Ways of life of Ruth Alter and Edith Conrad and their meeting in Frankfurt am Main

by Edith Conrad

Edith Conrad has been a member of the project group “Jewish life in Frankfurt” for many years. She organizes visits to schools and accompanies the visitors. This year (2012) was very special for her because she was not only a hostess but also involved as a relative and a witness being a survivor of the Shoa.
Thanks to her initiative her cousin Ruth and her daughter Hannah were invited by the magistrate of Frankfurt. Both of them had met only once before in Israel. Edith Conrad is the only one of the Eschwege family who is living in Germany. On one hand she was happy to meet her cousins but on the other she sadly realized that her family is scattered all over the world. Although she has got a lot of friends, she regrets that nobody of her Jewish family is living near her.

TWO COUSINS – SO FAR AWAY-BUT SO CLOSE, TOO By Edith Conrad

I have been a member of the project group “Jewish life in Frankfurt“ for many years. Each year this group accompanies former Jewish citizens, who were invited by the magistrate of Frankfurt, on their search for the places connected to the past of their relatives or their visits to schools.
Ruth is a well-known person in Israel because she was married to a former vice-mayor of Haifa. Before she came to Frankfurt, she and her husband Elizar Alter had already visited Haifa’s twin-towns Mainz (mayor Jockel Fuchs) and Bremen (mayor Henning Scherf). At that time Ruth knew that she had a cousin in Frankfurt but we had no contact to each other.

Our grandparents Hermann and Paula Eschwege had five children – Simon, Aaron, Esther, Max and Therese (Resi). Ruth’s father Simon is the eldest brother of my mother Esther. He emigrated to Palestine very early in 1934. There he married Ruth’s mother Sara who had come from Hamburg. Although she had been living there for such a long time, she did not speak Hebrew (Ivrit). The older members of my family speak German. I am very sorry that this tradition is not kept on by the third generation. That is why a conversation with the younger ones is held in English. The reason for that might be that English is sufficient and that they don't keep contact to Germany anymore.
Uncle Simon did not tell much about his German family to his daughters Ruth and Esther because his brothers Aaron and Max came to Palestine in 1938, as well.

They founded their own families there who were very close to each other and have still been up to now. Our grandparents were not able to emigrate anymore in 1942. They were transported to Izbica in June 1942 and later to Sobibor, Poland, where they were murdered. Our aunt Resi and her husband did not survive their deportation, either.

My mother married a catholic, my father, shortly before the “Nürnberger Gesetze” in 1935. I was born in 1940 and was christened as a catholic. This fact did not hinder the Gestapo to arrest my mother in September 1944. Before my mother had to go to the place of deportation, she asked the catholic Caritas organization for help. In a very quick and secret action they succeeded in hiding my mother who got a new name and an identity card. I was sent to a catholic orphanage.

In 1945 – when the war was over – I was reunited with my mother. My father came home in 1946 after being a prisoner of war for a while. It was a happy time for the three of us. I frequented the synagogue with my mother, regularly. We celebrated Chanukka as well as Christmas at home.

The first contact with my emigrated family was with Uncle Aaron in 1946. Unfortunately my mother died in 1948. She was only 36 years old. Her heart was too weak after all the suffering. My father married again in 1953 and that put an end to the contact to my relatives in Israel.

Certificate of the

After the death of my mother I was educated in the catholic faith. Judaism became strange to me.
It took a long time before I felt Jewish again. As I wanted to be a member of my big family again, I left the Catholic Church. In spite of my return to Judaism, it is difficult for me to understand Ruth and Hannah who were brought up to orthodox belief. During their stay here in Frankfurt they spent the Shabbat in a Jewish pensioners’ home where they also were guests of a rabbi. I would have preferred to show them the Rhine over the weekend. So I felt very close to them but also far away.
In 1984 I and a delegation of teachers of the district of Offenbach visited our twin-town Kyriot-Ono nearby Tel-Aviv. There I met my relatives including Ruth for the first time. My uncles Simon, Aaron and Max had already passed away earlier on.

I am very happy that Ruth and Hannah were invited to come to Frankfurt. There was a lot to talk about. We grew up in totally different worlds. Ruth was brought up in Judaism whereas I am a “free-thinker“. I cannot be a member of a synagogue. It was difficult to offer Ruth and Hannah something to eat. So I gave them “Grüne Soße” which I hope they liked. At least they got to know a typical Frankfurt dish.

Of course, our family history was important to talk about. I showed Ruth and Hannah the place on the Zeil – the big shopping street in Frankfurt – where our grandfather had his jewellery and optical shop. I took them to the Wittelsbacher Allee where our family once lived. There they saw the Stumbling Stones in the pavement in honour of our grandparents. I also showed them our family-tree which goes back to the 18th century while they showed me photos of the family in Israel which includes over 60 persons by now.

Stumbling Stones in front of the house of the Eschweges in Wittelsbacher Allee 4. Photo: Edith Conrad

How different our life has been became clear when we were invited for a performance and interview with students by the Lutherisch Theologische Institut in Oberursel near Frankfurt. Ruth talked about her happy childhood in Israel, about her father and her mother who escaped the Shoa and were able to build up a new life in Israel. I realized how much my childhood was engraved by the separation from my mother, our time in illegacy and the early death of my mother. Professor Salzmann commented our performance as follows: The visit was in particular interesting because two cousins with different life stories reported. The subject was not mainly about the NS-time and what experience they made then but far more about how they deal with their family fate and the history. Meeting witnesses of the second generation cannot replace that with the first one but has its own value and gives important impulses. When the performance was evaluated, it was notable that mainly students coming from foreign countries took part with their own views.

