Nov 2011 Journal

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The short life of Kurt Herbert Ikenberg

Kurt Herbert never stood a chance. He was born in Westerbork refugee camp at a time when the Netherlands had been occupied by the Germans for just over a year. When Kurt turned one year old in July 1942, the Germans started deportations to the extermination camps. A few months after he had turned three, he was shipped to Theresienstadt with his parents. One month later, in October 1944, his life came to an end in an Auschwitz gas chamber.

Kurt and I are both great-grandsons of Pauline Löwenhardt-Lennhoff, who had 12 children between 1873 and 1892. Had he lived, Kurt would have been 70 years old now, just six years older than I. But since his parents and almost all his other relatives died in the gas chambers, Kurt is never remembered. It is as if he never existed.

Less than a year ago I discovered Kurt. Klara Löwenhardt and her husband Ludwig Ikenberg fled Germany in April 1939, three months after their marriage. They found an unwelcoming refuge in Holland. For ten months they had to stay at various addresses. In February 1940 they were interned in the refugee camp the Dutch authorities had built (at the Jewish community’s expense) in an isolated location near the German border. Less than three months later, the country was overrun by German forces. On 6 July 1941, Kurt Herbert was born. Three years and three months later, all three were dead.

To me, Kurt’s life became a virtual reality. In the Netherlands Red Cross Archives, I discovered his personal record card, made by the Dutch authorities in the camp just after his birth. It listed his parents and (apparently ‘just in case’) his grandmother’s address in Altenbeken, Germany. Most likely, his grandmother never knew that Kurt existed. But to me, the card was tangible proof that Kurt had been alive. It was all I had.

What was he like, this boy who was of the same age as my grandson now? He grew up in the transit camp through which many Dutch Jews passed on their way to their deaths. He was murdered before he reached an age at which he could ask his parents the simple question: Why?

What was Kurt like? I was resigned to the idea that his identity would remain limited to a registration card and two transportation lists. In Philip Mechanicus’s Westerbork diary In dépôt, I had read about the children’s playground opened at Westerbork on 31 August 1943, almost four years after the camp came into being. On 9 September two horizontal bars and three swings had been added. Kurt had had his second birthday two months before. On 9 September Mechanicus writes: ‘Tonight at half ten, a clear moon; children are still playing.’

Then I discovered Kurt’s aunt Friedel - Friedericka Löwenhardt - had escaped from Germany after Kristallnacht. She was 29 when she fled. She found work with a Jewish family in London, never married, died in London long after the war, and left behind a stack of correspondence notes. When in July 2011 I met Mony, grandson of Friedel’s brother Julius, he showed me the stack of notes, wondering if they would be of any use. A quick glance told me this was a correspondence between two sisters: Friedel in London and Kurt’s mother Klara in Westerbork.

During the war, people could stay in touch with relatives in German-occupied Europe through the Red Cross. The notes I found were 28 Red Cross Message sheets. On the pre-printed front side, the ‘ENQUIRER/Fragesteller’ outside continental Europe would write a message to their relative in occupied territory. On the other side, the relative could write a reply. Messages were subject to censorship and limited to 25 words. But sometimes code words were used and genuine information conveyed. Here Klara - she consistently signed her messages as Claere or Cläre - reported in her own handwriting on the development of her son Kurt (Kurtchen). Her first report to her sister, on 11 December 1941 when Kurt is five months old: ‘Kurtchen is coming along splendidly; he is a great joy.’ Claere can never have imagined that 70 years later I would take such an interest in these words.

I can now follow Kurt’s development from when he was five months old to two years and two months old. The last message from Claere available to me in which he is mentioned is dated 23 September 1943, three weeks after the playground is opened.

When he is six months old, Claere describes her son as ‘very sweet and laughing and talking all the time’ (2 January 1942). Two months later, he not only ‘is prospering and bringing a lot of joy’ but also says ‘mama’ (13 March 1942). Less than a month later, he ‘is sitting and trying to stand up’ (9 April 1942). And when he is almost one year old, on 30 June 1942, Claere reports that he ‘will walk soon’. Seventeen days later, Kurtchen’s first birthday has passed and he ‘is walking in an amusing way’. On this day, the first cattle train from Westerbork, carrying 1,135 Jews, arrived in Auschwitz.

On 10 September, when Kurt is one year and two months old, his mother writes that he ‘is walking without help’, and a month later his father confirms that he ‘has been walking since his birthday’ (14 October 1942). In the hopeless misery of their camp existence, he is the sunshine of his parents.

It should be mentioned that the thousands of Jews at Westerbork knew no hunger. There were periods of acute food shortage but there was no famine. Camp commander SS-Obersturmführer Albert Gemmeker, who sent some 100,000 Jews to their deaths, had an interest in maintaining ‘normal’ living conditions in ‘his’ camp. From Berlin he received his weekly quota of Jews to deport to the East. If some were sick he had them treated in the camp hospital, then one of the best and biggest in Holland. Once cured, they would be put on the train to Auschwitz or Sobibor.

Unlike the Dutch-Jewish babies and toddlers, Kurt was not sent straight to the gas chambers. His refugee parents belonged to the involuntary camp ‘elite’, the ‘old camp inmates’. Westerbork had been set up in 1939 by the Dutch authorities as a refugee camp for German and Austrian Jews. Large numbers of Dutch Jews poured in only from the summer of 1942. Thus, by the time it began functioning as a transit camp for the Jews of Holland, a social order in which many of the positions of (conditional) power and influence were taken by German Jews was in place. Kurt’s parents belonged to this group.

In return for their help in maintaining order in the camp, ‘Gemmeker’s’ German Jews received a stay of execution. Kurt was sent away with his parents and some 2,080 others on the very last deportation train that arrived in Theresienstadt from Westerbork on 6 September 1944.

By that time he had long learned to speak. When he was eight months old, his mother had reported to her sister that ‘he says mama’ (13 March 1942), and eight months later she had reported that he ‘says grandma and granddad’ (12 November 1942). Kurt’s own grandparents were never in Westerbork but there were trainloads of elderly people, some of whom he will doubtless have spoken to. Soon after, ‘he repeats everything said to him’ (9 December 1942). On 7 January 1943, Claere proudly writes that he ‘repeats everything that’s said’ and three weeks later he ‘speaks a lot’ (28 January 1943). On 27 February 1943, Kurtchen ‘speaks and sings beautifully’. In a final report on his speech, one year before deportation, his father writes that ‘he likes to speak and sing’ (2 September 1943).

Kurt’s aunt Friedel in London was most likely the only person outside Westerbork who knew of his existence. Friedel will have had to imagine the way he looked for it is unlikely that she ever received a picture. She will have had to make do with the few words on his demeanour that his parents wrote towards the end of the known correspondence. On 9 July 1943, three days after Kurt’s second birthday, his father wrote that ‘he prefers to play outside’ – presumably Kurt would have been thrilled by the opening of the playground two months later. For a boy of two there was little in the way of toys to play with inside barrack 15, where he lived with his parents. The day before, his father wrote that Kurt was ‘a real boy’ (8 July 1943).

On 23 September Claere wrote the last sentence on Kurt: ‘Kurtchen is doing wonderfully; he is very lively, a little rascal who croaks like you.’

In this last sentence, Kurt’s mother links her son to her sister for the first time, using the outdated German verb ‘unken’. It is difficult to say what she was hinting at, if anything. ‘Unke’ is German for a toad. She may simply have meant that Kurt loved telling silly little stories as two-year-olds do, and as her younger sister did when she was a child: Claere and Friedel were three years apart.

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