Fritz and Marie Pollak.
Image courtesy of Tamara Niv Kofman.
Fritz Pollak was murdered during the Nazi Holocaust. His name is inscribed on the Holocaust Memorial Tablet in the Cardiff Reform Synagogue. Fritz’s name has been memorialised by his brother Albert who survived the Holocaust and emigrated to Cardiff.
Fritz Pollak was born on 21 October 1895 in Trnovany, a district of Teplice city, in Bohemia, in the modern-day Czech Republic. He was one of four children. Fritz’s father Arthur was born in Bílence, Bohemia, and his mother Julie Pollak (née Schwitzer) in Břeclav, in Moravia. Arthur and Julie moved to Vienna, Austria, and started their family.
Fritz’s eldest sister Johanna was born in Vienna in May 1890, followed by Elsa in January 1892. By 1895, the family had relocated to Teplice, where Fritz was born, followed by his youngest sibling Albert in September 1904.
Although Fritz was born outside of Austria, for him and his family Vienna was their home. When the First World War broke out in 1914, Fritz fought in the Austro-Hungarian Army and was awarded the Tapferkeitsmedaille - Silver Medal for Bravery (First Class) - on 15 November 1916 when he was only 21 years old. This was the second-highest accolade for bravery, which could be awarded in the Austro-Hungarian Army and came with a lifelong pension award of 15 crowns per month.
After the Austro-Hungarian Empire dissolved following the First World War, Vienna became the capital of the Republic of Austria. Vienna had a very strong Jewish community and presence, with figures in the 1930s showing Jews accounting for just over 10% of the city’s population (around 200,000 people), and important links to Zionism as its founder, Theodor Herzl, studied at the university there. The Jewish inhabitants of the city also made up a high percentage of the city’s businessmen, lawyers and doctors; they were also heavily involved in the arts and journalism.
When Fritz returned to Vienna after his discharge from the army, he lived at Steinbauergasse 9 and trained as a bookkeeper. Although he had a talent for numbers, Fritz was also an incredible linguist. He spoke 13 languages and it took him just 3 months to master a new one. He was an active member of the Viennese Jewish Community where he met and fell in love with Marie Kral. Marie, also fondly known as Mitzi, was born in Vienna on 26 February 1894 into a large family, being one of eleven children. Marie was extremely accomplished in her own right, and she was the first woman in Vienna to receive a full scholarship to become a kindergarten teacher. She worked with orphans and purchased cloth in different patterns to make individual clothing so that they would not be ridiculed in class. She also wrote plays and had them performed by the children in her own extended family to raise money to support this cause.
Fritz and Marie were married in 1923 in the newly constructed Pazmanitentempel Synagogue at Pazmanitengasse 6, which was built just 10 years earlier. It was an impressive building, which could house 500 men and 400 women.
Pazmanitentempel Synagogue, also known as the Synagogue in der Leopoldstadt, Pazmanitengasse no. 6,
in Vienna’s 2nd district. It was built in 1913 (no longer in existence).
Image credit Wiener Bauindustrie-Zeitung, 1914, Issue XXXI, Table 21.
Image source ANNO/Austrian National Library:
Fritz and Marie had three children, but sadly their first-born twin boys passed away from an illness when they were only 3 months old. A daughter was then born to them on 24 November 1929. Her name was Johanna, after Fritz’s sister. She became known to the family as Hannal.
After March 1938, Jewish life in Vienna changed forever. Nazi Germany absorbed the Austrian Republic in what is known as the Anschluss. Once Austria had become part of Germany, the Nazis quickly established the same anti-Jewish legislation which had been systematically removing the rights and property of Jewish citizens in Germany since the passing of the Nuremberg laws on 15 September 1935. Just over a year after the Anschluss, thousands of Jewish owned businesses had been closed or confiscated by the government. Only twenty years earlier, Fritz had fought for his country as a proud Austrian soldier, but once the anti-Jewish legislation laws came into effect, Fritz’s war hero status counted for nothing. His Jewish heritage was enough to strip him of his achievements and the rights awarded to him by his own country for his bravery.
During the Kristallnacht pogrom, which took place on 9-10 November 1938, thousands of Jewish owned businesses, homes, synagogues and cemeteries were destroyed across Germany and Austria, including the synagogue where Fritz and Marie were married. Today there is an apartment block constructed in its place with a memorial plaque marking its former location.
The growing antisemitism across Austria led to Vienna becoming the centre of mass Jewish emigration. Many stood in long lines outside municipal buildings and passport offices throughout the day and night hoping to secure the relevant documents to escape the persecution. They were forced to pay an exit fee and register their property and possessions, many of which were confiscated as they left the country.
