strong case for developing more nuance in archival acquisition and appraisal theory in regard to personal archives. She encourages archivists to more deeply consider the acquisition of personal archives in order to illuminate the “interior struggles” of individuals—struggles not observable through the organizational records that the profession places greater emphasis on acquiring. Generally, the personal letters or photographs of an ordinary individual are of interest only to the family or friends of the individual. But when personal writings or artifacts are produced in an extraordinary time, they become valuable to historians and others as eyewitness accounts. The otherwise ordinary writings of ordinary people take on greater significance when created during extraordinary times. Certainly, the Nazi Holocaust and the persecution of German Jews prior to their actual murder in camps qualify as extraordinary times. And this family archive disturbingly amplifies the interior struggles of the individuals who created them.
My purpose in this article is to show that a particular personal archive not only is of interest to scholars tracing the history of the period but also has the power to reunite a family that was blown apart by the Holocaust and to influence a wide circle of people who have some direct or indirect involvement in the events of the 1930s and 1940s in Europe. In this case, selected letters from the archive have served as a narrative from that period that has been read aloud at formal public events to great dramatic effect. One recent reading of the letters was intended to commemorate the deportations of the Jews of southwest Germany to labor camps in France in 1940. The reading of the letters also memorialized the writers who died later in Auschwitz. These readings took place in Sulzberg, Germany, in 2008 and in Freiburg, Germany, in 2010. The hope, of course, is that this archive and others like it, through both traditional and new creative dissemination mechanisms, will influence individuals and governments, reminding them of the costs of war and genocide.
While he was alive, Alfred made no secret of the letters and documents, but by common consent, they were not discussed. There was a box of letters and artifacts that included an Iron Cross medal for service in World War I awarded to my maternal grandfather and German travel documents (passports) stamped “Jude”. I knew that the letters were detailed reminders of the pain and anguish suffered by all who were involved with this terrible era, but I had never read them. The family knew vaguely what the letters contained and where they were. But the details of the family story remained a mystery obscured by the fact that most of the letters were handwritten in a German script that was probably learned in school, but which went out of use during the Third Reich officially, and practically in the decades following the war. Now, few people can read this script.2 Upon my father’s death, I wanted to have the letters transcribed and translated, so I could piece together the story about the family before, during, and after World War II. I knew that the effort would be painful, but I was curious about my family’s past and felt an obligation to future generations of the family. There is no guarantee that they will share my interest, but the information will be available for them. While my father was alive, I was reluctant to discuss the letters, avoiding the obvious pain that the mention of the letters caused.
The letters were transcribed into proper German Microsoft Word files from the handwritten pages, much of which was written in dialect and in an older script. Michael André, a doctoral candidate in the German Department at the University of Michigan, took on the difficult task of English translation and organizing the letters. As the letters were translated, it was like opening a curtain on a drama, revealing the increasing intensity of the horrors that befell the Jews of Germany, specifically those of Baden, and the increasing desperation of the people involved trying to escape.
Although a number of letters and diaries from that period came to light shortly after the war, many are still being discovered in much the same way as these letters. The writers or the recipients of the letters are now quite elderly or already dead. The letters become public as the individuals die and heirs begin to learn of them. Of course, we read these letters with the historical knowledge of the Holocaust that was to come. Yet the writers, even aware of the increasing evil staring them in the face, maintained some hope that it would all end. It is perhaps not possible for anyone to abandon all hope. Yet, some did commit suicide in the face of the horror. Others, including Julius, maintained hope. It must have seemed impossible in spite of the horrible conditions they were forced to live under to believe that the end result would be genocide. Perhaps, this situation is similar to the letters written by soldiers before going into battle. We might know what befell the soldier, but the writer did not.
The family and the letters
The Rosenbergs of Breisach Germany (Nathan and Johanna) had three sons, Julius born in 1900, Eugen born in 1901, and Alfred born in 1911 (Fig. 1). The letter archive tells the story of what happened to the family shortly before, during, and shortly after World War II. The broad outline of the family’s story was known, but the letters revealed much more. Eugen left for Palestine in 1935, where he lived until his death in 1964. Alfred immigrated to the United States in August 1938 with his wife, Alice, and her parents and her brother, Jacob. Julius, the third brother, stayed behind in Germany with his parents and was murdered in Auschwitz in August of 1942. This much of the family story was known without resorting to the archive of letters. The letters were mostly from Julius documenting the increasingly desperate situation for himself and the Jews of Germany and consistently pleading with his brothers to help him escape.
