This is the story of your Aunt Julia – Julchen to you – and Uncle Adolf Löwenhardt from Dortmund-Lindenhorst. They escaped from Germany, but alas, not from their dreadful fate, almost three years before in March 1939 you and your brother boarded a train for England. You were just in time.
An essential part of Jiddishkeit is to tell stories to one’s children, stories about Jewish history and about one’s, and also their, mishpokhe. I have four daughters, and have up to recent days regretted to have never been able to do so. But now I can, and not only to my daughters and grandchildren, but first and foremost to you, the only living relative who has known my grandparents and who can speak about their lives during the years before disaster struck. As a child, you were fond of my grandmother, so you wrote, and I envy you. I never knew her – I was born three years after she was murdered – but always missed her. Or should I say: and always missed her? I grew up in a family of traumatized parents who had lost practically all of their relatives. You will remember that Julia and Adolf had two sons, Heinz (1913) and Werner (1919). Their birth dates were unusually far apart and you will notice why: the First World War intervened. Their father served as a medic in the German army.
Heinz, my father, survived thanks to good people in Almelo, The Netherlands. They provided his fiancée Mimi and him with a hiding place. Werner was saved by his talent in drawing and he managed to stay far from the deportation trains in Westerbork Transit Camp. He was one of the few who witnessed the camp’s liberation in April 1945.
You may remember the Jew-baiting and boycott of Jewish retail stores that started around the time of your 9th birthday, March 1933. It forced Adolf and Julia to sell their butcher store at Lindenhorster Straße 235 at a ‘discount price’ to the Aryan Edmund Rheker. Their neighbours Hermann and Lina Kleeblatt – Hermann was an uncle of Julchen – were forced to sell their grocery store as well. The butcher store sale was effected on 14 August of that year, and Adolf and Julia had to move to Steinplatz 3 in central Dortmund. From April 1934 they lived at Nordstraße 61 and it may well be that you visited them there. Adolf made the most of a miserable job as a ‘meat distributor’ in the city’s slaughterhouse. He was, it was said, ‘the last Jew in the abattoir’ – but he still drove his giant automobile, named the Wanderer. Everything was being done to intimidate and humiliate the Jews of Germany. But my grandfather was a proud man.
His oldest son Heinz had passed his butchers’ apprentice exam in Dortmund in April 1932. But by the bitter summer of 1933 it had become an inescapable truth that he was not to succeed his father in the butcher store. During these years Heinz was moving back and forth between Dortmund and Twente, a region in the eastern part of The Netherlands. After passing his Meisterprüfung as butcher in April 1935, again in Dortmund, he left for The Netherlands for good. Around that time he met a Jewish butcher’s daughter in Almelo, and he started to work in the shop of her father, Arnold de Leeuw. Werner left shortly after – and by the end of 1935 both sons, 22 and 16 years old, had fled the country. There was no future for them in Hitler’s Germany; perhaps there was one in Holland.
Dortmund – Twente, turn of the Century
Julia ten Brink, their mother, had been born to a family of Jewish cattle traders and butchers in the town of Denekamp, a few kilometres from the Netherlands-German border. It was a prosperous agricultural town. By Julia’s birth on 20 May 1890 it had a population of some 3,900 and the small Jewish community had their own synagogue, inaugurated in 1845. Here Juulke as she was then called, grew up with three younger sisters and two younger brothers. For a while her father Isaäk combined three occupations, that of cattle trader, pub-keeper and butcher. They had a fine house with their own small slaughter-house at the Brink square (in the picture: between the trees and the horse-drawn cart). Hence the surname ‘ten Brink’: ‘at the Brink’ (meaning: village green). By the mid-1930s, Denekamp counted no less than four Jewish butchers.
Juulke’s mother had been born a Kleeblatt in Lütgeneder, Germany, and had just moved to Denekamp when Julia was born. On 4 August 1908, just two weeks after Julia had turned 18, Hannchen ten Brink-Kleeblatt sent her oldest daughter to her brother Hermann Kleeblatt in Dortmund, where she was presumably to work as a housemaid. I have not yet been able to fix the date and place of her meeting her later husband Adolf Löwenhardt, but chances are that it was through Hermann Kleeblatt and his wife Lina who ran their grocery store at the terminus of tramline 7 in Dortmund-Lindenhorst. Records show that in the summer of 1912, five months after Adolf Löwenhardt had received his butchers’ Meisterbrief, 22 year old Julia registered in the Denekamp town office for a period of five weeks before returning to Dortmund. I yet have not been able to find records of their marriage, but it seems likely that it was during these summer weeks that it took place. A lady of 83 who has known the Ten Brinks well, tells me that there is no doubt in her mind that it was a Jewish wedding.
