E-Mail from Hannah

Hannah writes that she had just watched ‘Night will fall- the film lecture for the Germans’ of Hitchcock, and that it was an extreme effort for her to follow the incomprehensible all the way to the end. Once again she had asked herself, how her father could bear that, as a young soldier standing at the entrance of hell, desperately searching for known faces among the half dead survivors of the concentration camps, meanwhile the hope disappeared after every kilometer of liberation.

Peter Blum was a German Jew of just 22 years old when he had to begin to understand, that none of his beloveds had escaped from that hell.

The traces of Peter Blum are leading back to the building where I lived when I got the first e-mail from Hannah, in April 2012. From San Francisco. She wrote that she had found letters left behind by her father, sent by Arnold Blum, her grandfather, and other relatives, in the thirties from the Wullenweberstraße 12 in Berlin.

In the attachment a picture of her grandmother that could have been taken in front of that house which must have been located here before. Probably it got destroyed during the war and afterwards was replaced by those plain buildings coming up through the Berlin construction program of the fifties.

Hannah, daughter of Peter and granddaughter of Bela and Arnold Blum, can’t reconstruct it exactly; her father passed away some years ago and left behind more questions than answers.

The day, when I got Hannah’s email, nine stumbling blocks were being installed at the entrance of my neighboring house. I told Hannah how much of them exist here, in Berlin-Moabit, where her family lived. It was an area of a lively Jewish community, with community centre, school, hospital and a synagogue for 2000 people, one of the biggest in Berlin.

I started taking pictures of the stumbling blocks and the memorial at the corner of Levetzowstraße, the former location of the synagogue. The Jews of Moabit had to come there before they were pushed through the streets of the quarter where they lived amongst their neighbours; those who looked away then and didn’t want to know where they were being sent.

At the other side of the quarter, on the goods station near Putlitzstraße, the trains were waiting to bring them towards the east to death, most of them to Auschwitz.

One year after the first mail from Hannah, we are standing together in front of the huge iron monument at Levetzowstraße. I tell her about the Moabit citizens initiative “They were our neighbours” which was started in 2011 as a reminder of the fate of the Jewish residents.

The heaven shines blue behind the punched out dates, numbers and places of the memorial. This makes the moment even more unbearable.

Hannah’s eyes are resting on the transport number 30, the 26th of February 1943, the day when her grandparents Bela and Arnold Blum together with their son Rolf, the 15 year old brother of Hannah’s father Peter, were deported to Auschwitz, along with 1000 other Berlin Jews.

We move around the corner into Tile-Wardenberg-Straße, to building Nr. 13, only some hundred meters from Wullenweber. Most likely the Blum family was forced to move to a flat in that building, before Knesebeckstraße 86 appears as the return address, the last before their deportation.

Hannah tells me that she plans on having translated the more than 200 letters that arrived to her father in Pennsylvania from Berlin between the year 1934 before ending with the deportation of the Blum family. It’s a very difficult task to understand the old German scripts. Hannah tries to construct a puzzle, knowing that she may never find all the components.

Her father, Peter Blum, kept silent for a long time. Even though he travelled with her to Lübeck, his birth place, when she was a child, Hannah did not get to know more at that time. Only when she decided to become a pastry chef, not only following the paths of her father, but continuing a family tradition, he began to speak. Cautious, fragmentary, incomplete…

“It’s very sad that so much got lost, but I know that it was difficult for him to talk. I guess that he felt guilty and was ashamed of the powerlessness, that he could not do anything.”

The parents had sent their son Peter to the USA, to Pennsylvania, in 1934, where he lived in a succession of foster-homes.

He arrived with the first ship that brought Jewish children out of Germany.

“He could have been throwing stones at a Nazi officer, so my grandparents decided to send him away quickly. So it was told by my father to my mother, in one of those rare moments when he spoke about that time.”

If it’s really true, Hannah doesn’t know.

Nor as well, if her grandparents were conscious at that moment, to which depth the Nazis would go with their crimes. It’s not clear if they did not have the money or the opportunity to leave Germany. But the letters they sent to his son are crying for help, becoming more and more desperate during the years. With each new translation it is revealed that the grandparents remained hopeful that their son could arrange an “Affidavit of Support”, a kind of guarantee which could be given by relatives or friends for making possible the immigration into the States. The country demonstrated quite a tolerant policy regarding refugees at that time, but asked for a certain security from applicants.

„My father was still a child, just 13, when he arrived over here. I think this responsibility was more than he could handle”, Hannah says.

The translator who is studying the letters from Berlin, notes, that the handwriting of the grandparents gets smaller and more unsteady as time goes by, meanwhile the horror is coming closer.

From 23d of October of 1941 it was forbidden for Jews to leave the country, and the systematic deportations of the Jews towards the east began. There was no escape anymore.

Peter’s grandmother Flora was the first; she had to present herself at 25. of August 1942 for the transport 1/5 to Theresienstadt, a kind of special transport for elder people, she was 83 years old.

There are several conflicting records on Peter’s sister Hildegard Hanna’s deportation, but her fate was the same.

Finally Peter’s parents Bela and Arnold Blum were deported together with their 15 year old son Rolf, Peter’s brother, to Auschwitz, where they probably died a short time after arriving.

Peter became a so-called ‘Ritchie Boy’ after getting special training at the Military Intelligence Center of the US-Army in Maryland (called ‘Camp Ritchie’). The ‘Ritchie Boys’ were young German and Austrian emigrants of Jewish origin, trained for special missions in Germany. They tracked down war criminals, interrogated prisoners and deserters to get important information for the US-Army and their aliens and also about the concentration camps and the crimes committed there by the Nazis. Peter Blum took part in the liberation of some of these camps.

Even though the ‘Ritchie Boys’ made an important contribution to the defeat of the Nazi-Regime, only a few facts were known about them. Although most of the documents about their mission were recorded in the US-National Archives, 80 percent of them were destroyed in a fire in 1973. Only the documentary of the same name by Christian Bauer, made in 2004 and co-produced with ARD Television, broadcasted in Germany in 2005, honored these young brave ‘Ritchie Boys”.

„My father was 22 years old, when he returned to Germany with the ‘Ritchie Boys’.

Not only did he have to spy on and interrogate the Nazi officers, but also to cope with all the horrible things he was witnessing, and coming back with the certainty that none of his beloveds had survived the horror.”

The research of the Yad Vashem Remembering Center in Jerusalem finally reconfirmed their death.

In October of 2015 the stumbling blocks in memory of the Blum family were installed.

in front of the house in Berlin-Mitte, Knesebeckstraße 86. I was present, getting to know Hannah’s family, her husband, son of Chinese immigrants, her children, her niece. Emotional moments.

Hannah writes: „I can’t get the story of my father out of my mind. Right now I am reading ‘Sons and Soldiers’ by Bruce Herderson, a book about the ‘Ritchie Boys’, published in 2017. The name of my father appears in the Index.

I will never be able to fill the gaps, but I know who was my father and why he never got tired of standing up for all people, no matter where they came from, what color they were, and which religion they belonged to.”