THE SHORT LIVES OF RUTH AND GITTEL SÜSSMANN
Text: Beate Kosmala
The sisters Ruth and Gittel Süssmann are among the children who were taken in by the children’s home in Fehrbelliner Strasse 92 in the early 1940s. Their short lives ended in Auschwitz. When they were deported in August 1944, the girls had experienced an odyssey of living undercover in Berlin and a year’s stay in Weimar, which came to a terrible end when they were discovered by the Gestapo.
The children’s mother, Alice Nickel, survived the Holocaust. She wrote an account of her life trying to escape deportation and her children’s fate for the “Wiener Library” in 1955. 1) In addition, files have survived which include details of Ruth and Brigitte’s short lives. Eva Nickel, who was born after the war, grew up with the memory of her murdered half-sisters.
Little is known of the girls’ father; much more is known about their mother, with whom Ruth and Brigitte lived. Alice Nickel was born in Berlin in 1909, the only child of Jewish parents, Else and Martin Silbermann. Her father dealt in furs and achieved some prosperity. The family lived in Mendelssohnstrasse in Prenzlauer Berg. Both Alice Silbermann’s parents died young – her mother in 1925, her father in 1929 - and she moved, aged 20, to nearby Christinenstrasse 35 to live with her mother’s unmarried sisters, Margarethe and Martha Süssmann, who took in their niece. Both women had jobs and were considered very hard-working. They ran their house themselves, a large house with flats to let, which had been in the Süssmann family’s possession for a long time. 2) They let the shop on the ground floor as a grocer’s shop, which had been run by the Gabriel family since 1924. The Gabriels were believing Catholics and attended the nearby Herz Jesu (Sacred Heart) Church. They were important to pious Jewish families in the neighbourhood, because Frau Gabriel kept a cow in the yard, which provided kosher milk for these customers. They played a significant role for Alice Nickel during the war.
Alice trained as a dressmaker and milliner in M. Gerstel’s fashion shop near Hausvogtei Square. When she married Herbert Süssmann, who owned a small transport company, in 1937, she left Christinenstrasse and she and her husband moved to Prenzlauer Allee 191. Her daughter Ruth Ellen, her first child, was born on 21 November 1937. Alice was 28. Her second daughter was born on 7 September 1939, and her parents gave her the name Gittel, one of the names the Nazis prescribed for Jewish girls. Alice called her daughter Gitti, a Berlin nickname for Brigitte.
When the Germans invaded Poland on 1 September 1939, the Second World War started and the situation for Jews in Germany, already nightmarish, deteriorated drastically. Alice’s happy life fell apart as well. Her husband did not stand by her and the children; the couple separated. They were divorced in 1941. Alice moved back to her aunts’ house in Christinenstrasse with her little girls. However, the situation there had changed dramatically. Margarethe Süssmann had died in 1939 and her sister Martha lived in a flat in her house, which had been declared a “Jewish flat”, deprived of her property and her rights.
After the divorce, Alice had to fight for maintenance for Ruth and Gittel. The children’s father was now forced to work for Siemens and Schuckert in Gartenfeld, Berlin, as a mechanic. His ridiculously small pay packet was distrained and Alice received a small sum for the children’s maintenance directly from the company. Dr Denny Oettinger, the girls’ officially appointed guardian, had effected the distraining order against Herbert Süssmann, Hufelandstrasse 22. On 21 January 1943, Alice Löwenthal was informed that Oskar Israel Guttmann had been appointed as her daughters’ new guardian.3) Everything seemed to indicate a well-organised bureaucratic procedure: the appearance of normality was preserved.
After her the breakdown of her marriage, Alice entered a relationship with a much older man, Adolf Löwenthal, a tradesman and a friend of her father’s. As she later emphasised, he was a loving father to her two daughters. She aimed to escape to Argentina with him and the children, but the plan to emigrate came to nothing. Their furniture was already in store in London, when they discovered that the passports, which had cost them a fortune, were invalid. After 1941, a few days after the deportations “to the east” began throughout the whole German Reich, the Nazis imposed a ban on emigration, which finally took away any chance of escaping legally. The family was trapped.
