Roslyn Eldar is the daughter of Lili Ruttner who was originally from Tacova (Czechoslovakia). Lili and six other family members survived Lübberstedt-Bilohe, a satellite camp of the Neuengamme concentration camp, where they worked in the ammunition production. Out of the six family members two are still alive today: Elizabeth Just, Lili’s younger sister lives in Australia. She is 91 years old. Mindu Hornick, one of Lili’s cousins, lives in the UK aged 89.
Visit to Hamburg in the spring of 2018
The St Nikolai Church in Hamburg is an impressive war memorial that makes you think. The Allied bombing of Hamburg in July 1943 destroyed most of the Church and its ruins are preserved as a Memorial against war.
In the area that used to be the nave is a Bronze sculpture of a man sitting on stones taken from Sandbostel concentration camp. It is called “The Ordeal” and is in memory of the prisoners from Sandbostel, a satellite camp of Neuengamme Concentration Camp .
There is an Inscription on the side of the statue:
No man in the whole world can change the truth. One can only look for the truth, find it, and serve it. The truth is in all places.”
This was written by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German pastor and Nazi dissident, who was executed by the Nazis in April 1945, one month before the end of the war. He “spoke out for those who cannot speak”. This is the very least we can do for those who perished in the Holocaust and those who survived
This is my journal of my family’s pilgrimage to Hamburg, Germany to visit the remains of the ammunition factory where they were imprisoned during WWII.
I have recently returned from an overseas trip that included, surprisingly, 11 days in Hamburg, Germany. I say “surprisingly” as I always felt that I would never step a foot inside Germany. For me the word “Germany” conjures up Nazis and unimaginable sufferings endured by my family, simply because they were Jewish. So how did it come to pass that I was in Hamburg, Germany for 11 days in May this year?
It is said that the journey of 1000 miles begins with a single step. My first step began on 25 July 2016 when I received, an email, out of the blue, from Nechemia Lerch, a distant cousin-in-law in Israel, who I hardly knew. He wrote:
Are you familiar with a testimony, given by your mother which was registered by a Jewish agency rep. a short time after your mother & other 3 cousins were freed from the German camps in May 1945. The doc is kept in Yad Vashem in Jerusalem. I have a copy of the original in German & a Hebrew translation.
Should you like to get it just let me know.
Nechemia explained in further emails, how he found a reference to this Testimony in his mother-in-law’s apartment after she passed away in 2009. Nechemia’s mother-in-law was my cousin, Etu Slyomovic.
Of course, I asked for the testimony straight away. I had no idea my mother had made it. I couldn’t wait to receive it and read it. It is dated 24 July 1945 and is like a voice from the grave. My mother died in 2006. Her testimony is over 70 years old and was done just two and a half months after her Liberation. I found out later it was originally done in Hungarian and was organized by “The National Committee for Attending Deportees “(DEGOB), an Hungarian Jewish Relief Organisation. The staff of the DEGOB recorded the personal stories of approximately 5000 Hungarian Holocaust survivors between 1945-1946. That makes sense as my mother and her family came from Tacova, Czechoslovakia. Tacova (Técső in Hungarian) was occupied by the Hungarians, who were Nazi collaborators, from March 1939, so my mother spoke Hungarian.
I had the German version of the testimony professionally translated twice, to make sure every word and nuance was captured correctly. I read and re-read it. It is a goldmine of information. that is very accurate as it was given so soon after Liberation. My further research confirms everything my mother recounts.
Growing up in Melbourne
When I was growing up in Melbourne, Australia, my mother spoke of her war experiences at times but I realize now she said very little. Amongst the things that I do recall, is that my mother said she was in Auschwitz for three months and that one more day would have killed her. She then worked in an ammunition factory, hidden in a forest, but she never mentioned its name. I think over time she had forgotten it and so had the six other family members who were also imprisoned there.
I never thought much about it, I never asked questions. It was all too hard, it was” too close to the bone”.