Two weeks before the first birthday of her son Heinz, Julchen’s husband Adolf was mobilized for what was to be the First World War. While he was doing his military duty in France, Julia took care of their shop and their son. I regret to have no sources on this period apart from one picture-postcard, sent by Feldpost on 8 March 1915 from Dortmund to ‘Wehrmann Löwenhardt’ in the 1st battalion, 38th Regiment, ‘at the moment in France’. The picture side shows one of Julchen’s younger sisters, Zelma, born in February 1896. She was obviously visiting her sister and little nephew, and for the occasion she had a picture made by a Dortmund photographer, which she sent to her brother-in-law under arms with a somewhat naughty text. At the end there are ‘a thousand greetings and kisses from your wife Julchen’.
Zelma, one of the four Ten Brink sisters, came to play an important role in the lives of Julchen and Adolf once they had finally decided to leave the country. In 1917, two years after her Dortmund visit, Zelma had married Abraham de Leeuw (one more Jewish butcher in my family: Abraham was a nephew of my other grandfather, Arnold de Leeuw). They settled in Enschede, a city not far from Denekamp and Dortmund. There, Abraham and Zelma ran a Jewish – but not kosher – butcher store just outside the city centre. Their customers were workers’ families from the many textile factories that Enschede counted in those days, not a few owned by Jewish ‘textile barons’. A few months ago I was amazed to find in the Enschede city archives that by 1940 the city had eleven Jewish butcher stores of which the proprietor was a De Leeuw – presumably not all of them directly related.
Goor & Enschede, 1936 – 1942
The home of Abraham and Zelma became the anchorage ground for the Löwenhardts from Dortmund. It was there that my father stayed, and Werner as well. But it was not the first place of settlement of Adolf and Julia after they left Germany in the summer of 1936. They first settled in a small town named Goor.
With the business partners Kahn and Stern, fellow Jewish refugees from Germany, Adolf founded the ‘Goor Fat Industry’. In November 1936 the town council agreed to sell the firm a piece of land of 700 square metres at the price of 875 Dutch guilders. Here at the Spechthorstweg they built their factory. Its main business was to turn cattle bones into bonemeal. Alas, the GOVEI (GOorse VEt Industrie) as it was called – Adolf’s son Werner drew its corporate identity logo – did not turn into the success that was hoped for. An established Dutch firm in bonemeal by the name of Meyer, Jewish as well, did not appreciate the competition from these ‘German refugees’ and drove up the price of fresh bones. Within three months Meyer managed to push GOVEI off the marketplace and the partners went out of business.
Adolf and Julia moved from Goor to Enschede in 1938. No doubt they were helped by Zelma and Abraham, and by the city’s well organized Jewish community in which the textile barons played a leading role. Around the time of the German invasion (May 1940) Enschede had a Jewish population of some 1,400, 70 percent of which had Dutch citizenship. The remaining 30 percent were mainly refugees from Germany. In April 1933 the director of the biggest textile firm, Sig (Sigmund) Menko had initiated a Committee for German (read: Jewish) Refugees. Probably with help from the Committee, Adolf and Julia could rent a small house at Berkenkamp 20, a short stroll from Zelma and Abraham’s place. The house was owned by the Jewish baker Woudstra, famous for his matzo’s. Insofar as I know, during these Enschede years, Adolf was unemployed. He was often seen playing cards with Abraham.
‘t Schut Labour Camp, August – October 1942
The German occupation authorities had devised a devilish plan to isolate and then remove the Jews from among the Dutch population, and send them to their extermination camps. They executed it with perfection, making sure that non-Jews would not be effected and that most of them would do little more than shrug their shoulders and look away. The first stage was a series of indiscriminate mass arrests during 1941. These were meant to intimidate. On 15 September, Julia’s brother Julius, a father of two daughters, one of 5 years, the other only eleven months, was picked up in Denekamp for no reason whatsoever. He was one of 105 young men in the Twente region who were transported to the dreaded Mauthausen camp in Austria; were told to write a postcard home saying they were fine; and who had been killed by the time the postcard arrived. On 20 October Julius’ wife and his relatives in Denekamp received notice that he had died in Mauthausen on 10 October. No doubt Julia and Adolf, then living in Enschede, got this dreadful news soon after.
