A dangerous, desperate journey

A granddaughter traces her family's flight from Nazi Germany; sidewalk plaques will honor Holocaust victims

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Stolpersteine. The German word means stumbling stones. The stolpersteine are small, handmade brass plaques commemorating victims of the Holocaust.

You see them in Europe, set in the sidewalk in front of the last freely chosen residence of a person who fell victim to the Nazis. There is one plaque for each person, and each begins with the words “Here lived … ” -- a small but graphic reminder of the lives that were lost or damaged.

Adolf Hitler’s Nazis murdered about six million European Jews in World War II. Among them were my grandparents, Fritz and Emmy Grunewald. When I learned of the stolpersteine, I knew I wanted to commission two of the memorials, one for each of them. The question was where.

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Detroit News journalist Charlotte Massey traces her grandparents' journey from Germany to Belgium to Auschwitz. Charlotte Massey

Their last address was in Uccle, a suburb of Brussells, Belgium. This is where they spent their final years, but they were Germans, first and foremost.

My late mother Margot Massey put it this way in a 1996 interview with the USC Shoah Foundation: “We were all long-rooted people in Germany, in the Rhineland and the Ruhr,” she said. “I identified totally with being German. And I think many Jews at that time did. They simply did not believe that Hitler was for real, and surely he’d go away as quickly as he had come. Well, that was our mistake.”

Gunter Demnig, the German artist who conceived the project, has placed about 52,000 stolpersteine in 19 European countries, from Norway to Italy and Spain. I met him on May 6 in Bielefeld, a city in the North Rhine Westphalia province of Germany. On this day — coincidentally the 70th anniversary of the Allied victory in World War II — he was embedding them in sidewalks in four locations, for 12 individuals.

Demnig, who is in his 60s and not Jewish, came up with the concept in 1993-94.

“The idea was to bring back the names in front of the houses where the victims had their last home,” he said.

“It’s quite different if there is a book reading six million Jews were murdered in Europe. I think it’s abstract,” Demnig said. If people see the names of the families in front of the houses where they lived, then they are reminded of what happened to those people, he said.

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A grand beginning in Duesseldorf

Time has its own geography. The house Fritz Grunewald had built in 1921 on Freytagstrasse in Duesseldorf, Germany, is large and stately. It has two stories and a roof with three gables. In the old photographs I have of it, the house has decorative cornices and a bay window topped with a semi-circular balcony. My mother was born there.

The house is still there, but the cornices are gone, and so is the balcony. There are six doorbells on the electric gate. It has been converted to what are probably very nice apartments.

My grandfather was born in 1892 in Wanne in the North Rhine-Westphalia region of Germany. In 1909 he went to work as an apprentice for Leopold Weisskopf, who ran a metal factory and was well-respected in the Jewish community of Wuppertal-Barmen. Fritz left in 1911 with a letter of recommendation and, presumably, the affections of Leopold and Ida Weisskopf’s eldest daughter Emmy, born in 1894.

He served Germany in World War I. Photos of him in uniform show a solemn young man with a direct gaze. He wears rimless glasses, a mustache and a high collar with brass buttons and epaulettes. My cousin Marcel thinks he was in the cavalry, but we don’t know when or where.

Fritz Grunewald and Emmy Weisskopf were married on April 25, 1919. Their daughter Lore was born in 1920, son Klaus in 1921, and Margot, my mother, came five years later in 1926.

The Grunewalds, like much of Duesseldorf’s Jewish community, were thoroughly assimilated into German society. The family celebrated Passover and Easter, Hanukah and Christmas. They usually had a Christmas tree. My mother remembered her parents as wealthy, with a nanny for the children.

Their comfortable life was only temporary.

Jews lose rights, livelihoods

Germany’s defeat in the first World War and the humiliating terms of its surrender, combined with the economic ravages of the Depression, helped fuel a toxic mix of nationalism and latent anti-Semitism. In 1932 Hitler’s National Socialist German Workers Party — the Nazis — won 37 percent of the seats in Germany’s Reichstag. After Hitler was handed the office of Chancellor in 1933, the Nazis began to turn Germany into a police state.

