Now that I was a grandmother myself, it was hard to accept that my maternal grandpa Leib ben Daniel ע"ש had no yahrzeit and no grave, and had simply vanished from the small town of Lyck, East Prussia, in the summer of 1942, without a trace. Although I knew little of him and he had died before I was born, I decided to probe the mystery of his ominous disappearance.
In my birthplace, London, mementos of my mother’s parents were few. A featherbed or two with red ticking, a couple of telegraphic Red Cross messages from the war years, and some old brown photographs, including one of him in Prussian army uniform with his WWI regiment. A 1930’s picture of his boycotted, swastika-festooned storefront later vanished from the family album, but we surmised that the lawyer had used it for a compensation claim.
My hunch was that the Germans were so meticulous in their planning and documentation that information might be available. From my home in Israel I wrote to Magen David Adom headquarters in Tel Aviv, who passed on my request, then five years of silence ensued. When the neatly printed form finally arrived from the German archives via the international Red Cross, I was as awed as if a virtual tombstone had thudded down onto my desk. It stated the following:
“Louis Hammerschmidt born in Woldenberg on 22.11.1874
was committed to Ghetto Theresienstadt by the secret police of Koenigsberg (Transport XIV/1)
on 27 August 1942 and died there on 20 January, 1943, Cause of death not indicated. Category: Jew.”
My theory regarding Teutonic thoroughness was correct; this was an accurate record of grandpa’s final chapter. I even felt some relief when I discovered that Terezin had no gas chambers, but the Nazi terminology - “Category: Jew” – was crude and chilling. It aroused visions of an ornithologist sorting his specimens. (When I checked much earlier documents of my late mother’s, they read: “Religion: Mosaic,” a more dignified appellation). The German data showed that grandpa had survived only 6 months at Theresienstadt. We ascertained that his yarhzeit was probably Tu B’Shvat, the new year for trees, that bitter-sweet juncture of blustery winter with the first pink and white blossoms of spring. There is a hint of regeneration in this story too, as on September 8, 1942, right after the deportation, a second grandchild was born to him in London. It was a girl this time, named Rosa Leah for his late wife who died early in the war years. Grandpa remarried shortly thereafter, not wishing to be alone in those dread times.
The fortress of Theresienstadt was originally built to defend Prague by Maria Theresa. To this Hapsburg empress belongs the dubious distinction of having expelled the Jews of Prague, Bohemia and Moravia in 1774. In June 1942, however, Terezin became part of Heydrich’s plan to exterminate 11 million European Jews. It was the only old age ghetto and initially housed German and Austrian Jews over 65 years, many of them army veterans. The deportations to this ready-made concentration camp began on June 2, 1942, and by September there was peak overcrowding and conditions became unbearable. Lack of water and heat, malnutrition and uncontrolled epidemics were the order of the day. That was just the beginning. In 1943 Czech army guards were replaced by Austrian Nazis and eventually 150,000 men, women and children were sent on to the death camps. Terezin soon became a way station in the destruction of Czech Jewry.
Though the Nazis cited the cause of grandfather’s death as “unknown,” the bitterly cold winter and a deliberately calculated Nazi policy of attrition by cruelty, starvation, disease, and neglect no doubt killed him off at the age of 69. He was, incidentally, a stalwart man, a front line artillery soldier, who had fought against the Russians in the World War I battle of Tannenburg when he was 40 years old.
When we set out on a brief mid-winter vacation to Prague around a year later, I packed 3 candles in my suitcase. 2 were for the first night of Chanukah, which fell on the eve of our return flight to Israel, and the third was a memorial light for my dear unknown grandpa. Prague was lit up brightly for the Christian holiday. The Old Town square was a festive marketplace peddling gifts and trinkets, and there were pony rides for the children. The tinkle of antique harpsichords and the sonorous tones of organs and strings resounded from mirrored antechambers and vaulted concert halls. The boutiques in the narrow alleys near the Charles Bridge and the luxurious stores on the main boulevard displayed a resplendent assortment of goods and handicrafts: gold studded with wine-dark garnets, handmade lace tablecloths, ornate crystal vessels in jewel-bright colors.
Underlying this gay facade, however, lurked a sadder reality. The ghosts of a rich Jewish past hovered in the air. Of the many fine synagogues, only two were still active. Most had faded into “museums of Jewish culture,” where collections of confiscated Judaica were under glass. The Pinkas synagogue was now a memorial chapel, listing all the families from Bohemia and Moravia who had been killed by the Nazis. The time-honored Altneuschul is still in use for daily prayers, its plain facade sunken below the present street level. This outer lack of adornment is remedied by its strikingly impressive interior lined with lustrous dark benches; lofty Gothic arches soar high above the wrought iron rails of the bima, which are ornamented with gleaming brass pomegranates. It is moving to learn that “altneu” is a transliteration of the Hebrew “al t’nai” (on condition), and that its founders erected this small sanctuary as a temporary step on their journey through life, not despairing of a return to Jerusalem.
