My grandmother Suze passed away in the early hours of this morning. I read this piece at her funeral, written by her nephew.
Wald, Kenneth D. "The ghosts on the wall. " Midstream. 54.2 (March-April 2008): 18(5). General Reference Center Gold. Gale. University of Florida. 2 Apr. 2008
Full Text: COPYRIGHT 2008 Theodor Herzl Foundation
Full Text: COPYRIGHT 2008 Theodor Herzl Foundation
I grew up in a house full of ghosts. The spirits were not formless apparitions floating from room to room but strong images in elegantly framed photographs, tethered firmly to the dining room wall by history and memory as much as by wire and hook. Posed formally in the fashion of their day, stiff and unsmiling, they did not haunt me. Because of their vast distance from my life, they were my father's parents, not in any sense my grandparents. They were flesh but not blood.
All that began to change on a sunny spring afternoon years later as I stood in the kitchen of my Florida home, leafing through a bulging folder rescued from my father's files after his death. The folder held almost two hundred letters and notes his parents had sent from Germany in the late 1930s and early 1940s. Faced with a disordered pile of papers written in German, a language I was proud not to read, I sorted idly through the mound of yellowing documents.
I had never asked my father about his parents because my mother had warned me not to open old wounds. Even so, a few things had slipped out over the years. His parents, Curt and Regina Schonwald, were native-born Germans… After the war, Curt and Regina moved to Grossrohrsdorf, a small city just a few kilometers outside Dresden in Saxony. They were dry goods merchants with a small but prosperous textile store. The only Jews in town, they raised a son, Heinz (my father), and a daughter named Suze. ...
In March, 1933, the very month Heinz successfully defended his thesis to earn a university degree in accounting, Adolph Hitler was appointed chancellor of Germany and acquired emergency powers that ended Germany's postwar democratic experiment. In short order, civil liberties were abrogated, the Reichstag reduced to a Nazi puppet, anti-Jewish riots instigated across the country, and a network of concentration camps established to house dissidents, communists, and other political prisoners. After five years of increasing repression, a policy of random harassment and persecution evolved into a systematic plan to isolate and then drive out the Jews of Germany. The plan was baptized by the Kristallnacht pogrom in November, 1938. In Grossrohrsdorf, the church bells summoned a mob that hurled rocks through the windows of the Kaufhaus Schonwald, the family's department store. Heinz and Curt were arrested, deported to Buchenwald, and released two months later.
As the rising tide of antisemitism closed in on the Schonwald family, the first priority was to save the children. My father managed somehow to get out of Germany in 1939, coming to the United States by way of Switzerland and England. His sister, too, fled with her husband to Rhodesia not long after. The parents moved to Berlin where it was thought to be safer for them.
That was as much of the story as I knew. Of Curt and Regina, I knew only that--to quote my mother's refrain whenever I asked about any of our relatives--"They died in the war." Although nothing was ever said, I understood clearly enough they were not warriors or Resistance fighters, heroic figures firing on Nazi convoys from ambushes, throwing hand grenades during pitched street battles with the SS. In my young mind, if they could not be heroes, they were ... nothing, people defined more by their absence from my life than their presence in another time. As I got older, it became easier to imagine them as a respectable, sedate couple in late middle age, forced into premature retirement by the Nazi seizure of their store in 1939. Bereft of children, isolated, harassed, threatened on a daily basis, it must have felt as if the walls were closing in on them. I pictured them sinking into torpor, surrendering to their ordained fate as Holocaust victims.
Just a few letters into the musty stack of documents on my kitchen counter, something happened that shattered my image of their fatalism. My father's mother, Regina, suddenly switched from German to the English she retained from a childhood in Manchester, England. I read the words she had written to her dejected son in April, 1939, during his second month of American exile:
I would like to correspond with you in English, you must of course
write German so that Father [Vatel] can read it himself. Your
letter I have read many times, for god's sake don't lose hope ...
Think [of] ... the Easter week last year, then enjoy everything
[that] comes across your way. Father and I take our long walks and
we enjoy it very much, we have beautiful spring days. On holidays
and Sundays we walk in the forenoon[,] on other days in the
afternoon. Very often we meet Uncle & Aunt and we see the old
Berlin--trees and old parks that we knew 35 years ago. Our flat is
now very nice and so comfortable. Everything has found a place and
the nice furniture is also very practical....
With fondest care to you and all relations, a kiss, my dear boy.
In my Holocaust-decimated household, that moment of contact across the generations counted as a family reunion. With a brief message intended only to cheer up her son, Regina dispelled my notion that Curt and Regina had given up on life as the Nazi regime pressed down on them.
