Literary characters can be defined by features such as their personality, motivation, looks, and relationships with others. Similarly it is possible to piece together what a person was like through the small hints they left in the world. This can be done by using the marks they left on the memories of those who knew them, information in letters and photographs and in bureaucratic documents found in archives. In a lecture I held, I demonstrated what such a process would look like. I gathered the traces Adolf had left in the world. First I tried to recall everything I heard about Adolf (it was not a lot). I then searched for mentions of his name in letters my father had managed to translate. I copied the relevant passages and arranged them in chronological order. I am constantly amazed at how such simple and mechanical actions can bring a person back to life. The small breadcrumbs Adolf left came together to form the image of an indecisive man whose plans fail one after the other. Panic and despair gripped his surrounding family as they attempted to help Adolf within the limits of a changing world and increasingly complicated war politics. Let’s get started.
August 17, 1890 Adolf Bachrach was born in Bodenwerder, Germany, the birthplace of Baron Munchausen. At a young age he moved with his parents and three brothers to the neighboring big city – Hanover, the capital of lower Saxony. Few years passed before a baby girl, Hilde, finally joined the bundle. So that she would not be lonely, there was a new addition to the family shortly after. My grandfather, Walter came into this world at the end of the 19th century for the purpose of entertaining his sister. From that moment their souls were bound together.
July 26, 1925 Hanover, Germany
On the back of the postcard is written: “Adolf and his gentile girlfriend.”
July 2013, Riversdale, New York Lore is browsing through her binder, trying to remember what she is looking for, ah, the list! The list of names from her transport to the Riga Ghetto. When she finds it, she runs down it with her finger, through the 1001 names, until she finds her own name, her brother’s and her mother’s names. Next she finds the names of Adolf, Rudolf, and Rudolf’s wife Berta. She shows me the names with pride, as if to say ‘You see, I speak the truth’.
I don’t remind her that I have a copy of this list or that we have been through this ritual several times, watching her skim through the binder, slide her finger down the list of deportees, and rejoice with every name found. Every time she reads Adolf’s name she says the same thing: “I remember Adolf, he had a funny head, shaped like an egg”. Nothing more. When my father translated Lore’s memories from the ghetto, he noted that Lore had seen Adolf in the ghetto. I don’t remember her ever saying this to me, I know nothing about Adolf from the moment he boarded the train on December 15th, 1941. But the egg-shaped head can't be denied.
Autumn 2013, Israel I have a vague memory of my father telling me that when the war ended my grandfather went to Germany and met a woman who offered Adolf a hiding place. She told my grandfather that Adolf declined her offer, claiming that the conditions of the hiding place were not to his liking. When I called my father in the hopes of gaining more details of this instance, he claimed he never told me a story about my grandfather going to Germany, about his brother Adolf or about any offer. My overactive imagination angers him.
And I, who inherited my father’s faulty memory, wonder which of us is wrong. Perhaps he told me these details and forgot, perhaps I borrowed the story from somebody else’s history.
Around 1907, Hanover
On the right stands Adolf, see the egg-shaped head? The boy holding the book on the left, the youngest brother, is my grandfather Walter. Hilde is holding a bouquet of flowers and the father of the family Bernard, stands in the middle. These are the main heroes of the plot. The other characters who will be mentioned are the mother of the family, Julia, the brother sitting on the right, Friedrich, and sitting on the left of the father, Rudolf. The only one who will not be mentioned in the letters is Siegfried, the eldest brother who is standing on the left. He managed to escape this barbaric period by being killed in the First World War. Adolf's name appears in the letters starting in 1939. Perhaps because this is what my father chose to translate and perhaps because it is when Adolf needed help. At this time Bernard, Julia, Rudolf and Adolf are still in Hanover. Walter and his wife Käthe lives in Palestine, and Hilde and her husband Alfred are in Finland.
April 30, 1939 From: Hilde, Finland To: Walter and Käthe, Palestine … And what will happen to Adolf? Do you think something will come from the events of P[Palestine]? I do not have high hopes on the matter. I fear that in his stubbornness he is focusing on one specific solution and in the meanwhile ruins any other alternatives. Recently he wrote me regarding the possibility of emigrating to Cuba! It solves nothing! From Friedrich I received another letter of total despair. This is obvious to anyone who is familiar with the current situation. If only we could help. Six months after Kristallnacht (Crystal Night), the grave understanding of the current situation resonates in the family’s letters, which are mostly concerned with finding a way to emigrate out of Germany. The translator, my father, believed that the letter P is most likely Palestine. Friedrich’s situation was worst of all. I assume that what happens to him contributes to the sense of urgency. Thought: Hilde’s diagnosis of her brother’s indecisive character falls in line with the persona of one who declines an offer of a hiding place.
