LONDON — Inside a particularly large trunk left on the Jerusalem balcony of Rabbi Jonathan Wittenberg’s deceased aunt’s apartment was another smaller case containing an off-white linen bag. In it lay a bundle of papers.
The dates on the delicate pages jumped out at Wittenberg — 1937, 1938, 1947 — and their faint, inked German words immediately piqued his curiosity and captured his imagination. But when Wittenberg, a leading UK Masorti rabbi, thinker, and writer, discovered this collection of letters in 2007, he had no idea their contents would also finally reveal the traumatic details of his father’s family history.
The Rehavia flat Wittenberg and his cousin were clearing up had belonged to the family for 70 years. These pages were seemingly untouched.
“I was completely fascinated from the moment I saw the first one. They spoke to me from history,” Wittenberg explains.
The correspondence, written between members of his family living in Poland, Palestine, Czechoslovakia and New York in the lead up to and during World War II forms the basis of Wittenberg’s latest book, “My Dear Ones.”
But their publication is not only intended as testimony. Combined with Wittenberg’s compelling historical analysis of the period covering British policy and the Yishuv, they illustrate the development of Nazi policy on individuals and communities in different regions, as experienced by his great-aunts Sophie and Trude.
The letters also give an insight into the bureaucratic web encountered by many, including Wittenberg’s great-grandmother Regina. Her attempt to secure the necessary papers to escape Nazi rule and join her son Alfred in Palestine is as frustrating as it is heartbreaking.
Wittenberg grew up in Glasgow and London. As the son of refugees, he had always been aware that the Holocaust had affected his family, but had never learned the details.
“I’d heard their names but I didn’t know their stories,” he says.
His father Adi died shortly after Wittenberg discovered the letters — the memoir is in part a tribute to him. In the book he expresses regret that he had not asked his father questions when he could and tries to understand what he refers to as his own “ill-timed curiosity.” Why had he not inquired more?
“It’s partly because we lived very close to my mother’s parents and their family were right there,” Wittenberg says. “They were also the more talkative part of the family so that really dominated. My father was an excellent raconteur but it wasn’t easy to get him started. And there were things he talked about and things he didn’t.”
“I think it may always be the case,” he continues, “that when somebody’s there you take them for granted and you think you’ve got opportunities and then when they’re gone, you realize that the nature of the gap, the size of the gap, becomes more apparent quite quickly.”
Wittenberg met with German Holocaust historian Goetz Aly, and says the historian told him that “there’s this feature of almost everybody who comes to speak to him — that they are a certain age or older: over 50, mostly over 60, and those from whom they could once have inquired are dead.”
Now in his 50s, Wittenberg fits this profile.
We are talking in Wittenberg’s home, in a room with stacks of books and several tables and chairs. Thoughtful and soft-spoken, he has been rabbi of New North London Synagogue — a thriving Masorti community in northwest London with a membership of over 3,000 people — for almost 30 years. It is a rare moment of quiet for him; the house is often buzzing with communally related business.
In addition to his communal and pastoral duties, he works tirelessly as the driving force and inspiration of numerous projects. He is deeply engaged in interfaith dialogue and lectures widely and writes frequently.
It isn’t surprising that, given his background, Wittenberg feels passionately about the current issues facing refugees around the world. He believes that Britain should be doing more to assist them and is campaigning to this end.
His book is partly dedicated, he says, “to the future of all children, especially those who’ve experienced the fate of the refugee.”
‘I think it may always be the case that when someone’s there you take them for granted’
“As we speak,” he adds, “there are arguments about unaccompanied children.”
In many ways the publication of “My Dear Ones” is timely, accompanying, as it does, the rise of anti-Semitism in Europe, recent issues of anti-Semitism within the UK Labour Party and the ongoing, devastating Syrian refugee crisis.
It serves as a reminder and warning, Wittenberg says, “of how anti-Semitism spreads through accepted narratives, founded on hatred and lies.”
He points out that now, with the use of social media, anti-Semitic sentiment can “spread like wildfire. Social media means you’re short, sharp and not nuanced, which is extremely dangerous.”
Wittenberg comes from rabbinic ancestry and learned stock. His paternal great-uncle, Dr. Alfred Freimann, was a legal scholar and his great-grandfather, Jacob Freimann had been rabbi and head of the rabbinical court in Berlin.
But prior to this, Jacob and Regina had lived in Holešov (in German Holleschau), a town in the Czech Republic where Jacob had served as rabbi for 20 years.
As part of his research Wittenberg traveled to Holešov, accompanied by his middle daughter Libbi, as this was where Sophie and her husband, Josef had lived with Regina in the early years of the war.
He also visited the Polish town of Ostrów Lubleski with his son — home to Trude and her family and the place from where they were taken east to their deaths.
He writes movingly about both these experiences and, as elsewhere in the book, his reflections and recollections of these events are profoundly affecting.
Historian David Cesarani, who died suddenly last autumn, was a good friend of Wittenberg.
“He said that there are many collections of letters but very few people have got letters of such an encompassing [nature],” Wittenberg says.
As well as their historical narrative significance, the writers’ dignity, personalities and voices comes across strongly. Trude’s letters are full of vivid descriptions of the day-to-day challenges, to the extent that Wittenberg recalls that certain members of his family, who had known her well, found reading her words particularly painful.
The tone of Sophie’s letters is often practical and, as Wittenberg suggests, both she and Regina attempt to reassure their relatives in the free world that all is well.
Whether she believed it or not, Sophie’s optimism is evident in her final letter, reading, “We will see each other again in peace.”
However, it was not to be. Regina, Sophie, and Josef died in Auschwitz.
But what impression did Wittenberg form of his relatives?
“I was struck by the pictures of Sophie,” he says. “There’s a beauty there. And also the poignancy of her life — she was a multi-faceted lady: elegant, she liked shopping, she had fine taste but she also created good relationships with neighbors and people of different economic and religious backgrounds.”
He admits he knew little about Regina, whose deep sense of spirituality is profound, but says, “I particularly warmed to her — her love of her children, her faithfulness to them. The fact that they matter more than anything. That and family and her faith in Judaism. She was a very selfless lady.”
In a letter written in March 1941, Regina tells one of her children to “put your trust in God and everything will surely turn out to be for the best.” Some time later she says that in spite of everything her faith in God remains “unshakeable.”
When asked why he thinks this was so, Wittenberg pauses before responding.
“I don’t know. It seems to me something to wonder at and respect,” he says quietly, before attempting an explanation.
“She grew up in a profoundly traditional environment. She’s the daughter of a very well-known town rabbi, who is a remarkable scholar, who then marries her cousin, the child of another remarkable scholar,” he says. “She and her siblings were immersed in the world of the Torah their entire lives.”
They were also, he says, part of a wider, literate German-Jewish or Bohemian middle class.
“This is their identity,” he says. “This is who they were.”
Research is ongoing but intermittent. At the end of “My Dear Ones” he describes receiving a letter following a general inquiry he had lodged at the Jewish Museum in Prague.
Written by the daughter of the woman who had been Sophie’s household cook and friend, whom he later met, he learned that her mother had sent food parcels to Regina and Sophie when they were in Theresienstadt.
For Wittenberg, her actions are a vital example for us all.
It is clear to him that “the ties of humanity, bonds of friendship, and family cross boundaries.”
Wittenberg’s hope is that his book, which is at times breathtakingly powerful, will inform readers of how essential it is “to speak out against racism, loud and soon, before it becomes a risk to one’s life and you’re frightened to do so.”