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Maria Derenberg
© Privatbesitz

Martha "Maria" Derenberg (née Strahl) * 1896

Eppendorfer Baum 21 (Hamburg-Nord, Eppendorf)

JG. 1896

further stumbling stones in Eppendorfer Baum 21:
Richard Derenberg

Martha (called Maria) Derenberg, née Strahl, born on 6 Sept. 1896 in Boel, rural district of Schleswig, detention in the Fuhlsbüttel concentration camp in 1944, since 17 Jan. 1945 in the Ravensbrück concentration camp, missing there
Richard Derenberg, born on 24 July 1879 in Hamburg, suicide on 27 Jan. 1943

Eppendorfer Baum 21

In 1932, Maria Strahl and Richard Derenberg got married after being acquainted for a number of years. Possibly, their different social backgrounds had prevented a legal union until then, and both of them hoped that the two of them together would be better protected against the Nazi regime that began looming large on the horizon, a regime of which, according to relatives’ stories, they disapproved deeply and to which they fell victim.

Maria Strahl was born as the oldest daughter of Johann Strahl and Bertha, née Trumpjahn, in the rural district of Schleswig on 6 Sept. 1896 and baptized a Protestant. She grew up with four siblings in lower middle-class circumstances. Nevertheless, she developed artistic ambitions and put herself to the test as a young actress in minor roles in Hamburg in the 1920s. In the theater milieu, she met the businessman 17 years her senior, with whom a relationship evolved.

Richard Derenberg, interested in literature and taking a lively concern in Hamburg theater life, came from a Jewish family with middle-class background. He was born in Hamburg on 24 July 1879 as the younger son of Carl Derenberg and his wife Nanny, née Samson. He had a brother, Gustav Derenberg (born in 1876). The family home was located in the house at Mittelweg 151, where Richard still lived as a grown-up man before – possibly after the death of his widowed mother in 1915 – being registered at various addresses, including the Esplanade Hotel, and since the 1920s in the Winterhude and Eppendorf quarters of the city. For years, his business premises were located in the apartment at Eppendorfer Baum 21. On the tax file card of the Jewish Community he was designated as a general manager, in the directory he was entered as a merchant. Probably, he was active in the banking sector, for in 1902 he had worked in New York with the National City Bank, where he was employed in the foreign department. Contacts to the Berenberg Bank, the oldest private bank in Hamburg, must have existed as well, as emerges from a reference he received in 1938. In 1914, he took the civic oath, which meant he obtained Hamburg civic rights.

Until 1922, his income increased continuously. After the financial setback during the period of inflation, apparently things improved again in 1924/25; the 1930s also saw an increase from year to year, which suggests well-to-do circumstances. He paid the last installment of taxes to the [Jewish] Community in 1938. After the Pogrom of November 1938, as a Jew he was banned from any gainful employment and prevented from disposing of his assets freely, probably by means of a "security order” ("Sicherungsanordnung”). Monthly allowances, which had to be applied for with the foreign currency office, secured the couple’s livelihood. It is not possible any more to clarify why on 8 Dec. 1938, the banker Baron of (Freiherr von) Berenberg-Gossler wrote him the reference mentioned earlier. "With this, I am pleased to confirm that I have known Mr. Richard Derenberg for years. Mr. Derenberg is a reliable, noble character, in whom one can trust in any way. I would be prepared to take on any type of guarantee for Mr. Derenberg. Signed, Freiherr v. Derenberg-Gossler in the firm Frh. Derenberg, Gossler & Co.” Correctly, however, the signature would have had to read Berenberg-Gossler. The text is available as a copy, and in the process, the spelling mistake probably came about. It is not known for which occasion Richard Derenberg needed the reference. Possibly, it was necessary to refute potential charges by the foreign currency office raised against Jews particularly in the weeks after the November Pogrom, e.g. allegations of illegally transferring money abroad.

Since passage of the Nuremberg laws [on race] in 1935 at the latest, state pressure increased on marriages between Jewish and non-Jewish partners. Demands were made especially on the non-Jewish partner to file for divorce. In 1938, "mixed marriages” ("Mischehen") were divided further into "privileged” and "non-privileged” ones. Since the husband was Jewish, the childless marriage of the Derenbergs belonged to the second category. This meant that they were put on the same level as "full Jews” ("Volljuden”) and both partners had to live with the corresponding restrictions. The couple relocated to the Grindel quarter, where they moved into the third floor of an apartment at Rutschbahn 11. A pale reflection of the previous middle-class life continued to exist for the time being. The extensive book collection containing about 1,500 books as well as silverware and jewelry were still in their owners’ possession, as was a radio set and their tomcat Mohrle. However, there was also Richard’s ID card with the "J” and the obligation to identify as a Jew by wearing the yellow star. The silver had to be handed in and Mohrle found accommodation in the "Aryan” household of Maria’s sister.

Starting in the fall of 1941, many Jewish neighbors disappeared. Among them were also Richard’s sister-in-law and niece, Käthe Derenberg, née Heymann, and her daughter Lilly, who in July 1942 were deported to Auschwitz and Theresienstadt, respectively.

