I have begun work on my newest project: the story of my great-grandfather’s quest for reparations following the loss of his businesses to the Nazis in 1938 Vienna, Austria. Despite signs all around them, Sigmund Lichtenthal and his wife, the former Rosa Berger did not deem the situation dire enough to leave Vienna. My research thus far indicates they were not alone in their decision to “wait and see.”
I have begun translating the letters written by Sigmund’s son, Paul (my grandfather) from his cells in Dachau and Buchenwald (1938-1939.) Reading these letters it appears that plans for my mother, Doris (barely 6 years old), her mother, Rose, and Rose’s mother, Sophie Spiegel to leave Vienna were already in the works at the time of Paul’s arrest in March 1938.
The earliest letter I have located is dated June 5, 1938, six days after Paul’s arrest in Vienna on May 31. It’s a pretty standard note. Paul related that he is settling in and wishes to adhere to all the regulations. He shared information on how to contact him at the camp – Block 20, Room 4.
Reading Paul’s handwriting is a bit of challenge. He wrote only in block letters which should have made it easier to transcribe. However, he often spaced his letters unevenly which sometimes left me guessing at which word he meant to write.
Paul’s note dated June 19, 1938 makes it clear that plans were already in the works for leaving Vienna. Paul tells Rose to sell everything that is unnecessary. He takes great care to instruct her about the radio, the records, and his chamber music notes. As I work my way through his communications, I hope to create the timeline of my family’s exodus from Europe. When did they decide to leave? Was Paul originally going to America with his wife and daughter, only to to be arrested before he had the chance to leave?
Paul was transferred from Dachau to Buchenwald on September 22, 1938. By that date, his wife and child had completed their voyage from Rotterdam arriving in New York on September 10. On February 11, 1939 Paul was released from Buchenwald. It is unclear whether he went back to Vienna for a time. What is known for sure is he stayed with family friends, the Bäcks in Holland before sailing on March 4, 1939 to meet his family in New York. (Rose and Doris also stayed with the Bäcks. Sophie remained in Holland for a few months more, arriving in New York in February 1939.)
This quick glimpse sheds only a tiny bit of light on the story. I look forward to sharing what I learn as I dig deeper and put the pieces of the puzzle together.