On This Day of Remembrance
72 years ago, soldiers from our once-ally Russia liberated the concentration camp Auschwitz. On this day Jews everywhere celebrate our survival as a people from the horrors that were the Holocaust.
While I never grew up particularly Jewish (I was never bar mitzvah’d, never went to synagogue or temple) I’ve started to identify more and more as a Jew the older I’ve gotten. It’s even funnier when you get into the details and consider the fact that I’m technically only half-Jewish — my lovely mother was raised Christian-Scientist. Regardless of how or why it happened, I have to thank my grandfather. The only problem is…
I never knew my grandfather.
I never even met him, even as a baby.
Kurt Schieren was born on May 22nd, 1915, in Neuss, Germany. Of course, Germany was already in the middle of The Great War, and Kurt’s father did what, I assume, most German-born men did; he fought for the empire. While I don’t know if Kurt ever met his father, I can only assume that they never had the pleasure of knowing each other. Kurt’s father died in the trenches from tuberculosis in 1918.
Twenty years later, as Europe was once again changing for the worse, Kurt, his mother Julie (who’d remarried to a lovely man named Max Salm), his brother Heinz and sister Resie traveled to the United States of America, ending up in the City of Brother Love. For reasons currently unkown, Max and Julie returned to Germany in the late 30s. It’s hard to know why they went back. Perhaps like most who’d fled the growing prejudices, they went back to try to rescue more of their family. I don’t know why they went back, but I wanted to know. At this point, I called my Aunt.
I knew my Aunt Barbara had retained a lot of the family history, documents, and other things from when my grandma passed away, so I asked her what she knew. She told me she’d send me a package.
What I received was more eye-opening than I had expected.
Max and Julie Salm were deported to Theresienstadt on July 24th, 1942.
At this point, I should mention, I knew how this ended. However, like the Jewish people, our end is not the summation of ourselves. I still wanted to know more.
Less than a year after being deported to Theresienstadt, Max died. Just shy of a month from his 76th birthday.
In October of 1944, as the war was nearing its end for Germany, Julie was shipped to Auschwitz. We’re not sure exactly when it happened, but she died there. 325 miles from Max, thousands from her children, and seemingly alone…
However, she was not alone.
Julie made friends with another prisoner, Erika Weiss. Erika would survive the atrocities of Auschwitz, and in Julie’s final hours, Erika would make her a promise.
She would find Julie’s children and tell them what happened to their mother.
After the war, Erika settled in Prague with limited knowledge of Julie’s children and their lives in Philadelphia. Armed with only stories, she was tasked with figuring out how to narrow the almost 4,200 miles between them.
Around this time she received some soap.
More specifically, she received soap from some friends in the U.S. from a Fels & Co. Soap Company, 73rd Woodland Ave. Philadelphia, PA.
Suddenly, 4,200 miles didn’t seem like such a vast distance at all.
After receiving Erika’s note, Fels reached out to the National Council of Jewish Women, which was able to track down Heinz, now known as Henry.
Once the connection had been made, Henry took to thanking Fels for the closure; Resie (who’d married since arriving in America) and her new family reached back out via the council of Jewish Communities, and were able to receive further closure:
Kurt was never the same. After arriving in America, at some point he moved to Chicago, enlisting in the U.S. Army in 1941. His serial number was 36006531. He fought in North Africa, as part of the Calvary, at some point losing part of his pinky-finger in the latch of a tank. As the war was ending he was promoted to an officer, specializing in intelligence because he could speak German. I’m sure he tried, but he was never able to locate his parents. He was never able to achieve closure.
Roughly 10 years later, Resie’s husband, Herman, was contacted by the wife of a British solider. The soldier had received letters from a maid, who lived in the home of a family with the last name of Rath, in St. Tonis (now known as Tönisvorst), where Max and Julie had stayed until they were captured and deported to Theresienstadt. The letters were Max and Julie’s final communications to their children.
From those who knew my grandfather, many of them say that he was a complicated man. After the war, he married Jacqueline Schwartz and had two children, Barbara Jo and Lawrence Dean Schieren. I know that he worked in the garment industry for Hart Schaffner Marx almost all of his post-war life. My dad would tell me that he’d sometimes fly to New York in the morning only to be back in Chicago by dinner. He was also said to be a hard man — someone who didn’t tolerate mistakes. By many measures he was also a success; he retired relatively early in his day, and he and my grandmother lived comfortably.
Still, for more than 40 years he’d buried his emotions, memories, and guilt. He felt responsible for the deaths of his parents, he carried their pain and suffering, and the memories of their stolen livelihood. As he aged, he suffered some cardiac issues, and while this was nothing that would have stopped a normal person, the stress of his health only added to his despair.
On March 2nd, 1987, 2 years and 7 months before my birth, he walked in front of a Metra train, killing himself instantly.
Kurt was a survivor. He survived WWII, and for nearly half a century he survived with the weight of his family’s history on his shoulders. You could say that while he lived a relatively full life, even he could not escape the horrors of the Holocaust.
It pains me that I was never able to meet my grandfather, let alone know him. But to him I owe part of my identity. I owe my Jewish hertigate to the son of butchers and cattle farmers who escaped in a sense, and yet did not escape. It’s his history that led me to these revelations regarding my genealogy. This search for knowledge led me to the Illinois Holocaust Museum, which led me to JewishGen, which connected me to a distant relative living in Australia. We’ve corresponded several times via email, and thanks to him, I have a family tree which dates back to the mid-1700s!
All of this, because of a man I was never able to meet. Thanks pop-pop!
Today, Jews all over the world celebrate their survival, cherish our families and solemnly remember our struggle. If the Russians had made it to Auschwitz sooner, perhaps Julie could have survived, and I’d be writing a different history. One can only dream of what may have been, but 72 years later I’ll dream of my ancestors tonight for who they were. Human beings, whose story will remain a part of me and my family for generations. Six million lives may have extinguished, but the histories and lives of those people will live on, burning brighter than any yahrzeit candle.
Many thanks to Barbara Day, Lillian Gerstner of the ILHC, Rodney Eisfelder of Melbourne, Australia, and my beautiful wife who baked a challah tonight: