The words written on 15 May 1943 are despair in a nutshell: ‘[We’ve] heard nothing from Uncle, [or] Julius’ – Vom Onkel, Julius hoeren nichts. Claere Ikenberg-Löwenhardt wrote the message on the back of a Red Cross form to her sister Friedel Löwenhardt in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Claere (official name Klara), her husband and their almost two-year old son were marooned in Westerbork Transit Camp in the German-occupied Netherlands. Deportations from Westerbork to ‘the dreaded east’ had been underway for some ten months.
Klara and Friedel (Friedericka) were daughters of Isidor Löwenhardt (1874-1942) and Emilie Aron (1879-1942) – residents of Sterkrade in the Ruhrgebiet. Isidor and Emilie had five children between 1902 and 1909. Julius, the eldest, left Germany for Palestine in the mid-1930s. Next came a daughter, Else (1904-1941/42). Klara is the third child.
In January 1939, Klara married Ludwig Ikenberg from Altenbeken and for a short while they lived in nearby Einbeck near Altenbeken, fleeing to the still neutral Netherlands in April. Here they had to live separated from each other at different addresses. Not long after Klara and Ludwig Ikenberg were transferred to the Dutch authorities’ newly established camp for German and Austrian refugees. Their son Kurt Herbert was born in July 1941.
Isidor and Emilie Löwenhardt’s two youngest children were Saly (also written as Sally) and Friedel. Saly married Jeanne van Koppelen, a Jewish girl from Rotterdam, and they lived in Arnhem in the east of the country. As previously noted Friedel – who remained single – had fled to Britain. In mid-1943 she was 34, Saly 35, Klara 37 – in the prime of their lives as they witnessed the world imploding.
We need to make the acquaintance of one more player – Hermann Löwenhardt. Isidor was the one-but-eldest of twelve children – born into the extensive Löwenhardt clan in Oberhemer in the Sauerland. Hermann, the youngest, was born in 1892 – emigrating to the USA in the 1920s where he married Elizabeth Ring. Today they are survived by four children.
The Red Cross and other correspondence
Thanks to the Red Cross system of message forms, even in wartime it was possible to keep in touch with relatives in German-occupied Europe. Twenty-eight of these message forms make up the correspondence which is the basis of this story. Both sides were used. On the pre-printed front side, the ENQUIRER/Fragesteller outside continental Europe – in this case: Friedel – would write a short message to a relative in occupied territory. And this relative would use the reverse for a brief answer. It took several months for a Red Cross message form to reach the addressee – like Klara at Westerbork – and several more to get back to Friedel who had sent it in the first place. The messages were censored and limited to 25 words. Sheer necessity made most texts on either side of the form somewhat stilted and formulaic – How are you? We are doing well… But there were also masked or cryptic messages – with hard information being exchanged as well.
I have previously analyzed the ‘Friedel-Claere correspondence’ – seeking information on the growing-up of Claere’s son Kurt. Kurt was born in Westerbork and he and his parents were deported from there to the Theresienstadt ghetto in early September 1944, two months after celebrating his third birthday. Just one month later the three died in an Auschwitz gaschamber. However, aside from these nuggets on Kurt’s development, Friedel (who died in a London hospital in 1983), Claere and her husband Ludwig, who occasionally answered Friedel’s notes, also left us other information.
Other sources tell us that Red Cross message forms were not the only link between Westerbork and the outside world. Limited numbers of Dutch national newspapers arrived more or less every day. And it seems that – at least long-term inmates like Klara and Ludwig – could exchange monthly mail with persons in the Netherlands. Clandestine letters were sent under the cloak of the Jewish Council with its network of offices in Westerbork and major cities nationwide. This is confirmed by the ‘Friedel-Claere correspondence’. Occasionally the information sent by Claere to her sister in Belfast would not have been feasible had the camp been hermetically isolated from the rest of the country.
Elly Löwenhardt, 1942-1943
Elly adds to the evidence. Born to Saly and Jeanne in Arnhem on 30 June 1942, the announcement appeared in the 10 July edition of the national Joodsche Weekblad/JewishWeekly (controlled by the occupiers). Elly – not yet one-year old – was gassed with her parents at Sobibor on 11 June 1943. On their way to ‘the east’, Saly, Jeanne and Elly had passed through Westerbork camp. Arriving on 4 June 1943 four days later they were loaded onto the deportation train. Claere and Ludwig would probably have met them.
