THE GREY FOLDER PROJECT
FAMILY AND FRIENDS in the fruit orchard outside their home in Freudental.
THE LIVES OF FRIEDA AND MY GRANDMOTHER diverged irrevocably after the fateful summer of 1940, when my grandparents were granted a visa and sought an escape route, while Frieda -- like so many older German Jews, especially women -- lacked any means of escape.
What about their other siblings? Of those who remained in Germany after Hitler's rise to power in 1933, (two other siblings had died in childhood and two had emigrated to the U.S. around 1910), one sister, Rosa, died of natural causes in the village of Freudental in southwestern Germany, where they had grown up. She is buried in the Jewish cemetery there. But because the Nazi government was in power when she died, in January of 1940, she has no headstone.
FREUDENTAL'S JEWISH CEMETERY, where Frieda and my grandmother's sister, Rosa Herrmann Falk, and their parents and ancestors are buried. I have visited the cemetery here several times; these photos were from October, 2014.
RAHEL HERRMANN LAHUSEN was known as a great beauty. After Christian Lahusen, a musician and composer, took one look at her at a hotel lobby in Munich, he was determined to marry her.
MORITZ HERRMANN (seated, right) with his son Adolf behind him, and his wife Sidonie to Adolf's left, with relatives and neighbors. My father (far right) often came to visit his aunt, uncle and cousin in Freudental in the summers, and worked on the farm.
THE STORIES OF THE TWO other siblings could not be more dissimilar. Rahel, married to a non-Jew from a wealthy family with connections to Argentina, not only managed to stay in Germany but was insistent on doing so. (Read more of her fascinating story here.) Moritz, on the other hand, a farmer in Freudental, was forced to sell his land after the Kristallnacht pogrom of November, 1938. He and his wife planned to emigrate in the spring of 1940, but it was too late -- all escape routes were closed. In 1941, their home became a Judenhaus, with all the remaining Jews of the town forced to live together. In 1942 they were deported, first to small concentration camps, then to Theresienstadt, and finally, in 1944, to their deaths in Auschwitz.
NONE OF THEM SURVIVED. Max Rosenfeld (Sidonie's brother), far left,, his wife Selma, (behind him) and their daughter, Bertl, (to his right) were deported to Riga concentration camp in Latvia in December of 1941, and murdered.
ONE OF THE MANY TRAGIC stories of this family was that of Adolf Herrmann, Moritz and Sidonie's son. At age 15, he fled Germany in the spring of 1939, seeking refuge in Belgium. We knew that he had been incarcerated in various concentration camps in France, and had been murdered in Auschwitz, but many of the details behind the story were missing.
In the midst of a frustrating and fruitless search for records of the appeal hearing for Frieda, I decided to write again to Ron Coleman at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum to ask if he could find an American Friends Service Committee file on Adolf. A couple weeks later, he sent me a PDF of AFSC case file No. 6234, and a note. As he had feared, he said, the file was thin, typical of the French files.
True, there were only a few letters and documents in the file, mostly regarding a request by Adolf's aunt to send him $50 to help with his emigration papers. Adolf was then being held at the Les Milles concentration camp in France. But other details in the letters revealed startling information.
I sent the file immediately to my friend in Germany, historian and journalist Steffen Pross. He has written two volumes on the Jewish families of Freudental and their descendants, and finds Adolf's story especially compelling.
"The Adolf file is moving me deeply," he wrote back. "If the dates are true, the first letter is horror." The planned date of travel, this letter indicated, was May 10, 1940, the very day that Germany invaded Belgium. All plans and hopes evaporated.
Later, I would find more documents that filled in the details of Adolf's suffering and ordeals in Belgium and France. But for now, Steffen Pross added the information to a chronology of Adolf's life, for a book he was writing, and translated it all into English just to help me sort it out.
Then I turned my attentions to another part of my family -- one family that I had been neglecting for too long.
HOW CLOSE HE WAS TO ESCAPE, to freedom, to coming to America! If he had, I thought, I would have known him; he might have been a kind of favorite uncle/cousin between my father's generation and my own. I reread the brief file with sadness, feeling the helplessness of the people who had tried to rescue Adolf.
Adolf Herrmann's registration in Belgium, April of 1939