Breisach, Germany, is a small town on the east bank of the Rhine River not far from the cities of Freiburg, Germany, and Basel, Switzerland. My father recalled that during his childhood, he was able to see into France across the river but was never able to travel there because the two countries were at war. He also recalled the privations and difficulties of living in Germany after World War I. There was a Jewish community in Breisach since the seventeenth century if not earlier. Jews in these rural communities were usually small merchants, craftsmen, or cattle dealers. The Rosenbergs had a small store selling household goods, such as sewing supplies.
The early letters were written from Breisach and also from Cologne, Munich, and Nuremberg, where the family was living after a brief evacuation from Breisach. The letters were all written after Alfred left for the United States. The later letters were written from the labor camp in Gurs, France, after all the Jews of Breisach and the rest of Baden were deported to the camp in October 1940. Julius was able to send the letters from the camp because the deportation was not part of the “final solution” which was to come later in 1942. It is not clear why the Jews of southwest Germany were deported to the south of France. There is a good deal of speculation about the reasons for the deportation. Some historians cite documents showing that it was preliminary to a plan for the deportation of all Jews to Madagascar off the coast of Africa (Dwork and Van Pelt 2003, p. 234).3 Gurs was to be a way station.
The Jews sent to Gurs lived in horrible conditions, but they were permitted to send and receive letters and even packages. If they had support from abroad, some were able to leave the camp and get out of Nazi-controlled France. All this ended when most of those in the camps were transported to Auschwitz in August 1942.
The archive included a yellowing newspaper clipping from the January 26, 1941New York Times titled “Misery and Death in French Camps”. This article clearly shows that Americans were thoroughly aware of the suffering of the Jews in Gurs at the hands of the Nazi’s as early as 1940. The article was based on a comprehensive report of conditions at Gurs provided by members of the American Friends Service Committee, also known as Quakers.
The letters are important not only as source documents of history but also because they bring to life as individuals those who were so brutally murdered. It is not possible to fully understand events like the Holocaust from general histories or from statistics. To say that six million died is to overlook each as an individual tragedy. The letters let us see who these people were in life and how horribly they suffered at the hands of the Nazis. Daniel Mendelsohn’s book, The Lost, is one of the more recent attempts to understand the Holocaust through the suffering of one Polish family, his own. As reviewed by Rosenbaum (2006), “…when he discovers a series of increasingly desperate letters from a distant relative, Shmiel, to his family in America, written in 1939 as events close in on Bolechow’s Jews, he is drawn into an obsessive multi-continent search that recreates the life of the lost as well as their annihilation. The result is a new way of telling a story we thought we knew.” The Lost recreates the events of the time from letters and diaries. As Rosenbaum notes, “Mendelsohn does something rare in the Holocaust literature I’ve read, which is to see the lives of the future victims not as completely ‘backshadowed’ (in the scholar Michael André Bernstein’s phrase) by the tragedy to come, but illuminated by their innocent ordinariness.” It is this precise aspect of my father’s archive that struck me so forcefully. The letters clearly show how terrible the writers’ lives had become, but I doubt they ever could fathom the depths of the depravity of the Germans that was to come (Mendelsohn 2007).
Breisach, February 20, 1939 [pdf 4/76–77]
My dear all!
We gratefully received your letter from the third of this month on Friday, 2/17, and now I would like to make an effort as well to write you at least once each week, although just now I’m sufficiently busy. To be sure, we have nothing left to do in the business as we’ve had to sell our stock completely and this has continued through to the last article.4 But for the community, the men’s and women’s association, the Winter Aid etc. I’m occupied with something different every day. I’ve even earned much already from the individual emigrants. Add to this the various trips to your dear ones in Kirchen and Freiburg, so that—as it seems—I’m almost unable to get away here. Yet this can unfortunately not be, for I must see to it that something finally happens for me too before it’s too late. The affair in November5 was a clear warning, and I believe that you too will have understood this. More about this later, though. So, since January the family of Hch. Levi Kupfertorpl, Hugo Geismar’s family, Bernheim Hanchele, Adolf Blum’s widow, Nathan Kahn’s widow have emigrated and many others will follow in the next weeks, among them mostly children. I’ve had to handle the correspondence for all of them.
