The Photograph


Excerpts from the newly published Letters of Stone by Steven Robins

Growing up in Port Elizabeth in the 1960s and ’70s, I was always aware of a black-and-white postcard-size photograph of three women that stood on a black wooden table in our dining room. I had no idea who these women were other than a vague sense that they were my father’s family and that they had lived and died in Germany during the Second World War.

By the time I was in my teens I had a sense that they were killed in the Holocaust, but it was a vague awareness. I did not even know their names or exactly how they were related to me. Yet this portrait was to follow me around for many years, its subjects always watching me, hovering in the shadows, waiting for me to notice them, and to respond. The haunting expression on the face of the woman on the left had a particular hold over me.

They are dressed in old-fashioned, formal clothing, the older woman wearing a white ruff, the younger ones with white lace bows on their collars. Their expressions seem sombre and despairing. The eyes of the young woman on the right appear to squint. The older woman stares straight ahead and looks tired and forlorn. The woman on the left, the one who always attracted my attention, appears equally melancholy and defeated.

In our home, it felt as if the photograph was never meant to be noticed; as if someone had mistakenly left it on the table in our dining room. Nobody spoke about its subjects, but neither did I ask about them. My brother Michael does not even remember ever seeing it. The picture always stood out to me, though. Every day, those three sad women would stare at us as we ate dinner.

Only when I was an adult did I discover that the women were my grandmother and my aunts. In 1989, as a young anthropology student, I interviewed my father about his life. I learnt then that his mother was named Cecilie, and his two sisters Edith and Hildegard. Edith, the woman on the left of the photograph finally had a name. My father told me that he and his siblings were born in Poland. He had an older brother, Siegfried, and a younger brother, Artur, all born in the 1900s. His sisters Edith and Hildegard were born during the First World War. Erika, the youngest, died in infancy of starvation as a result of the deprivations of the war years.

The family relocated to Berlin during the 1920s, and my father later took a job as a buyer at a big department store in Erfurt.  After the Nazis came to power, he escaped to South Africa in 1936 and settled in Port Elizabeth, where he became a door-to-door salesman selling socks and stockings.  His brother Artur managed to get out two years later and ended up in Ndola in Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia).

The interview, while enlightening, had one gaping hole. I asked my father questions about almost every aspect of his life in Poland and  Germany, but none of my questions addressed what happened to Edith and the rest of his family. I knew his brother Artur – or Arthur, as we called him – who had visited with his family many times when I was a child. But there seemed to be an unstated agreement that the rest of his family were not to be spoken about.

Nadine Fresco alludes to this tendency of Holocaust survivors to withhold information about their traumatic experiences from their children. The stories of death are never told, and are instead acted out symptomatically between parents and children. This “forbidden memory of death” finds expression in attacks of pain that are often veiled behind “a screen of words [and] an unchanging story, a tale repeated over and over again, made up of selections from the war”. The silence in my father’s house was even more profound, as he never said anything to me about the war at all until I interviewed him in his eighties, and even then he said nothing about the family who had remained behind. For me, the single photograph of Edith, her mother and sister came to stand in as the repository for this forbidden memory of loss, death and destruction, for the black hole of silence that suffocated any mention of them.

When my father died at the age of eighty-four, the year after I interviewed him, it seemed as if the opportunity to discover anything about his family had died with him. But the interview had prised open a window into the Robinski family’s past, and I became increasingly determined to uncover the truth about their fates.

I began searching for archival traces and information about a world that no longer existed. At the time, Edith’s photograph was the only access I had to this world. It was, as Roland Barthes put it, an umbilical cord of light, providing a glimmer of hope that would salvage and resuscitate a shattered existence. I looked to this photograph to do the impossible: to mend broken family bonds and bridge my separation from Aunt Edith and my late father. I was asking so much of it.


*****

Apart from his thick German accent and a smattering of Yiddish in his everyday speech, my father revealed virtually nothing about his European roots during my childhood in Port Elizabeth. He had left everything behind when he immigrated to South Africa, and probably assumed that nobody, especially his sons, needed to know about his past.

After initially struggling to make a living in Port Elizabeth, my father found employment as a salesman for a small retail clothing store. By the time he got married, nearly twenty years later – to Ruth Naomi Rom, a South African–born Jewess – he had established his own retail business and was fairly comfortably off. I grew up with the incongruity of having an English-sounding surname, Robins, and a father with a German accent, but neither my brother nor I asked any questions about this.

The interview with my father in 1989 became my window into his life in Europe. Reading the transcript decades later, I am struck by his disbelief that anyone, even his son, would be interested in his history.

