Kurt Herbert never stood a chance. He was born in Westerbork refugee camp at a time when The Netherlands had been occupied by the Germans for just over a year. When Kurt turned one year old in July 1942, the Germans started deportations to the extermination camps. A few months after he had turned three, he was shipped to Theresienstadt, with his parents. One month later, in October 1944, his life came to an end in an Auschwitz gas chamber.
The discovery of Kurt
Kurt and I are of the same generation. Both of us are great-grandsons of Pauline Löwenhardt-Lennhoff, who had twelve children between 1873 and 1892. Had he lived, Kurt would have been 70 years now, just six years older than I. But since his parents and almost all other relatives died in the same gas chambers, Kurt was never remembered. It is as if he never existed.
Less than a year ago I discovered Kurt. Klara Löwenhardt and her husband Ludwig Ikenberg had fled Germany in April 1939, three months after they had married. They found an unwelcome refuge in Holland. For ten months they were separated and had to stay at various addresses. Then in February 1940 they were interned in the refugee camp that the Dutch authorities had built (at the Jewish community’s expense) in an isolated location near the German border. Less than three months later the country was overrun by German forces. On 6 July 1941, Kurt Herbert was born. Three years and three months later all three were dead.
To me, Kurt’s life became a virtual reality. In the Netherlands Red Cross Archives I discovered his personal record card that had been made by the Dutch authorities in the camp just after his birth. It listed his parents and, apparently ‘just in case’, the address of his grandmother in Altenbeken, Germany. Most likely, his grandmother will never have known that Kurt existed. But to me, the record card was tangible proof that one time Kurt had been alive. It was all I had. Against all odds, I searched diaries, reminiscences – but found no trace of Kurt.
What was he like, this boy who had the same age as my grandson has now? He grew up in the transit camp through which almost all Dutch Jews passed on their way to death. He will have heard but not understood the cries of anguish and terror every Monday night when the deportation lists were announced. The nervous whimpering of women preparing bags to take on The Train. He will have seen but not understood the long deportation train that waited patiently for its victims. He will have felt but not understood the silent, numb resignation of the families that boarded the train early on Tuesday morning. Each time it swallowed up to a thousand people, sometimes more. And each time it returned several days later… empty. Kurt never reached an age where he could remember the experiences that would have formed his character. He was murdered even before he reached an age where could ask his parents that simple question: Why….?
What had he been like? I did not expect to find any evidence. I had resigned to the idea that his identity would remain limited to a registration card and two transportation lists. In Philip Mechanicus’s Westerbork diary In Dépot I had read about the children’s playground that had been opened at Westerbork on 31 August 1943, almost four years after the camp came into being. Four seesaws, two horizontal bars and a sandbox. On 9 September two horizontal bars and three high swings had been added. Kurt had had his second birthday two months before – and in my mind’s eye I could see his excitement at this marvellous opportunity to play, together with other children. On 9 September Mechanicus writes ‘Tonight at half ten, a clear moon, children were still playing.’
Discovery of Red Cross correspondence
Then I discovered Friedel, his aunt. Friedel – Friedericka Löwenhardt – had escaped from Germany after Kristallnacht (9-10 November 1938). She was 29 years when she fled, she settled in Northern Ireland, she remained unmarried, she died in London in 1983 and left behind a stack of correspondence notes. When on 21 July 2011 I met Mony, grandson of Friedel’s brother Julius, he showed me the stack of notes, wondering if they would be of any use. All the time, Mony Löwenhardt in Haifa had kept these notes. A quick glance told me that this was the correspondence between two sisters: Friedel in the United Kingdom, and Kurt’s mother Klara in camp Westerbork. Hurray for Friedel! She had done the very least one could do in these dreadful times. By her perseverance she had shown that she had not given up on her sister.
During the war, people could stay in touch with relatives in German-occupied Europe through the services of the Red Cross. The notes I found were 28 Red Cross Message sheets of which both sides were used. On the pre-printed front side, the ‘ENQUIRER/Fragesteller’ outside continental Europe would write a short message to his or her relative in occupied territory. On the back side, the relative could write a short answer. Messages were subject to censorship and had to be limited to 25 words. The greater part of both texts would from sheer necessity be of a ritualistic nature – How are you? We are doing well… But hidden in the text sometimes code words were used, and sometimes real information was passed to the other side. Information of no interest to the censor, but of great interest to me. For here Klara – she consistently signed her messages as Claere or Cläre – in her own handwriting reported about the development of her son Kurtchen, little Kurt. Her first report to her sister, on 11 December 1941 when Kurt is five months old: Kurtchen is developing splendidly, is a great joy (Kurtchen’s Entwicklung praechtig, macht grosse Freude). Claere will never have thought that 70 years later I take great interest in these words.
Kurt standing, walking, speaking, singing...
I can now follow Kurt’s development from age five months to two years and two months. The last message from Claere available to me in which he is mentioned, is dated 23 September 1943, three weeks after the playground is opened. No report on his reactions. But there is a lot to make up for this.
When he is six months, Claere calls her son droll, he laughs and is babbling (drollig, lacht, erzaehlt; 2 January 1942). Two months later he not only prospers and brings a lot of joy, he also says Mama (gedeiht gut. Sagt Mama, macht viel Freude; 13 March 1942). Less than a month later, new developments. Kurtchen sits, tries to stand up (macht sich prächtig, sitzt, macht Stehversuche; 9 April 1942). And when he is almost one year old, on 30 June 1942, Claere reports that he will walk soon (macht sich praechtig, läuft bald). Seventeen days later, Kurtchen’s first birthday has passed, he walks in a droll way (Kurtchen läuft drollig; 17 July 1942). On this day the first cattle train from Westerbork, carrying 1135 Jews, arrived in Auschwitz.
