A Final Reckoning: A Hannover Family's Life and Death in the Shoah

A Final Reckoning: A Hannover Family's Life and Death in the Shoah

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A Final Reckoning: A Hannover Family's Life and Death in the Shoah by Ruth Gutmann

Ruth Herskovits Gutmann’s powerful memoir recounts her life not only as a concentration camp inmate and survivor, but also as a sister and daughter. Born in 1928, Gutmann and her twin sister, Eva, escaped the growing Nazi threat in Germany on a Kindertransport to Holland in 1939. The false expectation of being allowed to immigrate to Cuba as a family led her father, Samuel Herskovits, to bring the twins back to Hannover in 1941. Rather than receive travel visas, however, they, their father, and their stepmother, Mania, were arrested and deported first to Thereisenstadt and then Auschwitz-Birkenau. After their parents were killed, the girls spent the remainder of the war in numerous other camps.

Gutmann’s compelling story captures many facets of the Jewish experience in Nazi Germany. She describes her early life in Hannover as the daughter of a prominent and patriotic member of the Jewish community. Her flight on the Kindertransport offers a vivid, firsthand account of that effort to save the children of Jewish families. Her memories of the camps include coming to the attention of Josef Mengele, who often used twins in human experiments. Gutmann writes with moving clarity and nuance about the complex feelings of survivorship.

Gutmann paints a multifaceted portrait of her father, Samuel. A leader in the Jewish community of Hannover, he was cajoled, coerced, and ultimately forced to communicate with and cooperate with Nazi and public officials. Gutmann uses her own memories as well as years of reflection and academic study to reevaluate his role in their community. A Final Reckoning provides not only insights into Gutmann’s own experience as a child in the midst of the atrocities of the Holocaust, but also a window into the lives of those, like her father, who were forced to carry on and comply with the regime that would ultimately bring about their demise.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780817318093
Publisher: University of Alabama Press
Publication date: 12/15/2013
Series: Judaic Studies Series
Edition description: 1st Edition
Pages: 232
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Ruth Herskovits Gutmann was born in 1928 in Germany. From 1943, she and her twin sister were interned in Thereisenstadt, Auschwitz-Birkenau, and other concentration camps. She was liberated on a transport near Hamburg on May 1, 1945. After her retirement from Columbia University in 1988, she began to study the history of the Second World War and the Holocaust.

Kenneth Waltzer is director of the Jewish Studies program at Michigan State University.

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A Final Reckoning

A Hannover Family's Life and Death in the Shoah



Copyright © 2013 The University of Alabama Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8173-1809-3


Early Years

When I look back, I am never alone. Eva, my twin sister, is always beside me. A big curl on top of her head moves with the song she is singing to herself, and I, sitting on a small stool next to her, rock to its rhythm. She is holding my favorite doll in her arms, and I pull it away from her. She lets out a loud wail. The door opens a crack, and a head with thick chestnut brown hair and dark eyes appears. Grete, our big sister, a tall eleven-year-old, wants to know why we are making so much noise. We have disturbed her in her homework. Drying her hands on her apron, Mother comes in from the kitchen. She, too, looks cross and gives Eva another doll to play with. "You should play together and share your toys," she pleads. Her plea was quite familiar; five-year-olds should really be more sensible! Eva's lower lip trembles, and she begins to cry. I tighten my grip around my doll.

The rain has stopped. Mother has sent Eva and me to play in our backyard. Worms have appeared between the cobblestones. The school bell rings, ending the children's religious instruction. Soon they will come running into the yard to enjoy their release from the classroom. They won't even notice if they step on those worms. I do not like to see them, trampled and squirming on the ground. With a twig I scoop up as many as I can find and carry each one to safety by the fence.

It is evening. Father has come upstairs from his office. The lamp with the green metal shade has been lit and pulled low over the kitchen table. Mother has made some cream of wheat for us and puts a little sugar on each spoonful before feeding us. Grete is doing her homework. Mother hands Father a mug with coffee and milk. He cuts a thick slice of dark bread and dunks it in his coffee. "Have some bread," he urges us. "There is nothing better. It is the staff of life." His head disappears behind the newspaper. When he has finished, he folds his paper and asks Grete about school. He reminds us that it is bedtime. Eva and I beg for a little longer to finish a board game we are playing. Eva is smiling. She is about to win. I am fighting my tears. Father takes us to give us our bath and then carries us, warmly wrapped in large white bath sheets, one in each arm, through the drafty vestibule to our beds. Mother comes in to say good night to us. She brings us two white flannel caps to put on and warns us not to take them off until our hair is dry. With a sigh, she sits down on a chair by our beds. She says a short evening prayer, and word for word, we repeat the Hebrew sounds. She switches off the light and quietly closes the door behind her. I take off my cap. I love to stroke its soft nap as I suck my thumb and drift off to sleep.

