Peter R. Erspamer, Ph.D.  

In his 1966 essay, "Erziehung nach Auschwitz," the philosopher Theodor W. Adorno outlines basic principles of Holocaust Education that have gained in relevance over the decades: one has to recognize the mechanisms that make human beings capable of committing atrocities and attempt to hinder them. Hatred can be overcome through critical self-reflection. Hatred against religio-ethnic otherness results from a cultural claustrophobia. This cultural claustrophobia strengthens the rage against civilization itself and can easily lead to a relapse into barbarism. This occurs through societal mechanisms which encourage a blind identification with the collective. Hitler and his henchmen did not primarily manipulate individuals but masses.

Human beings who blindly join collective masses erase all tendencies toward self-determination. The only true principle against Auschwitz is autonomy: the ability of reflection, of self-determination, of non-cooperation with evil.

The study of personal letters and documents from the Holocaust period can lead to the formation of such autonomous individuals because they appeal to the subjective side of the readers' experience and encourage the reader to think individually. The epistolatory literature of the Holocaust is inspirational to us: it is a literature that demands the extension of life-giving forces.

To date, little attention has been given to parent/child relationships among the people affected by the Holocaust. It is important to remember that one and a half million children died in the Holocaust and that the persecution of children is one of the factors giving the Holocaust its unique nature. There is a certain difficulty in dealing with the murder of children that makes this area sparsely researched. Yet a broader awareness of the ways children (and 2 parents) suffered through the Holocaust can help to bring about the subjective resistance to genocide that Adorno discussed in his essay.

It is not easy for us in the 21st century to contemplate the dilemmas of raising Jewish children in the Third Reich, because such contemplation bring us out of our comfort zone. But what about those parents during the Nazi dictatorship who were forced to contemplate the unthinkable monstrosity that their children would be exterminated?

Hertha Feiner was such a person. She was a divorced Jewish mother who sent her two daughters, Inge and Marion Anmus (aged fourteen and twelve), to a private boarding school in Switzerland with the help and cooperation of her non-Jewish former husband, because she loved her children too much to keep them by her side while she remained in the Third Reich. In the meantime, she made frantic and unsuccessful attempts to emigrate from Germany.  She finally died by her own hand while on a mass transport to the extermination camp at Auschwitz.  Against this background, we cannot help but admire the maternal tenderness of her letters to her children which have recently been published under the title, Vor der Deportation: Briefe an die Töchter, Januar 1939-Dezember 1942. The letters reveal a deep desire on the part of Hertha Feiner to be an intimate part of the exiled daughters' lives:

Genießt nur alles in vollen Zügen, vor allem die herrliche Natur, die viel wichtiger and besser ist und macht, als alles von Menschenhand Geschaffene. Und in der Natur gelten wir alle dasselbe, ob arm, ob reich, ob Jude, ob Christ, und da braucht sich keiner des anderen zu schämen. (Feiner, 31) [Enjoy everything to its fullest extent, especially the masterly nature, that is much more important and better than everything created by human hands. And in the eyes of nature we are all the same, whether poor or rich, whether Jew or Christian, and no one needs to feel ashamed before anybody else.]

Hertha Feiner tries to convey to her children the notion that the equality between Christians and Jews is a right grounded in nature. She is concerned that her daughters do well in the non-Jewish environment to which she has sent them, because she has done it to save their lives. For her, the anthropological equality between Christians and Jews is grounded in the laws of nature and she wants her children to have reverence for them.

She urges her children to share all aspects of their lives with her: "Schreibt nur ehrlich alles, auch wenn's mal nicht nach Eurem Geschmack ist, aber ich muß das Bewußtsein haben, daß Ihr mir alles mitteilt."(Feiner, 32) [Write about everything honestly, even if you do not like it, for I must have the perception that you are sharing everything with me.] She goes to great lengths to explain to her children that her decision to send them out of the country does not constitute an abdication of her motherly prerogatives. She wants to be concerned and involved with her children even while in the throes of social circumstances which threaten her own life.

Hertha goes to great lengths to reassure her children that there is nothing wrong with their living in a non-Jewish milieu as long as they strive to be upright human beings:

Meine Gedanken sind, trotzdem ich hier sehr beschäftigt bin, oft bei Euch. Am Weihnachtsabend ging ich her zu den Kindern . . ., die Kinder sangen hebräische and jiddische Lieder, und ich wußte, Ihr singt nun Weihnachtslieder, das war ein sehr eigenartiges Gefühl fur mich, aber es ist doch gleich, was man singt, and was man feiert, es kommt nur darauf an, daß alles, was wir tun and denken, anständig ist, und wenn ich hier dies singe, und Ihr dort jenes, ist das Band darum um keine Spur loser. (Feiner, 45) [Despite the fact that I am very preoccupied with things here, my thoughts are often with you. On Christmas, I went to the schoolchildren. The children sang Hebrew and Yiddish songs, and I knew, you were singing Christmas songs; that was a strange feeling for me, but it does not matter, what one sings and what one celebrates, it is only important that we are decent in all that we think and do, and if I am singing one thing, and you another, that does not loosen the bond between us one iota.]