We do not know whether Richard was informed about the fate of his brother Gustav, who in the past had also worked in the banking business. By then, Gustav was divorced and had moved to Freiburg in 1929. Subsequently, he might have emigrated to France because he died in the French Gurs internment camp. Stolpersteine at Werderstrasse 30 commemorate the family.

In Feb. 1943, the Gestapo planned another deportation to Auschwitz. Did Richard fear to find his name on the deportation list soon? To be sure, because of his marriage, he was deferred from deportation, the only "privilege” for a Jewish husband living in a "mixed marriage.” However, by then he probably was no longer able to endure the depressing alternative – dependency on the continuation of the marriage or journey to death. Perhaps he also did not wish to expect his wife to cope with the pressure the Gestapo exerted on her. Richard Derenberg took an overdose of sleep-inducing medication, was found by his wife and brought to the Israelite Hospital. He died there on 27 Jan. 1943 at 8 p.m. The death certificate, issued three days later, indicated as cause of death "barbituric acid poisoning (suicide).”

Maria Derenberg was now by herself. There is no information about what income she had. An established fact is that she rented out several rooms of her apartment. It was known that she had a critical attitude toward the regime, not only because of her marriage to a Jew, the persecution he had suffered, and the deportation of his relatives, which meant she continued to be under surveillance by the Gestapo. However, that did not prevent her from practicing resistance in everyday life, particularly when it came to cultural narrow-mindedness as in the case of banned literature.

Since word had probably got around in the quarter that she lent out books, she received many a request and disregarded prohibitions. This is suggested by a letter dated 10 Dec. 1943, sent to her by an acquaintance working at the theater on Hartungstrasse. Since 1938, the Jewish Community Center at Hartungstrasse 9–11 was almost the only location where Hamburg Jews were still able to stage and attend cultural events. The building also housed a theater, used by the Jewish Cultural Federation (Jüdischer Kulturbund): "My very dear Lady! I am – considering the daily performances – not doing so well at all, and I have nothing to read! Would it be very presumptuous if I were to ask you to send me the second Green [sic!]? Either to my apartment or – if you can have it so nice and close – to the little theater on Hartungstrasse, where after all you can always reach me between 3:30 and 4 p.m. I hope very much that you will not hold my request against me … In the hope that you, my dear lady, are doing well, I greet you as your most obedient servant Beneckendorff”
For Maria the library was very important as well. It represented not only the connection to an earlier, better life and probably her only possession of any value; she likely also suspected that it was in danger of being seized by the state. Therefore, she prepared a list, which eventually covered approx. 1,500 titles.

Still living in the marital apartment, Maria experienced the bombing war and the disappearance of the Jewish population of Hamburg from the neighboring "Jews’ houses” ("Judenhäuser”) of the Grindel quarter. Like many others, she longed for the end of the war, and like many another person, she listened to the radio news broadcast by foreign stations. Since she no longer owned a radio set herself, she used to share or borrow the one owned by her tenant Strum, a practice that would prove her undoing.

On 14 Sept. 1944, the Gestapo officers Fiedler and Warnke called on Maria Derenberg, searched her apartment, arrested her, and took her "to Fuhlsbüttel into protective custody [Schutzhaft],” as a court decision of the restitution court read in 1958. The reason for arrest was that she had listened to enemy stations and that silverware not surrendered and a revolver had been found at her apartment. Subsequently, the officers sent to the apartment an expert who examined the book collection and, within the span of a week, sorted out the books banned or not agreeable. Eventually, about 1,200 books were transported off. A smaller collection remained behind in the apartment and the basement. It was in this place that Maria’s book list mentioned was later found in a suitcase. It had not been discovered by the Gestapo officers. The court decision [in 1958] stated tersely: "It was not possible to determine the whereabouts of the books.” However, statements given by witnesses confirm the size of the library, which caused the court to acknowledge as credible the number of books amounting to 1,222 single volumes.

Arrested because of listening to "enemy stations”? This fits in with the actual reason for Maria’s detention, which consisted in her rejection of the Nazi state. Thus, the witness Karl Beu stated before the court that the Gestapo officers had explicitly mentioned that Maria Derenberg was being arrested for political reasons.

There is also the possibility that she was denounced because one Mrs. Hochheim apparently had eavesdropped on her listening to the radio and brought her together with a Gestapo informer, who passed himself off as an opponent of the regime. It is not possible to ascertain whether Maria Derenberg indeed abandoned caution altogether, openly expressing criticism of the Nazi regime, as Mariechen Martens, also imprisoned in Fuhlsbüttel at the time, explained in a letter to Maria’s mother on 18 Aug. 1947. Even shortly after the end of the war, one could no longer determine how long Maria Derenberg was detained in Fuhlsbüttel. All lists and documents were apparently destroyed by the Gestapo, stated an official communication by the criminal investigation department dated 1 July 1946.

However, the testimony of fellow prisoner Gertrud Boll in 1946 and documents from the archive of the Ravensbrück Memorial Site allow the conclusion that on 10 Jan. 1945, Maria Derenberg was in the Hamburg police prison on Hütten street and reached the Ravensbrück concentration camp, where she was registered on 17 Jan. 1945, by way of a stop in Berlin.

