When my uncle Leo Weldler was deported to Dachau, in May 1938, the camp, located about 15 kilometres north-west of Munich, had been standing for over five years.
The first group of prisoners, mostly Communists and Social-democrats, were confined there on the 22nd of March 1933, two months after Hitler had come into power, but from the beginning of 1935 it became customary to send anybody who had been found guilty by a law court to a concentration camp. The first Jewish prisoners were political opponents of the regime, but after the Anschluss and the Night of Broken Glass (9-10 November 1938) the Jewish population in the concentration camp grew steadily as the persecution embittered.
On his arrival at Dachau, Leo underwent the same treatment as all the other internees: his possessions were confiscated, his hair shaved, he was made to wear a striped jacket and a number was tattooed on his arm.
Although a proper mass extermination plan was not being carried out in the camp, the extremely hard working schedule, combined with hunger, deprivations and the brutality of the SS guards, caused a very high number of victims: according to the official data of the camp roll, quoted by the Encyclopaedia of the Holocaust, among the two hundred thousand prisoners enrolled there were as many as 31.591 deaths, that is to say approximately 15%!
The logic which lay behind the Jews’ hard labour had several explanations: firstly their elimination; secondly, the need to extort from the victims the highest possible contribution to Germany’s war effort. Lastly, less obvious but not less important, the idea of making them work hard, since the Nazis 7were convinced that “the Jews consider any work as a punishment”, as one can notice from my uncle’s interrogation during the journey.
There is no trace of all this in the letters which Leo wrote to his wife: both the censorship of the correspondence and his wish not to worry his dear ones for no reason, resulted in Leo presenting such a rose-coloured picture of his physical and psychological state in his letters, that it sounds almost humorous, to some extent anticipating the attitude of the protagonist in Roberto Benigni’s film La vita è bella. However, one can read between the lines his eagerness to find something to hold on to, a contact which could give those guarantees for emigration which were essential requirements for his release.
[Without date: the censor cut off part of the letter]
After a long, impatient wait, on the 18th inst. (June?) your dear letter finally arrived. I enjoy excellent health and am feeling absolutely well. You are right, I easily got used to camp life. [missing part]
…I thank my father for the money he sent. You can send me up to 15 mark every week. You will be surprised to read that I have cut down my smoking to just three cigarettes a day. Therefore (money) does not go up in smoke but almost entirely in food, because even if meals here are more than sufficient, my healthy appetite is stronger than ever, probably due to the vigorous exercise in the crisp, healthy air. Dachau is situated at the same height as Sennering.
The last data is at least inaccurate: Dachau is approximately the same height as Munich (520 metres above sea level), whilst Semmering, the favoured holiday resort of the Viennese, is almost 1000 metres above sea level: therefore Leo was either making a mistake, or he was joking, or even sending a “coded message” to his wife, to make it clear to her that the rest of his reassuring report about camp-life should also not be taken too seriously.
As I learned from your letter, Nelly has been to our house. Is everything alright with her family? Have you got any news from Emmy and Helene?
I hope that all of you are doing as well as I do. If dad is sending me money, I would ask him to do it by postal order. I hug you a thousand times, my darling. Keep your head high, everything will end up well.
I kiss you, your Leo
Send my regards to all my acquaintances, first of all to Herlingers.
This letter shows all my uncle’s extraordinary moral strength. He pretends to hold Dachau’s “exercise” and crisp air responsible for the hunger which compels him to spend his father’s remittances on food, and to give up the vice of smoking. He also carefully tries to find something out about the fate of his Jewish relatives in Austria and Italy, and in his postscript he is probably sending Wilma a coded message, mentioning the person she has to contact.
However, uneasiness and impatience begin to filter through the second letter:
Dachau, 4 July 1938.
My darling, darling Wilma!
I rejoiced very much at your dear words. Unfortunately you don’t tell me whether an answer to my advertisement has arrived. Please get in touch with Dr. Rothenberg to see whether there are any possibilities with him. Please make an effort with this because in this way the present situation will be settled more quickly.
What is our friend Dolf doing?
