A victory for father’s sake

Surprised and intrigued by my story, the library manager hurried to locate the census books of the town from the beginning of the 1930s.

Holocaust memorial candles (photo credit: TED EYTAN/FLICKR)
Holocaust memorial candles
(photo credit: TED EYTAN/FLICKR)
On my personal Holocaust Remembrance Day, I admire my father and his brothers who chose to leave Germany and start a new life in Eretz Yisrael. On my personal Holocaust Remembrance Day, I remember standing in front of the audience in Hamburg, telling them what I think of the atrocities performed by the German people, with a large photo of my family behind me. This may not be victory, but it was the least I could do in memory of my murdered family.
The personal histories of the second or third generation of Holocaust victims’ descendants often start with a description of the doubts they have had before embarking on telling their stories, for fear of touching sore spots, opening up old wounds and bringing to the surface lurking anxieties that have been suppressed for decades. Another characteristic of nearly every personal history that involves the Holocaust is being able to overcome the reluctance to dig into the horrors of the past and break the prolonged silence conspiracy. In many ways, my story is similar, yet different.
It starts with trips I used to make regularly to a computer and software trade show held in Hanover, Germany. In one of my visits, approximately a decade ago, I was suddenly seized by a feeling of missing out: I was only 75 minutes by train from the town in which my father grew up and which I never dared visit.
The next day found me disembarking the train at the Bad-Harzburg station. When I asked where the local synagogue was located, the information clerk replied with a mix of confusion and suspicion, “There is no synagogue here, sir,” she said. In response to her question, I told her I was from Israel, that my father grew up in the town, that his parents had owned an apparel and shoe store, and that I would like to find out more about the family and the house. In attempt to help me, perhaps even get rid of me, the clerk referred me to the manager of the municipal library.
Surprised and intrigued by my story, the library manager hurried to locate the census books of the town from the beginning of the 1930s. Among others, these volumes included the telephone directory of those days. We easily located the address and three-digit (294) telephone number of the Boaz Family (spelled Boas in German).
The names of the family members and paid staff who lived in the same household were listed below. These included the housekeeper, a hunter, a locksmith and maintenance workers. As of 1937, the family’s name ceased to appear and was replaced by the name of one of the store workers who had bought the house later, in 1939, as part of “forced sale” (zwang verkauf) in which Jewish citizens were forced to sell their properties to Aryan citizens.
The library manager arranged a meeting for me with the local newspaper’s editor, Ms. Rosie Schwartz. She too was excited about my personal story and both of us set to take out large and heavy volumes of the Gosslariche Zeitung from the 1920s and ‘30s. There, we found advertisements of my grandparents’ store, which was called Bazar D. Boas and was inaugurated in 1920. In 1930, the store held special promotions on its 10th anniversary.
Ms. Schwartz referred me to Dr. Kurt Neumann, a man nearly 80 years old and the town’s historiographer. A few years ago, he had authored the town’s history book, which mentions my father’s family, among others.
Dr. Neumann told me that as of the beginning of the 1930s, the town has become one of the command posts of the National Socialist movement. “Here, in this square,” Dr. Neumann showed me, “Hitler and Goebbels held the first election assemblies of the Nazis.” The year 1930 saw a big march in honor of the Harzburgerische front, an important initiative of the young Nazi movement. Youths dressed in brown uniforms marched throughout the town and Adolph Hitler in person greeted them at the city gate. Note that the march took place three years before his coming to power.
DURING MY visit, Dr. Neumann also arranged for me to meet with the mayor, who similar to many Germans, hurried to assure me he was a small child during the “shocking and horrific” Holocaust. He added that as a local, he remembers the good reputation my family had for its generosity and donations to the needy.
Approximately one year after my visit to the town I learned that an entry in the Holocaust Encyclopedia (publisher: Yad Vashem) includes a billboard poster from 1938, which announced Jews were unwanted and that the store across the street belongs to the “Jew David Boas.”
I visited the town a few times more. In November 2008, the anniversary of Kristallnacht, our family came with the idea of commemorating our family with a memorial plaque on the wall of the family home in Harzburg.
We needed to obtain the consent of the current owners of the house. The owner was Ms. Weda, who inherited it from her mother, who bought it in 1969 from the person who bought the house from my family in one of the “forced property sales.” Dr. Neumann located Ms. Weda but was unable to attain her consent. I decided to approach her directly.
In my telephone conversation with her, I made it clear that I had no intention of claiming the house from her and that I only want to perpetuate the memory of my family with a modest memorial plaque. I made it clear that if she declined my request, I would do nothing against her, but that if she agreed, she would be doing a very good deed. Several days later, Ms. Weda called to tell me she agreed.
