"My grandparents Moritz and Malka came to Stuttgart from Ukraine via England. They had to flee from the pogroms. I am at a loss for words, because now there is war again in Ukraine. It is such a disaster when you lose everything you have built, and lose your loved ones and your own life. It affects the rest of your life if you survive persecution, and also the next generation." Nadine Olonetzky had five Stolpersteine laid for her family members in Stuttgart last week.
Her grandfather Moritz Olonetzky, uncles Efrem Olonetzy and Avraham Olonetzky, her father Beny Olonetzky and her aunt Paula Apfelbaum-Olonetzky were persecuted by the Nazis. Three managed to escape to Palestine, her father to Switzerland. Nadine's grandfather Moritz and her aunt Anna Berkheim-Olonetzky were deported by the Nazis and murdered in 1942.
Moritz and my grandmother Malka Olonetzky-Ziegelmann moved from Odessa to Saratov in 1905 or 1906. The city lies along the middle course of the Volga River in the south of Russia. There my aunt Paula was born on November 26, 1906. As the situation continued to be difficult for Jews, the family emigrated via England to Germany. In 1909, my grandparents settled in Stuttgart with their little daughter; their first address was Champignystrasse no. 3, ground floor, then they moved to Böblingerstrasse 13, where uncle Efrem was born on July 26, 1910. At the time, an Abraham Olonetzky, born in Odessa as well, was already living in Stuttgart together with his wife Charlotte Olonetzky-Kosoritsch and their sons Max and Jakob. I do not know whether Abraham was my grandfather Moritz’s father or perhaps an uncle. People always preferred to migrate to places where relatives or friends were already living.
Forced Labor in Stuttgart
Moritz fled to Stuttgart via England together with my grandmother Malka. As of 1939, all Jews were forced to live together in crammed “Judenhäusern” (houses reserved for Jews). Like all Jewish men, as of 1940, Moritz was registered in the address book with the additional first name of “Israel.” In 1941, he had to move to Klopstockstrasse 42, second floor. As of September 19, 1941, he was obliged to wear the yellow star. To ensure the survival of his family, he was compelled to take objects of value to the pawnbroker. Already in 1942, he had to move again together with his son Benjamin Emil, my father, who was registered with the second first name “Israel” as well. Furthermore, the two were referred to as “laborers” which is cynically true, because they had to perform forced labor: “1942 Olonetzky, Moritz Israel, Arbeiter, Reinsburgstraße 107, DG.” Finally, my grandfather was forced to live at Hospitalstrasse 34, from where he was deported on April 26, 1942. All the remaining household goods and assets were confiscated.
My grandfather arrived at Izbica on April 29, 1942. It is unclear whether he was murdered at Izbica itself, at Belzec, or at Sobibor. My father assumed that he had been deported to the extermination camp by the next possible transport – he used to mention Treblinka. May 1, 1942, the day when 500 persons were deported to and murdered at Sobibor, seems to be the more probable date, or the “Third action” from May 12 to 15, 1942, which led to Sobibor as well. Information is missing with regard to Belzec. Nobody who was deported on transport “Da 56” from Stuttgart survived.
In a note in the file created by the “Landesamt für Wiedergutmachung” in Stuttgart dated January 7, 1954, it says with regard to the art school: “Furthermore, it is to be assumed that his father was not able to pay the cost of such a school (…) On 10.4.1938, the applicant’s father submitted a request to the welfare office for them to cover the costs for his stay at Katharinen hospital. That is to say that he was impoverished in 1938; and it is improbable that persecution contributed much to that state of affairs.” The last sentence leaves me speechless. My grandfather lost his job in 1938 for antisemitic reasons and performed forced labor afterwards; “impoverishment” had been just as much a declared goal as “extermination through labor.”
Till mid-November 1938, he was forced to work for various road construction companies in Stuttgart-Vaihingen and had to clear up the synagogue destroyed during the pogrom night of November 9/10, 1938. His foot was injured by a falling stone; as a consequence, he was unfit for work till January 1939. Between January 15, 1939, and his “admittance” to “Schlosshof” labor camp near Bielefeld in January 1940, he worked as unskilled construction worker with the firm Erich Schumm in Stuttgart; it is not clear, where he lived at the time. As an inmate of the “Schlosshof” labor camp, he had to work as a roadman and as a waste collector for more than a year, between January 1940 and March 1941. As late as May 16, 1951, the chief of the police department in Bielefeld described the labor camp as a “Jewish community camp with about 80 people” in a letter to the “Landesamt für Wiedergutmachung”.
