Wednesday, April 14, 2021

Carl, Thomas, and I are featured guests for the Third International Day of Provenance Research, 2021!

Dearest grandchildren,

A few weeks ago, I was interviewed for the International Day of Provenance Research which highlights the social and academic relevance of provenance research on an international scale. In that interview, I spoke about your great-grandfather, Thomas (my father) and your great-great grandfather, Carl (my grandfather), whose art collection is still quite relevant today.

The article( in German), along with the audio file of my interview (in English) can be found HERE:

https://www.lenbachhaus.de/blog/erinnerung-leben-der-kunstsammler-carl-heumann-und-seine-familie-heute

Here is an English translation (with thanks to Google Translate and apologies to my mother, your great-Omi, who was a dedicated German teacher and is turning in her grave; she would have asked me to translate it myself! Apologies, too, for the bizarre formatting – attempting to fix it just made it all worse!):

 

LIVING MEMORY - The art collector Carl Heumann and his family today. A conversation with Carl’s granddaughter, Carol Heumann Snider

Several German museums are currently researching the art collector Carl Heumann (1886–1945), who created an important collection of German and Austrian art from the 18th and 19th centuries with a focus on Romanticism in the 1920s and 1930s. Because of his Jewish origins, he was persecuted under the National Socialist regime. In recognition of the fate of his persecution, the Kupferstich-Kabinett of the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden, the Stiftung Preußischer Kulturbesitz in Berlin and the Städtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus und Kunstbau München turned to the descendants of Carl Heumann to jointly find a just and fair solution regarding the Find works of art from his collection.

In a conversation on the "Day of Provenance Research" on April 14, 2021 with provenance researchers Dr. Katja Lindenau (Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden) and Melanie Wittchow (Lenbachhaus) Carol Heumann Snider, the granddaughter of the art collector Carl Heumann, discusses her grandfather and her father Thomas Heumann. She describes how she preserves the stories of the two of them and their memories for their children and grandchildren. She gives a deep insight into the life of her family and shows how the fate of both ancestors affects all family members to this day and what possible restitutions mean to them.

The interview was conducted in English on March 19, 2021, the 135th birthday of Carl Heumann, recorded and reproduced here in written form in German. You can listen to the original interview here:

(Go to original link, above, and click on the audio file.)

Melanie Wittchow (MW): Hello and welcome to our conversation "Living memories: The art collector Carl Heumann and his family today.” My name is Melanie Wittchow. I am a provenance researcher at the Lenbachhaus in Munich.

Since 2019, we have recognized Provenance Research Day on the second Wednesday in April. This year we are also celebrating »1700 years of Jewish life in Germany«. On this occasion, we would like to talk about how provenance research helps keep memories alive.

We warmly welcome Carol Heumann Snider to this interview. She is the granddaughter of the art collector Carl Heumann from Chemnitz, Germany. We want to talk about him and his family today. Carol, thank you for joining us from Gig Harbor, Washington, USA. It's so nice to have you here today!

A warm welcome also to Katja Lindenau. She is a provenance researcher at the Kupferstich-Kabinett of the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden. I am very pleased that you are here today for our conversation about the art collector Carl Heumann.

More than two years ago, the museum in Dresden, together with the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation and the Hamburger Kunsthalle, called on those museums whose holdings include objects from the Carl Heumann art collection to recognize the fate of the art collector and his family and to work with the heirs of the family to get in touch. The aim is to find just and fair solutions with them regarding the works of art from the Carl Heumann collection.

Katja, you are one of the researchers in Germany who initiated this. Can you explain how and why it came about?

 

Zoom screenshot

(The participants in the conversation on March 19, 2021 clockwise from top left to bottom right: Robin Knapp (technical support), Dr. Katja Lindenau (SKD), Carol Heumann Snider (granddaughter of Carl Heumann), Melanie Wittchow (Lenbachhaus)

Katja Lindenau (KL): With pleasure. In my work as a provenance researcher, I check the holdings of our museum for unlawful acquisition. One focus is on the years 1933 to 1945, when the National Socialists were in power in Germany and many works of art changed hands during this time. Much of it has been confiscated by the authorities or the owners have been forced to sell them. A few years ago, colleagues from other museums in Germany and Austria made me aware of the collection of the art collector and patron Carl Heumann.

While looking through our collection, I found two watercolor drawings by the Austrian artist Peter Fendi and an oil-on-paper drawing by Jakob Gensler showing a girl with a parrot. All three works were bought in 1944 by the art dealer C.G. Acquired Boerner in Leipzig. Bit by bit, I tried to find out more about the fate of the previous owner and how these works of art disappeared from his collection. In the end, we knew that Carl Heumann had not voluntarily sold these works, due to his Jewish origins, and we began to contact other museums and the heirs of Carl Heumann.

Restituted art1

MW: That's how Katja and I came into contact, and I was able to find out that the Lenbachhaus had also acquired a work of art from Carl Heumann's private collection, namely the drawing "Fischerweide" by the artist Albert Emil Kirchner.

Kirchner

Albert Emil Kirchner, Fischerweide, 1854, pencil drawing, washed, 30.5 x 28.7 cm, Städtische Galerie im Lenbachhaus and Kunstbau Munich

KL: Carol, we spent months trying to put Carl Heumann's biography together. How and when did you find out about the fate of your grandfather Carl Heumann and your father Thomas Heumann? Did you talk about it in your family?

Carol Heumann Snider (CHS): When I was a child, we talked about my father's childhood. Since it was such a traumatic childhood, I think my father tried to protect us from the trauma he experienced himself. Paintings and watercolors hung on our walls. We knew where they came from. We knew that they came from his father, whom we of course never met. But we didn't know what my father was feeling and thought we just knew that they were from his homeland. Briefly about the background: It was obvious that my parents were immigrants. I knew my father was talking about a suitcase that he had with him when he came to the United States on the ship.

When we talked about his childhood it was mostly in situations where he couldn't escape us, and by that I mean, we were sitting in the car going to Lake Tahoe, for example, which was a four hour drive. We asked him to tell us stories. And he told us these charming stories, like when he and his brother nearly blew up the garage because they had misused their chemistry kit. Or how her little sister took a nap and they took a gingerbread cookie out of the oven and they said, "Oh, we burned your doll." I mean really funny little stories like these that every sibling does would tell.

But he never said, "I went and found my father's body and dug his grave."

These were things that we didn't find out until much later. It only started when I was going to college and my father suddenly felt the need to tell us more. He began to write his first book The Longest Year in the Young Life of Peter Bauer. I think it was easier for him to talk about his trauma in the third person and give himself a pseudonym so as not to have to use the pronoun "I.”.

Most of my childhood he just wanted to protect us. But that changed later.

Thomas and his kids

Thomas Heumann with his four children, Carol Heumann Snider in the middle, 2008, photo: Ulli Heumann Hanley

MW: Can you tell us when and how you first found out that works of art from your grandfather's collection are in Austrian and German museums? How did the collaboration with the provenance researchers develop?

Maybe you can tell us a little bit about Julia Eßl's visit to the USA in 2014?

CSH: Yes, it was a very special day. I think it was January 22nd, 2014. I won't forget it. I woke up, checked my e-mail, and there was a message from a woman named Julia Eßl.She said she was a provenance researcher in Austria and she thinks she had found some works from my grandfather's collection, and asked if I would be willing to speak to her. It was very exciting for me because I had never met my grandfather and only heard stories about him. And now here was someone who seemed to know something about him. So, as a granddaughter interested in her family history, I picked it up straight away.

This was also preceded by a meeting that my father had organized for our family, at which he came into contact with his children, his nieces, his nephews and of course his sister Ulli, who lives in California. He wanted us all to come together because he wanted to leave us things from his past, as he put it "with warm hands,” before he dies.

Thomas Ulli and fams

(Thomas Heumann (left outside) with his sister Ulli (3rd from left) and her family, February 2017, Photo: Claudia Bilbao (Ulli's daughter)

CHS: Among them were some official documents such as my grandfather's Jewish “ID card” and his identity card with the “J” on it. Or a document that said he had been persecuted and that he had been in a labor camp.

He passed all these things on to his family members. It was just amazing to me, it really touched me, and I wanted to know who this person was.

So that was before Julia's email. When this email came my family was planning a trip to Germany and Austria. All six of us - we have four children.

And I said to Julia that we would be in Austria in a few months and asked if we could meet.

The most important thing that stuck in my memory when I met Julia Eßl in the Albertina in Vienna was that she took me to her office and there were three or four very wide binders on a bookshelf with "Carl Heumann" on the spine.