Meanwhile another event of extraordinary sorrow has befallen the community—and one whose full import can only be measured when those young men have also emigrated who now oversee the service. That is, Herr Eisemann6 has unfortunately died after an operation in consequence of his year-long stomach illness. With the ruin of the synagogue in November, now the spiritual head of the community is gone and services are only mechanically carried out in the apartment of Eisemann or Louis Blum. You can imagine the grief of the whole community. The burial took place on 2/5 in Freiburg. Herr Oberkantor Ziegler held the funeral address, Herr Hermann Bähr spoke for the community, Benno Uffenheimer for the school children and Lehrer Kaufmann, of Freiburg, for the teaching staff. So you must write a letter of condolence to Frau Eisemann very soon.
Now it will be decided in the foreseeable future if the community house will not also fall a victim to the times. For, out of some technical reasons owing to traffic, it too is supposed to be torn down. The street there is supposed to be widened by a few meters. You must also bear in mind, in any case, that the community is receiving little or nothing in compensation. Because it has already been charged 5,000 RM for the demolition of the synagogue, which will have to be paid for with the community house.
In the near future we will receive 2 Seforim7 from the upper council, since all the others are no longer around. Then we will still be able to hold services if necessary, but how long this will last even we do not know.
I was in Kirchen8 for the third time yesterday. Our dear mother is back to normal again, and emigration arrangements for your dear ones are now underway, so that they should be in Zurich in ca. 6–8 weeks. Of course I will take care of everything for them, yet one must let matters take their time. Then it goes most quickly. During my visit in Kirchen I also spoke to your dear uncle Gustav, who will explain everything to you more clearly. Among other things I informed him that I have registered our dear parents with the Palestine Office in Berlin, since dear Eugen can make requests for them and in fact has already done this. And then we’re still awaiting a more specific answer from there, so I can report to you again in ca. 8–10 days. In any case we’ve received a registration and waitlist number and must fill out the corresponding form. Then the distribution of certificates from the next schedule in April of this year, and we will see if our dear parents are among the fortunate. I still don’t know today what can and must happen with dear Rosel. Nevertheless it is certain that I must also solve this problem.
When all this has been put in order I can hopefully think about myself for once, although it would be much more important for certain reasons if my own departure would be arranged first. But until today no one has declared himself prepared to help me. If you just mentioned in your latest writing, dear Fredy, that you will provide sponsorship for me when your dear ones have the visa, then that will certainly be very pleasing news for me and I can at least have some small hope. I extend you warmest thanks for this here, yet just now it is a very weak consolation for me as I have a very high number on the list (28,553). But if I could obtain sponsorship now, then I could go to some country of transit until my number is called—somewhere like England or France and from there, when the number is called, to the USA. Without this extremely important document I’ll certainly never get out of here and what all might still come cannot be foreseen. So if you have any understanding of my situation, then I would like to ask you from my heart, especially you dear Fredy, to try anything and everything in order now to obtain what is most necessary. It would have been most urgently necessary, that time when I was in custody, if I had been telegraphed my sponsorship. I believe therefore that I may assume that you don’t have in mind that such a thing should happen to me again. I implore you, then, do whatever is possible before it is too late. Dear Arthur will pay the emigration costs for me, including the ship ticket. Even he can do nothing else in this respect, since he as well still has no sponsorship and never knows if and when he will leave. So I cannot demand any more from him. Besides which he sends us something now and then to support ourselves.