The first news of Elly came more than six months before she was born. On 11 December 1941 Claere wrote to her sister in Belfast that ‘Saly is doing fine, expecting baby’, Saly wohlauf; erwartet Baby. Six months later, on 19 June, eleven days before Elly’s birth, Claere reported that ‘Jeanne may deliver any day now’, Jeanne erwartet täglich Baby. And on 17 July: ‘Elly born to Sally. Jeanne and daughter doing fine’, Sally wurde Elly geboren. Jeanne, Toechterchen wohlauf. Surely, letters from her brother must have been the only way for Claere to have learned of Jeanne’s pregnancy?
Elly features in the correspondence on two further occasions – firstly on 22 March 1943 when Claere writes that ‘Sally’s little daughter is thriving’, Sally’s Toechterchen gedeiht gut. Did she know this for a fact? Sally, his wife and their baby had been living at Van Lawick van Pabststraat 183 in Arnhem. A few months after Elly’s birth, they had gone into hiding at an unknown address. On 5 November 1942 the national Police Gazette (Algemeen Politieblad) listed them as unlawfully absent from their official address and calling for their arrest and arraignment. This was more than four months prior to Claere’s report about a ‘thriving’ Elly. We can’t altogether rule out that Saly went on writing to his sister in the transit camp – from his clandestine address. But this would have been dangerous – and can Claere really have been unaware of the predicament of her brother’s family?
Alongside Sally and his immediate family, the correspondence mentions four more relations – Friedel and Claere’s brother Julius, parents Isidor and Emilie, and Isidor’s youngest brother, ‘Uncle Hermann’. Friedel’s first message of 28 February 1941 makes the single explicit reference: ‘Also wrote to parents’, Auch an Eltern geschrieben. Further on Friedel and Claere refer exclusively to ‘Loved ones’, Lieben, which almost certainly means their parents, maybe also including their sister Else and, on occasion, brother Sally.
Thanks to the database of the Federal German Archives (Bundesarchiv) we now know what happened to Isidor and Emilie. On 11 December 1941, in Düsseldorf, they – with a total of 1,005 other deportees – were loaded onto a train for a two-day journey to the Riga ghetto, where they died or were killed on a date unknown. The collected correspondence left by Friedel contains a single note, dated 5 June 1941, from her to her parents at Marktstrasse 46 in Oberhausen; she tells them that she has received ‘mail from Claere’, hatte Post von Clare. Else replied on behalf of their parents, in a typewritten message on the reverse:
‘Dear Friedel! We were happy to learn that you are in good health and spirits. We are too. Stay healthy and merry, warm greetings and kisses, parents – Else.’ Liebe Friedel! Haben uns gefreut dass Du gesund wohlauf bist, Wir auch Alle. Bleib weiter gesund und munter herzliche Grüsse Küsse Eltern – Else. The message form, sent by Friedel in late February 1941, made its way back to Belfast nine months later on 30 October.
On 8 September and again on 11 December 1941 (deportation day!) Claere wrote to Friedel that ‘All loved ones and we also in good health’, Alle Lieben, [und] wir gesund. Two months later on 2 January 1942 she was even more to the point: ‘Loved ones send their warm greetings. Don’t worry’. But in April-May her tone changes. On 13 March she says that she’s ‘expecting message from loved ones’, Von Lieben erwarten nachricht. And on 9 April we hear that she’s ‘expecting mail from loved ones’, Erwarten von Lieben Post. News of their parents’ deportation must somehow have filtered through to Belfast, for at the same time the tone of Friedel’s messages turns to outright concern: ‘Very worried’, Bin in grohsen Sorge (9 April), ‘Do you have message from loved ones?’, Habt ihr nachricht von Lieben? (23 April), ‘Have you heard from the loved ones?’ Habt ihr von den Lieben gehört? (7 May), ‘Do you hear from loved ones?’ Hört ihr von Lieben? (22 May), and again on 4, 9 and 18 June: ‘do you have message [mail] from loved ones?’ Habt ihr Nachricht [Post] von Lieben? Apparently Friedel was worried sick about the fate of her parents.
Claere wrote her first reassuring answer on 19 June 1942 – in the same message reporting Jeanne’s imminent delivery. On the reverse of the 9 April message in which Friedel had expressed serious worries: ‘Don’t worry, we hear that loved ones are well’, Sorge Dich nicht, hoeren daß Lieben gut geht. Claere replied eleven days later on 30 June using Friedel’s note dated 23 April in which she had asked if Claere had received any news from their parents: ‘As we hear [or: we are being told] loved ones are doing well’, Wie wir hoeren, geht’s Lieben gut. On 17 and 31 July Claere leaves even less doubt: ‘Loved ones are well’, Lieben geht’s gut. Given that the parents had been in Riga for more than six months, they might well have died. How did Claere know? On 27 August, Friedel writes that she is ‘Happy about the news from June that the loved ones are in good health’, Glücklich über Nachricht Juni, dahs Lieben gesund.
