THE ÉMIGRÉ STORY – PART 2

For those who prefer, click the DOWNLOAD button on the right to print a Pdf version – text only Part 1 & 2.

my grandparents, Max and Lola, alone in Vienna

Meanwhile, the concern for my mother’s parents and how to bring them to safety is ongoing. In 1938 Erich makes enquiries to the American Consulate in Vienna (now part of Germany), about registering for visa applications for his parents Max and Lola. The United States had no refugee policy, and American immigration laws were neither revised nor adjusted between 1933 and 1941. From 1938 onwards, American embassies and consulates were quickly overrun with huge numbers of visa applications from European Jews like Max and Lola, at least 250,000 Austrian/German applications, nine years’ worth of demand at 1939.

The process of trying to get to a place of safety was long and arduous. Potential immigrants were subject to the emigration quota designated for their country of birth rather than their country of citizenship. Both Max and Lola had been born in Lvov, east Galicia (now Lviv, Ukraine but then part of Poland). A document dated October 1938 shows they are placed on the Polish waitlist but the quota for Poland was only a few thousand which meant that they would be on a waiting list for several years. They finally managed to secure a guarantee of financial security – a so-called affidavit of support – and a visa for the USA for their children.

To leave Vienna, they still had to gather all the necessary documents needed to obtain a visa, which included identity paperwork, police certificates, exit and transit permissions to a port of departure from Europe and a financial affidavit and more. Many of these papers – including the visa itself – had expiration dates. Everything needed to come together at the same time.

Then there was the ship ticket, not only extremely costly but also, after the outbreak of the war, in short supply as many passenger lines stopped operating entirely or at least reduced operations. I presume that it was becoming apparent to Erich in America and my parents in Australia, that an American visa would not be forthcoming for their parents. We know that from 1933 to 1941, 110,000 Jewish refugees from Nazi-occupied territories obtained visas to the United States, and in total America admitted an estimated 180,000-220,000 refugees, more than any other country. Concurrently with Erich’s efforts, my parents were doing what they could to try to secure a place for Max and Lola in Australia. In September 1939 they received Landing Permits for them, the very month Australia went to war (presumably making the permits impossible to use), but my information stops there.

The Letters

In 1990, I unexpectedly gained possession of fifteen letters written between March and November 1941 by my grandmother Lola to Erich and his wife Martha in America. Accompanying them were a few documents and a very disturbing note from Aunt Martha. Apparently, immediately after the war ended Erich had sought information about Max and Lola through the International Red Cross and the Jewish Joint Organization. The Germans had kept meticulous records but the post-war processing of such a vast quantity of documents was done alphabetically, and as the family name commenced with the letter ‘S’, took almost fifty years by which time Erich had died. It was my aunt Martha who forwarded the material to my parents which in turn came to me. But it was some years before I began trying to translate the letters. In translating I have tried to retain some of the ‘flavour’ of my grandmother’s expression and language rather than transcribing into formal English. The translation proceeded in slow stages over thirty years, and through this process my grandmother has become increasingly recognizable to me. And in her I see so much of my mother.

On several occasions in her letters Lola asks why she receives no letters from my mother. This is difficult for me to hear, perplexing and disturbing. We are dipping into inter-generational trauma, about which more later. I have no record or knowledge of any direct correspondence between my parents in Australia and Max and Lola in Vienna. It proves impossible to gain information about the mail system during the war years. There was clearly no problem sending and receiving mail between America and Austria/Germany in 1941 when the letters were written, as America had not yet entered the war, the year from which Jews were now compelled to identify themselves by wearing the yellow Star of David.

Letter from Lola dated 17.5.41

Australia, however, was already at war which likely accounted for the absence of mail. Online research throws only a little light on my understanding until I come across a comment stating that postal communication was indeed difficult between Australia and Germany ‘restricted to thirty words at a time via the Red Cross.’ I also learn that from September 1940 onwards, many European ports closed. In another article I read of someone in 1943 who ‘managed to send a food parcel with the help of a Jewish humanitarian agency from Portugal’. There were apparently many accounts of the desperation and powerlessness as people lost communication with their loved ones. Lola frequently comments on the slowness of the mail, not helped by frequent moves Erich and his wife made, both in England where they first stayed supported by a Quaker family, and then in the early years in America. Censorship, which was routine, further slowed the mail and fewer ships were able to traverse the oceans. In any case, for my grandparents Erich was the link.

