I am named after my paternal grandfather, Yekusiel ben Naftali, Alav Hashalom. Because of the inexplicable cruelty of the Nazis, we were never to meet. Now that I have come to experience the unique joys of being a grandfather, I often think about him and about the relationship we might have had.
My father, an only child, lived with my grandparents, Karl and Bertha Breslau, in Frankfurt. My grandfather was a retired chief shochet of the Frankfurt Jewish community and received a pension from it. In November of 1938, my grandparents went on a brief vacation. Unfortunately, they were attacked and beaten on Kristallnacht and returned to Frankfurt. My grandmother then suffered a stroke. She died in June of 1939 and was buried in the Jewish cemetery in Frankfurt.
My grandfather had set up a code with my father, a banker. If the Gestapo ever came to the house looking for my father, my grandfather would call him at his office and say that “Uncle Gustav had come to visit.” One day my father was detained in his office past the time that he usually left for home, and he received the dreaded phone call. With the clothes on his back and the money in his pocket, he took a train to Berlin to get away and “have time to think” about what to do next. Because my father had blond hair and blue eyes, he escaped the Berlin Gestapo railway station detail and was able to get a visa to America rather quickly.
All he brought with him from his office were a couple of pictures of his parents and the infamous Nazi ID picture of Jews that featured a profile from the left side showing the left ear, which the Nazis felt showed Jewish traits.
He had to leave his father behind and, once World War II started, it was impossible to communicate with him. He heard from a friend who had heard that my grandfather had died in a boxcar on his way to Auschwitz in April of 1942. Since his grandfather had died on 23 Nisan, he adopted that as his father’s yahrzeit.
About two years ago, “60 Minutes” aired a program about the opening of all the German concentration camp records. They explained that the International Tracing Service was accepting inquiries about family members who died in the various camps. (The URL is http://www.its-arolsen.org/en/humanitarian_requests/application_forms/index.html.) I assumed that, if my grandfather had made it to Auschwitz alive, there would be a record of his arrival and I sent an inquiry to the ITS.
Six months later, I received a letter from Germany. I was told that my grandfather had been deported from Frankfurt on “Transport #3.” The heading on the first page identified the list as Transport #3 from Frankfurt to Riga, Latvia; in the middle of the second page was my grandfather’s name, with his address, birth date, and the address from where he was deported. The letter stated that no further records of what happened at Riga were available but perhaps more information could be obtained from the State Archives at Wiesbaden.
I wrote to the Wiesbaden authorities and received a letter, in German, with the following affidavit filled out by my father, A”H. It stated: “On May 21, 1939, my father lived in 9 Kronenberger Strasse in Frankfurt AmMain, Germany and then went to the Jewish old age home on 8 Wohlerstrasse, in Frankfurt. In 1940, he received as the former chief schochet of the Jewish Congregration, 200 Reichsmarks per month.”
The letter from Wiesbaden simply stated that my grandfather had been deported from Frankfurt – probably some time between 1941 and 1942 and killed thereafter. It also contained a 1999 article by researcher Monica Kingreen, in German, called “The Deportation of November 22, 1941.”
My German wasn’t good enough to translate the entire article, so Sid Haarburger of Teaneck was kind enough to sit with me and translate it.
In order to give a feel for the mood of the deportees of October/November of 1941, approximately 20 percent of the Frankfurt Jewish community, the author included a farewell letter from a 68-year-old woman named Bertha Oppenheimer to her children in the “ausland,” out of the country.
“My dear children,” she wrote, “I hope you are well. I am very agitated having been informed that I will have to leave Frankfurt on Thursday. I can only take bare necessities. I will let you know my new address, if permitted. Perhaps you can send me something there. Unfortunately, my desire to see you once more was not fulfilled. In any case, I am saying goodbye to you with all of the best wishes as a mother can wish her children. I want to hurry and mail this letter to the post office. I am so nervous I can’t write any more. Keep always together in happy and sad times. And pray for your mother. In thought, I am always with you.
I carry my grandfather’s name and, after 69 years, I can finally observe a proper yahrzeit for him. Because of the information contained in that article (see sidebar), I now know that he was niftar on Nov. 25, 1941, at the age of 73. I pray that tiyeh nafsho tsarur bitsror hachaim. May his soul be bound up in the bond of life. I pray that he knows that his great-grandchildren and their children are keeping his traditions and memory alive.