Last week I had a slight sore throat and was immediately taken to hospital. After scrupulous treatment I am feeling alright again. I have promptly received both ten mark postal orders and I thank father. Please don’t forget to write my date of birth on all post addressed to me (postal orders too).
Did you hear anything from Fritz and Grete? Send my love to them.
I hope all of you are as well as I am. Give my best regards to all our friends. I hug and kiss you and my parents a thousand times.
The third letter from Dachau was in reply to a letter from Wilma which was mutilated by the censors. His wife informed him of Bernardo’s generous offer to host him in Milan, but Leo lucidly rejected it, being aware of the financial difficulties of his relatives in Italy. Dropping the proposal to move to Italy, Leo didn’t know he was avoiding a more serious danger, that impending over Elena, Ernst and Bernardo.
Dachau, 18 July 1938
My darling, darling Wilma!
I have promptly received your dear letter. Unfortunately part of it was illegible to me. Did Bernardo write that we could move into their house to await the events there? Don’t forget that this would mean a huge expense for them, and they have as little money as we have. But it might be too early to rack one’s brains over this problem. I take note that no reply has arrived as yet from the different organisations [not mentioned in the correspondence].
I am feeling well in every way. Please write to me soon about what Dr. Rothenberg was able to tell you.
How are the Mahlers? Is Georg working hard? I hope that all of you are as well and as in good shape as I am. I kiss you and my parents a thousand times.
I have promptly received the two fifteen mark postal orders; please, if possible, always send postal orders because the procedure is simpler.
In Leo’s fourth and last letter from Dachau, behind the usual mask of optimism and trust in the future, his hope in an imminent liberation begins to waver. His concern about his wife’s safety, which can be read between the lines in spite of censorship, drives him to advise her to leave: she will come back when the chance of his release becomes a concrete reality.
He pleads with his parents to give news by dropping a line; he must be terribly anxious about them, Jews and aged in a by now hostile country which he can’t wait to leave.
Dachau, 20 August 1938.
My darling, darling Wilma!
I was expecting to receive a little more detailed information…
I have nothing new to tell.
Now we have a lot of free time and I use it partly to widen, partly to refresh my modest knowledge of English. For this purpose, I borrowed an English grammar book from the camp library.
Besides, some comrades speak the language very well.
No news yet from the different organisations.
Did you complete the procedure to get the passports? What’s aunt Melanie doing? Did she get any replies?
I think you can leave without delay to join Emmy. If in the meantime good news should arrive, you may return at any time.
Please, write to me very precisely. I would ask my parents too to let me have a few lines or even just their greetings, so that I can see at least their handwriting.
I am well in every way and hope that you are well too.
I hug and kiss you and my parents a thousand times.
Unfortunately the procedures to obtain Leo’s emigration proceeded slowly and instead of being freed, on the 23rd of September 1938 he was transferred to Buchenwald.
The camp was located on the northern slope of Mount Ettersberg, a mountain situated eight kilometres north of Weimar, in Thuringia. The concentration camp came into operation on the 16th of July 1937, with the arrival of the first group of 150 people, almost all political prisoners and criminals. It was Heinrich Himmler who invented the poetic name of Buchenwald (“beechwood”).
In the course of 1938 the number of prisoners increased rapidly: 2,200 Austrian Jews, among whom Leo) arrived in September, another 10,000 were interned after the Night of Broken Glass. At the end of November the camp population exceeded 18,000. Standartenführer Karl Koch was the camp director.
In Buchenwald the treatment of Jewish prisoners was, if possible, even worse than in Dachau. They were forced to work fourteen or fifteen hours a day in the ill-famed stone quarry and to bear abominable living conditions. And yet, at the time the Nazis’ aim was still ‘only’ to exert a very strong pressure on the Jews and their families to oblige them to emigrate as soon as possible.
In the winter 1938-39, over 9,000 Jews were indeed released after either their families or the Jewish or international organisations had completed the procedures for emigration. However, that you needed steady nerves to survive Buchenwald is proved by the fact that, only taking into account the prisoners taken after the Night of Broken Glass, during their stay in the camp before their release or their transfer to Auschwitz (17 October 1942), no fewer than six hundred of them were either killed or took their lives or died for other reasons. Altogether, in the eight years of the camp’s existence, almost 240,000 prisoners passed through Buchenwald. 43,000 of them were killed or died for other reasons (this data is taken from the Encyclopaedia of the Holocaust).