Perhaps Hermi Kleefeld in New York can be of some assistance to you in matters of sponsorship. Richard Levy is also packing today; he’s going to Upper Silesia for Hachscharah and from there to Palestine. The Cronjees have also applied to Palestine. Likewise Wertheimer is on the emigration list. Maxe Rosel has sold her house and will move to Karlsruhe to Erna until her emigration. Besides this, both Bähr families will soon shake the dust of this place from their shoes. Then the elite will be gone. Moreover, the matter of München Mangel’s sponsorship has come to nothing due to her absence in November and December. You need not anger yourself further about the Geismar family and Bärewirtin, one doesn’t speak of them here anymore. She will certainly have preached again without any serious intention to help. For she hasn’t written another word to me up to today.
Anyway you can rest assured that we are all healthy, thanks to God. Dear father can even chop wood again and your dear parents in Kirchen are in good health, although dear mother was taken quite ill. Now I want to explain to you why you haven’t had any mail from us for so long. In our absence dear mother wrote a long letter to you that could not be delivered to you because the address was incomplete and so returned to us unopened this week. The contents of the latter were this: that you, dear Fredy, should obtain sponsorship for me. So it was and is and shall remain the same subject and grows more pressing from one day to the next, as dear uncle Gustav will explain in greater detail.
But now I’ll close this letter, not without again thanking you dearly in advance, and greetings and kisses to you with love, your
My dears! As Julius is sending our notes together, I don’t know what else to write than that I hope you all remain in good health. Things are going for the Freiburgers as they do for all who want to leave—they hadn’t left, which for me at least was altogether good. You are wrong if you think I want to emigrate to Palestine, things are not yet gone that far. I am very sorry for Herr Eisemann, he was still so lively when you last saw him, also Bernheim when they left - -
Everyone wonders that dear father held out, but he’s healthy and used to being outside, still he wept like a child when he came home and now we must think about what will happen to us. He’ll write next time—just now he’s lying on the sofa and the letter should go already. Warmest love and kisses, likewise from him and Rosl
Julius wrote many other letters similar to this one, describing his increasing desperation to find some way out of Germany. After 1938, the Nazis heaped one indignity after another on Jews, taking their livelihood, banning them from schools, and sending many to labor camps. Meanwhile, anyone who could leave left Germany and tried to immigrate to any country that would take them. The letters often list members of the Jewish community of Breisach who succeeded in leaving.
Since only one side of the correspondence regarding Julius’ situation exists, it is not possible to understand Alfred’s response to the situation. The central mystery remains whether Alfred could have helped his brother, Julius, to leave. The letters indicate that the relationship between the brothers was not particularly close. Alfred was eleven years younger than Julius and ten years younger than Eugen. Perhaps, Alfred preferred that Julius remain and look after their parents. Perhaps, he tried and could not secure the necessary papers to get his brother out of Europe. Clearly, neither could anticipate the brutal events that would follow and hoped that this terrible chapter of history would eventually pass. The question of why Alfred did not do more to help his brother was never asked and will remain a mystery.
This second letter describes the deportation of the Jews of Baden to the labor camp, Gurs, in the French Pyrenees in October 1940. According to Browning and Matthäus (2004), “Early on October 22, teams of police equipped with lists descended upon the Jews in every village in Baden… and with no more than two hours’ notice brought them to collection points. The roundup proceeded according to very precise guidelines. The deportees were permitted 50 kilograms of baggage and 100 RM in cash; everything else was confiscated” (p. 90).
Camp de Gûrs 10/29/40
My dear all!
I must tell you the unfortunate news that on Tuesday, 10/22, we were given one hour to leave the house and could take only the most necessary things (hand baggage). We had to leave everything else to fate. A special train was arranged in Freiburg and we were 4 days and nights underway. The route was, Colmar, Mulhouse, Belfort, Besancon, Dijon, Lyon, Chalons-sur-Marne, Avignon, Nimes, Montpellier, Narbonne, Toulouse, Peau.
Now we are in the lower Pyrenees where it is quite cold. As we are housed in very, very primitive conditions, we feel the cold doubly hard, since there are no stoves available in the ridiculous wooden barracks and we lack the necessary winter clothing. Dear mother, dear Emmy, Rosel, and Aunt Jetta are together. I am in the men’s section together with dear father, Louis Blum, Füchsle, Schiffwirt, Julius Krauß, Herm. Levy, Berth. Levy, Wilh. Geismar and Herr Zivi Müllheim. There are thousands of people here on the very edge of nothing. What I have always feared has now come to pass. I don’t know if there is still any point in arranging sponsorship and creating unnecessary costs for you. Inquire on your end if it is possible for anyone to get out of here. It would certainly be better if plans were underway for our emigration to America, for there is no staying here. Write to Palestine with all this. We are extremely worried. Dear mother will also write.
