The deportation of Käthe and Julius Schoeps to Theresienstadt in June 1942
What happened at that time?
The deportation of my grandparents Käthe and Julius Schoeps to the Theresienstadt concentration camp in June 1942.
[Keynote Speech given by Julius H. Schoeps at the Terezín Declaration Conference during the Czech Presidency of the Council of the EU, Nov. 2-4, 2022]
We are more or less well-informed about what happened to the Jews in Hitler’s Germany and the areas later occupied by the Nazis from history books. However, we still know comparatively little about the fates of many individuals. This is also true for my grandparents Käthe and Julius Schoeps.
Like so many other German Jews, they both followed a long, hard road.
When Reinhard Heydrich, the Chef der Sicherheitspolizei (Chief of the Reich Security Main Office) and Stellvertretender Reichsprotektor (Deputy/Acting Reich-Protector) in Prague, was assassinated by Czech resistance fighters on June 4, 1942, shortly thereafter 500 Berlin Jews were rounded up as a kind of “payback”. Half were immediately shot; the other half were “pardoned” with deportation. My grandfather, Julius Schoeps, is thought to have been among those “pardoned” that way.
On that very same day, my grandfather, along with the others who had been “pardoned”, was brought to Theresienstadt in Bohemia (Terezín in Czech) in a freight car. My grandmother, who was 22 years younger than my grandfather, went along with him voluntarily. She did not want her husband to face his fate on his own and decided to stay by his side. Until the deportation they were forced to live in a so-called Judenwohnung, which they shared with other Jews. Their assets had already been confiscated by the authorities.
Just in time they had received the news that their eagerly awaited first grandchild – that is, yours truly – had been born in Swedish exile, and they were happy that the child was named after his grandfather. In the letter they sent from Theresienstadt to congratulate the new parents, they cautioned their son and his wife against any decisions that might possibly cause problems for the child in the future.
“I don’t think it’s right,” remarked my grandmother, “to have the child circumcised and raise him as a Jew. On the basis of my experiences, I am 100% in favor of assimilation”. My father did not follow this advice in his Swedish exile. He had his son circumcised and endeavored to raise him in the Jewish tradition.
In a letter that my father had written in 1943 and that was given to me 12 years later, on the day of my Bar Mitzvah in former West Germany, he stated:
"Ich konnte als Dein Vater nichts andres tun als für das Selbstverständliche sorgen, daß Du in den Bund der Beschneidung aufgenommen wurdest und daß Du nach Möglichkeit eine jüdisch-religiöse Erziehung erhältst. Nach jüdischem Brauch bist Du mit dem heutigen Tag mündig und es ist in Deine Hand gelegt, wie Du es mit der Thora halten willst." (As your father, I could not do anything other than what was natural and ensure that you were accepted into the covenant of circumcision and that you receive a Jewish religious education as far as possible. According to Jewish tradition, you have come of age today and it is now up to you how you want to keep the Torah.)
But let’s get back to my grandfather, to Julius Schoeps, who was born in 1864 in Neuenburg in West Prussia as the son of a brickyard owner. After studying medicine and obtaining his license to practice, he worked as a doctor in Berlin for 47 years.
For all his life, Julius Schoeps identified as a Prussian and professed his allegiance to the monarchy and the house of Hohenzollern. He was particularly proud of the fact that he had concluded his period of military service as a “one-year volunteer”. He had a particular attachment to the Zweites Garde-Dragoner-Regiment “Kaiserin Alexandra von Russland” (2nd Guards Dragoons “Empress Alexandra of Russia”), in which he served as the only Jew among his fellow soldiers.
When the Nazis revoked my grandfather’s license at the end of the 1930s, which meant that he would only be allowed to practice as a “healer” for “non-Aryans” anymore, he stopped practicing medicine altogether. However, he indignantly rejected the idea of emigrating: “Ich habe nichts Falsches getan. Ich habe keinen Grund mein Vaterland zu verlassen.” (“I have done nothing wrong; I have no reason to leave my fatherland.”). He, like many other German Jews, thought that while Hitler and the Nazis were indeed evil, horribly evil, they too would pass.
Like all the other remaining Jews in Germany, my grandparents had to take on the middle names “Israel” or “Sara” and wear the yellow badge. They did so unquestioningly because they just could not imagine going against the orders of the authorities. In their view, it was simply impossible that the authorities would act unlawfully. When they finally did apply to leave the country, it was already too late.
At the end of 1941, Jews were forbidden from emigrating by the German authorities. In the surviving family papers, there is a small, inconspicuous piece of paper with vital records data in my grandmother’s handwriting. I can only guess which detours this piece of paper has taken to wind up in my possession. My grandmother had probably sent it to my father to apply for an entry visa to Sweden as he would need the information to fill in the forms. My father kept it. Today it is an historical document.
But back to my grandfather. He died half a year after his deportation to Theresienstadt, shortly after his 79th birthday. The cause of his death was an untreated uremia. The extent to which the brutalization of human behavior was becoming rampant would be apparent a little while later.
