Monday, March 19, 2012

Two Lives by Vikram Seth 2005

"Henny and Shanti had no children. But they did have an author for a great-nephew. And his Two Lives is a stay against their oblivion." from a review by Blake Morrison published in the Guardian on 9/16/2005

Although the writer Vikram Seth is not Jewish, a very large part of this moving story is about his Jewish great aunt Hennerle Caro who escaped to England from her home in Berlin in 1939.  Shanti Seth, the author’s great uncle, met Henny Caro, his future wife, having rented a room from her mother before the war when he came from India to attend dental school in Berlin. They reconnected in England where he had already settled because as a "foreigner" he could not practice dentistry in Germany. They did not get married until 1951. Shanti Seth practiced as a dentist despite having lost an arm during his service in World War II.

The author came to know Shanti Uncle and Aunt Henny when in 1969, at the age of 17, he left India to attend school in England. A childless couple, Aunt Henny and Seth Uncle enjoyed the author’s company a great deal, treating him like a son. His great aunt suggested he learn German when he realized he needed to master a foreign language other than English as an education requirement. She offered to tutor him, which she did. He stayed close to them through the rest of their lives, visiting frequently, and flying in as often as he could from wherever he was when, as they grew older, they underwent a number of medical crises. Aunt Henny died in 1989 and Uncle Shanti  in 1998.

The author’s original intent was to write a biography of the interesting life of his great uncle Shanti; he conducted extensive interviews with him after Aunt Henny died. But on a visit from India, in helping to clean out the attic after Aunt Henny’s death, Vikram Seth’s father found a trunk in the attic belonging to Aunt Henny  full to the brim with correspondence, documents, and a few books. Her husband knew nothing about the trunk and their contents. Most correspondence covered the years from after the war through to the early 1950’s when Hennerle Caro was trying to find out about the fate of her mother and sister who had stayed behind in Berlin. Most were from Christian friends in Berlin consoling her on her loss and providing the information that they had gathered about the last days of Hennerle’s mother and sister who, she learned, though they lived together, were separated at death. Her elderly mother was deported to Theresienstadt, her sister to Birkenau.

The very long section in this 500 page book devoted to Henny Caro quotes these letters extensively and make for very interesting reading. Henny frequently made carbon copies of her responses so we hear her voice as she conveys her anger and bitterness at the fate of her family.  What’s particularly interesting in her letters are her inquiries to friends she trusts about others of their friends who were trying to re-establish contact with her. She wanted to know exactly how they had each behaved during the war, what groups they had joined, who they had associated with. She is bitter about those who wrote to console her after she finds out from others that certain of them stayed away from visiting her mother and sister even though many of her friends had known them well. Others had put themselves at risk by visiting them and helping them out with food before they were deported.

Henny was an heir to her mother’s, her sister’s and her two maiden aunts’ estates. Henny’s closest Christian friend who still lived in Berlin offered to help her with claims against the German government to facilitate compensation for both her lost wages and all confiscated property. The letters back and forth between Henny, her friend, the German government and the American government (because she suspected her wealthy aunts had sent money to American banks) reveal a callousness on the part of the bureaucracy in both governments that still outrages so many years later.

Vikram Seth informs us that before he investigated these letters in the trunk he only had a superficial knowledge about the Holocaust. He knew no Jews growing up in India. He was shocked that he had known nothing about his great aunt’s past. When he talked to his great uncle who had known his mother-in-law and sister-in-law when he lived in Berlin, Shanti Uncle said his wife never wanted to talk about it.

For the author, writing this book  included doing research about Jewish Berlin, the Nazi edicts visited on its Jewish residents, deportations, and conditions and procedures in the Thesienstadt and Berkenau concentration camps. At one point the author visited Israel to give a talk and found himself spontaneously going to Yad Vashem where he found entries for Gabriele and Lola Caro in German documents. Reading the German, a language he loved that was part of his connection to his great aunt when she had tutored him, so sickened him that for a period he stopped reading German and listening to German Leider.

The author concludes with making some salient points about having written this book. He is troubled with the fact that he was publishing letters that were not meant for the public eye, but decides that since Shanti Uncle and Aunt Henny are long gone, their lives are now part of history. He makes the point that their lives spanned most of the twentieth century and through his research and analysis the author reveals how the major events of the 20th century shaped their lives and those around them.

