Or: hidden by ivy
It began with a picture: a family gathering around a table in the garden. One man, three women and a girl named Gerda. An unusual picture, the five persons are identified by their first name. Date and place are known as well: 1956, McHenry Illinois, USA. The handwriting is Käthe’s. 1
I knew right away that Johanna in the center was Johanna Loewenhardt. She was born in Oberhemer, Germany, sixteen months after my grandfather Adolf. Johanna and he had ten siblings, the firstborn in 1873 and the youngest (Hermann) in 1892. Yes, a Jewish middle class family with twelve children.
At the time of the picture ‘aunt Hanny’ looked remarkably young for her 71 years. With her husband and two sons she had arrived in the USA in August 1910. When the picture was taken she had been a US citizen for 36 years. 2 But who were Alfred, Alice, Gerda and Käthe? Friends? Chance acquaintances? Family perhaps? Their first names did not ring a bell and they were not to be found in the extended family tree I have been researching since 2010.
I had long forgotten about the mysterious picture when on 4 May 2021 Facebook alerted me to a message by Tamara Zimmer from Berlin. Tamara reacted to my posting of the picture almost eight years earlier. On 10 September 2013 I had written: WHO KNOWS THIS FAMILY? The picture was taken in Woodstock Illinois USA. Second from right sitting is Johanna Benning-Löwenhardt (1885-1972) with Alfred and Käthe (…) and their daughters Alice and Gerda. But… what was their family name?
In all those years no one had responded to my posting… until Tamara. The family name, she wrote, was Meyerowitz. Just one word, a name. It made a world of difference. My quest took off full speed. It led to unexpected findings.
Tamara referred me to her husband Sebastian and we started an email correspondence. He wrote that Käthe Meyerowitz was a daughter of Salomon Löwenhardt. It took me some time to grasp that he was referring to my great-uncle Salomon born in 1873 and not to his grandfather, my great-great grandfather Salomon. It was an Eureka moment indeed! As it later turned out, Sebastian is a great-great grandson of my great-uncle Salomon.
Grandfather Adolf Löwenhardt (1883-1944) came from a family of twelve siblings, three girls (including Johanna) and nine boys. Ever since I started my research into family history, data on the firstborn of these twelve had been lacking. Sometime in the 1950s the city authorities in Hermer, Westfalia, had sent my father birth certificates on eleven of the twelve children. Number one was Isidor Löwenhardt, born in December 1874. How come there had been twelve children but only eleven certificates?
With the help of Mr. Thomas, Hemer’s city archivist, I had found that civil registration had started only in 1874 and that earlier births, including those of Jewish children, were registered in church books only. And so I found Salomon, born in Oberhemer on 26 August 1873 and named after his grandfather. The firstborn! For a very long time this was all I knew about him. [See the simplified Löwenhardt family tree]
Sebastian mailed me scans of three important documents: Salomon’s civil marriage certificate made up in Berlin on 28 August 1903; his death certificate; and the birth certificate of his second daughter, Gerda.
Two days after his thirtieth birthday, Salomon married 32 years old Selma Dobriner from Filehne (now named Wieleń, in western Poland). By this time, Salomon was living in Berlin and this is where the couple settled. Their first child – daughter Edith – was born in December 1904 in Berlin-Rixdorf now Berlin-Neukölln. Two more girls and one boy were born in the following six years: Gerda in 1907, Käthe in 1908 and Heinz in 1910. In this period Salomon’s occupation was listed as bookkeeper and the family lived at Kaiserstraße 32a, probably in Berlin-Mariendorf.
The children were four to nine years old when in August 1914 their father had to report for the front. With his eight brothers he belonged to the Jewish family with almost the largest number of sons at the fronts. There were various reports in the press about the valiant Löwenhardt family and in 1917 their mother Pauline received a distinction from the Kaiser.
The death certificate indicated that Salomon died on 18 February 1923 when he was 49 years old. His widow Selma testified that he had died at home, Kleiststraße 3. She was 52 years old; the children were between 12 and 18 years. Salomon was buried at the Jewish Cemetery Berlin-Weißensee.
Thanks to Sebastian Zimmer I now had an indication of Salomon Junior’s family. To start with the son: in years past I had noticed something remarkable when consulting the online Gedenkbuch 3 of the German National Archives, the Bundesarchiv. The Gedenkbuch listed one Heinz Löwenhardt born in Berlin in 1910, who had died in the Riga ghetto. The name of my very own father was Heinz Löwenhardt, born in Dortmund-Lindenhorst in 1913 – but he had fled Germany in 1935 and thanks to his timely departure I can write these words. It now transpired that the Berlin Heinz was the only son of Selma and Salomon Junior and a cousin of my father.
