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Lili Wertheimer (née Reich) * 1901
Falkenbergsweg 62 (Harburg, Neugraben-Fischbek)
Lili Wertheimer, née Reich, born on 21 June 1901 in Neu Bidschow (today Novy Bydzov), deported from Prague to Theresienstadt, Auschwitz, and the Neuengamme concentration camp, perished in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp on 16 May 1945
When Lili Reich was born, the small eastern Bohemian town where her Jewish parents, Isidor and Malvina Reich, née Fischman, lived at the time still belonged to the territory of the Austro-Hungarian Empire along the Danube. They were not the only Jews in this town at the southeastern edge of the Giant Mountains that was home to a synagogue as early as 1559. The Jewish Cemetery in Neu Bidschow (today Novy Bydzov in the Czech Republic) was established in about 1520 and ranks among the oldest in Bohemia. The size of the Jewish Community fluctuated over the centuries but regardless of these fluctuations, its existence was never seriously threatened until the demise of the first Czech Republic in Mar. 1939. In this place, Lili Reich and her siblings Marta, Leo, and Victor spent the first years of their childhood, and this is where they went to school.
The end of her school days meant for Lili Reich heading to new frontiers. This is manifested by her years of university studies at the Sorbonne in Paris, where she took courses in philology and philosophy, as well as by her numerous trips to near and far destinations. In this context, she was frequently on the road in her own car, something that was far from usual in those days.
In Apr. 1925, she married Fritz Wertheimer (born on 1 May 1894) from Znaim (today Znojmo) in southern Moravia, who came from a Jewish family as well. He worked as a merchant in the canning plant of his father, Johann Wertheimer, an operation pickling cucumbers as well as sauerkraut and exporting these products worldwide.
The young couple moved into an apartment in this southern Moravian city on the banks of the Thaya (today Dyje) River, and this is where in 1926 and 1929, their two daughters Miriam (Marie) and Chana (Hanka) were born. The religious center of the Jewish Community and its approx. 790 members (in 1928) was the city’s synagogue built in 1888. Apart from Johann and Fritz Wertheimer, the believers included a few other successful business people and entrepreneurs that contributed considerably to the prosperity of the city. In the overall perspective, however, the Jews in Znaim constituted only a tiny minority in comparison to the members of the two large ethnic groups. In 1930, 61% of the city population were of Czech and 37% of German descent.
For Miriam and Hanka Wertheimer, these were happy times as they grew up as very sheltered children and girls in this landscape on the Czech-German border and surrounded by their family. This still holds true – though with slight qualifications – for the first weeks and months after their parents’ divorce in 1934. However, the more tensions mounted between the two large ethnic groups the less the children remained unaffected by it. The intact world ended with a tremendous shock when, after the Munich Agreement in Sept. 1938, German troops occupied the frontier areas of the Czechoslovak Republic and their father was arrested shortly afterward in broad daylight, disappearing forever.
After that, Lili Wertheimer fled headlong with her mother, widowed by then, and the two daughters, initially to her brother Leo and his family in Prossnitz (today Prostejov) and then – without her mother – onward to Prague. Znaim was annexed to the German Reich on 1 Oct. 1938, becoming part of the Niederdonau (Lower Danube) Reichsgau. In Nov. 1938, the Nazis destroyed the city’s synagogue.
Lili Wertheimer realized very quickly that she and the children continued to be at grave risk, but the search for a safe refuge became more difficult all the time. Some friends and relatives had decided from one day to the next to emigrate; others were still in the process of forging corresponding plans, while time slipped away for others, and the hurdles became more insurmountable by the day. Many hopes were focused on Palestine as a reachable destination. This seems to have applied to Lili Wertheimer as well, and it did so even more after she learned that her brother Victor had been able to bring himself to safety there. Moreover, 13-year-old daughter Miriam and her sister Hanka, three years her junior, dreamed of Palestine more intensely all the time and submerged themselves further and further in the world of Theodor Herzl’s ideas.