To read an article about the fate of Jews in Berlin, click here.
Isaac Caro – married Gabriele (Ella) Schmelkes
    Lola Caro – daughter of Isaac and Gabriele
    Hennerle Gerda Caro – daughter of Isaac and Gabriele; married Shanti Seth
    Heinz (Hei) Caro – son of Isaac and Gabriele; married Mia stonewalling at absurdity of responses from US and Germany

Olga and Flora Glaser – Henny’s aunts ( exact relationship unclear)
Malchen and Sigfried Pawel – Henny’s aunt and uncle (exact relationship unclear)

Friends and Acquaintances
Hans Mahnert – married Wanda
Fredy Aufrichtig
Jazko Rabau – married to Rose
    Inge – daughter of Jazko
Heinrich Etzold (Henry Edwards) – married Nita
    Susan Edwards – daughter of Henry and Nita
Adolph Berliner (A.G. Belvin)
Luther Berliner – brother of Adolph
Cora Berliner
Hans Altmann
Alice and Else Pasch – sisters
Adolf Wolffsky
Frieda, Ursel, and Klaus Alexander
Margot Berlowitz Weissberg
Walter Schachtel
Tilly Reich
Paul Oppler

Berlin, Germany
Charlottenburg, Berlin
London, England
Le Paz, Bolivia
Buenos Aires, Argentina
Theresienstadt, Czechoslovakia
Auschwitz, (Berkenau) Poland
Atlanta, Georgia
Shanghai, China
Capetown, South Africa

Monday, March 5, 2012

Sala’s Gift: My Mother’s Holocaust Story by Ann Kirschner

"This moving account illuminates a little-known aspect of the Holocaust: Organization Schmelt, in which Jewish leaders supplied slave labor to the Germans for the war effort." from a review in Publisher's Weekly 8/21/2006

In 1991 when Ann Kirschner’s mother Sala was about to enter the hospital for by-pass surgery, afraid she might die, Sala Garncarz Kirschner handed her daughter a portfolio containing what turned out to be 352 letters, documents and photos that she had saved and guarded throughout the almost five years she had been in labor camps during World War II. The portfolio was a well-kept secret. Her daughter knew her mother was a survivor, but her mother had never been willing to talk about her experience. After the surgery, the two embarked on a project to reconstruct Sala’s life through interviews and through translating and putting in sequential order Sala’s collection – a “gift” to her family and to the wider world.

Sala Garncarz was the youngest daughter born into a large family of poor observant Jews who lived in Sosnowiec in western Poland. Because Sosnowiec and other towns near it were close to the German border, the Nazis established labor camps where they enslaved Jews to work to help their war effort. Sala Garncarz reported to a labor camp in Geppersdorf in late 1940 when she was just sixteen years old, was transferred at different times to other labor camps, and was liberated in 1945 from the Schatzlar labor camp in Czechoslovakia.

In this memoir Ann Kirschner has included many of the letters her mother saved. Many were from her sister Reizel who at  first wrote from home and then from the Neusalz labor camp where she was taken along with a third sister, Blima. Another set of early letters are from Sala’s girlfriends back home who had not yet been deported to concentration camps or assigned to labor camps.  A third set is from Ala Gertner, a woman ten years older than Sala who promised Sala's mother she would take care of Sala. Although the letters were censored, it is easy to read between the lines, and we can follow the progression from cheerful and hopeful to fearful and desperate.

Ann Kirschner did a lot of research to be able to contextualize the events in her mother’s life. Kirschner, for example, gives important background information about the Sosnowiec Jewish community and what happened to that community when the Nazis invaded Poland. She describes the role of Moses Merin whom the Nazis appointed as head of the Jewish Council and his double dealing as he tried to maintain his position and hold onto his life. She also gives us a short history of labor camps, as opposed to concentration camps, explaining the role of the Nazi officer Albrecht Schmelt who created and then administered a growing web of labor camps. (Oscar Schindler is probably the most well known factory owner whose factory was served by a labor camp.)  She describes the vital role these camps played in the Nazi war effort and then their waning presence after  Hitler’s 1942  Final Solution went into effect.

Sala Garncarz was released into a changed Poland. We follow her as she makes her way home to find out who is still alive. She then meets her future husband - an American GI, marries, and starts a new life in America, burying her old life in her heart and secreting evidence of her past in her portfolio.

The author has included many photos and copies of documents as well as an index and an extensive listing of sources divided into the following categories: Prewar Life in Sosnowiec, Poland and During the Occupation; Nazi Labor Camps and Organization Schmelt; Moses Merin and the Jewish Council; August 12, 1942; Ala Gertner and the Auschwitz Uprising; Schatzlar, Neusalz, and Dyhernfurth.  She has also included a useful listing of  "Additional Sources and Inspirations" which is mostly a listing of more general works on the Holocaust.

To watch and listen to a lecture on You Tube by Ann Kirschner about her mother's story, click here.

To read a document on the website of the US Holocaust Memorial Museum about forced labor as well as to see archival footage and to have access to personal testimonies, click here.

