Erika Haitner, born on 23 May 1927 in Berlin and Meta Haitner, born on 28 November 1928 in Berlin
Very little information had emerged about these two girls; I only knew that they had been friends of Regina Steinitz. They did not survive, as Regina did, but were deported to Auschwitz on 29 November 1942 and murdered there. Apart from a photo of Meta and Erika Haitner, there was nothing.
An email from England reached me in late October 2009. A great-niece of the two girls, who now lives in England, was trying to trace her familiy on the Internet and came across my website there. She read the little information given there, which I had found years earlier. This was the start of a lively correspondence. Lisa told me about her grandfather Leo, born in Berlin on 19 October 1922. He was Erika and Meta’s brother. The whole family, including the parents, David and Lisbeth, lived at Lothringer Strasse 55, nowadays called Torstrasse, in Mitte district in Berlin.
Leo was able to escape and emigrate to England alone at the age of 16 with the ORT organisation. He lived in a hostel in Leeds and worked for the Rakusens Matzo company. His father David, a Jew born in Poland, was deported to Sachsenhausen concentration camp in September 1939, after the outbreak of the Second World War. He was released only on condition that he leave Germany immediately. Leo’s parents, David and Lisbeth, were able to emigrate illegally to Palestine in late December 1939. The girls had to stay behind. The Palestine Office had promised to organise their emigration at a later date. However, unfortunately this did not prove possible.
All three children attended the kindergarten when small and the two girls lived in the Jewish children’s home until it was closed in the summer of 1942. A Frau Sonnenthal is also mentioned at Fehrbelliner Strasse No. 8 in the years up to 1939; she must have been the children's grandmother, because their mother’s maiden name was Sonnenthal. The girls' brother Leo sent all his news from England to this address. The other family members were no longer in Berlin by that time.
Lisa announced that she was coming to Berlin, so I approached the archives once again. I was sent documents such as transport lists and declarations of property (Vermögenserklärung) and also learnt the girls' last address in Marburger Strasse 5.
The house contained a nursery, an old people’s home, a training centre for kindergarten workers and probably a restaurant. Erika and Meta had to do forced labour as teenage assistants there, because they were now over 12.
Confirmation of the father David's imprisonment as a Polish Jew in Sachsenhausen for four months between 13 September 1939 and 7 December 1939 was also sent to me from Sachsenhausen. When we went to Sachsenhausen Memorial on the second day of Lisa and her mother’s visit, we found Leo's name among the more than 500 names in the exhibition.
When Lisa and her mother Ruth came to Berlin and we met, their two-day visit was packed with activity and emotion. We visited the former Jewish children’s home together and all the other locations known from Erika and Meta’s lives. In particular, we spent a great deal of time explaining all the new German documents, which the family can’t read as English is now their mother tongue. We saw the girls’ childish signatures under the declaration of property and realised that they had known that their brother was in England and that the parents had not been granted asylum in Palestine but were deported on to Mauritius.
On the transport list, there are three names of teenagers among the 17 names of small children aged between 1 and 6.
When the family got back to England, they looked at all the documents the family still had and found, among other things, the Red Cross cards which could be used for correspondence in the first years of the war.
They also found a detailed report from David, in which he describes their journey of escape. During the first break in the journey in Pressburg (now Bratislava), they received letters every two weeks from Erika and Meta and still hoped that the two girls would soon be able to follow them.
The Haitner parents' journey of escape lasted altogether until 1945. They reached Palestine for the first time at the same time as Judith Caro in November 1940 (see also Judith Caro), but not on the Pacific but on the Atlantik, an ancient rustbucket of a ship from 1880. However, they were not allowed to stay in Palestine, but were forced to embark on another ship after a week in Atlith camp. Their flight only ended six months later in Mauritius. From September 1941 onwards, the father David described their journey to his sister in Australia in over 30 letters. He described their relief that they weren’t already on the ship Patria when they saw it sinking by the port of Haifa: the families with children were already on board, but their three children weren’t with them!
Otherwise they would also have been on board. They keep expressing their hope that they would soon see their children again. They tried to send news to Berlin via the Red Cross. They didn't hear anything until February 1942, when an answer arrived from Berlin, to their great joy. Erika and Meta were still living in the Jewish children's home at that time. They wrote in the last documents:
In 1945 it at last became possible for the parents to go to Palestine. Leo in England was the first to learn that his two sisters in Berlin had not survived. When he told his parents, his father wanted to commit suicide at once, but his wife just managed to prevent him at the last minute.
In later years, the parents always lit candles on the girls' birthdays. How did they cope with the loss?
The story no longer seemed so immediate and personal for later generations of the family. However, that soon changed as we worked through it together. Looking at the pictures and documents, I gained a sense of the hope, fear and despair which the girls must have lived through at that time, before they were deported to Auschwitz on 29 November 1942 and murdered.
The history of my family has been changed thanks to my daughter Lisa finding the website and contacting Inge Franken. I have always lived with my grandparents sadness and despair at knowing their two daughters had died, and not knowing where. Now it is managed to fill in some of the missing pieces for us. It has been a very emotional time. We visited Berlin not really knowing what to expect. We went together to the former Jewish Children' s home that the girls were in which brought out many emotions. For me, the most moving one was seeing the painting on the wall of the steps leading to the 'black hole', and on each step the name of a child who had died. It was seeing Erika and Meta's name for the first time, it seemed to bring them to life for me. When I was a child, I used to stay at my grandparents house every school holiday and every weekend, it was as though I became their surrogate daughter. There were two large photographs on the wall of the two girls. I would catch my grandmother staring at them with tears in her eyes all the time. Now I am a parent, I can only imagine the torment she must have felt knowing that she had not been there for her 'little' girls. And that is what Erika and Meta were to me, just 2 photographs on a wall, that is until I came to Berlin, and it was so kindly managed to find out so much information and we were guided through what must have been part of their lives. We went together to Sachenhausen where my grandfather had been. I managed to find his name on a list of one days prisoners that entered the camp. I could not believe that out of all of the hundreds and thousands of prisoners that entered Sachenhausen, I should find my grandfathers name in the museum. I think somebody, somewhere was saying that I was meant to have been there! I cannot thank enough for all you have done, and all of the work you are still doing, not just for myself, but for all of the past children of the home and their families now.