And now, with love, your Julius and father.
Address: Julius Rosenberg, born 10/11/00
Flôt G, Baraque 18
Camp de Gûrs
My dear all
What should I write you? Our terrible fate is already known to you. I do not want to portray our misery. We received permission to write, we have to go begging. I will write the Weils and Emanuel as well—I believe they were traveling, as they told us. After all the terror, the long journey in cold cars, and now cold barracks we are still rather in good health but Aunt Lina, already ill and now without the comfort of home, Uncle Louis believes that she won’t last long here. Bitterly sad. Everything is very spread apart, so that one must really search in order to find another, and so I have not yet been able to visit her. We are near father and Julius, a bit of good fortune. Send the letter to Eugen. All the Jews of Baden are here, I’ve met many from Kirchen and other places. A thousand greetings and kisses, with many tears, your mother and kin.
Herr Al. Bloch gave us many gifts, but of what use now?
We’ve arrived here after a four-day journey and must now bear trying times. Please help us however you can and go also to the appropriate officials. For today, accept the warmest greetings and kisses from your Emmy.
The men are separated from the women, and I’m happy that I am able to take care of the elderly, helpless people.
The letters continue to describe the conditions in the labor camp. All letters were opened and censored, but they did get through. Many of the letters are accountings of the letters and packages received and other mundane issues, but all reflect the increasing desperation of the writers. Poznanski (2001) noted, “[t]here remained the possibility of mail, but it was also limited (to three letters per week at Gurs), subjected to camp censorship, and restricted to what could be written…” (p. 182). Then, in 1942, all correspondence stopped. We now know that this was because many of the inmates of the Gurs camp, including Julius and his wife Emmy, were transported to their death at Auschwitz.
Pages 29–32, 34 A (type-written, partially handwritten)
Supreme Council of the Israelites of Baden
South Baden District
August 22, 1946
Freiburg im Breisgau
We were very happy finally to receive some sign of life from you, and especially that you and your family are healthy and happy, that is worth so much. I heard some time ago that you have been blessed with a child—is it a boy or a girl, or are there any brothers or sisters in the meantime? You see, I’m already starting to ask questions and haven’t even told you anything about us.
So, surely you know that we went to Theresienstadt in August 1942. It isn’t possible to depict in a letter like this what we have experienced from that time until our liberation in June 1945. You’ve read it all already in broad strokes in the newspapers and are still hearing about it every day in the reports of testimony at the Nuremberg Trial. I do hope, however, that not too much time will have passed before I can tell you personally about our individual experiences. Here you can already learn something of my own plans for the future: my applications for an entry visa into the USA are already in good condition and I imagine that in two months I’ll be with you in the land of freedom. A relation on my mother’s side has made this possible for me through his sponsorship and above all his readiness to take me in at first. His son in the army just visited us after our return and reestablished contact then.
Now to our parents. Shortly after our arrival last year, father was made Supreme Councilor of Israelites by the French military authorities. Unfortunately only very few Jews have returned from the concentration camps. Nevertheless, Papa has a lot of work caring for these few and above all we must now fight for some compensation from the state, plundered and impoverished as it was by the Nazi government. But the old Nazis are too protected, otherwise it wouldn’t be so difficult, they’ve lived all these years quite well at our expense. Indeed, there are far more difficult things for us—we’ll never be able to feel safe among this poisoned people, and the Nazis haven’t quite all just disappeared. Moreover, they are almost all absolutely convinced of their innocence and either didn’t notice any of the atrocities or call it all “propaganda.” You know, sometimes it makes one so angry that one just wants to be far away and not have to see or hear it anymore. I still hope to be able to bring my parents out of this accursed land, so that they can breathe pure air once again.
