In search of a forgotten transit camp…
My quest to find out more about my great-grandmother, Lucie Lasker started with the discovery of a postcard in the attic of our house shortly after the death of my mother.
Both my mother and my grandmother – who was married to Martin Cassirer, who was a brother of the famous philosopher Ernst Cassirer, managed to escape from Germany before the onset of the war – my parents in 1938 and my grandparents in 1939 – a remarkably late escape in the circumstances. My great-grandmother living in Berlin, was 69 in 1939 and no doubt felt that she was too old to leave Germany.
My great-grandmother must have been a remarkable person as she encouraged first my mother and then my grandmother to escape before it was too late. How hard it must have been knowing that she was likely never to see her daughter and her grand-daughter. Her only son was murdered by the Nazis and she must have felt both the pain and the isolation of her situation.
I have felt close to Lucie Lasker ever since the discovery of the postcard. In it she writes from a transit camp - Riebnig – to a relative in Sweden – the postcard ends with the words ‘And now all is ended…’ A short time ago I was contacted by the niece of the other person who sent a message on the card – Willy Bodlaender. She told me how moved she was to be able to read what was most likely the last message from her uncle before his death.
Lucie Lasker and Willy Bodlaender no doubt got to know each other in the camp and were both acquainted with Georg Cassirer, the recipient of the card in Sweden. Willy’s wife was a close friend of Vera Cassirer, the wife of Georg Cassirer. Since I read the card I have felt the need to discover more about the conditions in which they were held before their deaths in the concentration camp in Terezin.
I had assumed Riebnig to be a camp in which victims were held for a few days prior to their deportation to the death camps. But the reality was different. Riebnig, (the modern Polish Rybna), a village on the eastern bank of the River Oder was in fact a place to which Jews from Breslau were sent for a considerable period of time before their final journey to the death camps.
Deportation and resettlement came early to Breslau. The Jewish community in Breslau , even though it had been reduced from 25000 to 11000 by 1939, was still seen by the authorities as a threat. The appropriation of Jewish buildings, apartments, old people’s homes, etc, was seen as a means of filling the growing demands caused by the war effort. The outbreak of the war with the Soviet Union increased the pressure on Jewish property. Rather than creating a ghetto as in other cities, the solution was seen in creating special holding camps or Wohnmeingeschaft, including Riebnig.
It is fortunate that the camp at Riebnig has been researched by Professor Alfred Konieczny of the University of Wrozlaw . The camp itself was in a building which had served as a camp for the Reich Labour Service and was designated for 500 persons.
The first inmates arrived in November 1941 and it would appear that they were able to take their furniture with them. This was more likely to have been a cynical ploy to furnish the camp rather than a goodwill gesture by the Nazis. They had to make elaborate declarations leaving their property to the authorities.
The majority of the inmates were both female and elderly and it was clear that Riebnig could not in any way be a work camp. The living conditions were harsh to say the least. Konieczny points out that although little is known about living conditions, there were contemporary accounts that the inmates were begging for bread and looked miserable.
Many of the inmates like my great-grandmother were elderly and likely to be in poor health. It is likely that there were reports reaching them of transports to extermination camps and this will have bred an atmosphere of depression and apathy as they faced the harsh winter of 1941. Konieczny suggests that there were many deaths during the winter of 1941 even though the records were lost. Insult was added to injury as each inmate was required to pay 125 marks per month for their board and lodging.
My great-grandmother together with her acquaintances such as Willy Bodlaender faced a slow and lingering end. There were 7 transports in all from Riebnig to the extermination camps. The inmates will have had to endure seeing their friends depart to unknown destinations. In the card sent at the end of March she knew already that the end could not be far away.
Willy Bodlaender and his wife were deported in April 1942 and Lucie Lasker at the end of August 1942. She was taken with 217 people – 73 men, 143 women, and 2 children. They had to suffer the indignity of being taken back to Breslau where they were held for five days in the ‘Freundehaus’. Those with substantial bank accounts had to sign contracts for the purchase of ‘apartments’ in Theresienstadt – another cynical Nazi ploy.
We know from the records in Yad Vashem that the transport left Breslau on 30th August and that Lucie Lasker was killed on arrival at Theresienstadt. For her and the hundreds of Jews with her in Riebnig , theirs was a lingering death. In the harsh conditions of the winter of 1941 there can have been little hope, perhaps only a gradual feeling of despair.
The discovery of that last postcard, together with an understanding of conditions of the last year of Lucie and those with her such as Willy Bodlaender has been a moving experience. Remembrance is all the more powerful for those of us in the second generation when we can understand the experience of relatives who were victims in the context of the millions of anonymous victims of the Holocaust.
Riebnig does not figure in any history of the Shoah and if it were not for Konieczny’s efforts little attention would have been paid to it. The building which housed the camp in Riebnig is still standing and in 1996 was being used as a store house. As Konieczny points out, the camp deserves a memorial to the victims of who faced a slow, lingering wait there before their final deportation to the death camps – let us hope that this can be achieved before the decade is out.
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