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Discovering What Happened to My Great-Grandfather in the Holocaust

February 28, 2021 | by Dr. Yvette Alt Miller

A new memorial helped me learn about his deportation to the Lodz Ghetto 80 years ago.

After a lifetime of wondering, I finally found out how my great grandfather Arthur Alt died.

I’ve had a photo of Great Grandpa Arthur on my bookshelf: the only photo of him that is extant. He is sitting at the head of a table in a cafe, wearing a suit. The one story I know about him is that he once thwarted a violent bank robbery where he worked and was shot in the arm. For the rest of his career, the bank sent a car to pick him up and drive him home.

He’s flanked by relatives: his son and daughter, and two cousins. A sixth guest snapped the picture.

The photo was taken sometime in the late 1930s. War loomed on the horizon, perhaps it had already been declared. Anti-Jewish feeling was running high. My grandmother told me that in the 1930s in Vienna there was so much hatred directed at Jews, even Jews themselves had internalized these negative feelings.

Vienna’s city government recently announced construction of a new memorial, "The Shoah Wall of Names Memorial” to be erected in Ostarrichi Park in the middle of Austria’s capital. It’s the brainchild of Kurt Yakov Tutter, a 90-year-old Holocaust survivor from Vienna. Kurt’s parents managed to hide Kurt and his sister during the Holocaust; his parents were deported to Nazi death camps and murdered. Kurt later moved to Canada, and spent twenty years lobbying for the memorial, finally winning approval in 2018.

Inspired by the Hall of Names in Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, Vienna’s memorial will include the names of the over 64,000 Jews from Austria who were murdered by the Nazis. The memorial’s website features a search function where relatives can look for lost relatives.

After a lifetime of not knowing what happened, it only took a few seconds on the memorial’s website to bring up the information my family had longed for.

Born in 1885 in the town of Peterswald, which today is in the Czech Republic, Arthur Alt lived in Vienna at Sensengasse 7, in the same Viennese district as the planned memorial. I looked up the address on Google Maps and saw a grand, imposing apartment building. On October 26, 1941, according to the memorial’s website, Great Grandpa Arthur was sent first to Prague and then on to the notorious Lodz Ghetto in Poland. He perished there on July 9, 1944.

Great Grandpa’s imprisonment in Poland was part of a long-planned strategy to eliminate Vienna’s thriving Jewish community, and an experiment that would inform the Nazis’ plans to deport Jews from throughout Europe.

On October 2, 1940 the rabid Nazi Baldur von Schirach who governed Vienna, met with Adolf Hitler. Schirach complained that there was a “housing shortage” in Vienna and asked for permission to remove the city’s Jews. Within months Hitler assented to this plan.

Two local Viennese schools – a Jewish school and a public school that had a large Jewish student body – were set up as points of Jewish deportation. In 1938 senior Nazi Adolf Eichmann had set up a “Central Office for Jewish Education”; this office was responsible for identifying Jews to deport. Each Jew was allowed to take 50 kilograms of luggage and was warned that this should include bedding.

Eighty years ago, February 1941, the first Jews from Vienna were deported to near-certain death in Poland. At first, Viennese Jews were sent to small Polish towns. The displaced Jews soon ran out of money and had to rely on local Jewish charities in the tiny Polish towns to which they’d been exiled. A deportee named Jakob Engel, who was forced onto the first transport out of Vienna, described his three-day journey to the impoverished Polish town of Opole. “I didn’t know that such... villages existed at all, and you can’t get any idea of the misery at all… The population is poor, as you can hardly imagine….” He went on to describe how he and his fellow Jewish deportees from Vienna faced death by starvation.

July 1941, Great Grandpa Arthur was deported to the Lodz Ghetto. He was one of 40,000 Jews sent there in 1941 and 1942. They joined the 160,000 Jews of Lodz – over a third of the city’s population, hemmed in by barbed wire fences and patrolling Nazi guards. Over 5,000 Roma were also sent to Lodz and imprisoned there. No longer a distinguished bank employee, Great Grandpa became a slave laborer in the ghetto.

The Lodz Ghetto measured just 1.5 square miles. The buildings were old and most lacked plumbing. Eight to ten people shared each room. The Jews lacked enough food, water and fuel. There was nowhere to dispose of human waste.

