January 27th is Holocaust Memorial Day in the UK – in 2020 it marks 75 years to the day since Auschwitz-Birkenau, the Nazi’s largest concentration camp, was liberated. The theme for this year’s Holocaust Memorial Day is ♯StandTogether and the organisers are encouraging people to take part online, by sharing information about someone who died in the holocaust. So today, I’ve decided to tell the story of my Oma’s uncle, Fritz.
Friedrich (Fritz) Schwarz was born on 1st December 1883 in Landau in der Pfalz, south-west Germany. He was the eldest of three children, big brother to Philip (born 28th June 1888) and Luise (born 3rd September 1890). Like his younger brother (my great-grandfather, Philip) Fritz married an ‘Aryan’ woman – Barbara, or Babette – who had been the family’s cook. Babette was a Roman Catholic, and because their two children, Anna and Karl, were baptised, they were defined by the Nazis as Mischlinge ersten Grades. This made Fritz, like his brother Philip, a ‘privileged Jew’.
Many Jewish people left Landau during the late 1930s, either to move to bigger cities or to flee the country completely; in 1933 there had been 596 Jewish people living in Landau, but by 9th November 1938 there were only 294. By the end of the war there were only four Jewish people alive in Landau – all either ‘privileged Jews’ or Mischlinge. Unlike my Oma’s parents, Fritz and his wife did not move their family away from their relatively rural hometown in the Pfalz. The family had bought a large house on the town square (the Rathausplatz) shortly before Fritz was born, and he continued to live there with his wife and children after his parents died. He ran a drapery business in the ground-floor shop. His younger sister, Luise, lived in the first-floor flat. She was also a victim of the holocaust, although, incredibly, she survived it. But that is a story for another blog.
Support for the Nazi party was consistently higher in Landau than it was in the rest of the Pfalz, and in Germany as a whole. I only discovered this the other day, and it really affected me. My parents and I visit Landau every other year, and it’s easily my favourite place in the world. I probably shouldn’t have been that surprised – Landau was a relatively small community in the early 20th century, disconnected from the more metropolitan cities. I’ve seen photos of the Rathausplatz surrounded by Nazi flags, they make me feel sick every time I see them. And I’ve always been aware of what happened to my family there. But I liked to imagine that the people of Landau didn’t have much choice in all of this, that they were mostly innocent bystanders who didn’t actually want the Nazis to be in power.
It’s easy to forget how long Jewish people had suffered in Germany, even before the holocaust started. Being banned from the places they had always been to, being ostracised from the community they had once been a part of, and being forbidden from taking part in everyday activities, was incredibly hurtful. Early in 1933, the German Student Union proclaimed a nationwide ‘Action against the Un-German Spirit’, climaxing in a Säuberung (cleansing) by fire. So, on 10th May 1933, in cities across Germany, and on the Platz in Landau, there were huge book burnings. Books by Jewish authors, socialist authors and anything the Nazis viewed as ‘subversive’ were completely destroyed, amidst speeches and celebrations. Today a plaque on the Platz marks the spot of the book burning.
Around the same time, a plan was made of the Rathausplatz, showing who owned each business and lived in each house. There is a key at the bottom, explaining that buildings marked in black used to be owned by Jews, but are now ‘Aryan’, the green ones are ‘German’ shops but Jewish-owned buildings, and the red ones are Jewish businesses and Jewish home-owners. My family, Schwarz, at number 48, are marked in red. The instruction to the German people was to boycott Jewish businesses. At some point an ‘Aryan’ woman was moved into the home to ‘keep an eye’ on the family. Despite this treatment by many of their neighbours, Fritz and his family continued to live in their house on the Platz.
After she moved to Berlin, and before the war, my Oma sometimes went with her father to visit the family in Landau. They would stay downstairs in Luise’s flat, but she also enjoyed going upstairs to Onkel Fritz’s flat, mainly to spend time with her older cousin, Anna. My Oma recalls in her memoirs that once, during one of these visits to Landau, she was upstairs while Babette was cooking. She was making potato soup and a Zwetschenkuchen (plum cake), a traditional Pfälzisch meal, and her aunt invited her to join them for lunch. Susanne said that she couldn’t, because Tante Liesel was expecting her downstairs for lunch. Onkel Fritz scoffed at her, replying in his friendly Pfälzisch accent “Ach, mach kei’ Sprüch, Du kannscht doch zweimal esse!” (“Don’t be silly, you can just eat twice!”) So she had two lunches that day.
On the night of 9th November 1938, SA troops in Landau, and across Germany, were out celebrating the anniversary of the Beer Hall Putsch, when orders were given for a pogrom against the Jewish people of Germany. In hundreds of communities houses, shops and synagogues were looted, damaged and burnt. There was also significant violence committed against the Jewish people themselves. During the night, and over the next couple of days, around 30,000 Jewish men were arrested, and later sent to concentration camps at Dachau, Buchenwald and Sachsenhausen. I don’t know how Fritz was arrested. Many people left accounts of Kristallnacht and these arrests, and it’s clear that the brutality of the pogrom depended a lot on the personality of the local party leaders and police. You can read the testimonies online, but as Alan Steinweis summarised in his book about Kristallnacht, “The methods of the Germans who rounded up the Jews ranged from civil to barbaric” (Steinweis, 2009, 97).