Alice and Adolf Löwenthal married in 1942. Both had had to perform forced labour since 1940. Alice was relatively fortunate: she worked in a small tailor’s workshop, making army uniforms. The owners were “decent people”, as she says. “My boss’s wife often secretly gave me something for the children: a piece of white bread or cake, an apple or other things which Jews weren’t allowed to buy.”4) Ever since Ruth’s birth, Alice had kept an album in which she lovingly arranged photos of her daughters on outings and at family parties, carefully writing in names and dates, as if to preserve a normal life and a carefree childhood, in the face of the difficult times. Her daughter Eva has kept this album. Alice appears fragile and in need of someone to lean on. Some pictures taken in 1941, showing the children by Scharmützelsee Lake, (not yet wearing the yellow Star of David) are especially appealing.
Ruth probably started to attend the kindergarten in Fehrbelliner Strasse 92 daily in 1941, when she was four years old. Her little sister Gitti was accepted there in 1942, as documents prove.5) After the house was closed down in 1942, the children were moved to the Manheimer’s old people’s home in Schönhauser Allee. The oppressive years from 1941 to early 1943 were a time of relative security with home and family for Ruth and Gitti. Alice was happy too, feeling that her husband took care of her and pampered her; she felt life was “worth living” once more, if it hadn’t been for the threat of deportation, Hitler’s “sword of Damocles”, hanging over them. On 4 September 1942, her 63-year-old aunt, with whom they shared the flat, was deported to Theresienstadt.6) No one was at home when Martha Sussmann was taken away. An oral account states that Elisabeth Gabriel from the shop– or perhaps her mother – tried to give the old lady a food packet. One of the Gestapo knocked it out of her hand.
Up to February 1943, Alice and Adolf Löwenthal were spared deportation, because of their forced labour in work considered essential for the war effort. They could not know that in the Reich Main Security Office (RSHA), the decision was taken in February 1943 to deport all the Jews remaining in Germany in a nationwide raid. On 27 February 1943, “all Jews still working in Berlin” [author’s translation] were to be rounded up and deported, in the course of the so-called 'fabrik-aktion' (factory raid). Within a few days, more than 7,000 people were deported from Berlin to Auschwitz. For many of those who escaped the 'fabrik-aktion', it was the final signal that made them decide to go into hiding.
Alice’s written account of her life in hiding, which forms the basis for this account, begins at this point. Eva Nickel points out that her mother gave different versions after the war, that her story changed over time, that some episodes were added and others omitted.
On that Saturday, 27 February 1943, her husband’s boss, who was not a Nazi, as she emphasises, came to tell her personally that Adolf Löwenthal had been “picked up” that morning from his workplace. He was deported to Auschwitz a few days later, on the 32nd transport from Berlin.7) Alice now had to fear deportation too. “And one knew only too well, one guessed, what would happen then! So, appearing outwardly calm, I got out the big bags, which had been made months before for this eventuality, and started to pack essentials for myself and the children.”8) Whatever it was exactly that she knew or rather guessed, she did not put it into words. The father of her children, Herbert Süssmann, was also caught in the 'fabrik-aktion'. He was deported to Auschwitz two days after Adolf Löwenthal.9)
Alice’s account describes how she phoned from a fellow resident’s flat in Christinenstrasse 35 to say goodbye to non-Jewish friends – Jews were not allowed to have telephones after August 1940 – and her friend begged her to avoid deportation and to go into hiding, for the sake of the children. This man, whose name she does not give, offered to help her. Eva Nickel knows, from what her mother told her, that the phone calls were made from the Gabriels’ shop and that the helpful man must have been Hans Gabriel, the owner’s brother, or possibly Erich Klüsch, her brother-in-law.