The second stage was the concentration of Jewish men in labour camps. The formal reason was to provide them with work; the hidden agenda was to isolate them from their women and children. Some forty such camps had been hastily constructed all through the country, and the local labour offices ordered Jewish men to report to the camps. Adolf and his son Werner received their summons in August 1942, and travelled to Ede to be incarcerated in the ‘t Schut labour camp. Living conditions were primitive, food was less than basic and they had to do heavy earth-work. Julia stayed behind in Enschede.
At this stage you will ask – as any sane person will – why they walked into the trap. Why they let themselves be herded into a cattle-pen, way-station to the slaughterhouse. At age 58 and with the experience of eight years of nazi persecution, Kristallnacht shortly after they had fled from Dortmund, Julius’ death only a few months before… Adolf could have known, should have known. It is true, the full scale of the nazi plans were beyond imagination for any normal person, Jew or non-Jew. But it was also obvious to anyone who did not shut himself off, that they meant what they preached: the extermination of the Jews. A witness to this comes from Julchen’s home town of Denekamp. Its public school headmaster kept a diary all through the war. Here is what Willem Dingeldein wrote in his diary less than a month after Julius had died in Mauthausen:
‘About the bitter fate of the Jews who have been taken away. The following possibilities are being assumed. 1. Immediate execution. Criminal elements have been selected to shoot them unexpectedly once their interrogation is over and they are being escorted to another room; 2. Tortured to death. 3. Used as guinea pigs to examine the impact of poison gas on the human being; 4. Used as “rabbits” for the production of serums, for example against tetanus.’
Dingeldein was not a Jew and no anti-Semite. He was a decent town teacher, he had taught all Jewish children of Denekamp. I quote the words he wrote in his diary on 8 November 1941 in order to document the expectations that were at that time being whispered among the population. Dingeldein did not mention any gas chamber (He did not know that Julius had probably been gassed in one of the first, experimental gas chambers, at Schloss Hartheim, near Mauthausen). But all of his four ‘scenario’s’ led to death. People were obviously convinced that the Jews would not survive the nazi murderers. So why did Adolf and Werner go?
Westerbork Transit Camp, October 1942 – April 1943
In 1939 the Dutch authorities had established Camp Westerbork in the isolated North-East of the country to house Jewish refugees from Germany and other countries. The original plan to locate the camp further South had been vetoed by Queen Wilhelmina: she did not want a refugee camp close to her palace at Apeldoorn. The first refugees arrived at Westerbork in early October 1939, six months before the German army invaded the country. Conditions in the camp were such that any present-day Dutchman would be deeply ashamed. On 6 July 1941, already under German occupation, Kurt Ikenberg, a grandson of Isidor Löwenhardt, brother of Adolf and of your father Siegmund, was born here.
Westerbork was crucial to the third stage of the German plan to rid Holland from its Jews. It started on 1 July 1942, and the camp was officially renamed Polizeiliches Judendurchgangslager. Two weeks later, the first trains rolled ‘to the East’ – the code word for the extermination camps. Leaving on 15 July, the first transport to Auschwitz carried 1,135 persons. In late September and early October, the Jewish men in the work camps were deported en masse to Westerbork, and their families were duly informed.
With the other men from ‘t Schut, Adolf and Werner arrived in Westerbork on 5 October. Julia came from Enschede four days later. The family was re-united.
Julia had one choice to make: either go into hiding in Enschede or let herself be arrested and sent to Westerbork where she knew she would be re-united with her husband and son. She probably knew that her other son, Heinz, had gone into hiding in Almelo. It is also likely that she knew that her sister Zelma and her family were hiding, or were about to do so. But Julia chose to be with Adolf and Werner.
By the Autumn of 1942 the situation in Enschede was such that Jews who wanted to ‘duck’, could do so. Contrary to the Jewish Council of Amsterdam, that of Enschede, inspired by Sig Menko, actively stimulated Jews to go into hiding. With the help of the underground organisation of Protestant Minister Leen Overduin they matched Jews with non-Jewish families that were willing to hide them, and provided financing and a steady stream of rationing coupons. In Holland as a whole, the percentage of Jews who survived the Holocaust was a shameful 25. In Enschede, as a result, that percentage was 50. Had she decided to ‘duck’, Julia would have stood a fair chance to survive.
There is a wealth of literature on Westerbork… but I know next to nothing about the life of Adolf and Julia during the six months that they lived in the camp. I can only reconstruct what must have been highlights, positive and negative, in their dreary camp existence. Westerbork was a transit camp, a holding pen for Jews and gipsies, with trains arriving and departing day after day.
In doing so, I have to make one assumption. It is that relatives in Westerbork and, later, Theresienstadt, sooner or later bumped into each other.
A month after their own arrival, on 18 November 1942, Julia’s relatives were shipped-in from Denekamp: her 84-year old father Isaäk, her brother Mauritz with wife, son and daughter, and the widow of her brother Julius with her two daughters. Including Kurt Ikenberg and his parents Ludwig and Klara, there were now a total of fourteen relatives in Westerbork camp. But it did not last for long. For most people the ‘throughput period’ in Westerbork was short. Six days later Julia and Adolf had to say good-bye to Julius’ wife and daughters, who were sent to Auschwitz. The youngest daughter, Lida Carla, was only two years old. On 4 December: the same destination for her brother Mauritz, his wife and two young children. And on 11 January 1943 Julia’s father was sent to Auschwitz as well.
When Isaäk ten Brink arrived in Auschwitz-Birkenau, his son Mauritz, his two daughters-in-law and his four grandchildren had already been gassed and burned. Back in Westerbork people were still ‘hoping for the best’: in ‘the East’, that dreadful euphemism, life would be hard, but they would cope. So they made themselves believe…
On 23 February Josef Rosenbaum, the husband of Julia’s sister Rosalie, arrived at Westerbork on a transport from Amsterdam. Rosalie, Josef and their son Walter had also been living in Dortmund. One tiny piece of good news to Julia will have been that she will have learned from Josef that Rosalie and Walter had escaped to the United States in October 1939. Three weeks later, on 17 March, they had to take leave of Josef, who was shipped to Sobibor where he, too, was gassed and burned upon arrival.
On 20 April 1943 it was their turn. Like everybody at Westerbork, late the previous evening Julia and Adolf will have been told that they were to be deported. But they were not shipped to Auschwitz or Sobibor, but to Theresienstadt instead. Their son Werner in the meantime had a position in the camp administration and had been given respite. He saw his parents off, leaving from the centre of the camp on a normal passengers’ train.
This transport XXIV/1 was quite out of the ordinary. It was the first transport to Theresienstadt in what is now the Czech Republic, thought to be an elite camp for privileged Jews. It had a total of 195 Jews, nearly all of them refugees from Germany of which the men had been decorated in the First World War. A transport of war veterans and their families: 101 men, 79 women and 15 children. And… the train did not head East, but went West, to Amsterdam. In Amsterdam the group was shipped to a former theatre where the local Jews were held for transit, the ‘Hollandsche Schouwburg’.
This is what Adolf wrote (in German) on a postcard that 20th of April 1943, a postcard addressed (and indeed, delivered) to Werner in Westerbork. The postcard is now in the archives of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Sciences’ NIOD Institute for War, Holocaust and Genocide Studies in Amsterdam:
‘My dear Werner
You will be astonished. After dealing with formalities in the Schouwburg at around 2PM, all of us were allowed to go free into the city. As you will see from the return address, we are with Uncle Hermann and Aunt Lina. You can imagine the happiness. I went strolling with Uncle Hermann. The trip went well for dear mother and we are in good spirits. Tomorrow at 8AM we have to return to the Schouwburg. Dear Werner, stay in good health and strong, which we will do as well. Farewell and to a happy return. Greetings and kisses, Father.’
And, in a different handwriting, that of Julchen: ‘My dear Werner. You can imagine how happy we were that we are free all afternoon until tomorrow morning 7AM. You can imagine how much there is to tell….’
Adolf and Julia spent the night with their relatives and former neighbours from Dortmund-Lindenhorst, Hermann and Lina Kleeblatt, who in July 1939 had found refuge in Amsterdam at Den Texstraat 39. Their son Walter had been caught and delivered to Westerbork on 8 April; the night of 19-20 April he had learned that he was to leave on a transport to Sobibor on 20 April as well. Adolf and Julia knew.
