Speech on the liberation of the Ebensee concentration camp
By Gerhard Rein – May 10, 2014
Please imagine Lisewo, a small village on the Wisla, the Vistula. Lisewo. Two churches, a village green, a railway station. Rosa and Louis Rein, my grandparents, have a small farm, a horse, a carriage and a flatbed truck in Lisewo. From the railway station they pick up passengers with the carriage and with the flatbed wagon they transport milk churns from the farms to the dairy in the nearby district town of Kulm/Chelmno. Rosa and Louis Rein have six children. Nationally minded like their parents, they naturally consider themselves Germans. They move to Berlin, become civil servants, sell clothes or ice cream from the Weiss company in the Hertie department store. The youngest child, born in 1904, is not yet allowed to choose between Germany and Poland under the Treaty of Versailles. Herbert stays with his parents in Lisewo. Herbert becomes my father.
When on September 1, 1939 German troops attacked Poland, Hitler had ordered the extermination of the Polish Catholic intelligentsia and the Jews a few days earlier, Rosa and Louis Rein, my grandparents, were killed on their farm in Lisewo shortly afterwards. We still do not know exactly by whom they were killed. By Wehrmacht soldiers, by the SS, the Gestapo, by the People’s German self-protection or by their Christian neighbours. There is much to suggest that they were their neighbours. But we don’t know. We hardly know anything, and I don’t know anyway. Everything that was important in and for our family was kept quiet. Our family was a grave of silence.
Herbert Rein had married a convinced Christian woman in Chelmno/Kulm, my mother. Together they had three children. I was the youngest child. Born in 1936, my mother survived the flight to the West with her three children and persuaded us, the children, to join her beloved Protestant church. We did not feel compelled to do so. I became a pious, rather naive Christian, who even saw his activity and interest encouraged early on and who later discovered the Ecumenical Movement as his real home.
I learned that my father was Jewish when I was 17 years old. That was a surprise, but not a shock. To this day I do not understand why I began to ask only slowly and hesitantly. My mother’s standard answer to my questions was
„Oh, if you only knew.“
But I knew nothing. That’s all she told me. When it came up, she apologized for marrying that man, our father. There were hardly any other men in the area at the time. I did not like that answer.
I only discovered later that her brother, my uncle, was a real Nazi. The silence was inherited, even by the children. My older siblings never told me anything they learned. Everyone in this silent family kept everything to themselves. This created a tangle of suppositions, rumours, suspicions, bizarre stories and bizarre fairy tales.
My father left the house in Kulm/Chelmno when I was two years old. 1938. Did Polish friends hide him? Did friendly German soldiers protect him? Was he arrested as a Polish officer, seen in Paris, shot at an early age? I couldn’t find out what was true or made up.
I became a journalist and to this day I still wonder where the shyness comes from to approach the story of my father, his parents, his siblings. Slowly but surely a picture emerged. At first of the five siblings in Berlin. Georg, my father’s oldest brother, was shot dead in the Riga concentration camp, his sister Betty gassed with her husband in Auschwitz. Brother Leopold, wanted by the Gestapo, hanged himself in a Berlin hotel. Sister Helene escaped with her husband to Australia, Brother Hugo to Brazil. Together with her surviving children, cousins and grandchildren from Lisewo, I feel more connected today than ever before. With Zipora and Zeev in Jerusalem (sel. remembered), with Eva and Sol in Melbourne, with Peter and Tova in El Paso/Texas, with Alicia and Billy in Montevideo-Uruguay.
My Jewish clan – scattered all over the world – which I have only discovered in recent years. And what am I to them? A Gentile Jew? Or more and more also a non-Christian Christian? And still nothing from my father. I asked about him in Auschwitz and in Yad Vashem. No entries, the answers were always the same.
And then suddenly, on 19 June 2006, eight years ago, in the information centre of the Berlin Holocaust Memorial, there was a link in the computer to Mauthausen and then to Ebensee. A prisoner’s personal card no. 121213 for Herbert Rein, with correct information about his birth, his birthplace Lisewo and his street in Kulm, Friedrichstrasse 17.
With the help of the Ministry of the Interior in Vienna, the archive of the concentration camp memorial Mauthausen, and with the help of Dr. Wolfgang Quatember here at the memorial in Ebensee, the information about my father was confirmed. Herbert Rein was then admitted to Auschwitz in July 1944. Two weeks before the Red Army liberated Auschwitz, my father was ordered to go on one of the so-called death marches in January 1945 and was taken to Ebensee via Mauthausen on January 25, 1945. Where he was between 1938 and his committal to Auschwitz I could not find out. My father died here in Ebensee on March 8, 1945. Every death was a murder. He had reached the age of forty. The majority of the survivors of Ebensee were much younger than my father.
My Christian as well as my Jewish family, who had ever come to terms with their version of my father’s fate, were shocked and confused when I informed them about Mauthausen and Ebensee. With my wife I went straight to Ebensee. Dr. Quatember showed us the tunnels in the mountain, and in the cemetery we amateurs, non-Jews, trembling quietly read Kaddish before us. There is no note left by my father, no smuggled note, no letter.
Again and again I search for texts from people who survived concentration camps, from people who could put into words what they saw, heard, suffered. Like my father, I suppose.
„There is this crammed mass of bodies in the car, this stabbing pain in the right knee. Days, nights… Now we are approaching the fourth night, the fifth day… But is it still right to say we left? We are immobile, wedged together, but night is the night that falls on us motionless future corpses.“
This is how the Spaniard Jorge Semprun remembers it.
„We’re digging a grave in the air…
Death is a master from Germany
He calls out darker strokes the violins then you rise as smoke into the air
„Then you’ll have a grave in the clouds. You can’t lie close.“
Thus the Romanian-French poet Paul Celan condenses what happened to him.
And I still can’t get over this one, I know, often quoted sentence: The sentence of the Italian Primo Levi:
„It has happened, and therefore it can happen again: „therein lies the essence of what we have to say.“
I live in Germany. I appreciate the open society, the predominantly tolerant basic attitude, which gives the Federal Republic an outwardly sympathetic face. But this Germany is now the world’s third largest exporter of weapons and armaments. Our Chancellor is issuing scandalous arms exports to areas of tension as part of German peace policy. The Federal President considers his German compatriots to be „spoiled by peace“, „addicted to happiness“ and complains that too many of them insist „on the size of the German debt“.
I deplore a creeping militarization of my country, which disregards the obligation of peace as required by the Basic Law. My country’s political class demands that the New Power Federal Republic take responsibility for increased military operations and that our culture of restraint must come to an end.
This change turns everything that Germans had painstakingly learned about peace after the disaster of the Second World War, after 1945, upside down. I deplore a creeping militarization of our thinking. I am extremely concerned. „It has happened, and therefore it can happen again.“ My distress also has to do with the concern that what happened to my so normal, so strange family between Poles and Germans, between Jews and Christians, could happen again anywhere at any time.
I have never spoken in public before about Rosa and Louis, my grandparents, about Herbert, my father, about Lisewo, the small village on the Vistula. Ebensee is the right place for that. My father was not liberated in Ebensee. We found him here again. Dead. But his name is kept here. This is his place.