Fritz Grunewald’s fortunes had already started to change before the Nazis took power. The family had moved from the grand house on Freytagstrasse to a townhouse on Schumanstrasse in 1929. In 1931 they moved again, this time to a large apartment on the Brehmstrasse, near what was then the city zoo. They were still financially comfortable.

In 1930, the Duesseldorf address book listed Fritz Grunewald’s iron wholesale business on 66 Konigsallee, on what is now Duesseldorf’s most fashionable shopping street. By 1931, the same year he moved the family to the apartment on Brehmstrasse, someone else owned that business. In 1933, his business address was a rubber factory near the Rhine.

The Nazis instituted a countrywide boycott against Jewish retailers and businesses in April 1933. The Nuremberg Race Laws of 1935 codified Hitler’s persecution of the Jews, defining them as a race instead of a religion. Jews were stripped of their German citizenship and the right to vote.

Dr. Guy Stern of the Holocaust Memorial Center in Farmington Hills grew up in Hildesheim, a town in northern Germany. At the start of the Nazi regime, he remembers the separation of Jews and non-Jews as gradual. After the Nuremberg laws went into effect, it became more pronounced.

Non-Jews did not publicly talk to their Jewish neighbors anymore, he said. “Doctors were shorn of their patients, lawyers of their clients.”

My mother remembered the institutionalized anti-Semitism. “There were racial studies in Germany where they taught the purity of the Germanic race,” she said. “Jews had to have their photographs taken showing the left ear, because it was said if your earlobe was contiguous with your chin line, that meant you were Jewish. … And then of course the curly black hair, the hooked nose, the thick lips …”

My mother had straight blond hair and blue eyes. Ultimately, her blond hair helped save her life.

Violence breaks out; family flees

In 1936 Fritz Grunewald was notified that he was under threat of being picked up by the Gestapo.

”So he just picked up and left,” my mother said. “The household was in fact dissolved at that time.”

Klaus, 15, went to study art in Amsterdam, and Lore, 16, studied childcare and nursing in Berlin. My mother, age 10, was put in the care of her widowed maternal grandmother, Ida Weisskopf, in Wuppertal. Emmy traveled between her husband and children.

On Nov. 7, 1938, a young Polish Jew named Herschel Grynszpan, upset over the deportation of his parents, shot and killed a German attaché in Paris.

Two days later, organized anti-Jewish riots broke out across Germany in what became known as Kristallnacht, or the night of broken glass.

My mother, her cousin, their grandmother and their Jewish housekeeper spent three days in jail during and after Kristallnacht.

“My grandmother was a well-known figure in the town, and she was well-liked, and we were being protected,” she recalled. “I think there were many cases of protective custody where it was found out later that the houses had been ransacked. In our case that was not so. In my memory, the house was all right. But shortly afterwards, it had to be put up for sale, because Jews were not allowed to have property.”

In Duesseldorf, the old synagogue on Kasernenstrasse, was destroyed by fire. According to the book “Stumbling Stones” published by the Duesseldorf Memorial Centre, “Hundreds of Jewish homes in Duesseldorf and the surrounding area were damaged, over 70 people were injured and 15 were murdered.” Nationally, approximately 7,500 Jewish-owned businesses, homes and schools in Germany were plundered and 91 Jews murdered.

Mother goes back for daughter

In the late 1930s, Fritz Grunewald circled Germany, trying to establish himself in a neighboring country. His passport shows stamps from Belgium, Yugoslavia, the Netherlands and France. He eventually settled in Belgium, and was issued a Belgian work permit in 1939.

During that time, the family had been in touch mostly by mail. Lore left Berlin and joined her parents in Belgium. Klaus was still in Amsterdam. Then Emmy Grunewald found she couldn’t get her mother and daughter out of Germany.

“We couldn’t get visas anymore, you couldn’t get passports. You had to give up all your money and you weren’t allowed to leave,” my mother said.

Emmy Grunewald returned to Germany one final time, and decided that the only way for her 12-year-old daughter to join the family was to leave the country illegally.

They left on April 19, 1939, as preparations were under way for the celebrations of Hitler’s birthday. Mother and daughter bid farewell to Ida Weisskopf. They took a train to a town near the border, stopped for a meal at the home of sympathetic farmers, and set out on foot for Belgium.