In the morning of 21 April Adolf and Julia reported to the Hollandsche Schouwburg. One hundred Jews from that building were added to their Theresienstadt bound transport, and at 1:42PM the train left, carrying 295 Jews in seven third class and two second class carriages, one of these reserved for war invalids.
Early that morning, before setting off for the train station, Adolf had written a second postcard to his son Werner:
the last preparations for our great journey are being done….
And when, after 100 kilometres, at 3:45PM the train stopped at Arnhem station just before the German border, he wrote a third:
My dear Werner,
Just now we arrived at Arnhem. We spent wonderful hours in Amsterdam. This morning at 7AM we said farewell to the Kleeblatts, it was not easy. How is dear Walter, did he leave, the poor fellow. The parents do not yet know…
In a few minutes we will leave beautiful Holland. My dear Werner stay in good health and strong, which we will do as well…
The transport of 20 April 1943 to Sobibor, carrying Walter Kleeblatt and 1.165 other Jews, arrived in Sobibor on 23 April. Walter Kleeblatt was reported dead on 23 April 1943.
Theresienstadt Ghetto, April 1943 – October 1944
Transport XXIV/1 arrived at Theresienstadt ghetto on 22 April. After the desolate emptiness of Westerbork camp, it was quite a change of scene. This huge fortress, built in the late 18th Century by the orders of Austrian Emperor Joseph II, was overcrowded with many tens of thousands of prisoners from all over Europe, housed in huge army barracks. Men, women and children were separated. From here, Adolf wrote his last postcard, this one addressed to both sons, Werner and Heinz, and mailed to Werner Löwenhardt, Barrack 37, Camp Westerbork, Post Hooghalen Ost, Holland. As return address, he wrote on the card: Adolf Löwenhardt, Hauptstraße 1, Theresienstadt. The card was dated 16 January 1944:
Dear Werner and Heinz,
We received your last message of 14 October and were very happy to learn good news. Can report that your dear mother and I are doing well so far. We still have the same work. We hope to receive word from you soon again. We would very much like to receive mail from dear Heinz and Mimi as well. All the best from us. Cordial greetings and kisses also for all dear ones, your father. Mother sends warm greetings as well.
By the time they sent this postcard, Adolf and Julia had been in Theresienstadt for nine months and must have met your parents and sister. For Siegmund, Margarete and Ursula Löwenhardt had been in the ‘big fortress’ since July 1942 when they had been delivered on a transport from Dortmund, together with Adolf’s and Siegmund’s brother Hugo and his wife Josefine. Like Westerbork before, Theresienstadt was a place where relatives who had not met for a long time, bumped into each other. Early August 1944, Julia’s sister Zelma arrived with her husband Abraham and sons Maurits (26) and Izaak de Leeuw (23). One month later Ludwig and Klara Ikenberg came, with their three year old son Kurt, who had been born in Westerbork camp. Klara was a daughter of Isidor Löwenhardt, one of the eight brothers of your father.
Adolf and Julia lived the last seventeen months of their lives in the dismal conditions of this ghetto, your parents and sister even longer: two years and three months. All of them witnessed the temporary transformation of the ghetto for the inspection by representatives of the Danish and International Red Cross on 23 June 1944, and the shooting of the propaganda movie later that Summer. Once that was over and done with, conditions returned to ‘normal’. Almost 140,000 people were incarcerated at Theresienstadt, and although it was no extermination camp (just a porch to those camps), one out of four died there. All of our relatives survived… until they were called for their last train.
I am not going to even attempt to describe the last days and hours of my grandparents, your parents and sister, and our other relatives. I might consider doing so but for the fact that I have no other documentary evidence than transport lists. If one wants to know what Theresienstadt and Auschwitz-Birkenau ‘were like’, there is literature written by those who saw, and who survived: Primo Levi, Elie Wiesel, G. L. Durlacher, Ab Caransa, Thomas Buergenthal. I can only list their departures from Theresienstadt, and bow my head:
28 September 1944: Maurits and Izaak de Leeuw to Auschwitz; from there on 10 October to Dachau, where they died late January – early February 1945;
29 September: Ludwig Ikenberg to Auschwitz;
4 October: Klara Ikenberg and her son Kurt to Auschwitz;
6 October: Zelma and Abraham de Leeuw to Auschwitz;
9 October: Adolf and Julia Löwenhardt to Auschwitz (it was my grandfather’s 61st birthday);
21 October: Siegmund, Margarete and Ursula Löwenhardt to Auschwitz.