March 1941: Lola writes: We telegraphed through Cook 3 weeks ago to obtain the shipping timetables, to this day no success, only your Telegram.….we are almost convinced that you are managing to organize a booking, it is very urgent. It hurts me so much that you are worried about us right now, when you have so much to do with setting up your business and have big expenses and need so much money.

April 1941: the postal service works so badly. Hopefully you will receive the letters from us. You always write about a sense of relief anticipating our departure, but there is no trace of it. It’s just always difficulties. You can’t find out anything, neither whether all papers are in order, nor whether the registration number will be ready soon. You fall into darkness and become old and grey from uncertainty.  In addition, no ship tickets are available. Everything will be sold out by the end of 1941. You can imagine how we feel about courage. It is becoming more and more hopeless. You must have bled yourselves to death by raising the money, and we still have nothing to show for it. There’s nothing you can do but wait.

Despite the strain, the letters also contain and enormous amount of love and warmth, Viel geliebte Kinder (much loved children), innigst gekusst (most deeply kissed), Alle Teuersten (most treasured), tausende Grüße und Küsse (thousands of best wishes and kisses), and they always send their love to Gerti und Hans in Australia. The letters are caring and empathetic. Lola frequently asks about other family members and close friends already in USA; some, including first cousins already in America, await the arrival of their parents. Lola bemoans the fact that mail takes so long to arrive, often more than a month, sometimes two months. There is a great deal of talk about how they are missing Erich, his wife Martha and how they are not hearing from my mother in Australia. Amongst all this is news of other family members and friends still in Vienna and their attempts to secure passage to safety. My grandfather Max, who Lola affectionately refers to as Maxi, sometimes adds a few lines at the end of Lola’s letters or she passes on words from him. In one letter he says: I only have one wish, to be with you. A thousand Bussis (kisses) Papa.

Mid May,1941: There is talk of the problem of quota numbers, renewed annually, not yet available for them: However, if you can show confirmation that a shipping company has promised you a ticket for a certain travel date, and the payment for the journey seems to be ensured, the relevant quota number will be available. At Thomas Cook, the Mosener has 3rd Class tickets for $160 and $100 to Lisbon on 15 September (over $USD 3000 and $2000 respectively in today’s value). Try if you can get the cheapest tickets. We do not attach importance to luxury. My grandfather writes: I run round all day trying to organize everything but don’t get anywhere. They are working on the German waiting list, so there is hope that if ships are available, we will make progress by the autumn.
30 May 1941, Lola: I think we’re going to need a lot of luck to get away this year. This week we sent in a subpoena request form for the 2nd time. Will probably have as little success as the first time. You can’t do anything but wait and think to yourself: Hast Du Glück und kriegst Du ihn, hast Du keines so wirst Du hin. This rhyming expression roughly translates as ‘If you’re lucky you’ll succeed, if not you’re done for’.

June 1941, Lola: How nice it would be if we could be there with you. Unfortunately, there is not much prospect of us leaving soon. In my letter of 30 May, I wrote in detail about our prospects. In July, new odds, new quota numbers will come, we will see if we are lucky to be included. There is no help from the K.G. (Jewish Community organization).

Current research tells me that in July 1941 American consulates closed in Nazi-occupied territory, cutting off many applicants from the US diplomats issuing visas. Nonetheless, according to the letters time simply passes, until September when Cuba is mentioned for the first time. Cuba was seen as an ‘adjacent territory’ to the USA. As such, refugees believed that they would get preferential treatment for a visa for the United States if they moved to Cuba where some visas were being issued. I also learn that after briefly closing applications, it recommenced but all was very costly and it was becoming increasingly difficult for people to receive exit permits from Germany; and if successful, they now had to leave from Spain or Portugal. Lola’s much loved sister-in-law, my mother’s Tante Sophie (aunt Sophie) was a passenger on the St Louis, a first-hand witness to this infamous affair. Thus I digress briefly from Lola’s letters to tell what is known of Tante Sophie and her attempt to reach Cuba.

Tante Sophie’s Story: the St Louis Affair

This account is derived from several sources – written and spoken information from family in America, my second cousin Steve Friedlander in particular, extensive reading and research, and a little speculation where no factual accounts exist. It elaborates upon the situation in Cuba.

