Today, Wednesday January 27 is Holocaust Remembrance Day. In the past, I have written about my grandfather’s concentration camp experience. I also told the story of his father, my great-grandfather Sigmund Lichtenthal, and shared how the events during the Holocaust destroyed his lifelong business.
Many people are keenly aware of the outcome of the Holocaust but perhaps not of the events preceding it. With that in mind, I decided to share part of the book I am working on.
VIENNA – May 24, 1938
When her husband didn’t return after several hours, Rose became concerned. Paul had told her he needed to go to the Döbling Police Station to answer some questions. The request seemed innocuous enough. Maybe something had happened at one of LITAL’s shops. The air was full of energy since that day when Hitler stood in his “pulpit”- the balcony of the Hapsburg palace, the Hofburg – addressing the hundreds of thousands of people jammed in the Heldenplatz (Heroes Square). It would not be surprising if some of that energy spilled over into vandalism or property destruction.
After asking her mother to keep an eye on six-year-old Doris, Rose left the apartment to make the seven-minute walk to the police station. She was not alone. There were dozens of women there, all with the same look of desperation on their faces. Rose explained the situation to the officers in charge who informed her Paul was not there; perhaps he was at Karajangasse? Karajangasse? That made no sense – that was the address of a school. Rose thought her heart would surely burst. A mind can go to very dark places in times of change. “Gott sei dank” she and Paul had already begun the process of securing emigration papers. There was no telling what would happen next.
Two weeks after Paul’s sudden disappearance, the facts were coming to light. The Viennese police had received orders to arrest and transport Jews from Vienna to Dachau. The district police were directed by the Gestapo to question the detained persons using specific questions on printed interrogation forms. Following interrogation, the arrested were to be transferred to the deportation spot, an elementary school on Karajangasse which had been transformed into a “Sammellager” (collection point) – a place to hold prisoners before being taken the train station.
There were men from all the various districts of Vienna. As each entered, they were registered, given a little something to eat and then they waited. There was straw on the floor to provide a place to sleep for the unfortunates who remained there overnight, sometimes for days.
Paul waited for two long days and nights, among hundreds of men, each unsure of why they were there and terrified of what might be next. Unexpectedly, on the morning of the third day, the activity in the room increased. The prisoners were divided into groups of twenty by the guards who then directed each small group into different classrooms. Something was definitely going to change. From each classroom, as names were called, the men were next herded into police wagons waiting outside the school. Each query about where they were headed was given an answer that belied the truth. As the caravan of police wagons slowly turned onto Mariahilferstrasse. it was becoming clear they were going to Westbahnhof, Vienna’s main railway station.
Arriving at Westbahnhof, the caravan drove past the main part of the station and stopped by an outside track. The local police had completed their task. The Schutzstaffel (SS men) took over, barking commands to the men to get out of the wagons and onto the train. Schell! If someone wasn’t quick enough, they were beaten. The men had no idea what was happening. Why were they getting on a train? Where were they going? Paul knew he was not a criminal. What could he possibly have done to end up on this train?
The group was herded on to a typical third-class passenger train, but instead of being allowed three to a seat, they were packed six together, like sardines. The prisoners were told to keep their heads up, hands on their thighs, eyes open, and stare into the electric light. The slightest movement of the head would be met with a beating. The prisoners were not allowed to use the toilet. Instead they were forced to eliminate on themselves and then were beaten for the transgression. The guards all looked to be quite young – perhaps 17 to 21 years of age. Despite the warm weather the heat was kept on. Between the heat, the hot neon lights and fear from watching the beatings of fellow occupants, everybody was soaked in sweat. The heat was so intense, it caused photos men had in their wallets to melt and stick together. An SS guard stood at the front of each compartment. Others, armed with guns and bayonets stood ready to strike should a prisoner’s head droop or their eyes close momentarily from exhaustion.
The town of Dachau was located about 10 miles northwest of Munich, Germany. The train stopped several times along the route, stretching the trip from the normal five hours to more than twenty-six. Men were jumping out windows. Others, desperate to escape the horrors around them, chose suicide as the better option.
Rose would not learn the fate of her husband for fourteen long, agonizing days when finally, she received a postcard from Dachau.
Block 20 Room 4
Dachau June 5, 1938
My dear! This week already settled in well arrived. Unconditionally want to adhere to unilateral regulations. Postal orders are allowed at a maximum of RM 15 per week. Note the section on the front of the sender and the receiver on the reverse. Get everything to buy in the warehouse.
Warmest regards and kisses
Over the next eight months, Rose would receive more letters. First from Dachau then Buchenwald. After Paul’s release in February 1939, he joined his family in New Rochelle, New York. Eighty-two years after Paul’s incarceration, I began to write the story of our family’s Holocaust experience. This is but a small piece of the story. As work on the book continues, I will share more.