At the time of his death, Salomon’s occupation was listed as tradesman and the family lived in an elegant section of the German capital, Berlin-Charlottenburg. His widow Selma lived to be 71. With her son Heinz and 1.032 other Berlin Jews, she was deported to the ghetto of Riga in Latvia on 13 January 1942. They had continued living at Kleiststraße 3. On the transport list, Heinz’s profession and civil status were listed as worker and single, ‘able to work’. The train arrived after a gruesome journey of three days and nights. Selma and Heinz were never seen again.
Heinz had been the fourth child. About the first two, Edith (born 1904) and Gerda (1906-39) we know little. But we know much more on Käthe, who was born in Berlin on 7 July 1908.
In July 1933, a few months after Hitler had come to power, Käthe Löwenhardt married the 29 years old engineer Alfred Meyerowitz. Alfred had been born into a Jewish family in Gelsenkirchen in the industrial Ruhr area. The marriage ceremony in Berlin took place two days before Käthe’s 25th birthday. For this family, things happened in the first days of July: the day before their second marriage anniversary, their first daughter was born and they named her Alice.
The details of Heinz’ profession and status I found in the transport list of the 8th ‘East transport’ from Berlin dated 13 January 1942, held in the archives of Bad Arolsen in Hessen, Germany. ‘Arolsen Archives’ is the current name for the International Tracing Service that started shortly after the Second World War. It had a huge task in tracking down displaced and missing persons. Since a few years the archives present their holdings on victims of Nazi persecution through a publicly accessible search machine that is a great asset to reseachers like me. A vast amount of Nazi records has been digitalized.
The Arolsen Archives are a valuable addition to the Gedenkbuch since their scope is much wider. The Gedenkbuch lists only basic data of Jews living in and deported from Germany whereas the Arolsen Archives present original documents as well. It has collected sources on all victims of nazi persecution, irrespective of their country of origin.
So it will be of no surprise that after ‘Heinz Löwenhardt’ my next query in the digital Arolsen archive was ‘Meyerowitz’. The picture with which it all started testified to the fact that Alfred, Käthe and Alice had managed to survive the Holocaust – but how, and where? I had been told that Käthe might have had a number tattooed on her left arm, indicating that she had been deported to Auschwitz… Was there any indication in the records?
I found none. Neither of Käthe, nor of Alfred or Alice. The Arolsen archive holds several documents on them but none of these point to them having been caught by the Nazi authorities. Had any of them been deported to a camp or ghetto, I would have expected traces of this in the archive. Nothing of the sort – so the story of their survival remained hidden.
The archives hold, for example, Alice’s vaccination card filled out at her first vaccination on 25 April 1936. I shows that she entered school in Berlin at age six in 1941.
Possibly the Meyerowitz family was among the approximately two thousand Berlin Jews who went underground and survived. Perhaps try Yad Vashem’s databases, I thought. The Yad Vashem Institute and Museum in Jerusalem has been collecting data for a long time and it awards the ‘Righteous Among Nations’ distinction to courageous people who helped Jews survive the Shoah, often at great risk to themselves.
And indeed, it took me only a few clicks in two online databases to find that Alice had been saved by the catholic priest, later much respected cardinal Joseph Höffner (1906-1987) and his sister Helene. In 2004 Yad Vashem awarded them the Righteous Among Nations Distinction. 4
In 1942 Höffner was a young priest in Kail on Moselle river when a group of children evacuated from Berlin arrived. Among the children was the eight-year-old Esther Meyerowitz who concealed her Jewish identity by the name of Christa Koch. This evacuation was part of a programme termed Kinderlandverschickung aimed at moving non-Jewish children out of harm’s way, i.e. out of the large cities.
Höffner knew in advance that Christa Koch was Jewish. His sister Elisabeth in Berlin had arranged the cover. At her arrival he saw to the child’s well being in person. First he placed her with a sister who worked for the local church without telling her Christa’s true identity. When in the Spring of 1943 Höffner was to be transferred to Trier, the Heucher family of farmers in Kail agreed to take her in. In their farmhouse Esther-Christa survived unharmed. In October 1945 Höffner applied with the American military administration for permission for Esther to travel to Berlin to be reunited with her parents.
To me only one question remained. Was the Esther Meyerowitz / Christa Koch of the Yad Vashem databases really Alice Meyerowitz? Was it wishful thinking, perhaps? Could I be mistaken? A Google search led to the German catholic news site Kath.net, with a report of 7 May 2004 on the presentation of the Yad Vashem awards. From this report it appears that the name Alice was added to Esther’s first name at the moment of Höffners application with the American military for a travel permit. There is no doubt that the girl’s real name was Alice. That name was on her vaccination card (Impfkarte) created in April 1936 when she received her first shot. At the moment she went underground in Berlin and Elisabeth Höffner ‘inserted’ her in the Kinderlandverschickung programme, her real first name was entirely dropped when Christa Koch became the false name for Esther Meyerowitz.
