Salvaged Pages

Young Writers' Diaries of the Holocaust

Yale University Press

Copyright © 2002 Alexandra Zapruder
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-300-09243-1


Chapter One

Klaus Langer

ESSEN, GERMANY

Klaus (later Jacob) Langer was born on April 12, 1924, in the city of Gleiwitz, in Upper Silesia, which at that time was part of Germany. His father, Erich, had also been born in Gleiwitz; his mother, Rose, was born in Odessa and emigrated to Germany in 1912, where she and Erich Langer married in 1922. Klaus's grandmother, Mina, joined the family in 1927, when he was three years old. After successive moves from Gleiwitz to Wiesbaden, then to a small town near Gelsenkirchen, the family settled in Essen in 1936.

Klaus began his diary in his native German shortly after his bar mitzvah in March 1937. According to the author, the first part of the journal consists mostly of descriptions of the family's apartment, his aquarium, books, and notes about friends, "hopeless loves to girls," and the like. It was not until 1938 that he began reporting consistently on the political situation in Germany and its effect on him and his family. The segment of the diary included here opens in April 1938, at about the time Klaus turned fourteen years old. The early part of the diary shows that life was relatively normal for him-he was still attending school, was part of a Zionist youth group, and was living at home with his parents and grandmother as he always had done. Despite signs of instability-the emigration of many of his Jewish friends and the occasional restrictions against Jews (closing of Jewish-owned businesses and prohibitions against Jews attending the public pool)-the Langers were still living in a relatively recognizable world.

Much of the early part of Klaus's diary was devoted to recounting the events, activities, and discussions held in the Zionist youth group of which he was a part. He participated in Maccabee Hazair, which together with Hashomer Hazair and Habonim constituted the predominant Zionist youth groups in Germany. Although there were political differences among these groups, they all shared the same basic goal of promoting interest in Jewish matters and encouraging emigration to Jewish settlements in Palestine. Indeed, like many students of his generation, Klaus sought shelter in the security of the youth group in part as a response to the growing hostility around him. Group meetings focused largely on discussions, often oriented toward distinctly modern and nontraditional topics, among them Zionism, assimilation, anatomy, modesty, and sex. Most central to the movement, however, was preparation for emigration to Palestine. Because life there was geared toward building Jewish settlements, there was an emphasis on outdoor activities, nature, and, above all, communal existence and agricultural and manual labor.

Klaus's involvement in the Zionist youth movement gave rise to a faint but unmistakable tension with his father that emerges in the diary. Klaus's family was an archetypal German Jewish one, having had a long history of residence in Germany. His father had fought on the French front in World War I, joining the German army as a volunteer in 1915. After the war, he went on to become a judge in the German court system. Like many German Jews of that generation, he and his family were nationally, culturally, and socially embedded in mainstream German civilization. For Erich Langer in particular, who had successfully assimilated into German society, the culture of the Zionist youth movement was diametrically opposed to everything he envisioned for his son. Life as a pioneer among Jews in an underdeveloped country, living in communal dwellings and performing physical labor, was seen as a step backward, a loss of the very entitlements he had struggled so hard to achieve. It was for this reason that he was reluctant to allow Klaus to immerse himself in the youth group, and only permitted him to attend meetings if he did not neglect his studies and his music.

Klaus's relatively normal life came to a crushing halt with Kristallnacht, the Nazi attack on synagogues, homes, businesses, and private property of Jews in cities throughout Germany and Austria on November 9��10, 1938. It was a dramatic turning point in the history of Germany's Jews, a shocking display of violence in which the property of Jews was destroyed, their synagogues burned, and their businesses vandalized. Klaus's longest and most detailed diary entry is about this event; he documented the damage to home and property and the fear, sleeplessness, and chaos of those days. The famous Essen synagogue and the Jewish youth center were both destroyed. Thirty thousand Jewish men throughout Germany were arrested by the Nazis during this pogrom. As Klaus recorded in his diary, his father was among those arrested in Essen.

Kristallnacht, for the Langer family as for many German Jews, signaled the severity of the situation as no previous passage of laws or decrees had done. The gradual escalation of restrictions, humiliations, and exclusions had culminated in an unexpected and drastic pogrom reminiscent of those perpetrated on Jews in the Middle Ages. Further, a new onslaught of decrees followed Kristallnacht, almost completely limiting the movement and freedoms of Germany's Jews. Among them were the orders expelling all Jewish children from German schools and banning Jewish youth group activities.