Once the Nazis began compiling their lists of Jewish residents, it did not take them long to uncover Fritz’s talent for languages. In 1940, the Gestapo arrived at the family home at Hollergasse 51 and took Fritz away to carry out translation work. It was the last time that he would see his wife and daughter.
Shortly after Fritz was taken, Marie realised the danger that they faced as Jews in Nazi-occupied Vienna. She packed one suitcase for herself and Hannal and decided to flee to Belgium on foot, along with her sister Elizabeth and nephew Henry. They ate potatoes stolen from fields along the way and eventually found brief shelter in a convent. The authorities were alerted to their presence, and they managed to escape and find work with local farmers for a time. Once in Belgium, Marie changed her name briefly to Janine to escape detection and she studied to become a seamstress. Marie and Hannal stayed in Belgium for the remainder of the war.
Unfortunately, after Fritz was forcibly taken from his home, the documentation regarding his wartime experience is untraceable. His family believe that he managed to survive for two years due to his translation skills. At some point, the Nazis decided that he had come to the end of his usefulness, or perhaps he had refused to comply with his Nazi captors. Prisoner lists show that Fritz ended up in Drancy detention centre in France by the summer of 1942, although it does not state when he arrived, how, or from where.
France endured a complicated wartime history. Before the Second World War, France was a liberal country, which had welcomed Jewish immigrants, and Paris had become a popular centre of Jewish life. This open door was abruptly closed by 1939 when the leaders of the French Third Republic (1870-1940) became concerned by the growing number of refugees fleeing Nazi persecution. Strict limitations were now placed on immigration by the French authorities, and they established internment camps for refugees in Southern France.
When the Germans invaded France, the Third Republic collapsed in the summer of 1940. On 22 June 1940, France signed an armistice with Germany. Under this agreement, Germany annexed certain territories in north-west France. Until November 1942, the southern and eastern parts of France remained unoccupied. A French collaborationist government was formed, with its headquarters based in Vichy. This new ‘Vichy Regime’ offered no protection to its Jewish inhabitants. In 1940, the Vichy Government announced antisemitic legislation based on the German decrees excluding Jews from public life. These laws were known as the ‘Statut des Juifs’ (Jewish Law). In March 1941, the Vichy Government created the General Commissariat for Jewish Affairs, as they were unwilling to let material goods confiscated from the Jews to fall into German hands.
After the Wannsee conference of 20 January 1942, where the implementation of the Final Solution was drafted, Germany prepared to begin the mass deportation of Jews from France. The Vichy Government were in full cooperation and helped to conduct roundups of Jews in both the occupied and unoccupied zones. The Vichy leaders prioritised the deportation of stateless Jews, but the Germans continued to send deportation quotas which had to be met, regardless of country of birth.
Many of the stateless Jews who made their way to France had planned to find safety in neutral Switzerland, but Switzerland had also closed its borders to this growing influx of refugees. In September 1942, nearly 10,000 Jews were sent back to France from Switzerland. Many of these refugees were interned by the French police in Rivesaltes, one of the internment camps for refugees in the south, before being sent to Drancy.
By the autumn of 1942, approximately 42,000 Jews who were marked for deportation had passed through the Drancy transit camp located on the outskirts of Paris. Fritz Pollak was imprisoned in Drancy while awaiting his deportation along with thousands of other stateless Jews like himself.
This document, taken from the original French transport lists from the Contemporary Jewish Documentation Centre, Shoah Memorial, in Paris, shows Fritz Pollak’s name and his birth date, along with his ‘Ex-Austrian’ status.
Fritz Pollak’s name listed on a deportation list, transport 26 of 31 August 1942.
Image credit Mémorial de la Shoah, Paris (France).
Image source United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.
Drancy was established by the Germans in August 1941, and it was intended to imprison foreign-born Jews in France. Later it incorporated all the Jews in the country. It was policed by the French until July 1943 when the German Security Police took direct control. The camp was a large U-shaped multi-storey building, which had been a police barracks before the war. There were five sub-camps around Drancy, which were used as warehouses to store the personal property confiscated from the Jews. It is estimated that 70,000 people were imprisoned at Drancy between August 1941 and August 1944; a small number were French Resistance fighters, but the vast majority were Jews. The first transport from Drancy to Auschwitz-Birkenau took place on 22 June 1942. By the end of the war, it is recorded that fewer than 2000 Jews, who had passed through its gates, survived.
Fritz Pollak, August 1942.
Image credit National Archives of Belgium, Foreigners' Files.
Image source Kazerne Dossin, Give Them a Face (France) portrait collection.