It borders on a miracle that these dreams came true for Miriam Wertheimer, despite all of the adversities. In the summer of 1939, she reached Palestine on one of the last children transports (Kindertransporte) leaving her home in time before the outbreak of World War II. There, over the following weeks and months, she waited in vain for a reunion with her mother and her younger sister. All hopes that this might happen in the near future were shattered for good when the ban on emigration for Jews took effect in the "Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia” as well on 23 Oct. 1941. This regulation and the order, issued in this territory, too, shortly before, that Jews were obliged to wear the "Jews’ star” ("Judenstern”) showed clearly the escalation to the persecution of the Jews.
Lili Wertheimer had to adjust to the new realities and after a while, she found a job with the Jewish Community in Prague as a secretary, enabling her to pay the rent for a modest apartment at Zitná 38 in the immediate vicinity of Wenceslas Square. However, when her employer had to dismiss her for financial reasons and she failed to find another job despite her utmost efforts, the situation turned increasingly critical for her. In these difficult hours, Maschka, the non-Jewish nanny that had been standing by her loyally for some time by then, became her angel in distress. She helped not only with everyday housework but also looked after daughter Hanka’s wellbeing, who became very attached to her soon. At this point, when Lili Wertheimer did not know how to go on after the loss of her job, Maschka simply rented the apartment in her own name and declared Lili Wertheimer with her daughter to be her subtenants. Overwhelmed by feelings of profound gratitude, the previous tenant grabbed this lifeline, well aware that otherwise she would have been out on the street homeless with her daughter.
For Jews, the air to breathe became increasingly thinner in the "Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia.” Not only did they have to put up with further cuts to their food rations, involving progressively greater discrepancies to the other parts of the population, but in ever more accelerating succession, they had to cope with other restrictions that affected their leisure activities, their local mobility, and last but not least, the economic basis of their livelihoods as well.
In the fall of 1941, the deportation of the Czech Jews began, who were at first deported to Lodz and soon afterward to the Theresienstadt Ghetto, established in the meantime in the former Austrian and later Czech garrison town.
On 8 July 1942, it was initially Malvina Reich and the family of her son Leo who were forced to set out on the journey to these new quarters. Her daughter and her granddaughter followed her nine months later – on 6 Mar. 1943. When they reunited with their mother and grandmother there, she had nearly starved to death already and she was barely responsive. Soon Lili and Hanka Wertheimer recognized the cause of this change. Hunger, exhaustion, and diseases were part of everyday life experienced by the people there. The sanitary conditions were more than dreadful and medical care left much to be desired as well, so that it could make little difference regarding the continuously high number of sick persons and the extremely high rate of mortality among the occupants of this ghetto.
The fact that Hanka Wertheimer found shelter there in the L 410 girls’ home was a tiny ray of sunshine for her in the darkness of ghetto life. In Room 28, she chanced on a few friends from her days in Prague and quickly made friends with other girls that exuded confidence. Under the protection of this children’s home and looked after by the caregivers working there the girls led almost normal lives, supported by a good sense of togetherness and strong solidarity, combined with the hope for better times.
Of some 60 girls having found shelter for some time in Room 28, only 15 survived. For most of its occupants, Theresienstadt was only an intermediate station. The transports to the extermination camps in the East were part of everyday life in this place, and they were only stopped as the frontline edged closer.
On 18 May 1944, Malvina Reich and Lili and Hanka Wertheimer, too, had to set out on the journey eastward. Only when they had reached the final destination, did they see that they were in Auschwitz, a place that would exceed all of the misery and suffering they had experienced until then. Immediately upon their arrival, they were led into a "special camp for Jews from Theresienstadt,” without first having to subject themselves – as was the case when other transports were "processed” – to a "selection,” during which Malvina Reich would have had no chance of survival due to her advanced age. This was carried out later, however, in the summer of 1944 when the family camp was dissolved, with the outcome that the majority of those affected – all children and all elderly persons – had to set out for the gas chambers, with only very few spared that fate.