Ruth and I asked ourselves what would have been if there had not been a Nazi-time. Surely we would have a big family here in Germany which our grandparents would have been delighted of. Unfortunately I was the only grandchild which they had met personally. Ruth and I would not have been only cousins but also would have become friends much earlier.

The time here in Frankfurt was the beginning of becoming closer to Ruth and her family. Almost every day, I get photos via Facebook which I enjoy very much. I am very grateful for the week with Ruth and Hannah and hope that my other cousins will come to Frankfurt as well, so that we can follow the history of the members of our family. I can tell them a lot about our grandparents and can listen to their stories.
I dearly hope that something like the Shoa will never happen again. On both sides it is our duty to fight against fanaticism and also to learn to tolerate things which seem to be strange to us.
Ruth and Hannah will talk about the experiences they made in Frankfurt in Israel. In doing so they will be witnesses of a “new Germany “.

Am I an Authentic Witness?

The one-and-a-half generation

by Edith Conrad

What do I want to say with the terminology one-and-a-half generation? It is a generation between the first generation who was old enough to realize the Nazi-regime and the second generation who was born after the War (1945). The one-and-a-half generation includes people who were born between 1933 and 1940. As children they experienced the War, the “Third Reich” but they were too young or too small to be aware of the tragedy going on like adults.

What do I mean by “authentic” witness? In this context authentic sounds a bit strange as children – born during the war – experience the facts diffently from adults. I was born in 1940. My mother and I survived the Nazi-regime. We suffered from discrimination and persecution. When the War was over, I was five years old. What does remain in my mind?

Fear remains which was transferred from my mother to me and which I have been fighting against all my life. Gratefulness remains for those people who were courageous enough to hide us. Remembrance remains of the noises caused by the bomb-attacks and the smell of burning houses.
Up to now the imagination of how my grandparents, my aunt and my uncle were deported and lost their lives will never get out of my mind. My father never mentioned anything to me. Perhaps he wanted to save me from discrimination being called a ”Jewish bastard“. As my mother had already died in 1948, I had no opportunity of talking to her.
At the age of 50 years, I started my own investigations. I accompanied a group of teachers to Auschwitz. This journey gave me a kind of relief and made an end to my nightmares. I faced reality and was able then to begin to look for my family story.
For a long time it was not known where my grandparents, my uncle and my aunt were deported to. Latest researches found out that they were transported to Izbica first and then to Sobibor and Belcec (Poland).
In honour of my grandparents, my uncle and my aunt, I travelled to Izbica, Sobibor and Belcec. I was deeply moved how long the journey was. How much must they have suffered?
For me it is important what happened after 1945. In Bielefeld – the town where I was born – a room in a house was rented and a little synagogue installed by Jewish survivors. Slowly people coming back from the concentration-camps gathered there and founded a small Jewish congregation. My aunts – as I called them – coddled me a lot because I was one of the few children who had survived. The majority of the survivors who came back were on their transit to the U.S.A. or to Palestine.
When I was with them, they never talked about their experiences. After the death of my mother I lost contact with the congregation.
My early childhood influenced me a lot. Perhaps that is why I became a teacher and a psychologist to tell my descendants to be aware of people – especially politicians – who promise a lot: Be aware, check and think! INHUMANITY MUST NOT HAPPEN AGAIN!
I think as one of the one-and-a-half generation, I too am a witness of the NS-regime even if the term “authentic” may not be quite appropriate. The life of my cousin Ruth has been totally different from mine. I think she belongs to the one-and-a-half generation, too. She was born in Palestine and grew up there. She is not an authentic witness of the Nazi-time here in Germany, of course. Her father, the eldest brother of my mother, emigrated from Germany in 1933. Born in 1939, Ruth experienced as a child the formation of the state of Israel and the daily struggle of her parents for a living there. Her parents did not tell her much about her German families. She was told about the shoa only in school or by German immigrants who were able to talk about their experiences. I think she had a better childhood than I had.
In the following years she and her husband had political contacts to their twin-towns Mainz and Bremen, also a step towards her reconciliation with the shoa. The visit to Frankfurt in 2012 allowed her a deeper view into our family story.
Both of us do belong to the one-and-a-half generation but with different life stories. While I experienced the building up of the German Republic she had her experiences in the state of Israel. Nevertheless, we have a lot in common. We are linked by the love of our family who gives us the strength to be able to speak openly in the end.

Biographical Notes

Ruth Alter

Participation in the Visiting Program: 2012

  • born 1939 in Haifa, then Palestine
  • married to a former major of Haifa, one daughter
  • daughter of Simon and Sara Eschwege from Frankfurt am Main
  • grandparents Hermann and Paula Eschwege from Frankfurt am Main
  • cousin of Edith Conrad

Edith Conrad

  • born in 1940 in Germany, survivor of the Holocaust
  • grandparents Hermann and Paula Eschwege
  • daughter of Joseph and Esther Ortloff, néeEschwege
  • lives next to Frankfurt am Main
  • cousin of Ruth Alter


Sources:

  • Private photos and documents ofEdith Conrad
  • Photos byAngelika Rieber and the Lutherisch-Theologischen Hochschule in Oberursel
  • Hauptstaatsarchiv Wiesbaden

Text and Translation: Edith Conrad