Rita AlthausenR. Althausen is vice chairwoman of the German-Israeli Society (DIG) and daughter of Oskar Altmann, who is a witness of the pogroms in Mannheim 1938.
How was Jewish life in Mannheim during the 1920s-1940s? What happened to your family during these years? How did your father escape the camp?
My father was born in Lampertheim 1919 and went to school there, when he was only 4 ½ years old, which was very lucky. No one knows why he was sent to school so early. With 8 ½ he started to go to the Gymnasium [German junior high school] in Worms. Every day he had to go there by train. This was the Rudi-Stephan-Gymnasium. It was a humanistic school. I emphasize that because on January 1st, 1934 this school removed all Jews from class and, so to say, “kicked them out” long before other schools in Germany did. The documents are still there, they were sent to my father after the war. His report for the 10th grade – everything is still there. Then he started an apprentice in, how to call it, administration, accounting. However, he could not complete it, because Jews were not allowed to complete an apprenticeship. It was not possible. Then he moved to Mannheim and worked for a [Jewish] lawyer who specialized in making it possible to leave for Jewish people who wanted to emigrate. He worked there until the deportation in 1940. While he continued living in Mannheim, his family still lived in Lampertheim until December 1938, where his father, my grandfather, had a jewellery and utilities shop. In the night from 9th to 10th October his store was destroyed, all the goods thrown on the street, and my grandfather was sent to the Buchenwald concentration camp. After two months he was released and returned, a sick and worn-out man. It was not possible to live in Lampertheim any longer, also because for Jews everything was forbidden at that time. But – it is important to state the positive from time to time – while my grandfather was gone, some people and the local bakery “Schmerker”, which still exists today, provided my grandmother and her daughter, who was 10 years old, with groceries and other necessities, they threw it over the garden fence at night. Then they stopped, because everyone was afraid to get arrested. Then my family went to Mannheim and lived in Quadrat C [the city core of Mannheim was designed in form of 4 geometrical squares]. They were not allowed to use public facilities, like going to the swimming pool or sitting on a bench. Many Jewish stores were boycotted by people of other beliefs, so Jewish people had to stick together. There were 6,000 Jews in Mannheim before the deportation. They supported each other. My grandfather, who was a watchmaker, tried to find work to nurture the family, which was really, really difficult, also because they did not have much. They had to give away a lot of things, things that they were not allowed to possess any longer. This is all proven in the archives. Actually, they lived below subsistence level. This was indeed dreadful. Then came the deportation to Gurs on October 22nd. Except for a 50 kg suitcase – who can carry 50 kg, who even had so many possessions back then? – they had to give away everything they had at the train station, and were thoroughly frisked, so that no one would get away with hidden cash. They went aboard with only few things and did not even know where the train was going to. Eventually they knew that the direction was France, but where in France? Occasionally the train stopped and the Red Cross shoved tea and other things inside, which made the situation more endurable. The carriages were also normal and not cattle trucks.
My grandfather came from Latvia, which was a Russian protectorate at the time. The Tsar was still ruling then. My father finished high-school there and fled the country in 1905 after the Russian-Japanese War, because pogroms against Jews had already started there. He then fled over Switzerland to Mannheim in Germany. Before he left Latvia, he had been a watchmaker apprentice in Russia and became Meister [master craftsman]. I have a copy of the original certificate with the Tsar’s crown, written in old Russian and I showed it to the Russian-speaking people in our community to read it. After working in Switzerland, he came to Mannheim, to Lampertheim in 1910 and got married there. But he was Russian. He was still Russian. Latvia, Baltic countries, etc. was all Russian, so he was Russian. Although he was able to acquire the German citizenship, he was considered a so called “neutralized German”. This meant, he was no German of origin, but by merit. That was a huge problem in the view of emigration. He tried to emigrate, but was always rejected, because he was only a “neutralized” German. The same goes for my father. Jews were always reproached: “Why did you not try to emigrate?” They tried, and I have the original documents. I don’t know how he did it, but my father must have managed to deposit all these documents somewhere in Mannheim before he was deported. Because everything is there, thank God. All the documents were in a folder, which I only found after his death. I have never asked where it came from. It also contains a document: the revocation of the German citizenship. He tried to emigrate to other countries: the Kingdom of Siam, today’s Thailand; USA – all denied, because he was “neutralized” and a young man without any money. It is possible to prove that many [Jews] tried [to emkigrate] but were rejected or the quota had already been reached. Whereas being a “neutralized German” in Germany was disadvantageous, it proved to be something positive in the camp of Gurs. I always say, it is important to differentiate. In the camp they [the family] were Russians. My grandfather spoke Russian fluently. I never met him, he died 5 months before my birth. He often translated in the camp, where some other Russians were as well. It was a camp in southern France, which in 1940 was still unoccupied, until November 1942. My family were regarded as Russians in the camps and Russians were under a certain protection from the Swedish government and the Swedish embassy until 1942. Then the whole country of France was occupied by the Germans and they had to deem it likely to be deported to eastern Europe [death camps]. But my dad managed to flee, because he knew as a young man he would surely be deported.
