I can easily trace the start of my interest in doing research into my family history. It started one evening in June 1999, when I had dinner with a group of international researchers at the end of an Experts’ Meeting on Self-Help at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. I sat near two German researchers and my colleague and friend, David Bar-gal. We talked about the heterogeneity of the Israeli society, being a country of immigrants. Then, one of the German researchers asked me where my family came from, and I said that my mother was born in Berlin and my grand-mother was from Mogilno in the Posen region. David, who is a social psychologist, remarked dryly that Kurt Lewin too, was born in Mogilno. I got goose bumps, as the maiden name of my grand-mother was… Lewin and being possibly related to that great social scientist was an exciting proposition.
This dinner and the conversation around it were the trigger that got me interested in the origins of my family. Until then I wasn’t really interested. I grew up in Israel at a time when people were busy stressing their Israeli identity. We looked down on those who came from “The Diaspora” with their funny accents and clothes. We thought (and were taught) that their form of life was passé as now we were building a new way of life for the Jewish people in its independent state, and the Diaspora values and form of conduct was basically irrelevant to the task at hand.
Kurt Zadek Lewin (September 9, 1890 – February 12, 1947) was a German-American psychologist, known as one of the modern pioneers of social, organizational, and applied psychology. Lewin is often recognized as the founder of social psychology. He was born in 1890, in a Jewish family in Moglino, Poland (then in County of Mogilono, province of Posen, Prussia). He served in the German army when World War I began. Due to a war wound, he returned to the University of Berlin to complete his Ph.D. Lewin immigrated to the United States in August 1933. He worked at Cornell University and the University of Iowa. Later, he became the director of the Center for Group Dynamics at MIT. While working at MIT he was asked to help find an effective way to combat religious and racial prejudices. He set up a workshop to conduct a ‘change’ experiment, which laid the foundations for what is now known as sensitivity training. In 1947, this led to the establishment of the National Training Laboratories, at Bethel, ME. Carl Rogers believed that sensitivity training is “perhaps the most significanct social invention of this century.” Following WWII Lewin was involved in the psychological rehabilitation of former occupants of displaced persons. He co-founded the Tavistock journal, Human Relations. Lewin taught for a time at Duke University. He died in Newtonville, MA of heart-attack in 1947 and was buried there.
But on a personal level, to disassociate oneself from the way of thinking and behavior of the past was not so easy in a family that came from Germany. The German immigrants brought to Israel not only professional know-how and skills, which turned out to be critical in building the societal, industrial, banking, legal and other professional infrastructures, but also cultural values and behavior patterns. In comparison to other immigrants – theirs clearly stood out. So, at home German was spoken, German literature was read, classical music was listened to on the radio and the meals consisted of Bratkartoffel, Kartoffelsalat, Kartoffelpuffer, Sauerkraut and Rotkohl rather than Hummus, Tahini and other spicier dishes. This dissonance between what we experienced at home and what the reality was outside obviously brought about inter-generational conflicts. When I grew up, this was not a unique situation for our family or for German immigrants – almost all children had immigrant parents then, so this type of incongruence was prevalent.
Still, it had different expressions in different families. I can only speak about my own. In many immigration countries parents speak the native language so that the children won’t understand what they say. We had quite the opposite situation – the parents spoke among themselves and to us in German so that we would understand and learn it, and they were disappointed when we answered back in Hebrew. Actually, growing up in my grand-parents’ home, I spoke no Hebrew until I went to Kindergarten at the age of 5. My Aunt Inge, who also lived in that small apartment in Haifa at the time, remembers that I corrected her German when she made grammar mistakes…
But while speaking, or at least understanding German was something we could not avoid if we wanted to communicate with the family members, when it came to hearing stories from “there”, I was not too interested. I remember family albums with pictures (in black and white) glued with special corner-stickers that my parents had and looked through from time to time. Naturally it contained pictures of their childhood in Germany, with other members of their extended family. The photographs of my mother with her parents and siblings (whom we knew), were of interest to me. Those of other members of the family, who I did not know, and, as I found out much much later, were (except one) already killed in the Holocaust by then, interested us much less. In Israel in the 1950’s and into the 1960’s, there was no open discussion as to what happened to individuals during the Nazi era. The discourse was about the collective – the six million who were killed. In this atmosphere, there was the difficulty of survivors to speak about what happened to them. Only later, starting in the 1970’s, did this attitude change and Israelis became more aware not only about “the murder of 6 million Jews” in general, but about the fate of specific individuals and families in Europe, their horrible experiences before they were killed and how and where they were killed. The Eichmann Trial (1961-62), the establishment of Yad Va’Shem, the Holocaust research and literature (Primo Levi, Elie Wiesel, The Diary of Anne Frank) as well as high-schools’ trips to Auschwitz brought about a change of perspective. As an Israeli I lived, of course, through this change of orientation towards the Holocaust, but at the time, made no conscious connection to the fate of our family and that we too, had lost relatives there and then. In hindsight, maybe I wanted to suppress such ideas. And I guess I was not alone in this, as I do not recall even one case when the fate of our relatives (siblings of my grand-parents and their families – uncles, aunts and cousins of my mother and her brothers and sisters) was discussed in a family gathering of any type. Only in August 1999, some two months after the dinner that triggered my interest in my family, did I have, to the best of my recollection, the first conversation with my mother about that subject. It was in reaction to my telling her about the “discovery” that we might have some common roots with a very important social scientist. She was 80 at the time; two years later she started to develop the first signs of Alzheimer’s disease, which caused her death in December 2007, so the conversation took place just in time. She called me and said she wants to fill the Pages of Testimony for her relatives killed by the Nazis, to be deposited at Yad Va’Shem, and asked me to help her with it, which I did. She had a list of these relatives and their places of death. The information on the list regarding their place of death was only partially accurate, as I later found out from official documents, but it proves the point that the family had information about their murdered relatives yet did not discuss it with us.