For the Langer family, Kristallnacht served as a powerful catalyst for emigration. Ultimately, this is the main subject of the diary-emigration itself-and the family's increasingly desperate efforts to get out. "I can sing a song on that subject," Klaus wrote dryly on January 14, 1939. His diary entries reveal the overwhelming difficulties and bureaucratic mazes that faced those trying to flee. The Langers tried to find safe passage to Chile, India, Palestine, Holland, the United States, the Dominican Republic, Peru, Uruguay, Shanghai, Argentina, and England; each try was met with evasions, further requirements, or outright refusals. Further, Klaus listed in his diary the various "paper walls"-personal papers, physical exams, travel documentation, employment assurances, visas, affidavits, and letters of credit-that made emigration virtually impossible.

Klaus's diary captured the excruciating recurring cycle that plagued would-be emigrants. It began with a hopeful lead, the frantic gathering of materials, promises, assurances, packing, and then, ultimately, seemingly inevitably, the plan would collapse, undermined by a technical detail or a missed deadline. Klaus's diary entries, filled as they are with requirements, regulations, and restrictions, seem to mirror the confusion and bureaucratic entanglements of the process itself. His personal story typified that of hundreds of thousands of German Jews who were faced with the fact that throughout the 1930s,few European countries eased quotas, lifted restrictions, or simplified existing procedures to allow for Jewish emigration. As a result, many families who were willing to emigrate found that they had nowhere to go. This failure on the part of the European nations and the Americas, including the United States, resulted in the entrapment of hundreds of thousands of families in Germany. Beginning in the fall of 1941, these individuals and families were deported to ghettos and concentration camps in the German-occupied Eastern territories.

While much of the diary is filled with the pragmatic details of the Langers' search for a safe haven, there are traces in the diary that reveal a still deeper issue that also lay at the root of the emigration process. Beyond how the Nazis approached the problem, how the European nations addressed it, or even how the individual families attempted to maneuver within the bureaucracy, there remained the question of how assimilated Jews like the Langers understood themselves and their place in the world, and consequently how quickly, efficiently, and aggressively they attempted to flee. In the case of the Langers, they deliberated over where they should go, weighing such matters as the transfer of Erich Langer's pension and the likelihood of finding work, rejecting potentially viable opportunities in their quest for the best choice. Further, there are subtle clues in the diary that suggest how difficult it was for the Langers to fully accept their altered circumstances and to comprehend the nature of the move that confronted them. In particular, Klaus on occasion seemed to view the matter of preparing for emigration as if he were moving to another country by choice, rather than fleeing for his life. Most notably, he calmly made preliminary arrangements to bring such impractical items as an old typewriter, his bicycle, his cello, and even the family's grand piano with him in exile.

These allusions, faint as they might be, suggest the depth of the Langers' ties to established German society. For even as they faced the once unthinkable question of leaving Germany and accepted the necessity of flight, that stubborn root-the image they had of themselves in the world-remained at least partially intact and entrenched. These last ties were not only a tragic illusion in the context of Nazi Germany but were, in some cases, another impediment to emigration itself, as people unwittingly delayed, deliberating over choices and exercising rights that were no longer theirs. The truth, which is easy to see in retrospect but was incomprehensible to many at the time, was that emigration was not a choice, it was an imperative-the last hope to escape unharmed as Germany unraveled, bringing the rest of Europe with it.

World War II broke out on September 1, 1939, when Germany invaded Poland. Ultimately, it was the Aid to Jewish Youth (J��dische Jugendhilfe) that succeeding in getting Klaus, with a group of three hundred other Jewish youngsters, out of Germany on September 2, the day after the war began. The Danish Ministry of Justice allowed them to enter Denmark as a result of pressure from Danish women's groups, which were also busily recruiting Danish farm families to house the children temporarily. Klaus wrote his first diary entry in Denmark on September 8, 1939, shortly after his arrival. In stark contrast to the erstwhile vision he had of bringing his bicycle, cello, and piano, Klaus found himself very much alone, with only the barest possessions. He had been abruptly separated from his parents and grandmother, none of whom he ever saw again. At age fifteen, he began a new life in exile.

In January 1940, Klaus and the other youths from the group left Copenhagen for Amsterdam and then traveled to Marseilles by train, and on to Beirut by boat. From there they took a bus to Haifa, arriving in Palestine after a journey of two weeks. Upon arrival he changed his name from Klaus to Jacob and ended his diary. His parents and grandmother were not able to emigrate from Germany. His mother died of blood poisoning on September 8, 1941, in Essen. His father was deported on April 21, 1942, to the Izbica Lubelska camp in the Lublin province of Poland. By the end of that year, the local Jews from Izbica and those who had been forced to settle there from other localities had been taken to the death camps at Belzec or Sobib��r, or had been shot. Klaus's father was surely among them. His grandmother was sent to Terez��n (Theresienstadt) on July 15, 1942, and only a few months later was deported to Minsk, where she perished.

