Today is International Holocaust Remembrance Day

Most people are aware of the events surrounding the Holocaust as well as the horrific situation in which many Jews found themselves during and after. In this post, I’d like to share a few things that are lesser-known, as well as some documents from my family during that period.

My grandfather, Paul Lichtenthal was called to the local police station in his district of Vienna on May 15, 1938. He didn’t return home until February 1939. The reason for the call? He was Jewish and had money. Austria had just been annexed to (became part of) Germany two months earlier. A plan was developed by the Nazi party to gather these wealthy men, detain them and then offer to release them in return for money. Sounds like ransom, right? Exactly. As time went on, and Hiter’s activities needed more funds, additional demands were placed on all the Jews requiring them to pay fees, fines, and taxes for a variety of fabricated reasons.

Paul was taken to Dachau and told he would be released upon paying a certain amount of money and a promise to leave the country immediately. The family owned a hatmaking enterprise (Factory and several shops) which could generate the necessary funds. Unfortunately, the business was Aryanized (the removal of all Jews), and ownership was turned over to the non-Jewish manager. Paul’s father was paid a nominal sum in return for signing over the business. The money was placed in a frozen account which the family could not access. So, Paul remained in Dachau while the family struggled to gather funds and work their way through the maze of requirements put in place specifically to make it difficult for Jews to obtain the papers needed to leave the country. Within a few months, Dachau was becoming crowded. On September 22, 1938, Paul was transferred to Buchenwald. He remained there until his release on February 11, 1939.

Not many people are aware that the so-called “political prisoners” such as Paul were allowed to communicate by mail, receive money, and purchase items in camp commissaries. Read the information and captions below each image to learn more.

Paul’s Effects card lists the personal items he had upon entering Buchenwald in September 1938. The items included: a hat, pair of shoes, pair of socks, coat, trousers, a vest, a pullover, shirt, underwear, a collar, a coat, a tie, a mechanical pencil, a watch, and a ring.
Image courtesy of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) 

The images above are of Paul’s Account Card at Buchenwald. Prisoners were allowed to receive up to 15 RM (Reichmark) every other week. The funds could be used to purchase food items (which were pretty scarce and not too tasty), toiletries (although there was often no water available!), or clothing items such as a sweater or scarf. (Image courtesy of the USHMM)

One of the first letters Paul sent to his wife, Rose from Dachau. July 3, 1938. Family collection.

On the left side of the envelope above are the very specific instructions relating to the mail system:

Concentration camp Dachau 3K

The following instructions must be observed in correspondence with prisoners:

1.) Each prisoner of protection may receive and send two letters or two cards from his relatives per month. The letters to the prisoners must be legibly written in ink and contain only 15 lines on one page. Only a normal size letterhead is allowed. Envelopes must be unlined. Only 5 stamps of 2 Pfg. (Pfennig) may be enclosed in a letter. Everything else is prohibited and is subject to confiscation. Postcards have 10 lines. Photographs may not be used as postcards.

2.) Sending money is allowed.

3.) Newspapers are permitted, but may only be ordered through the post office of K.L. Dachau.

4.) Parcels must not be sent because the prisoners can buy everything in the camp.

5.) Applications for release from protective custody to the camp management are futile.

All mail that does not meet these requirements is returned to the sender. If no sender is known, it will be destroyed. The camp command.

Paul faithfully wrote home every other week, as allowed, except for one time period. On November 9-10, the event known as Kristallnacht occurred. As a way to punish the Jews for the damage done across Europe, additional taxes were imposed. Also imposed was a postal block, forbidding contact by mail for an unspecified time.

The prisoners were instructed to sign the small pre-printed note and add their prisoner number and cell block. The notices were then mailed from the camp.

I have a postal block until further notice., I am therefore not allowed to receive or send letters, cards and parcels. Inquiries to the camp command are prohibited and prolong the writing ban. Paul Lichtenthal 8487, Block 9.

Six weeks passed before Paul could send mail again on December 4, 1938.

Pre-printed slip of paper, signed by Paul in Buchenwald November 1938. Family collection.

The gate at Dachau is fairly well-known, with the words “Arbeit Mach Frei” (Work Will Set You Free) emblazoned in letters on the gate. In my research, I learned of the gate at Buchenwald. The words “Jedem das Seine” (To Each His Own) are placed strategically in the iron gate. The words can only be read properly from the inside of the camp, a warning to the prisoners that they (the Jews) are getting what they deserve,

Thankfully, my family’s story has a relatively happy ending. All the members of my mother’s immediate family made it to the United States by 1941. Despite imprisonment, financial ruin, family separation, and a litany of heath issues couldn’t stop them. They survived. And I am here to tell the story. I’d call that a victory.

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