STEVEN: Okay, Dad, could you begin by telling me a little bit about your early experiences in Strasburg, things that you remember when you were a little child?

HERBERT: That’s very difficult, I mean, after all, it takes me back sixty years. Sixty years is a long time, more than sixty years, eighty years now as a small child, and what do I remember? It’s not very much. Well I remember my elder brother Siegfried had some fights occasionally and that’s it.

But with some prompting, and as the interview proceeded, he gradually began to open up about his youth.

My grandfather David Robinski, was born in 1878 in Rucken, East Prussia. In 1904, David married my grandmother Cecilie Grünberg, who was born in Grindzaw in East Prussia in 1882. The marriage had been arranged by a shadchen, a traditional Jewish matchmaker who sent David to the Grünberg home in Strasburg to choose a wife from one of their four marriageable daughters.

After David chose Cecilie, they lived in Strasburg, where he opened an inn with a bar and grocery shop. Later they moved to Culmsee (“not much of a town”) where he owned a shoe shop called Salamander Schuhwaren. It was in this small Prussian town, bordering Russia, that my father and his two brothers, Siegfried and Artur were born.

David fought on the Italian front during the war [WW1], and he must have thought this patriotic act would secure his rights as a German citizen. Instead, his war experiences left him thoroughly disillusioned. One day, he tore off his uniform and threw it into the fireplace in disgust. That, a failing business and rising anti-Semitic and anti-German feelings persuaded David Robinski to move westwards, to Berlin, where he arrived in 1920.

*****

A year after my interview with my father I received news from home  that his condition was critical. I arrived at the hospital just in time to say goodbye to him. As his life ebbed away, his eyes stared into mine, and it was as if he was trying to tell me something important. There was so much more that I would have wanted to ask him. There was so much between us that was left unsaid.

*****

In 1996, while attending an American Anthropology Association conference in Washington DC, I took time out from sessions to visit the US Holocaust Memorial Museum. The exhibits, which featured massive piles of shoes, spectacles and suitcases from the death camps, shocked and unsettled me. Other exhibits revealed the complicity of big business and science, and physical anthropology in particular, in the genocide. In one exhibit, prominence was given to German anatomist and physical anthropologist Dr Eugen Fischer, a Nazi scientist whose scientific work led directly to Nazi policy decisions regarding racial classification, and created the conditions for the mass murder of Roma, Sinti and Jews. Another German scientist featured was psychiatrist and physician Robert Ritter, who wrote a report that led the Reich Interior Ministry to issue guidelines in 1936 “On Combatting the Gypsy Plague”, thus setting in motion the processes for extermination.

The museum also provided information about the Nazi euthanasia programme, the use of slave labour at the camps by the Bavarian Motor Works (BMW), the role of IBM in Nazi racial-classification systems, and the fact that more than half of the participants at the 1942 Wannsee Conference, which decided on the Final Solution, had doctoral degrees. It was ultimately German scientists and engineers who volunteered their expertise towards the design and construction of the machinery for mass murder, while businessmen from IBM and pharmaceutical and chemicals company IG Farben were the capitalist cogs in this catastrophe.

Adolf Eichmann, Reinhard Heydrich and countless other Nazi officers and foot soldiers set in motion a series of bureaucratic procedures  that culminated in the murder of my father’s family.

I needed to speak to someone about what I had just experienced, and found a museum staff member, who listened as I told him how disorienting I had found the exhibition. When I mentioned that my father’s family had perished in the Holocaust, he looked for their name in a bulky black book called the Berliner Gedenkbuch. (Its full title is The Memorial Book of the Federal Archives for the Victims of the Persecution of Jews in Germany (1933-1945).) Searching among the pages for surnames that began with the letter R: Reich, Rosen, Rubinstein… he stopped at the names of the six Robinski family members: Cecilie, David, Edith, Hildegard, Siegfried and another Edith (Siegfried’s wife). Next to their names were their addresses in Berlin, dates and places of birth, and dates and places of deportation. My grandparents were the first to be deported, on the 21st Transport to Riga, on 19 October 1942. Hildegard was deported to Auschwitz on 19 February 1943, and on 1 March 1943, my uncle Siegfried was sent on the 31st Transport. Edith was deported to Auschwitz five months later.

I felt like a detective stumbling across the first hard evidence that ties a murderer to a crime scene.

The discovery, to me, seemed similar to those made by members of the TRC when they unearthed the brutal secrets of the apartheid regime. I remember the confusion on the museum worker’s face as he witnessed the satisfaction and relief that passed over me after learning the truth about my family. Perhaps my expression should have revealed shock and sorrow instead. In my mind, however, the terrifyingly mundane, officious details about the Robinski family’s deportation and their final destinations gave substance to their existence.

