Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Finding my Grandmother: Hope and Horror in the Holocaust


I grew up knowing very little about my birth grandmother - not even her name - although I knew that she had been killed in the Holocaust. I call her my birth-grandmother, because my father was adopted.
In the last few years I have learnt that her name was Henny Jenny. She was 33 when my father, Heinz, was born in December 1923.  They lived in Nuremburg, Germany.
Four years later, when she was about 39, her husband Hermann Messinger died of TB (Tubercolosis), leaving her with four young children: Heinz aged 4, Ruth aged 7, Esther aged 9 and Yehuda aged 14. I don't know the precise date of Hermann's death, it could be a year later or a couple of years earlier.

Henny's next door neighbours were Max and Betty Lowenstein. The Lowensteins were wealthy and childless and liked looking after Heinz for his mother. Betty suggested to Henny that she let her adopt Heinz. Perhaps she offered a payment which would help Henny cope, while promising to give the child all the benefits of a wealthy family. In those days, before easily available birth control and fertility treatment, such arrangements were not that unusual.
Both families were Jewish and members of the Nuremburg Orthodox Synagogue. Germany had recently been defeated in the First World War and there was growing anti-Semitism and growing economic chaos.
Henny accepted the offer and moved to Frankfurt with her 3 remaining children (she was born in Frankfurt), leaving Heinz, by then aged 4 or 5, behind.

Heinz Bernard Lowenstein (as my father was now known), grew up without knowing that he was adopted. In 1931, when Heinz was 8 his (new) father, Max Lowenstein, committed suicide.
In 1939, 3 days before the invasion of Poland, Betty managed to send the 15 year old Heinz to Britain but failed to get out of Germany herself (you can read about her eventual escape here).

Heinz didn't find out that he was adopted until after the war, when he was in his 20's. He was contacted by two siblings living in Israel, who told him that his birth-mother and younger sister had been killed in the Holocaust. No one knew exactly how the two dead family members had been killed.

In the 1980's, my father was sent a box of belongings his adoptive mother had left to a friend when she died. The friend had also died and her family now sent Betty Lowenstein's few remaining papers to my father. The box included his adoptive mother's Nazi-issued passport, the text of the speech she gave at her US citizenship ceremony and also two telegrams sent from the birth-mother (Henny Messinger)  to the adopting-mother (Betty Lowenstein) after Betty reached the United States.

In 2004, while unemployed and going through a divorce, I took an MA in History at Royal Holloway (part of the University of London). The supervisor on my dissertation was Professor David Ceserani, one of the witnesses at the famous trial of Holocaust-denier David Irving (documented in the movie "Denial" starring Rachel Weisz). I took a course on the Holocaust and would occasionally look for materials on my family history.

It took me about ten years to reach my birth-grandmother. Her name, I discovered, was Henny Jenny Messinger. In 1955 my father's Israeli brother had filled out a lost relative form in Israel and supplied this photo (the report is available online).

A German government website told me her fate:

Messinger, Henny Jenny

née Westheimer
born on 03rd November 1890 in Frankfurt a. Main / - / Hessen-Nassau
resident of Frankfurt a. Main
from Frankfurt am Main-Berlin
24th/26th September 1942, Raasiku (b. Reval), killing field

Destiny: officially declared dead    
From this small entry, I started to piece together what had happened.  I learned that "Raasiku" is a train station in Estonia. Wikipedia told me that a trainload of 1,000 German Jews was sent to Raasiku at this date and all except a small group were then taken to a nearby seaside spot called Kalevi-Liiva, where they were shot. There was also a picture of the site:

The deportation date on the German website 
(24th/26th September 1942) happened to match the birthday of my daughter Shanny (25th September), and the name Henny Jenny, which I had not known when naming my daughter, was oddly similar. 