Albeit that getting close to the two sisters and coolly analysing their correspondence is a daunting prospect – I feel my duty to them is to press on. One conclusion – a preliminary finding – arises; from the freedom of Belfast Friedel asks the questions, and Claere is expected to come up with the answers, from her confinement in the Westerbork transit camp. The pattern repeats itself in the revelations around the sisters’ contact with brother Julius in Palestine, and uncle Hermann in the USA. Self-evidently it must have been much easier for Friedel to contact them than for Claere.
Vom Onkel, Julius hoeren nichts
Friedel’s initial message dated 28 February 1941 is also her first mention of Hermann: ‘Do you have mail from uncle?’, Habt ihr von Onkel Post. Claere’s reply of 25 May was short and to the point: ‘Uncle doesn’t write’, Onkel schreibt nicht. It is autumn 1942 when uncle Hermann resurfaces in correspondence, on 14 October to be precise, with Claere’s husband Ludwig asking Friedel ‘Did uncle Hermann write?’, Schrieb Onkel Hermann? Meanwhile, at almost the same time Friedel in Belfast asks Claere ‘do you hear from Julius?’, Hört ihr von Julius? (29 October). Clearly the sisters are desperate to get in touch with the only two relatives they feel may be in a position to help. On 12 November a note signed by Claere’s husband Ludwig again asks ‘Do you hear from Hermann?’, Hoerst von Hermann? And on 28 January 1943 Claere writes ‘We hear nothing from Julius’, Von Julius hoeren nichts. Friedel writes on 11 February 1943 ‘No answer from uncle’, Keine antwort vom onkel and, in the same note: ‘Do you hear from Julius?’, Hört ihr von Julius? Claere asks on 22 March 1943 whether ‘Hermann has written? Do you write?’, Laesst Herman von sich hoeren? Schreibst Du? But, on 1 April – with a gap of just over week, she could not possibly have been aware of the question posed by her sister on 22 March – Friedel wrote ‘wrote to uncle. Julius hope [for] soon answer’, Schrieb Onkel. Yulius hoffe bald antwort.
No answer was forthcoming from either Haifa or Detroit. Whether Friedel’s letters reached her relatives – and whether the relatives answered, is an unknown. On 15 May 1943 Claere closed the matter, writing: ‘Heard nothing from Uncle or Julius’, Vom Onkel, Julius hoeren nichts.
I’m left with few words to set out a conclusion. Generally one gets the impression that both brother and uncle failed the two sisters, neither responding to pleas for help – or indeed replying at all. Having said that there is no certainty around the actual arrival of messages from Westerbork, and/or from Belfast, addressed to Julius in Haifa and Hermann in Detroit at their destination. Indeed, if they did arrive whether the recipients mailed answers to either Friedel or Claere, or whether such messages actually arrived.
Claere in Westerbork was strikingly well informed about the lives of her brother Saly and his family. And one can’t help being surprised that Friedel in Belfast fully expected her sister confined in the camp to be better informed than she – as in the matter of their parents’ fate in Germany. In many respects, Claere could not live up to these assumptions – offering some solace with reassurances that all was well …
… but it was not. In June 1943 Claere had four days to be with brother Saly and his wife and baby before they were entrained for Sobibor on 8 June. Claere’s last message before Saly arrived had read: ‘The loved ones and ourselves are all in good health. Don’t worry; hopefully we will be reunited’, Lieben, wir ebenfalls gesund. Sorge Dich nicht; werden hoffentlich einander wiedersehen. With a single exception, Claere signed all the messages from Westerbork prior to Saly’s arrival. But her husband Ludwig signed the three messages following the departure of Saly, Jeanne and Elly (8 and 9 July and 2 September). Claere will have felt devastated – and by not signing the messages to her sister she probably meant to send her a signal that something was terribly wrong.
Claere’s signature reappears on the very last message in the collection (sent by Friedel on 24 June 1943, answered on 23 September 1943) with the reassurance, ‘The loved ones and we are all in good health’. But there is an ominous addition: ‘Saly, Jeanne [and] Elly are with [our] parents’, Sally, Jeanne, Elly bei Eltern.
Edited by Anthony Fudge, February 2013