“We walked across fields, which were frosty, towards the border. There were two or three men who were with us, and we were told not to talk, not to make any noise,” my mother said. “At one stage, I remember we were caught in a searchlight, just like as though it impaled us. And we just froze ... thinking oh God, here we go. Then it wavered a little. We were safe.”

After a rest at another farmhouse on the Belgian side, mother and daughter took a train to Brussels the next morning

“And my first reaction was, ‘Where are the flags?’” Margot recalled. “And my mother said, ‘What flags?’ And I said, ‘But it’s Hitler’s birthday.’ And she said, ‘They don’t celebrate Hitler’s birthday in Belgium.’”

Heartache; war comes to Belgium

My great-grandmother was trapped in Germany. After Emmy and Margot left for Belgium, she went to live with her sister and brother-in-law in Hamburg.

“The Germans would not agree to let her go, and the Belgians would not provide her with a visa,” my mother said. “She despaired.”

Excerpts from Emmy’s letters from Brussels to her sister Lotte in Australia describe the situation as the world teetered on the brink of war.

Aug. 24, 1939

“My dear ones, the weather is unbearably hot! That damn Hitler has the power to make the whole world fight for breath. … I really would like so much to have Mother here with us. It is unbearable to think of the possibility we won’t be able to be reunited, absolutely terrifying.”

Fritz Grunewald added a note to his wife’s letter. “Business is totally dead because of the danger of war. It is expected to break out any day now, what happens then, God only knows.”

Aug. 26, 1939

“We are sitting, in the truest sense of the word, on top of a powder keg. For me the heaviest thought of all to bear is our beloved Mother. Friday Fritz and I talked to a lawyer. But since none of us is yet here legally, it is … impossible for the moment to request a residence permit for her.”

Sept. 3, 1939

“My dear Lotte, this terrible war could not be avoided after all, it was declared today by England and France. … The failure to obtain permission for our Mother’s emigration, should she live to see it some day, is such an abysmal disappointment that I hardly know if she can survive it. “

Sept. 9, 1939

“Our beloved Mother has been feeling really wretched the last few weeks. …When I called Hamburg ten days ago Mother could hardly hear me on the telephone, and she asked me, like a cry for help: is my permit being worked on? Uncle Leopold and Aunt Emma wrote that Mother is suffering a total emotional collapse. … I wonder seriously if I should go to her. But a re-entry to this country would then be utterly hopeless, and I would ruin everything not only for my family and myself, but also for Mother.”

Sept. 13, 1939

“I got the news from Hamburg that our beloved Mother embarked upon her eternal sleep this morning at 8:35. … Do you realize, dear Lotte, that today is Erev Rashhashana (Rosh Hashana)? It must be a devout woman who died on this day.”

The first year the Grunewalds were together in Brussels, they lived in rented rooms as Fritz tried to establish himself. Eventually business improved, and they were able to get some of their furniture sent from Germany, and moved into an apartment on Rue Auguste Danse in Uccle, a prosperous suburb. Klaus rejoined the family. My mother, who quickly picked up French, started high school.

The family had escaped Germany, but they didn’t escape its reach. On May 10, 1940, Germany invaded Belgium.

Family goes into hiding

“My room was on the fourth floor, facing east,” my mother said. “Very early on the morning … I heard somebody crying down in the garden. I looked out the window, and it was my mother crying in my father’s arms. I saw the sun rising, and out of the sun came these little mosquito-like things, with little puffs of white cloud surrounding them. And in fact it was Germany invading Belgium. It looked so pretty, and so harmless and innocent, this pretty picture of these things swarming out of the rising sun. And of course I didn’t realize what it meant. My mother did.”

The first anti-Jewish measures in occupied Belgium came in October 1940, when Jews were ordered to register according to Nazi racial standards, and begin carrying identity cards prominently stamped “Jew.” They were soon excluded from public services, public schools and the media.

By mid-1942, Jewish property was completely “Aryanized,” or expropriated. Jews were ordered to start wearing the Star of David on June 6, 1942. The first deportations to Auschwitz, masked as labor deployments, began soon after.