On May 13, 1939, the German transatlantic liner St. Louis sailed from Hamburg, Germany, for Havana, Cuba. On the voyage were nine-hundred and thirty-seven passengers, amongst them my mother’s aunt Sophie, born in 1878 in Bukovina, a division of the Habsburg Monarchy, part of the Austrian Empire which straddled the borders of today’s Romania and Ukraine. Her family moved to Vienna sometime in the first decade of the twentieth century and she became an Austrian citizen. She spoke several languages, Yiddish, Polish, Ruthenian and German. As with my grandparents, not having been born in Austria it was impossible to get into America under the existing quota system.

Sophie’s three daughters, (my mother’s first cousins, now safely in America), managed to purchase her a ticket on what turned out to be the ill-fated voyage of the St. Louis. Most of the passengers, predominantly German citizens, were Jews fleeing from the Third Reich; some were from eastern Europe, and a few were officially stateless. Nearly all the Jewish passengers had applied for U.S. visas and had planned to stay in Cuba only until they could enter the United States. But by the time the St. Louis sailed, there were signs that political conditions in Cuba might prevent the passengers from landing.

The owners of the ship, the Hamburg-America Line, knew even before it sailed that its passengers might have trouble disembarking in Cuba. But the passengers, who held landing certificates issued by the Cuban Director-General of Immigration Gonzales, did not know that eight days before it sailed, Cuban President Federico Laredo Bru had issued a decree invalidating all landing certificates.  It transpired that Gonzales had sold the illegal certificates for $150 amassing a personal fortune. Poverty, antisemitism and xenophobia paved the way for resistance to Jewish refugees. Entry to Cuba now required written authorization from Cuba’s Secretaries of State and Labour and the posting of a $500 bond. The US State Department in Washington, the American consulate in Havana, some Jewish organizations and refugee agencies, were all aware of the situation. The passengers were not. The ship was not permitted to land in Cuba, then attempted to land in Florida, sailing so close to Florida that they could see the lights of Miami. Passengers on the St. Louis cabled President Roosevelt asking for refuge, but no response was forthcoming. The State Department and the White House had already decided not to allow the refugees into the United States. A State Department telegram sent to a passenger stated that the passengers must: await their turns on the waiting list and then qualify for and obtain immigration visas before they may be admissible into the United States.

After almost a month at sea, all but around thirty passengers whose Cuban visas were valid, were sent back to Europe. After the Jewish Joint Distribution Committee’s negotiations, England, the Netherlands, France and Belgium agreed to accept the St Louis refugees. The ship returned to Europe, docking first at the Port of Antwerp (Belgium) on June 17, 1939, with the nine-hundred and eight passengers. Many, including Sophie survived but two hundred and fifty-four subsequently died in the Holocaust. Somehow Sophie made her way to France about which nothing is known.

The two years Sophie spent in France before finally reaching America remain an unknown quantity, but through other family members in America, research and hopefully intelligent guesswork, this is my best guess. We know she disembarked in Brussels, made her way to Marseilles and spent time in one of the several internment camps in the region, possibly Gurs, a grim place in the shadow of the Pyrenees. Gurs, presumably representative of all such camps, is described as primitive, overcrowded, with a constant shortage of water, food, and clothing. During 1940-41, eight-hundred detainees died of contagious diseases, including typhoid fever and dysentery.

Known for being an avid letter writer, on the boat Sophie wrote several letters describing how she and her fellow passengers were faring during this perilous and uncertain voyage. Her daughter Elsa, one of my mother’s most loved first cousins by now studying in Cleveland, translated the letters. As there was a good deal of interest in the plight of the refugees, with encouragement from friends Elsa sent them to the local newspapers. The Cleveland Press and Cleveland Plain Dealer published excerpts of Sophie’s letters. Elsa then mailed the articles back to her mother after the ship returned to Europe. 

Sophie managed to contact the American Consulate, probably in Marseilles. Although it was extremely difficult to get visas to come to America, there was a program the State Department had set up which granted visas to professionals, including writers. By showing that she had been published in some Cleveland newspapers, Sophie was able to qualify for a visa as a writer and thus was able to get there in the summer 1941.

