Paper Love: Inside the Holocaust Archives

The End of the Journey
Notes from different corners of the world.
Jan. 9 2009 7:12 AM

Paper Love: Inside the Holocaust Archives

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BERLIN—More than half of Valy's letters were datelined "Bergstrasse 1, Babelsberg, Potsdam." But after the war, as with many German streets in both the east and the west, the street name changed. I took the regional train from Berlin to Potsdam and then hired a cab to take me out to what is now called Spitzweggasse. The villa Valy wrote from at Bergstrasse 1 was torn down after the war. It was located in what is now—and was then—a quiet, upscale suburb of large villas, a 10-minute drive from the tourist hubbub that makes historic downtown Potsdam an easy day trip from Berlin.

During the Nazi regime, Jews were expelled from the German social-welfare system, and in 1940, Bergstrasse 1 became a Jewish infirmary and "almshouse." Valy's mother ran the home, and in her letters Valy writes that she went there to recuperate from the various illnesses that plagued her as the decreased rations destroyed her immune system. On Jan. 12, 1943, all the Jews of Potsdam were gathered at the infirmary and sent to their deaths.

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I read that there was a small memorial on the site. When we arrive, I see the street is a dead end, but the taxi driver and I were soon joined by a thirtysomething student and a sanitation worker, both of whom tell me that "if it's about Jews, it's long gone." No one quite believes me when I say that the street name was changed or that there was an infirmary here. But the driver, interested, perhaps, in someone willing to let his meter run, remembers that, peculiarly, he has a 1928 map of the city in his car, and with it, we confirm that this was, indeed, once Bergstrasse. With this odd stroke of luck, I am vindicated. In the end, it is the sanitation worker who finds the plaque, rusting and covered in lichen, in the ground. I added a stone to a small collection on top, and all the men went away feeling good that they had helped this strange American find this strange Denkmal, or monument.

Despite my disappointment with my personal discoveries at the International Tracing Service at Bad Arolsen, I keep thinking back to Volkhard Knigge's comment that the ITS archives are a kind of living memorial, a breathing, endless loop of representation, a witness of the individuals lost, forgotten, or displaced by the war. And of their relatives who wrote for decades—and, like me, are still writing. Open any door, any box in Bad Arolsen, and you'll find a macabre treasure—from the unjust (Ivan Demjanjuk's files that allowed him to escape to the United States as a refugee, despite having served as a prison camp guard) to the merely depressing—for example, the desperate letters of a French mother who wrote for a decade, begging the Red Cross to find her son. And then there are the casually racist: In one file concerning orphaned children, the U.N. Relief and Rehabilitation Administration headquarters warns the directors of the British-occupied zone about 1,000 minor-aged concentration-camp survivors to whom her majesty's government has agreed to provide safe haven. "A high percentage of the children are Jewish," the author writes. "We want to be sure this is understood by the British government."

Berlin's Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe just down the street from the Brandenburg Gate is a sea of smooth steles made from concrete. It's massive and thoughtful, but I was more impressed by smaller memorials across Germany, the Stolpersteine—literally "stumbling blocks"—a 14-year-old project of brass cobblestones hewn by Gunter Demnig, an artist based in Cologne, that are laid in the ground in front of houses to mark those deported from address after address. I found it enormously moving to leave a hip new noodle shop in the Mitte district and look down to see "Hier Wohnte … "—"Here lived …"

There are no stolpersteine in front of 43 Brandenburgische Strasse, the last Berlin address for Valy and Hans, her young husband, that I found in Bad Arolsen. But working with the landesarchive, the state archives, I confirm that No. 43 was a Judenhaus—the forced segregated housing that Jews were forced into in nearly every German city beginning in 1940. Fifty-four Jews were deported from Valy's building; 765 from her street.

By late 1941, even before the letters to my grandfather stop, the deportations from Berlin and other German cities had begun.

Valy probably understood that work considered important to the Reich would save a person faster than average factory work. So when she writes that she has lost job after job, this is a way of realizing that the walls are closing in. She teaches for a time in the Jewish Kindergartenseminar. When I tell that to Gudrun Maierhof, who wrote her Ph.D. dissertation on the women of the Reichsvereinigung, the Jewish Council that controlled Jewish life in German cities during the Nazi era, she urges me to contact Inge Deutschkron, a local survivor who is a bit of a celebrity because of her work with schoolchildren and her postwar writing. She survived partly through the good deeds of a small-time Oskar Schindler named Otto Weidt (a man who deserves an article of his own).