As the full set of letters revealed, Curt and Regina did not stop living even as their world turned upside down. Who would have blamed them if they had succumbed to despair as a poisonous set of laws reduced them to servile status?
Within months of Kristallnacht, Jews were banned from sports grounds, public baths, parks, swimming pools, theaters, cinemas, libraries, concerts, exhibitions, and music halls. Soon, they would be ordered to surrender radios, typewriters, telephones, and house pets, forbidden to purchase tobacco or flowers. In a blend of martial law and house arrest that amounted to internal exile, local officials could proscribe Jews from certain areas and order them off the streets at will.
One would not know any of that from the restrained letters sent to Heinz in New York by his parents in Berlin. No doubt mindful of the censor, they betrayed only oblique references to the aftermath of Kristallnacht, the confiscation of their store in 1939, or the other humiliations visited on them daily. There is no self-pity in these remarkably forbearing accounts of daily life. As shopkeepers rather than intellectuals, social critics, or journalists, they resolutely avoided the big picture and simply told their son what they were doing….
There was not always a lot to tell. While Regina assured her son that "we are doing something all the time," Curt confessed with remarkable understatement, "We don't have many diversions here." From time to time, the reality of Nazi restrictions on Jews broke through the otherwise even tone. "I sometimes long to have a shop again," Regina wrote late in 1939, less than a year after the "Law for the Exclusion of Jews from German Economic Life" prohibited such activity. Curt dreamed in April, 1940 about how wonderful it would be to drive a car again. That was only a dream because the Reich had confiscated drivers licenses from Jews two years earlier.
Curt and Regina betrayed emotion only when their children's welfare was concerned. As Heinz' sister Suse prepared to leave Germany for southern Africa, Regina aptly characterized her mixed feelings. "We are witnessing this," she wrote of the impending departure of her daughter, "with one laughing and one crying eye." Still, she told Heinz that their safety was paramount. "I am so happy when I think of you all and how you are mastering your situations," she wrote. "It would be too good to be true to think of a reunion but I still hope for it." As Curt affirmed, "The only wish your mother and I still have is to be able to be together with you. Hopefully, we will live to see the day."
The general tone of the Schonwald letters from 1939 to 1940 is not upbeat to be sure but is better described as hopeful and in its way, defiant. Heinz' parents looked forward to the next phase of their life, the time when they could join him in the United States. They asked his advice about how best to equip themselves for a productive life in America. Regina wondered whether she should concentrate on "cooking and baking, or flowers, or sewing aprons." while Curt, who had been a distillery apprentice in his youth, vowed to refresh his knowledge of liqueur production if his son thought it would be useful after emigration. Apparently, Heinz encouraged him, for Curt reported a few months later, "I'm now attending a distillery course, and things are slowly coming back to me." Apparently there was some false modesty in this brief report as Regina noted with pride, "Everybody receives home-made eggnog from Father now, and they all love it."
Regina similarly threw herself into self-improvement. "I go to our cooking course every afternoon, almost the whole day," she told her son. "I am learning a lot of new things, and hopefully I will be able to use it some day. I have really perfected my cooking skills. It's serious business for me now when the pots hit the table." ...
This correspondence occurred amidst the passage of compulsory labor laws that forced Jews to work for the Reich, the slamming shut of gates to Jewish refugees around the world, the German invasion of Poland and, an event not even mentioned in the correspondence, the outbreak of war with Britain and France. I do not think Curt and Regina were oblivious of this climactic event. Despite censorship, as Victor Klemperer's celebrated diaries revealed, word about what was happening did get back by stealth to German Jews. The Schonwalds were neither insensitive nor unmoved by the plight of their brethren. The letters report the desperate circumstances of relatives, friends, and acquaintances. Recognizing they could do nothing about the situation writ large, Curt and Regina worked assiduously on what they could control, their preparation for a new life in America….
Whatever happened, both parents assured their son, they would take any work that came their way. When Heinz complained about starting over in yet another trade, Curt reminded him of his own experience:
Just imagine, I started out in a distillery and moved to
distribution, then changed to a spirit and yeast factory, then to a
mill, back to the distillery, then sold greeting cards, changed to
being a traveling salesman for cigar-holders, and then carpets, and
finally became a textile merchant. As you can see, I changed my
careers eight times and never lost courage.
If the best they could find in America was minimum wage work with long hours, Curt assured his son, that was no problem. "Mother ... [and] I would love to work with you, even if it were 15 hours a day," he declared, and Mother confirmed to him that "you can count on your parents when it comes to working hard." Regina assured him they would not become a burden in the United States: "I am well conditioned by my housework, so that I can work in any household and do just about any job there. I've always held the belief that no type of work is degrading, even the most undignified chores."
At worst, they would simply make him a good home. "When we're living with you and you have to work so much," his mother promised, "you'll be able to come home to find a comfortable space. I'm longing so much for the opportunity to do everything for you. You've really earned it."
In April, 1940, Curt declared rather casually, "We will have to think about emigration soon." The low-key tone was apparently meant to disguise some urgency, for just a year earlier, Curt had announced a three-year extension of their apartment lease. Perhaps he had heard the news from Eastern Europe about the mass deportations of Jews and the mobile killing squads that followed the German war machine as it swept across Poland. The impulse to leave could have arisen from something closer to home, cuts in pensions and food rations for Jews, new and confiscatory tax levies, or, more ominously, the first German efforts to gas the mentally handicapped. Whatever the source, Curt and Regina now devoted their time to identifying options, making plans, tracking down and evaluating every rumor.
For almost two years, they explored every potential lifeline no matter how remote it seemed. Although Shanghai, Santo Domingo and Africa were explored as possible destinations, the Schonwalds concentrated on obtaining visas to join their son in the United States and thus entered a labyrinthine American immigration process made even more feckless by the war. They became subject to a world where something as trivial as a delay in mailing a package or a misplaced signature could set the process back by months or years. "Please don't think that my requests are unfounded and based on my imagination," Curt assured his son, "... rather [they are] drawn from experiences with acquaintances whose efforts have all in one way or another failed, whether due to missing or falsely sent documents." In this anxious if not Kafkaesque atmosphere, talk of affidavits, security deposits, financial guarantees, quotas, and case numbers increasingly dominated the correspondence….
They never boarded a ship. On June 19, 1941, responding to the expulsion of German diplomatic personnel from the United States, the Reich closed American consular offices in Germany. With that decision, Curt and Regina lost any prospect of securing the necessary visas quickly. As Curt admitted in an August letter, "Our chances for relocation are slim [but] we are still going to continue to hope for the best." He was philosophical about the delay. "We can't fight the facts," Curt counseled his disappointed son, "and simply have to deal with things as they are. There's no sense in crying about it; that won't change anything and just depresses everybody involved."
They began to explore a more complicated plan involving a tourist visa to Cuba. About seven months later, on November 22, 1941, Curt wrote with the good news. Thanks to Heinz' hard work, they had secured immigration authorization to Cuba, a way station before their eventual landing in the United States. As soon as their new passports arrived, they would book passage. A worried Heinz could now finally relax and accept his father's heartfelt thanks for all his sacrifices. It looked as though the story would have a happy ending.
As far as I know, that was the last communication Heinz ever received from his parents. The Reich had stopped issuing passports to Jews, reflecting the 1941 change in policy from expulsion to extermination. For a brief time, Curt was ordered to work as a slave laborer in a Berlin electrical factory. A Gestapo memorandum dated March 28, 1942 reports that Curt and Regina Schonwald (nos. 10326 and 10327, respectively) were transported by train to Trawniki labor camp near Lublin in Poland. The Gedenkbuch, a postwar archive compiled to document the fate of German Jews under National Socialism, confirms the transport but is silent about what happened next to my father's parents. The Encyclopedia of the Holocaust notes that many Trawniki inmates died of starvation and disease while others were sent to the Belzec death camp for extermination. Possibly, they were among the ten thousand Jewish inmates of Trawniki shot on November 5, 1943 following an uprising in the Sobibor Camp. For bureaucratic reasons, Curt and Regina's official date of death was May 12, 1945, the day the war ended--and Heinz' birthday.
Through these letters, those ghosts in the photographs that hung on the wall of my childhood home have shed their spectral cloak and assumed human dimensions. Curt and Regina have reached out to me across time, space and memory. But the most important thing I've learned is that the Schonwalds did not surrender in the face of crushing reality. They did not join the Resistance but Curt and Regina resisted by refusing to shout lamentations or succumb to despair, by the heroic act of imagining and planning a life for themselves in the New World. My grandparents never got the chance to live that life, except vicariously, but the vision sustained them in the darkest moments. I was wrong when I assumed they were led meekly as sheep to the slaughter. I know now that my mother was wrong when she said they "died in the war." As I learned from their testament, my grandparents died fighting the war.
"The Ghosts on the Wall" is a Holocaust memoir of a sort.
My grandmother Suze carried these hopes and dreams of her parents – lived a life of what we call a “memorial candle”. In burying her today, I hope we can bury some of the pain and trauma of her life.