A previously unpublished account of life in Theresienstadt: this is a translation of a document written by Dr Hans Walter Hirschberg, transcribed by Marianne Bisi, daughter of Martin Ephraim and sister of Vera Neumeyer (and my great aunt). Marianne, known to my family as Tante Janni, survived the war and lived in Berlin until 1973.
Dr Hirschberg was a friend of Martin Ephraim (my great-grandfather) and his family. He arrived at Theresienstadt on transport number I/107, which left Berlin on 10 February 1944. He played an active part in Protestant church life in the camp and painted an altarpiece used by Protestants and Catholics. Following liberation he worked at Auschwitz gathering evidence and prosecuting Nazis.
This is one of two reports, and as it has more personal detail and seems to have been more intended for the family than the other report (featured previously on this blog), which was also deposited as a public record in Görlitz.
Marianne headed this as “Report of Herr Dr Hirschberg, state youth lawyer, about our beloved father Martin Ephraim’s last days in Theresienstadt, the infamous Nazi concentration camp for Jews, where he was deported on 10 January 1944 at the age of 84.” Salomon Goldschmidt, the trader, could be the same person described on page 19 of a website about his town Eberswalde, which describes a Salomon Goldschmidt (1874-1951) who was in Theresienstadt and was a trader from Eberswalde; his wife Emma died in the camp.
“I arrived in Theresienstadt on 11 February 1944. One of my first calls was to your father. A human wreck staggered towards me. He had noticeably aged since I said farewell to him in the Jewish hospital in Berlin, little more than four weeks before. Above all he had lost his sense of humour, which had never left him in Berlin.”
The reference to the hospital in Berlin is something I’ll be looking at on the next post in this blog.
“The extraordinarily primitive standard of accommodation weighed particularly heavily on him. He was in a so-called sick bay of the Cavalry Barracks, where around 20 elderly men of various backgrounds lay in 2 rows of beds with scarcely 1m between them in a long, stretched-out room. Your father was near the window, so at least he had daylight, and he read enthusiastically. In Berlin, he had got to know again through me former friends from Eberswalde, Salomon Goldschmidt, a self-employed trader with intellectual interests, and his wife. I spent 19 February with them celebrating my son’s birthday and I still remember the joy with which your father consumed the ‘Leckerbissen’ and crispbread with honey I had brought.”
“I mention this to show how primitive the food was. I don’t want to say that we were being systematically starved. But the rations were hardly sufficient for the elderly even with strong stomachs, as they had their food allocated, while those capable of work were accordingly better provided for, and everyone who could collect their own food from the mess had the opportunity to get ‘seconds’ and leftovers.”
“Some time after my arrival I noticed a kind of loss of the will to live in your father. Without any medical reason that I could identify, he stayed in bed and told me that the doctor had advised it, and also that he did not really have any wish to go out any more. A little parcel – from one of you [his daughters Dora and Marianne], if my memory is not mistaken, or from Fraulein Rena [Serena, daughter of Marianne], brought him great joy.”
“The last weeks passed waiting in vain for further signs of life. On his birthday, I believe, I found him out of bed for the last time and lying down with Goldschmidt, who was housed one level above him and who, as the oldest person in the room, had a little more space. Again I was able to contribute a little something to the day’s [catering?] arrangements.”
The lost pen and the Salvation Train
In Theresienstadt, prisoners were not stripped of all their possession as they were in other camps. The fact that Martin Ephraim’s pen was so treasured hints that such items were surely key to retaining one’s identity.
He mentions Gernot: this is Martin’s nephew, and the son of Dora. He died with the German army on the Russian front.
I assumed at first that the reference below to ‘transport to Switzerland’ was a Theresienstadt joke meaning transport to Auschwitz though in fact there was an arrangement for 1200 prisoners to be released from Theresienstadt in 1945. This was orchestrated by the former Swiss president Jean-Marie Musy who negotiated with the German High Command to make a payment of 5 million Swiss francs that had been donated by Jews in the USA. The train (later to be known as the ‘Salvation Train’) departed on 5 February 1945 – the actual date ties in with Hirschberg’s account (click here for the full story):
“When I learned that your brother-in-law, Hans Neumeyer, was also in Theresienstadt, I visited him. He was in a room for those with lung diseases in quite a distant barracks and was bed-ridden. The two could not come to see each other. On his birthday I brought your father a very warm letter from his son-in-law. But then it became clear that he [Martin Ephraim] was rapidly going downhill. One day I heard, from asking about him daily, that he had just quietly died in his sleep (that must have been on 4 April, his sister Ida’s birthday M.B.) [note added by Marianne].”
“His remains had already been removed from the room, the belongings shared out, apart from those which Herr Weiner, an acquaintance of the Neumeyers from Munich, had taken. I took a picture of your father in his forties to bring to you. It was to be lost with a suitcase in Prague. He had entrusted his bed neighbour Seelig with his beautiful fountain pen, but at the last minute arranged for Seelig, who died a few days after your father, to pass the pen on to me. I was to use it but later give it to Gernot. It was quite likely that Gernot was no longer alive at the time. I kept the fountain pen for ten months. Then it needed some minor repairs. A specialist was recommended to me. He delayed the delivery. On 5 February  I went to his accommodation. It was empty! He had been assigned for transport to Switzerland. I went to the place where those on the transport were gathered. With difficulty I found the guy. He was very embarrassed: ‘I cannot get to the pen just now, but I can give you this one as a substitute’. He gave me a really bad one. There was nothing to be done about it.”
The tragic story of the dumping of the ashes from the crematorium into the river, described below, is one of the much-cited anecdotes about Theresienstadt.
A happier ending awaited Professor Philippson, described at the end of this report. Alfred Philippson (1864-1953), was a distinguished geographer and geologist. He was probably also related to the Ephraims as Lesser Ephraim, Martin’s father, was married to Henrietta Philippson. While in Theresienstadt he wrote his memoir Wie ich zum Geographen wurde.
For more about the Philippsons, click here.
“Frau Goldschmidt died a few days after your father, also without any particular illness being identified, and poor Neumeyer after a few weeks. I sent some women to read to him, but he was already too frail and sent most of the reading volunteers away without requiring their service.”
“I could not even pay my last respects to him, because I was not informed in time. On the other hand I was present at the cremation of your father. The naturally rather simple coffins, Jews and Christians in separate rooms in a double hall, were put on the bier next to each other and some acquaintances gathered around them.”
“The clergy performed the funeral rites according to the religious customes. Some men then lifted the coffins onto a cart that moved them to the crematorium. Outside the ghetto proper, there was an urn cemetery, with over 25,000 urns, which had to be thrown into the River Eger in the late autumn of 1944. This was one of the most barbaric of all SS orders.”
“I kept up your father’s tradition by visiting Professor Philippson, with whom I kept very much in touch towards the end.”
In June 1945 the city of Bonn picked him up in a private car. I had long-standing family relations with the Philippsons.
“Later I took part professionally in many funeral ceremonies. The Catholic community would recite the entire service during transports to the east. Then the Lutheran minister would take over. These were elderly men, who were strained in winter by these early-morning outdoor missions. Then I turned up and became, if I may say so myself, the winter organiser for both denominations…”