At first Alice had the feeling that to escape by “going underground” would be a betrayal of her deported husband, but finally she decided to take this step. She realised that she would probably not be in the same camp as Adolf Löwenthal and was unlikely to be able to stay with the children – these are the reasons she gives in 1955 for the decision which she had to make entirely alone at that time, although she always liked to have other people’s advice. She also states that, in that night of 27 – 28 February 1943, she considered taking the sleeping children in their beds into the kitchen and turning on all four gas taps, to put an end to all the fear and pain. However, deep in her heart she still hoped that her husband would survive, so she soon pushed this idea away.10) After the war, Alice’s thoughts often returned to this idea, as her daughter Eva recalls. When her mother told her about it, it was all much more dramatic: the little beds were already in front of the cooker. Her mother only pulled them away at the last minute.
Alice describes what happened next day: “At five in the morning I dressed my two girls and we left the flat before first light. As I later heard from residents, it was literally the last minute, because the Gestapo drove up at six a.m. to take us away.” An odyssey from place to place now began for the mother and her children. They had to leave their first lodging after only two weeks, for fear of being betrayed. Four-year-old Gitti had talked in front of others about her daddy being picked up by the Gestapo. Because Alice didn’t have anywhere to stay that night, she spent the night with the exhausted children going back and forth through Berlin by tram. She writes a memorable sentence: “For days, I asked various Christian friends for a place to stay, at least for one night. I found lodgings with people who I would never have believed would help. And I was also refused the smallest assistance by people who earlier, in better times, would have called themselves my best friends. They rejected me in such an insulting way that I thought I would go to pieces.”11)
Once again, Alice was found somewhere to stay by a friend’s parents, with “an older lady”, in a suburb of Berlin. Neither the friend nor the suburb is named in the report. Eva Nickel is certain that in spring 1943, Alice and the children were staying with Luise Nickel, a courageous lady who was in the communist resistance, in her house in Strausberg near Berlin.12)
Here the situation became dangerous again, they were betrayed and had to “disappear again”. “I wasn’t conspicuous by myself,” she says, “but the little children!” The chances of a young woman on her own surviving in hiding in Berlin were not bad, but with small children, it was impossible. Alice’s account graphically describes the almost insurmountable difficulties which faced mothers of small children, placing them in an unbearable dilemma. Only relatively few children survived the Holocaust in Germany. Most of them lived in hiding with one or both parents, or stayed elsewhere alone for only a short time.
In this desperate situation, Alice decided to take a great risk: she took a slow train to Weimar, hoping that a former friend of her aunt, who had enjoyed staying in Christinenstrasse in better times, would take them in. If the three had encountered an identity check, a frequent occurrence on express trains, they would not have had the necessary identity papers. Mother and children reached their destination undiscovered, but their acquaintance pretended not to be at home. Later, as Alice was sitting in a simple inn with the exhausted children, not knowing what to do next, something unexpected happened: one of the customers – she calls him Herr Schmidt – spoke to her. He doubted that she would find a room in Weimar before the Whitsun holiday, and offered to put her and the girls up in his flat for a night. Alice told him that their flat in Berlin had been destroyed in an air raid. Over the next few days, the helpful man tried to find a place where the children could stay permanently, so that Alice could go back to her work in Berlin. She spent three nights in Herr Schmidt’s flat (probably not his real name), which he shared with his wife and child. Finally she risked telling her benefactor the truth. “I hated the thought of lying to someone so good and helpful. In the end I told him the truth. He said that he had suspected it, and that now he knew the facts, he was even more willing to help. He told me that he was almost the only Social Democrat left in Weimar who was still alive and free.”13) Eventually, Schmidt found a place for the children with his cousin Elly Möller. He told Alice he had informed Elly of the girls’ origins.
Elly Möller was a housewife and had no children of her own, but a foster daughter was still living with her in 1944. She was prepared to take in six-year-old Ruth and four-year-old Gittel, “although her husband was in the SS and at the front,” as Alice adds. It is not certain whether he was really in the SS or in the army. This must have been around June 1943, i.e. after Whitsun. Alice notes that Herr Möller found out who the children were on his next leave and assured her of his agreement. He said words to the effect that “I don’t have to know everything my wife does while I’m away. I’m sure she does her duty as a human being.”