Before that, in Gurs my grandfather was allowed to work as a watchmaker and when he needed spare parts, he was supplied with them, it was even possible to obtain a “leave permit” to leave the camp occasionally. Ultimately, they were locked in, that was dreadful, but they were able to cope with the situation. Like I said, my grandfather was a Russian there, so he had some perks. He ordered spare parts – [the orders were] written in French and Russian – and these were sent to him from other cities, I still have the documents. And he received screws, and I don’t know what else he needed. When the deportation started in 1942 – needless to say – this stopped. Then the SS came to the camp and a lot changed. The camp, which was very large, was moved closer to the watch stations, and hiding became very difficult, because they could see everything. The French were good co-workers of the Nazis, like I said, and created the lists [for deportation] very well. They wrote more names on the lists than the Nazis demanded, and things got brutal. Then the deportation really started. In 1942 my father remained in the camp, but managed to escape in 1944. As a young man, he was always afraid, because they wanted the young ones. He hid this one Hungarian Jew, a communist, [Karl] Farkas, and this man was searched for. They made a hideout for him under a bed near the wall. There were some kind of huts. Then they said to each other, if he is caught, it will be the end for all of them. So they had to escape. My father escaped with his brother; it was all organised by the communist, “oppositionist” resistance together with the Basques. The Basques were also against the Nazis, they were led by shepherds. They [the opposition] came to the camp and broke through the wire. Then the Basques were there, along with their herding dogs. Those dogs looked like calves, completely white. It was January 1944 and there was snow. [They were going] Across the Pyrenees and the herding dogs led them. They knew the way. No one was allowed to speak a word. They got into a snow storm, but had to go forth, yes, they were driven forth. The watchmen, or supervisors – supervisor is not the right word – leaders, urged: “Go on, go on, go on”, and on a hill amidst the Pyrenees they said: “Now you have to carry on by yourselves”. My father looked down the hill and saw a farmer on the field. There was snow, but still that farmer was on the field. He [the father] didn’t know whether they were still in France or in Spain, because there were still SS camps at the foot of the Pyrenees. Still, my father dared to jump down the hill, went to that farmer and asked him with the little Spanish he knew “A qui España?“ – “Is this Spain?”, to which he replied “Si, si”. Then he knew that they were in Spain. But this was not their salvation. The farmer was poor, and what would he do to earn money? Of course, the farmer betrayed him and gave him away to Franco, to the [fascist] Franco regime. Then, the Guardia Civil [Spanish police] came, they were brutal. There was an interrogation by the Guardia Civil, [they were asking] what my father and his brother wanted, who they were, etc. The man who interrogated them was German. A fascist German. My father said he was American, Americano. But the German, of course, did not believe that. Then my father made a mistake in his speaking, this happened because, he told me, it is not possible to hide one’s identity; when he was asked where he was born, he replied “Lampertheim”. Then the interrogator said: “Since when Lampertheim is in the USA?!” Well, then he knew that my father was German, but he did not give him away. Instead, he sent him to prison, to one of the most notorious prisons ins Spain, Campo di Meranda near the Ebro river. In this prison, there was everything. Felons, fascists, communists, everything possible. My father still claimed to be American and said that he would like to speak the Joint [Joint Distribution Committee]. Joint was an American aid organization that tried to save Jewish lives in Europe, whenever it was possible. My father always told me, this was the one positive thing he could tell about Franco, that he was not turned over as a German Jew. He was allowed to call Joint for help with no constraints from the prison. The aid organization came, released my father and his brother from prison and asked them: “Where do you want to go?”. Until that time, most of the Jews in Europe were either murdered or detained in KZs. He [the father] said he had a sister in Israel, in Palestine. She was able to leave with last ship before the start of WW2 in 1939. Also, one brother from my mother’s side was able to leave with the last ship. Luck at the last moment. My father said that he wanted to go to his sister. Then they said yes, they would help him leave. But this was difficult, because the English also had their quota, they did not want many people there [in Palestine]. But at this point, not many people wanted to go there anyway. There was nothing… Then he came to Cádiz in southern Spain. From there, he left with a Portuguese ship that traded prisoners of war, and eventually arrived in Haifa. He was lucky that the English let that ship pass, because the British usually interned Jews in camps in Cyprus [for illegal immigration to Palestine]. [This would have meant being sent] From one KZ to another. He came to Haifa, he managed to meet his sister again and then he lived in Palestine as an English man, with an English passport.