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Weissenbergs and Gleiwitz

On 8th August 1938, three members of my family moved home and business from Tost (Toszeg) town square to an apartment in Gleiwitz (Gliwice).

These people were my grandparents Else and Leopold Weissenberg, and my great-grandmother Hermine Bloch.

Over the preceding years they had lived relatively normal lives – for German Jews in the 1930s.

Leopold Weissenberg, 1910
Great-grandmother Hermine Bloch, date unknown
Else Weissenberg, 1930s

What had been happening to German Jews in the 1930s?

From 1933 onwards, hundreds of pieces of anti-Jewish legislation were passed in Germany. To some extent, Jews living in Silesia were protected by the 1922 ‘Geneva Convention on Minority Rights’. However, this convention ended on 15 July 1937, and as soon as its protection was lifted, the weight of these laws descended on Silesian Jews.

From 1937 to 1938, German authorities further increased their persecution of German Jews, who now had to register their property, in addition to further ‘Aryanization’ of Jewish businesses. This so-called Aryanization involved the dismissal of Jewish workers and managers, and the takeover of Jewish-owned businesses by ‘Aryan’ Germans – at very low prices, which were set by National Socialist (‘Nazi’) officials.

In August 1938, it was decreed that by 1 January 1939, Jewish men and women who had first names that were not identifiably ‘Jewish’ had to add Israel and Sara, respectively, to their names.

All Jews were now obliged to carry identity cards that indicated their Jewish heritage. By autumn 1938, all Jewish passports were stamped with an identifying letter ‘J.’


I have no solid information, but assume it is likely that these kinds of issues forced our family out of Tost to Gleiwitz in August 1938.

The family took up residence in an apartment at 10 Wernickestraße, and we know something about their lives and concerns because from this apartment they wrote many letters, some of which form the main part of this exhibition.

Hermine Bloch’s residence card, Gleiwitz. Source: https://cbj.jhi.pl/documents/553931/0/

Hermine Bloch, Gleiwitz residence card, Extracted information from https://cbj.jhi.pl/documents/553931/0/. Image: Clare Weissenberg

Gleiwitz: From 1933 – The Jewish community

In her chapter, The Jewish community of Gleiwitz, 1933–1943, Julia Cartarius draws on documents held at the Jewish Historical Institute in Warsaw: Gmina Gliwice. The following notes draw on her chapter, which draws on Ernst Lustig’s materials in Heidelberg.

………………………………………………………….

In 1933 there were around 1,800 Jews in Gliwice; it was the second largest Jewish community in German Upper Silesia. There was a synagogue and rabbi, a care home for people who were elderly, a kindergarten, two schools, and a number of other welfare institutions. Jews mostly worked in trade, the professions, and in industry, which was typical for this region.

Around 60 percent of Gleiwitz Jews were liberal, 30 percent neo-Orthodox, and 10 percent were not religious. The majority were well assimilated into German life and culture. There were reports of antisemitic incidents in the early 1930s, but mostly Cartarius describes this period as ‘amiable’.

Soon after the National Socialists came to power on 30 January 1933, however, the whole region was affected by the ensuing waves of antisemitic legislation and actions. In Gleiwitz, there was riot in March 1933: members of the Nazi SA physically assaulted some Jewish lawyers, including Justizrat Arthur Kochmann, who was Chair of the Gleiwitz Jewish community. Jews were assaulted in the streets, and they struggled financially as they were removed from jobs and businesses. Jewish shops, doctors, and lawyers were boycotted. The media ran a sustained antisemitic campaign.

As the end date for the Geneva Convention approached, attempts were made to extend it, but these were unsuccessful. The end of the protected status in July 1937 saw acts of violence and harassment in Gleiwitz, as in other Upper Silesian towns. Jewish shops were defaced and synagogue windows smashed. Jewish people and organizations came under sustained assault. The Gleiwitz police chief declared that the spate of assaults was a result of ‘Jewish provocation’.


Gleiwitz: The build-up to World War Two

Further measures against German Jews were introduced in 1938. More assets were seized and the Jewish population was thus further impoverished. Many had anyway been brought close to poverty by earlier measures.

Around 16,000 Polish–Jewish people were deported from Germany in October 1938, with many spending weeks in terrible conditions on the border because the Polish government did not want to let them in.

The remaining German Jews lived in poor conditions, increasingly segregated from the rest of the population. Ilse Chayes, a Jewish resident of Gleiwitz who eventually managed to emigrate, observed: “We wanted to go somewhere. But where was there to go?” (Cartarius, p. 188).