On 10 September when Kurt is one year and two months old, his mother writes that he walks without help (läuft selbständig) and a month later his father confirms that he has been walking since his birthday (läuft seit Geburtstag, 14 October 1942). The ultra-short lines of information, with months in-between, nevertheless confirm that Kurt is developing in a normal way. He is a droll little boy, uttering his first words, sitting, trying to stand upright and making the first attempts at walking – all this at a time one expects him to. In the hopeless misery of their camp existence, he is the sunshine of his parents.
Growing up in a transit camp
It should be mentioned, the many thousands of Jews of Westerbork knew no hunger. There were periods of acute food shortage, the daily diet was basic – a gross exaggeration if compared to normal living conditions of the people driven together in this holding pen – but there was no famine. The camp commander, SS-Obersturmführer Albert Gemmeker, sent some 100,000 Jews to their death and had an interest in maintaining peace and quiet, ‘normal’ living conditions in ‘his’ camp. From Berlin he received his weekly quota of Jews to deport to the East. If some of them were sick he had them treated in the camp hospital, at that time one of the best and biggest in all of Holland. Once they were cured, he would put them on the train to the gas chambers of Auschwitz or Sobibor.
Kurt got respite. Unlike the Dutch-Jewish babies and toddlers he was not sent straight to the gas. His refugee parents belonged to the involuntary camp ‘elite’, the so-called ‘old camp inmates’ (alte Kamp Insassen, a curious mixture of German and Dutch words typical of the doomed Westerbork ‘society’). Westerbork had in 1939 been set up by the Dutch authorities as a refugee camp for German and Austrian Jews. Great numbers of Dutch Jews poured in only from the Summer of 1942 when the camp had been in existence for three years. As a result, by the time it started to function as transit camp for the Jews of Holland, a social order was in place where many if not most of the positions of power and influence (conditional power and influence, of course) were taken by German Jews. The parents of Kurt belonged to this group – but it remains unknown which positions they occupied.
Commander Gemmeker used ‘his’ German Jews to his advantage. In return for their help in maintaining order in the camp they received a stay of execution. Hope was their pay for forced collaboration. Kurt was sent away with his parents and some 2,080 others on the very last deportation train that arrived in Theresienstadt on 6 September 1944.
A real boy, eind rechter Junge...
By that time he had long learned to speak. When he had been eight months old, his mother had reported to her sister that he says mama (sagt Mama, 13 March 1942) and eight months later she had reported that he says grandma, granddad (sagt Oma, Opa, 12 November 1942). Kurt’s own grandparents never were in Westerbork. But there were trainloads of elderly people some of whom he will have spoken to. Soon after, he repeats everything said to him (spricht alles nach, 9 December 1942). A typical development spurt, for on 7 January 1943 Claere proudly writes that he repeats everything said and three weeks later he speaks a lot (spricht viel, 28 January 1943). On 27 February 1943 Kurtchen speaks and sings beautifully (spricht, singt schoen). In a final report on his speech, one year before deportation, his father writes that he likes to speak and sing (spricht, singt gern, 2 September 1943).
His aunt Friedel in Belfast was most likely the only person outside Westerbork camp who knew of Kurt’s existence and who will have followed his development from the short notes her sister was allowed to write. Friedel will have had to imagine the way he looked, for it is unlikely that she ever received a picture… if a picture of Kurt was taken at any time. She will have had to make do with the very, very few words on his demeanour that his parents wrote towards the end of the known correspondence. On 9 July 1943, three days after Kurt’s second birthday, his father wrote that he prefers to play outside (spielt am Liebsten im Freien), a good reason to expect that Kurt will have been thrilled by the opening of the playground two months later. Anyway, for a boy of two there was very little in the way of toys to play with inside barrack 15 where he lived with his parents. The day before, his father wrote that Kurt was a real boy (ein rechter Junge, 8 July 1943).
On 23 September his mother Cläre wrote the last sentence on Kurt:
Kurtchen prospers wonderfully, he is vivacious, a little rascal who croaks like you
(Kurtchen gedeiht prächtig, lebhaft, schelmisches Kerlchen, unkt wie Du).
In this last sentence his mother for the first time links her son to her sister, using the outdated German verb ‘unken’. It is a mysterious turn of speech. It is difficult to say what she was hinting at, if she was implying anything at all. An ‘Unke’ is German for a toad, seen as the bearer of bad news. Can we really impute this meaning into her words? She may simply have meant to say that Kurt loved to tell silly little stories as two year olds do, and as her younger sister did when she was a child. Cläre and Friedel were three years apart.
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Klara (Claere) Ikenberg-Löwenhardt, Sterkrade 12.07.1906 – Auschwitz October 1944
Ludwig Ikenberg, Altenbeken 11.09.1907 – Auschwitz October 1944
Kurt Herbert Ikenberg, Hooghalen 06.07.1941 – Auschwitz October 1944
Friedericka (Friedel) Löwenhardt, Sterkrade 26.07.1909 – London 23.04.1983
The author wishes to thank Raymund Schütz of the Netherlands Red Cross Archives for his help and advice; and Menachem Löwenhardt of Haifa for making available the correspondence between Friedel and Claere.