In recent years my partner and I have taken holidays in Poland, where my partner's father was born, and I was surprised to find that I liked the country. I feel safer traveling in Poland with my Hebrew-speaking family, than I do in France or Britain. My daughter turns out to look very Polish.  
After my last visit to Poland, I started to consider visiting Estonia to pay my respects at the mass grave. Two weeks later, a news item caught my eye: Holocaust memorials defaced in Estonia. It was accompanied by a picture of the memorials at Kalevi-Liiva, but this time defaced with a swastika:

I have seen images of defaced Jewish memorials over the years, but never imagined it would be related to my family. It motivated me to have another go at searching for my grandmother.

This time I realized that only one transport had gone from Germany to Estonia, which enabled me to trace it. I found more German records and a book with a two page description of the specific transport, based on eye-witness accounts given at a 1960's trial of Estonians who participated in the shooting.

This time I used the two telegrams my birth-grandmother sent to my adoptive grand-mother. The telegram on the right was sent by my birth-grandmother in May 1942.

Hope you are well. What about Heinz? [my father] Ruth [the sister who was 3 years older than my father and whose fate is unknown] left address unknown. I am engaged with dentist Rosengarten 49 years. Marriage permit not granted, because I am stateless. Intimately.

The Nazi state provided no services to Jews, so marriages could not be registered. The name is "Sara Henny" because the Nazis made all Jewish women add "Sara" to their name: Men added "Israel". 
A second telegram was sent four months later, on the 22nd of September 1942:

One last goodbye before leaving. Thanks for all dear. God bless you and Heinz. Marriage on target probably. Seek also Rosengarten. Everything is very happy.

These telegrams are life-affirming: Henny was happy and in love, but she was also concerned enough to send the telegram. She was about to take a transport and people on the earlier transports had vanished into thin air. Her daughter Ruth "address unknown", never sent anything back to her. 

Ruth Messinger with her mother, Henny
Ruth Messinger

The adoptive-grandmother (Betty), sent a reply six months after each telegram. I assume they took six months to reach her in the US, which means that by the time the first telegram arrived, Henny was dead.
Two days after she sent the last telegram, Henny got on RSHA (Reich Main Security Office ) transport DA 406 from Frankfurt's Ostbanhof station. The train departed on the 24th of September 1942 with 237 people guarded by Frankfurt police.
Survivors testified at the 1960's trial, that the passengers were allowed a suitcase and brought food with them. The train was not a cattle truck but some kind of troop train. Historian Anton-Weiss Wendt believes that this was the last transport of Jews to leave Frankfurt, implying that Henny was one of the last Jews remaining in Frankfurt.  

The following relies on material from Murder Without Hatred by Anton Weiss-Wendt (Syracuse 2009).
The train pulled into Berlin's Moabit station on the 26th of September 1942. In Berlin, more carriages were attached with an additional 812 people. This was also the only time the passengers were given water. Members of the Berlin Jewish community handed out soup after which the train was sealed shut. It was now guarded by transport police. Some of the passengers wore several layers of clothing so they could carry more clothes.  Clothes were expensive in those days and the passengers were only allowed a single suitcase. 
There were 108 children aged under 10, 354 men (average age 41) and 895 women. 
Source document 

Some of the passengers suspected they would be killed, but many were optimistic that the destination was resettlement.


The train arrived at Raasiku on the 31st of September (a 1,500 kilometer journey). Nine days after she sent the telegram and a week after leaving Berlin and receiving that last supply of fresh water.
A couple of hundred able-bodied people (mainly men) were "selected" to be slave laborers at a nearby camp called Jägala and the rest were taken in several buses to a ditch that had been dug in preparation. 

The victims were made to undress and then taken in groups of five to be shot.  The train was the second of a group of trains sent to Raasiku over a period of a couple of months for the purpose of mass killing.
After the executions, the killers looted the passenger's belongings. I find it astonishing that the killers were willing to wear the clothes of people they had murdered.

Of the 1049 Jews who were sent in the transport, 26 survived the war, 7 of them from Frankfurt. In 1944 a (Jewish) Sondercommando was sent to dig up the bodies and burn them. By that time it was common knowledge that the Nazis were losing the war, so they were hiding the evidence.