A newspaper announcement: Frau Bloch, moving to Gleiwitz
A newspaper announcement: Frau Bloch, moving to Gleiwitz, August 1938

November 1938

The events of November 1938 were carried out against German Jews. These events are sometimes still called Kristallnacht.

A local Gleiwitz newspaper was one of many to stir up hatred (“The German people would come down heavily upon Juda”) after Polish Jewish teenager Herschel Grynszpan shot a German embassy secretary, Ernst vom Rath, in Paris. His family had been trapped for weeks on the border in awful conditions  able neither to enter Poland nor return to Germany. The shooting was used by the German state as an excuse to unleash the following events against tens of thousands of Jews: similar actions to those described next took place in thousands of cities, towns, and villages across Germany.


  • On 8 November, the head of the Gleiwitz Jewish kindergarten reported to Kochmann that their children had been verbally and physically assaulted, and bags of sand had been thrown through the windows.
  • On 9 and 10 November the local SS fire-bombed the synagogue in the early hours of the morning. Jewish men between the ages of 18 and 60 were arrested and imprisoned in the community house in Kreidel Straße for two days, where they were verbally and physically assaulted. They were then marched to the train station and taken to Buchenwald: at least six Gleiwitz Jewish men are known to have died there.
  • According to Cartarius, there were also deaths among those remaining, as well as life-changing injuries: for example, an ill woman was thrown from her bed to the floor and died of her injuries the next day.
  • Jewish shops and homes were attacked and often destroyed. A non-Jewish former resident of Gleiwitz recalled cycling past Blumenfeld’s photography shop and seeing it smashed in.
  • There was an attempt made to burn down the Gliwice burial hall, but fortunately the guard prevented it.

We don’t know whether Leopold was arrested at this time, but as he was under the age of 60, it must be assumed that he was: in family letters there are references that allude to his having been incarcerated, although the dates are unclear and I have been unable to find records. Else and Leopold’s son Werner, who was at this time teaching at a Jewish school in Frankfurt am Main, was imprisoned for several months in Dachau.

Dachau entry book, 1938
Dachau entry book, 1938 – Werner Weissenberg

After November 1938

After November 1938 the remaining Jewish organisation in Gleiwitz – the Bezirksstelle Oberschlesien – was forced to implement ever-more harsh measures against the Jewish population. What had anyway been a steady stream of Jewish emigration applications increased, until emigration was forbidden in October 1941: by then, the number of Jews in Germany had decreased by around two-thirds since 1933.


The protection afforded by the Geneva Convention until 1937 probably lowered this emigration affect in Upper Silesia, and in any case, few countries were prepared to let in the numbers of Jews who wanted to leave. In addition, there were substantial restrictions against leaving, including huge costs placed on those wanting to go, many of whom were simply unable to afford it. People also had to have an offer of a job, which excluded the young and the elderly, and many women in those days. Often, people would not leave because they could not take their families with them.


Jews who were able to emigrate settled all over the world. As you will see in Else’s letters, our family looked into Shanghai and Bolivia, as well as the USA, for example. Others left for Palestine, which was a popular destination from Silesia, although numbers were strictly limited by the British government. Many Gleiwitz Jews were successful in getting into the USA, as well as into South America: a substantial group of Gleiwitz Jews settled in Sao Paulo, for example. Basically, most went where they had a relative who could vouch for them and offer support, which most emigration destinations required.


A number of Gleiwitz children were saved by the Kindertransport programme, which was established and maintained by Britain’s Jewish population: most of these children’s family members were killed in the ensuing Holocaust.


Why didn’t more Jews just leave?

By the time the worst horrors of National Socialism had begun to be widely understood, Jewish emigration from the German territories was banned – in October 1941.

Until then, the urgency for most families was to get their menfolk out – both because they were at immediate risk of further imprisonment after November 1938, and because if they could leave and find work, they would be able to get other family members out.

In the early years, would many guess at the mass annihilation of women and children, the very sick, and the very old that was to come?

There was no precedent for this in ‘civilised’ Europe.


Of course, many did leave – around 115,000 emigrated. Some left for France or the Netherlands, for example, which was to prove a fatal decision for many. Some others ended up in Shanghai or Australia, and small numbers got into the USA and the UK.


But people were only allowed into most other countries if they had a job arranged, and someone who would guarantee to support them financially until they were established.

Do you know someone who would do that for you?

And for your wife, and your children – and for your parents? And your wife’s parents? Your siblings? Hers? It’s not so simple now, is it?


Once borders have closed …

Who would you try to take with you?
… And who would you have to leave behind?

Can your frail mother outrun a machine gun?
Could you outrun a soldier … with your young children clinging to your hands?

Or would you hope that by doing what you’re told – somehow – you and your elderly father and your teenage daughter will survive?