Now her testimony, appearing suddenly, made me curious. It provided so much information and yet it also left me with so many unanswered questions. I wanted to know everything and with the internet I was able to do a lot of research.
A year and a half of research
My next step was to contact Yad Vashem. A research assistant named Timorah Perel guided me in my quest during the following year and a half. She gave me many leads to follow and wrote back clearly in perfect English answering my numerous questions. My first goal was to find the name of the ammunition factory and where it was located. Although my mother’s testimony noted “Lieberstedt near Bremen” I did not realize it was in fact the name of the ammunition factory, spelt incorrectly on the Testimony. Timoreh suggested I contact the Memorial for the Neuengamme Concentration Camp (the “Memorial”) in Germany for assistance in locating the ammunition factory.
The slave labor camp
And so more steps followed. I wrote to the website of Neuengamme Memorial in September 2016. I received a prompt reply from the Memorials’ archivist, Alyn Bessman, in English:
….From the information provided by your mother to DEGOB in 1945, I could conclude that your mother and her relatives must have been transported from Auschwitz to Lübberstedt-Bilohe, one of the numerous satellite camps of the Neuengamme concentration camp. The prisoners there had to work for the “Lufthauptmunitionsanstalt Lübberstedt”, an ammunition factory of the German Airforce.”
In other words, my mother and her family were slave laborers for the “Luftwaffe” (“air force”), making bombs and grenades for Germany during World War II. Their factory camp was situated near Hamburg, in a forest between two small towns: Axstedt and Lübberstedt. The Lufthauptmunitionsanstalt Lübberstedt is colloquially referred to as Muna Lübberstedt or simply Muna. It is also sometimes called Lübberstedt-Bilohe, as it was also near the town Bilohe.
The word “Holocaust” is associated with the brutality of extermination camps such as Auschwitz-Birkenau and the murder of European Jews but little is known of the plight of the slave labourers. The Neuengamme Concertation camp established over 85 slave labour satellite camps in northern and central Germany between 1942 and 1945. These ‘subcamps’, became camps of their own, all under the administration of Neuengamme. At the end of 1944, there were approximately 37,000-39,000 slave labourers in these camps, including my family in Muna Lübberstedt.
More than 20 subcamps were in the Hamburg area. Due to the progression of the war there was a lack of German civilian workers, as they had been sent to the front to fight. Supplying cheap slave labour from Neuengamme to nearby businesses became profitable for the SS, the industrialists and also for local politicians. The SS were the ones who actually received the salaries of the slave labourers, as Neuengamme was established by the SS. (Editor’s note: You can find a list of all the Neuengamme satellite camps with short explanations here.)
Alyn also informed me that in the archives of the Memorial there is an interview by another former prisoner of Muna Lübberstedt, named Barbara Lorber (née Kallos.) In this interview, Barbara states that in Lübberstedt, she shared barracks with her friend, Lily Ruttner.
My mother was Lily Ruttner. I had found the ammunition factory for sure. I was thrilled.
I asked Alyn for a copy of Barbara Lorber’s interview. Barbara’s testimony is long and rich in detail. I wrote to Timoreh at Yad Vashem again asking if she knew whether Barbara Lorber was still alive. I was given Barbara’s last known contact details from 2012 in Netanya, Israel. It was now 2016, four years later. I called Barbara and to my joy and relief, she answered the phone. She was then aged 90. Barbara understood who I was immediately. She informed me that she had been a close childhood friend of my mother in Tacova before the war. I remain in regular contact with Barbara to this day via email and phone calls.
The life of the slave labourers in Lübberstedt
I continued my journey for information. I obtained numerous testimonies made by survivors of Lübberstedt from Timoreh at Yad Vashem, Alyn at the Memorial in Germany and also from the Federal Archives in Ludwigsburg, Germany. A picture slowly emerged of the life of a slave labourer in Lübberstedt.