Then Alice had to part from her children. As she emphasises later, she believed that they were safe. She returned to Berlin with a feeling of relief. In her account, she states “I could see that I could trust this person to look after my children”.14) However, then she adds that once back in Berlin, she was supposed to send a food ration card, which she had to buy on the black market, for each child and money for food to Elly Möller every month. In the following months, she visited the children in Weimar several times. At first she was able to pay these expenses from the money she and Adolf Löwenthal had saved, and by selling the things she had stored in a friends’ flat. When their flat was bombed, she lost everything; from now on she could only keep up the agreed payments if she found work.
During this time she slept “here and there”, staying with “various friends”, whose names she does not give. She only describes one lodging in detail: “For weeks, I slept on the floor of a pet shop […] on a mattress, with a blanket […] But even there, though I was so careful, my presence was noticed […] and people started making pointed remarks to my hosts.” 15) Eva Nickel knows from her mother’s accounts that they must have spent the night in the pet shop earlier, with Ruth and Gitti, before they went to Weimar. However, the children were terribly afraid of the animals in the dark, especially the snakes, which were very restless when there were air raids. Because girls screamed in fear, Alice had to avoid the place as long as they were with her.
In the autumn of 1944, Alice found a refuge with Luise Nickel again, the mother of a non-Jewish friend from younger days. The 59-year-old widow lived in her summer house, after her flat in Prenzlauer Allee 6 was destroyed in an air raid. According to her granddaughter Eva’s description, she was a “true” communist, pacifist and idealist and had been politically active since 1918, when she joined the USPD, the Independent Social Democratic Party of Germany (which no longer exists). She had been used to hard work all her life, and earned her living by ironing. Her granddaughter remembers her as a strong, militant woman who acted cleverly, after careful thought, astute and sharp-tongued. Willy, her only son, was in prison at this time, accused of sabotage; later he was drafted into the 999th Afrika Brigade, a penal military unit. Luise Nickel must be considered the most important, reliable and prudent of Alice’s helpers, although later, during a quarrel, she accused her mother-in-law of having helped her not because she liked her, but just to “get one over Hitler”.
Alice was introduced to Luise Nickel by Trude and Hilde Glase of Prenzlauer Allee, who were friends of Alice’s and of Willy Nickel’s before the war. Their mother, Frau Glase, knew Frau Nickel well and arranged the contact. As Alice herself reports, the brave woman encouraged her to bring others who were living in hiding to her house in Strausberg for a time. Eva Nickel knows that apart from her mother, Trude Razskowski, a relation of Herbert Süssmann, who had been in hiding since 31 January 1943, and Lotte Rattenbach also lived with her grandmother. Rolf Themal was also there sometimes, for a day at a time. All these people survived till Berlin was liberated, although Luise Nickel’s house was visited and searched by the Gestapo several times.
In 1945, Alice managed to take advantage of the confusion arising from the huge numbers of refugees from the east now streaming into Berlin. She claimed to be a refugee and, with Elisabeth Gabriel’s help, acquired an identity card and food ration cards. In this way, she arranged an apparently legal existence for herself under a false name.16)
After the liberation of Berlin in April 1945, Alice did what she had been dreaming of for months: she took the key she had always carried in her handbag, opened her front door in Christinenstrasse 35 and re-entered her own flat. Now her only concern was to fetch her children, of whom she had no news. With the help of the revived Jewish Community in Berlin, Alice tried to make contact with Elly Möller “who had become a good friend” in Weimar. Only now, as she records in her account from 1955, did she hear that her daughters had been “taken away” from Weimar by the Gestapo in autumn 1944. Elly Möller was only saved from “great unpleasantness” by the fact that the American troops advanced unexpectedly fast, adds Alice in 1955. In explanation, she states that “a good friend of Elly Möller, who only guessed that the children were Jewish, but did not know, had denounced them. He acted from motives of revenge against my friend”.17) That is the end of her account. There is a slight sense of doubt as she states elsewhere that “…but I knew my children were in loving hands. Or at least, that is what I believed!”