We’re living in Oberriederstraße again, two houses down from where we were 12 years ago. It’s a confiscated Nazi apartment, since we had nothing left when we returned a year ago, and René’s was completely bombed. Everything that we had hidden from the Nazis there was destroyed. But I must admit to you that, after all we have behind us, we’re not terribly upset about these losses. In this apartment we’ve found what we need in order to establish a home, and, most importantly, we found René and Friedel alive.10 They’ve also set up something of a makeshift home—that is, they’ve had to borrow almost all of their furniture; but René can work again, he’s running Papa’s business, only there is very little stock left. Roger took down your address when he visited eight days ago, he will surely write you himself. He too already has an eight-year-old daughter and a boy of four. We have also already had good mail from Eugen, he seems content. But the tensions in Palestine are really so terrible that we are seriously worried sometimes. Unfortunately Aunt Jette is not yet back with us, the immigration formalities are quite complicated, but I would very much like to see our aunt again before I leave. Papa was in Switzerland for fourteen days at the invitation of the Israelite Communities of Zurich and Basel, and he also visited Uncle Louis—well, you can imagine their joy in seeing each other again after six years.
We simply cannot think about the losses of our loved ones. Mother lost three siblings with their families in the East, and you unfortunately are hardest hit by the deaths of our dears in Breisach. You write that you would never have learned the truth. It is a bitter consolation for me to tell you that your dear parents died and were not murdered in one of the terrible extermination camps in the East. Your mother died before we were even deported. Her heart, already not very strong any more, could not withstand the deprivation. Uncle Nathan was a tough man and held out until war’s end—Aunt Jette has surely told you more about this. Julius and his wife were taken to Auschwitz in 1942, but I cannot tell you any more. It fills me with an endless sorrow to have to tell you all this, but I can understand that you want to know; but every word is painful and so I prefer to be silent.
I hope that these lines have helped you to picture our life and circumstances here. You write that you want to send us packages, we will gladly take them, the prospects for food are hardly bright and we can use everything. Let me give you the address of a friend in Karlsruhe, whom we visit often and could then pick up our packages: Frau Dr. Schlammp, Ettlingen, Baden, Rastatterstraße 8, American Zone. By the way, shortly before the liberation of Theresienstadt, I met a friend of yours from Wurzburg, Harry Kahn from Baisingen, he was freed with us in the end, lost his wife and child, but is married again. As soon as he heard my name he asked me if I am related to you.
Now that you really do know all the news, I would like to learn a little more about you all. You’re no longer a chasan? I know from mother’s cousin that clergy and teachers are the least well-paid professions over there. What has happened to Dr. Scheuermann? Most importantly, tell us what you know of any common acquaintances. When I’m there I will live in Bordentown in the state of New Jersey, then hopefully we’ll see each other. For now I close with love and kisses to you and your loved ones.
Rita’s letter was one of the last in the archive. It was especially poignant to then meet the writer of the letter in 2008. Her extensive memories of that time were illuminating.
The letters create new connections
The process of opening the archive and having the letters transcribed and translated put me in touch with the people in German towns who are determined to keep the memory of the Jewish citizens alive. The “Friends of the Blue House” is a group of Germans who wish to reconnect with the former Jewish citizens of Breisach and their descendents. They helped me reconnect with Rita Froelich and also helped me discover much more about my family. I knew that my father’s older brother Eugen (Itzhak) went to Palestine and had a son born in 1937 who served in the Israeli army, but I never met him. The Germans who helped me with the translations were able to determine that he had changed his name from Avigdor Rosenberg to Avigdor Raz. Many Israelis changed their name from European to Hebrew names. I was able to contact him and learned that he and his wife Sholomit had four children and at least seven grandchildren. His oldest son married an American and lives in New York state, where I was able to meet Avigdor and his family.
I also learned from my colleagues in Germany that Eugen had earlier married a German woman in Augsburg, Germany, in 1927 and had three children with her before divorcing her and leaving for Palestine. Eugen’s oldest child, a son, died in 1994, but the two daughters were living, one in Augsburg and the other in Calgary, Canada. The older daughter died in 2009. I have developed a sustained correspondence with two of Eugen’s grandchildren who live in Canada, and I eventually met my first cousin from Augsburg and her Canadian daughter (as well as her granddaughter and great-granddaughter). These reunions and phone calls were very pleasant, and my cousin provided first-hand memories of my uncle and his other children. We now have an ongoing relationship, and I shared the letter archive with them.