She tries to reassure her children that religio-cultural compromises are nothing to be ashamed of, survival is more important than the avoidance of dislocations in religious identity. She assures her children that it will not be forever:

Ich glaube, die Zeit arbeitet für uns. Keiner weiß, was morgen sein wird. Lernt, arbeitet and habt Euer Ziel im Auge, so mache ich es auch. Der Vati weiß genau so wenig wie ich and Ihr, was werden wird. Ich möchte, daß Ihr so lange wie möglich dort in der Schule bleibt, weil ich das Gefühl habe, daß Ihr dort glücklich seid, and das Ihr viel and Nützliches lernt. Und dann muß es unser Ziel sein and bleiben, sobald wie möglich wieder zusammenzukommen. Die Liebe, die wir für uns haben, wird uns schon den rechten Weg weisen. (Feiner, 49) 

[I believe that time is on our side. No one knows what tomorrow will bring. Study, work, and keep your goals in sight and I will do the same. Papa knows as little as you and I what the future will bring. I would like you to stay in the school as long as possible, because I have the feeling, that you are happy there,and that you are learning many useful things. And then it must be our goal, to come back together as soon as possible. The love that we have for one another will show us the correct way.]

Security for her children is the top priority for Hertha, although she has long range hopes for a reunion with them. In the meantime, she is glad that they seem to be happy in the school that is their place of exile.

Only very rarely does Hertha refer to her own agonies, such as in this letter of March 1940:

Nun möchte ich Dich bitten, einen sehr dringenden Brief an Onkel Paul zu schreiben and zwar sofort, ob er eine Hilfe für mich ausfindig machen könnte. Ich babe beim amerikanischen Konsulat um eine Registriernummer gebeten; wenn ich sie bekomme, muß ich sicherlich auch noch 10 Tage warten, ein Affidavit habe ich auch nicht, and weiß wirklich nicht, was ich machen soll; ich muß aber so schnell wie möglich auswandern. Ingelein, nimm mal Deinen ganzen Verstand zur Hilfe and schreibe so dringend wie nur irgend möglich; hast Du mich verstanden? (Feiner, 51) [I would like to ask you to write a very urgent letter to Uncle Paul immediately whether he can find a way to help me. I asked the American consulate for a registration number, if I receive it I still must wait ten days, I do not have an affidavit either and do not know what to do, but I must emigrate so quickly as possible. Ingelein, gather your wits about you, and write as desperately as possible; do you understand me?]

Hertha generally tries to understate the dangers confronting her:

Es ist hier nichts Besonderes passiert, und Ihr braucht um mich keine Sorgen zu machen, aber ich glaube nicht, daß ich in Deutschland bleiben kann. Ihr wißt, wie ich zu Euch stehe, and ich will natürlich nicht ohne Euch in einem anderen Erdteil wandern. Also abwarten! Wir können nichts anderes tun, als uns gesund erhalten und lernen, lernen! (Feiner, 53) [Nothing particular has happened here and you do not need to worry about me but I do not believe that I can remain in Germany. You know how I feel about you, and of course I do not want to go to another part of the world without you. Wait and see! We cannot do anything, except stay healthy, and study! study!]
In none of her letters does Hertha Feiner directly refer to the dangers confronting Jews in Germany, although her position as a teacher and Jewish community leader made her well aware of them. She instead asserts, I cannot make it as nice for you here as they can there. She wants to protect her children from any knowledge of the perils confronting her which encouraged her to send her children into exile in the first place.

The Holocaust survivor and eminent psychologist Bruno Bettelheim once remarked that Anne Frank and her sister Margot would have survived the Holocaust if their parents could have sent them into exile before they themselves went into hiding. Hertha Feiner followed precisely that course of action and her children are still with us today. Her legacy to us is a series of eloquent letters which document the unselfish decisions she made on behalf of her children during a time of unfathomable crisis. After all was said and done, she kept her daughters alive. Can we do any less than support the efforts of Inge and Marion Anmus to keep the memory of their mother alive?

For Peter R. Erspamer's biography, please see
"Scholarly Essays : Women Before Hell's Gate".

This article is published here with the permission of Peter R. Erspamer, Ph.D.
© Peter R. Erspamer, 2001.


© Copyright Judy Cohen, 2001.
All rights reserved.