Quite where Vera Neumeyer, my grandmother, ended up is a mystery.
On 17 September 1945 my mother writes in her diary that she has heard news about her mother:
She was deported to Poland in 1942 and is at a place from where there is little news (Lublin). 99% of hope is dead.
Lublin is in the far east of Poland, close to Piaski. It is to Piaski that Vera was said to have been deported in postwar correspondence within the family. There was a ghetto in the town, and close by Lublin was Majdanek concentration camp – the first Nazi concentration camp to have been liberated, by the Russians in July 1944. The camp, including its gas chambers, survived intact, giving the allies first-hand evidence of the scale and method of the Nazi’s mass exterminations.
And until very recently that was the story I believed to be true.
It may indeed be what happened to Vera, but recently I have unearthed new evidence that indicates she may have died elsewhere.
The decisive date: 13 July 1942
For a start, it seems that she was due to be deported from Munich to Piaski in April 1942. But she appealed against the deportation order, and correspondence shows that her deportation was delayed until July 1942.
According to lists of deportations, there was a transport from Munich to Piaksi in April, but not in July. It is possible, however, that her train was diverted.
The final Red Cross message from Vera to the family was on 9 July 1942:
Going on journey, but cheerful and happy, healthy. Father same. Keep in touch with aunt Dora Böse, Dresden, Leipzigerstrasse 147.
Piaski had been a closed ghetto from June 1941 to March 1942, then played a major role in Operation Reinhard, the secret plan to exterminate Jews. On 6 April 1942, 989 Jews from Munich arrived there, on a transport on which Vera was originally destined to come. However after that, there do not appear to be any further records of transports from Munich, and by June transports of West European Jews went directly to the Nazi death camps at Belzec and Sobibor. For more about the history of Piaski visit the Holocaust Historical Society website.
We know that Vera’s deportation started on 13 July 1942. The deportation list from Germany for that date shows a consignment of 99 passengers coming from Stuttgart via Munich to Auschwitz; however there is a comment in German alongside this entry that the destination is uncertain and could be Warsaw instead: “Das lässt sich noch nicht konkret festlegen; als Bestimmungsort is auch Warschau möglich“.
A list of the 50 passengers who joined at Munich, bound apparently for Auschwitz, is published online. I have checked them all against the archive in the United States Holocaust Museum. This archive is based on records from the German Federal Archives Memorial book (Gedenkbuch), but does not seem to be reliable. While 22 of them do not give details about their destination (and the record gives Vera Neumeyer’s deportation date as 4 April 1942 to Piaski, which we know is incorrect), the remaining 28 were, according to this archive, transported to Theresienstadt. Of those, 11 died in Theresienstadt, three at Auschwitz and the remaining 14 are ‘date and place of death unknown’.
Below is the list (3 pages), with Vera appearing on the second page, taken from the Historical Archives of the Commerzbank. Further information about this deportation together with this list is given here.
In an earlier post on this blog I have given a translation of an extraordinary letter Vera wrote on the train while being deported. She doesn’t know the destination, or if she does she doesn’t give it, but the letter tells us three things that help narrow it down:
We have the precise date of departure. The letter is dated 14 July 1942. They had to get up at 5am on the previous day and travel in a van to the station in Munich.
We have details of the type of train and some of the places it went through. It was an ordinary third-class train rather than a cattle truck. It went through Regensburg and Dresden, where they had to change. At 6am on the 14 July the train passed through Görlitz, where she saw her childhood house (which still stands) from the window. She is writing the letter near Leignitz (Legnica). This is some way east of Theresienstadt, which is southeast of Dresden, so it is most unlikely the train would have ended there as it would have been far quicker to have gone an alternative route, perhaps via Prague. Also, in a letter of 10 July Vera says she is learning Polish from the other girls – as Theresienstadt was in Czechosklovakia rather than Poland it tends to confirm her destination, if she knew it at that stage, was Polish – so that looks more like Auschwitz, Warsaw or another camp in the east of Nazi-occupied Poland.