And if you run on your own, twenty or more others will be tortured and killed in retaliation – your family first.

It’s not just a matter of your own survival.

“Mothers stayed up to prepare the food for the journey with tender care, and washed their children and packed the luggage; and at dawn the barbed wire was full of children’s washing hung out in the wind to dry. Nor did they forget the diapers, the toys, the cushions, and the hundred other small things which children always need.
 
Would you not do the same?

If you and your child were going to be killed tomorrow, would you not give him to eat today?”

Source: Primo Levi, If this is a man, 1947

Letters from Else on attempts to emigrate: Extracts in translation

Gleiwitz, 8th February, 1939
 … she went in your interest from Pontius to Pilate … because your father wanted to load you on a ship to Shanghai, but I didn’t want that. When I mentioned this to Dr Honegbaum – a rep. of the Aid Association – she advised me to write to London to the Chinese authorities about a visa. I wrote to Reha in Berlin about this request and begged her to fetch the visa personally to speed up this arrangement, but Dr Honegbaum advised me to contact London because the visa is free …
Gleiwitz, 27th February 1939
 You don’t seem to be aware of our application to enter Bolivia, which was sent via the Aid Association even before you heard from the camp. I definitely couldn’t come to a decision about Shanghai; that is why Dr Honig. suggested Bolivia and I agreed to finally find an opportunity for you to leave. Finally, we received your affidavit from Arthur Bloch. If I were in your place I could definitely accept that, dear Werner. Johann Heilbronns has gone to Australia, as they are wealthy, so it is possible that their brother will be released and may join you. If they emigrate to the USA, perhaps your friend in Kassel can complete the affidavit …
Gleiwitz, 15th June 1939
 Uncle Jakob will be leaving for Shanghai soon; his brother who is organising the journey from Konigsberg will look after him …
Gleiwitz, 17th August 1939
 Besides, Shanghai is blocked because there is much poverty there. Have you not heard anything about that? …
Gleiwitz, 24th August 1939
 He made half-hearted attempts to emigrate to Columbia where he has an eighteen-year-old son who is a decorator; he is also interested in Shanghai. Both attempts were unsuccessful …

Gleiwitz: World War Two – The Jewish community

September 1939: Germany invades Poland.

The situation for Gleiwitz Jews worsens and assaults increase. Rosh Hashanah celebrations are cancelled in Beuthen (Bytom), and Gleiwitz newspapers churn out articles on Polish and German attacks against Jews, claiming that false accusations are being made:

“[T]he beginning of the war did not bring another state-orchestrated pogrom, but rather a constantly tightening noose of measures and regulations … [by which] Jews were physically exploited, robbed of their last belongings, herded together and finally disposed of” (Cartarius, p.192).

In Gleiwitz, orders were passed through Kochmann and posted on the Jewish community house notice boards. Jews were instructed not to hold conversations on the streets, and were told when shopping, “to behave in a way that avoids giving offence” (Cartarius, p. 192).


Neighbours denounced Jews speaking to non-Jews, shop opening hours were restricted for Jews, and Jews were not allowed into parks or other open spaces. There was a nighttime curfew, and a prohibition against leaving the town without permission from the Gestapo. Jews were not allowed to keep pets, and also had to give up any warm woollen or fur clothing. The wearing of the yellow ‘Jewish star’ was introduced and enforced, and people were gradually re-housed in designated ‘Jewish houses’.


March 1941: a forced labour edict is passed. Jews are separated from non-Jews for hard manual labour. In Gleiwitz this affects around 356 members of the community who are between the ages of 16 and 55. Men are put to work on the roads, with no breaks allowed; if there is no other work available, women are sent to clean the streets.


Gleiwitz: The Jewish community

Restrictions: Shops

“The documents show that the number of shops and their opening hours depended on the local municipality. With a letter to the Wirtschaftsamt … on 28th September, Kochmann protests against the designation of only one shop for the 335 households of the Jewish community of Gleiwitz. He compares this to Hindenburg, where at least four shops were open for Jewish customers and asks to organise the shops and opening hours for Jews according to the true needs of the community. An announcement of 21st October 1941 states, subsequently, that Jews are allowed to use all shops that have so far been selling to Jews and are willing to continue to do so, between the hours of 12 and 12.30 and 4 to 5” (Cartarius, p. 193, n56).

