The German artist Gunter Demnig, who originated the idea of the commemorative stepping stones, remembers the victims of the Nazis by installing memorial brass plaques on the pavement in front of their last known address. He cites the Talmud saying that “a person is only forgotten when his or her name is forgotten.” The Stolpersteine in front of the buildings brings back to memory the people who once lived here. Almost every “stone” begins with HERE LIVED . . . One “stone.” One name. One person.
On May 14, 2020, I received this email literally out of the blue. It was from a woman by the name of Veronika Evers, who lived in Holland and apparently found me through my web site. The date of my receiving her email is only significant because of the perseverance involved in what she’s achieved.
This is how her letter began . . .
Dear Mr. Vanlaw,
I now live at Jan van Eijckstraat 11 in Amsterdam, and I’m trying to gather information about the inhabitant’s life in the house during WW II. Because of living in the same place, using the same front door and staircase, and looking out at the same views of the beech tree in the garden, I wanted to know who was living here before us. It is important to teach my daughter the importance of remembering the past.
All over Amsterdam, and especially in my neighborhood, you can find ‘Stolpersteine’ on the pavements in front of houses. There are now commemorative brass plaques or STOLPERSTEINE (lit. “stumbling stones or blocks”) in at least 1200 places all over Europe.
And now, as a result, she intended to place similar Stolpersteine memorial plaques in front of their house in the hope that this memorial would serve as a reminder of the former occupants who lived there and the horror they faced.
Veronika also said, “This is in remembrance of the people living in that house and persecuted by the Nazis. I know very little about the Franken family. Still, thanks to your internet activity, I at least know something about Paul and Käthe.
“I cannot change your family’s lives. But we must do our part to ensure that past atrocities are never repeated.”
That was over two years ago. But Veronika persevered, and on July 19, 2023, she finally put on the commemorative event in front of her house.
For those who don’t know my Uncle Paul’s story, his life, like that of all Jews in Germany, changed dramatically with Hitler’s rise to power in January of 1933. Many Jews had watched his growth over the years and realized what was in store for them. Those who could, came to America, or other parts of the world. But for many like Anne Frank and her family, it was much more convenient to literally just go next door to Holland, with Amsterdam the primary city of choice. Plus, the Netherlands had proven to be a safe haven during WW1, when it had succeeded in remaining neutral.
However, Paul and his wife, Käthe Franken-Rehfisch, remained for five more years in Germany, undoubtedly hoping that Hitler and the Nazis would fall out of favor sometime soon. So, it was only after the horrors of Kristallnacht in 1938, that Paul realized he no longer had a choice but to escape from their homeland as well. But Paul and Kåthe knew they already had family and friends in Amsterdam, which made getting away from the Nazis a bit easier.
Even though they were relative latecomers to Amsterdam, Paul and Käthe were able to find a lovely two-story apartment on Jan van Eijckstraat. It was on two floors, which allowed them to bring in her parents, who got the downstairs unit, while she and Paul had the upstairs. But, tragically, it did not last because 18 months later, the Nazis invaded after all.
However, Paul succeeded in delaying their deportation for longer than many because he, Käthe, and her father, Max Franken, were members of the Joodse Rad, the Jewish Governing Council. But the Nazis still caught up with them on June 20, 1943.
I just learned from Veronika that a fifth Rehfisch/Franken family member was also living in the house. His name was Leo Franken, Max’s brother. But, tragically, he committed suicide months before the Nazis arrested the rest of the family.
From here, Paul and Käthe followed the same path as Anne Frank and her family, along with so many other Jews who were living in Amsterdam and arrested by the Nazis. First, they were sent to the Dutch Transit Camp at Westerbork. Then months later, most were transported to Auschwitz, the notorious death camp in Poland. Or, if not, then to another concentration camp like Bergen-Belsen in Celle, Germany.
Like most, Anne Frank and her family were all transported to Auschwitz. But soon after Anne and her sister, Margot, were shipped to Bergen Belsen, where typhus had become an epidemic that overwhelmed much of the camp. Sadly, Anne and her sister died there. Otto Frank, their father, was the only one in the family to survive.
He had remained in Auschwitz.
However, after Westerbork, Paul and Käthe were sent directly to Bergen-Belsen. But their fate was totally different.
As the war was ending and the Allies were closing in on the notorious concentration camp at Bergen-Belson, the Nazis tried to get rid of the evidence by loading as many prisoners as they could onto three trains. All of them were intended for Theresienstadt, the concentration camp across the Czech border. But only one made it. The second was stopped by American troops before it could get there.
But the third train, which was the last to leave Bergen-Belsen, ended up meandering all over Germany for two weeks in an attempt to find a clear passage to Theresienstadt.
Paul and Käthe were on that train. The typhus epidemic that killed the Frank sisters, was also carried on board by many prisoners, along with other diseases, and many prisoners died because of it. With no food, water, or sanitation facilities on the train, the only salvation was the train’s occasional stops to allow prisoners to bury the dead alongside the train tracks and tend to their own physical needs.
The train became known as “The Lost Transport“!
By the end of two weeks the train had only reached the German village of Tröbitz, near the Czech border. But here the engineer found he could go no farther and fled for his life. A band of German partisans had blocked him from the rear, while a Soviet Army division blocked him from the front.
Although the village initially had around 700 inhabitants, most had fled from the Russians. But many of those who remained, along with the Russian soldiers, helped to liberate the train’s prisoners, while trying to save as many sick and dying as possible. But they couldn’t help but be overwhelmed by 2,000 dead and dying passengers.
Paul was liberated with the others, but he was beyond help. After lingering for two weeks, he died from Typhus on May 5, 1945. Ironically, the German High Command surrendered unconditionally to the Allies only two days later. But it was too late for Käthe as well. She succumbed one week after Paul, on May 12. Together, they were buried in a mass grave adjacent to the old army barracks infirmary at Nordfeld, just outside the town of Tröbitz.