Lili and Hanka Wertheimer were among those persons still deemed fit for work and taken on a transport with 1,000 other women to the Dessauer Ufer subcamp of the Neuengamme concentration camp located in Hamburg harbor.
Two months later, they were transferred from there to the Neugraben women’s external camp on Falkenbergsweg in the southern part of Hamburg. Though they did not have to fear murder by gas, the principle of destruction through labor practiced there spread hardly less fear and terror. In the areas around the camp, the women were used toward building temporary accommodations, excavating an anti-tank ditch, clearing rubble, and removing snow.
At the beginning of Feb. 1945, they were transferred one more time, before being transported – after a temporary stop in the Tiefstack concentration camp subcamp – to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp two months later. This occurred in connection with the evacuation of the Hamburg external command of the Neuengamme concentration camp. As they set foot on the Bergen-Belsen camp, they faced a horrific sight. Since the beginning of the evacuations of concentration camps located near the frontline in Dec. 1944, one prisoner transport after the other had arrived there, without the camp being prepared for the influx. Thousands of prisoners perished there due to utterly inadequate provisions and insufficient medical care. The deaths in huge numbers did not end either on 15 Apr. 1945 when British troops liberated the camp. The number of those that could not be saved anymore also included Lili Wertheimer, who closed her eyes forever on 16 May 1945.
Apart from her mother Malvina Reich, her husband Fritz Wertheimer and his two brothers Alfred and Richard Wertheimer, as well as her sister Marta Reich, her sister-in-law Lotte Parnass, and her brother Leo Reich with his wife Klara as well as their son Thomas were among the victims of the Holocaust.
Her daughter Hanka initially returned to the Czechoslovakian capital in the summer of 1945. Given her poor state of health, she then spent three years in a sanatorium in Switzerland, before emigrating to Israel in 1949.
Translator: Erwin Fink
Kindly supported by the Hermann Reemtsma Stiftung, Hamburg.
Stand: April 2018
© Klaus Möller
Quellen: Yad Vashem. The Central Database of Shoa Victims´ Names: www.yadvashem.org; Häftlingsliste des Lagers Theresienstadt. Theresienstädter Gedenkbuch; Archiv der KZ-Gedenk-stätte Neuengamme; Hannelore Brenner-Wonschick, Die Mädchen von Zimmer 28: Freundschaft, Hoffnung und Überleben in Theresienstadt, München 2004; Ludmila Chládková, Getto Theresien-stadt, Prag 2005; Danuta Czech, Kalendarium der Ereignisse im Konzentrationslager Auschwitz-Birkenau 1939–1945, Reinbek 1989; Zeitzeugenbericht und Gespräch mit Hanka Weingarten, geb. Wertheimer, am 4.5.2015 in der KZ-Gedenkstätte Neuengamme; Karl-Heinz Schultz, Das KZ-Außenlager Neugraben, in: Jürgen Ellermeyer, Klaus Richter, Dirk Stegmann (Hrsg.), Harburg. Von der Burg zur Industriestadt, Hamburg-Harburg 1988, S. 493ff; The Encyclopedia of Yewish Life before and during the Holocaust, edited by Shmuel Spector and Geoffry Wigoden, New York 2001; Walfried Blaschka, Gerald Frodl, Der Kreis Znaim von A bis Z, Geislingen 2009; Hans Ellger, Zwangsarbeit und weibliche Überlebensstrategien. Die Geschichte der Frauenaußenlager des Kon-zentrationslagers Neuengamme 1944/45, Berlin 2007; Karl-Heinz Schultz, Das Barackenlager am Falkenbergsweg 1936–1976. Entstehung – Nutzung – Ende, in: Peter de Knegt, Olinka. Eine Freundschaft, die im Krieg begann, Hamburg 2012.