My first thought was, "How is it possible that someone, whom I don't know, knows my grandfather so well that entire binders can be filled with information about him?"

That just aroused the curiosity and excitement regarding my grandfather between Julia and me. We got along really well and became fast friends. After our visit in Vienna, she wrote to me and asked: “What do you think about a visit from me? And that was just the beginning of an absolutely wonderful time.”

When Julia first contacted me and said she had the opportunity to come to America, my father blocked it. But then he gave in and said, "Okay, well, I'll talk to her."

Julia came and spent three or four days with my father. They were best friends. My father couldn't show her enough things. He found a document here and another document there, they spoke German and they became dear, dear friends. When it was time for her to leave there were tears everywhere, including my father. So it was a 180 degree turn.

KL: Thank you, Carol, for this lively report on Julia Eßl's visit and the relationship between Julia and you and your father. We are both very grateful to Julia Eßl in Vienna and Hanna Strzoda in Berlin, who did a lot of research and thankfully shared their findings with us.

At the moment, three museums in Berlin, Dresden and Munich want to return works of art in the near future. Carol, you are the representative of the heirs. That means you speak for all the rightful heirs of your grandfather and regulate the communication between the members of your family and the museums regarding the restitution process. Can you tell us a little bit about what it means for your family to get back the works of art that were confiscated from your grandfather 80 years ago through persecution? We are particularly interested in what the younger generation thinks about it.

CHS: That's a really good question. In fact, as a family, we are grappling with this issue. First of all, the fact that part of the art is being restituted means everything to us because of our connection to our grandfather. This is a man we have never known, but whom we have heard of all our lives. My father spoke of him with great reverence and instilled that in us too, so we knew Carl was a wonderful man. We were sad that we didn't get to know him. This little thread of a connection from Carl to his grandchildren, to his great-grandchildren, means everything to us.

Restitution is a strange thing because it has this very strong emotional aspect. Then there is this logistical aspect. There may also be a financial aspect that we don't want to emphasize at all. But it always finds a way in.

I was the executor of my father's estate, which means that after his death, I took care of everything related to his estate. So I became the main point of contact. I brought his direct descendants, that is six people in the direct line, together. That's a very manageable amount of people to work with. But if you add the next generation, with all of our children, that number goes up to 23. So we kept it pretty small and made decisions together. We met digitally last year, but before that we visited each other.

 Thomas with grandchildren

(Thomas Heumann with Carol Heumann Snider's four children, 2012, photo: Carol Snider Heumann)

CHS: About two weeks ago my 30-year-old son came to visit. He is very interested in history and speaks fluent German. He asked how everything was going and I said, “Well, there are some pieces that are being returned to us and we'd like some of them because we'd like to see them on our walls. We would like to see others stay in Germany so that they can be appreciated by the people there. And maybe we want to sell one or two of them. We do not know yet."

My son, who is a very strong personality, replied, “Mom, I would like to be asked to come to the table when these things are discussed. I am also a heir to Carl. He's important to me too, and I think I'm speaking for my cousins ​​when I say please don't make any decisions without us. "

Right now our challenge is how to deal with this issue. How can we respect the opinion of our adult children without turning it into a crazy situation? Perhaps we will talk to our children each time, get their opinion, and come back with a general opinion for our family. It's really important for us to include everyone, but it's not easy. This is where we are right now.

MW: Let's go back to your two blogs that you mentioned earlier. I always love it when someone says it's important to keep memories alive. But you're not just saying that, you're living this idea.

In your two blogs "Northwestladybug" and "Letters from Omi" you tell the story of your grandfather and your father. I especially like your blog Letters from Omi because I love the idea that the blog is aimed at your grandchildren. Each contribution begins with "Dear Grandchildren" and then you tell about family members who, of course, have never met them. This is a great thing to keep memories for the future.

Let's go back to the past one more time. Your grandfather, Carl Heumann was born on March 19, 1886 in Cologne to Jewish parents. He converted to Protestantism in 1917 when he met and married your grandmother,Irmgard, who was a Protestant. Nevertheless, Carl Heumann was regarded by the Nazis as a ”full Jew.” At first he was protected by his so-called privileged mixed marriage, but in 1938 he lost his job in his own bank, he had to pay the "Jewish property tax," and was not allowed to manage his own financial affairs. In short, he was persecuted by the National Socialist system. After the death of his wife  in January 1944, he was even more vulnerable. Tragically, he was killed in the bomb attack on Chemnitz on March 5, 1945.

Heumanns c 1938

(Carl Heumann (middle) with his wife Irmgard and the children Thomas (left outside), Ulli (middle) and Rainer (right outside) in the Reichsstraße in Chemnitz, around 1940, anonym)

MW: Your father, Thomas Heumann, survived the Second World War. He left Germany in 1953 and went to the USA. He was also persecuted under National Socialism because of his status as a “Mischling, a so-called half-Jew.

Many Jewish people do not consider themselves religious, but define themselves by their Jewish origin. Can you tell us what role your Jewish origins played in your father's life? Are there any Jewish traditions or rituals that have been kept alive in your family to this day?

CHS: To be honest, I wish they existed. It's kind of strange for me to be the descendant of someone for whom his Jewish heritage played such a tragic role. It didn't kill him directly, but in some ways everything changed for my grandfather because of his Judaism.

When I was a child, I wanted to have a menorah for Christmas. We had one, but there was nothing behind it. Perhaps my father could have made some of the Jewish heritage his own. I think he could have done more research on his Jewish heritage and shared some of it with his children. But maybe I'm too hard on my dad because I think he had a great trauma and I think when he came to the US he wanted to leave it all behind. So the short answer is no. We celebrated Christmas on Christmas Eve. We never really celebrated anything related to Jewish heritage.

MW: Thank you Carol for giving us these insights into your family history. That’s so valuable. In our work as provenance researchers, it is wonderful to come into contact with the families and the heirs of the works of art. It is such a pleasant working relationship with you and your family. Thank you very much.

CHS: Thank you very much too! I really like working with both of you and everyone who has contacted us. If we can travel again, we would like to come to Germany, and it would be wonderful to meet everyone in person.

MW / KL: Yes, we'd love that too.

KL: I would also like to thank you, Carol, for your continued support in this very long process of research and restitution.

Through the posts in your blog, we got to know you and your family very well and also learned a lot more about Carl Heumann. But as I said, without the support of the other provenance researchers we would not have come this far, so once again a big thank you to the others who have supported us.

CHS: Yes, also from me. You have all been absolutely wonderful and some friendships have formed.

I would like to tell about another friendship. There was a man named Waldemar Ballerstedt in Chemnitz, who we think could have been a protector of my grandfather. You can read about it on my blog.

His grandson's wife just emailed me - I recently had an operation and she wrote to me, "Carol, we're thinking of you, get well."

So two or three generations later, there is a friendship between the descendants of a Nazi, who may have been my grandfather's protectorate, and the descendants of a persecuted German Jew.

It's just so heartwarming to me that we can forgive, forget and move on.

MW: Yes, that's great to hear. Really very touching.

KL: Nice! Is there anything else you would like to tell us?

CHS: I would like to tell you one more story.

I have a grandson, Leo, who is almost two years old. When he was very young, we showed him the picture of Sophia, a painting by Joseph Hauber from my grandfather's collection that had hung in my childhood home, and then in my parents’ houses, until my father’s death in 2017.

Leo and Sophia

(Leo, the great-great-grandson of Carl Heumann in front of the painting "Sophia" from the Carl Heumann Collection, Chemnitz, 2021, photo: Carol Heumann Snider)

CHS: Leo looked at the picture and waved when he was just eight months old. It then became a tradition that when he slept in our house and woke up in the morning, the first thing he wanted to do was to say good morning to Sophia. And in the evening he insisted on saying good night to Sophia.

When Leo comes to visit now, the first thing he does is go to Sophia to say hello. To me, it's just the essence of everything we try to do to keep Carl's memory and story alive for future generations. Just seeing Leo look up while Sophia looks down at him - there is just this love bond that I can't explain. But the first few times it happened, I teared up. In my will, I will state that my grandson Leo gets the picture of Sophia so that he can have it on his walls when he grows up.

MW: Thank you for this wonderful story.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Thursday, February 25, 2021

Of endings (war) – and beginnings (love)

Dear grandchildren,

Once again, my father’s words need very little commentary – and the commentary that I would leave would be along the lines of the childish and immature covering of my ears, insisting “I can’t heaaar you, Dad!” 

Because in this excerpt, my father explores the sensual pleasures of newfound love.