Although the camp housing up to 150 men was not specially guarded, it was under the control of the “Stapostelle Bielefeld” (Bielefeld state police). The inmates were checked regularly and were threatened with deportation. To his surprise, my father was offered the prospect of being deported to Tangier, Morocco, via Yugoslavia on condition that he be married. That is why he wed his half-Jewish girlfriend Hanna Kesting on March 13, 1941, and received a three-day leave from the head of the labor camp. In the end, his deportation was made impossible by the German army’s invasion of Yugoslavia on April 6, 1941.
As of April 1941, my father was recruited for forced labor with the firm Erich Schumm in Stuttgart again for just under two years, till February 1943. At first, he lived with his father at Reinsburgstrasse 107 (the firm Schumm was located in the same street), then at Eberhardstrasse 1 together with his wife. As of September 19, 1941, he had to wear the “yellow star.” On February 28, 1943, the Jewish forced laborers of the firm Schumm were ?informed by their superior Franz Josef Morelli that they had to be “ready for transport 11” the next morning at six o’clock. The Gestapo’s order for deportation to the extermination camps applied to all Jewish men apart from those married to Aryan women. That night, my father and his wife Hanna fled to Wuppertal-Barmen. Although it was late in February and cold outside, they left all of their household goods behind. In Wuppertal, they stayed with Margarete Voigtländer, an acquaintance of Hanna’s mother. Margarete Voigtländer’s husband had fallen in action, she lived with her children in a flat with a back room. She hid Beny and Hanna in this room for three months: from late February till late May 1943. Nobody living in the house knew about their presence, and when bombs fell, all the residents of the house found shelter in the cellar – with the exception of the two of them. Despite help from Hanna’s mother, food was extremely scarce. He described his memories of this period in his affidavit: „My mother-in-law, who was married to a non-Jew, provided us with food to a very modest extent through Frau Voigtländer.”
On May 29/30, Wuppertal-Barmen was severely bombed by the British military, and Beny and Hanna ran outside; the house got damaged. He reported in his affidavit: “During this phase of general confusion, I joined the throng of homeless people the next morning and had the NSV (National Socialist People’s Welfare) register me as “Bernd Weber,” telling them I had been bombed out of my home. I received a brown identity card with this fictitious name, just like all the other victims of the air attack who had lost their identity papers.” Margarete Voigtländer did not want to house or hide the two any longer, but she found accommodation for them with her sister at Colmar, a city which had long been occupied by the Germans, so they travelled to Alsace. Hanna stayed in Colmar, while my father travelled on to Mulhouse, where he reported to the district head of the NSDAP (the Nazi party): “It must have been late in the first week of June 1943 when I arrived there. When I obtained the brown identity card in Wuppertal, I claimed to have been severely wounded in the war owing to a scar that resulted from a sports injury and, of course, I also told them that I was the victim of an air attack, and that was all noted down on my identity card. Putting all my eggs into one basket, I went to the district head in Mulhouse, and he handed me the address of a Reichsdeutsche (citizen of the German Reich) where I could take lodgings for free.”
From Mulhouse, he explored the region along the border on foot, hiding in hay barns. “On August 28, 1943, I finally discovered an escape route in the region of Leymen or Benken (Alsace), very close to the Swiss border. I then returned to Mulhouse, had my wife – who also had an NSV identity card under the name of Weber – come to Mulhouse, and fled with her to Switzerland on September 1, 1943, using the route I had scouted out beforehand.” My father and Hanna were not sent back by the Swiss border guards, which was extremely unusual in 1943. He was 26 years of age and weighed just 44 kilograms. My father was sent to prison in Basel first, then to the refugee camp in Serneus in Prättigau until the end of the war – later on, we always spent our holidays in this region. Hanna was housed in the canton of Thurgau during this period, and she gave birth to my half-brother Michael on September 5, 1944.