Deutschkron spent a year studying at the school where Valy taught, but she tells me she doesn't remember Valy's name—or her face. She hates Americans, I quickly discover, and American Jews in particular: She thinks Americans don't care about survivors, only the dead. Maybe it's the pregnancy, but much to her annoyance, I end up crying in her apartment, which is, coincidentally, a block from Valy's in the Berlin neighborhood of Wilmersdorf.

I think Deutschkron is wrong. American Jews, and Americans in general, have always—in our perennial, frustrating optimism—focused far more on the exceptional stories, the survivors, rather than the norm: the dead. Part of what makes Valy's story so sad is its quiet normalness, like the lives most of us lead. She was erased by a system set up to do exactly that: to erase her. Finding her letters is like running one of those magic pens over invisible ink—some of it comes back into view.

Among my grandfather's papers, there is only one response from him, a draft of a letter he wrote to Valy in September 1941. "You could write a book," he tells her, "that begins, 'I want to report about a generation that has been destroyed by war, even if it could escape its cannons.' " But Valy didn't escape.

The Reichsvereinigung couldn't save its own workers. On one brutal day in October 1942, leaders of the Reichsvereinigung were told to assemble staff in the building of the synagogue on Oranienburger Strasse. Once inside, they were told to select 500 lower-level workers who were no longer "necessary" for work. "There was a terrible scene," Beate Meyer, an expert in the Reichsvereinigung, told me when I visited her at the Institute for the History of German Jews in Hamburg. "The head of the social welfare department," the woman who likely employed Valy, "had a nervous breakdown saying, 'Take me, take me, but not my staff!' And others refused [to choose]." Two days later, the Gestapo declared that for every person selected for deportation who tried to escape, one higher-ranking official would be shot. The Reichsvereinigung members themselves went to flush out those who had evaded the edict.

I had submitted applications to the Landesarchive and the Berlin indemnity offices, where the files on deported Jews who sought (or whose family members sought) postwar payments for their suffering were kept, hoping to receive information about Valy and her husband—and the restitution cases opened in their names in the 1950s and '60s. All victims filled out detailed property files so that the Nazis would be sure to loot everything that they had owned after deportation. Some of the information arrived long after I left Germany.

In October 1942, Valy and Hans were declared enemies of the state. Living in one room, they list practically nothing as possessions—two chairs, one bookshelf—but I'm struck by two items declared in her handwriting, things she had dragged from home to home for years: a red velvet couch and 50 books. All those books! Preserving her intellectual identity, I imagined, was a way of preserving her dignity.

There were nearly three months between Valy being declared an enemy of the state and her deportation. I don't know what happened during that time, though I talked to dozens of academics about why a person would—or would not—have gone into hiding.

Toward the end of my stay in Berlin, I took the S-Bahn train to Grunewald. The station serves the eponymously named pretty suburb-within-the city known for its large park. The S-Bahn 7 train rushes through every 10 minutes. But there is a third track, or "Gleis," that is easily overlooked, a macabre version of the magical Track 9 ½ in the Harry Potter series. Descending from the S-Bahn lines, signs indicate Westkreuz, back toward town, or Potsdam, in the other direction, and then there is Gleis 17. Ascending the stairs for 17, there are two long metal lanes, and a track that looks, at first, no different from any other. But the platform is cast from iron, and every two feet is a date, a number, and a direction. So it looks like this:

12.1.1943/1190 Juden/Berlin-Auschwitz. 12.1.1943 /100 Juden/ Berlin-Theresienstadt. 13.1.1943/ 100 /Juden./ Berlin-Theresienstadt.

It covers every deportation, lists the numbers and days on which each of the 55,000 Jews deported from Berlin were sent away from this very spot. More Jews left from Grunewald than from all of Belgium.

On Jan. 29, 1943—the day of Valy's deportation, 1,000 Jews were sent to Auschwitz, 100 to Theresienstadt. The tracks stretch out into the distance, covered with vegetation in places but still totally visible.

I was completely alone there, save for the little Jew inside me, and through the trees I watched the S-Bahn trains rushing back and forth a few yards away, the distance between normal life and terror just a few feet and 65 years.

Sarah Wildman, a frequent contributor to the New York Times and the Guardian, was a 2008 Arthur F. Burns Fellow. This piece was made possible by a generous grant from the American Council on Germany.

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