Shadows from the Past

I recently received from Poland some scanned documents relating to my late uncle, Aleksander Blankstein and his second wife Ester. They date from 1941, the year in which the city of Cracow became officially Judenrein.

I felt that as a matter of family piety, I needed to transcribe and translate these documents, which I will eventually pass on to the Wiener Library in London. It is not a pleasant task.

The collection includes two examples of the questionnaire which all Cracow Jews had to fill out as part of the "resettlement" process, a weird mixture of meticulous detail and slapdash improvisation. They had obviously been printed out in a hurry. There are spelling mistakes that you would not expect to find in an official document; I noticed two and I am not a native German speaker. There is even one missing question that had to be inserted by hand (and out of sequence). Yet someone had clearly thought carefully about what and how much information could be extracted from these people.

For example, here is the part of the questionnaire that deals with employment. Those who were not self-employed had to ask their boss to fill it in for them.

a) Name of the business...................................
    Type of business......................................
   Address (Street and house number)......................
b) Since when has this person been employed?..............
c) What work does the named person do (exact details).....
d) Is the employee registered with the health service? yes? no?
e) Is the business controlled by a trust? yes? no?
f) Is the owner Jewish or Aryan?..........................
g) Exact address of owner..................................
h) How many are employed?
...........employees of which ........Jewish ..........Aryan
...........workers of which...........Jewish...........Aryan
i) How many hours are worked per day or per week?
k) How much does the employee earn?
..........hourly ..........weekly ..........monthly
j) Is the employee currently indispensible at work? yes? no?
l) If yes: state grounds............................... 
m) Up to what time will this employee be indispensible?

The last three questions were clearly designed to allow Jews to be removed as soon as possible without the risk of incommoding an Aryan employer.

Even worse is the notice of expulsion from Cracow, insultingly addressed to "The Jew Aleksander Blankstein" and "The Jewess Sara Estera Blankstein" Here is the guts of it:

You must present yourself together with any children under 14 that you may have on 31 Jan 1941 at 8.00 AM, with your personal documents and provisions for three days in the resettlement camp at Lubicz, Krakau, Mogilskastreet 1, Tramline 5. You may take with you up to 25 kg in baggage per person. Any baggage heavier than this will be confiscated.

All property remaining in Krakau must be offered for sale to the Trust Branch Office for the Krakau District, Westring 45. Any attempt to sell on the open market without the permission of the Trust Branch Office is forbidden and will lead to confiscation.

Your apartment must be locked up when you leave, and the key left with the janitor.

Any disobedience of these regulatory arrangements will be severely punished.

Obviously the organization set up for the compulsory purchase of Jewish property would have offered derisory prices. The whole setup was designed to humiliate the Jews and to remind them that they were no longer classed as citizens with legal rights.

Needless to say, my uncle and his second wife did not return alive from wherever it was they were sent to. Nor did my grandfather Emmanuel Blankstein and his wife, or any of her siblings (except for her youngest brother Leo who managed to escape on the last boat out to Palestine). Ironically Alexander's first wife, who was living in Russia with their son Adam did survive. After the war, she married again and settled in Sweden with her second husband.

In Jewish circles, there is a phrase "the Second Generation", which means the generation that was born after the Holocaust, the children of the survivors. On the face of it, we are the luckiest generation that ever lived. Not only did we escape the horrors our parents were subjected to, but we grew up in a world deeply shocked by what had happened and eager to be more tolerant towards Jews in the future. We should be a happy and confident generation. But we are not.

We are haunted by survivors' guilt. We know that if we had been born just a few years earlier, we would not have survived. We grew up with schoolmates who all had grandparents, aunts and uncles, where most of us had only a few cousins who lived abroad. Our childhoods were filled with stories about people we were told we would have loved if we had known them, but they were all dead. Even a brother in my case.

It has been shown that people who have been through a famine not only alter their gene activation patterns to cope with scarcity, but pass these alterations on to their children. It is known as an epigenomic change. There seems to be a psychological equivalent in us, the Second Generation. We are preadapted for things to go wrong. We almost expect it to happen. We know we have been luckier than our parents, lucky beyond our deserts, and we fear that sooner or later, that kind of luck will have to be paid for.
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