The fact that my uncle survived shows once more that his body was strong and his nerves made of steel. But the three letters he sent to Wilma from Buchenwald are shorter than the previous ones and betray the feverish eagerness to leave at all costs, for Argentina or even for China if necessary. Time was running out, and Leo was well aware of it.
Buchenwald, 15 January 1939
I have promptly received the money that was sent to me and I would ask you to answer straightaway. How far have we got to with our departure? A few weeks ago I was called to sign the photograph on my passport and the notary told me that we supposedly have an entry visa for Argentina. Is that true?
I would ask you to go immediately to see Mrs. Wiener’s daughter in Schwendergasse 11 to find out how we can settle the matter with Fritz.
Please, let me know immediately what you have planned with regard to our departure. I hope that all of you are as well as I am. I hug you and kiss you a thousand times. My parents should write me a few words.
The second-last letter is dated 6 February, and from it we learn that plans have changed over the last three weeks: the promised land might be Shangai! The letter is extremely short, it looks as if the hours ahead are going to be decisive for safety, but everything is in Wilma’s hands. Incapable of any control over the events, Leo is anxiously waiting to know his fate at any moment.
Buchenwald, 6 February 1939
I have received your letter which I was so looking forward to, and the twenty mark as well. I would ask you to let me know when and from where (which harbour) the steamboat to Shangai is leaving. If the deadline has already expired, I would like to know about the next departure.
I would also like to know where the different documents are. If by chance they were still in your hands, send me copies of them authenticated by a notary straightaway, as well as a copy of the ship ticket. Send me also my English books, without covering letters. What are Georg, Gritz, Otto etc. doing? I hope mother is still in good health and that you all are as well as I am.
I hope that we will meet again really soon. I hug you and I kiss you a thousand times, my darling, and my parents too!
Please, answer immediately!
The last letter is dated 19 March. The tone is as feverish as in the previous one, the possibility of Shangai has vanished, but what is important now is only to leave, it does not matter where to.
Buchenwald, 19 March 1939
Thanks a lot for your dear letter. I have received both postal orders. I don’t care about the destination of the journey. What comes first is the best. I would ask you to have the tickets’ validity extended because I am not sure to be home in time for the departure. Did you hand over the documents to the prescribed addresses? Please wait to send your answer so that your letter will arrive here after the 31st of this month. I hope that all of you are as well as I am. Hugs and kisses to you and my parents.
Leo’s correspondence breaks off at this point. On the 28th of June 1938 he was released from Buchenwald and embarked for England, where he was initially accomodated in Richborough’s reception camp, in Kent, with other 3,500 Jews and refugees escaping from Nazi terror. However, at the outbreak of the war, as he appeared to be a German citizen (like all the Austrians after the Anschluss) andhence a potential enemy of Great Britain, he was moved to Mooragh’s internment camp and stayed there several months, until his status as a political refugee was acknowledged once and for all.
Wilma’s way to freedom was less complicated: after dealing with the last papers she landed in Dover on the 19th of July, 1939. On October 17th she was exempted from internment and acknowledged the status of refugee. Both of them would obtain the British nationality only nine years later. Nine years which were anything but easy: for Leo those were years of hard work in a garage, while Wilma supplemented their income doing different jobs: maid, cook in an old people’s home, clerk for the Lyons, correspondent in foreign languages for Jellinek, shorthand typist for the British Research Office and for the Jewish Reception Committee.
In any case Wilma and Leo could consider themselves lucky: they had made it just in time.
On September 1st , Hitler invaded Poland, sparking off the second world war.
By then 126,445 had fled Austria, while another 2,000 managed to escape until November 10th , 1941, when the Jews’ passports were withdrawn and they were deprived of the German nationality which had been imposed on them after the Anschluss. For those who were trapped in their own country, the destination was by then set: the death camps in Poland.
Leo’s father too, stern Dr. Weldler who has paid for his son’s release, disappeared without a trace in the concentration camp in Theresienstadt.