The war was coming to a close and Thomas’ future was wide open. It must have been an amazing time – exhilarating for a variety of reasons, terrifying for even more reasons, and hopeful above all else. 

Here are Thomas’ words – and my commentary where I just can’t help myself.

The room was a mess. It was only a small attic room, probably a former supply room for the restaurant below. There were two beds, a few boxes, and a chair. The small dormer window was open to let in the breath of spring air - cold, but clean and fragrant. This room would be my home for the next few weeks.

Dr. Jaeger had arranged this hideaway months in advance. It was a place to hide when the steamroller of war would lumber across Germany. Dr. Jaeger had moved here as the two fronts started to approach each other in the center of the country, and he brought with him his extended family - his former nurse with their son Ben, his present wife and their daughter Nora, and his present mistress. He had also taken along a selected group of his friends: my uncle and aunt Buddecke with daughter Gaby and my sister Ulli, and five or six other families. They filled up most of the rooms in this plain little Gasthaus in a dreamy little hamlet called Wernsdorf, lost somewhere in the forested Erzgebirge hills that formed the border between Saxony and Czechoslovakia.

It was an idyllically peaceful setting, and had it not been for the solitary radio — the only link to the world outside — nobody would have guessed that the rest of Germany was shaking in the last convulsions of defeat. There was no evidence of an army, and the sole resident Nazi had long ago vanished, probably to a hideout of his own, so it was now relatively safe to be here. Dr. Jaeger and his handful of dissident friends did not need to fear that some Nazi fanatic would shoot them under the cover of martial law that was now the only law of the land. After all, hadn’t Goebbels vowed that they would slam the door behind them if they ever had to go? The doors were slamming all over in these final frantic days, in the cities, in the concentration camps, in the pitiful remnants of the German army. But not here in Wernsdorf. In fact, the feeling that one could speak without fear of informers, within an enclave of friends, was exhilarating, with the tingle of doing something forbidden and dangerous.

wernsdorf today

(Wernsdorf today. Can’t you just picture the little farmhouse right here?)

One evening, with much pathos, the announcement came over the radio that Hitler had married Eva Braun. Hitler — married? Married whom? No one recognized her name. We all looked at each other, shaking our heads in disbelief, and then a snicker rose up, a quip, an obscene comment, growing into a roar, a liberating, releasing roar, not so much over the news as over the tragicomic situation, but more the very ability to laugh openly about it. It was the hysterical laughter of someone who had just come out of great pain: mindless, with abandon, the tears of an old pain mixing with the tears of newly found relief.

But it wasn’t over yet. The next big question was, which colossus will get here first, the Russian one from the east, or the American one from the west? The radio news, of course, was unreliable and many days behind the actual events - mere propaganda, sugar pills for a lost and despondent population.

The big news on the radio came during the night of May first after a build-up of rousing marching music that lasted for several hours, then some Wagner (you knew something big was coming when Wagner was played), then snatches of Brahms at his most pompous, and finally Bruckner’s seventh symphony. And then, there it was: the Führer and Eva Braun had brought the final heroic sacrifice for the Third Reich and had met the hero’s death fighting Bolshevism.

This time there was no jubilant reaction, only fury. The bastard was escaping justice! Outrage mixed with frustration, and these people who prided themselves on being cultured and above base emotions like revenge, could not hide their anger at the criminal who had taken the easy way out, who now could not be made to face the world and answer to all of humanity.

“The bastard was escaping justice!” Remind you of anyone? Why is it that the evilest of men – Hitler… Trump – manage to evade justice? Hitler took himself out. Trump continues to be a thorn in the side of American democracy, still helped by his party, still evading justice. If only he’d… oh, never mind.

Still, it was the signal for Dr. Jaeger to break out a bottle, with a solemn flourish, a bottle of the very finest old late harvest wine he had saved for years and brought up here for just this celebration.

There was only a lonely candle on the small round table in this attic. Occasionally, we could hear the rumbling of guns, not so far away now, and conversation would stop for a few moments, until it died away altogether. Then a cynical remark penetrated the silence, flashing like a grotesque mask in the darkness. But no one was able to break the tenseness of the atmosphere.

Suddenly, Dr. Jaeger hit the tabletop with his flat hand.

“I’ve got it”, he said, “Here’s what we do: from tomorrow on, this place is going to be a VD Hospital!”

“What??”

It took a minute or two, but once we understood this ingenious scheme there was no stopping the masquerade. Dr. Jaeger, discovering in himself the gift of stage direction, distributed the roles: he and Nora’s mother, being actual doctors, would play the doctors. All girls and women of rape-able age would be the VD patients, and the men would orderlies and cooks.

“All right now, these four rooms are the wards,” directed Dr. Jaeger. Up went the beds, all in a row. “This is the examination room… put the china cabinet here… take the china out… put in all the medical instruments you can find. Good… now some medicine bottles, too. It looks almost real!”

Dr. Jaeger just loved his new role.

“Nora, use my bed sheet to sew a bunch of big Red-Cross flags to hang outside.”

“Thomas, make a large sign.” So I did.

VD hospital sign

“Now let’s hope the Russians understand at least one or the other!”

We worked with enthusiasm, and in her hurry to sew the flags, Nora pricked her finger with the sewing needle. “That means I’ll get kissed the same day”, she said, and I wondered whether she had just made up this choice piece of folklore. Since it was only a few minutes before midnight, I didn’t have much time to guess, so I decided that it must be true and saw to it that the prophesy be fulfilled. Nora promptly managed to prick herself again.

The metamorphosis took all night. By morning, the village Gasthaus was, for all but professional observers, a VD Clinic.

Three days went by. No electricity, no radio, no news. Not even false news. News traveled on foot now. Refugees, trickling by in a generally westerly direction on the small country road, carried their own kind of news - rumors, fears, panic, or resignation. They were moving away from the sound of guns, wherever that was. “They’ll be here in the morning,” they said.

“Who?”

“Russians, Tartars, Mongols. They rape the women and torture the men. They burn everything they can’t carry.”

A German soldier on a motorcycle stopped to ask if anyone had seen soldiers. The Americans, he said, had taken Chemnitz yesterday, had just rolled in without firing a shot. No one bothered to defend that pile of rubble.

The soldier roared off, slowed, then returned. He was young, not more than a year older than I was, and spoke with an Austrian dialect. His uniform was muddy, and a layer of caked dust accentuated the lines of sleeplessness in his face.

“You sure you haven’t seen any Russians? No German soldiers either?”

“No, only a few lost refugees. No uniforms of any kind.”

For a few moments he rocked back and forth on the seat of his motorcycle. Then he reached forward, turned off the engine, sat the heavy machine on its stand, and slowly, deliberately, with the tip of his bayonet, started taking off the insignia from his uniform and dropped them on the ground.

“So, there,” he finally said, breaking into a broad grin, “That’s that. He pointed to his rifle and pistol. “And if you guys don’t mind, I’ll get rid of these and I’ll stick around here somewhere until it’s over.”

“Now that takes courage!” I said to Nora. “How does he know we aren’t Gestapo?”

“You sure look like it!” Nora laughed, and ruffled my hair.

The newly converted Austrian civilian swung on his motorcycle and disappeared around the bend in the road. An hour later he came back, this time on foot.

“I left the bike in the forest, too. Didn’t want to get you people into trouble.”

With that he turned toward an empty barn across the street, collapsed in a pile of straw, and fell asleep.

He slept all day, all night, and most of the next day.

Late that afternoon, with the sun already behind the gable of the barn, there was a rumble, a squeaking, a clanking of heavy metal and motor noises. I ran to Nora’s room — the only window facing out to the street — and there it came: a monster, a lumbering box, soldiers around it with automatic pistols at the ready, and on top of the tank two men, black men, two giants with flashing white teeth.

“Americans!” I whispered to Nora, as though anybody could hear me. I couldn’t speak louder, as my heart was beating in my throat. “Those are no Russians! Look, it says ‘US ARMY’ right there on the tank! Do they ever look fierce. But they made it first — no Russians for us!”

They looked fierce and determined, all right. Without slowing down, they had their eyes everywhere, on the inn, on the barn, ahead, right, left, but they didn’t stop. They didn’t shoot; they just kept going. There was no shouting, no sound other than the rumble of the tank tracks, and as it went by under the window Nora spotted a bunch of wilted flowers on the back of the tank, caught between two plates of armor.

They left as quickly as they had arrived. There was no big victorious army behind them, no fanfares, no columns of prisoners, nothing. All night, the adults at the inn waited in shifts, listening, whispering, guessing. Not a sound, not even the sounds of distant artillery anymore. There was only an eerie, pregnant silence all around.

