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Leopold Simonsohn * 1883

Ebertallee 201 (Altona, Bahrenfeld)

1938 KZ Sachensenhausen
tot an Haftfolgen 10.12.1939

Leopold Simonsohn, born on 18 June 1883, detention in the Sachsenhausen concentration camp from 9 Nov. until 10 Dec. 1938, died of the effects of the imprisonment on 10 Dec. 1939

Ebertallee 203 (Ebertallee 145)

Leopold Simonsohn came from a Jewish merchant family in Berlin. He was the youngest son and had a brother by the name of Max and two sisters named Jenny and Therese. At the age of 15, Leopold Simonsohn went to sea. As a sailor with the merchant marine, he was on sailing ships on the South America route, bringing niter to Hamburg, and he sailed around Cape Horn several times. Seafaring also took him to the German colonies in China and Southwest Africa. In the last phase of his sailing career, he was a navigator and third officer on a sailing ship of the Hamburg-based F. Laeisz shipping line. After his marriage in 1911 to Bertha Bramman, who came from a non-Jewish family of artificial stone manufacturers in Altona, Leopold Simonsohn stayed ashore, in Altona.

In World War I, Leopold Simonsohn was drafted as a marine. In 1935, he was awarded the "Honor Cross for Front-Line Veterans” ("Frontkämpferkreuz”) with retroactive effect; from the colonial wars in Southwest Africa (1904–1908), he held the "Colonial Badge” or "Lion Order First and Second Class” ("Löwenorden Erster und Zweiter Klasse”) for his services during the Herero Uprising.

Leopold and Bertha Simonsohn were unable to have children. In 1920, a nurse of the Altona Children’s Hospital, who was friends with the couple, arranged for one-year-old Wilhelm from the Osdorf Landpflegeheim (a rural nursing home) to be placed as a foster child with them. Wilhelm, born as an illegitimate child on 9 Sept. 1919, had been given up for adoption by his mother, a domestic servant from Altona. The Simonsohns adopted him in 1922.

The Simonsohn family resided at Weidenstrasse 25 in Gross Flottbek. In 1925, they moved to the newly constructed building at Lauenburgerstrasse 145 (from 1927 onward Ebertallee, today no. 203) in the Steenkamp residential area in Altona-Bahrenfeld. The so-called "garden city” (Gartenstadt) with its predominantly two-story townhouses and backyard gardens for self-subsistence was constructed under the direction of Building Senator Gustav Oelsner between 1914 and 1926.

Since the early 1920s, Leopold Simonsohn ran the "Steenkamper Kohlenlager Leopold Simonsohn,” a coal supplier, at the nearby intersection of Möllner Strasse 11 (today Notkestrasse) and Luruper Chaussee. The main source of revenues was, apart from direct trading, the brokerage of large-scale shipments on a commission basis from the wholesaler to customers such as the Reemtsma Company and the Bahrenfeld parish. Wilhelm Simonsohn remembered: Economically, we did really well in the 20s in Steenkamp, this nice neighborhood, with a garden covering 300 sq. m [some 3,230 sq. ft.]. We even had a maid, who lived on the converted attic floor of our townhouse at Ebertallee 145.”

He fondly recalls his father and his childhood: "He was a very loving father. Apparently, as a boy he had run away from home, going to sea at a very young age. He had a tattooed anchor on the back of his hand. He always played Santa Claus, something I did not know, of course. On some Christmas Eve, he came into the house with all the trimmings, asking whether I had been good and so on, and in order to pull the presents from his bag, he pulls off one glove and there was a tattooed anchor on the back of his hand. Daddy!”

After elementary school in Othmarschen, Wilhelm attended "reform school,” the Realgymnasium [a high school focused on science, math, and modern languages] on Königstrasse in Altona. His father arranged a place for him in the Blankenese Yacht School – the head was a former lieutenant commander [Korvettenkapitän] and comrade-in-arms from the colonial wars. "An elitist affair, actually, and it was not really my place as the son of a coal trader. The Elbe River became my second home, the cutter, the guys. I had a happy youth, moving, if you will, in the best circles.”

Leopold Simonsohn’s political views were conservative and national. "My father was baptized a Christian. He was one of the Jews who were so over-assimilated that they felt they had to be more German than German. For the Reichstag elections, our roof hatch displayed not the red flag of the SPD [the German Social Democratic Party], as was the mainstream in the Steenkamp neighborhood, but instead the old Imperial War Flag; my father leaned toward the German National Party. On election Sunday in 1932 – I wore shorts – I walked home, as two members of the Reichsbanner [Black, Red, and Gold Banner of the Reich], the SPD’s SA, as it were, marched behind me. Like SA men, they had shoulder straps with karabiners. Shortly before I reached my place, they pulled the shoulder straps down and whipped them at my legs because they knew this rascal belonged to the odd Imperial War Flag.”

Only at the age of 15, after the Nazis assumed power, did Wilhelm Simonsohn learn that his parents had adopted him. "The yacht school was incorporated into the Naval Hitler Youth and I was a Naval Hitler Youth. Later – boys do get into fights sometimes – someone said during a squabble, ‘You Jewish scoundrel!’ So I went home with that: ‘Daddy, they call me Jewish scoundrel. At which my father said, ‘You don’t have to put up with that because you are not!” This recurred and as a result, my parents sent me to Pastor [Anton Christian] Andersen at the Bahrenfeld Luther Church. He told me that my parents were not my biological parents. That’s when my whole world fell apart. ‘Jew’ was a swear word and now my Dad was one of them! Then I went home. To this day, I see my parents sitting on the sofa, looking at me in anxious expectation. Then we fell into each other’s arms, crying. I went to my Unterbannführer [roughly, a Hitler Youth battalion leader] and indicated to him that I wished to resign from the Naval Hitler Youth. He accepted that I wanted to stay with my parents.”