The discovery of the contents of this archive has led to a new connection for me with the German citizens of Breisach, Sulzburg, and Efringen-Kirchen. Of course, these are the citizens who are dedicated to keeping the memory of the Jewish community alive. Regrettably, some Germans still have an aversion to anything Jewish. When I visited Breisach, I was told about residents who objected to signs that described former residents of certain houses that were once owned by Jews. I also have been able to connect with a number of the children of Jews who were able to flee. Friends of the Blue House is composed of non-Jewish residents of Breisach and children of the Diaspora who stay in contact with each other. It is somewhat difficult for me to understand the motivation of the non-Jewish residents, other than it is in some way helpful in the expiation of guilt, even though these people were not directly involved in the atrocities. Germans in general have done an admirable job of educating younger generations about that period. On a recent trip to Breisach, we did talk about those who were interested in the history of the Jewish community in the town and those who were not interested. The group maintains the cemetery and has a museum in the former home of the cantor and religious teacher, Herr Eisemann, mentioned in the first letter above. This museum and cultural center is called the Blue House. Cantor Eisemann was the Jewish religious teacher of my father and presumably his brothers as well.
The letters also led me to meet a German sculptor, Trimpin, living in the United States, who happens to be from the town of Efringen-Kirchen, my mother’s hometown, not far from Breisach. I came across Trimpin in an article in The New Yorker (Strouse 2006) that mentioned he was originally from Efringen-Kirchen, and I found this coincidence too fascinating to ignore, so I contacted him by letter and by phone. He has been a recipient of a MacArthur Genius Award and is famous for his kinetic sculptures that combine music with the visual arts. I worked with the Dean of the Michigan Art School to get him to spend a month as artist in residence at the University of Michigan. During his residency, we spoke extensively about the letters, and while there, he began work on a sculpture/musical performance that is based on the archive of letters and will commemorate the 70th anniversary of the deportation of the Jews from Baden. Trimpin retraced the route of the deportees of 1940 from Breisach to Gurs based on one of the letters. He named the project “Gurs Zyclus”. This project will culminate in a performance/gallery show at Stanford University on May 13–14, 2011.11
The discovery and translation of this archive set into motion a whole series of discoveries, relationships, and activities—all a fitting memorial to Julius, Emma, and others who died in the Holocaust. In July 2010, I attended a five-day meeting of former Jewish residents of Breisach and their descendents. This was arranged by the leader of the Friends of the Blue House, Christiane Wallesch-Schneller, and was attended by about thirty people who came from the United States, France, Switzerland, Belgium, Israel, and Germany. The events allowed us to share experiences and memories of our parents, particularly how they escaped from Germany and how they managed to create a new life in their adopted countries. We also met with several Jews who have resettled in the town from Russia. A new and vibrant Jewish community is emerging in Germany.
The importance of this archive can be appreciated on multiple levels. On a personal level, the archive reveals the character of the individuals involved and the extraordinary events that took place. The writers of the letters died before I had a chance to meet them. Essentially, the archive tells what happened to my relatives who died in the Holocaust and what happened to relatives who survived during that period. The effort to transcribe and translate the archive revealed the descendents of my grandparents who were scattered into the Diaspora. Sharing this knowledge with them has been both inspiring and depressing. Knowing that we share a common heritage has created a bond that remains.
The “opening” of this long-neglected archive enabled me to discover my relatives and how they lived and died. The search for such information, after all, is the reason so many people begin genealogical research. Visiting the towns where my ancestors lived was important in the quest. Many current residents in the town were extremely helpful, and they continue to uncover relevant information that would be difficult for a foreigner to find. In the process, they learn more about their local history of this tragic period, and perhaps, it will help to offer some understanding, if such understanding is even possible. Many friendships have developed between the descendants of Jewish residents in the Diaspora and the current residents of the area. These friendships are helping to heal the damage from the Nazi era.