Berlin street books
Alice was ten years old when in October 1945 she was reunited with her parents, one month after her sister Gerda (Esther) was born. They lived in Berlin-Wilmersdorf with the Weichselbaum family at Wilmersdorferstraße. Gerda may have been named after Käthe’s sister who had died prematurely at the age of 32 in 1939.
Back to the Arolsen Archives. Here I found that the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS) of the United States, a Jewish charity supporting refugees, sponsored the family’s immigration to the US.
On 8 April 1947 Alfred (then 42), Käthe (38), Alice (11) and Gerda (1 ½) boarded the steamship Earnie Pyle in Bremen harbour and set sail for New York. The S.S. Earnie Pyle (picture) was used in 1946-47 to transport Jewish displaced persons from Europe to the US. In the ship’s passenger list, their future address in the USA was listed as 12-46 Lefferts Blvrd, Kew Gardens, Long Island, NY; their passport or visa numbers were 20670 to 20673. Whether after their arrival in the USA they went to aunt Johanna in Kansas City or uncle Hermann in Detroit, remains unknown. But the McHenry picture testifies that by 1956 family relations were restored.
Thanks to these sources, in only three weeks time my knowledge of the firstborn Löwenhardt and his Berlin-based family had expanded widely. But questions remain. Salomon came from a very large Jewish family, and a healthy family. In the late nineteenth century, infant and child mortality in Germany and other European countries was still high, roughly fifteen to twenty percent. So allow me to use the word ‘amazing’ when observing that none of the twelve Löwenhardt children died prematurely. Of the eleven children born after Salomon, so between 1874 (Isidor) and 1892 (Hermann), the first who died – in 1941 – was Julie, aged 58.
And even more surprising: all nine sons had been front soldiers in World War One; almost all had been wounded; but by war’s end in 1918 all were still alive. Since the Löwenhardt brothers came from a soldierly Jewish family, in the late 1930s they were instrumentalized in the anti-Nazi Jewish press. More than once Der Schild, the newspaper of the German Union of Jewish Front Soldiers (Reichsbund jüdischer Frontsoldaten) published on them, hoping to counter Nazi arguments that German Jews lacked patriotism.
In an extensive article in its issue of 6 March 1936 [translated here], the newspaper documented that six out of the nine Löwenhardt brothers suffered war wounds, including two who suffered four wounds each, with one of these (Hermann) suffering the consequences of ‘severe gas poisoning’. According to the same article ‘as a result of severe war injuries, one brother later died’.
This can only refer to Salomon who, after all, died in 1923, five years after the end of the war. For unknown reasons, in Der Schild the firstborn Löwenhardt brother was consistently referred to as Georg.
Twenty years later followed the big slaughter, the Holocaust. Between 1942 and 1944 six of the remaining eight brothers were killed by their fellow Germans for being Jewish.
I thought I had done the job, the story had been written. Then on 23 May Sebastian surprised me with two gems. He mailed me a picture of the matsewa (tombstone) of Salomon Georg Loewenhardt at the Weißensee cemetery. That morning with his wife he had visited the cemetery and uncovered the gravestone from the ivy of many decades. Hidden by ivy the 98 year old inscription was entirely intact. All details matched and the mystery of Salomon being named Georg in Der Schild, was solved. [Continue below pictures]
A few hours later Sebastian sent me a link to an oral history interview kept at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, USHMM. I had checked the museum’s databases a few days before but had found no interview with Alice Meyerowitz. As it turned out, by the time the interview was made in 1984, she had changed her name to Lisa Lehner.
In 50 minutes, Lisa / Alice told her moving story and everything matched with what I had found from behind my computer. Of course, she added many details I had not found. I would do her injustice if I tried to summarize her story. Whoever is interested, can watch her video first hand at the USHMM website with reference: interview with Lisa Lehner, accession number: 1989.346.129 | RG Number: RG-50.031.0129.
At the outset, when I was still ignorant of coming discoveries, I structured this story by the sources that I used. The idea was that such structuring might be helpful to readers with their own quest. Now that I have heard Lisa’s story, part of my search in the online archives has seemingly become redundant. Had I known of her 1984 interview prior to the launch of my search, I would have done things differently. And yet, there is a lesson to be learned.
The lesson is simple: never underestimate the human touch. Partly as a result of the pandemic, my research was entirely online. We, all of us genealogy and family history freaks, are in luck in that these days so many archival documents are available online. But help from fellow (wo)men does make a difference. I am very grateful to Sebastian and Tamara Zimmer and to Rolf Fischer for their generosity and support.
With thanks to mrs. Henriëtte Feltham for polishing up my English.
- Lisa Lehner by e-mail, 13 June 2021
- More on Johanna in Sailing to Europe
- Memorial Book on Jewish victims of Nazi persecution in Germany, 1933-1945