As the world observes International Holocaust Remembrance Day on January 27th, it becomes paramount to recount the individual stories that illuminate the darkest chapter of Jewish history. One such heartbreaking narrative is that of Erika Schwarzschild, my grandmother’s sister, born in 1913 in the small village of Dertingen, Germany.
Dertingen is a village located in the southwestern part of the country and was home to my Grandmother’s family. It was where my paternal great-grandfather, Adolf (“Dolfi”) Schwarzschild, the highly respected master blacksmith, operated the ancestral shop and practiced the craft of metalwork – the legacy of blacksmithing runs deep in my family and spanned generations. The year 1935 marked a turning point for Erika and my grandmother. In the face of growing antisemitism, my grandmother was sent to England to work as a domestic servant, caring for a relative’s baby. Her sister was not so lucky.
November 1938 witnessed the horrifying Night of the Pogrom, a night of violence and terror that targeted Jewish communities across Germany. Erika experienced a brutal assault, and the Schwarzschild family home and honored garden were vandalized by the Nazis. These traumatic events left an indelible mark on Erika, leading to a deterioration of her mental health. In an attempt to address Erika’s mental health struggles, the family sought the expertise of Jewish neurologists, Dr. Irma and Dr. Friedrich Weinberg, in Frankfurt. Erika became a patient under their care from March to September 1939. Despite their efforts, the severity of Erika’s condition led to her transfer to a mental institution in Weilmünster.
The journey of suffering took an even darker turn when, on February 7, 1941, Erika was transported to Hadamar. Hadamar was a killing facility involved in the Nazi involuntary euthanasia program known as Aktion T4. It was housed within a psychiatric hospital located in the German town of Hadamar. Tragically, it is believed that she met her end on the same day.
In April 2023, my family and I visited Hadamar. As we drove up the winding hill towards the institution, you could view the quaint houses typical of German towns. However, Hadamar stood in stark contrast to this idyllic facade, hiding a dark history that unfolded between 1941 and 1945.
During those years, busloads of individuals deemed unfit by the Nazis were transported to Hadamar, which served as one of the first killing centers. Despite the town’s awareness of the atrocities taking place, silence prevailed among its citizens as the local children taunted each other with the words “You’re not very clever; you will go to Hadamar and into the ovens.” On February 7, 1941, Erika was transported by bus, from Weilmünster to Hadamar. She was brought to a barn-type building where the doors were securely locked. Discreetly, she was led through underground tunnels beneath the building to the gas chambers. Some became subjects of gruesome experiments. The townspeople, with knowledge of these activities, chose to remain silent, complicit in the face of unimaginable cruelty.
For years, Erika’s story remained unknown and my grandmother never spoke about her. It wasn’t until 2011 when a Stolperstein, a memorial cobblestone, was laid for Erika in Dertingen, marking the spot where she once lived. My grandmother never knew her fate. During our visit to Hadamar, we placed a candle and said Kaddish for Erika.
Hadamar Gas Chamber located in the basement. Today, as we remember Erika and countless others, we find ourselves confronting a disturbing parallel in the hostage situation involving Israelis kidnapped to Gaza. The world once again witnesses a haunting silence, reminiscent of historical complicity. The muted response from some serves as a stark reminder that indifference and silence can allow injustice to persist. Just as the citizens of Hadamar had a choice in the face of darkness, so do we today. The stories of the Holocaust teach us that silence can be as destructive as the actions themselves.