The above photograph of Fritz was taken shortly before his deportation from Drancy to Auschwitz-Birkenau on 31 August 1942 on Transport 26, Train 901-21.[i] The train departed from the Bourget-Drancy train station at 8.55 am with 1000 Jews on board. This transport was particularly notorious as it included over 200 French Jewish children who had been arrested during the Vel’ d‘Hiv Round-up in July. The other deportees were foreign-born Jews like Fritz. The train arrived in Auschwitz-Birkenau on 2 September, which meant that the passengers had been enclosed in the ‘German merchandise wagons’ for two days and nights with no access to food, water or sanitation.
Only one week after the deportation, on 7 September 1942, The Times newspaper in England reported on “Vichy’s Jewish Victims: Children deported to Germany”. The Times published a full report of the deportation of Jews from France from a correspondent based on the border between France and Spain. The paper spoke of the “unabated ruthlessness” of the deportation campaign of the Nazis, but that the destination of these nameless children was unknown. Winston Churchill even referred to the deportations from France in his address to the House of Commons on 8 September. He discusses the increasing “brutal persecutions” of the Nazis into each land they invaded, and he is recorded describing these events as
“the most bestial, the most squalid and the most senseless of all their offences, namely the mass deportation of Jews from France, with the pitiful horrors attendant on the calculated and final scattering of families. […] This tragedy fills me with astonishment as well as with indignation [...]”.
The true horror of the final destination of these deportees was yet to be uncovered.
Upon the train’s arrival at Auschwitz-Birkenau in Poland, it was met by an SS official who would decide whether the passengers were fit for work or if they were too young, old, or weak. Those who could work were taken away and given a camp number tattoo, their heads were shaved, and they were given a camp uniform, along with a yellow Star of David for identification as a Jew.
Only 12 men and 27 women were selected for slave labour from Transport 26, the remainder of the transports human cargo were gassed upon arrival, and Fritz Pollak was among them.
Fritz would have arrived at what was known as the ‘Judenrampe’. This was located between Auschwitz 1 and Birkenau camps. The large crematoria, of which we can see the ruins of today in Birkenau, had not yet been built, so two converted cottages were used as gas chambers during this period. They were known as ‘Little Red House’ and ‘Little White House’. Zyklon B gas pellets were used.
The victims would be told they were taking a shower for delousing before being sent to work. After they were murdered, hair was shaved, gold teeth and valuables removed, and clothes sorted and stored. Before the large crematoria were built at Birkenau, bodies were originally buried in mass graves but to hide all evidence of the atrocities committed, they were later exhumed by prisoners and burned on pyres in the fields by Sonderkommando, mostly Jewish men, tasked with the horrendous job of disposing of bodies of fellow victims. Their ashes were scattered as fertiliser over the surrounding farmland, used to fill uneven ground or mostly dumped into the nearby Vistula and Soła rivers.
Left: Memorial to those who were selected at the ‘Judenrampe’, Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum.
Right: The ruins of ‘Little White House’ and Memorial, Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum.
Images courtesy of Tomasz Drzewiecki.
The site of Auschwitz-Birkenau is the resting place of over 1.1 million murdered Jews.
As Fritz was sent to his death, he had no knowledge of what had become of his wife and daughter. It would give him peace to know that Marie and Hannal survived Hitler’s brutal genocide across Europe. When the war ended, Johanna married a soldier called Konstantin Semenowsky on 11 October 1945.
Johanna Pollak and Konstantin Semenowsky.
Image credit Tamara Niv Kofman.
Marie, Johanna and Konstantin emigrated to Israel where their descendants still. Johanna’s and Konstantin’s grandson has been given the middle name Fritz. He now carries the name and memory of his great grandfather into the future.
Page of Testimony for Fritz Pollak, submitted by his wife Marie.
Image credit Yad Vashem, Hall of Names.
Written by Laura Henley Harrison, JHASW volunteer.
With thanks to Tamara Niv Kofman, Granddaughter of Fritz Pollak, who provided helpful information and photographs.
