Galilee Shoebox Stuffed With Papers Tells Nazi-era Thriller

Diaries, documents tell the tale of a Viennese Jewish family that sought refuge from the Nazis.

Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet
Ofer Aderet

Since she can’t read German, the only thing Hagit Schwartz knew for sure about the shoebox stuffed with letters, diaries and official documents that she brought to the Ghetto Fighters’ House was that it had been her mother’s. Schwartz lives in Kibbutz Ein Hamifratz, just kilometers from the museum in the Western Galilee.

Staff at the museum’s archive gladly accepted the challenge of translating, researching and comprehending the material when they received it about a year ago. What they found was a family saga that reads like a thriller.

It’s the story of a Viennese Jewish family that sought refuge from the Nazis: the son who fought in Spain against Franco and was imprisoned in France and North Africa; the two daughters who became pioneers in pre-state Israel; and the parents, who were murdered by the Nazis.

The story will be told in an article by Lior Inbar in an upcoming issue of Dapim Leheker Hashoah, which is published by the Ghetto Fighters’ House and the University of Haifa.

Hagit Schwartz’s mother, Jehudith - known to all as Jeti (pronounced “Yettie”) - was born in Vienna in 1922 to Lea-Charlotta (nee Bloch) and Moshe Engelmann, the latter a wine trader. She immigrated to Mandate Palestine at the age of 15, a few months after the Nazi occupation of Austria in the spring of 1938. Her ister Frida, who changed her name to Zipora, preceded her.

Their brother, Lezer-Leo (Eliezer), became a Communist and joined the International Brigades to fight in the Spanish Civil War. He was captured by Franco’s fascists and spent time in various prison camps, including in Casablanca. After the British liberated Morocco he joined the Soviet partisans fighting the Nazis and was killed in action in 1945.

On July 13, 1939, Lezer wrote to Jeti, who was then living on Kibbutz Merhavia: “Only when I was fighting in the ranks of the International Brigades alongside my Spanish colleagues against fascism did I understand where my place is.”

On August 9, less than a month later, he wrote: “We marched 40 kilometers, from the Spanish border to the Gurs concentration camp, through a line of soldiers and police. In the camp, Senegalese blacks stood guard over us. The way they treated us ? it was indescribable. If you just looked at them sideways you got a rifle butt to the back. In the first days we barely got any food. We are treated like criminals. Our only crime was to fight Franco’s fascism.”

After his internment in a British prisoner of war camp in Casablanca, from which he wrote to Jeti about his desire to return to Austria “to settle accounts with the [brownshirt] murderers and help with the rebuilding of a free and independent Austria,” Lezer-Leo made his way back to Europe via Palestine. He sent a telegram to his sisters there, asking them to meet him at the Haifa train station, but it arrived a day late.

In a letter to Jeti sent from the station, he expressed his regret at the missed opportunity. “I understand you are half an hour from here,” he wrote. “I’m a soldier in the Red Army and I’m going to the Soviet Union.”

Jeti wrote about the incident as well, in her diary: “An entire half hour he was in Haifa. I will never forget the 30 most precious minutes of my life that I lost irrevocably .... Go in peace, my dear brother, on your battle-filled way. Maybe this time luck will go your way.”

With a group of other would-be illegal immigrants to Palestine, Lea and Moshe Engelmann sailed down the Danube in late 1939 to Yugoslavia, planning to continue on to Romania and then to Palestine. But in the end they were arrested by the Nazis in Kladovo, Serbia, and were murdered.Before setting off from the Danube the Engelmanns wrote to their daughters. In February 1939 Lea wrote: “It would be so beautiful if all my children were nearby and I didn’t have to wait each day breathlessly for the mail. There is a saying here: Children turn into letters, parents into photographs and property into something that cannot be redeemed.

Two months later, in April 1939, Moshe wrote to Jeti: “On Monday, Erev Pesach, we became very sad. When we wanted to sit down to the seder in the evening we cried together, I and dear Mother. We remembered how we celebrated the seder when our dearly beloved children sat together around our table, how beautiful and happy it was, and this time we are completely alone. On the second day of the holiday we felt much better because we received an eight-page letter from Lezer and a letter from you and one from Frida.”

Sisters Jeti and Frida.Credit: courtesy of Ghetto Fighters' House.
Brother Leo.Credit: courtesy of Ghetto Fighters' House.

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