Today, on International Holocaust Remembrance Day, I remember my paternal grandparents and the journey they began exactly 71 years ago today. It’s a short passage from my forthcoming book, “Googling Moses.”
I read that seven thousand Jews in Berlin committed suicide when they got news of their impending deportation. Many more did what my grandparents did; they packed for the journey, carefully selecting, folding, stuffing as much as they could into the luggage they were allowed to carry with them.
The following morning, there was a knock on the door and a bus waiting to take Moritz and Ida away. They were first taken to Grosse Hamburger Strasse 26, a Jewish home for the elderly that had been converted into an assembly camp. Prior to their arrest, they had been required to fill out a sixteen-page declaration of assets, part of a gross, legal fiction. All assets had to remain for the benefit of the German Reich which meant that since my grandparents were going to be “traveling out of the country,” most of what they owned had to be left behind. To ensure full compliance, they were strip-searched while their luggage was being sifted through for valuables. Jewish assets confiscated by the Nazis paid for thirty percent of the war costs.
At the assembly camp, some were given contracts to complete, as if they were going to an old age home or assisted living facility, as they were told. Some Berliners had requested and paid for rooms with a lakeside view. I wondered if my grandparents fell for this sadistic ruse. They belonged under a “privileged” category that included Jews with war medals and some elderly. Most of them were going to be sent to Theresienstadt, although some went directly to their deaths at Auschwitz. At the time of their deportation, those were the only two destinations for the Jews of Berlin.
Did they really believe they were heading for a nice, old age home? After some research, I wrote to an office with government archives in Berlin to inquire if any records had survived of my grandparents entering into such a contract. It seemed like a long-shot, but a few months later, a manila envelope arrived in the mail with a photocopy of the document—Heimeinkaufvertrag (Home Purchase Contract). I took it to church and asked several of our German members to translate it for me. They found it as mind-blowing as I did. My grandparents had indeed signed a contract, paying $199,750 DM that would entitle them to good accommodations and meals at the senior living center where they would be taken. Since the Reich would be paying for all who needed accommodations, part of my grandparents’ fee would help those who were less fortunate. The contract was signed by Moritz Israel Neumark and Ida Sara Neumark on January 22, 1943…
While my grandparents were still being processed at the assembly camp, a furniture van pulled up outside what had been their home and whatever remained was carted away. Everything was going to a special sale for newlyweds who could buy what they desired at a good discount, a real steal indeed. Did someone buy the oil painting of my father? Did it survive the war? Does some family have it on their wall? Compared with everything else, the loss of these objects is a small thing, but it remains, for me, an infuriating violation.
Before their stay at Grosse Hamburger Strasse was over, my grandparents were charged 250 Deutsche Marks for their “lodging, ” a room where twenty people were crammed together with no bathroom. On Thursday, January 28th of 1943, a tram run by the Berlin Transport Company took them to the Anhalter Station where they boarded transport I/87 with ninety-eight other elderly Jews, including Rabbi Leo Baeck. The train would carry them east through the cold, German landscape towards a destiny neither could have imagined.