My younger daughter, Isabel, completed an MA in Archaeology last year. She’s currently waiting to start her PhD in October and has been spending some time helping me with my research. She’s always shown an interest in family history and over the past few months she’s become particularly captivated by the story of her maternal grandmother’s experiences as a ‘Mischling’ in wartime Berlin. She’s really thrown herself into it and now plans to write a book about it all.
In this guest blog, Isabel outlines the remarkable story of her Oma’s life.
If you’re interested in finding out more about Isabel’s work, please visit her new website.
My Oma (my mum’s mum) kept diaries for most of her life and we recently found a whole box of them in our attic. Her diaries are the type I’ve always wanted to be able to keep up – notes of what she did each day, with a couple of lines about more personal things. Unfortunately, the oldest surviving diary dates from 1943 when she was 16 years old; earlier ones may have been destroyed when a bomb hit their home in Berlin on 23 August 1943. But in later life, and with her husband’s encouragement, she also wrote a memoir, covering in detail her childhood, and her experiences in Nazi Germany. Together, the diaries and the memoir represent a fascinating account of her life, which is in parts a deeply depressing story to read, but I think important for people to hear.
Susanne Schwarz was born in Bad Dürkheim (Rheinland-Pfalz) in 1926 to an ‘Aryan’ mother and a Jewish father. The family moved to Berlin in 1935, after her father (like all Jewish people working for the state) lost his teaching job. They hoped that the relative anonymity of a large city might protect them from the increasingly antisemitic sentiments of their fellow Germans. I often wonder whether this was the right call – although it would have been much more difficult to keep their Jewish identity quiet in a small community, it was Berlin, as the capital of the Reich, that Goebbels was most obsessed with completely ridding of Jews. It seems wrong to describe Susanne’s family’s survival of the war as ‘lucky’, because there isn’t much in her childhood that can be considered lucky. But, the more I learn about her precarious status, the more amazed I am that she did survive.
In January 1933, Susanne and her younger brother had been baptised. This was not uncommon for children of Jewish-Aryan intermarriages. Indeed, her mother was a Protestant, and the Church played a large part in my Oma’s youth, but there’s something about their baptisms that doesn’t seem routine to me. The two children were baptised, not at their local church, but while they were visiting their mother’s friend in Pforzheim, and Susanne notes in her memoir that “as we were both ill in bed at the time the pastor had to come and visit us”. This seems to me like her mother was very keen to get the baptisms done quickly, and I wonder if there was a particular law or event which triggered her decision to do so. I haven’t yet identified what spurred her on, and I’d love to find out more about Susanne’s baptism, because it may well have been instrumental in saving her life over the next twelve years. The copy certificate that we have was issued on 6 October 1943 – presumably the original had been destroyed in the air raid two months earlier.
The 1935 Law for the Protection of German Blood and German Honour (commonly referred to as the Nuremberg Laws) classified Susanne as a Mischling (half-breed, or mongrel). Under the terms of these laws, Mischlinge who had been baptised fared a lot better than those belonging to the Jewish religious community, who were subject by law to the same mistreatment as ‘fully Jewish’ people. Her father, married to an ‘Aryan’ woman and with baptised children, was classed as a ‘Privileged Jew’. His citizenship was taken from him, and he lost almost all of his rights, but he was initially left out of the deportation plans.
Susanne wrote in her memoir that their life after the Nuremberg Laws was “a very insecure existence”. Susanne’s father was forced into hiding several times during pogroms, and the family were often not sure where he was, or whether he was safe. The Gestapo turned up at their apartment on more than one occasion, and they lived in constant fear of deportation. At school (while the children were still permitted to attend) they were forced to engage with the very propaganda which explicitly classified them as “monstrosities halfway between man and ape” (Mein Kampf). Susanne’s parents constantly reminded the children not to do anything which would draw attention to themselves, so they kept quiet and obedient, performing the Hitler Gruss (salute) to adults, and giving nobody reason to denounce them. Like most of Berlin their family was desperately hungry. They spent many sleepless nights in the bomb shelter (except for her father, who wasn’t allowed in) simultaneously terrified of the bombs, and yet desperately wanting those dropping them to win the war and save them from the Nazi persecution.