What little I know of my parents' past I gathered from snatches of their conversations and the stories they told us. I was still small and had just begun to read when the Nuremberg Laws of 1935 significantly changed life for German Jewry. Our parents returned from casting their vote. They wore large badges imprinted with the word Ja. It was an involuntary agreement with the new government of the Nazis, perhaps the enabling law of 1934. They now seemed frequently preoccupied; they had little time and ease to tell us about their youth.

Samuel Herskovits, whom we, like most German children, called Vati, was born in Felsoszük, one of a cluster of villages in Transylvania, near Klausenburg, now Cluj, and part of Romania. Father's family came from the Szatmar region. They were strictly Orthodox, Chasidic Jews, who were, and probably are to this day, anti-Zionist. This was not a po liti cal conviction but a religious one. In the simplest of terms: Only the Messiah could lead the Jews to Israel.

At that time, Transylvania belonged to the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Felsoszük was a place so small, I needed the help of a librarian to find it on the map. Although Father's birth date was March 3, 1883, his birth certificate reads 1881. In the nineteenth century, Jewish boys were oft en forcibly converted at the time of conscription, so that religious Jews felt doubly threatened by possible military service of their sons. They tried to protect them by predating the boy's birth date in the town's register. This, they hoped, would make him appear frail for his age, and help delay or even prevent his military service.

Samu, as he signed his letters to his mother, was the only surviving child of a farmer and his second, younger wife. The farm had a distillery, and Father boasted of being able to drink large quantities of alcohol without ill effect. He was proud of his wine-making skills and annually produced the raisin wine for Passover. When Father was in a good mood, he showed us how the Chasidim danced around their rabbi at holiday celebrations. Circling around an imaginary center, he would clap his hands above his head, snap his fingers, and chant tunes with a lot of "Oy yoy yoy" in them. It all must have evoked old memories of his childhood. It is only now that I am beginning to get a picture of what were the dimensions of my father's Orthodox Jewish youth. The yeshiva that Father attended was led by the Sofer (Schreiber) family. Surprisingly, its founder was a German Jew (Moyshe Schreiber, 1762–1869) from Frankfurt who gradually moved east. He left many texts that dealt with the proper observation of the laws, but did not publish them as that would have been considered immodest. He was regarded as the founder of ultra-Orthodoxy. Today's Haredim in Jerusalem are said to be guided in their unbending religious way of life by the Sofers' teaching. Remarkably, at the time of World War II, the yeshiva managed to flee Bratislava and continue its work in Jerusalem.

An older half-brother, Akos, went to America around the turn of the century; according to a document of Father's, he may have taken the proceeds of their deceased father's farm with him. Father's half-sister, Millie, and her family, who lived in Romania, were in all likelihood victims of the Nazis. Several cousins who were part of the Herskovits clan and whose names Father recalled for Grete's family tree, we have not tried to account for. Our family name may have been rare in Germany, but it was quite common in Transylvania. Father recalled only one of his grandmothers, and his memory of her was that she, like one of the hens in their barnyard, was blind in one eye. And so grandmother and hen had the same nickname, but what that nickname was has been lost to posterity. Father confessed to us that he had been a very mischievous boy who would climb the nearest tree to escape his strict mother's anger. He was once thrown off a horse that he was trying to ride, and on the way down, his nose was injured by one of the horse's hooves. He had those scars for the rest of his life. In a 1941 document that Father completed when he made his final attempt to emigrate with us to Cuba, he wrote that he lost his father "52 years ago." That would mean that he was either six or eight years old, depending on which birth date was the real one. The family tree, prepared by Grete with Father's help in 1937 or 1938, shows, however, that his father, Moses Herskovits, died in 1895, when Father was officially fourteen. I had always understood that his departure from home to attend the Sofer Yeshiva some distance away in Pressburg (Bratislava) coincided with the loss of his father at around age thirteen. Regrettably, some of the documents I got to see after Hannover opened its main state archives in 2000 clarified less than I had hoped.

