I didn’t know quite what to expect when I volunteered last November to research and document the lives of those whose names appear on the Holocaust Memorial plaque in the Reform Synagogue. I’d had experience in researching local and family history, but this was different - a whole new avenue of research, with as-yet unknown sources, and all we had to go on was the name on the memorial of someone who had not survived the Holocaust and the name town or city they came from.
The starting point for research was the main Holocaust and genealogy websites, (Yad Vashem/ Ancestry etc). Then, following the links and hints provided, it was possible to delve into on-line holdings held in state archives, newspapers, and local histories, all of which helped build up a profile of the individual.
Maybe I’ve been lucky in who I’ve been researching, but I’ve found in a number of cases that the memory of those who perished in the Holocaust are very much cherished by their surviving relatives, who make every effort to preserve them.
This was indeed the case with the first family I researched – that of Gustav Rebitzer and his brother Moritz, both of whose names appear on the memorial plaque. It was a third brother, Louis, who settled in Cardiff.
Image credit Yad Vashem, Hall of Names,
Page of Testimony for Gustav Rebitzer.
We know little about Moritz, but American relatives of Gustav’s wife, Ernestine (Erna), saved a lot of correspondence over 35 years and deposited it with the Leo Baeck Institute, an organisation devoted to the study of the history and culture of German-speaking Jews. The family has also been researched by a historian working at the city museum of Weiden, which is where Gustav spent his adult life.
Gustav was born 150 years ago today, on 5th May 1870, in Ottensoos, about 30 km from Nuremberg in Bavaria. His family were heavily involved with the small Jewish community there, which specialised in trading hops, cattle, and textiles.
In 1898 Gustav moved from Ottensoos to Weiden, to the east, where he married Ernestine Boscowitz and together they had two children, Rosi (1898) and Hermann (1899). In Weiden he quickly became a full partner in his father-in-law’s leather firm of Boscowitz & Co. In the 1920s they expanded their shoe retail business by opening a shoe factory behind their shop, trading under the name of Salix-Schuhe, and employing at its peak some 30 people.
Boscowitz & Co. Salix-Schuhe Fabrik
Image Credit: Stadtarchiv Weiden Image Credit: Stadtarchiv Weiden
The correspondence not only documents their business dealings but also reveals details of their personal lives. In 1922 we hear about the fire that destroyed the upper rooms in their house resulting in extensive damage. As the family were not insured, they had to ask their American cousins for a loan of $100-$200. And when Gustav’s daughter, Rosa, got engaged to a non-Jewish doctor he wrote that, at first, he hadn’t given consent for the marriage, but that the most important consideration was the character of the man, and not his confession. Because of the anti-Jewish campaigns during the 1930s trade declined, and the business was sold in 1938.
In September 1942, barely a month after the death his wife, Gustav was transported with his brother Moritz and about a thousand other, mainly elderly, Jews to the Theresienstadt ghetto in Czechoslovakia. His daughter wrote after the war, “… Father, Uncle Moritz, and all Jews from Nuremberg were sent to Theresienstadt. And so, we saw them for one last time. It’s admirable how calm and resigned Father was. We were unable to contact them after that.”
On 9th March 1943 Gustav died of pneumonia at Theresienstadt, aged 72. He was in Room 110 of Block Q804, the same room as his brother who had died there just three weeks earlier
Most poignant of all was Rosi’s letter written immediately after the war, when she had just returned to the family home in Weiden. She writes of family members being sent to ‘camps in the East’, and of her having to spend years in hiding – moving from place to place, and being protected by trusted friends. She also shows her scepticism at the reaction of the locals to her return: “…the residents of Weiden greeted me with enthusiasm. NOW they only have love for us, too late for our poor parents…”
Such was the outcome of my first foray into Holocaust research. All sorts of emotions - particularly when reading Rosi’s first hand testimony of her experiences, and her having to say goodbye to her father. It was hard to believe that there was so much information out there and in so much detail, if only one takes the time to seek it out. It’s up to projects such as ours to do just that and give a life back to those who had it taken from them.
John Farnhill, JHASW Volunteer.