Perhaps the closest call for the family was ‘The Final Roundup’ carried out in Berlin at the end of February 1943. The mission’s goal was to leave Berlin completely free of Jews. The only Jewish people still living in Berlin by this point were those in intermarriages (and the Mischling children of those intermarriages) and those working in armaments factories. I’ve always known that my family were caught up in the infamous ‘Rosenstrasse protests’ sparked by this roundup, but I hadn’t known how lucky Susanne and her brother were to have avoided being inside the building with their father, rather than outside protesting with their mother. Workplaces and households with Jewish members were raided. Anybody with a ‘J’ on their identity card was taken to be temporarily held before deportation. I don’t know why my Oma and her brother weren’t taken by the SS at this time and held at Rosenstrasse, as many other Mischlinge were.
Ever reluctant to lose the support of the people, Nazi officials were worried about the backlash Aryan citizens might cause if their Jewish spouses and Mischling children were deported. That’s why, during The Final Roundup, Adolf Eichmann (the deportation executive) directed Mischlinge and the Jewish men and women in intermarriages to be held separately at a building on Rosenstrasse. The aim was to create the illusion that these individuals (between 1700-2000) were headed for a different, non-fatal, destination. The Nazis had succeeded in deporting so many Jewish people without popular resistance, because they had first segregated them socially from the Aryan population. But this was not the case for those in intermarriages, who had previously been guaranteed protection because their spouses were citizens. Within hours of Berlin’s remaining Jewish population being rounded up, a crowd of distressed spouses (primarily wives) had gathered outside the building on Rosenstrasse demanding the release of their loved ones. Over the next week or so, these women formed the largest, and perhaps the only, full-scale protest against the Holocaust in Nazi Germany.
My Oma went to the Rosenstrasse protests several times herself. Like many other wives, her mother attempted every day for over a week to hand some food to a guard to pass on to her father. On one occasion a guard agreed to take the small package from her, but they later found out that her father had never received it. Susanne’s diary from the time, and her memoir, unfortunately don’t go into much detail about her experiences at the protests, and this is one of the main areas my research has focussed on so far. It’s very difficult to read about the conditions in the Rosenstrasse building, even knowing that the men like Susanne’s father, who were eventually allowed to return to their homes, were relatively ‘lucky’, compared with the fates of millions of other Jews in Europe. There was a huge air raid one night, and the Jewish prisoners in the Rosenstrasse building must have been terrified that a bomb would fall on them. Perhaps some would have welcomed that death, over the one they feared they were soon to be sent to. Some men held at Rosenstrasse committed suicide to escape deportation.
Eventually those held in the Rosenstrasse building were released, as Goebbels couldn’t risk these protests spreading and undermining the idea that Jewish deportations were what German citizens wanted. The other 7,978 individuals who had been rounded up in the same operation were deported, and more than 50% of them sent straight to the gas chambers. When her father was freed, after being held for eight days, Susanne didn’t even recognise the man who turned up at their door at 6am. In her memoir she wrote:
My father had had a nervous breakdown in the Rosenstrasse and had been lying on a stretcher in the cellar for the last few days. The conditions had been intolerable, with about 60 men sharing a small room night and day, without being able to sit down. The hallucinations he had there, while lying on the stretcher, left a deep impression on him for many years.
There’s still a lot more I need to find out about The Final Roundup and Rosenstrasse, and this is just one of the major events I plan to include in my Oma’s life story; her diaries and memoir are full of incredible stories. And I’m still getting used to working with these sorts of sources. As an archaeologist, I’ve become slightly wary of using historical accounts, because I’ve seen how often the idealised written source contradicts the reality preserved in the ground. Whether consciously or subconsciously, people lie and omit things from the histories they record – I’ve heard several stories of things my family experienced during this time that my Oma didn’t write down. I’ve also found details in my research on Mischlinge of things that she never mentioned at all. I know that there is a difference, for example, between decrees being passed and laws being effectively enforced, but sometimes I’m not sure whether my Oma really didn’t suffer as a result of a certain law, or whether she just chose not to write about it.
This book isn’t going to be an easy one to write. I still have so much to learn about the lives of Mischlinge in Nazi Germany, and there are boxes of documents my Oma kept which I need to understand. It’s all quite emotionally draining, and some days I can’t face thinking about it at all. But I do think it’s an interesting story, and a very important one for people to hear.
Further reading: Resistance of the Heart: Intermarriage and the Rosenstrasse Protest in Nazi Germany, Nathan Stoltzfus (London, 1996)