A Box Full of History

Finding this humble box has turned out to be a remarkable find for me in terms of the history of searching for my family.

It certainly would have made my search a lot easier had my father shown it to me years ago.

But then again, I would not have done the extensive research had it simply been handed to me. I guess there is a reason for everything.

After this mammoth discovery, I spent about 2 weeks filing and archiving the hundreds of extraordinary documents and letters within it.

Documents that explain the history of what happened to my grandparents and my father during the Shoah. Sure, I knew the stories but there were holes, big gaps that I could not figure out.

But now…. well now, I have it all documented. It filled 6 huge folders.

Within the “Golden Book” found in this box was a vast array of letters.

Letters to and from my grandfather and my grandmother, father, fathers siblings, my grandfathers brothers and friends.

What has been critical for me, is seeing documents that finally dispel myths surrounding my grandfathers survival. I have not translated even a quarter of the archive yet.

Every thursday I spend a few hours with a family friend Joachim Schneeweiss, who patiently translates the letters. During the course of translating the letters, mostly written in German but has the occasional Yiddish, Polish and Hebrew within them, he can also enlighten me on the history of certain events for he too is a Survivor and an extremely clever and knowledgeable man.

He knew my grandfather quite well. My grandfather Isidor was a guest, for many-a-Shabbos lunch in the Schneeweiss  home, for Isidor was a religious Jewish Man, without a family. The Schneeweiss’ opened their home on Shabbat to those who needed to eat a Kosher Meal. There were a number of men who after being interned in Tatura and Hay in Melbourne (after being deported to Australia on the infamous “Dunera”) who fit into this category.

Joachim and I painstakingly translate, dissect and discuss each letter in detail, trying to piece together the details of events during the war. There are new names of family for me to try and discover.

It is no easy task.

It takes patience.

Amongst the letters I have found reference to family on my grandmothers side. They managed to escape. Once found, I then try and research the family, where they went, where they finished up.

It is not an easy thing writing to people or cold calling and saying Hi, my name is Judy Wilkenfeld and I am your cousin. This is how we are related. Can you enlighten me on your story and do you remember anything about my family…

This is how I made contact with Erika Kahn. She has been an amazing source of information for me. Now in her late 80’s, I am excited to say that after my trip to Lithuania in a few weeks I will get to meet Erika in Los Angeles - put a face to a name on my tree - delve into her escape story and simply enjoy meeting a cousin that the war did not afford me to know before.

And then there was this:

One of the numerous letters between my grandfather and his brother David.

It took months to finally reach Isidor after all the Censors.

See his name: David Israel Wilkenfeld

That was not his name.

His name was David Wilkenfeld but In August 1938, German authorities decreed that by January 1, 1939, Jewish men and women bearing first names of “non-Jewish” origin (Like David is such a non-Jewish name!) had to add “Israel” and “Sara,” respectively, to their given names.

It was not long after this letter was posted that David (Z”L) was sent to and exterminated in Auschwitz.

Interestingly, in this and many other prior letters, David mentions what has been happening to the family of a lady named Chana Hendel. Amazingly on the letter below, Chana Hendel wrote to Isidor too. She spoke of the whereabouts of part of her family. Together with Dr Michael Abrams Sprod (See previous posts) we poured over this letter. Some of the words were coded and only later did I figure it out - to a degree.

I had to know who this Chana Hendel was.

Why was she living in the same Juden House as my great uncle?

Why was she and David mentioning where her sons were and offering assistance for my father?

I immediately went to the Yad Vadshem Database - typed in her full name and discovered she was born in Zolynia, the same Shtetl as the one where the Wilkenfelds were from.

I discovered she was also sent to Auschwitz shortly after writing on this letter.

She was clearly agitated by how she was writing. Michael A Sprod found in unnerving and disturbing to read this letter - there was an intensity about it. There was distress in the handwriting itself.

I discovered Chana Hendel (Z’L) was killed with four of her young daughters.