Archive.today, The Town of Teplice: The History of the Jewish Community in Teplice (2012) <https://archive.is/20121217231451/http:/www.teplice.cz/en/town/history/the-jewish-synagogue/> [accessed 13 December 2020]
Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum, The extermination procedure in the gas chambers (2020) <http://auschwitz.org/en/history/auschwitz-and-shoah/the-extermination-procedure-in-the-gas-chambers> [accessed 14 December 2020]
Austrian Synagogues, Der Kaiser-Franz-Josef-Huldigungstempel, Pazmanitengasse 6 - 2nd District Leopoldstadt (names also "Aeschel Avrohom" & "Am Volkert") (2020) <https://synagogues-austria.anumuseum.org.il/index.php/archive?sid=126:der-kaiser-franz-josef-huldigungstempel-pazmanitengasse-6-2nd-district-leopoldstadt-names-also-aeschel-avrohom-am-volkert> [accessed 14 December 2020]
Austro-Hungarian Land Forces 1848-1918, The Austrian Golden, Silver and Bronze Bravery Medals 1914-1918 (2016) <http://www.austro-hungarian-army.co.uk/bravmed.htm> [accessed 13 December 2020]
Bradsher, Greg, The Nuremberg Laws: Archives Receives Original Nazi Documents That “Legalized” Persecution of Jews (2010) <https://www.archives.gov/publications/prologue/2010/winter/nuremberg.html> [accessed 14 December 2020]
Dokumentationsarchiv des Osterreichischen Wilderstandes, Search results for Fritz Pollak <https://www.doew.at/personensuche#> [accessed 14 December 2020]
Encyclopaedia Britannica, Czechoslovakia (2020) <https://www.britannica.com/place/Czechoslovakia> [accessed 13 December 2020]
FindMyPast, Britain, Enemy Aliens and Internees, First and Second World Wars Images: Male Enemy Alien – Exemption from Internment – Refuge: Pollak, Albert (2020) <https://search.findmypast.co.uk/record?id=gbm%2fho396%2f191%2f00028&parentid=gbm%2fenemy%2falien%2fww12%2f0967078&fulfillmenttypekey=7806> [accessed 13 December 2020]
Geni.com, Fritz Pollak (2020) <https://www.geni.com/people/Fritz-Pollak/6000000017983355084> [accessed 13 December 2020]
Gilbert, Martin, The Holocaust: The Jewish Tragedy (Glasgow: Williams Collins Sons & Co Ltd, 1990)
JewishGen, KehilaLinks, Teplice, Czech Republic (2020) <https://kehilalinks.jewishgen.org/Teplice/> [accessed 13 December 2020]
Kazerne Dossin, Give them a Face (France) Portrait Collection: Pollak, Fritz (2020) <https://beeldbank.kazernedossin.eu/index.php/image/watch/58f7e7a8a23540f79502761efa1454063da015b88535449b85ead1c6cc51e5e89d1d477a9b8d40229aaee2bbf4693503?s=5ee8ce093e175&c=18> [accessed 14 December 2020]
Niv Kofman, Tamara, Fritz Pollak (Email correspondence with Laura Harrison, 18 June, 13 July, 21 July 2020)
United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Holocaust Encyclopedia: France <https://encyclopedia.ushmm.org/content/en/article/france> [accessed 14 December 2020]
United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Holocaust Encyclopedia: Drancy <https://encyclopedia.ushmm.org/content/en/article/drancy> [accessed 14 December 2020]
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Yad Vashem, The Central Database of Shoah Victims' Names: Fritz Pollak (2020) <https://yvng.yadvashem.org/nameDetails.html?language=en&itemId=4962568&ind=1> and
<https://yvng.yadvashem.org/nameDetails.html?language=en&itemId=386330&ind=1> [accessed 13 December 2020]
Yad Vashem, Transport 26, Train 901-21 from Drancy, Camp, France to Auschwitz Birkenau, Extermination Camp, Poland on 31/08/1942 (2020) <https://deportation.yadvashem.org/index.html?language=en&itemId=5092598> [accessed 14 December 2020]
Footnotes and endnotes.
 A 1972 re-issue of the marriage certificate between Fritz Pollak & Marie Kral lists Fritz’s place of birth as Turn Bezirk, Teplitz - German for Trnovany district, Teplice.
 Both Bílence (Bielenz in German) and Břeclav (Lundenburg in German) are situated in what is nowadays the Czech Republic.
 Elsa died on 18 September 1942 at Maly Trostenets; her name is also listed on the CRS Memorial Tablet and has been researched as part of the JHASW project.
 Fritz’s place of birth is marked incorrectly on the form as ‘Buditz’, but his birth date is correct. Occasionally, the individuals filling in the forms would have mis-heard responses. The town of Buditz does not appear to exist; it may have been a mishearing of ‘Bezirk (German for district) as Trnovany, where Fritz was born, was, and still is, one of the Teplice city’s districts.
 ‘Vichy’s Jewish Victims: Children deported to Germany”, The Times, 7 September 1942, p. 3.
 Martin Gilbert, The Holocaust: The Jewish Tragedy (Glasgow: Williams Collins Sons & Co Ltd, 1990), p. 450.
 Gilbert, pp. 450-451.