Ben was with the people below. Nora and I were upstairs in Nora’s room in the dark, without even a candle. We talked about the day, and from time to time listened out into the night. More and more, our conversation turned to ourselves, to each other, to our dreams, to the future, and as the night wore on, the excitement of the day gave way to a new, much more hidden and intimate tension, to an even more unknown and uncertain excitement, more unsettling than the experience of the defeat of a nation, more mysterious than the patrol of enemy’ troops that had come and disappeared. It was an excitement that neither Nora nor I had felt before, and it made our heartbeats race faster than even the sight of the first American tank. It was a feeling we had heard about, wondered about, had secretly feared and longed for, even more than we had wondered about, feared, and longed for the end of the war.

Pitt - Thomas Heumann's first love

(Nora, Thomas’ first love. No, not my mother!)

As we talked, I had been sitting in an easy chair across the small room. Nora had been curled up on her bed, her legs drawn up, and a blanket around her shoulders. I was contemplating a bold move, not unlike, it seemed to me, the daring of the lonely American patrol that had explored the vacuum of the no-man’s land earlier in the day. The room had gotten cold. I got up to put another piece of wood in the small stove in the corner, but it wouldn’t catch, possibly because it was still wet from the winter’s melting snow, or maybe because I didn’t really want it to burn. In exasperation, or rather in anticipation of my daring, I took a deep breath and said, in as nonchalant a voice as I could muster, “I’ll never get this to burn — let me share your blanket until it gets warmer, would you?”

“Sure,” said Nora, “Come on over. ‘In my country nobody must be cold or hungry.’ Isn’t that what the Führer himself said? Well, he’s gone, so we’d better start thinking small. No one should be cold in my room!”

No one was cold in that attic room any more during that spring night of 1945. How soft her body felt, sitting close to me in the dark, how much warmth it radiated! I’d sat that close to a girl a few times before, but it had never been like this. There was something more than animal warmth coming from this body. There was a glow, an electricity flowing where our arms, our hips, and our feet touched. Oh, if one could have this forever! No longer did we speak of the past. We spoke of the future, of dreams, of peace, of plans. Nora spoke of the family and the children she was going to have, her own babies and her young patients when she would be a pediatrician ten years from now. I spoke of the first house I was going to build — my very own — and of being an architect ten years from now. And before the fire in the wood stove had burned down completely, our dreams had crossed, had drifted and crossed again, had linked and touched and merged until the words faded away, until we reached for each other in long silences and long kisses.

“This must be our very own secret,” I whispered, “And we must tell nobody yet that we are engaged. Let’s never forget this sixth of May 1945 as long as we live!”

He could hear Nora smile through the dark and she kissed him on the nose. “Except that Mummy knew it long before you or I did! She was only joking yesterday, but she did say it: you’d make a fine son-in-law for her.”

For the first time in my life I knew how soft a woman’s breast was, how firm and how live and how exciting. We promised to wait for each other until we would be ready, whenever that might be.

“Du bist noch so jung!”[1] Nora said.

And as the sky in the small dormer window turned from black to gray to pink to blue, two tired children, who suddenly felt very grown-up and superior and faintly naughty, and happier and more jubilant than they had ever felt before, were leaning out the window, waving and smiling at the Russian soldiers who were marching by in an endless, noisy procession, wave after wave.


[1] “You are still so young!’

Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Alone, scared, and brave at the end of WWII

Dear grandchildren,

This post elicits so many emotions for me!

I can’t help but be maternal and really feel for poor 16-year-old Thomas, who is now alone and scared, trying only to stay alive. He must have felt so alone!

I also feel a HUGE amount of admiration for 16-year-old Thomas, as he pulled himself up and did what was necessary to survive. He was no longer a boy, but a man, with very adult responsibilities.

I have no photos for this post, but I promise, your imagination will create your own powerful visuals.

Here are your great-grandfather’s words:

For a fleeting moment I considered going underground, just disappearing. After all, it would only be for a few weeks until the war would be over, and I could re-surface. But I dismissed the thought almost instantly. For one thing, “one doesn’t do that,” as it would have run counter to the integrity my father always insisted on. For another, it would have been unwise since Nazi efficiency, coupled with the powerful and efficient German bureaucratic machinery, was still in place, and martial law was in effect. If I overstayed the time of my documented leave allowance, which had been indicated on my identification papers, and if I were caught, I would probably be shot, while if I returned to the “legitimacy” of my proper station in Meissen, I would not be guilty of any transgression, and would be safer.

So I returned to Meissen.

Even before I walked from the train station to the warehouse, I sent a telegram to Rainer at his camp, not knowing if it would ever reach him, but I thought I should try anyway. “HOUSE DESTROYED STOP BE PREPARED FOR THE WORST STOP THOMAS.”

Telegrams have been gone for a long time, replaced by the immediate communication of texts. Apparently, telegram machines couldn’t use punctuation, so the punctuation had to be spelled out – much like you’d dictate a text today, using the same sort of language, but naming the desired punctuation: “House destroyed, period. Be prepared for the worse, comma, Thomas.

It turned out that my choice of words was not specific enough. When the telegram finally reached Rainer, he applied for a leave from camp because of the death of his father. His Lagerkommandant[1] wanted something more specific. “So your house is destroyed. Many houses are destroyed these days. Request denied.”

There wasn’t much I could do in Meissen but wait for the end of the war to arrive, probably in the form of Russian or American tanks. The warehouse didn’t have much work or material left and contact with the units it was supposed to supply had pretty much gone silent anyway. Rainer had been notified, Ulli was apparently safe in Wernsdorf with our uncle’s family, and all my worldly possessions -- except for what I had in my rucksack and a cardboard box -- had been destroyed, so I had time to make a wooden cross for my father’s grave with the help of Horst the carpenter. I even found an old sign painter who painted my father’s name on it.

It was night. Neither I nor Heinz nor Horst could sleep. We were listening for the distant sound of heavy artillery. The military front — what was left of an organized front — was that close now. We were agonizing over what had happened, and what was to happen. What would tomorrow be like?

How could we hide? Could we just run away?

Where? And why?

There was a knock at the door. It was only Herr Uckel.

His face was gray, and he was shaking so badly that he had to whisper.

“I am leaving. At daybreak I’ll head for Berlin. I don’t care what you do. Take what you need from the warehouse. You are free and on your own. Don’t get caught. Good luck.”

Horst and Heinz decided to stay, to hide out and let the wave roll over them when it came. I packed the few things I had into my cardboard box and stored it in the warehouse basement. In the stockroom, I packed my rucksack full of cigarettes to have some currency for trading, packed some soup mix, some sugar, a new pair of socks, some crackers, and a bottle of cognac. Then I went to the warehouse office and tore the triangle of Saxony out of the map of Germany that was on the wall.

I lay down on my bunk and tried to sleep, but I couldn’t. At four o’clock I put on my rucksack and left, heading southwest toward Wernsdorf, where I hoped to find my sister, my aunt and uncle, and Gisela’s family.

At daybreak, Meissen was behind me and I was on a road. Luckily, I had a small compass and a map that showed the names of the small villages I’d pass through on my way to Wernsdorf. I could find out where I was only by asking; as all signs with town names and all direction signs had been removed in the naïve hope that the enemy army would not know where it was.

By mid-morning I encountered a small group of German soldiers who were heading in the same direction as I. There was no reason to fear them for more than a brief moment, as they were obviously in retreat and without a leader. Their packs were loaded on a horse-drawn farm cart and I joined them for a few kilometers, my own pack dangling from the wagon. No one talked. There were no questions and no answers. Everyone was exhausted and we all seemed to know that the less said, the better.

It was good not to have to carry the rucksack for a while, but I was so tired I almost fell asleep walking next to the cart. When we left the forest through which we had been walking, I stayed behind, lay down in a ditch at the edge of the forest and dozed off.

The ra-tat-tat-tat of machine gun fire woke me up.

I shot up and saw a small plane flying directly toward me, low over the very road I had just left. I couldn’t see what its target was, but it must not have been very important. The plane disappeared over the forest and didn’t come back. Probably just a horse-drawn farm cart....

After that close call I tried to stay away from all roads, using only farm paths or walking across fields, through forests, and over meadows in order to avoid contact with people — any people, of either side. I knew that military patrols were looking for deserters, who were shot on the spot, or for anybody capable of fighting who would be inducted right then and there into the Volkssturm, a ragged army of civilians, old men and young boys, without equipment other than a few rifles and bazookas. I had no papers. I was barely old enough to be in the army. If questioned, I could give no plausible explanation of where I came from or where I was going. The prospect of being forced to fight was hardly any more pleasant than of being shot.