July 11, 1939 From: Hilde, Finland To: Walter and Käthe, Palestine ... Alfred is now in Helsinki to deal with, among other things, the matters related to Adolf. This is to say, we tried to find for him an Edith, and we did! This is the only way. We must act quickly, before people will be arrested again. There is no other option! You cannot imagine how strict the regulations are, as well as the rigor of their implementation. They are prohibiting entrance for even a single J [Jew]. No use in asking about a work permit – even Alfred can’t obtain one. He’s managing to work only because his business is located outside the country. In the coming days we will be forced to once again declare that he will, in no way, work in Finland. We hope to avoid all this if Adolf has a Finnish wife – that is, pure Finnish. She is supposed to travel to G [Germany] in the coming weeks for them to marry before the local consul. Afterward she will be able to bring Adolf with her to Finland. I have known her for almost a year now, she is a friendly and likeable girl and I believe they will live a happy life together. The savior is 30 years old. Until now she lived with her elderly mother, whom she treats well, but she is totally interested in marriage. She is conservative in nature and will be liked by mother, except for one thing. She is considerably nicer than Berta, no comparison, and she will definitely help our mother in household duties. I will remind mother of the Marranos, so that she will agree to all that is necessary in this reality. There is no other way! Obviously, Alfred is paying for the travel and all other expenses. He likes Adolf very much. I will be very happy if even one survives. Hilde and Alfred arrived in Finland in 1937. Alfred established a laboratory working in the chemical trading business. Over time, Finnish laws regarding immigrants employment restrictions became more severe, and they specifically required those entering their territory to be legally able to return to their homeland.
Meanwhile, in the end of 1938 all Jewish Germans passports were stamped with an identifying red letter “J”. Though, under bureaucratic pretexts, came the end to the possibility of Jewish immigration to Finland (and to other countries as well), despite the danger becoming more and more obvious. Did the Finns know the magnitude of the danger at this stage? In the last sentence, Hilde writes that she would be “very happy if even one survives”. It shows that in mid 1939, the threat of death was common knowledge, and that survival hopes were low. The Finns knew. Despite the difficulties, Hilde does not give up. They find Edith - a code name for “friendly and likeable girl” who is prepared to “live a happy life together” with Adolf who is older than her by 20 years. Hilde sees that the only threat to her perfect plan is a domestic one – her mother, Julia’s refusal to a gentile bride (“except for one thing”). Hilde suggests reminding her mother of Marranos – the Marrano Jews who converted to Christianity to avoid persecution, but observed the Jewish tradition in secret. When my father sent me the translation of this letter two years ago he wrote “This is the letter with the most enticing innovation”. He was probably talking about the criticism of the problematic sister-in-law Berta. This juicy remark clarifies why the brother, Rudolf, is almost entirely absent from the letters. He further noted that the letter was printed by a typewriter, with handwritten additions both by Hilde and by Alfred, and that they do mention Adolf. The handwritten text was not decoded.
Due to my father’s comments, I went through the trouble of finding the original letter. Pictured here is one page out of two. Does anyone want to play detective and help with translation? I can send you a high-resolution copy.
The following letter deals with Bernard’s (the father of the family) own attempts to save himself. He describes the bureaucratic actions that he tries to perform. He is angry, demanding help and noting his great contribution to the Zionist movement. In his opinion it qualifies him to be first in line for Immigration certificate. He does not mention his wife, Julia, even once. He refers to Adolf’s story in two short sentences.
August 6th, 1939 From: Bernard, Hanover To: Walter, Palestine ... Hilde and Alfred believe that the only option for reaching Finland is through marriage. However, this option also seems inapplicable to us. There is a lack of sympathy for the Jewish problem, the Finnish Consulate is unwilling to take this step. The Finnish consulate was unwilling to cooperate with Hilde and Alfred’s perfect plan. And perhaps Adolf did not try to convince the consulate with sufficient tenacity. In retrospect, it is doubtful that this marriage would have provided a solution.
