The memorial plaque for Holocaust survivor Blanka Zmigrod in Frankfurt contains a phrase she uttered not long before her death: Surviving and living as long as she could compensated for what the Nazis did to her.
The man who shot her, who was convicted just four years ago, received a life sentence – on top of one he was already serving. Two months ago, marking the 30th anniversary of Zmigrod's death, the plaque went up where she was killed. A relative from Israel who attended the ceremony, Renee Salzman, was overwhelmed by the tribute to Zmigrod, her mother’s cousin.
“I stand before you today at the age when Blanka was when she was murdered," Salzman said in her eulogy at the ceremony. "I still have energy and plans for the future. Blanka also wanted to live and dreamed about the future.”
Zmigrod was born in 1924 in the city of Chorzow in southern Poland. Her happy childhood was cut short at 15 when World War II broke out. During the war, Zmigrod was deported to the nearby Bedzin Ghetto, then to a labor camp and four concentration camps: Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen, Flossenburg and Mauthausen. She never spoke much about the Holocaust, during which her parents were murdered.
She immigrated to Israel in 1950. Her sister, Ruth, who also survived the Shoah, moved to Canada. Zmigrod met her partner, Shlomo (Sascha) Feldman – also a Holocaust survivor – in Israel. The two never married or had children.
They lived in Tel Aviv, where Zmigrod worked as a waitress at the famous Café Atara on Ben Yehuda Street. “She was a woman filled with life who loved to sing, dance and swim in the Gordon Pool,” Salzman said. “She was an enthusiastic Zionist who loved Israel.”
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In 1960 the couple moved to Germany, where they opened restaurants, hotels and other businesses – and flourished. They lived in Frankfurt and kept in close contact with Salzman, who also lived in Germany at the time.
In the '70s, Zmigrod and Feldman bought an apartment in Tel Aviv and spent their vacations there. Salzman returned to Israel and met up with Zmigrod occasionally.
“We would walk down Dizengoff and Ben Yehuda and go to the beach,” Salzman said. “There was a restaurant she liked where they played Jewish music. She would sing and then laugh that she embarrassed herself.”
But then Zmigrod had a few bad years. In the '80s her businesses fell into a crisis, and Feldman died in 1985. She was living on a small pension, so at 66 she began working in the cloakroom at the Movenpick restaurant in Frankfurt.
On February 23, 1992, on her way home from work, she was shot in the head and killed by John Ausonius, a far-right extremist from Sweden. Zmigrod was buried in Frankfurt's Jewish cemetery alongside Feldman.
Investigators later discovered that a few months before the murder, Ausonius had carried out a series of attacks on immigrants and foreigners in Sweden. He shot 11 people, including people of Eritrean, Palestinian, Brazilian and Chilean origin, even though he was the son of immigrants – a German mother and a Swiss father.
Ten of his victims were wounded and one, an Iranian, died. He also robbed banks to pay for his gambling losses.
When Ausonius believed the police were on his trail, he decided to flee to South Africa and stopped in Germany on the way. After eating in the Movenpick restaurant, he asked for his coat and accused of Zmigrod stealing his electronic diary. The two had a heated argument and he left the restaurant.
A few weeks later he returned and once again accused of Zmigrod stealing – and added a few racist comments. Did he notice the number on her arm? It’s hard to know; it was winter and she usually wore a sweater.
But it might have been hard to miss the Star of David she was wearing. A day and a half later she was dead after he ambushed her at the end of her shift after midnight. He shot her while he was riding on a motorcycle.
The German authorities closed the investigation without solving the murder. A few months after killing Zmigrod, Ausonius was arrested in Sweden after a bank robbery and received a life sentence for his crimes.
The big break came only in 2014, when the German authorities began examining old cases where migrants and foreigners had been attacked; this was part of the investigation into the neo-Nazi underground that murdered nine migrants and foreigners in Germany from 2000 to 2007.
The Frankfurt prosecutor went to Sweden to question Ausonius, who convicted in 2018 in Germany for killing Zmigrod; he had used the same type of gun in Frankfurt and Sweden. He earned the nickname the Laser Man because his victims noticed a red laser dot before they were shot. He is now serving another life sentence in Sweden.
Ruben Gerczikow, a 24-year-old Jewish activist who lives in Frankfurt, was behind a petition last year to commemorate Zmigrod. Another activist involved is a Bundestag member from the Left party, Martina Renner, known for her work against racism.
The initiative drew support from Frankfurt’s Jewish mayor, Peter Feldmann. The plaque was unveiled on February 23, exactly 30 years after the murder, and Salzman is continuing her efforts in memory of her cousin.
This week, at Salzman’s initiative, the names of Blanka’s parents – who died at Auschwitz – will be added to a monument in central Israel commemorating Holocaust victims from the Zaglebie region in southern Poland.
Meanwhile, Salzman is battling the German authorities; she wants to see the case file to learn more about Zmigrod’s murder. And she hopes to get back Blanka's Star of David necklace.