For example, on May 6, 1953, my father received the following reply from the “Landesamt für die Wiedergutmachung”: “The abovenamed person has filed an application for compensation for damages to his economic advancement.
By his own account, he completed an apprenticeship with the company Bamberger & Hertz, Stuttgart, in 1936 and subsequently worked as a decorator for the same company until the fall of 1936. (…) The applicant cannot provide us with any concrete evidence of these claims.” Like all those who applied for compensation, my father had to file separate applications for different claims: “deprivation of liberty,” “damage to property,” “damage to training,” “damage to professional career.” He had to produce witnesses and evidence for everything, although an official letter dated March 27, 1950, confirms that all his identity cards, papers, registration certificates, etc. had been lost as a result of his persecution or during bomb attacks.
It stands to reason that people who submit claims for damages need to prove that their claims are justified. However, the whole process of applying for compensation was very humiliating. Applications were always rejected at first; then came challenges, appeals, and finally a settlement. My father did his best to remember exactly what had happened to him, although ten or more years had passed by then, and although he had been traumatized by his experiences and already had his hands full with his new (professional) life. He went from one administrative office to the next and from one person to the next in an effort to gather the evidence he needed. Although his basic eligibility was recognized in a first step for some of his applications, an exhausting process followed before decisions were be made about why his claim for compensation was justified as well as about what he should be compensated for and what amount of compensation he should receive in each instance. (The German term “Wiedergutmachung” literally translates as “making something good again” and has received much criticism since the 1980s because it trivializes the experience of persecutees, hence my use of the word “compensation” here.)
I think there were many people who simply couldn’t see it through.
He did not explain why his sister and brothers lived in Israel and he himself in Switzerland, nor why they all came from Germany, although they had originally been Jews from Ukraine. Whenever something from the past came up, he used to say, “I will tell you when you are old enough.” That silenced me when I was a child; this answer stopped me from asking questions. But his silence was also an expression of his consideration for me.
Before my parents’ divorce, I had a very sheltered childhood, filled with security, warmth, and love; it was a bright foreground with a dark background so-to-say. Although we had no financial worries, the way my father behaved in everyday situations often gave us the impression that the world can be an unpredictable and dangerous place. Combined with the phrases that I had overheard when I was a child, this gave me a difficult feeling overall: something terrible had happened, I was certain of it.
As a result, I began seeing “ghosts” in our house. I “saw” or “knew” that dead people were there. They sometimes stood in the corner of the room where I had to practice the piano, for example. That was very, very spooky and scary. My parents were worried, of course, and they took care of me, but they never talked about the possible causes. Apart from the fact that haunting presences play a part in many a childhood, I think the “ghosts” were my way of expressing the unspoken things that were present.
When my father announced that he had something important to tell me (my parents had already divorced by then), I was 15 years old. I remember being afraid of this conversation. We met at the Botanical Garden in Zurich, and he told me about his father’s murder and that he himself had had to do forced labor. He also told me how he fled to Switzerland. He spoke for a long time. He told me the things he wanted – or was able – to tell me.
I also remember how heavily it weighed upon me when I finally heard what had happened. I sat helplessly on a park bench, he was crying, something that never happened in normal circumstances. I could not console him, it was terrible. It was completely overwhelming. And it was difficult for me to ask him further questions. Even later, when I was really old enough and not a teenager any more, I still did not manage to ask him about it. That is something that I regret very much today. It would have been good to hear more about it from him in person.
The lump in my throat
How did this conversation influence the rest of your life?
This conversation is unforgettable and, as such, a turning point. The “specters” got names. Nevertheless, I think it was not this conversation alone, but also what had happened to my father and his family during the Holocaust that left strong marks on my life. The things he told me left me with a big lump in my throat for a long time. I had no words for it. When I was about 25 years old, I understood that I had to deal with it. On the one hand, I had the feeling that the lump was preventing me from leading my own life, and on the other hand, I recognized that it was part of my life as well, no matter whether I wanted it to be or not. Time and again, there were phases when I actively dealt with the past, and phases when other things were more important to me, such as work, travel, friends, love, the present.