When David Bar-gal set me on the road to look for a possible connection to Kurt Lewin, I still did not envisage an encounter with the Holocaust. After all, Kurt Lewin was born in 1890 in Mogilno, and my grand-mother Emma Gottfeld (nee Lewin) was born in 1895, long before the Nazi period. If we are related, I thought, I need to look for data prior to that period, where I might find a common ancestor; so, it basically looked like a historical project of the 19th, possibly the 18th century. I first focused on Isidor Lewin, my great-grand-father, Grandma Emma’s father, who had a clothing shop in Mogilno – that much I knew. I was trying to look for his ancestors in the hope of finding connection to those of Kurt Lewin. I went to Mogilno in September 2000 and on the way stopped in Berlin where I visited Isidor’s and his wife Jenny’s grave in the Weissensee Jewish cemetery, where they are buried. In Mogilno, which is a small town in Poland, in the Posen (Poznan) region, with the help of a Polish guide, I looked for archival materials of vital statistics (births, marriages, deaths). These actually exist in adjacent larger towns such as Bydgoszcz (formerly Bromberg), Inowrclaw (Hohensalza) and Torun (Thorn). The Posen region used to be a part of the German Empire until the end of World War I, when it was transferred (back) to Poland. So, records in those archives from that period are in German, very often written in Gothic letters. I realized that this line of inquiry would take me months to complete and that I would need the help of experts. I also realized the chances of finding the links to Kurt Lewin were very slim. I did not have time and resources for that. Furthermore, from materials I read about Kurt Lewin’s ancestors, I realized that although we might have some common ancestors dating back to the beginning of the 19th century, his immediate family members (father Leopold, grand-father Zadek), who resided in Mogilno, were not immediately related to our Isidor Lewin. So, I concluded then, that the small town of Mogilno, with a Jewish population of about 150, there were two (unrelated) Lewin families. They may have been related by common ancestors (more on that later) but evidence for that will need proof.
At that juncture, when I came back from Poland in 2000, the link to Kurt Lewin lost its prime attraction and was no longer the base of my interest in the topic. My interest in the history of our family had its own value regardless of the possible connection to Kurt Lewin. It was not because our family possessed any special qualities – no rich people in the history, no famous rabbis or other great intellectual figures, no community leaders about which some families pride themselves. It interested me for the sole reason that it was my family.
Unlike the period of my youth, when we scorned off our parents’ past, the history of my immediate family now attracted my curiosity. My mother and her siblings were born in Berlin; so, rather than looking for materials to guide me to a common ancestry with Kurt Lewin, which I put on “hold”, I became interested in what happened to Isidor Lewin and his large family, how they ended up in Berlin and what happened to them there. In a parallel process I was obviously also interested in my grandfather Sally Gottfeld’s ancestry; he was born in Culmsee (Chelmza), a small town in the region of Posen.
I learned that the Posen region, which was in dispute between Germany and Poland for at least 400 years, changed hands several times during this period. When the Germans left the region as a result of the Versailles Agreement at the end of World War I and it became Polish again, most Jews left the region and went to Germany (mostly to Berlin and Dresden). This included my great-grand-father Isidor Lewin, his wife Jenny and their children, who came to Berlin in 1921; actually, his two older daughters, married by then, came to Berlin already during the war, before their parents.
Their move from Mogilno to Berlin, specifically to the Moabit neighborhood, where the extended family resided, helped me frame and focus my research on those two sites. It directed my attention to look into the two communities that were important in my mother’s family history. I was not only interested in community “frameworks” and “patterns” but in real people; I wanted to get an idea of how people who resided in those communities, including my family members, conducted their daily lives. This is when I discovered details about the tragic fate of six siblings of my Grandma Emma (Hermann, Paula, Rosa, Walter, Marie and Siegfried), as well as that of my Grandpa Sally’s brother Tobias and their families – altogether 23 persons – murdered by the Nazis between October 1941 and October 1944. This fact was never talked about in the many extended family gatherings during my youth and adult life.