Secondly, and beyond the personal, I have decided to donate the letters to a formal archives so that the materials can be digitized and made available in English and in German to a broader public. The University of Michigan Special Collections has accepted the materials and has digitized them and plans to create an exhibition in the near future. I would like the collection of letters to be available not only to scholars and the public but also to my family. I feel that donation to the University of Michigan is ideal to preserve and make accessible this important heritage. On a more global level, these letters contribute to the growing body of material that is contemporaneous evidence of the Holocaust and the events that led up to it. This evidence will give historians an opportunity to reconstruct events with a deeper emphasis on how it affected the individuals involved. It adds to the testimonies of people who survived and were interviewed after the fact. Taken together, the letters are a dramatic narrative about ordinary people in an extraordinary time. Diaries and letters from the period are the source material of the histories that continue to be written and rewritten.
Even after reading my family’s letters, the letters and diaries of others, and many histories of the period, I simply cannot understand how people in a developed country, with such a rich cultural history, could behave in such a barbaric manner as to murder their neighbors, even women and children. My conversations with contemporary Germans lead me to believe that however hard they try, they also have difficulty understanding their tragic history.
Usually, opening a seventy-year-old archive of letters would only illuminate history, but in this case, the archive has led to new connections with so many people who have a direct connection to the events of this long past era. While the events of the Nazi period scattered family and friends to the far corners of the earth, it is now possible to reconnect. The new communication technologies of the Internet have enabled an entire new “social network” of friends, colleagues, and relatives. What used to be a small town community is now a social network dispersed across the globe.
This family archive illustrates how letters or diaries can be harnessed to not only illuminate a personal history but also reflect the history of the time and place from which they derive. Of course, this has long been known and acknowledged by historians. The personal importance of the letters is to augment a genealogy and to provide a heritage for future generations. As in all archives that document atrocities or genocide, the letters bring into vivid focus ethical and moral lapses and their results. It is a part of the admonition to “never forget”. Even though the writers of the letters were so articulate, the ultimate effect is both moving and sad. It is contingent upon the living to ensure the preservation and dissemination of their contents. Such efforts, while small, can hope to contribute some form of healing and provide a fitting memorial to the authors whose lives were taken but whose voices have not been silenced.
Observation of Michael André, translator of the letters.
Precise information on the motive of this deportation has not been found. There only exists the suspicion that it could have involved setting into motion the Madagascar Plan, an initiative of Adolf Eichmann designed to transport the entire Jewish population of Europe to the island of that name. If this were the case, this deportation would be the only known attempt to carry this plan forward. The protests of the French government avoided subsequent actions in this direction. See: Hevesi 1941. See also “Gurs internment camp” Available at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Camp_Gurs. Accessed 1 Dec 2010.
Julius was evidently in business with his father in the small family store. Employment outside by this time was denied to Jews.
This refers to Kristallnacht, the night when the synagogues of Germany were burned to the ground.
Herr Eisemann was the cantor and religious leader of the Breisach Jewish community. There is evidence that he was tortured by the Nazis and then committed suicide.
A Hebrew word meaning “prayer book”.
A nearby small town, Efringen-Kirchen.
Theresienstadt was originally designed to house privileged Jews from Germany, Czechoslovakia, and Austria. It was opened to the Red Cross to show how humane the camps were. Many educated Jews were inmates of Theresienstadt, and the camp was publicized by the Nazis for its rich cultural life-this was simply a masque to conceal the horror of the place. See Troller (2004). See also “Theresienstadt concentration camp.” Available at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theresienstadt. Accessed 1 Dec 2010.
Rene is Rita’s half brother.
“The Gurs Zyklus.” Available at: http://livelyarts.stanford.edu/event.php?code=TRIM. Accessed 1 Dec 2010.
The archive of letters would have remained a mystery were it not for the efforts of several people to transcribe and translate the letters and make them universally available. Michael G. Andre, a doctoral candidate in German at the University of Michigan organized and translated the letters. In Germany, Daniel and Heidi Meynen and Sibylle Hoschele transcribed the letters into high German, and Christiane Walesch-Schneller facilitated the process and organized the research about my family. The entire archive will be housed in the Special Collections of the University of Michigan Library. This article benefited from the extensive editing of David A. Wallace, especially because the article was so emotionally difficult to write.