“Living conditions in the ghetto were horrendous,” the United States Holocaust Memorial and Museum explains. “Most of the quarter had neither running water nor a sewer system. Hard labor, overcrowding, and starvation were the dominant features of life. The overwhelming majority of ghetto residents worked in Germany factories, receiving only meager food rations from their employers. More than 20 percent of the ghetto’s population died as a direct result of the harsh living conditions.”

The remaining Jews were deported to killing camps. “The Germans at first required the Jewish council to prepare lists of deportees,” writes the museum. “As this method failed to fill required quotas, the Germans resorted to police roundups. German personnel shot and killed hundreds of Jews, including children, the elderly, and the sick, during the deportation operations.”

The Lodz Ghetto was considered a “model” ghetto, where Jews could prove their worth by working. The ghetto was filled with other a hundred factories making shoes, textiles, German military uniforms, mattresses and other items.

Once I discovered that Great Grandpa Arthur lived in the Lodz Ghetto for over two years, I found more online information about him. In the Lodz Ghetto records, he is designated as a “Weber,” or weaver. I imagine him toiling long hours in an unventilated factory, receiving only starvation rations as pay.

Some of our only records of life inside the ghetto came from an inmate named Henryk Ross, who was charged with taking ID photos of ghetto workers, and who also secretly photographed ordinary ghetto scenes. Yad Vashem’s website describes the scenes he captured: “He photographed workers in the ghetto who had to go barefoot while pushing the carts that moved feces out of the ghetto – a dangerous job that often led to death by typhus. He photographed scenes of misery near the ghetto prison, and public hangings. He caught on film the deportations of the Lodz Jews to their deaths at (the nearby death camp) Chelmno. He photographed people writing their last notes to their families, and children waiting behind chain-link fences to be taken to an unknown distant destination during the “Sperre”, the horrifying deportations in September 1942 where almost all the children under ten years old were taken from the ghetto, and later murdered at Chelmno.”

Another record of the Lodz Ghetto is the infamous speech given by Chaim Rumkowski, the head of the Nazi-appointed Jewish Council of Elders which was charged with keeping order inside the ghetto. Rumkowski was told time and again that if the Jews inside the ghetto met the Nazis’ demands, some of them might somehow be saved. This was a lie. Chaim Rumkowski himself was sent to Auschwitz on the last trainload from the Lodz Ghetto when the Nazis “liquidated” it in 1944.

On September 2, 1942, the Nazis ordered the Jewish Council to draw up a list of 2,000 Jews to deport. This was to include the sick, the elderly, and young children. The Nazis promised that if these 2,000 Jews were delivered, the rest of the ghetto’s Jews would be spared. If no list was forthcoming, many more Jews would die.

Two days later, Rumkowski delivered a horrific speech to the Jews. “A grievous blow has struck the ghetto. They are asking us to give up the best we possess – the children and the elderly. I never imagined I would be forced to deliver this sacrifice to the altar with my own hands. In my old age, I must stretch out my hands and beg. Brothers and sisters: Hand them over to me! Fathers and mothers: Give me your children!” Great Grandpa Arthur was there, possibly listening to these horrendous words and hearing the wailing all around him.

My great grandfather's daughter was with him in the ghetto for some time, before she was deported to a Nazi death camp (she miraculously survived). I can’t imagine his grief. Did he thank God that his wife never lived to see such misery? Did he dare imagine that his daughter might somehow survive this hell?

Arthur Alt’s son, my grandfather Henry, in Chicago with his children playing in the background.

I wonder what his final months and days were like. He was 56 years old when he was deported to Lodz and 59 when he died – possibly from disease or hunger or overwork. For the first time, I feel like he’s so close I could almost speak to him. I wish I could tell him that against the odds, his two children survived. That we somehow rebuilt the family that the Nazis tried so hard to wipe out, that he has several great great grandchildren around the world (including one more on the way). That we have not forgotten his name.

Was someone with my great grandfather when he died? Did anyone say the Shema with him or hold his hand? I’ll never know. The most I can do to honor his memory is to remember him and teach my children about their great great grandfather, about his death and about his life.

The night after learning about his fate, I took aside my son who is named for Arthur (Aaron in Hebrew) and told him all that I’d discovered about his ancestor. I want him to know everything he can about the man whose name he carries. I told him that one day we’ll visit the Shoah Wall of Names Memorial in Vienna. We’ll search for the name Arthur Alt, remembered at last in the city that betrayed him. In the meantime we give tzedakah, recite prayers and study Jewish texts in his memory.

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