Archival and Non-Archival Assets
Max P. Friedman
Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. My approach to locating Holocaust-era assets will be a little different from those of the other panelists for several reasons. My writings about the Holocaust have dealt with the stories of individuals rather than a documentary search for records. Last year, I put together a book of stories written by Holocaust-era survivors and descendants who belong to my synagogue. I learned a lot from them about the history of that era.
However, as I will attempt to show you, there can be a connection between the oral/written histories of individuals and documents residing in archives, museums, and private institutions.
Many decades ago, there was a television show here in the United Stated called "The Naked City, and its opening line went something like this — "In the naked city there are 8 million people, and 8 million stories." In the major cities of the U.S. as well as some smaller ones, wherever you had a synagogue or temple in the late 1940's to the present, you most likely had Holocaust survivors as members. The problem was that most did not talk about their experiences, and concentration camp numbers on forearms were covered with long shirt sleeves and dresses. I found this out from first hand experience.
Just as in "the naked city" where everyone had a story to tell about something, this was true of the person sitting next to you in the synagogue, even if you thought you knew the person reasonably well.
In 1983, as the Program Chairman for the Agudas Achim Congregation Men's Club, I put together a panel of Holocaust survivors for the whole synagogue as part of our remembrance program for "Yom Ha Shoah", the Holocaust remembrance day. Even though I knew some of the backgrounds of our participants and what to expect in the way of their presentations, the details were often more fascinating than expected.
Unfortunately, no one took notes or recorded what the panelists said, stories that were lost when the participant died, as happened with our oldest member, Kurt Braun. Therefore, in 1996, I resolved to collect the stories of our Holocaust survivors as written by themselves, and to publish them as a Men's Club book project for the children of the Hebrew School. The rationale for doing this was obvious.
Year after year the children in our congregation would sit with people who not only saw one of the greatest upheavals of modern history, WW II, but also were involved in the Holocaust against the Jewish people of Europe. However, as I found out, sometimes you really did not know who you were sitting with. The price of surviving the memories of the Holocaust, was, for some, very often a lifetime of silence, even for their closest relatives and friends.
By word of mouth, I was able to get almost a dozen contributors to the book, with a pre-Nazi range of family histories going back as far as 1860 and ending up in 1996. This group included those who fled from the invading Nazis, those who hid during the war, and one born to Holocaust survivor parents in a Displaced Persons (DP) Camp in Germany. Our one known concentration camp survivor from Auschwitz was unable to tell her story though she did tell me about a brief meeting with the notorious Dr. Mengele during his searching period for twins to be used in his horrible medical experiments..
Bill Steiner, the husband of the Auschwitz survivor, not only kept many of his personal papers documenting his youthful activities in pre-Nazi and post-Anschluss Vienna, but he was able to recreate where he was at a particular time and event, including the German Army's entry into Vienna and "Kristallnacht."
However, he ran into a typical problem, that of matching his memory with dates and events that took place over 60 years ago.. He spent months reading history books in order to place himself accurately in time and space, including his meeting Adolf Eichmann, then an SS Officer in charge of "Jewish affairs" in Vienna in March 1938.
Bill Steiner's collection of personal documents included photographs of family, friends, Jewish youth groups and membership forms, as well as Nazi-insignia stamped permits. Needless to say, these items added immensely to documenting his story, especially if similar types cannot be found in archives.
A strange event occurred when I asked Les Bergen, who is quite knowledgeable about Jewish history, to write about his parents and their experiences in Germany, not only concerning the Nazi period from which they were able to flee, but also of their return to Fred Bergen's native town of Windecken for its 700th anniversary and homecoming event in 1988 for its former Jewish inhabitants..
Les's mother, Ilse Sundheimer Bergen, wrote about her family's history in a number of German towns and cities dating back to 1882, a history of Jewish integration into the German community and life that had no major problems. However, even before the Nazis came to power, her father had recognized the trouble coming on the horizon as he had been in the "Burgerhaus Keller" that very night in November 1923 when they had what is commonly called Hitler's "Beer Hall Putsch."
