THE GREY FOLDER PROJECT
DISAPPOINTED AND FRUSTRATED by the State Department records that could not be found, I launched into a widespread search everywhere I could think of, looking for anything I could find. I asked the archivist at the National Archives and Records Administration to go back and look for files on other members of my family. I searched Yad Vashem's database, adding photos of Frieda and correcting information about her and other relatives as I learned the details. I wrote to the archive in Mannheim, Germany, to see what they had on Frieda and the other members of my father's family. I contacted HIAS, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, which my mother had mentioned in her letter as an organization that had tried to help Frieda get a visa, and initiated an Immigrant Record Search Request. I wrote to the American Friends Service Committee -- which had sent the tragic letter telling of Frieda's deportation to an unknown destination --in Philadelphia, to locate its archives.
I couldn't know at the time, but this would be just the beginning of my search. And eventually, things began to happen.
FIRST, THE CONSCIENTIOUS ARCHIVIST at the National Archives and Records Administration, Amy Reytar, came up with a record of correspondence about the visa application for my father's younger brother, Max. This included the letter about his affidavits, as well as a later letter confirming that his visa had been granted.
I was amazed to see that the date of issue for his visa was September 1, 1939, the very day that Germany invaded Poland, signifying the outbreak of World War II.
In Germany, Max was conscripted to forced labor on Hitler's Autobahn construction project from September of 1938 until March of 1939.
In America, he would serve in the U.S. Army.
Max left Germany on September 4, 1939, and boarded a ship in Antwerp five days later. After his arrival in New York, he went to join my father, who was by then living in Chicago. The two brothers joined forces to try to rescue their parents and Tante Frieda from the grip of the Nazis.
FROM MANNHEIM, ARCHIVIST Karen Strobel wrote an extensive answer to my query, in four e-mails with attachments. These included registration forms, called Meldekarte, that were used for all inhabitants of the city. There was one for Frieda and her first husband, Jacob Levy (an ironmonger), with the dates and places of their residence in Mannheim; another for my grandparents' family, and another for Frieda's second husband Phillip Norbert Berger.
THE MELDEKARTE was a registration card used to keep track of the city's residents. It also asked for the religion of each person in the household.
The MELDEKARTE FOR FRIEDA and her second husband, Phillip Norbert Berger, shows that he was 14 years younger than she was, and a Catholic. Perhaps that was why Frieda's family disapproved of the marriage.
Karen Strobel summarized many of the facts about Frieda and my grandparents. For example, the registration cards showed that from 1931, Frieda had lived with my grandparents and my father and uncle at several addresses in Mannheim, she said. The cards showed my father and uncle's departure for America, and Frieda's deportation to Gurs.
She also had details about my grandfather's employment as a freelance music and theater critic. One detail really surprised me: After 1933, when Hitler came to power, he was no longer allowed to write for non-Jewish publications.
KAREN STROBEL ALSO SENT PHOTOS: of Mannheim before the war, of the deportation to Gurs in the adjacent town of Ludwigshafen, of the Jewish cemetery and of Mannheim's glass cube Holocaust memorial, even a close-up she took of Frieda's name inscribed in the glass. I had visited Mannheim some 15 years before, and had never seen the memorial, placed in 2003. Nor, on my visit, had I thought to contact the archive. Now, the wealth of information in the e-mails, along with Karen Strobel's generous offer to research and answer any questions I had, indicated what was to be a rich relationship with the archive that held some important clues to my family's past.
THE KUBUS in Mannheim is a glass cube Holocaust memorial set in a busy pedestrian zone. The names of Mannheim victims of the Nazis are printed inside the cube so onlookers must pause to read the names through the cube.
OTHER ARCHIVES WOULD TAKE LONGER, much longer, to respond. Some never would. Still others would disappoint, for mysterious reasons. Even though I was sure that HIAS must have had records of my parents' and grandparents' attempts to rescue Frieda, and I paid for several time-consuming searches of HIAS files kept in the YIVO archives, the only thing that was ever found concerning Frieda was the handwritten list of names of inmates sent from Gurs to Drancy on August 6, 1942.
However, I had finally located the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) archive. In the years that the relief organization operated its Refugee Division at least 22,000 individuals and families were helped before, during, and after World War II. These files had been moved to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and an archivist named Ronald Coleman was curator.
So now -- it was mid-December, 2013 -- I wrote an e-mail to Ronald Coleman asking him to look for any files with the name Frieda Berger. I mentioned the copy of the letter I had from the AFSC that said, "We have very tragic news for you -- that Frieda Berger has "DEPARTED UNKNOWN DESTINATION" and speculated that there had been earlier correspondence between my grandparents, Kurt and Bertha Sonnemann, or my father, Eric Sonneman, and the AFSC concerning Frieda Berger.
I heard back from Ron Coleman that very day. "Yes, there does appear to be a file for your great aunt (file number 10655)," he wrote. "These files are stored at the Museum's offsite storage facility, and due to the upcoming holidays there will be no collection deliveries for the next two weeks. I will request the file and will let you know what it contains as soon as it arrives (likely the week of January 6)."
HE CAUTIONED ME NOT TO EXPECT TOO MUCH. "The case files for AFSC assistance to those in Gurs are often not very substantive--usually just a few letters to and from relatives in the States concerning arrangements to send money to France," he wrote.
"However, even these 'transactional' documents show the kind of work that was being done by the AFSC, and trace the often frantic efforts of individuals in the U.S. to help relatives in France. There is likely a copy of the letter in your possession in the case file; my guess is that AFSC staff in France sent a cable to Philadelphia listing a number of names of those known to have been deported from Gurs, and the letter you have was the AFSC's relay of that information. There are, unfortunately, a large number of such letters in these files."
"By the way," Coleman added, " there is also an AFSC file for Kurt and Bertha Sonnemann of Mannheim (file number 1793). I will request this file, also, and will let you know what it contains."
SO. I WOULD HAVE TO WAIT. YET despite the archivist's cautious approach, these files sounded promising. In the meantime, I considered what I knew of my grandparents and tried to imagine what they must have experienced.