This family was all but obliterated during Word War II by the German National Socialist government.
In this, it was neither unique nor even unusual.
Many families like ours had no members left after the Third Reich had run its course.
Some time after the war, he found a cousin had survived a concentration camp.
The rest of the family were murdered, in one way or another – because of the way others felt about the faith into which my father’s family happened to be born.
Growing up, at best we heard whispered, half-told, half-understood stories: our past was a secret, a source of guilt, of shame, of grief, and an unending source of anguish.
Part of the purpose of this project, then, is to rebuild the story 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 dismissed – for what happened to us is neither our fault, nor our shame.
The purpose of this project is also to provide a link to the present.
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: we are here – we have survived.
An act of remembrance
Even in this digital age, with so many records online – when I set out to work on this project, I couldn’t find a single family birth, marriage or death certificate; I couldn’t find a record of housing; I couldn’t find an account of family businesses.
When I first tried to find out something about my family, many years ago, I had only a hand-drawn tree of family names and birth dates, 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 he died, over two decades ago, he left boxes of paperwork with my mother. I believed most of it concerned the detail of the BEG compensation payments made over the years by the German government. I had vague memories from childhood of the tension surrounding such letters written, and carefully translated back into the German language that he never once spoke in my lifetime.
When my mother died last year, and I started to go through the reams of paperwork left by my dear parents, I realised that there was in fact a vast amount of information here about my father’s pre-England years, as well as many postcards and photographs. And so a picture began to emerge of fuller lives – of university life and parties, of family businesses and gatherings and connections. It wasn’t, after all, simply a story of loss and of absence: something ‘came before’. It was clear that no-one had looked through these files for years, however – probably since my father had died – probably since long before then.
For most of my life I have needed to know something fixed and stable about my family. What little we had heard had come to us from our mother, with strict injunctions never to raise the issue with our father, who was deeply traumatised in ways any second generation family member would surely recognise. More recently, from my own research over the last year or so, I have found that what little we were told when growing up was largely incorrect. I surmise that my poor mother must have been trying to fill my need for information without actually having very much to impart – and so she created stories from what little she knew.
For at least ten years, then, since I have had better access to internet searches, I have gradually tried to discover some – any – solid information. Some years ago, deportation information became available, then disappeared offline again: that was the first time I found my grandmother’s name – or so I thought. I now believe it was the wrong Else Weissenberg – a different date of birth. I then saw that some data from Auschwitz had been released online, but I could never find a mention of family members. I tried using the old Babel Fish website to translate letters, paragraphs, even sentences from my dad’s documents, but the auto-translation available then was poor, and I made little progress.
I kept on searching, but over the years it seemed clear that for families like ours the records that demonstrated life had been destroyed; only records of death remained – and it seemed likely that there were few of those.
For us, it was as though our family members had never existed. Who do we mourn when mourning is required, yet no personal information can be found? Were do we go to seek solace and to pay our respects, where respects were never paid?
In such records as I could find pertaining to 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 – and more are becoming available every month.
So the purpose of this project, in part, was also to make a final attempt to re-build our family’s lives – to give names and faces to the numbers that to date have demarcated the deaths of our family members.
From numbers to names: in remembrance.
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 get lost in the past and to see in those events an ending – some kind of culmination.
The act of defiance is to say, ‘Yet, we are here today.’
Someone survived, and from that someone came others.
We are not obliterated.
Some have gone on to do good, ordinary, everyday things; and some have had, or may yet have, moments of greatness, driven by a sense that we must have survived for something.
From the numbers who died have come numbers who have survived, and who will continue to do so much more than just survive, as we always have.
In our children’s very existence, there is defiance.
From numbers to names: in defiance.
The Jewish Quarter, Pezenas 2013
Jewish ghetto, Pezenas, southwestern France.
The first thing we noticed on arrival in (otherwise picturesque) Pezenas, while looking for a holiday house, was a series of freshly daubed swastikas on a wall. Somehow, it seems, this never quite goes away …
*We have found our home
During long hours of research over many years, Primo Levi’s work has provided illumination, as it must have done for countless readers.
The subtitle of this page comes from some words in one of Levi’s poems, which can be found at the start of The Truce, now published in the UK as 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