Mrs. Bergen's two uncles, Eugene and Arnold, where both heroes of the German Army in World War One. Arnold Maier received the Iron Cross, 2nd Class, for his actions at Verdun in June 1916, while his older brother, Eugene received the Iron Cross, Third Class He eventually was killed in action. Leopold Maier, Mrs. Bergen's father, was also a hero of WW I.
Unbeknownst to her, her son Les actually had the certificates of award of these metals, as well as the certificate of service given to all German men who served in WW I, issued on Jan. 30, 1935, two years to the day that Hitler had his first cabinet meeting to rule Germany.. Not only did these documents add flavor to her story, but the service certificate would play a role in a recent in a newspaper column by Richard Cohen of the Washington Post on Nov. 19th, and a rebuttal letter to the editor on the significance of Jews serving in the German Army during WW I.
Cohen wrote about a fascinating book written by Victor Klemperer, " I Will Bear Witness," a diary of his daily life under the entire Nazi period in Germany. A Jewish convert to Protestantism, Klempner had served "in a front-line unit during WW I and had won the Iron Cross" which Cohen stated as "another factor that set him apart from many Jews.
Werner Hasenberg, a survivor of the Westerbork and Bergen-Belsen concentration camps, wrote that many German Jews served in the German Army during WW I, including his father and five brothers, who also were awarded the Iron Cross. He stated that "So were many other German Jews" (in the war).
The WW I service of Bill Steiner's father and uncle, his mother's four brothers, and Ilse Bergen's father and uncles, with the still existent Iron Cross certificates, serve to reinforce Hasenberg's contentions about Jewish participation in "The Great War."
While Cohen felt that Klemperer was saved from being killed by the Nazis by a series of circumstances - WW I service, conversion, and intermarriage - Hasenberg wrote that "Of these factors, however, only his intermarriage could possibly have saved Klemperer's life; neither his conversion nor his front-line service and his Iron Cross decoration would have made any difference. Not one Jewish life was saved during the Holocaust because of conversion or service in the German Army."
Interestingly, Bill Steiner's father, and thousands of other Jews, had been rounded up and jailed in Dachau political prison camps during the Nazi occupation of Austria, but many thousands were released within weeks or months and told that they had to leave the country or their would be jailed again. One story related that if the prisoners could produce their certificate of service from WW I, they were released from Dachau. Whether Steiner's father produced such as certificate is not known but the certificate may have been a pass to freedom for many Austrian and German Jews.
Now where does the Archives fit in to the Klemperer-war service certificate debate?
If a Holocaust survivor, their children, or a researcher wanted to find such a certificate and the policies behind any life-saving powers it might have had, they would probably have to go the National Archives or other Holocaust document repositories to find one, unless they read my book where it is reprinted.
While my information about the existence and policies of the certificate came from individuals, documents in the National Archives might help shed more light on any role this certificate could have played for thousands of Jews as a potential lifesaver before the official Holocaust began..
Perhaps someone here in the audience will do follow-up research or a story on the significance of the certificate and uncover a little-reported aspect of the pre-Holocaust period.
One of our Men's Club members, the late Kurt Braun, and his wife, told us a story of how he operated as the last Jewish lawyer in Berlin. It seems that he had been a hero during WW I, and had save the life of someone famous, possibly German flying ace Baron Von Richtoffen. For this act, he was given a special certificate of recognition, signed by either by Kaiser Wilhelm or Prime Minister Hindenburg.
When the Nazis started jailing Jews on various pretexts, Kurt, with the help of his wife, worked to get these prisoners out of jail, either thru the courts, or by bribing the guards with whiskey and money. He then helped to get them out of the country. The Nazis were apparently afraid to arrest such a prominent WW I hero until they were sure that they could get away with it. Tipped off by a friend, Kurt's wife tapped him on the shoulder one day and said "It is time to go. You are no longer safe." They left Germany forever.
Somewhere in an archives I would like to find the certificate and learn the story of Kurt Braun. It sounds fascinating.
In these twilight days, many of the Holocaust survivors now want to tell their stories as a legacy to their families and history. The archives can act as a verifying, clarifying, and illuminating resource of Holocaust information to serve this purpose.