According to the testimony at the trial, most of the killing was done by the Estonian commander Karl Laak. Three other men were named: Jaan Viik, Friedrich Anijalg and Ralf Gerrets. The Soviets put these men on trial because they were the worst of this batch of murderers.  The Germans (including Otto Bovensien, Kurt Venter, Kurt Krause, Heinrich Bergmann and Karl Gehse) "only" gave orders, set up infrastructure and coordinated transportation: They let others do the dirty work. This was a pattern which repeated itself across Europe.  

My grandmother had a small piece of luck: She was not on the first transport. On that one, which came from  Theresiensdadt, the inexperienced Estonian killers made a number of mistakes: The ditches were too small for the number of people murdered, so the bodies piled up above the sides before dirt was thrown on them. Not everyone was completely dead, so there was writhing and moaning in the mass of naked bodies. 
Local people came by later to loot the site and testified (at the 1960's trial) that they found crude homemade whips lying around with bits of skin attached to them. Apparently, the killers took people with gold teeth to one side and extracted their teeth before they killed them; This led to screaming that could be hard in the local villages and was apparently stopped by the Germans who feared that Jews awaiting their "turn" would figure out what was going on.

Of the four Estonian killers who were tried in the 1960's, Karl Laak is said to have done most of the killings, and is most likely to be the man who shot my grandmother. Laak hung himself in Canada soon after the Soviet Union requested his extradition.   
It is astonishing how many of the (non-German) men who shot about 2,000,000 Jews for the Nazi "Einsatzgruppen" ended up in Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. In 2001, the Guardian reported that 400 Nazi war criminals settled in the UK. Each one of those 400 men may have killed hundreds if not thousands of people, personally, using rifles. One man, who lived in Scotland, killed as many as 32,000 people.
It is estimated that 40 migrated to New Zealand, 1,000 to Canada and 850 to Australia.

At some point, I tried googling images of Kalevi-Liiva. This was when I got a shock: The killers had taken photographs and they were available online, on the website of the Ghetto Fighter's Kibbutz (Lochamei HaGetaot). These are not all the photos, which can be viewed at https://infocenters.co.il/gfh/list.asp (search for Kalevii-Liva).
The remaining passengers on the train were all made to undress before they were shot and the killers had taken snapshots.

I quite literally looked into the mass grave that contained my naked grandmother and from the view point of the killers.

Most of those shot were women and it is probably no coincidence that pretty naked women (both dead and alive) are at the center of the few pictures available from this massacre.  The killers may have got a sexual thrill out of what they did and may well have had particular reason to focus on these women: Laak , who led the shootings, was known to keep prisoners for the purpose of rape.

These photos are pornographic.  There are a lot of this type of image online and it seems plausible that ISIS supporters would have been inspired by this material. Searching online turned up a lot of these photos, from a huge variety of different websites and usually giving exact details of the location where the photo was taken.  Mass produced cameras were a relatively recent phenomena in 1942 and this was the first genocide ever properly documented. Perhaps because of that, it is also the best documented genocide ever.

This part was written later: I asked myself, where the photos came from, who took them? 
In 2020 I sent a mail to the Kibbutz archive asking for information. I was told that most were donated in 1964 (perhaps following the trial?) and that the source of the donation was not recorded. 
One photo (taken long after the massacre) was given in 1998 by Benjamin Anolik of Vilna, a survivor of the nearby Klooga concentration camp, who may have donated the other photos and was a former member of the Ghetto Fighter's Kibbutz. He had represented the Kibbutz at various East European Holocaust memorializations. 
Three transports were murdered at Kalevii-Liva, two came from concentration camps, but my grandmother's transport contained mostly of women and came from Germany, so they were probably healthier than those on the other transports. The images suggest a predominance of women, and they don't look like they have been starved over a long period. Laak is said to have murdered at least one sex-slave at the site, so she could be the woman in the photograph.

Sources for the trial of the killers can be found here: https://worddisk.com/wiki/Jaan_Viik/

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