THERE IS A BEAUTIFUL PIECE by Beethoven titled Für Elise and I always associate it with my grandfather's sister, Elise Sonnemann, a medical doctor in Munich. When my father was a boy, going to visit his grandparents in Munich, Elise took him along on her hospital rounds and bought him ice cream in the cafeteria. "They had the best chocolate ice cream," my father remembered.
My father had no photographs of her. He told me that she had been sent to the concentration camp of Dachau and when she refused to serve as a doctor there, she was shot.
However, it turned out that the Dachau story wasn't accurate, or at least not entirely so.
When I was writing Shared Sorrows, I wrote to the Munich city archive and learned that SS units had killed Elise in Lithuania in November of 1941. The corrected story did not comfort my father. I also saw Elise's photograph for the first time on a registration card. Her profile was stamped with the Nazi eagle-swastika symbol.
ELISE SONNEMANN was born in Munich on May 12, 1895. She began medical studies at the Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität in 1912 and graduated in 1919. Afterwards, she worked as a general practitioner and an internist in Munich, with her own practice first in the Westend, then in Schwabing, then Georgenstrasse 77 and then Daimlerstrasse 38. (Any of these might be a fine place to put a Stolperstein in memory of her -- but unfortunately Munich does not allow them. A complicated story.)
On November 1, 1931, as she remarked on her citizen registration card, she left the Jewish religious community. (Might she have thought that this would protect her?) In 1938, her medical license was withdrawn, a fate shared with all German Jewish doctors who were considered "non-Aryans and enemies of the state." In 1941, she was taken to the labor camp on Knorrstrasse 148 in München-Milbertshofen. In the same year, on November 20, she was deported, along with nearly 1,000 other Jews. She was shot in a mass killing in Kaunus, Lithuania, on or shortly before November 25, 1941.
The German artist Wolfram Kastner, who is dedicated to an honest reckoning of Munich's role in Nazi atrocities, designed a tribute to the Jewish doctors of Munich who fell victim to the Nazis. I was honored to discover that he used the image and biography of Dr. Elise Sonnemann to tell this story. Mr. Kastner told me that he'd intentionally removed the Nazi swastikas from Elise's photograph, to restore her dignity.
When I was in Munich in October of 2015, I met Wolfram Kastner and we went together to see the memorial, placed in the lobby of the library of Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität in Munich, where Elise got her medical degree. From the lobby, students walked up and down the curving stairway to the medical lobby. I was both moved and disturbed to see the memorial, and I wondered: how many students would stop to read about a Jewish doctor who also once studied at this university? Even if there were only a few, I was grateful to Mr. Kastner for his dignified portrait of Dr. Elise Sonnemann.
photo ©Stadtarchiv München
I DIDN'T THINK that I would learn anything more about Elise. And yet, I continued to search, hoping that at least I could understand more of the context of her story.
Two years after seeing the memorial at Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität, I was in Munich again to visit the Documentation Center for the History of National Socialism, which had opened in May of 2015. Since the museum specifically focused on Munich during the Nazi era, I hoped to find some information that would relate to Elise Sonnemann. So I studied each panel and read all of the short biographies in the museum's side corridors.
That's when I saw the photograph and biography of Magdalena Schwarz. "MAGDALENA SCHWARZ 1900-1971, MÜNCHEN" read the heading on the panel.
She was a female Jewish doctor in Munich, just like my great aunt, Elise Sonnemann, but with one remarkable difference. She survived.
A short biography of Dr. Schwarz followed, in German and English. I read it twice, then photographed the English text:
Magdalena Schwarz was a doctor who lost her insurance accreditation in 1933 and her license to practice in 1938. As one of 14 Munich doctors, she was allowed to care exclusively for Jewish patients as a ‘treater of the sick.’ She did a stretch in prison from 1939/40 after having a romantic relationship with a Catholic. She subsequently worked in the Israelite Hospital on Hermann-Schmid Straße and treated patients in the Milbertshofen ‘Jew Camp’ as of the summer of 1941. In February 1945, when the news arrived that she would be deported, Dr. Kurt Schneider hid her as a patient of the psychiatric ward of Schwabing Hospital.
photo ©Stadtarchiv München
THE SHORT BIOGRAPHY ignited many questions for me.
First, did Elise Sonnemann and Magdalena Schwarz, two women physicians, only five years apart in age, know each other? Second, what did it mean for Jewish doctors to lose insurance accreditation in 1933? Third, why were medical doctors such as Dr. Schwarz employed by the Nazis to treat sick Jews when they were soon to be deported to their deaths?
But the questions of greatest importance to me were these:
Did Magdalena Schwarz's work treating patients in the Milbertshofen camp save her from the fate of Elise Sonnemann and nearly 1,000 other Munich Jews, deported and killed in November of 1941? Had her role as "treater of the sick" under the Nazis spared her from this and subsequent deportation actions in 1942, 1943 and 1944 until the last deportation order in February, 1945, when she was hidden?
If so, could it be that my father's memory --that Elise Sonnemann refused to serve as a doctor under the Nazis and was thus killed--had more than a shred of truth? Could it be that the only thing wrong with the story was the name of the "camp," Dachau rather than Milberstshofen?
If Elise Sonnemann did refuse the Nazis' request to work as a "treater of the sick" at Milbertshofen would she then have been slated for deportation?
After I returned home, I addressed some of these questions to a couple I'd heard about, Ursula and Hansjörg Ebell, who had created an exhibition in 2008 about German Jewish doctors in the Nazi period. Magdalena Schwarz's experience, with information contributed by her now-aged daughter, illuminated the exhibit's history of the Jewish doctors who had lost their licenses to practice medicine in 1938.
The Milbertshofen camp or "Lager" was not a concentration camp, the Ebells wrote me, but (along with Munich's Berg am Laim Lager) rather a place where Jews had to wait until they were deported. In the meantime, Jewish doctors who cared for the inmates were called 'Jüdische Krankenbehandler,' meaning, 'Jewish therapists of illness' to avoid the German word 'Ärzte' for medical doctors, they said. "We do not know if Dr. Sonnemann refused to work there."
I knew that there was unlikely to be evidence one way or the other, but I wanted to know what other experts might speculate about the possibility that Elise Sonnemann had refused to treat patients at Milbertshofen, so I put the question to Andreas Heusler, an archivist at Stadtarchiv München who had provided me with the few documents about Elise Sonnemann that the city archive held.
Dr. Heusler gave me a cautious opinion. "As far as I can see, Elise Sonnemann's deportation to Kaunas was not connected to the treatment of patients at the Milbertshofen camp," he wrote. "But," he added, "as we have no clear evidence through files and records, this is only speculation."