Tracing my family’s Holocaust history was painful – the resurgence of denial is even more so

“Auschwitz”, my great-grandmother would say about her in-laws, but little else. 

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The International Tracing Service may sound like a fictional spy agency, but it is much more interesting than that. Home to a staggering 30 million documents, the ITS stands as the authoritative rebuttal to those who would deny the Holocaust. It provides an unparalleled insight into the experiences of victims and an opportunity for descendants to learn how their plight unfolded. And when I used the service, I was shocked at what I found. 

Before encountering the ITS, I had never looked into my family history. I grew up in Manchester with four British grandparents and two British parents, and I felt no need to dig deeper than that. I knew that my great-grandfather, Erich, had escaped from Vienna alone, but he died years before I was born. I presumed that tragedy lurked behind his story, but I shut out thoughts of the fate of Erich’s family. It would be too difficult to hear about, and any research was only likely to produce limited conclusions, I thought.

I did have fleeting conversations about Erich’s family with his widow, my great grandmother Joyce. “Auschwitz”, she would say, but little else. She had served as a clerk in the Auxiliary Territorial Service during the war and had met Erich around 15 years later. She was his second wife, following the untimely death of Rose, his first love and a fellow Jewish refugee. Yet with either wife, he did not confide much about his family’s fate. He shared even less about the nature of his own arrival in Britain.

This incomplete story, and the recent cameo role that Jewish identity has played in British politics inspired me to undertake some research. I am not the only one to have cringed throughout an unedifying few weeks for the Labour party. However, I accept that I may stand amongst fewer whose angst has tapped into something existential, something even more serious than experiencing a flagging commitment to a party that often seems ambivalent toward anti-Semitism.

And so, to begin my search, I turned to the natural home for lucid conversations on Jewish heritage – Twitter. With everyone else distracted by beetroots and Jeremy Corbyn, I was particularly grateful for one helpful friend who responded with the suggestion that I talk to the Wiener Library.

Founded in 1933, the Wiener Library is devoted to the study of the Holocaust, its causes, and its legacies. Standing in London’s university district of Bloomsbury, it has served successive generations, its purpose evolving in tandem with the status of Jews in Europe. The low-profile façade that greets visitors upon arrival masks the importance of the work conducted behind its front door.

The Library is home to researchers who are proficient in using the ITS, a tool which can be both overwhelming and inaccessible. My point of contact was Elise Bath. Thanks to her, a haphazard search for belonging was transformed into dozens of chronologically ordered documents. In doing so, she revealed a family history that I never knew I had. I feel indebted to her.

In a single day, Elise unearthed the essential biographical information about my great-grandfather and his family. I learned that they lived amongst a Viennese Jewish population of around 200,000 in 1938, around half of whom would be murdered by 1945. I learned that Erich lived with his mother Henrietta and his brother Felix at 115 Währingerstraße, a busy road in central Vienna. His aunt Sophie and her son Arthur lived in the same building, which is still standing and which I fully intend to visit in the year ahead.

Though it would have been less painful to limit my research to Erich, I now had the knowledge of his relatives at my fingertips. They were my family: I needed to know what happened to them.

In pursuing their stories, I learned that the ITS can be as cruel as it is useful. The knowledge I thought I had inherited from my living family turned out to be either inaccurate or simply incorrect. For example, my great-grandmother’s assumption that her in-laws had died in Auschwitz was contradicted by documents that showed they had in fact been murdered across the continent. The Netherlands, Czechoslovakia, Germany, and Poland all featured in what the ITS terms my family’s “path of persecution”.

Each and every mile is accounted for. Wretched journeys on cattle trucks are documented from the point of deportation to exact date of their arrival. Grainy images are supplemented by the work of Yad Vashem’s Transport to Extinction website, which holds several testimonies from those likely to have been bolted shut in a cramped train with my family.

I would learn that Henrietta, Erich’s mother, barely made it out of Vienna. The conditions of her transport proved too much, and she died en route to the Opole Ghetto in Poland. His aunt Sophie and his two-year-old cousin, Arthur were killed at Treblinka and Auschwitz upon their respective arrivals. Too weak and too young to work, presumably.

Felix, Erich’s brother, suffered through four concentration camps. He was imprisoned at Westerbork, Thereisenstadt, and Auschwitz before arriving at a sub-camp of Buchenwald. There, he endured forced labour. He dismantled Allied bombs that had fallen around the area so that the retreating German forces could escape. Only five days before Buchenwald was liberated by allied troops, he was murdered on a death march. Felix was 26 years old, my age.

As for my great-grandfather, his picture remains a muddled one. The ITS notes Erich’s imprisonment in Dachau from March to November 1938, where he was incarcerated as a trade unionist. Unfortunately, that is where his story with the ITS ends. One possibility is that the Trades Union Congress, which ran many covert operations to save socialists persecuted in Nazi territories, may have helped him escape.

Tracking his whereabouts between Dachau and Manchester has become an imperative for me. He is my closest genetic link to this story. Not only that, but if he were still alive today, I have no doubts that he would share my seething rage at those who deny what happened to him or obfuscate the systematic eradication of his family, my family. At last week’s Passover Seder my great-grandmother, now 95, told me that in a post-war trip back to Vienna to see who was left, Erich was “compensated” with a sum that amounts to £60 in today’s money. Sixty pounds for the murder of his family: an insult beyond description.

After reading my grim findings, some may ask why I am extolling the virtues of the ITS. What has the ITS given me, other than certainty that my family were murdered by fascists? Well, despite the painful results, I believe the ITS is essential in our contemporary political world.

We live in an age in which indisputable facts are presented as conspiracy theories, and insidious conspiracies are presented as facts. The Holocaust is not immune from this phenomenon. Indeed for some, it is the primary target. Alongside the testimonies of survivors, and the work of charities such as the Holocaust Educational Trust, the International Tracing Service essentially maps out the Shoah in its most agonising detail. I hope that many others exploring their heritage will make use of it, but I hope it jolts the minds of those who see Jewish suffering as something to be kicked around like a football.

This week marks Yom Hashoah, a day of remembrance for the victims of the Holocaust. If nothing else, I hope my family’s story forces those who would talk of Jews as a “privileged minority” or “to have exploited the Holocaust” to think again. Seven decades on, many of us are only beginning to unearth the full horrors that befell our families. The global population of Jews now stands at 14.5 million, two million short of the 16.6 million figure in 1939. In the grand scheme of things, we remain a community whose collective fate remains precarious. I would urge decent people everywhere to challenge those who say otherwise.

Jay Stoll is a senior parliamentary assistant to Tulip Siddiq MP.