On the last day of our trip we went to Terezin. Once we left the richly ornamented thresholds and magnificent silhouettes of the old city of Prague with its domes, spires and steeples, we passed poorly constructed apartment buildings, drab monolithic relics of the bygone communist regime, juxtaposed without symmetry. Out in the countryside the road wound through a colorless and curiously lifeless landscape. A layer of hoar frost shrouded the flat expanses around us, enfolding the bare trees and sparse clumps of vegetation in its icy grasp. No wintry ray of sun or minuscule thread of blue broke the gloomy monotony of the sky overhead. Scrutinizing the murky impermeable gray, I remembered my teacher’s comments that outside the land of Israel something of God’s divine presence is obscured. Our small tour group included a guide and a driver. As we discussed our motivation for the trip with our companions, two young women from Brazil, who had lost relatives without a trace in Brest-Litovsk, Poland, hot tears pricked my eyelids. It was hard to retrace grandfather’s last footsteps in a strange land, and painful that he had died for being a Jew.
Near the entrance of the ghetto museum, established in 1991 in the former SS Headquarters at the Terezin complex, was a poignant testimonial: piles of black leather batim - empty tefillin cases - with worn looking straps, heaped together in a glass case. As we filed past the charcoal drawings of gaunt huddled figures, I scanned their faces searching for grandpa. 15,000 children had passed through Theresienstadt and some of their drawings were on display. Plaintively, like impaled butterflies, these tender souls had documented their earlier lives and later imprisonment with colored crayons. The mature prisoners had expressed themselves in short poems and scraps of writing in German. Silently I absorbed their message of overwhelming regret and impending doom.
As we visited a secret synagogue in the complex outside, a small empty room about the size of a garage, I thought again of grandpa. Maybe he had prayed here or joined a minyan in his barracks during the bleak months of his captivity. I translated the rust colored Hebrew inscriptions on its plaster walls for my companions:
“And despite everything, we have not forgotten Your Name. Please do not forget us!…We beseech You, turn aside from your fierce wrath…You are a G-d who is slow to anger…If I forget you, Oh Jerusalem…And may our eyes behold Your return in mercy to Zion.”
Outside our footsteps crunched over the icy terrain and stray flakes of snow glided down and brushed against our cold faces. Numbness seeped through my warm leather gloves. Our guide explained that the crematorium had been built to burn the bodies of dead prisoners only after the death rate in the camp soared to mammoth proportions. Nearby was an orderly, restored graveyard, marked with a large gray stone menorah. Small smooth tablets of stone marked the graves where Jewish prisoners were buried prior to 1944. I was immeasurably thankful that grandpa had found a resting place for his bones. It was time to light the memorial light. We placed the small candle on a sheltered ledge of the closed crematorium, and recited psalms and the customary prayers for the dead. That same evening we lit our hanuka candle in the Habad House of Prague. My husband led the service there, and as he said kaddish, I mouthed the words along with him. It was an apt time both to say kaddish for grandpa and to shed a little light on the darkness.
Though the search for my yekke grandpa had yielded some unexpected results, he remained a shadowy figure, and nobody was still alive to fill me in. Only recently, when I received a copy of the joyous letter below via a brother overseas, did I get a more complete picture. Grandpa’s strong hand had written in German on October 3, 1937, after the announcement of my parents’ engagement in London.
“Dear son-in-law Mendel,
We are so glad to accept you, Grete’s fiance, along with your dear parents, as part of our family, and would like you to reciprocate. Please call us Mama and Papa.
We thank you for your detailed letter and wish you and your dear parents and siblings mazel and brocha too. We are as thrilled as Grete, who is very happy to have found you, and we know that you are the right husband for her, as she herself chose you.
May God only give you both His blessings in all your endeavors.
You can be certain that Grete will be a loving wife to you and a good daughter-in-law to your dear parents, just as she is a good daughter to us.
We have a quiet, modest lifestyle and often get together with other families whose children are also overseas. It’s so interesting for us old folks to hear about their lives abroad. Thank the Lord we are feeling well.
We send you, your parents and family our very best wishes.
Louis and Rosa Hammerschmidt”
These unpretentious words revealed grandpa’s warm personality and sociability, and how he withstood the increasing terror of those threatening years like a good trooper. My grandparents ע"ש were trapped in Nazi Germany with almost no income, and Kristallnacht, dark night of infamy and destruction, lurked just 13 months ahead. Yet there is no hint of gloom here. It took me many years to discover grandpa’s grave, but his values were implicit in my upbringing. Though in my youth I often resisted what I saw as rigidity and inflexibility of attitudes, the message got through to me later on. It is a message of hope, faith and steadfastness - uncomplaining endurance of the pain and of the darkness, and trust in God, with an unwavering focus on His salvation.