After the war, at the age of 38, Alice started another family. She married the friend of her young days, Willy, son of Luise Nickel, who had helped her. He was now 42. Their daughter Eva Ruth Brigitte was born in 1948. After the loss of the two children, it is obvious that this could hardly be a happy end after the agonising years of persecution.
On 17 March 1949, Alice Nickel applied to the magistrate of Greater Berlin to discover what had happened to her children. The answer was that Ruth and Brigitte Süssmann were deported on 10 August 1944 on the 56th transport “to the east, destination unknown”. This information seems to have given her reason to hope. Eva Nickel recalls being glued to the radio with her mother, even in the early 1950s, listening to the endless lists of names whose fate was unknown, which were read out on behalf of the Red Cross. Alice did not have death certificates made out for her daughters until the late 1950s.
Alice could not and would not let go of her murdered children. They were always present in her dreams, thoughts and conversation. Photographs of Ruth and Gitti had a special place in the sitting room. A framed portrait of Adolf Löwenthal stood on Alice’s bedside table. When Eva was growing up, her dead sisters were ever-present. Her mother suffered from feelings of guilt and doubt, which she had tried to set at rest in the years immediately after the war. Now they came more and more strongly to the surface. Alice believed that she had abandoned the children; that she should have taken them away from Weimar earlier. Shortly before her death in 1987, she had the fantasy that Ruth and Gitti had returned. There is no written evidence of this. Eva Nickel, who has to bear the burden of the past, is the only person who can tell us about it.
In the early 1980s, Alice was confronted with the full force of the question of what had really happened in Weimar in 1944. The suggestion was made at Yad Vashem, the Israeli Holocaust Memorial site, to honour Elly Möller as one of the “Righteous Among the Nations”, those who had helped save Jews, for her brave attempt to save Ruth and Gittel, among other things. The application came from Wiesbaden, where the old lady now lived in an old people’s home.18) Alice tore up a letter from Jerusalem, in which she was requested to comment on Elly Möller’s actions and her children’s fate, in a fit of despair. The nightmares and crying fits returned. All the doubts, which she had suppressed for a time, came back. As the years passed, she had become less and less convinced of the version of events she had written down in her account in 1955, and now held Elly Möller at least partly guilty of her children’s deportation. Willy Nickel had already tried, soon after the war, to persuade his wife to start an investigation into what had really happened to the children in Weimar. Now her grown-up daughter Eva appealed to her mother to express her doubts in a letter to Yad Vashem. However, Alice flatly refused. In the end, she did not reply at all – probably for fear of being confronted with the true story and with her own guilt feelings. She wanted to have nothing more to do with Elly Möller. She also forbade her daughter to write to Jerusalem.
Even without Alice Nickel’s comments, Elly Möller was finally awarded the honour of the “Righteous”. Proof of the risk she took was provided by a statement made by Alice Löwenthal under oath, dated 9 August 1946. It reads as follows: “I hereby declare that Frau Elly Möller, Weimar, Jahnstrasse 3, looked after and provided for my children in her house for about 1 ½ years, at a time when we had to live in hiding as Jews persecuted by the Nazis. She looked after the children in an exemplary manner. I was also able to stay in her house for months, with her husband’s knowledge, which was very dangerous for her because she knew we are Jewish. She has always been helpful and decent to me in every way. I have often heard her express her disgust at Hitler’s regime and the war and got to know her anti-fascist views.”19) These words, with Alice Löwenthal’s signature, seemed to justify the honour in every way.
This statement was intended to support Elly Möller’s claim as a “victim of fascism”. Alice was willing to do this in 1946; to make the statement more effective, she exaggerated the length of her own stay in Weimar. She had only visited the children from time to time, but never stayed there for months. The food ration cards and money for food were not mentioned. In 1946, Alice could not have known that the children had already been deported on 10 August 1944. But it is striking that in this statement made under oath, she does not say a single word about the fact that the children were betrayed and deported.