 Graphic

Unknown to the Jews in Belgium and other occupied countries, the Nazi leadership had ordered the “final solution” — the complete extermination of Europe’s Jews — in the summer of 1941. The Germans began planning the annihilation of the Jews by gassing, and started the construction of the death camps, all in occupied Eastern Europe, far beyond the reach of Western eyes.

Incredible stories of what was waiting for the deportees in Auschwitz began to filter back from the east.

“In 1942, all of us started to go into hiding,” my mother said.

At her parents’ home she met Eugene Cougnet, the director of the school in the Belgian Ardennes where she would take refuge in 1942 and ’43, and left with him the same day.

My mother was given false papers. She became one of Europe’s “hidden children,” Jews whose only chance at survival was to pass as a gentile. Her brother and sister were at the school, too — her sister as the school nurse and her brother as the art teacher, also under assumed identities.

Cougnet sheltered many Jews. He had links to the local resistance group, the Belgian Secret Army, and hid arms at the school, which was in an old castle. Besides Jews, Cougnet gave refuge to refractaires — young people evading the forced labor draft to Germany — resistance members, and escaped prisoners. He died in deportation in 1944 and is honored by Yad Vashem in Israel as one of the Righteous Among the Nations — gentiles who risked their lives to save Jews from the Holocaust.

Blond hair saves student

Fritz and Emmy Grunewald had done everything in their power to protect their family. Now, helped by sympathetic acquaintances, they moved to an apartment behind a factory in Brussels, also under assumed names.

Then in 1943, their luck ran out. After their arrest in July, they were sent to the transit camp in Mechelen, Belgium, and then on to Auschwitz in Poland.

In October 1943, the Germans raided my mother’s school. Tipped off that there were Jews as well as refractaires and resistance members there, they separated the residents. The men and boys were taken aside and made to pull down their pants. If they were circumcised, they were put on the Jewish side. The women were separated into those who “looked Jewish” and those who did not.

My mother, with her blond hair, was put on the non-Jewish side. Her brother and sister were taken to Mechelen, but were not deported. Klaus and Lore both survived the war, and lived in Brussels afterward.

My mother spent the end of the war in the Belgian countryside, living under a false identity with a couple who were resistance sympathizers. From their house in the village of Marche-en-Famenne, in the Ardennes near the French border, she watched the German army in retreat.

“We saw the Germans march through the streets — not marching, they were dragging … their feet wrapped in rags and newspapers, and pushing bicycles,” she said. “We sort of hid behind shutters because sometimes they would take potshots. But they left, in a very bedraggled state. And then the great joy of the Americans coming. Chewing gum, chocolate, rides on tanks! It was joyous.”

After liberation she found her brother and sister, and in 1946 she joined her aunt Lotte in Australia, where she would meet my father. They moved to England, where they had three children. In 1963, we emigrated to the United States.

Deported to Auschwitz

Kazerne Dossin, the old military barracks in Mechelen, was built in the 18th century, when Belgium was part of the Hapsburg Empire. It is now a museum and documentation center commemorating the more than 25,000 Jews and Gypsies who passed through on their way to a destination whose horrors redrew the boundaries of imagination.

“In 1942 it became a transit camp for Jews to Auschwitz,” explained Janiv Stamberger, a researcher at the center. Mechelen was strategically located between Brussels and Antwerp, Belgium’s two largest cities.

It had the added convenience of being on a railroad crossing. Jews were registered and held at the barracks until about 1,500 were gathered, and then loaded into a transport and shipped east.

Emmy and Fritz Grunewald arrived at Kazerne Dossin on July 27, 1943. They are listed as numbers 1545 and 1546 on the 21st transport from Mechelen, which left for Auschwitz on July 31, 1943. It arrived there on Aug. 2. According to the Auschwitz Chronicles, compiled by Danuta Czech, 1,553 Jews from Mechelen/Malines were on that transport. After selection, 255 men and 211 women were given numbers and admitted to the camp. The other 1,087 people were killed in the gas chambers.

Dr. Laurence Schram, the chief researcher at Kazerne Dossin’s documentation center, emailed me what I must take as the final word on my grandparents’ fate.