Alyn asked me for any information about my family of survivors for the Memorial’s Archives. I gave her the details of my seven family members who all came from Tacova, or very nearby, in Czechoslovakia.
They are as follow:
- Berta Ruttner (nee Slyomovics), my maternal grandmother. She was 45 during the war. She later migrated to Adelaide, Australia, and died in the 1980s.
- Lily Hellinger (nee Ruttner, my mother and Berta’s oldest daughter. She was 19 during the war. She later migrated to Melbourne, Australia, and died 2nd January 2006.
- Elizabeth Just (nee Ruttner), my aunt and Berta’s youngest daughter. She was 17 during the war. She lives in Melbourne, Australia, aged 90 at the time of writing this in June 2018.
- Etu Rothenberg (nee Slyomovics), my cousin and Nechemmia Lerch’s mother-in-law. She was aged 19 during the war. She migrated to Israel and died 13 August 2009
- Honi August (nee Slyomovics), my cousin and Etu’s younger sister. She was 18 during the war migrated to the U.S. and died 15 May 1981.
- Baylu Parush (nee Berta Klein), my cousin. She was 17 during the war. She migrated to Melbourne, Australia, and died 14 July 2010.
- Mindu Hornick (nee Klein), my cousin and Baylu’s younger sister. She was 15 during war. She lives in Birmingham, UK, aged 89 at the time of writing this in June 2018.
I informed Alyn about my cousin Mindu Horncik’s voluntary work in the last decade as one of the foremost educators on the Holocaust in the Midlands, U.K. Mindu goes to various schools and other organizations, such as anti-hate groups in the UK, twice weekly, to talk of the impact of war and the Holocaust. She campaigns tirelessly to disavow prejudice, in all its forms.
Commemorative Services in Northern Germany
Alyn then told me there are public tours of Lübberstedt once a month and that annually there are two International Commemorative Services on Liberation day, the 3rd May. One Service is at the Cap Arcona Memorial on the Bay of Lubeck, and the other at the grounds of the former Neuengamme Concentration Camp. All three places are near Hamburg city.
Emails passed and slowly it was arranged that Mindu would travel from Birmingham (UK) with one daughter and her two grandchildren. Barbara would travel from Netanya (Israel) with her twin grandsons. I would travel from Melbourne, Australia to Hamburg to attend the Services together. We would also be given a private tour of Lübberstedt. Unfortunately, my aunt Elizabeth Just in Melbourne was too frail to attend.
The Memorial, through its funding from the German government and private contributors, paid for the travel, accommodation and some meals for Mindu, Barbara and some of their family members who accompanied them. It also provided a daily minder for Mindu and Barbara each, with pick-up from and drop-off to Hamburg airport. In return, the Survivors would give video recorded interviews to the Memorial and participate in educational talks to the German public, including school children. Unknown to me, I was about to experience how certain sections of the German population, post-war, preserve and honour the memory of those who perished and those who survived, and how they do their utmost to educate the public to ensure this will never happen again.
I decided to arrive in Hamburg well before the others to enjoy a few days as a tourist. I was able to put aside my inner dictum “I would never step foot in Germany” for this momentous reunion and even use the occasion to do a bit of touring.
It was during a guided tour of the inside of Hamburg’s magnificent City Hall (“Rathaus” in German) that I was taken aback by the tour guide, who, halfway through the tour, said the following.
You are tourists visiting pretty sites. There are many pretty things to see here in Hamburg, but there are also things that are not pretty. One hour from Hamburg is Neuengamme Concentration Camp Memorial. You should all go to visit it. At school we are taught about the Holocaust and at times it interested me, other times it frustrated me. Then I matured and I visited Neuengamme. Today it’s an important reminder as the far right is rising again and it stands as proof to Holocaust deniers.”
Well that was totally unexpected and moved me. As I later passed by the guide I told her my mother was in Muna Lübberstedt and I’m here for the commemorative services of Liberation Day. She replied: “So that’s why you are here. I hope you are feeling ok here? I said “Yes, it’s a beautiful city.” I was surprised by my own answer, but more surprised by her sensitivity.
