Ursula Michel left her home in Germany in August 1939, on one of the last Kindertransports. Her parents and her younger sister, Lilli, were unable to leave and, in April 1942, were deported and subsequently murdered.
Ursula Rhodes, née Michel, was my mother, and since her death in 2011 I have become involved in a Holocaust education programme initiated by a team in her home town of Ludwigshafen am Rhein. As the work has gone on, I have gradually discovered fresh information about my family, and towards the end of 2015, I applied to the International Tracing Service (now called the Arolsen Archive) at Bad Arolsen in Germany, to enquire for any information on the precise place(s) and date(s) of death of my grandparents and my young aunt. Back came the reply that there was no information on my grandparents beyond what I already knew: there was no trace of them after 1942, and given that their ages then were 58 and 50, their further survival was an impossibility. But Lilli, my young aunt, aged just 14 at the time of her deportation – that was different – she had survived, had lived in Displaced Persons Camps in the late 1940s, married and gone to America in 1949.
The next day I started telling people – and reactions were mixed. My German friends were as stunned as I was; they are well versed in the research which supports Holocaust memorial work and knew what an astounding revelation this was. My English friends all thought it was wonderful news, but I just couldn’t share this view. My mother had lived her life racked with guilt that she had survived and her little sister hadn’t – how could I view Lilli’s survival with untrammelled joy? I could think of three possible reasons why she might not contact her sister, or other family members (my grandmother’s siblings had all escaped persecution) or her friends: that she was very bitter that she had suffered while her sister had escaped, and that she resented this and felt that the family could have done more to help her; that she had been so degraded and abused that she could not face anybody from her previous life; that it wasn’t Lilli at all, that there’d been some sort of mix-up and someone else was using her identity. This final idea was roundly pooh-poohed, so I concentrated on the first two. And they both felt awful.
Then scans of documents arrived in my Inbox. Yes, there was Lilli (or rather, Elisabeth – her full name was Elisabeth Gerda Lilli, and on any document which didn’t give the full name, Elisabeth was used). There she was in DP camps, there she was establishing her eligibility to emigrate, there she was on two passenger lists, but now under her married name Elisabeth D.
I couldn’t let it rest at this, and neither could my German friends. One of them actually tracked her down, via the record of her husband’s death in the 1980s. I had Lilli: I had her address and phone number. Just pick up the phone! But I couldn’t. If Lilli (or Elisabeth D. as she now was) did not want to have contact with her family after her dreadful experiences, I had to realise that she might not want to talk to me, and I had to respect that. On the advice of a friend, I contacted a rabbi in the Orthodox community where Elisabeth lived, and asked for his help. He phoned and called at the apartment, but there was no reply. I did a little research on her address – if this was an apartment building, maybe there was a manager who could help me. What I found was a recent sale record for her apartment: had she moved to supported accommodation (she was now 88)? Or worse, had she died?
I contacted the apartment manager, and also another local synagogue; from one I learned that Elisabeth D. had died in November, from the other that she had died in September. I was heartbroken. But also puzzled by the discrepancy – I’d better try to find a death notice online. But I couldn’t find one – just a very near match, an Elisabeth D. with a different maiden name (S.) who had lived in the same area, had died the previous March, and who had been born…the day before Lilli. This was very strange! The surname D. is not very common, what on earth was going on? Keep searching!
This time I found her name, along with two others, in some land records. Another phone-call, this time to the land registry where I obtained some further information. Now I had contact details for the other two names in the land trust, and with my heart in my mouth I picked up the phone again. The woman who answered listened to what I had to say, and then told me that I was wrong: Elisabeth D. was her late mother, but was not Lilli Michel. She was Romanian, and all the family members were known.
What now? What had gone wrong? All those documents with Lilli’s name on, how had the two identities got crossed? It seemed now that there were two Elisabeths, but which one was my Lilli?
I had already started reading about the DP camps, wanting to try to find clues as to conditions there, as to why Lilli didn’t get in touch with family and friends. I kept coming across references to false documents, and eventually I read that by the end of the 1940s, the occupying American army was virtually encouraging the use of false papers in order to relocate all the camp occupants, so that the camps could be closed. Once more, I began to consider that Lilli’s identity had been used by someone else – Elisabeth S., who married to become Elisabeth D. Once more I was told that this really wouldn’t have happened.
And then: the breakthrough. A friend in Germany obtained a copy of the marriage certificate. All the details for Lilli were correct, and her parents (my grandparents) were correctly named: Ida Maria Gertrud Michel and Heinrich Michel. But their birthplaces, instead of Berlin and Oberlustadt (Pfalz) respectively, were both given as L., Romania – the very town which Elisabeth D.’s daughter had told me her mother came from. This was the first document with deliberately false information, as opposed to documents with correct information, which could potentially have been used by somebody else. And this was the vindication for my suspicions.
Some of my German friends felt that the two girls might have met in a concentration camp, and exchanged personal details, but I never felt that that was likely. There is no evidence to suggest that their paths could have crossed, and my own theory was that this was a process, not a one-off event. I was told that, most unusually, there is no photo-ID card in the files for either Elisabeth. While anybody could forge documents, it seems to me that only somebody on the inside of the bureaucracy could cause documents to vanish.
And now we have all come to the conclusion that Lilli Michel did die in 1942, aged 14.
But why would anybody do this? My own thoughts, backed up by subsequent reading, are that a young Romanian Jewish couple stood at risk of being repatriated to Romania – antisemitic, Communist Romania; and with Communist Romanian nationality it would be difficult to resettle in the USA as they wished. But if one of the couple were German, that would provide far more options. And indeed, they were able to emigrate to the USA, on a journey via two ships. On the passenger list for the first ship, from München to Bremerhaven, Elisabeth D.’s nationality is given as Romanian; and on the second, from Bremerhaven to New York, it is German. She is now free and can enter a new country, albeit with false information. She emigrates to America, and together with her husband she raises a family in a free country. Almost 70 years later, her daughter confirms to the niece of another girl that this is what has happened.
But frustratingly, I could not find out anything about the actual process. Pages of Testimony at Yad Vashem show that tragically Elisabeth D. lost 3 sisters in the Holocaust, but that one sister survived, and lives in Israel today. Perhaps she knew more. I needed to try to make contact – but how?
Remarkably, and quite coincidentally, I later met a rabbi whose mother-in-law works very close to where the sister lives and she arranged an interview. Through this, I learned the following –
“Elisabeth” (actually Esther) and her sister and brother went, after the war, back home to a small village in Romania. Life in communist Romania was very difficult. At one point in time Esther (“Elisabeth”) tried to find a way to get to the USA. The interviewee says that America wasn’t welcoming Jewish refugees, especially from communist countries. Esther (“Elisabeth”) moved to Germany and tried to find a way to get a permit to move to the USA. Assuming the name of a German Jewess (sic) made it possible for her to get a visa to US. I think that Esther waited some 2 years to get a visa to the USA. They bought the name of Lilli Michel in order to facilitate their move to the US. Esther (“Elisabeth”) didn’t know Lilli and didn’t meet her in the camps. It was a “pure” commercial transaction. They paid some $600 for the name and issued a passport on that name. She was officially “Lilli/ Elisabeth” however, her children and others in the family, referred to her as Esther. She was buried with the name Esther.
Further information about the trade in such documents was received from an archivist who works at the Dachau Archive:
It is also possible that the transaction of the documents (or at least their content) was carried out by one of the (mostly Ukrainian) auxiliaries (so called “Trawniki” as they were trained there) who (willingly or unwillingly) assisted the Germans in running the extermination camps. After the war, some of them tried to make it to the Western occupation zones of Germany, attempting to pass as former forced labourers or prisoners of war from Eastern Europe who were afraid of returning to their now communist home countries and, therefore, wanting to emigrate to the US, UK or other “Western” countries of immigration. As such, they could have lived in or at least entered DP camps and interact with the residents which would have been much more complicated for Germans.
The clear implication being that when they left the camps where they had worked, these men took with them documents which they were then able to sell.
And I think that now I probably know as much as I ever will. An extraordinary chapter in my family story.