Following a pandemic-related delay – the archives were closed for some time – and with the assistance of Andreas Nikakis from the Stolpersteine initiative in Stuttgart, about 1,350 pages of documents came to light in the state archives of Ludwigsburg and Stuttgart. And in the course of my research, I came across your archive where many more documents could be found. At first, I was overwhelmed by the amount of documents. Then I printed out all the pages and started reading.
The documents include deportation lists, health insurance cards, and a lot of other materials, and essentially the correspondence my father and his siblings had with the “Landesamt für Wiedergutmachung” in Stuttgart from 1949 till the middle of the 1970s. That is to say, letters from the office and replies from the lawyers or the United Restitution Organization (URO), witness statements, etc. The burden of proof for the injustice they had suffered lay with my father and his siblings.
I found some information about my grandfather in the documents, and some about my aunts and my two uncles, but most of the data concerned my father. Although I found this surprising at first, it was quite logical really as he had stayed in Germany for almost ten years longer than his siblings, which is why he was affected more and later showed a lot of persistence in his struggle for indemnification.
“I would like to study the history of indemnification in more detail“
I received the documents in quite a chaotic state: nothing was in chronological order, there were multiple copies of some of the materials. So I tried to sort the documents. I noted down information while I was reading and copied quotations from the correspondence. I filled about 60 pages with quotations and notes. Furthermore, I read other source material such as Steffen Hänschen’s research paper on the Izbica transit ghetto (Metropol publishers, 2018) where my grandfather had been deported. The language used in the letter from the “Landesamt für die Wiedergutmachung” – the tone and the choice of words – was so shocking in some passages that I now want to study the history of indemnification in more detail.
I wrote the short biographies just to have an overview at first. Only then did I have the idea to summarize them and include them in a booklet on the commemorative plaques. Meanwhile we had decided to have commemorative plaques laid not only for my grandfather Moritz, but also for my aunt Paula, my uncles Efrem and Avraham, and my father Beny.
Laying the commemorative plaques was very emotional, important, and good. The cantor of the Jewish community of Stuttgart, Nathan Goldman, sang two wonderful psalms, and the musician Frank Eisele played the accordion. I was able to talk about all my family members. It was most touching for me that people I did not know brought flowers. The ceremony somehow resembled a funeral; it is a memorial, after all. At the same time, there was something conciliatory and consolatory about it.
“You have to bow down to read the names”
At the place where my family had last lived voluntarily and where we placed the commemorative plaques, there is now a huge building which houses the Volkshochschule (a college for adults). It could have been a parking garage or a supermarket! A school – that pleases me. In fact, it is strange and sad that nothing at all is left of the world in which they lived: not a single house, not the synagogue (obviously not, as my father had to clean up as a forced laborer when the building had been reduced to ash and rubble), not a single object is left, not even a piece of furniture or a piece of jewelry.
Gunter Demnig’s commemorative plaques are valuable, solemn, simple, and discreet. If you want to read the names, you have to bow down, which I like very much. It means a lot to me that the names of my family members and their fate will not be forgotten thanks to the plaques.
People like Andreas Nikakis and all the others from the Stolpersteine initiative in Stuttgart make an invaluable contribution to preserving the memories of the victims of Nazi persecution and to ensuring we have a peaceful future. And the fact that you and the Arolsen Archives are publishing a Living History article means something similar: Individual fates tell the story of a piece of history, people are not forgotten, experiences can be shared.
What would you like to share with the relatives of other victims and other people who are involved in the fight against oblivion?
That coming to terms with your own history is a contribution to peace: to your own inner peace and to peace between societies and cultures.
The National Socialists approached war and genocide in an unprecedented systematic way with divided responsibilities and with cold-hearted bureaucratic consistency. However, every war – wherever and for whatever reason it is waged – has similar consequences for every individual person. Whether currently in Ukraine or in Syria, Yemen, or former Yugoslavia: those who survive do not only pass the color of their hair or their freckles to the next generations, but also the pain, the trauma, the fear. An experience takes root in the minds of the sons and daughters, who have themselves been spared, an experience which they have not had themselves, but whose effects still linger on.
Nevertheless, the responsibility for what happens in the present rests not only far away from us in politics and economy, but also with ourselves. In 1834, Georg Büchner wrote in a letter to his fiancée: “What is it in us that lies, murders, steals?” Honesty and courage – also towards ourselves – are easier said than done.