Events that pertain to the Holocaust are well researched and I was able to obtain good data on how and when each of those family members was killed. This is important by itself, as those 23 relatives of mine – 7 men, 6 women, 5 boys and 5 girls had no other relatives except us; if we will not remember them, no one will. Those people, which I did not know – uncles, aunts and cousins of my mother, had a life before they were killed. They had professions and hobbies, they liked chocolate or ice-cream, the kids excelled in school or had lousy grades; in short – each of them had a face. I am sure that if one could have asked them (or for that matter, any other victim of the Holocaust) how he/she would want people to remember him or her, the answer would be by how they lived, not by the way they were killed. Thus, it was important for me to try to find out as much as I can about each of my family members’ life, not only about their death. Collecting materials with such a broad spectrum is an on-going task, as data of all sorts, are “hidden” in totally unexpected places. Unfortunately, most people who knew my relatives are no longer with us, and although some were still alive when I embarked on this task (see below), they were very young at the time and remember little.
Inge Deutschkron, 88, at her home with Ariela and her assistant Sven Dehn
So, whatever I gathered here can be and hopefully will be augmented and supplemented by anyone who is interested to embark on such work. The Internet is a great help; I cannot visualize my finding out one tenth of what I did without it. Possibly, in the future, other, more advanced technologies and methods will be devised to help in this line of research, so here is a task for the next generation(s).
Working on this project brought me in contact with some amazing individuals in most unexpected and unusual situations. Especially moving were the meeting of persons who actually met and were in contact with my murdered relatives. It felt like “touching” those through them. One of them was Inge Deutschkron, a Holocaust survivor from Berlin, who was Otto Weidt’s secretary in the Blindenwerkstatt during World War II – where Siegfried Lewin, the youngest brother of my Grandma Emma, who was blind, spent his last years before being deported to Auschwitz with his family in June 1943.
At the Otto Weidt Blindenwerkstatt with a picture of the workers
Inge, 88 years old at the time, a former journalist in Ma’ariv (an Israeli newspaper) wrote a book about her life in hiding in Berlin during the Nazi era. I saw her three times, interviewed her and continued my contacts with her.
Eveline Grasse (Haucke) and grand-children Katja Stettin and Matthias Bergmann
Another was Eveline Grasse (maiden name: Haucke), her grand-daughter Katja Stettin and her grand-son Matthias Bergmann. Eveline, 80 years old at the time, went to school with Ingeborg Silberberg [a cousin of my mother – Paula Silberberg’s (Lewin) daughter], and was her best friend. One day in 1938 Ingeborg disappeared (they were 8 years old) and she never heard from her again. Years later she found out what the Nazis did to the Jews, but hoped Ingeborg somehow survived. Her grand-children Katja and Matthias did a Google search and found my Family Tree website, where they learned about Ingeborg’s fate. Katja contacted me and I met the three of them in the neighborhood in Berlin where Eveline and Ingeborg spent their early childhood years.
Hinterhouse, Pistorius Street 141, where Ingeborg Silberbergs lived, with friend Eveline and her grand-children Katja and Matthias
We were shown the house where Ingeborg Silberberg lived, the school, the neighborhood library , etc. The way and circumstances that led me to meet those two ladies was most unusual and for a lack of a better word I will use the term “amazing”.
Clara Schuman (currently Primo Levi) School, where Eveline and Ingeborg studied
In the case of Inge Deutschkron and the Otto Weidt’s Blidenwerksttat, I had no idea that such an institution existed and that my relative worked in it. I was in Berlin for a conference in March 2008 and after a long day of lectures and debates, the evening before I flew home, I took a stroll along Unter den Linden, around Friedrichstrasse, where I saw a book store specializing in books on Berlin. I entered and looked around, when I saw a section devoted to the Jewish Community of Berlin, which naturally attracted me.
As I was browsing the books there, my eyes fell on a small grey museum catalogue with a picture on the cover; in it I recognized my mother’s uncle Siegfried (Sigi) in a group with other blind persons around Otto Weidt! It was too late for me to visit the museum on that trip, but before I got to Berlin in 2009, I wrote the museum, telling them who I was and that I was interested in visiting and finding out about Siegfried Lewin. The staff of the museum was happy to meet a relative of one of the people they displayed at the museum, and Kai Gruzdz, the researcher, arranged for me to meet Inge Deutschkron.
Pistorius St. Library building (currently used for other purposes), which the girls used
My meeting with Mrs. Grasse was significant in and of itself, but it had a special significance because of its timing. I received the mail message from her grand-daughter Katja (who found Ingeborg Silberberg’s name connected to my family tree website), just a few days before I was scheduled to go to Berlin for the last time at the end of my stay of 4 months in Heidelberg. She could have written to me 3 months before or 2 weeks later. The timing of her message was some kind of a sign to me that my meeting Mrs. Grasse had to happen.