The Only One We’ve Got


Thilde Stein, 1882-1942

by Suzanne Ruta

In 1914, my husband’s uncle Gustav Kirstein bought a lovely painting from the German impressionist master, Max Liebermann – a cheerful summer scene, clearly influenced by Renoir, of rowboats on Hamburg’s Alster River. In 1943 the Nazis stole the painting, along with the rest of Kirstein’s estate. Most of his art collection is still missing, but the Liebermann painting was returned to the heirs late last year and sold at auction two months ago, at Sotheby’s London, on February 5th.

Looted art, Raubkunst fascinates some buyers. Sothebys’ lavish catalog ran a full page photograph of a grim faced uncle Gustav ca. 1930, complete with monocle and high starched collar. That photo didn’t do justice to this sweet, lovable man, a playful inventive wit, a gifted cultural diplomat, who from 1900 to 1933, persuaded museum directors throughout Europe (Louvre, Prado, Dresden’s Zwinger) to entrust their masterpieces to him, producing the thousands of affordable, state of the art reproductions that were the stock in trade of his Leipzig publishing house, the venerable Seemann Verlag. Expelled by his Nazi partner from the print/text side of the business in spring of 1933, uncle Gustav died of a broken heart in early 1934.

His wife Clare stands beside him in the Sotheby’s photo – a tall, elegant woman with a melancholy face. On his death she took charge of the family, arranging funerals – there was a rash of deaths among the older generation in 1934 and 1935 – and financing emigration to the US for daughters and nephews, my husband among them. Passionately loyal to her husband’s memory, she ran the business he created until November 1938, when the Nazis locked her out for good, and she plunged into a six month ordeal of Jewish taxes, emigration taxes, export permits (for paintings, furniture and all the rest) passport applications and a terrifyingly elusive visa search. Late June 1939, about to leave for the UK with one small suitcase, she was visited by the Gestapo, who kept lists of rich prospects. They seized her passport pending payment of yet another Jewish tax. That night she killed herself.

I never met aunt Clare, but I knew her younger sister Else well. I’m married to her son.

If Clare – wed at 18 to the brilliant Kirstein – was the family beauty, Else was the brains, one of the first women admitted to the doctoral program at the University of Leipzig in 1912. On her first day of classes, she met the man she would marry a few years later. Walter Franke was a penniless poet and troubadour who spoke fluent Provençal and played the lute and to whom – after he was wounded on the Belgian front in late 1914 – nothing was sacred, least of all the fatherland. Alarmed by the first Hitler putsch, in 1923, he moved his family to Italy for good. In late fall 1943, with the German occupation of Italy, the couple fled across the border into Switzerland, with the German military police in pursuit. When they left town in haste, their kind Italian neighbors hid their household effects in a chicken coop, under bales of straw, for the duration.

It was Else’s fate to outlive her sisters by over forty years. On her 90th birthday she visited the German consulate in Basel, where she had lived since 1944, to give physical evidence of her continued right to a small monthly pension from the German Federal Republic, as the widow of a man whose career the Nazis had destroyed.

“What? You’re ninety?” the young consular official marveled.

“I’m just hanging on to make you pay,” she quipped. She was sharp as a tack nearly right to the end. When she died at 92 in 1985, I inherited not only the sound of her voice telling and retelling stories, jokes and tragic episodes, but her archive of letters, photographs and official documents that had survived the war in an Italian chicken coop.

And in the archive, I have searched for Thilde. If among the daughters of Samuel Stein, Leipzig merchant and his lovely, frail wife Emilie née Gugenheim, Clare was the beauty, and Else the brains, what was Thilde? I’m afraid we may never know. Thilde Stein, “die könnte als schwachsinnige bezeichnet werden,” Thilde Stein who could be described as feebleminded, in the delicate parlance of a family lawyer, tying up loose ends in summer 1939. Really? Else never called her that. I almost wish she had. Then I could have challenged her and asked, feeble, in what way?

Thilde (1882-1942) was born lame, of that there was no doubt, and remained lame all her life, a dislocated hip that couldn’t be corrected in the current state of medical knowledge, but as for the mental deficiency? Did the doctors botch the delivery of this first-born child of a delicate young bride? Did her mother’s death from cervical cancer at thirty-two, so mark young Thilde that, then and there, she stopped growing? Else’s grandchildren, my kids, used to marvel at her feet, her toes all crowded and overlapping one another, because after her mother died (she was not quite two at the time) there was – for many years – no one in the house to check if her shoes fit. Perhaps Thilde suffered, in the same way, in her head. Perhaps if her mother had lived and trained a loving eye on her, she would have blossomed. Sorry, I keep trying to rewrite her life from start to finish, as if to forestall the worst.

So Thilde lived from birth until her dignified businessman father’s death, in his gloomy apartment on Funkenburgstrasse in Leipzig, a benignly tolerated maiden aunt, a kind of afterthought. Her father’s letters to his children replicate the household hierarchy. They were penned in thick black ink, in an often-impenetrable Gothic cursive. He attacks the page with confidence and determination while Thilde, if she’s lucky, gets to scrawl a line or two of greeting in the margin in faint, wavery pencil. Her German is correct, she gets the cases and the tenses right. Was that really all she had to say? Or did her father take up all the air in the room?