Friedrich, like the other Jewish men taken from their homes during the Kristallnacht pogrom, was officially kept at Dachau under ‘protective custody’. But the true purpose of these earliest deportations was in fact “to compel [the Jewish people] to hasten, first, the transfer of their property into “Aryan” hands, and second, their actual physical departure from Germany” (Steinweis, 2009, 107). I need to learn more about Dachau, but it’s not easy to read about these things. The camp wasn’t prepared for so many prisoners in 1938, so a lot of the men had to sleep outside that winter, and there was nowhere near enough food. The SS officers running the camp ensured that the new arrivals were so traumatized by what they were met with that they wouldn’t dare to step out of line. Several hundred Jewish prisoners died in the few months following Kristallnacht.
At this point the concentration camps were not being used for systematic genocide, but simply to put pressure on the Jewish community. So, gradually, as their wives provided proof that they were selling their property, or were due to emigrate, the camps began to release the prisoners, under strict orders not to talk about their experiences. Most of the Kristallnacht prisoners still alive had been released from the concentration camps by Spring 1939. I don’t know exactly how long Fritz was held at Dachau (except that he was back in Landau in time for the German ‘Minority Census’ in May 1939) but I know that his wife and children were very relieved when he came home.
Almost everything that I know about the next few years of Friedrich’s life comes from the book Juden in Landau. It has a couple of chapters about the Nazi period, which are really useful, but it has some of the information about Fritz slightly wrong, so I can’t be completely sure if the other things are right. According to the book, his daughter Anna was forced to move to a house across the other side of the Platz in the middle of December 1943. It was common practice for any Jewish people remaining in a town to be pushed together into one house (or one street, or neighbourhood, for larger communities). Juden in Landau also writes that Fritz was living in this other house by 1944, but I don’t know when he was moved. My Oma wrote in her diary in April 1943 that Onkel Fritz had sent them a big parcel of vegetables. Although these would have been much easier to come by in the Pfalz than in Berlin at this time, it still seems likely that this was before he was forced out of his home. From July 1944 to March 1945 Fritz was forced to work in Landau’s Tabaklager (tobacco warehouse).
In 1945 5,200 of the remaining ‘privileged Jews’ in Germany – people who had been protected from deportation because they were married to ‘Aryans’ and had baptized their children – were taken to Theresienstadt. The story of Fritz’s second arrest was passed down from his children to my mother (their first cousin). Some of the details are a little vague, and I hope to be able to put names to the characters at some point. But for now, this is the basic story:
Babette answered the door to a Nazi officer. The local policeman, a long-time family friend, stood behind him with a dazed, defeated look in his eyes. The other officer – the stranger – asked, “is Friedrich Schwarz home?” The local policeman eyed Babette frantically, a look of wild desperation on his face. She told them yes, Fritz was at home, she would fetch him. The second she spoke, the local policeman turned a sickly white. Fritz came to the door, and was taken away by the two men. His family never saw him again.
I don’t know as much as I feel I ought to about Fritz’s time in Theresienstadt and his death. I need to do a lot more reading about Theresienstadt, and particularly about its liberation. I know that it was a sort of concentration camp/ghetto combination – an effort to deceive the Jewish community about the Final Solution, to lull them into a false sense of security. At the same time it was used as a base to send huge numbers on to the extermination camps in the East, and was itself designed not to be survived by its Jewish prisoners.
The Red Cross took over the camp/ghetto on 2nd May, and the SS fled a few days later. Theresienstadt was officially liberated by the Red Army at 9pm on 8th May 1945, but the camp was quarantined for two weeks after this, to contain a typhoid epidemic, which killed more than 1,500 prisoners and 43 Soviet doctors and nurses around the time of liberation. I’m not sure whether Fritz was still in Theresienstadt when the Russians liberated it, or whether he took advantage of the chaos in the preceding days to escape. The family story has always been that he escaped, and began trying to make his way back to Landau. I have no idea how he travelled the nearly 150 miles from Theresienstadt to Kulmbach, near Bayreuth in northern Bavaria, where he died.
At the time, Fritz’s family knew even less about his last few months. In her memoir Susanne wrote about hearing from her extended family “some time in the summer of 1945”, after a long period of not being able to communicate at all. Of Friedrich, she simply said, “Sadly, my father’s brother, Onkel Fritz, had not survived. At the end of the war he had escaped from Dachau concentration camp and had tried to reach the advancing Americans, but he had died of hunger on the way.” But that’s not quite true. For a start, she must have been confusing the two times Fritz was in concentration camps – he was taken to Dachau after Krisallnacht, but in Theresienstadt at the end of the war. We also know now that Fritz died from bronchopneumonia in a hospital in Kulmbach, on 22nd June 1945, after a five day stay. In fact, we recently found a record of his burial in the cemetery there – he died and was buried over 200 miles away from his family, aged 62.
There’s so much more research I want to do into Friedrich’s story, and this is just one of the stories branching off from my Oma’s. We’ve recently initiated contact with Friedrich’s granddaughter, and I hope she will be able to fill in some of the gaps. Having recently inadvertently purchased Holocaust-denial literature (there may well be an angry blog post about that book soon), I’m fully aware of how important it is that we continue to share these stories. Today, I am remembering Onkel Fritz.
Kohl-Langer, C. et al. 2004. Juden in Landau: Beiträge zur Geschichte einer Minderheit. Landau: Stadt Landau in der Pfalz, Archiv und Museum
Steinweis, A. E. 2009. Kristallnacht 1938. Massachusetts: Harvard University Press