The fate of the Herz under Nazism

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By FLAVIO AGUIAR*

The result of a personal investigation into a Jewish family in Germany

“Continually we see news, / Different, in everything, from hope. / From the bad, the sorrows remain in memory, / And from the good, from someone there was, the longing” (Luis Vaz de Camões).

When we look into the history of Nazism in Europe, shocking numbers overwhelm our vision. For starters, six million Jews in the scheduled Holocaust! Four million other human beings killed also because they were considered “unworthy of living”, from the mentally ill to Jehovah's Witnesses, passing through Roma (Gypsies) and homosexuals! Only in the Soviet Union 28 million dead: Nine million military and 19 million civilians! And so on: the total figure varies, taking the round figure of 60 million dead, six times the population of a city like São Paulo, and could reach 100 million if we take into account the side effects of the war, almost half Brazil today.

But the numbers give us a partial dimension of the tragedy, and, if we stick only to them, they can partly cloud our vision. We would lose the dimension of individual dramas and tragedies, the destinies cut down or shattered, crushed or distorted, the tears that have dried and the wounds that have not closed and will never close; the dreams that didn't come true and the nightmares that replaced them.

Recently my friend and coreligionist Tarso Genro took me to meet one of these destinations, that of the Herz family, originally from the city of Köthen, in the former province of Anhalt, today in the state of Sachsen-Anhalt, after the unification with part of former Prussia, promoted by the Soviets at the end of World War II. Johann Sebastian Bach worked there from 1717 to 1723 as conductor of the Chapel Choir for Prince Leopold von Anhalt-Köthen.

Tarso asked me if I could find out something about his great-uncle, Carl Herz, brother of his maternal grandfather Hermann. Carl had been an important jurist and politician, linked to the Social Democratic Party (SPD, in the German acronym), and in this capacity he had been persecuted and harassed by the Nazis, having gone into exile in England shortly before the start of World War II.

Spurred by curiosity, I took to the field, aided by some additional information that Tarsus gave me access to, including that one of Carl's daughters, Hilde, had emigrated to Israel. And so I became immersed in the fate of the Herz family, something that brought to my mind the verses of Camões, quoted in the epigraph of this text.

Carl Herz was born in 1877, in the city of Köthen, the son of a Jewish father and a Jewish mother, he Julius and she Hermine. Julius was a merchant; he had a men's clothing store downtown. Carl was the eldest son, having brothers Hermann (1879), who went to Brazil, and Georg (1885), who went to Palestine.

Julius tried in vain to get his eldest son to follow his profession and take over the shop. Carl preferred legal studies, which he did by jumping from university to university, as was common at the time: he went to courses in Heidelberg, Leipzig, Halle and Berlin. During his student life he became aware of the works and political activity of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels.

Carl ended up setting up a law firm in Áltona, an autonomous district of Hamburg, where he approached the SPD and entered politics. He became close to prominent party figures, including Friedrich Ebert, Karl Liebknecht, Karl Kautsky and the legendary August Bebel. He visited him frequently, having been the first to do so, when Carl married Else Goldschmidt, in 1910.

The couple had three children: Hilde, Gehrard and Günter, the youngest. After several legal and political incidents in Áltona, in 1921 the family moved to the Berlin region. He initially settled in what is now the Spandau district. In existing documentation, obtained in part from the testimony of daughter Hilde, Else is described as “very independent”. Graduated from the University of Kiel in Germanistics and philosophy, she was also interested in psychology and psychoanalysis, having approached the ideas of Alfred Adler, a disciple of Freud, in Vienna. In Spandau she founded, with two friends, the first non-religious nursery school in the district.

Carl continued his legal and political activities. Hilde described family life as often agitated by heated arguments, as the three children held more radical socialist views than their parents. The three soon became interested in left-wing Zionism. It is good to remember that many Jewish militants of the left saw in Zionism the possibility of founding a socialist country in the future, and after the creation of Israel, they saw in us kibbutzim the germ of a future egalitarian society.

Family life was far from orthodox; they even celebrated the Christian Christmas. After some time, the family moved to the Charlottenburg neighborhood, already in the most central perimeter of Berlin. Continuing his political career, Carl was elected mayor of the district of Kreuzberg (which is equivalent, in today's Brazilian terms, to a subprefecture; however, the election in the districts is independent of the election for the council and the central mayor). His candidacy was one of the rare moments when Social Democrats and Communists worked together.