Even so, I understand that Father's teenage years were spent at the yeshiva. Before he was twenty-one, he had earned his "Moreno Rav," a rabbinical degree. Indigent yeshiva students like my father had to depend on the local community for their upkeep. Father never forgot how tired he and his friends were of the yellow pea soup they were served day after day by the wives in the kitchens of the charitable Kehilla (community) elders. Eventually they took their revenge: They smeared quantities of cooked peas on the synagogue seats of the husbands of those charitable women. The men's reaction is not recorded.

Orthodox Jews were not just discouraged but actually forbidden by the yeshiva to pursue secular studies. A student curious about the world had to study everything except the scriptures in secret. To pursue secular subjects, according to a classmate of Father's whom Grete met fifty years later in Lon don, Father would climb over the yeshiva's wall, returning by the same route hours later. Precisely what courses he was able to take, or who his teachers were, his former classmate did not know. But he loved mathematics and classical German literature and oft en helped Grete with her studies.

After he earned his rabbinical degree, Father decided that he lacked the wish or conviction to practice the minutiae of his faith. Even less did he want to preach to others how to practice their faith. It is apparent from his letters to our grandmother Cillie that he shielded her, a deeply, even fanatically, religious woman, from knowing these feelings. He decided to go to Germany because he admired what he had managed to learn of German culture. In Hamburg he attended a Handelshochschule (business school). He supported himself by working for a cigar maker called Rosenduft, whose name I recall because we children thought it so hilarious, as were the rhymes talented Grete made with it. In 1909, at the age of twenty-six, Father earned a business degree (Diplom Kaufmann) and found work as a clerk in the office of the Jewish community in Hannover. That Jewish community must have been quite different from those he had known as a youngster. I can only imagine what gifts he had to draw on to understand and find his way in a new environment that had few similarities with his old home.

It was in connection with the stories of Father's youth that we first heard the Latin term numerus clausus, which essentially imposed a quota on the number of Jews to be admitted to a university. While this regulation was first formalized in Hungary after World War I, the problem was not unknown in other places at earlier times. Thus as a Jew, Father seems to have been unable to obtain a proper university education in his homeland, even aside from the religious scruples of his elders, but he had high hopes that his daughters would not be similarly hampered. Thus his final messages sent to Grete in England via the Red Cross in 1942 were good wishes for her impending nursing exams and inquiries about their results. Only the grandchildren he never knew would realize his dream of a freely chosen field of study at a university.

Father never tired of telling us that he got his job because of his excellent penmanship. Persistent and patient practice, he said, had made the difference. His handwriting was certainly both ornate and legible, and when I visited the state archives in Hannover, I instantly picked out the documents he had completed by hand some sixty years earlier.

During World War I, he was drafted into the Austro-Hungarian Empire's army and stationed in the garrison town of Theresienstadt. There, too, he may have worked in an office, for he saw no frontline service. I recall a picture of that time, which has not survived. He was almost unrecognizable: He had grown a beard and was quite emaciated. Since there was no kosher food, he told us, he had lived on little besides bread and apples. Kosher food, unlike some other Jewish laws and rituals, was not something he would ever give up. A quarter of a century later he was to renew his acquaintance with Theresienstadt—and the hunger he had known there earlier.

In November 1920, Father married Helene Kiss. I do not know where or how they met. His mother had remarried just before the start of World War I, and she and her second husband, a watchmaker called Farkas, lived with him in Hannover during those years. She longed to see her son married also and recommended a wife for him. He traveled to Hungary to visit the young woman, who lived in a small village. He was on his way to meet her when she was pointed out to him: His prospective bride was busy drowning a litter of newborn kittens. He decided not even to introduce himself to her. He would make his own choice. When we were told this story, we always wondered how we would have turned out if our mother had been that other woman, a woman who drowned kittens!

Mother, called Nuszi (Nooshi) rather than Helene by her family and Mutti by us, was born in Transylvania also, in a town called Turcz. I cannot imagine that she would have been capable of drowning a kitten. I watched how she reacted to the last, unexpected reflex movements of a carp she had just brought home from the market and unwrapped on the kitchen table. She called Father on the telephone to please come upstairs and help her. He would deliver the coup de grâce; she couldn't do it.