April 19, 1938

There was great excitement over the past few days since two of our comrades in the group, Paul [Rolman] and Lobi [Lother Bierhoff], left. There was still much to do and we spent much time together. On Saturday, Bambus, the former leader of the group, had one more meeting with us before the two departed. On Saturday, April 25, they left for Berlin to the Beit Maccabee in order to train for the emigration, but not in farming. Our group in the Bund [youth movement] now consisted of only six members. Fifi is sick at the moment. He had his appendix removed and is still in the hospital. Kumo [Kurt Mohr] was fired from his job and will probably attend a trade school, probably after the summer vacations. Kume's [Kurt Melchior] parents are going to emigrate to the U.S. and he obviously will go with them. Rotzig's [Wolfgang Rapp] parents also are thinking of emigrating to the U.S. Kume thinks that they will leave in October at the earliest. In Rotzig's case no date has been set. By Easter 1939 our group will be dissolved since Bobby [Ferse] and I want to make aliyah [emigration to Palestine]. Our group reached its maximum size a long time ago. We are now going downhill. Saturday a seminar was held. In the morning we studied Jewish history and the Maccabee movement. In the afternoon a physician talked about anatomy and first aid. Instead of listening we fooled around and drew pictures. At the end we sang a few songs.

April 26, 1938

On April 25, yesterday, it was two years that we have been living in this apartment. I hope that we shall remain for a long time. Bachrach, the owner of the house, had to close his store since such business under Jewish ownership no longer was permitted. Perhaps they will be able to hold a final sale; if not, they will fall on hard times. I have to work hard in school. I have to prepare myself well in Latin and have already started. I have kept my teachers.

May 9, 1938

Two more boys joined our group. [...] One is still quite immature, the other seems like a nice fellow, but he has problems getting to our meetings. A large pegisha, a large gathering, was held on May 8. Almost three hundred members attended from various cities. Our former leader, Hans Bloch, also came from Cologne. In the morning we had study groups and in the afternoon a long discussion about assimilation.

May 18, 1938

[...] The situation with Rotzig is still uncertain. His brother is going to America. His parents and he probably will follow. This will only leave Bobby and me from the original group. Since I am writing my diary at night and in bed, I always have to be on the lookout for my parents and often have to interrupt my entries. It looks like I shall be going to school until Easter 1939. I shall then enter some kind of agricultural institute. Hopefully that will lead to my making aliyah. My parents still don't know to which school they will send me.

July 10, 1938

Today we had a test on Jewish history, the youth movement, Zionism, and similar subjects. Now that I have passed the test it seems like a great weight was taken off me. There was a great deal of excitement and work over the past few days. I was busy every free minute with preparing for the test. Our total average was 62 3/4 points, which made us the best group in the Bund. The girls had only 62 points, which is just a little less than our average but we came out the winners.

September 8, 1938

I must say that we accomplished very little since Easter at our meetings and in our discussions. Aside from sichot [group meetings] that did not start on schedule, also, Horst terminated the meetings too early. Much time was spent on organizational matters and there were only a few political discussions. They only thing we accomplished was that all of us read Stefan Zweig's book Brennendes Geheimnis [The Burning Secret]. If it continues like this after the vacations, I am going to submit a complaint. I have considerable problems getting permission at home to go to the meetings.

We went to the pool a few times. After my cousin left, Bobby and I went with girls from the Lehava group to the pool. However, there was a sign saying that Jews were not desired. That meant that we no longer could go swimming. Bobby's mother consequently called a Jewish banker from Essen. Their house was in a large park with a private swimming pool. She asked permission for us to go swimming there, which the family granted. The girls from the Lehava group also went. The pool was located in a very pleasant part of the garden, surrounded by trees and bushes. [...] We had a lot of fun there and got along very well. I swam five hundred meters in about seventeen minutes. It was no great achievement but good enough for a start. We also practiced lifesaving and jumping into the pool. Once we had a team race, and once we even played polo, but that was very tiring.

One day I suddenly received an invitation from a friend who was one of Mother's violin students. The family invited me to come to Paderborn in Westphalia where an uncle had a house in a small village. I really did not feel like going but to be polite I accepted the invitation. I was gone for two weeks, which meant that I missed several meetings, for which I was very sorry.

(Continues...)



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