Abram Simcha Garncarz – married to Rachel
    Moshe Chaim Garncarz – son of Abram and Rachel; married Matel Sczydlov
    Raizel Lea Garncarz – daughter of Abram and Rachel; married Yaacov Fischel

    Josef Garncarz –nephew of Abram and Rachel; married Chana Feldman(second wife)
        Miriam Chaya Garncarz – daughter of Josef and first wife
        Moshe David Garncarz – son of Josef and Chana; married to Hendel
        Laya Dina Garncarz – daughter of Josef and Chana; married to David Krzesiwo
            Salusia and Moniek Krzesiwo – children of Laya Dina and David
        Hersh Leib Garncarz – son of Josef and Chana
        Avram Yitzhak Garncarz – son of Josef and Chana
        Chaim Pincus Garncarz – son of Josef and Chana
        Fiegele Garncarz – daughter of Josef and Chana
        Yankov Aaron – son of Josef and Chana
        Blima Garncarz – daughter of Josef and Chana; married to Jacob Goldberg
        Raizel (Rose) Garncarz – daughter of Josef and Chana; married to Ezriel Lange
        Salusia (Sala) Garncarz – daughter of Josef and Chana; married Sydney Kirschner
            Joseph Kirschner – son of Sala and Sydney
            Ann Kirschner – daughter of Sala and Sydney; married to Harold Weinberg
                  Elisabeth, Caroline and Peter Weinberg - children of Ann and Harold
            David Kirschner – son of Sala and Sydney

                      Jennie, Jeremy, Gabby, Rachel and Yael  Kirschner - children of Joseph and David Kirschner (not clear which children "belong" to Joseph and which to David)
Family of Chana Feldman (author’s great-grandmother – see above)
Asher Alter Feldman – uncle of Chana; married Tobele
    Yacob Hainoch Feldman – son of Asher and Tobele
    Blima Yockevet Feldman – daughter of Asher and Tobele
    Esther Feldman – daughter of Asher and Tobele
    Miriam Feldman – daughter of Asher and Tobele
    Aaron Yosef Feldman – son of Asher and Tobele
    Leah Dina Feldman – daughter of Asher and Tobele; married Yechiel Ophir
    Moshe Leib Feldman – son of Asher and Tobele
    David Feldman – son of Asher and Tobele
    Shlomo Feldman – son of Asher and Tobele
    Melech Feldman – son of Asher and Tobele
    Mendel Wolf Feldman – son of Asher and Tobele
 Rozia (Rose) Grunbaum Futter (?) Danziger (?); sister of Sala and Abram; cousin of Sala Garcarz (exact relationship not clear)
 Sala Grunbaum Singer - sister to Rozia and Abram; cousin of Sala Garncarz (exact relationship not clear)
 Abram Grunbaum – brother of Rozia and Sala; cousin of Sala Garncarz (exact relationship unclear)

Friends and Acquaintances
Sarah Schenirer
Sala Rabinowicz Poznanski - sister to Frymka and Glika
Frymka Rabinowicz Zavontz- sister to Sala and Glika
Glika Rabinowicz - sister to Sala and Frymka
Moses (Moshe, Moniek, Marek) Merin
Fani Czarna
Ala Gertner and Bernard Holtz - married
Wolf Leitner
Chaim Kaufman
Hokilo Dattner
Bela Kohn
Chaim Rumkowski
Sarah Czarka Helfand
Mitzi Mehler
Gucia Gutman Ferleger
Harry Haubenstock
Zusi Ginter Bloch - sister to Itka
Itka Ginter Bloch - sister to Zusi
Bronia Altman
Fryda Lipschitz
Mordechai Anielwicz
Eva Joskowitz
Friedl Silberstein
Sara Weisman
Roza Robota
Mala Weinstein
Anna Wajcblum Heilman - sister of Estusia
Estusia Wajcblum – sister of Anna
Regina Safirsztajn
Eugene Koch
Rose Meth
Morris Frank

Bais Yaakov school, Sosnowiec, Poland
Sosnowiec, Poland
Wolbrom, Poland
Oswiecim, Poland
Bedzin, Poland
Warsaw, Poland
Skladowa transit camp, Poland
Geppersdorf labor camp,Germany
Neusalz labor camp, Poland
Grosse Sarne labor camp, Germany
Brande labor camp, Germany
Laurahutte labor camp, Poland
Gross Paniow labor camp, Poland
Blechhammer labor camp, Poland
Olkusz, Poland
Srodula ghetto, Poland
Kamionka, Poland
Flossenburg concentration camp, Germany
Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, Germany
Auschwitz concentration camp, Poland
Ansbach, Germany
Waldenburg, Poland
Dyhernfurth concentration camp, Poland
Frankfurt, Germany
New York City – East Harlem, Brooklyn, Queens