On 28 Mar. 1933, the National Socialist German Workers’ Party (NSDAP) sent a circular calling on all party offices "to form action committees immediately for practical, systematic implementation of a boycott of Jewish businesses, Jewish goods, Jewish doctors, and Jewish lawyers.” The Altona Nazi district leader Piwitt admonished party members, "It is no good making a wild fuss concerning Jewish questions on a daily basis while still carrying my money to the Jew or having it carried there.” Leopold Simonsohn’s coal warehouse was on the list of Jewish businesses to be avoided. On 1 Apr. 1933, the Nazis organized a first public boycott. Thus began the displacement of persons of Jewish descent from economic life. Leopold Simonsohn lost his big customers: the Reemtsma tobacco company and the Gustav Altmann electric machine builder. The Bahrenfeld Lutheran parish, too, whose church council spoke out in favor of excluding Jewish parishioners on 12 Aug. 1935, no longer obtained its coal from him either. After a few years, Leopold Simonsohn faced his ruin. In 1936, the family was forced to move into a modest one-bedroom apartment at Marktstrasse 2 (today Ehrenbergstrasse) in Altona’s old city center. Leopold Simonsohn gave up his company in 1937.

When his parents were no longer able to cover the school fees for high school, he changed to the Third Middle School for Boys (Dritte Knaben-Mittelschule) at Fischers Allee. After obtaining his intermediate secondary school certificate (mittlere Reife), his father arranged a job for him as an electrical engineering intern at the Gustav Altmann company, which was a precondition for enrolling in engineering college.

In mid-1937, Leopold Simonsohn signed on with the Fairplay Shipping Line of the Jewish ship owner Lucy Borchardt to work as an ordinary sailor on the steamship "Richard Borchardt,” which sailed the route between Hamburg and Spain and, respectively, Portugal. Due to his Jewish descent, from 1938 onward, he could not continue to sail on this steamship, which soon afterward sank in a storm, nor could he do so on any other ships under German flag. Occasionally, Leopold Simonsohn was able to get hired as a night watchman on construction sites. The family was starving.

Apart from attending vocational school, 17-year-old Wilhelm Simonsohn worked night shifts at the turning shop of the Gustav Altmann Company in order to help feed the family. In Apr. 1938, he was drafted for labor duties to the Emsland and half a year later to the naval pilots in Schleswig-Holstein. Leopold Simonsohn was glad that his son was now "integrated.” He still held national-conservative views. Emigration was out of the question for him. "One day, the entire ‘clan’ got together, and things revolved around emigration. My father was against it. My mother was always afraid they would come and pick Daddy up because he was Jewish. No, they know my political convictions – he was German-national after all – they won’t fetch me.” Most of his Jewish relatives emigrated. Brother Max Simonsohn, general manager with the Tietz Department Store, emigrated with his wife to the USA in 1935/36, and his daughter Emma escaped to Britain in 1938. Sister Therese, her husband Moritz Traugott, and the two sons also fled to the USA. Sister Jenny relied on protection through her marriage to a non-Jewish husband.

During the November Pogrom of 1938 against the Jewish population on 9 Nov. 1938, Leopold Simonsohn was arrested like many other Jewish men. His son got special leave and went home. "I had been a soldier for only three days when I received a telegram from my mother on 9 Nov. 1938: ‘They came and took away your Dad.’ Later she gave an account: ‘We heard a knock on the door, and two persons in civilian clothes stood there, he was allowed to pack his toothbrush and a few things, and then he was picked up.’ My mother had a breakdown. Wearing my uniform and my father’s decoration, I called on the Gauamtsleiter [gau office leader].”

Leopold Simonsohn was imprisoned in the Sachsenhausen concentration camp for four and a half weeks. From detention, he wrote to his wife, "If the boy does not know anything yet, please do not say anything to him so he won’t be unsettled during his training in the military. Otherwise, give him my best and tell him he ought not to let himself be thrown off his endeavor and he ought to remain throughout what he has been so far.”

Leopold Simonsohn was never able to get over this sharp turning point in his life and the experiences in concentration camp detention. "My father was released from prison on 10 Dec. 1938. He did not say anything about how he had fared. They had shaved his head bald, his Emperor Wilhelm handlebar moustache was gone, and he was puffed up. He was also suffering from mild asthma, and after four weeks in Sachsenhausen, concrete floor and all, that condition had worsened, and you could hear him breathe very loudly. All of his optimism, his entire personality had collapsed like a house of cards.”

One year later, Leopold Simonsohn died aged 56 of the effects of the concentration camp detention. "At Christmas of 1939 I was on leave from the front. My Dad had not set foot outside the apartment since his release from the concentration camp. It was the night of 9 to 10 December and I slept in the kitchen. I woke up because my father’s breathing noises had stopped. As an asthmatic, he always had a kind of stertorous breathing. And then I realized that my father had passed away.”

Translator: Erwin Fink
Kindly supported by the Hermann Reemtsma Stiftung, Hamburg.

Stand: April 2018
© Birgit Gewehr

Quellen: AB Altona; Familiendokumente im Besitz von Wilhelm Simonsohn; Archiv der Reederei Fairplay Towage, Seefahrtsbuch von Leopold Simonsohn; Simonsohn, Ein Leben; Gespräch mit Wilhelm Simonsohn, 4.11.2009.

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