Another noteworthy avenue of escape, though not Sophie’s, was through the remarkable work of Hiram (Harry) Bingham Jr., an American Vice Consul stationed in Marseille from 1940 to 1941. In charge of administering visas, he defied the United States State Department’s policies and issued hundreds of travel and immigration papers as the Germans and their French collaborators began to round up the Jews for deportation. Bingham, with the help of the equally remarkable Varian Fry, a journalist, gathered a small group of like-minded Americans, refugees with diplomatic or underworld connections, and those French citizens who were sympathetic to the refugees’ plight. They arranged escapes from French internment camps, forged passports and orchestrated illegal border crossings, among other dangerous activities enabling approximately 2,500 anti-Nazi and Jewish refugees to flee Nazi-dominated Europe, to escape illegally across the Pyrenees into Spain. Though the details are unknown, Tante Sophie somehow got from Marseilles to the USA; obviously now with official papers she boarded a boat, almost certainly in Lisbon, and finally reached her three daughters in America.

I regret not having thought to talk with Sophie’s daughter Elsa about her mother’s experience. Through my adult years until her death at ninety, I forged a close connection with Elsa, my mother’s beloved first cousin, a highly intelligent an accomplished woman. I have a sudden urge now and for the first time, to enter her name into Google and many citations appear. It momentarily takes my breath away – Elsa Leichter (Schweiger). Her specialty in social work was family therapy, which she practised for many years at the Jewish Family Service in New York as well as teaching and lecturing regularly in Germany into which she introduced family therapy. Now back to Lola’s letters referencing Cuba, where my grandparents were so close to gaining refuge in 1941.

September 1941, Lola: I ask you not to drive yourself mad regarding the possibility of Cuba. The matter seems to be very vague. Moreover, it would be madness to make big money sacrifices for a not entirely certain thing. Hopefully we will come to you one day, and not too long away. But please don’t worry. You blame me for the brevity of my letters. Bubili (like Bubi, a term of endearment meaning ‘little boy’ from Bub/boy), what should I write? Our lives are monotonous and, thank God, uneventful. You live stupidly like dear cattle. You get up, eat, go to sleep, get back into it etc. Our only distraction is once a week Gretl (my father’s ‘alienated’ sister Grete who apparently was very good to them, visited weekly, brought food until it became too dangerous). She tells stories and is funny. So that you kill a few hours pleasantly.

And a moment of relief when in the same letter she writes: We do not lose heart and hope and wait. Now comes the highlight, Mausi (term of endearment for Max, literally ‘little mouse’ or ‘sweetie’) has volunteered for work. Has been working for almost 8 days. It is from the Wehrmacht (the armed forces of the Third Reich), very light work, first-class treatment. He doesn’t know what he’ll be paid yet. He is very happy to finally work and earn again after such a long time. The work is not strenuous, although it is an 11hr day with one hour break.

And then desperation. She goes on to say: I am already very desperate that there is no mail from you to this day. The last letter was dated 6.9. Why don’t you write? Are you still reachable by post? My nerves are already completely broken. I can’t stand it anymore. This week was again not an easy one for us. Claire and Otto have moved in with their brother Alfred. Since he has a very large apartment, Musi and Lola will probably also move in with him in a short time. I can’t spare you the reproach that this shouldn’t have been the case if you had done what Grete (one of the first cousins already in New York) did for her mother. It is puzzling why she succeeded and you did not.

The Accusation

Uncharacteristically, desperation and hopelessness have gotten the better of her. She says things to Erich that she later regrets and which must have been terrible for him to hear: I once wrote to you that you should not risk anything, but if the situation were reversed, I would not have adhered to that. Despite assurances that you will do everything, nothing, unfortunately, has happened. It feels as if nothing has been done. In the end, it makes no difference where you perish. Is Aunt Sofie already there? How courageous does such a family that has been separated for so long have to be? Is there mail from the children? (Gerta and Hans in Australia). What’s their news? I have nothing else to write about us. We are very depressed and desperate.

The letters are testament to the increasing anxiety, then desperation at the endless hoops they must pass through. She says in one letter (translated from German) that, one needs the strength of a tree trunk to endure.  After it becomes clear that, despite my parents’ having procured Landing Permits for them, Australia is not a possibility, my uncle Erich tries to procure Cuban visas for them.

The Apology

In late October 1941 she writes: Since I had no mail for so long, I was terribly anxious about everything above and made unjustified accusations against you suggesting you did nothing regarding the Cuba business. Dear Bubi, I ask you please to excuse me.  I am just asking you to do everything you can to allow us to enter Cuba, but only if it is financially possible for you. It is urgent because time is running out. You know that I am not an envious person, but all those who are with their children, I envy deeply… it hurts us so terribly that you have to make such sacrifices for us. Old parents are just a burden.

November 1941: a month before America enters the war against Germany, a letter from Erich’s lawyer indicates that payments have been made in the hope of obtaining the visas. And on the 29th, Erich receives a letter from my grandparents finally containing good news. Translated from German, Lola says, yesterday the authorities wrote for us to come to Berlin to speed up the visa processing. We hope to have the visa in a few days. Hopefully we are lucky and can leave soon. Later in the letter: Unfortunately, you are not yet finished with the sacrifices made, because we need money for passage… When we get the communication from Berlin, Maxi will go immediately to K.G. (Kultusgemeinde, the Jewish Community organization) to finalize departure arrangements. We will telegraph you. The Western Union Cablegram which my aunt had sent in 1990, Ausreise möglich (exit possible) referred to the Cuban visa having finally been granted. Sadly, I am unable to find it, but have an artwork made in the 1990’s which like others to follow, incorporates an image of Max and Lola, and in this case, elements taken from the cablegram.

Again, via the US Holocaust Museum, and research about the Wannsee Conference, I learn that November 1941 was the exact month that Germany banned emigration replacing it with ‘evacuation to the East’ which would eventually encompass eleven million Jews from all over Europe. 32,000 Jews were deported to concentration camps from Vienna alone and later that year Himmler was discussing the construction of gas chambers to achieve the total eradication of Jews from Europe, to leave Europe ‘Judenrein‘ (cleansed of Jews, a phrase used by the Nazis) to alleviate the psychological burden of executioners tasked with shooting them.

The November letter is the last time anyone heard from my maternal grandparents Max and Lola, and was deeply shocking to me, as the timeline in relation to the telegram made it clear that they missed out on the possibility to escape by only four weeks…perhaps, as it is not clear that Erich would have been able to provide the money for the fare in time to save them.

I do not know at what point my mother gave up hope that her parents may have survived but certainly there came a time when she assumed that they were victims of the Holocaust, having met their terrible fate in Auschwitz; this was the script my mother gave me. She employed a phrase which summed up her bitterness and the irony of the situation: They were good enough for the Kaiser, she would say, referring to the fact that the Kaiser (Emperor Charles 1, the last ruler of the then Austro-Hungarian Empire), was happy to use Austrian Jews to fight defending the Empire through WW1 only for them now to be oppressed and then murdered by the Nazis.

The Heartbreaking Final Chapter

Old friends from Melbourne with whom I had had little contact for a considerable time, visited about four years ago. Gary spoke his trip to Vienna in 2015 during which he began to track down the fate of his aunt who had died in the Holocaust. This led him to a remarkable Austrian woman, Waltraud Barton, and the organization IM-MER which she established in 2010, and two years later to a placename unknown to me, Maly Trostinec, the site of his aunt’s tragic death and, as he discovered, that of my grandparents also. He gave me contact details for IM-MER, but just as in 1990, I was not yet ready to take the next painful step. Only when I began writing this memoir piece did I know that I must pursue it, to establish what had transpired after Lola’s final letter of November 1941. Several email communications with Waltraud Barton followed, and receipt of her book which provided details and prompted further research about Maly Trostinec. This is what I learnt

Max and Lola

Between May and October 1942 alone, ten transports were dispatched from Vienna to Minsk, the capital of Belarus, formerly known as Belorussia or White Russia, and today a suburb of Minsk. Each transport carried about 1,000 Austrian Jews who the Nazis murdered either in the Minsk ghetto or in the extermination camp and woods at nearby Maly Trostinec.

In November 1941, Max and Lola now aged sixty-two and sixty-one, were forcibly removed from their apartment and sent to 4/10 Glockengasse in inner city Leopoldsstadt, Vienna’s 2nd district. Glockengasse was one of many streets consisting of crammed, ‘collective accommodation’ for Jews expelled from their homes with no access to money, barely surviving. Two other women, Ernestine and Elizabeth Hahn, aged 28 and 41, were apparently placed in the same apartment.

Since 1849, the Kultusgemeinde have recorded births and deaths of Vienna’s Jews. After 1938, the institution was forced to organize the emigration and deportation of Jews, the forced ‘deregistration’ to Minsk. The precise facts of their transport there were also fully documented.