When there was a split between the Social Democrats and the Spartacists, led by Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg, in 1914, Carl Herz remained with them. Even so, he had shared with the Spartacists the opposition to German involvement in the First World War.

In 1933, with the rise of the Nazis to power, the Herz's life would take a dramatic turn. On March 8 of that year, Carl received notice that the SA (Sturmabteilung, Storm Troopers) Nazis were plotting action against him. Still, he decided to stick to his usual routine. On March 10 (Hilde says in her statement that it was March 12) the Nazis invaded the subprefecture of Kreuzberg, dragged Carl into the street and beat him, in front of the passive gaze of several witnesses. The police rushed in and arrested… the victim! They released him a few days later.

Meanwhile, Else had taken the children to another address in the Halensee district. From there, everything accelerated. In May, Hilde went to England, welcomed by relatives who lived there. In August, Carl was officially removed from his position in Kreuzberg, and his son Günter left for Holland, settling in Amsterdam. In 1935 Gerhard emigrated to Palestine, where his uncle Georg already lived. After all, in 1939, the Herz couple also went to England, in the face of the imminence of war and the growing Nazi threats.

With the official declaration of the conflict, in 1940, Carl was interned in a concentration camp for “enemy foreigners”. He was released in 1941, through the intervention of friends from Labour Party English. He went on to integrate activities of German anti-Nazi groups in London.

After the war, in 1946 he, Else and Hilde also went to Palestine. It is said that Carl always defended a possible union between Palestinians and Jews. He died in 1951 in Haifa; Else, in 1968, in Tel Aviv; both never returned to Germany. Hilde died in the 90s of the last century, also in Israel.

Günter ended up having a tragic fate. He got a job as an electrician in Holland, and married a young German woman, also Jewish and emigrated, Lieselotte Doris-Neustadt, a milliner, born in Berlin on March 01, 1915, in the Prenzlauerberg neighborhood. With the imminent invasion of Holland by the Nazis, which took place on May 10, 1940, they could perhaps have fled to England, but they did not, it is not known why. They ended up arrested and deported to concentration camps, with 107 of the 140 Jews living in Holland, of whom 102 would die. After passing through two other camps, they ended up in Auschwitz/Birkenau, Poland. Lieselotte was murdered on November 19, 1943 and Günter on March 31, 1944, she was 28 years old and he was 25. Lieselotte's parents, Salo and Ella, were deported to the so-called “Minsk Ghetto”, today the capital of Minsk. Belarus, where they also perished. In Minsk, the Nazis created ghettos for local Jews and also for others brought from Western Europe, especially Germany, divided into sections with the names of their cities of origin: Frankfurt, Hamburg, Berlin, etc., subjecting them to forced labor . There were great massacres in Minsk, including children buried alive with sand, attracted by sweets that the SS threw at them. There was also an uprising, as in the Warsaw Ghetto, during which many Jews managed to escape, joining resistance fighters. On September 22, 1943 the gauleiter Nazi (Commissar General) for Belarus, Wilhelm Kube, was assassinated in his home by a time bomb placed under his bed by the supporter criminal Yelena Mazanik, who worked there as a maid. As a result, 1.000 citizens of Minsk were murdered by the Nazis, after being forced to dig their mass grave, and in October of the same year the ghettos were literally exterminated.

Today there is a hermitage in honor of Carl Herz in the subprefecture of Kreuzberg in Berlin, and he gives his name to one of the avenues in the district.

In my research I obtained and tried to locate the addresses where the Herz and Neustadt lived. One of them, that of the Neustadt couple, Rosembergerstrasse 8, apparently no longer exists. In the others, in Köthen, Áltona and Berlin, there are buildings too new to be the ones where they were housed or where Julius, Carl's father, had had his shop.

I found a single exception. On the Uithoornstraat, no.o. 5 - III (3o floor), in Amsterdam, the building is still the same where Günter Herz and Lieselotte Herz-Neustadt lived, with a simple tribute to both at the entrance.

“The rest is silence”. A deafening silence.

* Flavio Aguiar, journalist and writer, is a retired professor of Brazilian literature at USP. Author, among other books, of Chronicles of the World Upside Down (Boitempo).

 

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