In the afternoon I could no longer hear the artillery fire. This could mean one of three things: 1.) the resistance had collapsed altogether and there was no more shooting, 2.) I was moving faster than the front, or 3.) the Elbe river had momentarily stopped the advance of the Russians. The bridge in Meissen has probably been blown up by now, I thought, as it had already been wired with explosives when I crossed it in the morning. The last thing I wanted to do was get caught in the middle of a battle, so I kept going.

I walked until it was dark and I could no longer see the path in front of my feet. It was too cold and too wet to sleep outdoors so I knocked on the door of a farmhouse and asked to stay overnight. The peasants did not hesitate for a moment to take me in. They even shared their evening meal with me, and I shared my cognac, something they’d never had. Maybe they felt sorry for me, or maybe it was the cognac, but they went out of their way to make me comfortable. Since they had no extra bed, they put some chairs together in the kitchen, placed pillows on the seats for a bed, and gave me a thick feather comforter as a blanket.

I had planned to leave at dawn, but the farmer’s wife was up before I was. She was boiling an egg, a real fresh farm egg for breakfast. I hadn’t had an egg for a long, long time!

Just as I left the farmhouse, I saw a military patrol on the road leading to the village, the men standing around an army vehicle trying to keep warm. Very quickly, I turned around and walked toward the forest behind the farm, making a wide circle around the village.

For two more days I navigated by sun and compass alone, hardly ever seeing a person, except for another drifter like me who said he had lost contact with his army unit. Under a bridge abutment, which provided a refuge from a sudden driving snowstorm, we together finished off what was left of the cognac, and when it was gone the lost soldier decided that he might as well not even bother any more try finding his unit, and stayed right there under the bridge for who knows how long.

I went on, my pack a little lighter.


[1] Camp Commander

Sunday, February 21, 2021

And now–at sixteen and surrounded by war–Thomas is alone

Dear grandchildren,

Remember as you read this that Thomas was just sixteen-years-old as all this was happening. His mother, the family’s protection, had died suddenly the year before, leaving her Jewish husband and her half-Jewish children alone and vulnerable.  Rainer, Thomas’ older brother, was far away in Munich and his younger sister now lived with relatives. There was no one to dig Carl’s grave except for his young son, Thomas.

When my kids – your parents – were sixteen, they were going to the Junior Prom and getting their drivers licenses. When I was sixteen, I was enjoying the same typically American rites of passage.

But when my father, was sixteen… well, this.

It helped me to remember this when I questioned why my father was so different from all the other fathers I knew.

Once again, very few words from me are needed. Thomas’ story stands on its own:

The old handyman and his horse must have been about the same age, and the rickety wooden cart might have been older than them both. It had no sides, just a well-worn flat wooden bed, four creaking wheels, a seat with a torn blanket, and a holder for the whip, which was essentially useless as it dangled lazily over the horse, who made slow, tired, deliberate steps. Not because he knew that this was a funeral and that his load was a body, but because he just could go no faster.

I did not listen much to the old man’s occasional sighs of how bad the times were, or to his long-drawn-out description of his arthritis. I was working on thoughts of my own. The only dead body I’d seen was that of our beloved Rector Meltzer lying serenely in state. I’d just extricated my father’s lifeless body from the gap between the central furnace and the basement floor, and dragged it inch by inch over the pile of coal and through the small basement window.

I’d enlisted the help of Dr. Koenig, the dentist from up the street, whose house was still standing. It was hard work for the three of us, not only because the old handyman was of little help, but because it had cost me a tremendous amount of self-control to actually touch my father’s body. I was careful to touch only his clothing — a gray suit, of course, complete with vest and diamond tie pin.

(My father bequeathed the diamond tie pin, which had later been made into a ring, to my son, Peter. You can read about it HERE.)

Ring

“Try not to touch the skin,” Dr. Koenig warned me, “It can give you the worst kind of infection. See how open his hands are? He did not suffer much pain; he must have died instantly from the pressure of the explosion.”

I tried to believe it. Except for a broken leg there was no visible injury, no blood, and Father’s face was peaceful, with the cracked frameless glasses still in place.

Carl 1940

The cart had to skirt the impassable downtown area. It was a long trek back to the Adelsberg cemetery. The March afternoon was beautiful, almost balmy, its peace and beauty in macabre contrast to the wasteland through which we were riding.

The sun was about to set when we arrived at the church. The pastor was waiting. Gisela was there with her family. The service consisted of a very few words.

That night, for the first time, I could cry. I cried myself to sleep, with tears of fear, helplessness, and anger at being confronted with the merciless injustice and brutality of war. It was an atrociously absurd irony: the man who had spent twelve years defending himself and his family from a hostile government, the man who had suffered immeasurably but had maintained his mental balance and kept his optimism alive for the day the Allied victory would liberate him -- that man had been killed by a bomb from those very Allies!

And deeper down there was the unsolvable question about this war, or any other war: why did my father, Carl, the Jew, the peaceful art collector, the Anglophile, the incurably romantic Feingeist[1] who had survived a dozen years of political adversity and artful dodging — why did this man have to be killed, three weeks before the end of the war, by a bomb from an American airplane, released maybe by some scared but adventurous farm hand from Greenville, Kansas? And why did the boy from Greenville get a medal for his bravery of pulling the lever just at the right moment? Did he, when he was back on the farm, ever consider that in one second “over there” he killed more people than live in all of Greenville? Did he ever think that he destroyed, with that pull of the lever, more of human culture than will ever touch him in his lifetime? Did he? Could he?

I walked back to where my childhood home had once stood majestically at the corner, behind the iron gates, set back from the road.

Chemnitz house pre-war higher res - Copy

There was nothing left, just nothing at all. I poked through the ashes and the rubble and found only chunks of bricks, brittle and fired for a second time, along with amorphous shapes of melted glass, like big marbles that a giant fist had squeezed through its fingers. Some were just clear glass melted together with ash and cinders, while others were marbled with veins of color. What had they been? The glass from the clock in the dining room which had been the Heumanns’ wedding present from my grandfather? No, the dining room had been over there. The carafe of Czechoslovakian crystal that always had red Vermouth in it? It had always showed such rich rainbow colors when one held it in the sunlight. I lifted the chunk of glass into the sun: there were no rainbow colors, only bits and pieces of ambers, ragged and cold. I threw it against a basement wall, but it did not break.

Chemitz house past March 5 1945 bomb which killed Carl

I dug and poked and kicked aside chunks of bricks and bent pieces of pipe. Could it really be that nothing was left? Nothing? The foot treadle from my mother’s sewing machine. A beheaded portion of a Meissen figurine that had always been kept under a glass bell to keep it from getting dusty. How absurd, how insanely comical it was. A saucer, finely hand-painted and almost intact. It sailed through the air as I flung it aside. This one did break.

In the basement there was still a small pile of potatoes with white sprouts growing wildly in all directions. I was hungry, I just realized, so I took two of the potatoes to the rubble pile in the front yard and built a fire pit out of bricks, gathered up pieces of splintered wood (which floor had this one been?) and roasted the potatoes. They were delicious, though they were so burned that they looked much like big balls of molten glass around me.

While I was eating I noticed a hexagonal stick, about a foot long, sticking up through the rubble. I knew it was one of the 900,000 incendiary bombs that had rained down during the night of hell in Chemnitz, March 5, 1945. I picked it up and threw it as far as I could. It sailed through the opening that had been the window of the Queen-Anne-Room and down into the cavern of the collapsed basement. It exploded sharply and immediately started spewing out hissing daggers of flames and sparks in all directions. It could find nothing left to ignite.

I kept searching further for something, just anything useful or meaningful or memorable. In the garage below the gardener’s house, my chemical lab remained unscathed. After the big flood in the attic, the lab had been banished to the garage for fear that I might start a fire in the house. I told you, Father, it couldn’t ever start a fire. It wouldn’t even burn when everything around it did!

The ceiling over the wine cellar had not collapsed completely, but what was left of it was twisted and sagging, piled high with debris. I did not dare venture below. There was still a rack with wine bottles that had been collecting their own dust over the years, not in one night. Later that day, an old man came by, dressed in not much more than rags. He said he was a neighbor, who had known Herr Konsul well, but I did not recognize him. He had noticed, he said, that there were some bottles of wine still there, and might he take one or two of them, please?