Among the papers which Elly Möller - now Elly Hoffmann – sent to Jerusalem is an undated typewritten text from the post-war period. It states the following about Ruth and Gittel Süssmann’s stay: “I could not register the children with the police and so did not receive food ration cards for them. I had to feed them completely illegally with my own food ration.” She adds, “Eventually I had to register the children under false names, and unfortunately they were traced by the Gestapo in December 1943, and I had to struggle with the police until, despite my efforts to cover up the facts, they were taken in June 1944 [!]. They were taken to one of the camps”. The next sentence really makes the reader prick up his ears: “However, Frau Löwenthal was able to escape to Berlin with my help (loan of money etc) and was not discovered”.20) This version completely contradicts Alice Nickel’s account of events.
Elly Möller, who seems no longer to have had a comprehensive grasp of her papers and their exact contents, sent in another document – obviously intended to prove that the children were present in her household – which, however, proves her other statements to be lies. It is a certificate from the Weimar registration office, stamped on 5 January 1944. It states that Frau Möller had correctly registered her foster children Ruth and Brigitte on 15 June 1943 – which almost exactly tallies with the dates given by Alice Nickel - as being in her household after losing everything in the Berlin air raids. They are registered under their real names and birth dates, and above all, their actual last address, Christinenstrasse in Berlin, is given. The surname given is “Tahl”. Frau Möller knew the children’s real surname was Löwenthal. The registration form notes: “food ration card issued for the 58th period. Weimar, 5 January 1944”.
It seems unlikely that the official registration in this form was made with the mother’s agreement. It was fatal for the children. Were Elly Möller’s motives in taking the children in really so pure? Was it fear that made her act so naively and carelessly? In any case, once the children were denounced, she had made it easy to identify them quickly as Jewish children. According to her own account, the Gestapo took the children from her flat in June 1944, but she herself was not prosecuted. Her account states that the children were with her for exactly one year. In 1946, she had Alice confirm that they had been there for 1 ½ years. It is not possible to ask her husband; the barber Albin Möller did not come home after the war. His wife had him pronounced dead in 1946.
Eva Nickel has recently succeeded in finding out more details about the fate of her half-sisters. A document which she found confirms what her Aunt Elisabeth, who continued to run her shop in Christinenstrasse until 1962, told her later. In the summer of 1944, a man from the Gestapo came into the shop and showed photos of Ruth and Gitti. The local customers who were present gave each other signs not to say anything. The man from the Gestapo asked whether these were Frau Löwenthal’s children. Fräulein Gabriel answered quick-wittedly that they hadn’t seen the children for years and that she couldn’t recognise them from the photos. At that, the policeman left the shop. Frau Qualitz, the old janitor’s wife, followed him. She was seen pointing to the windows of the Löwenthal’s flat on the opposite side of the street. This observation proved to be accurate: in Ruth and Gittel Süssmann’s file, there is a document with the following handwritten note: “According to the wife of the janitor of the house, the Jewish children mentioned above were 4 and 6 years old. […] The Süssmann children’s mother is said to be in hiding. The flat is occupied by people whose flat was destroyed in an air raid. 9 October 1944.”21) By this time, the girls were already at the final collecting point for Jews in Berlin, which was set up in the Pathology Department in the Jewish Hospital in Iranische Strasse on 1 March 1944. It was referred to as “Schulstrasse”, where the entrance was located. Alice, who may have been staying very close to the children at that time, thought they were safely in Weimar. After the Gestapo had identified the two girls, seven-year-old Ruth and five-year-old Gittel Süssmann were deported to Auschwitz on 10 August 1944, on the 58th “osttransport” with 36 others. Alice Nickel, who died in 1987, never knew these details. She lived to the end of her life in Christinenstrasse 35, her aunts’ house, which now belongs to her daughter Eva.