On Wednesday May 27, 1942, with an hour’s notice, all four from 4/10 Glockengasse together with hundreds more, were ordered to report to a ‘collection point’ for ‘resettlement’ in the German-occupied East. From there they were transported to Vienna’s Aspang railway station in open trucks in plain sight of the Viennese population. They had been told to pack a suitcase and food provisions for the journey. They did not know their destination, the length of the journey, and thus how much food to bring. They boarded the ‘special’ train, the fourth of the ten transports, marked 23 Transport going along the twisting route from Vienna to Minsk/Maly Trostinec. That day 981 men, women and children were deported eastwards.

Map indicating transport route Wien (Vienna) to Minsk
In Memoriam, Artwork Bonney Bombach, collection Australian Jewish Museum, Melbourne

A survivor report indicates that the transport, like all others used, was a passenger train with small compartments and seats for everyone, the doors to the corridor locked. Where the track gauge changed in the small Belarusian town of Volkovysk, passengers were forced from third-class cars into goods trains. It took five days to reach Minsk. With inadequate food and water, and once in the goods train barely enough space to breathe, some died before reaching their destination. On their arrival in Minsk on June 1, the train designation had changed to DA 204, DA signifying Jews from Germany, probably derived from Deutsche Aussiedler (German emigrants). Wagons then transported them to the Blagovshchina forest 12km away where they were shot into pits that had been dug in advance. An SS activity report stated: On May 28/29 further pits were dug and on June 1 another transport of Jews arrived and were killed. There was one survivor.

Blagovshchina forest, where I now know my mother’s beloved parents, my precious grandparents, met their heart-breaking end, ironically translates as ‘place of wellbeing’.

Maly Trostinec

Maly Trostinec as a killing site marked an important turning point in the Nazi genocide. Hitler intended his invasion of the Soviet Union to be a swift war of extinction. Not only was the Bolshevik enemy to be destroyed, but entire populations were also to be killed or starved to death to create Lebensraum (living space) for Germany. German colonizers would farm what would become the vast new breadbasket of his Thousand-Year Reich. By late 1941, Hitler directed these murderous plans more urgently toward the Jews. Trains would transport the masses of Jewish people in the conquered territories, together with the remaining Jews of Germany and Austria, to purpose-built killing factories. The Jews of Vienna were the first in the German Reich to be deported for ‘resettlement’ in the East.

The Maly Trostinec extermination site consisted of three sections. The first was the forced labour camp on the grounds of a former farm estate which initially held Soviet prisoners of war captured after Operation Barbarossa, the German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941. But it became a Vernichtungslager, or an extermination camp, on May 10, 1942, when the first transport arrived with Jews from Germany, Poland, the Netherlands, Austria, and the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia. The second section was the site of mass executions by firing squad in Blagovshchina forest. The third was a facility in Shashkovka forest, a site for incinerating bodies on a mass scale.

In autumn 1943 the Minsk ghetto was liquidated and the remaining four-thousand Jews shot in the Blagovshchina forest. In addition to the Jews were partisans, resistance fighters, Soviet soldiers and uninvolved Belarusian citizens, both Jewish and Christian, shot to incite fear in the local population. After their defeat at Smolensk in October 1943, the Nazis in a massive secret operation, ordered Russian prisoners brought from Minsk to exhume and burn the bodies of the Jewish victims to conceal their crimes from the approaching Red Army. The prisoners were then shot so that no witnesses remained. A road maintenance manager in 1943 reported: For around two months, the stale smell of burning flesh was emitted from the forest and thick plumes of dark smoke could be seen rising into the air…. Every evening the sound of shots could be heard coming from the forest.

The Red Army uncovered Maly Trostinec’s existence when they retook Minsk in July 1944, just days after the last documented mass extermination of 6,500 forced labourers and prisoners from Minsk, shot in a barn which was then set alight. But the sheer number of killing sites in Belarus obscured the history of Maly Trostinec. The Soviet authorities sealed the archives since Stalin’s secret police murdered vast numbers of Belarusians between 1938 and 1941. Some towns en route had disappeared, their names forgotten or changed. The place name Maly Trostinec itself disappeared from maps when the area became incorporated into greater Minsk. Only in the 1990s were the archives opened to historians.