On Saturday afternoon, the 28 April 2018, Alyn Bessman met me at my hotel. Over 200 emails had passed between us in the period of one year and eight months in which I had asked questions that Alyn answered in perfect English. We shared a cup of tea in the foyer of the hotel for about one and a half hrs.
When I asked Alyn what made her interested in the topic she said:
How can you not be interested in it!”
Of course, it is this kind of “attraction” to the Holocaust that makes her such a valuable source of information and assistance for me. I appreciated spending this private, quiet time with her. Without her help none of this story would have happened. Alyn told me that each day she receives between 6 to 10 requests from 3rd generation and now 4th generation descendants of survivors. This is why it is so important to document this now for the future generations who want to know what happened to their forefathers during WWII and how they came to live in Australia after the war.
On Tuesday, 1st May 2018, I met my cousin Mindu, her daughter Nicola and her two grandchildren Bibi Herron and Alex Foster in the lobby of our hotel in Hamburg. I had last seen Mindu and Nicola in Birmingham in 2012 and I had only met Bibi and Alex once before in London in 2005. It was truly wonderful to reconnect with them all. The war had dispersed all the family survivors. In my wildest of imaginings, I would never have thought we would re-connect in Hamburg, in these circumstances.
A public talk at Baseler Hof Hotel, Hamburg
On the evening of Wednesday, 2nd May 2018, at the Baseler Hof Hotel, Mindu and her family gave a public talk organized by the Neuengamme Memorial. Mindu spoke about her persecution during the Nazi regime, her imprisonment in Auschwitz and Muna Lübberstedt and how these experiences affected her life. Her daughter and grandchildren also spoke about how Mindu’s war experiences affected their lives. The event was moderated by Ulrike Jensen, a historian from the Neuengamme Concentration Camp Memorial. About 150 people attended, mostly younger Germans.
Once again, I was impressed that Germans wanted to hear a Survivor, and her children talk. Mindu cried quite a bit, re-telling horror stories of the death of her father, mother and two younger brothers. The public listened and asked questions at the end, always thanking her for giving the talk and showing, in their manner, how humbled and respectful they feel towards her. They asked Mindu questions on her Faith post-war.
She answered that she came from an Orthodox family, but after the war she had lost her faith. However, she later went, as an orphan, to live with her uncle Zoli Slyomovics in Birmingham (UK). He was married with three young children and he had a religious household. Mindu found love and security in the family. They restored her faith in the human race.
To the question what it was like to stand before Dr Mengele, her answer: “Terrifying. With the wave of one hand you either lived or died.” In response to the question of what it’s like to be in Germany now she replied that it was her time returning. She had never known name of the ammunition factory or where it was until recently. She had stayed away from Germany for 73 years.
Somebody wanted to know how Mindu feels about events in the world today. She admitted that she is very distressed to see the symptoms of fascism and racism rising again. In response to what motivated her to stay alive, she answered that the survival instinct is very strong, that she was with family and that helped.
Mindu on why she gives these talks:
To warn future generations not to let this ever happen again.
On what she missed most, apart from food:
Food … security, my own bed, my family.
We stayed back long after it was over chatting to the audience who stayed behind too. It was a very rewarding and revealing event.
Most importantly it was here I met Barbara Lorber and her twin grandsons Daniel and Aviv Bar-On who had also just arrived in Hamburg the day before from Israel.
Barbara and Mindu met here, too, for the first time in 73 years, that is, since their Liberation in 1945. It was an extraordinary evening filled with much warmth from the public and hugs between family and family friends from the “old country”, reunited, incredibly, in Hamburg.
Alyn also attended this event, and I also met Hartmut Oberstech, the second in charge of the “Muna working group” the voluntary organisation that preserves the area of the former ammunition factory.