Letter extract from Else to Fräulein Hoffmeister
Gleiwitz, 17th April 1942 
… You will have received my previous letter. I would love to have included a little bouquet. I went into two shops that I was allowed to enter, but between the hours of 12.30 and 1 pm and between 4 and 5 pm. I didn’t have much luck; there isn’t much in this large place, Gleiwitz. I am sorry that my congratulations will be the only ones without flowers …

Restrictions: Housing

‘Judenhäuser’ were used from around 1941 as part of a move to separate Jews from the rest of the community. In Gleiwitz as elsewhere, with no legal protection, Jewish tenants were subject to arbitrary housing decisions. A Mr Goldman was told by the Gestapo to leave his house, or be ‘kicked out into the street’ (Cartarius, p. 195).

By 30 November 1941, all Jews had to have ceased sharing homes with non-Jews. Houses lived in only by Jews were to be sold off by 31 December. Thus, half of the remaining 650 Jews of Gleiwitz had to leave their homes (including our family), and the other half had to make room for them.


Even the burial hall in which you are now reading these notes had to be used for living quarters.


The relocations resulted in cramped, squalid living conditions. Three or more people were often living in one room, and different families were forced to use shared kitchen and washing facilities.

Letter extract from Else
Gleiwitz, October 1940… 
Ten days ago we gave up one of our rooms to the mother of our boarder, that is to say, she is sharing the room with grandmother. Our bedroom is now the larger room with access via the entrance. It involved a large rearrangement…

Deportations begin

These already awful living conditions were not to last much longer.

In May and June 1942 the Jewish community of Gleiwitz was to be deported ‘to the East’, in the language of that dreadful National Socialist euphemism.


The deportations from Gleiwitz began suddenly. Kochmann sent out a letter on 15 May, the first day of deportations, marked ‘very urgent’:

 “Today, 70 members of the community would be deported and … the rest would share their fate during the course of next week … inform the inhabitants of the houses Bahnhofstraße 4, Oberwallstraße 14 and Neuendorferstraße 5 … that they have to be ready for deportation at a certain hour” (Cartarius, p. 195).

In all, there were six deportations from Gleiwitz, during which any remaining property and possessions were removed from the Jews being sent away to their deaths. House keys had to be left behind and other possessions had to be handed in at Gestapo offices. These items were to include typewriters, bicycles, and binoculars, for example.


People were allowed to take a small amount of money and a rucksack of clothing and bedding, but these were anyway confiscated on arrival at Auschwitz before people were sent straight to be gassed.

Letter from Else: extract in translation
Gleiwitz, 14 May 1942
... Today we got the order to present ourselves at the police station on Sunday. I’m certain that our deportation is inevitable. Therefore I am sending you the enclosed. It is better that you should have it than it end up with strangers. In case you don’t receive any more news from me, don’t answer, in case your reply falls into the wrong hands. Please send on my last greetings to my son because it is 99% certain that we won’t see him again. 

To find his address, please contact the representative of the Jewish Congregation in London and inform him that Werner left Frankfurt on June 2nd 1939 for the Kitchener Camp, Richborough, England. 

This letter must not be found in your possession. 

Good health, my dear. May God be with you. He seems to have forgotten us …

Gleiwitz: Deportations to Auschwitz

Kochmann tried to intervene to save particular people, but without success. In the end, he could not even save himself and his family: although he could have left earlier, he chose to stay, in the hope of being able to mitigate against the worst of the Nazi actions.


Even the elderly of Gleiwitz were deported, however, although in some other regions the very old were spared the journey under the age restrictions that were nominally in place for deportations.


Some Jews were picked up off the streets in vans, while others had to go ‘voluntarily’ to the police station on Friedrichstraße. They were held at the police station overnight and deported the next morning.


The cruelty of the deportations was extraordinary. Even very elderly people were dragged from their beds and kicked or thrown to the floor and down flights of stairs.

I must assume that despite having had two strokes and being almost blind, my sweet 88-year-old great-grandmother Hermine was in such a way denied her chance to die in peace at home.

In a short period of six to seven weeks in May and June 1942, the majority of Jews living in Gleiwitz had been deported to their deaths in Auschwitz.

Hermine Bloch (no. 28): Gleiwitz transport list
Source: http://www.statistik-des-holocaust.de/list_ger_sln_43a.html

In a letter dated 6 July 1942, Kochmann wrote, “The community of Gleiwitz, like the neighbouring communities of Beuthen and Hindenburg, has been dissolved” (Cartarius, p. 197). Kochmann himself was deported in 1943 and died of a heart attack on arrival at Auschwitz.

My father’s aunts Hedel and Clara Weissenberg, and uncle Jakob Gruschka, were on the deportations out of Beuthen (Bytom) by June 1942.

My grandfather Leopold died in Hindenburg at the age of 60, from a heart attack, following further imprisonment and ‘a police action’.

Leopold Weissenberg - Gleiwitz synagogue
Leopold Weissenberg – Gleiwitz synagogue, record of death