The preface of the Berliner Gedenkbuch, written by then federal president of Germany Horst Köhler, comes close to capturing what I was experiencing: “This Memorial Book gives those murdered their names and dignity back. It is a memorial and at the same time a reminder that every single life has a name and its own truly unique tragic story.” The knowledge the book imparted would forever change my life, but I could never have imagined at that point where it would lead me – [this] information that had been buried for decades in the black hole of silence in my father’s house.

I decided I needed to go to Berlin, the quintessential city of ghosts. But did the ghosts even want visitors? Would my father have approved, or would he have implored me to firmly close the lid of this dreaded black box of memories?

The Landesarchiv building has holdings that range from tax files documenting the confiscation of Jews’ property to the over 800,000 case files of the Berlin Restitution Offices. An affable librarian, instantly assessing what I wanted, asked for the family name in which I was interested. About 20 minutes later she provided me with photocopies of about 100 pages of official documentation concerning the last days of the Robinski family.

An enormous amount of methodical labour went into the racial classification of Jews and Roma, as well as the documentation of their expropriated property, deportation and extermination.

As I worked my way through my own family’s file, I observed the impersonal bureaucratic rationality of the Nazis in their documentation – what the German Jewish political theorist Hannah Arendt referred to as the banality of evil. The exact details of the Robinskis’ confiscated property and their value were systematically recorded. From having nothing but a single photograph of Edith, her mother and her sister, I now could begin the process of piecing together the story behind these bare facts.

***

The year my father was imprisoned, in 1933, Hitler appointed his favourite racial scientist, Dr Eugen Fischer, as rector of the Friedrich Wilhelm University (now Humboldt University). Fischer was already the director of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute of Anthropology, Human Heredity and Eugenics (KWI-A) in Berlin, and he was one of the signatories of the “Loyalty Oath of German Professors to Adolf Hitler and the National Socialist State”. Fischer became one of the most influential scientists in the Nazis’s implementation of eugenics programmes, which included the forced sterilisation and euthanising of mentally and physically disabled people.

The murder of the Reich’s Jews, which included my family, was underpinned by the science of anthropology, and by eugenics in particular.

In the words of political philosopher Giorgio Agamben, “For the first time in history, the possibilities of the social sciences are made known, and at once it becomes possible both to protect life and to authorise a holocaust”.

***

A significant strand of this story, somewhat surprisingly, begins, not in the heart of metropolitan Europe, but in a remote section of the colonial periphery of southern Africa.

During my 2012 visit to Williston in the Karoo, I learnt about how the mixed-race Basters, despite living under the protection of the Rhenish missionaries at Amandelboom, were dispossessed of their land in the 1860s by trekboer pastoralists and white commercial wool farmers. Losing access to their grazing lands, many had to move northwards, eventually settling in Rehoboth in South West Africa, in 1870.

In 1884, South West Africa became a colony of the German Empire, and the Rehoboth Basters were treated thereafter as an intermediary class of colonial subjects, sandwiched between the indigenous population and white German-speaking colonisers. In 1904, the Herero rebellion erupted and was brutally suppressed. In a letter written in 1904, the German General Lothar von Trotha outlined his strategy for dealing with this rebellion:

I believe that the [Herero] nation as such should be annihilated, or, if this is not possible by tactical measures, [they] have to be expelled from the country. The constant movement of our troops will enable us to find the small groups of the nation who have moved backwards and destroy them gradually.

The survivors of this massacre, the majority of whom were women and children, were herded to detention centres, where they worked as slave labourers for the German military and settlers. Prisoners were categorised into groups designating their suitability for work, and they were issued death certificates even before they died, indicating their “death by exhaustion following privation”.

Eugene Fischer arrived in Rehoboth in 1908. In 1913, Fischer’s ethnography, The Bastards of Rehoboth and the Problem of Miscegenation in Man, was published to widespread acclaim. Its appendix provides practical recommendations for German colonial policy, including the use of Basters as low-level officials, foremen and native police to reinforce German colonial rule. Fischer also recommends that the ban on mixed marriages and racial miscegenation in the German colonies be upheld, which would later influence Nazi laws to promote “the protection of German blood and honour” through what became the Nuremberg Laws.

By the late 1930s, Fischer was one of Germany’s most influential scientists, laying the foundations for Nazi eugenics that would find their ultimate expression in the Final Solution.

♦ Extracts from Letters of Stone, by Steven Robins, published by Penguin.

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