I had to find out more because in working on our tree there is a link to Chana’s maiden name and our Wilkenfelds.

Were we related?

Two of the testimonies were submitted in 1999 by her son Henry. He gave his address but no phone number.

I didn’t know if he would even be alive by now.

But I hoped and prayed.

It took me a couple of weeks but I traced a phone number for him.

Again, it took a lot of courage to finally make the call.

Courage because these people do not know me. It really is quite a bizarre thing to do, ring up after all this time.

It is a bit strange to cold call someone and say and re-tell the story of what I have been doing, who I am and how I found, what was probably the last letter, Henry’s mother may have written before her untimely death.

But that is what I had to do.

A lady answered the phone, it was Henry’s wife and in the scramble to try and explain myself, I think I had to repeat the story about 2 or 3 times in order for Anne to comprehend what was going on. Understand because this sort of call is so out of the blue. Can you imagine? They are not young. Henry is hard of hearing. If you have ever rung elderly people you know it can be hard for them to hear and get your message across. Imagine doing this and those on the other end are Holocaust Survivors - so the utmost sensitivity is required in any event.

Finally we traded emails and I am excited to say that I will be meeting Anne and Henry in Los Angeles a day before I get to meet Erika.

Maybe we will be able to untangle a bit more of the story and relationship.

I would never have been able achieve this without todays technology.

It is really quite amazing that after 65 years I can connect with people who knew and or had a relationship with my grandparents all those years ago.

And thank goodness for the humble Brown Box I unearthed in my fathers study. A box he never showed me, even though he knew I was working and researching so hard on our family’s history for so long.

Erev Pesach Deportation

Last night was Erev Pesach, the first evening of Passover. Jews all over the world sat down together and celebrated our Freedom from Slavery in Egypt. The Seder, as it is called is a long evening as we recount the Exodus.

But last night, I sat at the table and thought about three family members in particular.

My Grandmother, Gittel, after whom I am named

and two of her children, Berta

and Nissan

So why was I thinking about them?

It was on the same day that they were forcibly removed from their home and deported to the Warsaw Ghetto along with thousands of Magdeburg German Jews.

When a man called “Hermann Spier was appointed to the position of teacher at the re-opened ‘Judenschule,’ the religious community also benefited by virtue of his training and former position as a cantor. However, most importantly, as a highly competent and diligent individual, he became the community’s religious leader and a source of inspiration and moral courage.” (Dr Michael Abrams Sprod)

What is interesting here is that a man in Melbourne, Mr Freiberg many years ago approached my father to tell him that his sister Berta attended the same school as him. My father, at the time, was already on his escape route. He was somewhat sceptical about his sister being in that school.

I had to know after I found this out too.

Chasing down the photo almost 30 years after that conversation, I got the class photo from Michael Abrams Sprod:

See the man with the glasses, that’s their teacher, Herman Spier.

My parents are pictured looking to see if Berta was in the photo.

However she was not there that day for the Jewish Day School was an hour away by train. This photo was taken on an outing on a Sunday, so Berta would not have made the long journey.

You see Berta was expelled from attending her regular school, as was my father, for the crime of being Jewish.

In Berta’s last correspondence with her father, a letter that was returned to him , after the war, {after his deportation to Australia on the Dunera} we see Berta mentioning her new teacher, Herr Spier. Proof that Mr Freiberg was, in fact, correct that Berta was with him in school.

As I mentioned before, Herr Spier was a source of “inspiration and moral courage”.

It is a source of comfort to know that whilst being deported Erev Pesach, that Berta had her teacher with her too. Apparently he gave a Drosha, a speech, that night, when they would have been in the train station together, that was extremely inspirational. He spoke of their plight.

Michael told me it would have been a source of comfort to Berta - he may have made her felt at ease with the process she was undergoing - such was his nature.