When the loving patriarch who bestowed the top of his soft-boiled egg on his daughters, but reserved the yolk for himself died in 1935, Thilde was left homeless. What was to become of the one Clare, in a late letter, called “unseraller Sorgenkind”? Our problem child. Our child of woe.

Else and her husband begged Clare to send Thilde to them, in their Italian riviera village, where the police chief, a genial Sicilian, protected them from harm. True, Walther’s mild comic novels were beginning to be banned in German speaking lands (not their content, but the fact of his marriage to a “non-Aryan” wife, earned him expulsion from the German writers guild). The couple lived on the edge, one day pasta, next day potatoes, but there was always enough to go around. The sea air would do Thilde good. At fifty, she would discover the Mediterranean.

Clare refused the generous but crazy invitation. And in the end you could say, she was proved right. How could Else and Walther have fled to Switzerland in ‘43, with poor slow moving Thilde in tow? Their stories and destinies remained separate. Practical minded Clare sent Thilde instead to a women’s shelter run by an observant Jewish family clear across the country, in Idstein, outside Frankfurt. And there Thilde remained, cocooned from outside horrors but desperately lonely for her sisters, till late 1939 when the shelter was disbanded, as its directors prepared to emigrate. Just in time: a year later Idstein’s Kalmenhof home for disabled children would kill its charges by injection, drugs or neglect, as part of the Nazi euthanasia program.

In her last years Thilde depended on the kindness of strangers, a kindness of sometimes astonishing depth and eloquence. The motherly nurse in Idstein has clearly taken Thilde to heart. She apologizes for having only bad news to report. Physically Thilde makes a childish impression. She is effusive by nature (we might say manic, today) but bearably so. She has lost the sight in her left eye and her right optic nerve may be atrophying as well. She is prone to hallucinations – visual or auditory, it’s not clear. She “telephones” friends and her late sister often and takes great pleasure in these “calls.” She has not been informed of her sister’s death, and must not learn of it because, with her excitable nature, the emotional upheaval might drive her to suicide. Her wardrobe is in tatters. The nurse has pleaded repeatedly with the executor of Clare’s estate for a few items: a sweater, a nightgown and an undershirt. There has been no reply. Who will dress her in future?

“I’m sending her to decent people. But I’m really worried for her!”

These wartime letters, subject to censorship, are full of omissions and circumlocutions. The nurse does not provide Else with her sister’s new address. For that she has to write to Clare’s lawyer and executor, Richard Israel Marcuse (Israel the obligatory middle name of all Jewish men by that time). His title was not lawyer but Konsulent (adviser) and his practice was restricted to Jewish clients only. And he could not do much for them. By the time the Reich seized the Kirstein estate in 1943 he had been deported to Theresienstadt concentration camp, where he died in 1944. But while he lived on borrowed time this decent, courageous man served Clare’s wishes conscientiously. She had left a small bank account for Thilde. He obtained a power of attorney in her name, and permission to write a single check each month, to pay her room and board at the new address. The archive contains nasty heckling letters from official sources, warning this faithful servant not to exceed his powers in any way.

Thilde’s new caretakers were an elderly couple, Adolph and Toni Levite, who kept house for six people in a Jewish apartment on Schwanenstrasse in Frankfurt. They offered Else a rosy picture of her sister’s life in 1941. Thilde kept a regular schedule: breakfast, newspaper, lunch, liedown, coffee klatsch, dinner, then bed. They mention that Thilde becomes agitated at times, wanting to go see her sister Clare. They remind her that Clare has emigrated to the US and is unable to write from there. This explanation calms her. They too warn Else to spare Thilde the awful truth.

Italy and Germany are allies. Long rambling letters from Frankfurt to Chiavari take less than two weeks to arrive. In June 1942 the Levites (they will be deported to Theresienstadt later that year and from there to Auschwitz in 1944) write one last time, a terse and mysterious postcard. Thilde celebrated her 60th birthday in March, but on May 22, she “left us. From what we hear she went to Piaski.”

Where in the world is Piaski? Else can’t find it on any map. Alarmed, she appeals again to Marcuse, who has no forwarding addressing. He cites a brief official notice received from Frankfurt in mid-June. It reads as follows:

Eldest daughter of
Samuel Stein and Emilie Gugenheim
Mathilde Stein
Born 23 March 1882
Was, according to notification from the authorities,
From her current residence
In Frankfurt am Main
c/o Levite
Schwanenstrasse 20
On 22 May 1942
To Piaski, south of Lublin,
Offiical notice 12 June 1942

Else writes her younger brother (child of her father’s late second marriage) in New York.  “Thilde had to leave home. What that means, in her condition, is unthinkable. The best we can hope for her would be a painless death. I am afraid we will never hear from her again.”