I wandered around aimlessly, dulled, unbelieving, yet with a strange feeling of adventure, with the sense of relief that I had survived once more. As I stumbled around under the area where the children’s playroom window had once been, I saw something I recognized immediately: “Thomasbäumchen,” a small almond tree that my godfather had planted in the hour when I was born, not much taller than I was now.

Thomas almond tree

Carefully, one by one, I removed the bricks that had bent and torn it, and when I was done, the tree with its pink buds and its tender leaves looked almost as proud as I did.

(When Peter was born, we also planted an almond tree. It has moved with us every time, and someday, hopefully, it will grace Peter’s yard.)

And as thankful.


[1] literally : “fine mind” - a sophisticated, cultured, highly refined person, naïve in a way and unworldly

Thursday, February 18, 2021

“I, the living, must bury my father, the dead.”

Dear grandchildren,

This story gets me every time.

I’ll add some of my own words, but my father’s words are plenty powerful enough. I’ll add some photos, but the pictures in your mind as you read this will likely be plenty powerful enough.

The days my father describes here shaped his life and formed the man he was to become like no other experience he’d had, or was yet to have.

As you read this, remember that Thomas was not yet even sixteen-and-a half years-old.

Here are his words:

Horst Reiszmann and I had been on our way for a good eighteen hours now, making our way across Saxony, not by the normal railroad connection through Dresden, but by small spur lines, and by hitchhiking, more than 80 kilometers in all. Herr Uckel, kind and considerate Boss Uckel, had sent us on our way to look after our families and homes in Chemnitz. By late evening the cabbage truck that picked us up had made it to the outskirts of town, to a point where the road was made impassable by a gaping bomb crater. We were on our own now, and soon parted company, each heading in the direction of his own home.

I was tired and my feet were sore, but I could not stop. Home was so close now and I knew I’d get there in the dark.

I was still three miles from home when I saw the first completely destroyed house. Its brick walls were intact, but the inside was burned out. It had likely not been hit by explosives, but had been set on fire by flying cinders. The closer I got to town, the more ruins I encountered -- first singly, then in clusters, until I was surrounded by entire blocks of destroyed homes.

There was no moon, no stars, and of course no electric light at all. A flashlight once in a while, a match, a candle, visible through a crack in a basement door. There were hardly any people. Where was everyone? Hidden? Dead? Fled? To where?

The photos in this post (except for the one of the Heumann’s destroyed house) are from this book which was gifted to my father by Tilo Richter, author and specialist on Chemnitz history.

Chemniter Erinnerungen 1945 colorTilo Richter letter

In the areas where apartment houses were lining both sides of the street, I walked very gingerly, one step at a time, in the middle of the street and as far away as possible from the sidewalks which were littered with debris, sometimes piled high with the remains of a collapsed wall. I had to watch for the bomb craters in the middle of the street, even the ones that had already been filled in again with the rubble from the houses around them.

Chemnitz after 3

I was now approaching familiar territory, my own neighborhood where the houses were further apart, surrounded by once well-tended gardens. Here there was no rubble in the streets, as the houses stood too far back. Some were still standing unscathed and some looked completely intact from one side, but looking back against the night sky, the other side presented the ragged silhouette of a house completely torn apart. Some homes had completely disappeared, victims of direct hits by high-explosive bombs, erased to nothingness, an entire brick house collapsed neatly upon itself and into its basement, almost level with the ground around it. ‘Some bodies in these houses will never be found,’ I thought, and it suddenly occurred to me that I was surrounded on all sides not only by ruins, but by graves.

My old school was still standing. There was some activity around it, hurried shadows moving back and forth, two men carrying a stretcher through the front portal, and I realized that my school had become a makeshift hospital. If the school was still standing, there was hope — it’s only an eight-minute walk home now. I wanted to go fast, my mind racing, but the fear of what I might find put lead weights on my feet. From here, I knew every step. There, just around the corner, would be the great white house with the fox terrier I’d made friends with. Each day on my way home from school, I’d reach through the iron gate to pet him. The gate had long ago been confiscated to be melted into tanks or battleships, or whatever. That house was gone. Then the Winkler’s house, our next-door neighbors - burned out, just empty walls.

I could almost see our house now.

Oh God, please!

Oh God, no. NO!

Chemitz house past March 5 1945 bomb which killed Carl

I felt myself stumbling and stopped myself against a rock wall. As I fell, the wooden cigarette case in my chest pocket cracked and splintered. Maybe only the top floor was gone, I thought. Maybe. But no, there was no bedroom window, no dressing room balcony. Where the children’s room had been, I could see only sky. There was only an empty, hollow, gaping space. My home now consisted of two walls, two façades, a shapeless mass in the night.

I went around the corner to the front entrance. The bricks from this wall had spilled all the way to the street, but the two rock gate posts were still standing. I lit a match, looking for some kind of note. There was a makeshift sign leaning against the rubble by what had been the front porch, with my uncle’s address in Adelsberg scribbled in handwriting that I did not recognize. But the note said nothing, nothing at all, about my father.

Adelsberg is clear across town, far on the other side. To get there, I’d have to go through downtown. I set off, walking down our street, Reichsstrasse, where every single house had been destroyed. Some of the chestnut trees were still standing, while others had only a few branches left or were decapitated altogether. I made my way past the public air raid shelter, its heavy steel door hanging precariously by one hinge. I later learned that it had been hit by a large bomb, a direct hit, and that everyone who had taken cover there had died.

Everyone. Two hundred people, in one insane moment.

Liesbeth, our beloved household helper, was one of them. At every alert, she had grabbed her small cardboard suitcase, and her bony frame had hobbled down the street to the safety of the underground bunker. This time, there was no safety. 

Chemnitz after 5

(Look at the date. 1948, and the city was still in ruins.)

In years past, the shelter had been a storage cellar for a beer brewery. It was located under the garden belonging to my friend Fritz. He and I had often ventured down into it through a vertical air shaft and had pretended we were exploring strange caves in strange lands. Now its armor was crumpled, its dark passageways torn open and collapsed. Now it was a cave more eerie than the fantasies in an adventurous boy’s mind.

The stench became stronger. It was the acrid smell of smoldering wood mixed with drizzle and blood, of explosives and excrement, and terror. The closer I came to the center of town, the more noxious it became, and I had to place my handkerchief in front of my mouth and nose.

It was five days since the fateful night, and small fires were still flickering in the dark. A red glow in a basement here, a burning beam protruding from a wall there, suddenly spewing small yellow flames and red sparks as though it were angry that it, and it alone, had been left behind.

Chemnitz after 2

(Again, look at the date! Imagine the immediacy of what Thomas describes.)

An old man stood in a doorway leading to the basement of a house that was burned out to the first floor. The tenement building was old and ugly, in the part of town where the factory workers lived, and where I was never allowed to play.

“How is it further south?” I asked him. “As bad as here?”

“Worse. Poststrasse is all gone, not one stone left on the other. No way can you get through there at night.”

“But I have to get to Adelsberg.”

“Not now you don’t. Come on inside and stay here until it gets light, then you can go.”

Inside, I collapsed into a torn overstuffed chair, yawned, and immediately fell asleep.

After just an hour of near-unconsciousness, I awoke. I tried to find a position between the protruding springs and the worn-through padding of the wooden armrest so I’d have a chance of not waking up hopelessly distorted and aching.

But that was not what kept me awake. Images of the long day persisted in an endless loop in my mind, mixed and dreamlike, distorted with fears of the future and with thoughts I did not dare think. What if father was hurt? Would I be allowed to take care of him? I knew it was possible, even likely, from what I had been able to see of the ruin of the house… but I dismissed the thought before it could take hold. It was just not possible.

Father would be alright, and the war would soon be over.

And yet, the note at the house had not been in my father’s handwriting.

I stared into the darkness. Every time I closed my eyes there was a burning pain that shot up like a breaking wave and subsided. I wished I could cry to wash away the smoke. But I could not cry. I could barely think, or feel any emotion at all. I only saw pictures come and go, the truck full of cabbage heads that gave us a ride, the crazy burning beam sticking out of the wall, the pudgy drawn face of Mr. Uckel in the door frame, the white chest at the foot of my bed at home.

I opened my eyes, wide and wild, but I did not move. I must have been dozing off, dreaming. There was no white chest, no bed, no ceiling with the big brown blotches that had been the result of the mishap in our chemistry lab in the attic above. I almost smiled into the dark at the irony -- the day when a water hose had created a veritable flood in the attic, a flood that ruined the ceilings in the floor below. What of it now?

