I attended an unusual book launch in Berlin’s Centrum Judaicum in June this year. The book* was dedicated to the memory of some 1,000 Berlin Jews who were deported to the Minsk ghetto in 1941-42; all but a few were murdered there, together with thousands of others from other German cities and tens of thousands of Russian Jews. These lives would have passed into oblivion had it not been for the commitment of students from Humboldt University, who in 2009 began the heroic undertaking of uncovering the fate of some of these Berlin Jews and reconstructing their lives. This book encompasses 59 biographies, remembering a total of 129 people, and careful research has yielded not only their life histories but also documents and photographs of them and their families. Of the 1,000 Jews deported in 1941, only three men and one woman survived. The woman was Margot Aufrecht (see below).
The launch was attended by hundreds of people and was extremely touching. The introductory greeting came from Dr Hermann Simon, the Director of the Centrum Judaicum, and he was followed by Dr Michael Wild, Professor of Twentieth-century History at Humboldt University. The two editors, Anja Reuss and Kristin Schneider, who had also written the chapter about Margot Aufrecht, then explained how the book had come about.
In 2009 a group of students had decided to embark on the research that led to the book. Initially their findings were displayed in a travelling exhibition in 2011 and this was eventually expanded into book-form. The book has several introductory and informative historical chapters providing background information and details of the deportations, which were carried out with customary Nazi brutality. Shamefully, the collection point was the synagogue in Lützowstrasse, which had already been desecrated. The building was kept in total darkness and the overcrowding, with appalling sanitary facilities, was hideous. Each person had been allowed one suitcase or bundle and most were robbed of valuable items such as jewellery and watches. Those carrying money preferred to throw it into the toilets rather than hand it over and the toilets soon became clogged. Personal details were ascertained with the utmost bureaucracy. Men, women and children were required to strip naked for body searches; for orthodox women, this was a particularly humiliating procedure in the presence of men.
Two nights had to be endured in the synagogue. Representatives of the Jewish community did their best to ameliorate conditions for the elderly by providing mattresses, but there was little food and hygienic conditions soon became catastrophic. The 1,000 detainees were then taken to Bahnhof Grunewald and sent in 20 overcrowded third-class carriages, with wooden benches, to Minsk, a journey that took four days. On arrival, they were led into the ghetto, which was already vastly overcrowded with Russian Jews. Many of the Russians were shot in order to accommodate the new arrivals, who also included Jews from Vienna.
The editors read excerpts from three of the biographies. The high point was a speech, given in somewhat imperfect German, by Dr Felix Lipsky, a Russian Jew who was one of the very few survivors. He had been taken to the ghetto with his family as a three-year-old and he recounted some of his still vivid memories of hunger, deprivation and mass shootings. Striking among them was his account of the problematic relationship between the indigenous Russians and the more highly educated and generally better-off Jews from Berlin, some of whom entered the ghetto with jewellery and watches they were able to trade. Their fate was, of course, ultimately the same. Dr Lipsky mentioned the name of Margot Aufrecht as one who had also survived.
Why was I at the book launch? Margot Aufrecht had been a close pre-war childhood friend of Ruth Albert, née Loeser. Ruth had come to England on one of the last Kindertransports and we had become friends. She died in January 2013 (see my obituary of her in the May 2013 issue of the Journal) and had left among her possessions three letters written to her by Margot towards the end of 1945, when Margot still resided in the rebuilt Bergen-Belsen camp, to which she had been taken three months before its liberation by British troops. Ruth’s daughter Franny Swann does not speak German and she asked me to translate the letters for her. Needless to say, they were incredibly tragic as Margot, for whom Ruth represented a lifeline, described not only her life in Bergen-Belsen but also some of the extreme hardships she and her brother had to endure in the Minsk ghetto.
There is no record of the letters Ruth had sent her but Margot’s first letter was clearly in response to one joyfully received from her friend. How could Ruth have known that Margot was in Bergen-Belsen? I think I can provide a clue. Margot and her younger brother Herbert, who was shot in Minsk together with his parents, had attended as day pupils the school in the Berlin-Pankow Jewish orphanage for boys when they could no longer continue their education in their local primary schools. One of the teachers there was Heinz Nadel, who escaped to England in 1939 and joined the British Army soon after his arrival. He served in the Intelligence Corps and his unit entered Bergen-Belsen within a few days of its liberation by British troops. He was instrumental in supporting the surviving children and organised schooling and entertainment for them. One day he ran into the emaciated and very ill Margot, who recognised him. Heinz Nadel, by then Harry Harrison, kept in touch with several former pupils of the orphanage after the war and Ruth Albert must have been among these. I recall this encounter in my autobiography (Sunday’s Child? A Memoir, Bank House Books 2009, ISBN 9781904408444), in which I devoted a chapter to Harry Harrison with the title ‘Quiet Hero of Berlin’, a title The Guardian had given to my obituary of him in 1989.
Having translated Margot’s three long handwritten and badly faded letters, I felt emotionally so engaged that I decided to discover what happened to her subsequently, the correspondence between the two friends apparently having ceased. Several approaches proved futile until my friend Karin Manns in Berlin discovered, after many hours spent on the internet, that a book about Berlin Jews incarcerated in the Minsk ghetto was due to be published in June and that one of the 59 chapters was devoted to Margot and her family! A frantic email correspondence between one of the editors and myself ensued and, as a result, the letters, together with a photograph of the young Ruth, were incorporated into the chapter at the very last moment.
And so the two friends were re-united - at least on paper - although both were already dead, Margot having died in 1988. She had emigrated to Australia in 1948 to join an uncle mentioned in one of her letters and there she had married and had two children. I have exchanged emails with her daughter, Ruth Lismann, and it turns out that Margot had left her children completely in the dark concerning her wartime experiences, which she was evidently determined to put behind her once and for all. At Ruth Lismann’s request, I sent her my translation of the three letters her mother had written and, not surprisingly, she and her brother were deeply shaken by these revelations and by the information in the chapter devoted to their mother in the book.
What had seemed an impossible task that I had set myself was, surprisingly, accomplished and several weeks of searching and several nights of lost sleep were amply rewarded. The book’s editors are hoping that an English translation will appear in due course.
* Unvergessene Lebensgeschichten. Ein Gedenkbuch für die nach Minsk deportierten Berliner Jüdinnen und Juden (Unforgotten Biographies: A Memorial Book for Jewish Women and Men Deported from Berlin to Minsk), edited by Anja Reuss and Kristin Schneider, Berlin-Minsk: Metropol Verlag, 2013, hard cover 496 pp., ISBN 978-3-86331-116-2, 224 Euros