Intro

"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 Olonetzky

Massacre in Odessa

In Tsarist Russia, hostile behavior towards Jewish people was common practice. In 1881, the birth year of my grandfather Moritz, his native city Odessa witnessed a massacre of its Jewish citizens which provoked a wave of migration to Western Europe and the USA. Nevertheless, repression continued to mark everyday life: in 1905, violence escalated into another pogrom, and by 1914, about two million Jews had left Western Russia.

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.

Deportation

Deportation to Izbica

Early in March 1942, the Gestapo office Stuttgart ordered the Reichsbahn to provide the deportation train marked “Da 56” and defined its destination on April 10, 1942: Izbica, about 50 kilometers southeast of Lublin. On April 24, 1942, my grandfather had to report to Killesberg, he was 61 years old. In the early morning of April 26, he and more than 600 other people marched to Stuttgart’s Inner North station. Among the deportees were many Jewish children, the last ones who still remained in Stuttgart. The journey in sealed wagons took three days. On arrival at Lublin, all the men selected as fit for work are supposed to have been taken to the Majdanek camp, whereas all the other people were sent to Izbica.

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.

Stirring research

“I think there were many people who just could not see it through.”

Reading the archive documents, I went through all kinds of emotional states. I read spellbound and used every spare minute to devour the correspondence. It gave me pain, it made me furious, it made me sick, and it gave me nightmares. And then there were passages which sounded absurd enough to make me laugh. The tone is sometimes insulting.

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.

The whole story

Booklet and Interview

You can read the whole documentation of Nadine Olonetzky’s research relating to her family in this booklet. In the interview documented on the following slides, Nadine tells us how she felt the burden of her family history when she was a child and why she regards it as important to share this story with you.

(Photo: Nadine Olonetzky. Copyright: Patrick Gutenberg)

To the Booklet

Truth

How did you experience the moment when your father told you about your family’s persecution?

Before coming to Switzerland, my father told me no details – or at least no unambiguous ones – about his life for a long time. He used to say things I could imagine like: “Your grandfather traded in tobacco.” Or: “What a joy you would have given him!” That was very pleasant, of course.

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.

1350 Pages

What does it mean to you to publish the booklet and this Living History story and to have laid the Stolpersteine commemorative plaques?

Actually I had long been aware of Gunter Demnig’s project to lay plaques known as “Stolpersteine” (English: stumbling blocks) in the pavement to commemorate victims of National Socialism. In January 2020, I made contact with the Stolpersteine initiative in Stuttgart to have them lay a plaque for my grandfather Moritz. It is common practice that prior to placing the plaque, research is done on the fate of the people it commemorates.

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.

Responsibility

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.

Responsibility

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.

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