The first letter after the outbreak of the war (the invasion of Poland). In this fascinating letter, like many other of her letters, Hilde describes the personal and political situation. Because of the war, the correspondence German-Palestine is not possible and Hilde is used as a channel for transmitting information between disconnected family members. She sends Walter information and requests from Adolf, even if she doesn’t always understand what Adolf means [in square brackets are clarifications from the translator].
October 16, 1939 From: Hilde, Helsinki To: Walter and Käthe, Palestine ….with all the current difficulties, there is no immediate hope but perhaps they will soon bring an end to the reign of terror in G[Germany]. Some people here believe that this can happen. Are there such opinions around you as well? The mail arrives very late or is lost on the way. For example, a letter from H[Hanover] arrived after 12 days. Many letters did not arrive at all, so I did not dare send you information related to Adolf…
Today another letter from Hanover arrived. They believe that you can send them letters directly. I made it clear to them several times that this is impossible…
Adolf wrote, “I am just returning from a visit to the Palestine office [of the jewish agency]. Transfers [between Germany and Palestine] have been renewed [They were canceled with the outbreak of the War], and I am pre-booked for travel. I will immediately write to the office in Berlin.” In addition, Walter, Adolf asks if you managed to obtain the arrangement in Fiume. In an earlier paragraph from the same letter, Adolf wrote: “Recently people have been receiving certificates for immigration to Palestine, so there is a possible route of leaving. I wrote to Walter to check again about the Fiume option, from here it is impossible to check. If it was possible I would have done it myself. I did not get an answer from him. A letter from the local office just arrived saying that there is a slight chance I could come [to Palestine] on the next transfer. I will write you in two hours on the matter.” What is the relation to Fiume? Is it related to travel expenses? Worst of all, under the new circumstances, we have no way of helping. We must even reduce the delivery of cheese and butter, which are now more vital than ever. We must plan our expenses carefully and are cut down on ingredients with great precision. Adolf continues to search for a way out of Germany, and is finally willing to compromise on Palestine. However, Under the British Mandate, Jewish immigration to Palestine was limited by rules and regulations. On the break of the war it temporaily turned into a complete halt.
Fiume is a port city that at this time was under Italian control (Italy has not yet joined the war). Months earlier an illegal immigrant ship left from Fiume toward Palestine. Adolf might be considering such a route. The economic situation of Alfred and Hilde is deteriorating. They can no longer send food to the family in Hanover (Cheese? Butter? How did they send it?). They indicate that they must move to a remote and rural area to save money.
November 11, 1939 From: Hilde, Helsinki To: Walter and Käthe, Palestine …and now for the most important part: I am attaching Adolf’s letter to mine, and a copy of the letter from Kornfeld from Fiume. When we received this information we immediately drove to the city to transfer the necessary money. Alfred currently has a certain sum of money, and we ceased the opportunity. Unfortunately, they refused to transfer foreign currency abroad, not even a single mark. Foreign exchange regulations here are very strict, similar to what is happening everywhere in times of war. I am completely discouraged. Now, when we have almost succeeded, it’s like we have hit a brick wall. Perhaps we will find a way when the crisis between Russia and Finland ends. But will they ever overcome the crisis? How long will it take?
When the situation changes, the bank will notify us. We will also check with Fiume, maybe they will find a way to execute the money transfer. I have very little hope. I am restless when I think of the unfortunate family members who remained in G [Germany]. There is no way for us to help them! Let us hope the war will not last long! We do not have Adolf’s letter mentioned here. A pity – a letter in his handwriting, with his phrasing, could have really added to the story.
The bureaucracy becomes ever more complicated as the war continues. Is it possible that people failed to escape because of a currency transfer issues? In August, 1939, the German–Soviet Non-Aggression Pact (Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact) was signed, with a secret annex whereby the parties agreed that Finland would be under Soviet influence. Meanwhile, the Soviets are secretly preparing for attack, soon things will get worse.
Käthe’s (my grandmother, Walter’s wife) answer to a letter in which Hilde foretold the bitter truth – there is no hope whatsoever for family members who remained in Germany.