Historians versed in Nazi timetables, have concluded that the train Thilde and 970 others boarded in late May 1942, a third class passenger train with wooden seats, was bound for Izbica, a Polish shtetel, a sort of transit ghetto, near Lublin, its native population slaughtered and replaced with Jews from the Reich. It lay a short distance by train from the death traps of Belzec and Sobibor. (You can’t call them camps, no one spent the night there, Timothy Snyder insists in his grim study Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin.) The passengers on that train from Frankfurt had their baggage confiscated in Lublin. They arrived empty handed in the Izbica ghetto where they died, 20 or 30 of them a week, of hunger, typhus, or the casual violence of their warders. Those still living in October 1942 were loaded into cattle cars and shipped to Belzec and gassed there the same day, except for the oldest victims, who were shot dead. That is the official version as of now.

But memories conflict. Charlotte Opfermann was born in Germany in 1925. Her father was the secular leader of the Wiesbaden Jewish community when he and his wife and children were deported to Theresienstadt in 1943. Late in life, living in Texas, Opfermann discovered a vocation as a holocaust educator, bringing the news of her stolen childhood to a new generation in Germany and the United States. I met her through an internet forum in 1999. A fine, generous, angry woman, she wanted desperately to be of help and consolation. She recalled accompanying elderly members of the Wiesbaden Jewish community to that late May 1942 train. Young Rabbi Hanff of Wiesbaden and his wife were on the train and would have brought comfort to the other passengers, she reassured me. She was sure the train went to Piaski, another transit ghetto closer to Lublin. She remembered sending packages (cunningly disguised, a single stocking in an envelope, a second stocking in another) for several months and receiving postcards in return. Then the postcards stopped coming. She and the specialist in train schedules clashed online – his research against her memories.

“Izbica or Piaski?” the historian finally wrote to me. “The choice is yours.”

If Thilde was on that eastbound train, did she dream she was returning to Leipzig and her sister Clare’s house? Or did she know more than one wants to give her credit for? The archive contains only one complete letter of hers – from Schwanenstrasse to Italy in 1941. In spidery pencil on a torn half sheet of paper (wartime shortages?), she tells Else, “How I would love to see you all again. But that’s probably an idle dream.” “Ein holder Traum.” Her hallucinations alternated, apparently, with moments of lucidity.

Which moments, where?

From the shelter of a chilly Frankfurt apartment (“I sit by the radiator all day in good company” she reports in the same letter) to the heart of Operation Reinhard – 1.7 million Jews murdered, mostly by carbon monoxide gas, at Belzec, Sobibor and Treblinka between December 1941 and November 1943, doesn’t bear thinking about. But what if she never made it onto the train at all? She moved with irritating slowness. Even my husband lost patience with her, visiting Leipzig from Italy as a boy of thirteen. He still feels guilty about it. The Gestapo had no such compunctions.

The truth is, we don’t know where or how or when Thilde died. The record keeping around Operation Reinhard was shoddy. Souls were superfluous.

Money, on the other hand, was carefully tracked. On June 19, 1942, the Head Revenue Office in Berlin sent a form letter to the Commerzbank in Leipzig, citing a Gestapo list of evacuated Jews (evacuated sounds so much more hopeful and human than deported; those revenue office officials are delicate natures) as entitling the Reich to take over the remainder of her bank account (perhaps a thousand dollars at that point.)

A copy of this chilling document was obtained from the Wiesbaden Revenue Office in 2009 by a cousin with a sense of humor, seeking restitution of Thilde’s stolen bank account. She was politely informed in a cover letter that the deadline for such claims against the German Federal Republic elapsed in 1969.

But all is not lost and forgotten. Ten years ago valiant Charlotte Opfermann told me about the wall of the old Jewish cemetery in Frankfurt, where the names of the 12,000 Jews murdered in and deported from Frankfurt between 1933 and 1945, are recorded, each on its own small stainless steel plaque set into the wall. Names, birth dates and death dates where known, are presented in relief, as if on a printer’s plates. Thus individuals have their place of remembrance while the long rows suggest the enormity of the deed. Charlotte offered, years ago, to check the wall for Thilde’s name but never got around to it. Lately I wrote her friends at the Fritz Bauer Institute in Frankfurt for help, an admirable group of holocaust historians and educators.

A reply came at once from the Frankfurt Jewish museum. Mathilde Stein b. March 22, 1882 has her own tablet in the memory wall. (Not a monument, mind you, we’re not scolding here, we’re remembering.) The museum is gathering biographies for a database, and asked if our family wouldn’t like to contribute something about Thilde, with perhaps a photo of her to complete the picture, since they had no knowledge of her beyond her name and date of birth.

Here then, above, is what we know, and here she is, below, photographed by her sister Else in their father’s house in 1915, a sweet mild faced woman just entering her thirties. “She is extraordinarily good natured,” the Idstein nurse wrote of Thilde. Can you tell it from this photo? I hope so. It’s the only one we’ve got.

About the Author:

Suzanne Ruta is an author and translator. Her latest novel To Algeria, with Love (Virago, 2011), was published in Italy by Einaudi under the title La Repubblica di Wally.