She grew up in Dej, the daughter of a wine dealer who had five daughters and two sons. Her father was a rigidly observant Jew, while her mother, Charlotte, was both tolerant of different views and well educated for a woman reared in the second half of the nineteenth century. We know that our maternal grandmother's maiden name was Hartmann and that she was the younger of two sisters. She was a lovely and musical young woman who played the violin. She must have been proud of her musical talent to pose with her violin in a family photograph. Their father, Franz Hartmann, had been a country lawyer with a wicked sense of humor. Years later, when my husband and I visited our mother's youngest sister in Tel Aviv, she regaled us with stories of the practical jokes our great-grandfather had played: When he saw the peasant girls carry fresh eggs in their aprons to market, he would untie their apron strings with the expected disastrous consequences. But she added reassuringly, he always paid for the damage he caused. His wife, Clara Mendelsohn, adopted young orphaned girls, rearing them until they were to be married and providing them with the customary dowry. One of these little girls stands next to her adoptive mother in that family photograph.

In the early 1920s, after the Jewish Communist Bela Kun's aborted revolution in Hungary, our mother's siblings and parents, fearing an anti-Semitic backlash, left their homeland and went to Palestine. Grandmother Charlotte's only worry, documented in a letter to her faraway children in Hannover, was the fate of her older son, Ludwig. He had completed his medical studies in Hungary and left with them, but he found the climate in Palestine unbearable. He returned to Europe and settled in Prague, where he worked for a pharmaceutical company. Ludwig's return to Central Europe sealed his and his family's fate. Sometime after the Nazi takeover of Czechoslovakia in 1939, Ludwig, his wife, and their two children fled to Hungary, where they succeeded in surviving Hitler's war. Grandmother Charlotte lived long enough to learn of Eva's and my survival but, sadly, also of Ludwig's and his family's death at the hands of the invading Soviet Russians in 1945.

The Jewish Community of Hannover

After Edwin Oppler had completed our beautiful synagogue in 1870, the Jewish community asked the Jewish architect to build a Predigthalle (memorial hall) for the Jewish cemetery and a Gemeindehaus (community house). The latter, a three-story building constructed, like the synagogue, of the yellow-brown glazed brick traditionally used in Lower Saxony, was completed in 1875. Oppler's drawings show that the Jewish community originally intended to use the building as a school, a plan apparently not approved by the city government. The stairwell led to a big backyard, where two small brick buildings housed three toilets each for both school kids and office staff. There was no greenery except for an acacia tree that smelled sweetly when it bloomed. The front entrance of the building had a heavy wooden portal, which was asymmetrically placed. It had a decorative brick arch whose apex touched the window of the school library on the second floor. Here the children of our Jewish community got their religious instruction, and Jewish youth organizations and political clubs held their oft en contentious, noisy meetings later in the afternoons. Father, the Gemeindesekretär (literally: community secretary, but better described as executive secretary), had his office several steps above ground level to the right of the entrance. His and his secretary's desks stood at right angles to the last of four large windows, and the wall behind them contained a safe and built-in, floor-to-ceiling dark brown, polished wooden file cabinets with vertical roll-up doors. Shields of white porcelain labeled the contents of the files. Father and his secretary, Fräulein Arnstein, were always busy; and at the front of the office, with a lamp with a glass shade suspended over his desk, the bookkeeper with the large shiny pate was poring over huge ledgers with columns of numbers. Right inside the entrance a rectangular area, separated by wooden railings, contained a couple of benches and served as a small waiting room. Here the visitors or petitioners could discuss their questions with Father without being overheard or disturbing the office staff. We were not allowed to enter the office unless we had a good excuse, such as having a "painful" wood splinter in a finger. Then Father would get up from his desk, come to us in the waiting area, and swiftly, blowing on the "injured" finger to lessen the pain, remove the culprit. And we would put on our roller skates and return to our play.

Excerpted from A Final Reckoning by RUTH GUTMANN. Copyright © 2013 The University of Alabama Press. Excerpted by permission of THE UNIVERSITY OF ALABAMA PRESS.
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Table of Contents

Foreword Kenneth Waltzer vii

Acknowledgments xi

Time Line xiii

Prologue xv

1 Early Years 1

2 The Nazi Noose Tightens 33

3 Kindertransport to Holland 44

4 Families Bloemkoper and Meijer 56

5 We Are Back in Hannover 64

6 Theresienstadt 95

7 Birkenau 107

8 Reichenbach and Four Other Lagers 126

9 Liberation 137

10 Time to Reflect 149

11 Then and Now 161

Afterword: Primo Levi's Last Book 175

Appendix: Circular for Jewish Community Members Anticipating Deportation 183

Notes 187

References 193

Index 195

Illustrations follow page 84

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