November 9th, 1944 From: Käthe, Palestine To: Hilde, Sweden My dear Hilde! I was so pleased when at last a letter came to us from Sweden, which we had been expecting for so long. Thank God you all are well. And still, when I read your letter, my heart ached. Of the death of Friedrich I heard personally from H.S. but I did not tell Walter. I knew he would be informed of it soon enough. But still, what you wrote about all the others was news to us.
Yesterday, right after receiving your letter, I immediately filled out requests for immigration certificates for those who were sent to Theresienstadt. Such requests can be submitted for them, but not for those who were sent to Riga. I haven’t heard from my mother [Nanny Krombach] in the past two years. On the eve of her transport, she wrote me a farewell letter (via the Red Cross). Where was she sent to? I do not know! But what help will these hopeless reflections do? Now we must hope that peace will come quickly, and so at least we will then be able to meet. We often imagine such an encounter! Oh Grandma! In response to such terrible news, you fill out requests for immigration certificates for those who were sent to Theresienstadt and are saddened that it is still not possible for those deported to Riga. You still hope to see your mother. You clearly do not grasp what you have been told! Those papers will not be of use and your mother is long gone.
Hilde left Finland and lived in Sweden. This can be explained by the events of this era which I'll write about in the future.
Hilde and Walter, a brother and sister, have not met since 1933. He tells her that despite the longing and the hope that they will meet again, he decides to cancel his visit. He uses the money that was meant for the trip to build a house in their yard for Ruth, the daughter of my grandmother’s sister. Ruth was orphaned in Germany, her husband was killed in Israel’s War of Independence and she now has a baby girl, Tami. In the letter he refers to his sacrifice:
December 19th, 1949 From: Walter, Palestine To: Hilde, Sweden … Tami’s house, you must understand, involves a great deal of sacrifice that we both share. It was built with the money that we planned on using to travel and visit you in Sweden. But how can we express our deep love, if not by sacrificing other loves. So, what we experience – pain or joy- gain or, in this case, sacrifice – deepens our feelings of love for you. The sacrifice becomes a gain. It is painful, but it strengthens and empowers me. What disturbs and shackles me is the idea that we did not act with the same tenacity and willingness to sacrifice when we tried, at the last minute, to save our brother Adolf. In this respect, Tami’s house is, in retrospect, a replacement sacrifice. Hilde, I feel that you are incorrect when you warn me about not succumbing to feelings of guilt. Precisely because of this pain I will be released of future feelings of guilt. I continue to dream that the day will come that I will have time, energy and the abillity to concentrate in order to write our life history. I will not write a biography or a story. What must be written will need a new and unique format, a mixture between prophecies of the heart and reality. Both of us will march towards the previous centuries, and simultaneously all that we experience will become a new reality – parks and gardens, theater and music, constant changes. Oh, beloved grandfather! Why did you not write your memoir? Both the prophecies of the heart and the reality!
In 1974 my father interviewed my grandfather. About Adolf he said the following: The third son, Adolf, was born in 1884 [my grandfather is wrong and chooses a different date each time for Adof's birth year] and remained single. He fell in love with a Christian woman, and our parents refused the marriage. Adolf longed for a convenient lifestyle and was not interested in literature. He defended his younger siblings against the other children in the neighborhood. Adolf was a department manager in a large store. With the economic crises of the 20’s he became a peddler. A Hanoverian old woman told Walter that during the Holocaust she offered Adolf a hiding place in a greenhouse, but he declined the offer and perished. She mentioned the name of the Nazi who harassed Adolf.
Epilogue: So this is him, Adolf, here before you, with his egg-shaped head, wearing a fancy suit and petting spotted deer. A person with many plans that all fail. In his defense, during this specific time period all the odds were against him. Yet there are hints that his personality contributed to his failures. Everyone is busy trying to rescue him while he continues to look for a different solution than that which was offered. And so, he will miss the train, except for the one train he should have avoided. You might know him well enough to recognize him in the photograph, between his brothers and his sister.
The idea that there are more secrets and hints in the letters that were not translated yet, and may never be, is frustrating. But there is enough here for a worthy literary character, a great antihero, Isn't it so? I admit that several topics were mentioned here that should have been elaborated upon: how I found Lore and how she was able to survive, on Friedrich’s horrible story, on Hilde and the Finnish-Jewish option to survive, about Walter and his way with words. All of these and more will continue to be researched and told in future posts.