It was no use. As soon as I could see faint light through the cracks in the boards that had been nailed over the empty window frame, I put boots on my swollen feet, left a couple of cigarettes on the table, and stole outside.

In the faint daylight, the scene was indeed worse than I had expected. Practically every house was either burned out to a shell with gaping window holes or ripped apart into a jagged shape of fire-blackened walls. The streets were piled high with broken bricks, sections of walls, twisted pieces of pipes, and occasionally fragments of furniture.

In some places, the debris was piled so high that no pavement was visible. In other areas, two or three bombs must have hit in the same spot and had laid the guts of the street open. It looked like a nightmarish satire of the cross section of a city street in a grade school textbook -- the brick tunnel of the sewer far down on the bottom, above it the water and gas lines, then the telephone cables, and on top, the streetcar tracks embedded in the cobblestone pavement.

Even eerier were some of the houses that had escaped the fire, or where only one wall had fallen away, exposing three or four stories of habitats. Some looked almost intact with furniture in place, pictures on the walls, like a giant doll house. I felt intrusive looking at them, the bed, the bathtubs, people’s personal lives out in the open. The paraphernalia of the petite bourgeoisie -- the lovingly embroidered bedspread, meticulously sewn curtains of cheap flowery material, the good Sunday china still in the living room cabinet, and the family portrait on the wall, the picture of the oldest son in uniform and, of course, the picture of Hitler.

As the sun came up, the downtown area was behind me, and I had reached the hills outside of town. The sun, rising in a dirty sky beyond the city, was huge and dark red, but it was no longer the red of a spring sunrise with pink and salmon pastel colors. It was the sick blackened red of crusted blood, a color that described the smell of decaying flesh and smoldering cloth.

Adelsberg was completely untouched. By the time I reached Försterstraße, where my uncle’s house was, I was practically running. The anticipation was becoming unbearable now. My heart was pounding, my thoughts were racing. Out of breath, I reached the front door and knocked.

A strange woman answered the door.

“I’m . . . I’m Thomas,” I said, “Thomas Heumann. My uncle . . . you know, Herr Buddecke is my uncle. Where are they?”

“Oh, well, yes. They all went to Wernsdorf, I think. We just were assigned to this house. We were bombed out in town, lost everything, but we’re all alive, thank God.”

“But the Buddeckes? Are they all OK? Who went with them?”

“Well, let me see now. There was their little daughter, and the other little girl whose father was killed, poor thing . . .”

“Who’s the other girl? What’s her name?”

“I don’t know. She’s maybe twelve, blond pigtails, sweet girl, I think they said she is a niece…”

“That’s my sister.”

There was no more to be said.

The woman read immediately in my face what news she had just given me. She invited me inside. It was not an emotional moment for me. All night, without being really conscious of it, I had been preparing myself for this minute. And now it was true.

Now the only question that mattered was: what next?

There were no tears, no anger, no frustration, not even fear. In their place, at that moment, was only a survival instinct -- the knowledge that I, being alive and on my own, must now act. There was no immediate sense of loss, only the thought that I, the living, must bury my father, the dead.

I went next door to the Werners, Gisela’s family. They offered me their condolences and treated me with the odd, distant, and somewhat embarrassed awe that people have toward someone who has just seen death up-close. Gisela said nothing at all. Her grandmother was sobbing quietly, and only Frau Werner, a strong and outspoken woman with an exquisite sense for the practicalities of life, addressed the first order of business head-on.

“Your father’s body is still in the basement of your house. I’ve heard that everyone in the house was trying to crawl out because the basement was becoming a real death trap, the house above them was burning so badly. Your father was the last one to leave, and just then a bomb hit and collapsed half of the basement. Your father must have been killed by the blast. He never made it out into the open with the others.”

Frau Werner took me to the pastor of the small church in Adelsberg. Yes, certainly, he could perform the funeral service, and he would assign a plot in the graveyard, but there was nobody, absolutely nobody, to dig the grave.

“We have picks and shovels, though…”

It took me all afternoon and most of the next morning to dig my father’s grave.

Meanwhile, an old carpenter who knew both the Buddeckes and the Werners could be persuaded with a pack of cigarettes to make a coffin out of plain boards that were not good enough for construction.

Chemnitz postcard never again

(“Chemnitz warns Never Again a March 5, 1945.”)

Wednesday, February 10, 2021

Another Mystery: Why was Carl not on the Final Transport of Jews from Chemnitz (February, 1945)

Dearest grandchildren,

As I began this post, I looked in my photos folder and online for a photo I was sure I had – that of the fiery red sky over Dresden in the distance, over a hillside. I couldn’t find that photo anywhere. Turns out, it doesn't actually exist. It’s a vivid picture only in my own mind, formed when Dad described his experiences on the night of February 13 – 14, 1945.

The bombing of Dresden killed at least 25,000 people. That’s many times the population of Gig Harbor, where we live and about the size of many larger suburbs of Seattle and San Francisco, where you live. It’s still quite unfathomable to me… but so much of the destruction of WWII is.

In this post, Thomas describes that horrible night in Dresden and prepares us for what was to come in Chemnitz. And he again brings up an irony that has impacted generations of our family – the fact that Carl wasn’t deported along with the remaining Jews in Chemnitz.

Here are your great grandfather’s words:

The next few months in Meissen were bearable, not because living was any easier, but because it was becoming obvious, despite all the propaganda to the contrary, that the war was lost and the days of Nazi rule were numbered.

There was a popular quip: “Enjoy the war — peace will be hell!”

I felt I was floating down an increasingly turbulent and treacherous river. No one knew who would survive and who would not, but there was no escape. I’d have to navigate through the rapids as best I could and keep my head — and protect it.

Meissen is a small town about 30 km down the Elbe river from Dresden, and its pride and claim to fame is the manufacture of the fine ancient porcelain known in the US as “Dresden China.” Since there was no other industry, Meissen was relatively safe from air attack, so much so that people would hardly bother to go to the shelter when there was an air raid alert.

One such alarm came on February 13, 1945, a bright wintery day. The “Air Status Report” (given by a system that used the electric power grid rather than the air waves, in order to not provide a radio beacon to the enemy) reported that large numbers of aircraft had entered the air space of Saxony.

It was a spectacular and awesome sight.

Dresden planes

Wave after wave of heavy bombers flew overhead -- hundreds of them, in perfect formation, undisturbed by anyone. Their only logical destination was Dresden, the Baroque pride of all of Germany, the “Florence on the Elbe River,” as it was affectionately called. Now, in February 1945, Dresden was the hub for all traffic to and from the east, beyond which lay nothing but the Russian front line. Everyone knew that the city was completely jammed with refugees from Silesia -- hundreds of thousands of people with carts and babies and bundles who were fleeing west in endless treks ahead of the rapidly advancing Russians. At the same time, Dresden was the staging center for troops and materials going east, supplying what was left of the disintegrating German troops.

In the afternoon of February 13th, there could be no more doubt that Dresden was indeed the target. First, there was a column of smoke that rose up in the distance, growing thicker every hour. As night fell, the sky in the direction of Dresden turned color -- first a flickering yellow, then a dirty red, brighter and higher as the night went on. It was a firestorm feeding on itself, consuming everything in its path -- apartment houses, centuries-old churches, medieval books in museums, university laboratories, and Ghetto houses filled with Jews.

Hell itself had come to this once proud and cultured city. Air raid sirens, not trumpets, had announced the Last Judgment, and it had come in the form of miles-wide carpets of bombs.

Dresden bombed

Three days later, on February 16, after serious air raids on Chemnitz, too, Father sent a cryptic message to Rainer and me: “Certainly, there will be many changes soon for both of you. Keep calm, because it all will all depend on the circumstances that are changing from day to day. One thing is clear: in times like these, every single person is on his own. We must try to stay in touch, especially if you are forced to make decisions on your own.”

I believe this was in reference to the last transport of remaining Jews from Chemnitz to Theresienstadt. The transport, according to research by Dr. Nitsche in 2009, consisted of 57 Jews still living in Chemnitz at this late date, just before the end of the war, namely:

  • 20 Jews not in privileged mixed marriages, most of whom had no children;
  • 26 Jews living in privileged mixed marriages
  • 11 “Mischlinge classified as Jews[1]

Father was not among these deported Jews. Those Jews were transported to Theresienstadt Camp in Czechoslovakia under the most chaotic circumstances at a time when it was about to be liberated by the Red Army. Every single one of those 57 Jews survived the war!

