Four sisters. Four daughters. And there we were: in my newly-minted Bachrach Haggadah – The Offenbach am Main Edition. Created this year by the great-grandchildren of Willy and Bertha Bachrach, this light-hearted Haggadah, unbeknown to the younger generation, honors the last wishes of their great-grandparents who were murdered in Treblinka.
Every year, Yom HaShoah comes on the heels of Pesach, however, the connection between the two days is not merely chronological, it is also deeply rooted in memory. Yom Hashoah takes place on the 27th of Nissan, recalling the final days of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising which took place during the festival of Pesach. On this day, with survivors still in our midst, Israel comes to a standstill as we remember the dark days that engulfed European Jewry almost eight decades ago. During the Seder night, the past and the present become blurred as we develop a communal memory of a past, a distant past where there are no survivors. But this year, for our family, this new Bachrach Hagaddah created a different sort of survivor that symbolizes a material link between the two days.
My three sisters and I grew up in Australia, the daughters of German and Austrian refugees. In the 1980s, each of us made our way to Israel, established careers, married and built our homes. After my father’s death, my mother joined us and during the past fifteen years we have adhered to a new tradition, which continued after my mother’s death in 2010: the four sisters and our families have Seder all together every alternative year.
Our growing family includes nine descendants who bear the name of my grandparents or my father. This year we realized that the family had grown too large to have meaningful discussions on Seder night together, so reluctantly, and for the first time, we separated into two separate Sederim. To mark this occasion and to ensure that even whilst apart we would still be together, my oldest nephew, (who was the first person named after my grandfather), and nieces together with my brother-in-law surprised and delighted us at each of our two separate Sederim, with a special Hagaddah entitled “The Bachrach Hagaddah: The Offenbach am Main Edition” including a specially designed coat of arms. It included a humorous rendering of the ‘four daughters’ and our own special 10 plagues including family idiosyncrasies such as hikes to see the sunrise, veganism and Whatsapp overdrive.
The last day that anyone from my family lived in Offenbach am Main in Germany was on September 27th1942. On that day, my grandparents, Willy and Bertha Bachrach as well as my great aunt Bella Sichel were taken from their home in Offenbach am Main to Darmstadt. From there, on September 30th 1942, my grandfather, who was awarded an Iron Cross for his efforts fighting for Germany in WW1, was transported together with my grandmother to Treblinka and murdered. My great aunt was transported to Theresienstadt and from there to Auschwitz, where she too, was murdered.
My father was an only child, and in March 1939, at the tender age of 16, left Offenbach am Main on a flight to London to study and work there. It was always his plan to be reunited with his beloved parents as soon as possible. However, once the war broke out, my father was designated an ‘enemy alien,’ imprisoned by the British and sent to Australia on the infamous Dunera ship, which arrived in Australia in 1940. There he was interned in the remote towns of Tatura and Hay until 1944.
In the Hay internment camp, my father and his fellow inmates celebrated Seder night in 1941 by using the handwritten Haggadah, extraordinarily written from memory by one of my father’s fellow inmates, Elchananan Loebenstein.
While the traditional Haggadah evolved over time, the core text was settled by the end of the Middle Ages. However, in the last 100 years, Haggadot have been amended to reflect social and historical phenomenon such as the emerging kibbutz movement, the ravages of the Holocaust, the calls for freedom for Soviet Jewry and the demands of the civil rights movement. While the cover of the Hays Haggadah includes a poignant quote from the text praying that ‘next year we will be free,’ Elchananan Loebenstein did not amend or annotate the traditional Haggadah text despite knowledge of the desperate situation facing the Jews in Europe. In contrast, our children had no hesitation in adding contemporary humorous additions to their 2019 Haggadah. Perhaps this reflects their sense of security in Israel and comfort with the texts, or perhaps it is an unconscious attempt to offer a counterpoint to the painful memories that have shaped our family’s personal heritage.
In a reality that my grandparents could not have imagined in their wildest dreams, all of their descendants live in Israel and their great-grandchildren chose to label the Haggadah with unabashed playfulness – the ‘Offenbach am Main Edition.’ Before the Holocaust, my father lived with his parents on KaiserStrasse in Offenbach am Main directly across the road from the imposing and striking Offenbach Synagogue. It was from this apartment that my father, his parents and his aunt and uncle who were living with them, were afforded a front row view of the burning of the interior of the Synagogue on Kristallnacht in November 1938. They also witnessed the fire brigade who waited for the synagogues/ interior and contents to burn, and protected the foundations in order to ensure that the building could be preserved for Nazi use. Today it is the local Theater.
My father was an only child and my grandparents were reluctant to part from him. However, following Kristallnacht and my grandfather’s subsequent imprisonment and release from Dachau and after my great-uncle was murdered there, they understood that he had to leave. So, it was from this home that my father left in August 1939 to fly out to London.
Following his departure, my grandparents remained in their home yet astonishingly and despite the raging war, my grandparents in KaiserStrasse in Offenbach am Main wrote letters to their only son, my father, that were consigned to the postal service and eventually delivered to my father in the Hay and Tatura internment camps in Australia. Similarly, my father was able to write letters to his parents in Germany. All of the envelopes bear the return address: Kaiserstrasse 115 Offenbach am Main.
The last letters from Offenbach on Main were written and sent on September 15th 1942, twelve days before the Bachrachs were taken from there forever. With hindsight, it is clear that my grandparents wrote letters of farewell to their only son. Letters that were delivered months after my grandparents had been murdered and burnt in Treblinka. Letters that, to our knowledge, never left my father’s office safe during his life time and were only discovered and read by us for the first time, almost twenty years after his death.
My grandmother ends her final letter with the following words:
“Stay brave and don’t worry about us. Keep exchanging letters with the rest of the family [“loved ones”]. Aunt Sara is the only one who stays for a few more days in Regensburg, all other relatives are scattered all over the world.
The Almighty will protect you. We send you heartfelt kisses and keep you always in our thoughts.
My grandfather ends his final letter with the following words:
“Honor the memory of your parents, just like they will keep yours in immeasurable love.
We send you most heartfelt greetings and kisses.
In their last letters, my grandparents emphasized both memory and the importance of family. This year, almost 77 years after their letters were written, for the first time, all of their direct descendants, their grandchildren, great-grandchildren and, miraculously, great-great-grandchildren, were too numerous to sit around one Seder table and share collective memories.
Nevertheless, on the evening of collective memory, the great-grandchildren of Willy and Bertha Bachrach fulfilled the last wishes of their great-grandmother by emphasizing the importance of family and of their great-grandfather when they honored his memory and the memory of their great-grandmother with immeasurable love.
May we be blessed to create many more happy and binding family memories in times of peace.
May the memories of Willy and Bertha (nee Kamberg) Bachrach continue to be a blessing for our family.
The back of the envelope which enclosed my grandfather’s last letter. Note the swastika and the stamp of the censor. The return address is their home (the building still exists) at KaiserStrasse 115 Offenbach am Main. My father’s letters to this address which arrived after 27th of September 1942 were returned to him in Hay.