At the end of 1942, the dead were no longer being buried, but cremated, which goes against Jewish law. The so-called ghetto Theresienstadt operated its own crematorium for this purpose. The ashes of my grandfather were put into a box and stored with 20,000 other boxes containing the ashes of cremated Jews.
In November 1944, the older Jewish women still remaining in the camp were forced to pour out the ashes of the dead into the nearby Eger-River. My grandmother did not have to witness this; it would have caused her great agony.
My father, Hans-Joachim Schoeps, learned of his father’s death from the fact that my grandmother had added the word “widow” on the delivery receipt of a package. A letter from Theresienstadt dated January 1, 1943 later reached him, which said:
"On December 27 (1942) your dear father died after a long illness. I was with him in his last hour, he did not suffer and passed away gently in his sleep. His last joy was your sweet card that I had to read to him over and over."
In the aforementioned letter I received on my Bar Mitzvah, 12 years after my father had composed it, there is a passage that is worth mentioning as it refers my grandfather:
"He [Julius Schoeps] no longer had an inner relationship to the Jewish religion, which was in keeping with the scientific mindset of his time. But he always rejected the idea of being baptized. Around 1890, the colonel of the regiment he served in as a doctor suggested it to him and told him that if he did it, he would have a brilliant career as a soldier ahead of him. Your grandfather said no because he was a man of honor. And even so, he was promoted to a medical staff officer with the rank of major in World War I."
And further in this letter it is noted that every human being stands in a chain of blood and memory, “which for the Jews according to our faith”, so my father “reaches back to the Sinai.” He concluded: “This is a great mystery: you too have stood there, all the promises and threats of punishment, the commandments of the Thora as guiding principles for life and the coming redemption of all guilt apply to you too.”
"Das Gedenken der Kette, das sichron awotejnu, ist deshalb für uns so wichtig. Das Heraustreten aus ihr ist der geistige Tod: Aber solange noch ein jüdisches Kind nach seinem Vater Kaddisch sagt, solange gibt es Judentum und – dies ist das zweite Geheimnis – solange gibt es individuelle Unsterblichkeit." (The idea of the chain, the zikhron avotaynu, is herefore so important for us. Leaving it is spiritual death: but as long as a Jewish child says the kaddish after his father, there will be Judaism and – this is the second secret – there will be individual immortality.)
On May 18, 1944, my grandmother was deported from Theresienstadt to Auschwitz under the transport number Eb 2263. In a letter from Rabbi Leo Baeck to my father, sent after the war on January 21, 1946, he wrote: “I was with together with your mother as much as possible, and it was always a good hour when I saw her and listened to her. Even though she suffered badly from all of the misery, as we all did, she still endured. She was housed in one of the large barracks … To my great sorrow, in May 1944, your mother … was taken to the East.”
Like most of the other unfortunate people in the transport, my grandmother was probably sent straight to the gas chambers on arrival at Auschwitz. Her last surviving written sign of life is the delivery receipt from a package that my father sent her from Sweden in 1944. It is dated March 10, 1944 and contains the handwritten remark: “The package made me very happy, particularly the fruit and sweets”.
A childhood friend of my father’s, the actress and director Käthe Starke-Goldschmidt, who survived Theresienstadt, was probably the last of her acquaintances to see my grandmother alive. She spoke to her shortly before her deportation to Auschwitz. In her memoirs “Der Führer schenkt den Juden eine Stadt” (“The Führer Gives the Jews a city”), there is a short passage in which she paints a picture of my grandmother with just a few, yet very insightful strokes: “With her light blue headscarf she looked very delicate and young…”
According to the historical sources, between November 14, 1941 and April 20, 1945, 140,000 Jews were brought to Theresienstadt. Of these 33 000 died there, 88 000 were deported to the death camps and 19 000 were still alive when the ghetto was liberated. My grandparents were not among them.
Today, we are living, praise God (Baruch HaShem), in different times. In today’s Bundesrepublik Deutschland (Federal Republic of Germany), people have come to understand what has been lost with the former German Jewry as for example the soldiers of the Sanitätsregiment 1 (medical regiment) in the Bundeswehr, the German Armed Forces. They understand – and acknowlegde that loss every December with the commemoration of the anniversary of the death of medical staff officer Sanitätsrat Dr. Julius Schoeps, my grandfather.
Every year, a military ceremony takes place at a memorial created for Julius Schoeps on the grounds of the Sanitätsregiment in Berlin-Kladow. For my grandfather, if he were to experience this ceremony in person today, it would likely give him a sense of belated satisfaction.
Otherwise, the only reminder of my grandparents and their fates today is the rather hidden family grave at the Weissensee Jewish Cemetery in Berlin. Although they did not find their final resting place there, I arranged to have a stonemason engrave their names and dates of birth and death on the headstone.
According to Jewish custom, the person who visits such a place lays a small pebble on the gravestone in memory of the deceased. In this way, not only those who have found their final resting place are commemorated, but also those who died in the Shoah, like my grandparents, Käthe and Julius Schoeps.