Here we see that Herr Spier was on the same deportation transport as Bertha, her mother and brother:

Full Record Details for  Spier Hermann
Last Name: SPIER
First Name: HERMANN
First Name: I
Gender: Male
Date of Birth: 23/04/1885
Citizenship: GERMANY
Marital Status: MARRIED
Related item: List of Jews from Magdeburg and the Magdeburg vicinity deported, 13-14/04/1942 and 13/07/1942
Type of material: List of persecuted persons

Source: List of Jews from Magdeburg and the Magdeburg vicinity deported, 13-14/04/1942 and 13/07/1942

Yad Vashem Archives

And her is Bertha’s:

Full Record Details for  Wilkenfeld Berta
Last Name            WILKENFELD
First Name            BERTA
First Name            S
Gender: Female
Date of Birth: 26/12/1928
Citizenship: POLAND
Marital Status: CHILD
Date of deportation: 14/04/1942
Related item: List of Jews from Magdeburg and the Magdeburg vicinity deported, 13-14/04/1942 and 13/07/1942
Type of material: List of persecuted persons
Source: List of Jews from Magdeburg and the Magdeburg vicinity deported, 13-14/04/1942 and 13/07/1942

If you want you can go to this link and see an excerpt of a film of that deportation, including whilst they were in the train station, waiting to go to the Warsaw Ghetto.

It is chilling…

You see, Michael was researching Herr Spier, when he finally was able to attain this part of a list for me that I requested:

The original typed list of my family being deported,

I then showed him the letter, part of which is above, when he saw Herr Spiers name, we knew for sure that Berta was indeed at the Judenshule, Jewish School, just as Mr Freiberg had said she was. Mr Freiberg, managed to escape this transport by mere fate. He was asked to swap places on the transport in order that a family could remain together. He got off, not realising at the time that this very act of “kindness” saved his life.

That he was on the same transport as her was further evidence that the tragedy that began for them all that Erev Pesach, 69 years ago, was, as I said at the outset of this post, uppermost in my mind last night.

A book, a photo, a label…

Thank you Google!

By googling a family members name I managed to come across a book with a partial history of some of my extended family.

I immediately ordered the book from Amazon but posting to Australia would mean a wait of a few weeks. So I rang the Holocaust museum here to see if they had it. They did!

I read as much as I could and then patiently waited for the books arrival.

It came a few days ago.

I wont go into the history here but will tell you an interesting “find” that occurred.

Susi, the author had an aunt Jenny who married a cousin of ours, Pinchos Fluss.

Jenny died in the Holocaust, that much I knew. The book was able to fill in some gaps for me about their life prior to WW2. Pinchos survived with some of his children. When asking my mother about them, she asked me if I recalled meeting Pinchos in England when I was very young, but I did not.

I was reading about where the family lived. I did not know the name of the area in Berlin.

About 10 minutes later I happened to be speaking to my cousin Robby Klein about arranging a meeting with his Uncle Bernard Goldman, a cousin of mine too. I decided to look at all the photos I scanned whilst interviewing Bernard about 6 months ago.

Robby’s grandfather Ami, Bernard’s brother, is present on the left of this photo in the families former fur shop in Dessau.

I always scan the back of the photos for the genealogical information - if there is any.

This is what is on the back of this photo:

Now it did peak my curiosity about the surname and first initial here. Since some of Goldman family and mine came from the same shtetl of Pysznica and part of my paternal family’s name is Fluss, I thought, now this is way too much of a coincidence.

Why a coincidence?

Because, in the book I was just reading a few moments before, Pinchos Fluss and his wife Jenny, lived in Charlottenburg.

The book didnt give the exact address.

So how was I going to determine if this was the same P. Fluss and why was his name and address labelled on this photo from Dessau?

At the same time that I was in the Museum voraciously looking for information in Susi’s book, I decided to photograph some vital information in this book.

It is a book made up of many volumes which lists the name, birth, maiden name, if necessary, former address’ of German Jews killed in The Holocaust.