Jews await deportation

To this day, I do not know why my father was not included in this last transport from Chemnitz. An expert on the Jewish Mischlinge, Beate Meyer in Hamburg, told me it probably was because Ulli (and I, ironically!) were underage -- yet more than half of the 26 Jews from “privileged” marriages had children under the age of 18.

Was it because my father was widowed? Not at all likely. In fact, my mother’s death would have made my father’s transport more likely, as he was officially no longer married to a non-Jewish wife so he was no longer considered “privileged.” The Gestapo was not known to consider such human reasons.

Did the Nazi Waldemar Ballerstedt have anything to do with protecting my father? Even Ballerstedt himself who, in a 1957 letter to Rainer, made every effort to tell us how he single-handedly protected our father, said no word about this. In fact, he doubted that any such late transport even happened.

Rainer was sure that our father had received an order from the Gestapo early in 1945 that, according to Father’s investigations, could only mean Theresienstadt. On February 21, 1945, Father wrote to Rainer: “On the question of my Dienstverpflichtung (“Work Duty Order”), I haven’t heard a thing in the past three weeks. With all reservations, I can assume that I don’t have to count on that in the VERY immediate future.”

So WHY?

Dad. We talked about this. I have my own theory as to why Carl was not deported. I’ve discussed it before, and we’ll discuss it again today.

Did Father literally buy his freedom from persecution with large sums of money? Very unlikely for the simple reason that it would have been an illegal act, an act of lowering himself to the moral level of the oppressor, and anybody who knew Konsul Heumann knew he would not do that. And anyway, Father simply wasn’t rich enough to buy much of anything, let alone his freedom, after the Nazis confiscated most of what he owned.

I agree that this is unlikely. If it were true, a lot of wealthy Jews would have survived the Holocaust. Nope – wealth just meant more for the Nazis. no way is this the case, Dad. I agree with you.

Did Carl Heumann, being a titular Vice Consul of neutral Portugal, somehow use diplomatic immunity? Would the Nazis have honored this paper status, allowing my father to escape persecution? My only guess in this regard is that the Nazis knew that they would need the good will of neutral nations like Portugal or Switzerland after the war ended. But my father’s life being spared to this end seems unlikely to me.

Hmmm… interesting theory. I think this is a possibility, but also unlikely. I think neither fame nor fortune mattered to the Nazis.

I still think the reason Carl was not deported is because he had a secret protectorate – and I think that person was Waldemar Ballerstedt

I do not know why my father was not included on the last transport from Chemnitz in February, 1945, and I probably never will. I only know this: his absence from this transport was the cause for the most absurd irony imaginable: if he had been on this transport, he, like all the fifty-seven others, would have been spared the agony of what was to come. Had my father been on this final transport, my life and the life of many others would have taken a very different turn.

This irony always causes me an existential crisis. These days, writing this blog, I almost feel that I know Carl, my Opa. But HAD he survived, I absolutely wouldn’t be alive. Even if my father had met my mother, I believe Carl would have talked him out of marrying her. My mom wasn’t the type of person Carl would have wanted his son to marry. Mom was spirited, opinionated, feisty, and she lived her life with a  flippant “come-what-may” attitude. Rules? Those are meant to be broken! Carpe Diem! How different from Carl – the careful rule-follower who cared so much about  what others thought -- can you get?!

Yeah, my life (and therefore yours, dear grandchildren) would have “taken a very different turn” – right into oblivion!

Three weeks later, on March 5, 1945, Chemnitz suffered the same fate as Dresden. Once again, the map of my life – and of so many other lives -- changed.

Now the war was coming home. Chemnitz, a sooty industrial center, was not in the same league as Dresden, but that’s where father was. That’s where my friends were. That’s where my home was. Reliable information was impossible to get now, as the mail service was practically nonexistent, and the newspapers reported nothing but the bare minimum, namely that there had been a severe “terror” attack in Chemnitz.

IMG_1569

Between the lines of the military jargon it was clear that the attack was a bad one, a very bad one indeed.


[1] “Mischlinge of the first Degree” who were of Jewish religion, thus were “considered” Jews

Monday, February 8, 2021

The Threshold Year: 1945 (Political Background) Chaos Everywhere

Fear Grandchildren,

I have never experienced war, so I can’t even begin to understand what it was like to live in Germany in 1945. The closest I’ve come to experiencing war is watching movies like Saving Private Ryan, Band of Brothers, and Shindler’s List from the comfort of my couch in the security of America (though I sure didn’t feel very secure on January 6th this year!). I fervently hope that neither you, nor Papa and I, nor any of us ever experiences war. My guess is that war will change -- with systems, rather than cities being destroyed and digital infrastructure, rather than people, being killed.

I don’t believe that the world will ever again see something quite like Germany in 1945 – thank God. But that year, in that country, impacted my father for the rest of his life.

Here is Dad’s description of the political environment in 1945:

The chaos of 1945 is almost indescribable. The Red Army was forcing the Germans to retreat in the east and the Allies were fast approaching from the west. By 1945, everyone knew that Germany had lost the war in a big way – even if it was never openly discussed.

Troop movement

(SlidePlayer.com. Published by Darren Dawson.)

The air war, which had already destroyed dozens of German cities, accelerated to a new level in 1945. Berlin alone received many more bombs than Germany had ever dropped on England during the entire war. Air raids continued, day and night. Cologne had only a few percent of its original population left; the rest had been killed or had fled to other cities in Germany, many of which would also be bombed in the first few months of 1945. In all, 3,500,000 German homes were destroyed, 20,000,000 German people were homeless. Very few German cities were spared, and many were 100% destroyed. Food was desperately short and the transportation system, which at one time had been the pride and joy of Germany, was breaking down.

Destruction Berlin      Destruction cologne

 

Destruction Dresden      Destruction Nurnberg

 

Yet, there was no sign of any Allied success of the bombing campaign. Yes, the continuous air raids created a lot of hate in the population, but not (as the Allies pretended) against Hitler, but rather, against those who dropped the bombs on civilians -- mainly women and children -- on medieval churches, on the cultural heritage of a whole country. Of course, there also was increased hatred against the stubborn Nazi regime, but their control apparatus was still in place, and if anything, the punishment for “derogatory” talk was even increasing. Who would have dared? Even in early 1945, as Germany was obviously losing the war, it would have been suicidal to speak up against the regime.

To even imagine anything like Germany in 1945, one must pretend to visualize what a local parallel would be. For you, my California Bay Area children, imagine this: Oakland receives a major bombing once a week. The downtown is flattened; not a single building is spared. Freeways are completely destroyed. After a week, while houses in Oakland are still burning, there is another night-time air raid. Whoever is still alive has fled to Berkeley, to Albany, to Walnut Creek. Those places won’t be bombed because there is no industry to speak of. Every home in Berkeley now houses two or three extra families who have lost their home in Oakland. Men are off at war, except the very old and very young. And then it happens: Berkeley is carpet-bombed “to break the population’s will to resist.” The University is burning, so is Alta Bates Hospital. There is no water to put out the fires, no electricity, no food, no radio. The streets are littered with rubbish from the houses, and BART trains are hanging from the tracks. The tower of the Claremont Hotel and most of the hotel itself is level with the ground; a 4,000 pound bomb has hit it. Every house on University Avenue is on fire.

I remember this exercise by Dad as being very impactful! It really brought the war home, to something I could relate to – in magnitude, scope, and personal impact. But even then… well, I knew that it simply wouldn’t happen in the Bay Area. I was blessed with that sense of security, and of course I took it for granted. I knew nothing else but peace and security. Even the thought of destruction of the scale Dad describes coming to my Berkeley home was almost unfathomable.

Thus, not exaggerated, was the situation in the cities of Germany in 1945. And yet, most of us survived -- somehow.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

The only applicable Laws still issued in 1945 (in the general chaos of 1945, only three anti-Jewish laws are listed by Joseph Walk): January 15, 1945: (*13 . pg. 406):

From the RSHA (issued by the “Reichssicherheitshauptamt”)[1]:

All Jews living in mixed marriages, who are able to work and are either citizens or have no citizenship, (Mischlinge classified as Jews included) are to be sent to Theresienstadt in a closed transport for labor duty. (Note: this is in contradiction to a directive from the Gestapo in Bad Kreuznach just three days earlier, which excluded primarily older Jews from mixed marriages, and Mischlinge below 16 years of age, but not underage Mischlinge classified as Jews).

Sorry, dad. I can’t even edit this one for clarity! I don’t get it!

The law (of 16 February) said that any files that pertain to activities against Jews are to be destroyed unless they can be moved, so they don’t fall into enemy hands.


[1] (National Security Main Office)