Excerpts from the letter by Gertrud Boll dated 23 Jan. 1946 to Maria’s sister: "I was … also a political prisoner and had been punished with a penitentiary sentence. However, since I was very young, … I made several attempts to escape. After my second escape, I was committed to the Hütten (Hamburg) police prison on 10 Jan. [19]45. It was then that I met your sister. We were together in a transport cell, and we had all day long to interchange ideas. I had confided my entire life to your sister … and every day we became closer friends. If Maria had one more slice of bread, it was shared, and if I had one, it was shared as well. In any case, we tried to make our fate a bit easier. Then, shortly afterward, the transport went to Berlin Alexanderplatz. We were lucky! Maria and I stayed together. We knew though that it would not be for much longer. Maria to Ravensbrück, and I … to the women’s prison in Berlin to do hard time. We arranged for our last days to be as pleasant as possible. We mutually consoled each other that the war would be over soon and that we would immediately get in touch with each other as soon as we were free again. All of this took place in Jan. of the previous year in Hamburg, Hütten, and Berlin Alexanderplatz. – Now, dear Mrs. Anders, in your place I would go to the police prison in Hamburg-Hütten again and inquire about all of the persons who came to Ravensbrück together with your sister. I know for certain that one other woman from Hamburg came to R’[avens]brück on the same transport (i.e. together with your sister). … This young woman was also political … arrested by the Gestapo and together with your sister a lot. Both came to Ravensbrück on the same day. … Her first name was Mariechen. Have you gone and seen the political committee (politisches Komité) in Hamburg yet? You could have a picture of Maria published and inquire who was together with her and may be able to provide information … I would hope … that you will find a trace of Maria very soon and send word to me again. I remain with sincere greetings and best wishes. Yours, Gertrud Boll.”

What end Maria Derenberg eventually met is obscured by the dark of events. In mid-Jan. 1945, the time she reached the concentration camp, about 46,000 female and 7,800 male inmates were in the Ravensbrück concentration camp. In February, another 11,000 prisoners were added to this number; at this point, a place of execution and a gas chamber were set up. From 5 to 26 Apr. 1945, the Swedish Red Cross managed to rescue 7,500 prisoners. From 27 Apr. 1945 onward, the prisoners had to leave the concentration camp site and set out on the so-called "death march” (Todesmarsch). About 5,000 persons remained behind. On 30 Apr. 1945, Soviet troops reached the camp; the prisoners on the death march were freed by the Red Army by 3 May 1945.

The court decision from 1958 mentioned earlier reveals only that Maria Derenberg died in Ravenbrück; another one indicates that she did not return from there. In the family, the story is told differently: She did live to see her freeing but starved to death shortly afterward, meaning she died of the effects of the imprisonment. This assumption is probably based on Mariechen Marten’s statement, which in turn was likely founded on a mistake. According to that version, Maria had been in solitary confinement until 1 May 1945, the "day we came to Ravensbrück on the transport.” As mentioned before, however, Maria Derenberg was already registered in Ravensbrück on 17 Jan. 1945. As a missing person, she was declared dead with retroactive effect as of 30 Jan. 1945. According to a file memorandum, in her case the Hamburg public prosecutor’s office probably suspended legal action for crimes against humanity as early as 1946.

Maria’s siblings undertook efforts to have the proceedings reopened. They wished to have clarification as to whether their sister had been arrested because of a denunciation. In this context, the family situation was highly strained, since one brother was a convinced Nazi, who continued to hold his opinions even after the end of the war. Twice, the Hamburg chief public prosecutor’s office reopened investigations and questioned several witnesses in 1947. However, the attempts to clarify the matter were unsuccessful. In each instance, the concluding passage read, "Therefore, the suspension of proceedings must continue to be in effect.”

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

© Astrid Louven

Quellen: 1; 4; StaH 314-15 OFP Oberfinanzpräsident Devisenstelle; StaH 332-5 Standesämter, 8185/60/1943; StaH 331-5 Polizeibehörde, 2 Journal 1942/43 (Nr. 258) S. 577; AB 1923 IV; AB 1924 II; AB 1931 II; Mosel, Wegweiser, Heft 3/1989, S. 63f.; Auskünfte von Sylvia Anders und Ricarda Anders 2009/2010; IPN Warschau, Kopie in Sammlungen der Mahn- u. Gedenkstätte Ravensbrück/Stiftung Brandenburgische Gedenkstätten (MRG/SBG) lt. Mail von Monika Herzog vom 14.7.2009; Wikipedia, Eintrag: KZ Ravensbrück; Schriftstücke aus Familienbesitz Strahl/Anders 1946–1959: Beschluss des Landgerichts Hamburg, Wiedergutmachungskammer WiK 68/1957 vom 25.9.1958, S. 3,4, 7; Amtsgericht Hamburg Abt. 54, Beschluss vom 14.8.1946; Oberstaatsanwaltschaft Hamburg Schreiben vom 2.10.1947 und vom 29.12.1947; Bescheid der Oberfinanzdirektion Hamburg vom 16.7.1959.
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