Even though I knew what happened to Jenny, also know as Sheindel, somewhat fortuitously, I decided to photograph her entry in this book and the entries of her children that were murdered with her.

Reading in Susi’s book about Jenny’s place in Charlottenburg, then looking at the back of the photo whilst cropping the photos ready for Bernard to identify some people, then realising I had actually photographed Jenny is this book, I immediately went to my archive of photo’s.

and there it was, right before my eyes.

Same people, same family, same address.

How uncanny.

I google a family name

I find a book in England about some members of the family

I happened to speak to Robby to arrange a time to meet with Bernard who is the owner of the photo

I read the book and within a few minutes get distracted because I feel I must crop the scanned photos from Bernard - ready for a meeting with him

And then I find the label of the Fluss family living in Charlottenburg on the back of a photo of Robby’s grandfather which was taken in Dessau

I photograph the details of the demise of some of this family in another book weeks earlier

Then voila!

Merge all of these bits of information together to prove this link.

The mystery still remains…

Why is Pinchos Fluss’ label on the back of this photo?

My family, the Fluss’s and some of Robby and Bernard’s family come from the small Shtetl of Pysznica in Poland. I won’t go into how we are related. But did those Shtetl connections, once the families moved to Germany, remain? Maybe we will find out when Robby and I meet up with Bernard in a week or so.

I always find it fascinating that I can be sitting here in Sydney, get a book from London that tells the history of family from Poland and Germany then look in a book from Germany that is here in Sydney, get a photo originally from Dessau that has a label from Charlottenburg, scan it in Sydney and blend the Provenance of the photo together.

Now you know why I call this blog Provenance!

Here is a story of serendipity for you.

On friday I was at the Rookwood Cemetery in Sydney doing a tour of the old Jewish cemetery grounds with the President of the Jewish Burial Sociery. I am getting involved with their restoration project which entails restoring many of the oldest graves.


Amongst the 1000’s of graves in the old cemetery, a newly refurbished grave struck my eye as it looked out of place. New granite and styling stood out like a sore thumb amongst the old marble and stone graves.

I read the inscription, photographed it and was struck by the fact that the people had come from Zhager a very small town in Lithuania.

It was odd to see such an old grave from people from Lithuania, where some of  my family come from. As I am helping a family here research their family from Akmene and Zhager, I felt I had to eventually research who these people were.

{Cemetery in Akmene}

As I turned around to my right and behind me, I noticed 2 very old and beautiful white grave stones lying on the ground and soon realized these were the original stones from the grave I was just reading. I took more photo’s.


{Photo of Zhager Jewish Gen Shtetl Site}

Whilst the President was talking to the restorers they came to where I was standing. He said we will have to put those old stones way down the other end of the cemetery.

I went crazy and insisted they be placed on top of the newly refurbished grave as they are one and the same. The problem, they said, was that the granite was too thin to hold the heavier and extremely thicker old marble stones.

I said find a solution, they cannot be separated.

They finally came up with a solution to keep it all together.

{A typical house in Akmene: Photo: Yad Vashem}

I have never been on the Australian Jewish Genealogical Society site, but yesterday for some reason, something complelled me to.

After perusing the site I somehow found a link to a lady’s travel blog so I followed the link and landed up in the middle of the blog.  I had know idea where her family was from or to where she was travelling to in search of her family roots. But decided to look anyway.

Imagine my shock when I read she was in  Zhager and Akmene researching her family.

{Akmene Jewish Cemetery}

As I read on I was even more shocked to find that the grave I was fighting so hard to keep together  belonged to this lady’s grandparents. As with my art, the serendipity is following me in my genealogical searches. This is just one example of it. Whilst it does not relate to me or my family, YET, one never knows how helping her may help me, in the end.

I connected with her on Facebook and she requested the photos I had taken as she did not have images of the older grave stones.

It was a very rewarding 24 hours.