Above, Jewish Community Gazette, 1 September 1938
I began this project to tell the history of my father’s family.
This family was all but obliterated during the Second Word War by the decisions and actions of the German National Socialist government.
In this, it was neither unique nor even unusual.
Above, Tost – “Frau Bloch nach Gleiwitz”
Many families like ours had few members left after the Nazi state (the ‘Third Reich’) had run its course…
Above, Duisberg archives, September 2017
My father (Werner) survived incarceration in Dachau.
Some time after the war, he heard that a cousin (Margot) had survived imprisonment in Theresienstadt.
Decades after Werner’s death, I discovered that another cousin had somehow survived, unbeknownst to Werner and Margot. She killed herself in Münich in the 1960s.
The rest of the family were killed – in one way or another – because of the way others felt about the faith into which my father’s family happened to be born.
Above, Memorial to the Jews of Bytom, murdered in the Holocaust
Growing up in Britain in the 1960s and ’70s, at best we heard whispered, half-told, half-understood stories. The past was a secret, a source of guilt, of shame, of grief, and trauma.
Part of the purpose of this project, then, is to rebuild the history of this family’s past – with love and with pride.
Our past will be brought out into the open, into the air, and into the light – where (family) trees grow best.
And the guilt and the shame are hereby rejected – for what happened to us is neither our fault, nor our shame.
The purpose of this work is also to provide a link to the present…
Above, gravestone, Albert and Bettina Weissenberg, Bytom Jewish cemetery, Poland, December 2016
My father Werner survived; his cousin Margot survived.
They both had children. I am one of those children.
I have children; my brother has children; my father’s cousin’s daughter has children.
In some ways, then, this project is an act of remembrance. And in some ways, it is a declaration of defiance: the second generation is here to find – and to share – our history.
An act of remembrance
When I first tried to discover something about my father’s family, many years ago, I had only a hand-drawn tree of family names and dates of birth. It was formed in my own childish script, from information imparted by my father one rare afternoon when he felt like talking about his family and the pre-war years.
When Werner died, around three decades ago, he left an old trunk, a suitcase, and boxes of paperwork, which I managed to persuade my mother to keep. I couldn’t have explained ‘why’, even to myself.
I believed most of it concerned the BEG reparations payments made over the years by the German government. I had vague memories from childhood of the tension surrounding these letters – written in the German language that my father seldom spoke in my lifetime.
Above, Pszczyny magazine, article 3 in a series on the Weissenberg family by Dr Slawomir Pastuszka, 2016
When I finally began work on what eventually became this digital record, even then I couldn’t find so much as an online family birth, marriage, or death certificate. I couldn’t find a record of housing. I couldn’t find an account of family businesses. It was as though my family had never existed. Obliterated from life, it felt as though their obliteration even in the records was so complete that it could not be borne.
When my mother died in 2014 I started to go through the paperwork left by my parents…
Above, BEG paperwork, August 1956. Source: Werner Weissenberg, pers. archive
I realised that there was in fact a vast amount of information in the trunk, and the suitcase, and the files – about Werner’s pre-England years, as well as a number of postcards and photographs.
This wasn’t, after all, just a story of loss and of absence: something ‘came before’.
A card from ‘The Aunts‘, 1937 – ‘Joyful Pentecost’. Source: Werner Weissenberg, pers. archive
It was clear that no-one had looked through this paperwork for years: probably not since Werner had died; probably not since long before then.
Throughout my life I have needed to know something fixed and stable about this half of my family. What little we had heard had come to us from my mother, with strict injunctions not to raise the issue with my father, who was deeply traumatised in ways any second generation family member would surely recognise. More recently, from research over the last few years, I have found that what we were told while growing up was largely incorrect. I surmise that my mother must have been trying to fill a need for information without actually having very much to impart.
And so she created stories from what little she knew.
For at least the last fifteen years then, since I have had better access to internet search facilities, I have gradually tried to discover some – any – solid information.
Initially, I saw some data from Auschwitz had been released online, but I could never find a reference to my family members. I tried using the old online Babel Fish resource to translate letters, paragraphs, even sentences from Werner’s documents, but the auto-translation available at the time was poor, and I made little progress.
I kept searching, but over the years it seemed to be the case that for families like mine the records that demonstrated life had been destroyed.
At best, only records of death remained.
And it seemed likely that there were few of those.
Had our family vanished without even a documentary trace?
Else Weissenberg, “probably deported to Auschwitz”. Source, Arolsen Archives
Whom do we mourn,
When mourning feels required?
We did not know these people
Who nevertheless shadowed our lives from birth.
And yet – we look like them.
And we have been a reminder of them
To those who survived and endured.
When no information can be found,
How can we understand who we are,
And feel in our foundations the solidity of the everyday?
Where do we pay our respects
To complete life’s circle,
When respects could not be paid at the time,
And among these means of death?
Loving mourning was never theirs, or ours.
Bleak grief remains
For those we never knew.
Else Weissenberg and granddaughter. Source: C Weissenberg, pers. archive
In such records as I located about other families, I saw that on the whole in this context a name is given, and a date, and place of death, before which there is only a space where a life should be.
And finally, today, we have better access to the millions of records that are now available online or in person. And more are becoming available every month.
So the purpose of this project is also to make an attempt to re-build a sense of my family’s lives – to give names and faces to the numbers that to date have demarcated their deaths.
An act of defiance
Sometimes, despite the intervening years, we feel only catastrophe and loss – even among generations who never knew those who died.
Looking back, it is too easy to lose oneself in the past, and to see in those events only the horror of an ending – some kind of culmination.
If it was me, instead of my grandmother, I wouldn’t want to be remembered for the means of my death: not only for that horror.
I would want to be remembered as a daughter, as a wife, as a friend: as the secretary I now know Else once was, eating strawberries and cream with a friend in the sunshine of Osnabrück …
To research and to learn something of grandmother Else’s life is an act of defiance against her obliteration.
Above, a photograph of Else kept in Werner’s wallet. Source: Werner Weissenberg, pers. archive
*We have found our home
The title of this page comes from one of Primo Levi’s poems. In the UK it is published at the start of The Truce – part two of his seminal text, If This is a Man.
Dreams used to come in the brutal nights,
Dreams crowding and violent
Dreamt with body and soul,
Of going home, or eating, of telling our story.
Until, quickly and quietly, came
The dawn reveille:
And the heart cracked in the breast.
Now we have found our home again,
Our hunger is quenched,
All the stories have been told.
It is time. Soon we shall hear again
The alien command:
11 January 1946
In The Truce: A survivor’s journey home from Auschwitz
Suffolk, UK: Sphere Books 1987