Because the Germans destroyed most of the records, as well as the obliterating much of the physical evidence, the estimated death-toll of the Maly Trostinec complex has varied considerably but the probable number of victims is at least 206,500. After Auschwitz, Majdanek, Treblinka and Belzec, Maly Trostinec had highest number of victims killed. Yet until a few years ago this was a site barely known in Austria as a place of annihilation

Waltraud Barton felt compelled, as she states, ‘to anchor Maly Trostinec as a place of annihilation in Austria’s collective memory’, and has made it her task to preserve the memory of over 10,000 Austrians deported, then murdered in Maly Trostinec. She established the first and then ongoing Austrian memorial trips to Maly Trostinec. Barton invites participants to attach laminated yellow plaques she prepares bearing the names, together with birth and death dates of family members and loved ones on trees in the Blagovshchina Forest, now referred to as The Forest of Names. For the first time names replace numbers. She has also organized anniversary conferences to Minsk and Maly Trostinec and has written two books- Maly Trostinec erinnern (Remembering Maly Trostinec) and Maly Trostinec-Das Totenbuch (The Book of the Dead), where I found my grandparents’ names, date of birth, last known address, date of arrival in Minsk and date and place of death.

Dealing with the Aftermath

The Russians established a State Commission as early as November 2, 1942. Its purpose was to investigate war crimes, gather documents and debrief the local population. It produced a total of twenty-seven reports which formed the basis for the charges brought by the Soviet Union at the Nuremberg Trials in 1945/46. Few of the perpetrators of the genocide committed at the camp, were brought to justice after the war. Among them those who were, was Eduard Strauch who received a death sentence, though later commuted to life imprisonment. He died in Belgian prison in 1955. In 1968 the Court in Hamburg sentenced three low-ranking SS men to life imprisonment. They were overseers of the Jewish Sonderkommando 1005, recognized in 1943 as guilty of murder of the laborers forced to cover up traces of the crimes. Several people were also convicted during trials in West Germany and the USSR, although they were not at Maly Trostenec, but for the crimes committed in the wider area of Minsk. Only in the late 1950’s were Nazi crimes in Minsk dealt with by German and Austrian courts. Opening of Eastern European borders in the 1990’s facilitated the beginning of Belarus research initiatives to establish names and biographies of the victims. Thirty-four grave-pits, each about fifty metres long and three to four metres deep camouflaged by fir-tree branches, were discovered in Blagovshchina Forest. Few of the perpetrators were brought to justice.

Memorialization and Contention

For decades there was little to commemorate the camp of Maly Trostenec. The 1960’s saw the construction of three monuments in Minsk itself, but they offered minimal information- only dates, number of victims, and inscriptions mentioning ‘peaceful Soviet citizens, partisans and prisoners of war’, and the ‘Great Patriotic War’. The fact that most of the victims were Jews is omitted.

Locals laying a wreath

After the 1980’s several memorial stones were set up, including the Blagovshchina forest. The first memorial for Maly Trostinec itself, public initiative in conjunction with Belarusian authorities commenced in 2002. The deportation of Jews from European countries and the Minsk ghetto is now included. In the civil initiative, The Forest of Names of Waltraud Barton, names for the first time replace numbers.

Memorial stone, Blagovshchina forest

In 2010 at the initiative of the government in Minsk, work also began on the complete renewal of the former camp site including the Trostinec Memorial. The central element of the first stage of the new memorial complex inaugurated in 2015, is the Gate of Memory or Gate of Remembrance – two 15-meter-high stelae, representing figures behind barbed wire.

A second stage, a new complex on the site, opened in June 2018 in the Blagovshchina Forest. It includes The Road of Death and The Forest of Names. The Road of Death consists of symbolic transport carriages where names of the documented 23,000 Central European Jews were to be inscribed but since the names of the Belarusian citizens killed are unknown, the Belarusian authorities would not permit inclusion of any names. There have been other challenges also regarding aspects of the memorialization, inclusion and the nature of historicization. Jews are referred to only as civilians; neither the Holocaust, the Minsk ghetto nor deportations from Western Europe are mentioned. Both memorial sites still have features that are not yet complete. Nonetheless, the presidents of Belarus, Germany and Austria attended the inauguration ceremony.

The third part of the memorial, the Shashkovka tract, still awaits construction. An information centre is being considered to promote educational work and international cooperation so that it becomes a fully-fledged and inclusive European place of memory.