She mentions three people who were on the train. “I occupied a corner place next to the dear Frau Professor Prosche, the widow of a well-known painter, a cultivated and very nice Austrian who attached herself to me on the first day.” I think whoever retyped this letter (the original no longer exists) mistyped Porsche as Prosche – as one of the passengers was Malwine Porsche. Opposite her sat a married couple, the Samsons.
How it ties up: route and possible destinations
The route and possible destinations are shown on this map:
It is stated in the Yad Vashem archive in Israel that in July 1942 there were eleven relatively small transports from Munich to Theresienstadt of 550 elderly Jews in total. Vera was at that time 48, but there were indeed many elderly people on her train. The day of deportation, however, is given as 15 July, which does not tally with the dates of her letters.
When I visited Theresienstadt in 2001 staff at the museum said they had no record of Vera Neumeyer having been there. However they do have cremation records on the card index of her husband Hans and her father Martin, who both died in Theresienstadt.
I have looked through the card index online to see if any of the other 50 deportees who were on that transport from Munich are shown as having died in Theresienstadt, but have drawn a blank.
Dela’s letter, written on the day of Vera’s deportation
My mother Ruth donated this letter to the Imperial War Museum (the only letter she gave the museum, although I will eventually donate the entire archive, which consists of several hundred more). Written hastily and difficult to read, it struck me as obviously of great importance. Someone has pencilled the date 13.7.42 at the top.
The writer is Dela Blakmar, the secretary and close friend of Hans Neumeyer. She was evidently close to the rest of the family, and in the letter tells Vera’s sister Dora of the grave news that the attempts to stop Vera being deported have failed. This in spite of the fact that Vera – a Mischling (mixed-race Jew, with a non-Jewish mother) had divorced her Jewish husband Hans the year before. Her sisters Dora and Marianne were never deported, although Marianne reported after the war that she narrowly escaped that fate.
Monday 13. 7. 1942
So everything has been to no avail. The departure took place this morning. I spoke today to two people who have also been with her a lot – she has been brave and collected throughout. But it’s hard, very difficult, harder than it was then! but do not say that to your father. She has sent me two more letters – I will enclose a copy with you and also send copies to your father and sister.
Your journey to Munich, though unsuccessful, was not in vain. Vera knows you’ve tried everything and that certainly means a lot to her. Right now we don’t yet know where the journey is going, but I’ll have that as soon as possible and will of course let you know straight away. And there are very nice people here who will not forget her. As soon as you know the address, we will send all her packages and if I am not here anymore, we’ll made sure that friends will take care of it.
Mr. W. will leave on Thursday, and I will not be able to see him any more [this may refer to Alois Weiner, a merchant from Moosburg, who was sent to Theresienstadt but survived; see “A note from Alois Weiner” at the end of this earlier post], nor will my friend, who has become dear to our hearts.
She and Vera were the two people here who were close to me.
Mr. W. and my friend will probably come home – as well as Rebekkus.
It has certainly been awful for her to go all alone.
But I have been told that some excellent people are there – they will find each other.
In addition, the gentleman who accompanied her to the train said to me that he made sure that she drove with nice people together in the compartment.
Dear Ms Dora, now we can do nothing – for the moment at least – wait and hope that God will not forget and leave them and all of us.
Cordially yours, Dela
This is so far a journey without an end. I have looked extensively online for answers but many records are missing, either through deliberate destruction by the Nazis or by accident. What I do now know is that Vera did not go to Theresienstadt, as her train went far beyond that place, and that Piaski/Lublin seem unlikely, particularly in the light of the fact that by July 1942 the Piaski ghetto was no more and Jews were being sent to Belzec or Sobibor instead, though she may have gone to Majdanek (near Piaski). Auschwitz or the Warsaw ghetto seem very possible, although Auschwitz was in summer 1942 running at capacity levels and deportations were often routed elsewhere. And from Warsaw on 22 July mass deportations began to the extermination camp of Treblinka, 100km northeast – in all 750,000 were murdered there, making it the largest Nazi death camp after Auschwitz.
Wherever she ended up, it seems likely as a middle-aged woman she may have been killed very soon after arrival.
But overall: destination unknown; fate unknown.
Text and photos copyright Tim Locke 2019