“I found neither a tattoo number nor a death certificate on their name,” she wrote. “A lot of those documents were destroyed by the Nazis when they left Auschwitz-Birkenau on January 15-18, 1945. Fritz Grunewald and Emmy Weisskopf disappeared without leaving any trace. They did not survive the deportation, but the circumstances, the moment and the place of their death are not known.”

Learning from history

One of the most striking features about the museum at Kazerne Dossin is a giant wall of photos of the victims. Stamberger explained that the Belgian Foreign Police kept files on all immigrants, and that each file contained a photograph. Of the more than 25,000 people who passed through there, they have close to 20,000 photos. When you enter the museum, there is a screen to key in the name of the deportee, where they are on the wall, and what happened to them.

The vast majority of portraits are in black and white. This means they died in Auschwitz. A few photos are in color. They denote the survivors.

I located my grandparents on the wall, near the end — they were in one of the later transports. Fritz looks as solemn as he did in his military photo, just older and chubbier. Emmy looks tired and elegant. Fritz was 51, Emmy 48. Their portraits are in black-and-white. They didn’t stand a chance in the brutal selection of who lived and who died.

Education is a key mission of Kazerne Dossin now. “A lot of schools come to visit our center,” said Stamberger. ”They learn about the value of democracy, and how a state can be complicit in genocidal acts, and how, as an individual, you have always an area of choice.”

I asked him what governs a person’s choice. “If you are taught from a young age that some human beings have lesser value than another, then your moral compass is totally different,” he said. “So if you live in a society where values of democracy and liberty and freedom are prevalent, then you will make different choices than if you grow up in a society where other values — racial theories, social Darwinism — are common ground.”

The history of the Holocaust is now a mandatory part of public education in Germany. Andrea Moellering, 24, is a German native who recently completed a one-year internship at the Holocaust Memorial Center in Farmington Hills. She is a volunteer with Action Reconciliation Service for Peace, a group formed in the 1950s by German Protestants who believed that the country needed to acknowledge guilt for crimes perpetrated by the Nazis.

“Every person who has been born in Germany should always be aware of the history,” she said. “You cannot cherry-pick out the good stuff. You need to be aware of the not-so-nice part.”

Guy Stern, who served in the U.S. Army in Europe during World War II, working in intelligence and interrogations, has visited his native country on lecture tours many times in the postwar years.

“Fine people in Germany, not Jewish, have advocated keeping alive the memory of what was,” he said. “They encourage memorials, the stolpersteine and other ways of trying to recollect.”

Some do not. “I can understand that on a personal level,” Stern said. “If we are confronted by something shameful in our past, we hate to be confronted with it on a steady basis. But as a nation, Germany must not forget. And certainly there are parallel situations. For example, we as a nation must never forget the atrocity imposed on the Africans that were imported here as slaves, deprived of all their human dignity. … As a nation, we must stand up for all of our history.”

Bringing back the names

In Duesseldorf, the memorial center for victims of the Nazis is part of the municipal government. They help sponsors of the stolpersteine through the process of municipal permissions and permits. I placed the request for my grandparents’ memorials with them. Due to the huge interest in the project, there is a wait for up to a year and a half between the time the commission goes through and when the stones, which cost 120 euros each (approximately $134), are placed.

My grandparents’ stolpersteine are not going in front of the grand old house they built on Freytagstrasse, but by the apartment house on Brehmstrasse. This was their last freely chosen home in Germany, the country of their birth. It is next to a tram stop on a busy street, and I hope many people will stumble across their stumbling stones. I hope they will wonder about the story of Fritz and Emmy Grunewald, who once lived there, fled the country in 1936 and were murdered in Auschwitz in 1943.

More on the stolpersteine project

Some 52,000 stumbling stones have been installed so far in Germany and 17 other European countries. For more information on sponsoring ‘stolpersteine’ to honor victims of the Nazis, go to http://www.stolpersteine.eu/en/home/

Acknowledgement: The USC Shoah Foundation generously granted permission for the use of quotes from its 1996 video interview of Margot Massey. For more information: http://sfi.usc.edu/.

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