In Gratitude for Serge Klarsfeld by Hedy Epstein
by Mark Chmiel
I attended the 1983 Gathering of Holocaust Survivors in Washington, D.C., where I received a message from my Father, 43 years after he gave it to a fellow concentration camp prisoner in Camp les Milles in France. It was the closest I felt to my Father since I left Germany.
I was sitting at a large round table with a group at the Gathering, among them Kurt Maier, whom I last knew in Kippenheim as a boy about 6 years younger than I. He told me he had a present for me. He showed me a well-worn notebook that his own father had kept while in the camp. The elder Maier and his family had promising arrangements to come to the United States. In the notebook, he collected messages from his fellow prisoners to deliver to family and friends, if he survived. Among them was a message from my Father. He hoped that he and my Mother would be able to come to the United States in the not too distant future. When handed the notebook, I looked at it with almost paralyzing shock. I touched the page. I thought perhaps my Father had touched it and I was touching him. I felt his presence there.
Looking over the books for sale at the Gathering, I came across Serge Klarsfeld’s most startling opus, Memorial to the Jews Deported from France, which contains a list of more than 80,000 names of Jews deported to the “East” or killed in France. Not all were French Jews; they came from over 50 countries. Each entry includes name, birth date and birth place, and, in most instances, the destination, e.g., Auschwitz. A description of each convoy is also included. An article in the New York Times Magazine states: “… It is just by chance that the lists of names of the deportees survived. Each passenger list for the convoys sent to the East was typed in four copies. Two went with the convoys and were destroyed, as was the copy kept at the transit camp (Drancy). But the Germans allowed the Jewish Community Council in Paris to keep a copy. By the time the Germans fled the city in 1944, the defunct Council was forgotten. So were the copies of the lists. When Serge found them in a crate in a French Jewish archive not far from his office, they were faded and crumbling …. Sometimes the names were all but illegible….”
Remembering the letters I received in 1956, stating that my parents were deported via Drancy to Auschwitz on September 11, 1942, I quickly turned to page 260, describing Convoy 31, September 11, 1942. There, on page 272, near the bottom of the second column, was my mother’s name (her first name misspelled). The description states: “…On September 11, this convoy left the station at Le Bourget/Drancy, headed for Auschwitz. It carried 1,000 Jews under the direction of Feldwebel Havenstein …. In Auschwitz, on September 13, two men were selected and given numbers 63529 and 63530…. Seventy-eight women received numbers 19530 through I960. All others were immediately gassed. In 1945, 13 men were known to have survived.”
After a more painstaking effort I found my Father’s name near the bottom of the second column on page 189. He left Drancy with Convoy 21, on August 19, 1942. The description of this convoy states that it left: “…with 1,000 Jews from the station at Le Bourget/Drancy for Auschwitz, under the supervision of Oberfeldwebel Weise …. Upon their arrival in Auschwitz, 138 men were given numbers 60471 through 60608 …. Forty-five women were given numbers 17875 through 17919. The other 817 people, including all the children, were immediately gassed. To the best of our knowledge there were only five survivors from this convoy in 1945.”
Thanks to Serge Klarsfeld’s persistence and hard work, I was able to confirm in April 1983 that my Mother, indeed, was deported to Auschwitz on September 11, 1942 and my Father was deported to Auschwitz on August 19, 1942. Thus, my Father’s hope, described to me in my Mother’s last letter of September 1, 1942 (“…& he hoped to meet me en route…”), was not granted to them.
Serge Klarsfeld was in St. Louis on April 23, 1998 as the featured speaker of the community’s Yom Hashoah event (the Day of Remembrance for Jewish Victims of the Holocaust). On April 24, 1998, I was fortunate enough to be able to express my personal gratitude to him for his work in general and for providing me with information about my parents and other family members, all of whom, with the exception of those who died in the camps in Vichy France, were deported to Auschwitz in August and September 1942. None have ever been heard from again.
–One of my current projects is constructing a short book about Hedy Epstein’s life and work. Portions include excerpts from her late 90s autobiography published in Germany, as well as chapters about her subsequent solidarity work with the Palestinian people. The working title comes from the German publication, Erinnern ist nicht genug–Remembering Is Not Enough.
–photo is the last taken of Hedy with extended family in Germany. Hedy is third from the right, her mother and father are on the far left.