by Mark Lehman
Writers note: In November the world remembers the anniversary of Kristallnacht or the Night of Broken Glass. By many historians this was considered the first public demonstration of Adolph Hitler’s plan to annihilate the Jewish population in Europe. This 2-part edition of The Shoebox Chronicles highlights my family’s recently discovered involvement in this fateful night of terror and the looming Holocaust to come.
I have always known my family history ran through World War II Germany, and some family members were deeply impacted by the Holocaust. The early origins of our family history during this horrific time was documented in a letter written by my great Aunt Gertrude from Heidelberg, Germany to American family members in Ohio. Part of this letter gave an update on her son Hetrick and his family who were living in Berlin at the time. It is my understanding the original letter is now part of a Holocaust archive in Ban Asolsen, Germany.
The historical significance of this letter is its date – November 13, 1938, only days after what would later be known as Kristallnacht (Crystal Night or the Night of Broken Glass). Actions on this date was one of the first public steps toward Adolph Hitler’s Final Solution. In her letter, Gertrude tells of Hetrick’s eyewitness account of the night of terror where Jewish-owned businesses, synagogues, and homes were rampaged by Hitler youth gangs. One heart-wrenching part of the letter described how Hetrick ran to the home of a friend in law enforcement to get help for a neighbor whose bakery was being devastated. Hetrick saw the officer inside his home, but he refused to even answer his door.
Prior to this incident, Hetrick, his wife Mariam, and their young daughter Davida lived a low-key life in Berlin where he and his wife were professors at a local college. Hetrick was an active member of the German Lutheran Church and a decorated World War I veteran. Miriam was Jewish. Days after Crystal Night, they left Berlin for what they hoped would be a safer environment in their hometown of Heidelberg, near the Swiss border.
At some point Miriam and Davida fled Germany and crossed into Switzerland to live on the swine farm of a very long-time loyal family friend. It was also no longer safe to be considered an ‘intellectual’ in Germany, so Hetrick left his teaching position at the University of Heidelberg and took a job working for the state-run railroad.
By all accounts, life was very challenging for Miriam and Davida in Switzerland. Hitler sympathizers were constantly threatening to expose their hiding place, and their benefactor endured blackmail to keep them safe. During this time Aunt Gertrude wrote a letter to her American family members, pleading for financial help for her daughter-in-law and granddaughter.
Gertrude’s letter was extremely risky because she was sending it from Nazi-controlled Germany to Americans, soliciting financial aid for Jews hiding in Switzerland. Hetrick smuggled the letter to Belgium, where he clandestinely placed it in the hands of a trusted sympathizer who was traveling on diplomatic credentials. The letter was eventually mailed from England.
The letter contained specific instructions on how to get money (cash) to the farmer shielding Miriam and Davida. Mail could be intercepted by the Nazis, adding stress to an already inflamed situation. Detailed directions followed about never mentioning the names of our relatives and to note the money was simply to be used to help his pig farm.
The direness of the situation resulted in a multitude of letters being written back and forth between family members living in Ohio, Iowa, and Texas about Aunt Gertrude’s pleas. In later years, a cousin started collecting old family mementos and writings that included many of these World War II letters.
Unfortunately, a well-intended, yet misguided relative from Texas persuaded my cousin to destroy all letters referencing financial aid for Miriam and Davida. Her rationale was the reference of aid for Jewish relatives fleeing the Holocaust guised as money for a ‘pig farm’ could be misconstrued as anti-semitic.
The only record in our family archive about the existence of these letters was contained in a saved letter my misguided relative wrote to her sister informing her she persuaded her niece to burn the letters. This letter did not make it clear if she was concerned about being viewed as anti-Semitic, or if she did not want people to know of our Jewish heritage. Unfortunately, this surviving letter did not offer me enough information that would allow me to go public with a story about my American family aiding relatives during the Holocaust.
This situation was rectified when I was recently introduced to a distant cousin, Gretchen, living in Ohio. In 1978, she spent a year living in Germany as an exchange student. During this time, she contacted the small remaining remnant of our German family. They ultimately put her in contact with the 84-year-old farmer living in Lucerne, Switzerland who had hidden Miriam and Davida.
This farmer confirmed the American cash which came regularly to his post office box from my family members was a total godsend during the war. He even mentioned several of our now departed relatives by name and he actually saved a couple of old envelopes as part of his stamp collection.
I am so grateful my cousin kept a detailed journal about her studies abroad which she has forwarded to me. It is this saved journal which allows me to make this post about a little-known part of my family history.
Mark Lehman recently retired from the Vice President of Governmental Affairs at the Texas REALTORS®. In this position, he is responsible for coordinating all legislative and political activities related to the Texas Real Estate Political Action Committee (TREPAC) and the 130,000 member association. Lehman’s primary focus is centered on legislation that directly affects the real estate industry and the rights of private-property owners in Texas.
Prior to joining the Texas Association of REALTORS®, Lehman served as campaign director for U.S. Sen. John Cornyn’s successful campaign for Texas attorney general. He has served as chief-of-staff for a Texas State Senator and worked for 3 U.S. Congressmen in Washington, D.C. He is a veteran of more than a dozen political campaigns and has been featured in the New York Times, Washington Post, Austin American-Statesman and the Dallas Morning News.