A personal quest
Written and published in 2013, republished on this website on the occasion of its tenth anniversary.
It took many decades for the quest to mature. In 2010 an event triggered it. The quest suddenly popped up. I was sixty-two years of age. It has since come to dominate my life, it has turned into the purpose of my life. The quest is one of recreation and reconstruction. And ultimately, a very personal revenge on Hitler and the Nazis who sought to obliterate my relatives. They succeeded in killing most – I estimate three-quarters of them. They must not succeed in wiping out the memory of their lives before the Holocaust. I will not let them.
Recreation and reconstruction… Four large extended Jewish families from the Netherlands – German border area. The Weijls from Oldenzaal, the Ten Brinks from Denekamp, the De Leeuws from Almelo and the Löwenhardts from the Ruhr area. Twenty-five nuclear families in all. How did they live? What was their livelihood? Their social position? Their religious attitude? Fromm and observant or highly assimilated? Participation in Jewish social life? What did they speak about, how and where did they find marriage partners?
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I knew, three years ago, that it would not be easy. The sources are limited. They did not write letters or diaries – and if they did, these have been lost. I had a small collection of photographs, and very few written documents – that was all. Possibly the most important document I had read in secret, as a young boy: seven, eight years old – perhaps nine. It was on the nightstand of my parents and I read it without them noticing. It was a carbon copy of a procès-verbal. It reported on the interrogation of the men who had murdered my maternal grandparents. Attached to it was a report on the exhumation and identification of human remains found in shallow graves in the forest near Vierhouten, dated 7 November 1945. Among them were my grandfather Arnold de Leeuw, my grandmother Louisa and uncle Johan de Leeuw, their son. My mother was the only survivor. Neither she nor my father ever knew that I had read these documents.
I jump from the mid-1950s to 2010. On a Monday morning in February, I attended an event in the public library of Dortmund-Eving, the city district including the former village of Lindenhorst where my grandparents Löwenhardt had lived. Some eighty people (including a neo-Nazi sympathizer) had gathered for the presentation of a folder guiding people along places of remembrance. It had come about as a result of the endeavours of volunteers who had researched the histories of victims of the Holocaust, including my grandparents. Two years before I had witnessed the placing of two ‘Stumble stones’ (Stolpersteine) in the pavement in front of their former butcher’s shop at Lindenhorster Straße 235.
That morning in the Dortmund library was the trigger. Impressed by the large turnout and the work of the many volunteers, I told myself that I must act. I was sitting on pictures, memories and (a few) documents… and doing nothing. They, the volunteers, had no direct relation to my ancestors, no responsibility for the crimes of their fathers and grandfathers, and no good reason to ask me for forgiveness (as two years before, to my embarrassment, an older gentleman had done while trying to embrace me). It was high time for me to save my ancestors from oblivion.
Did I expect to succeed? I expected nothing at all. The urge soon developed into an obsession. It overshadowed any thought of expectations. I just had to do it. Could I have imagined, three years ago, what I have found in the meantime? By no means, no way. The findings have been beyond belief. I have found – and am in touch with – four living relatives about whom I had never heard before. Two are in Australia, one is in Africa, and the fourth is in New York. I soon discovered that those who managed to escape from the horrors of our continent gave me the biggest headaches. It was far easier to trace the lives of those who had been swallowed by the gas chambers than those who had rebuilt their lives in foreign lands.
I was lucky: the start of my quest coincided with the launch of a new website, ‘CommunityJoodsMonument’ (CJM, Community Jewish Monument), built around the database of the 102,000 Jewish Holocaust victims deported from The Netherlands. Isaac Lipschits (1930-2008) campaigned for their names to be turned into an online monument. In 2005 the website had been launched. Five years later, the year in which I started my quest, a blogging community was added to the online monument. From the start, I could search for lost relatives online – and publish my stories about them on the same site.
From early youth I had known that most of them had been murdered in gas chambers. But this had always been knowledge in the abstract. As I collected names and fates, more and more names and dreadful fates, the full extent of the horror hit home. It brought me to tears, tears my parents had not been able to shed. For them, burdened by guilt feelings, the urge had been to forget and to move on.
Slowly and with great effort, names were put on the faces in the pictures that I had inherited from my parents. The family took shape and acquired a face. And each time I could upload a picture and a story to the CJM site, it felt like victory: they were BACK, snatched away from oblivion. Their bodies had been turned into ashes, their faces had lain in the dark of a wooden box for some seventy years. Now they went onto the internet, for anybody anywhere in the world to see and notice. It was all the gratification that I needed. My role was a humble one. Find them, identify them, give them a face and show it to the world.
But there was more to come. In July 2010 I was able to visit the grave of my great-grandmother Pauline Löwenhardt-Lennhoff (1847-1933) in the Jewish section of the cemetery of Dortmund-Wambel. The gravestone had been discovered by my friend Magdalena Strugholz. A few days later I was in Lütgeneder, the village where my other great-grandmother had been born – and discovered that the street where her house was located now bore the family name: Kleeblattstraße. Three months later I stood at her grave in Denekamp, Hannchen ten Brink-Kleeblatt (1861-1930). On 3 February 2011, I received notice from the Dortmund city archive that my grandfather’s brother Siegmund and his wife had not only had a daughter (All three murdered in Auschwitz), but two sons as well – who had escaped to England in March 1939. Even more results, excellent results, were to come. One month later one of these two sons, Hans-Georg Löwenhardt, left a note for me on the JCM site. He had changed his name long ago but was alive and well in Africa, 87 years old. I started a Skype conversation with the living past.
And more unexpected findings. In July 2011 I discovered the wartime correspondence between two sisters, nieces of my grandfather Löwenhardt. They were Klara in Westerbork Transit Camp and Friedel in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Their short letters allowed me to reconstruct the first (and only) three years in the life of Klara’s son Kurt Ikenberg.
My task was complicated by an early decision. I knew that I was not alone. Many are researching and publicizing the fates of their lost Jewish relatives. But most of my fellow researchers deal with one person, one nuclear family… or one extended family at the most. I had decided otherwise. I had grown up lacking grandparents. But was there a good reason to ‘do’ only these two couples, Arnold and Louisa de Leeuw (parents of my mother) and Adolf and Julia Löwenhardt (parents of my father)? Could I ignore (out of pragmatism? cost effectiveness?) their brothers and sisters and the children of these brothers and sisters? By what criterion? Of course, I could not.
So from the start, I deal with twenty-five nuclear families, twelve in Germany and thirteen in the Twente region in the east of The Netherlands. It is no mean task and it will see no end. Its vastness allows for no planning. It makes no sense to start with, for example, Arnold and Louisa and their son Johan, murdered by Dutch SS in the forest near Vierhouten, to research their lives in full depth before I move on to a second family. I will not live to be 120 years, it would take too long. So guided by findings in archives, chance emails that arrive in my inbox, and my accidental stumbling into hidden data, I switch from one family to another. More or less by trial and error. The picture will never be complete, the entire family picture. But it gradually loses its opaqueness. Small sections of contours in different parts of the picture turn sharp, more and more of them.
A Dutch proverb says The tree of revenge does not carry fruit. My revenge has carried many fruits. If you want to see for yourself, read the stories published on this website since 27 January 2013.