[i] The Auschwitz – Birkenau Concentration and Extermination Camp.
In April 1940, after the invasion of Poland, Heinrich Himmler ordered the construction of a concentration camp on the site of the former army barracks in Oświęcim, in occupied Poland: thus Auschwitz, the largest and most infamous of concentration camps came into existence.
Rudolf Höss was its first commandant, from 4 May 1940 to 10 November 1943, followed by Arthur Liebenschal, who remained in the post until 8 May 1944 when Höss returned to Auschwitz for the extermination of the Hungarian Jews.
Auschwitz had over 40 sub-camps and a forced labour camp at Monowitz, the site of the IG Farben industrial complex, producing synthetic rubber and liquid fuels. Life was extremely difficult; hunger, disease, hard labour and punishments made it hard to survive. Roll call was particularly gruelling, with prisoners having to stand for hours in the freezing cold or in the searing heat to make sure that numbers tallied.
The first inmates were Polish political prisoners, but when Germany invaded the Soviet Union, Himmler ordered an extension to be built in the village of Brzezinka, to be constructed and inhabited by Soviet prisoners of war and to hold 100,000 prisoners; this would become known as Birkenau.
Executions were common; the main place of execution in Auschwitz I was what is known as the death wall in Block 11. In September 1941, around 600 Soviet prisoners of war and 250 other prisoners were executed using Zyklon B in the cells of Block 11. As the Final Solution was being implemented throughout Europe and with the arrival of Jews at the camp, two makeshift gas chambers were constructed called ‘The little red house and little white house’; these were old, converted farm cottages located on the outskirts of Birkenau. As more and more Jews arrived, four more sophisticated gas chambers and crematoria were built. As Jews came into the camp, they were selected either to work or to die. Mothers with children, pregnant women, the elderly and disabled would be separated out on arrival. They were deceived into believing that they were going for a shower but were then gassed – Crematoria 2 and 3 had a capacity to gas approximately 1,400 victims each in one go and Crematoria 4 and 5 approximately 750 people each. Those who were not selected for death were taken to baths, shaved, tattooed, and given camp attire. Many had no idea that their families had been murdered until they were told by other prisoners. During its history, over 400,000 prisoners were registered in the camp. The wooden barracks which people were crammed into, sometimes up to 1000 people per building, were overrun with lice; this, along with unsanitary conditions, caused death from diseases such as typhus. Horrific medical experiments were conducted by camp doctors, mainly in Block 10, including by the feared Josef Mengele and Carl Clauberg. Mengele experimented primarily on twins and those with genetic conditions, such as dwarfism. Clauberg’s expertise was in the field of forced sterilisations.
In February 1943, Roma and Sinti families arrived and were housed in Birkenau in the so-called ‘Zigeuner Camp’ (Gypsy camp). Around 21,000 are believed to have been housed there. However, in August 1944, the liquidation of the Gypsy camp began, and they were all subsequently murdered in the gas chambers. In July 1943, families from Theresienstadt arrived at Auschwitz-Birkenau. They too were housed together. The Nazis liquidated this camp in 2 stages, in March and July 1944, when they were all gassed.
In May 1944, the Hungarian Jews started arriving at Auschwitz-Birkenau, some 400,000 of them; most were murdered in the gas chambers.
Sonderkommando (special squad), mainly Jews, were forced to work in the gas chambers, to help undress the victims, then remove and burn the bodies, and clean the gas chambers ready for the next transport. Some of these men even came across their family members in the piles of corpses. Their life expectancy was short as they were ‘Geheimnisträger’ (bearers of secrets): They were living witnesses of the extermination of the Jews of Europe. They staged an uprising on 7 October 1944 and destroyed Crematorium 4. Around 450 of them paid for it with their lives. Writings by the Sonderkommando were found in the grounds next to the ruins of the Crematorium, attesting to the atrocities witnessed. Those who did survive, went on to provide crucial information to the world regarding the genocide of the Jewish people.
Gassings ceased in early November 1944 and plans to dismantle the gas chambers and hide any evidence began. The camp was evacuated on 17-18 January 1945, as the Soviets closed in. Inmates were forced to march in sub-zero temperatures and if they could not keep up, were shot at the side of the road. The prisoners were then transported to other camps deep within the Reich. Soviet troops liberated Auschwitz on 27 January 1945. 1.3 million people perished in Auschwitz and of those around 1.1 million were Jews. Today, Auschwitz-Birkenau has hundreds of thousands of visitors each year, who bear witness to the crimes committed by the Nazis. It is one of only a handful camps which is still intact and is preserved by the Polish government and Jewish organisations.