It snowed heavily on November 8, 2008, but a small group of people convened nonetheless next to 17 Dr. Heinrich Jasper St., corner of Unter den Linden. The group included my wife, two of my three sons, one of our daughters-in-law, my cousin with his wife and daughter, Mayor Mr. Peter Abrahams, the editor of the local newspaper, now retired, Ms. Rosie Schwartz, a couple of friends from Hanover, Ernie and Marcelle Sixtus, a photographer and writer of the local newspaper, the house owner Ms. Weda, and of course, Dr. Kurt Neumann and his wife, who were honored with unveiling the plaque.
The plaque recounted the history of our family since it had arrived in the town, the decision taken by my father and his brothers to go to Palestine (1936), the sale of the house, which was forced on them and their tragic deaths in the Auschwitz extermination camp. Years later, we were going to discover that we had been wrong and that my family was murdered at Chelmno extermination camp.
A month after the ceremony, I received an email from an anonymous woman from Hamburg. She wrote me that she had read the stirring article about the memorial plaque and that she had more information about my family. This is how I became acquainted with the wonderful woman Sabine Brunotte. As the years went by, we have developed a very special bond.
Sabine was a social worker who volunteered in her free time in Hamburg’s central archive out of a personal mission to “repent and be redeemed” for the sake of the families of the Holocaust victims and survivors. I learned from Sabine many things I did not know, in particular about Paula and Gerda, the two sisters of my father who arrived in Hamburg after being expelled from Harzburg upon the sale of the family’s store.
The two sisters rented a small basement flat and made their living from sewing and occasional jobs. Sabine has obtained documents that showed that the money they had (several tens of thousands of marks) was confiscated by the government and that they had been required to file a monthly “subsistence budget” to a trustee acting on behalf of the German treasury. Only upon his approval could they receive money out of their own fortune.
SABINE ALSO gave me a copy of a “resident certificate” in a concentration camp for Paula Boas. She succeeded in tracing documents showing that the two sisters had met with their mother, their sister Marga, and her children, Ruth and Zvi, in Ghetto Lodz and that the mother had passed away there. She also detected the original minutes of the auction of the personal belongings of my father’s two sisters after they had been sent from their flat in Hamburg to the ghetto.
The minutes declare that the consideration of the sale would be used to help Germany’s war efforts. Sabine continued to amaze me by obtaining more documents of my father’s sisters from the time they lived in Hamburg. For example, she located their ship ticket to London, which one of them managed to obtain in August 1939, but decided not to use but instead wait for her sister, thus deciding the fate of both of them, as the war broke out a month later.
Sabine was part of a volunteer group that works to commemorate the Jewish families who lived in pre-War Hamburg. One of their best-known projects is Stumbling Stones (Stolpersteine), which was conceived by german artist Gunter Demnig. The “stones” are small metal plates embedded in the sidewalk next to the houses of Holocaust victims across Germany. The plate lists the victims’ names, birth dates and expulsion dates. My two aunts have been commemorated in this project too, creating the link between me and my family from Bad Harzburg.
In February 2011, the volunteer group published a book about the Jewish families of the Eppendorf quarter of Hamburg. The publication was marked with a seminar to which I was invited to speak on behalf of Holocaust victims’ families. I told the German audience about “the life of an Israeli family in between Holocaust and Resurrection,” the impact of the Holocaust on the daily life in Israel, our silence and Holocaust suppression complex and the agonizing uncertainty of not knowing how your family members died.
To his last day, my father was convinced that his family was murdered in Auschwitz. He has even noted this in his testimonial to Yad Vashem. The Cultural Center in Hamburg was packed: people had crowded the aisles and some even sat at the edge of the stage. I spoke in German. No one interfered with the harsh things I said about the Holocaust and living in its shadow. The audience was very attentive, and I did not need to resort to the comments I had prepared in advance in case someone in the audience interrupted.
Today, the Holocaust bears additional significance for me. Family members that I have never known are suddenly close to me thanks to Rosie Schwartz, Kurt Neumann and Sabine Brunotte.
On my personal Holocaust Remembrance Day, I empathize with the fate of my family, which was expelled from their home and murdered with devious cruelty. Never before was I able to identify with them the way I do today.
On my personal Holocaust Remembrance Day, I salute the realism of my father and his brothers who relinquished the luxuries of a well-to-do family and were not fooled into believing in the “enlightenment of the German people” but chose to start a new life in Eretz Yisrael. On my personal Remembrance Day, I try to find comfort in having affixed a memorial plaque to the wall of my fathers’ family house and in the many moving comments I received from passersby who read the short history of my family there.
On my personal Remembrance Day, I remember with great satisfaction how I stood in front of German audience in Hamburg and told the people what I think about the responsibility of the German people to the atrocities of the Holocaust. Behind me, a large photograph of my family and my father was projected as if they were standing by me on the podium. This may not be a big victory, but it is the least I could do for my family, which was murdered in the Holocaust and in honor of my later father. For me, this is a lot.
David Boas had served as the budget commissioner in Israel's Ministry of Finance. Today, he serves as the President of the "Association of Israelis of Central European Origin" located in Tel-Aviv.