I have never met my grandparents. I was born in Portugal in 1933, about 8 years before they were killed in Tarnow, Poland, by German soldiers.
Their names were Hersh Mendel Steinhardt, also known as Herman Steinhardt, and Regina Rattenhaus, also know as Rachel.
On July 16th. 2001, on my way from Krakow to Tarnow, I stopped at the Zwilitowski Hill and forest, and said Kaddish at the site of the common grave where presumably they were buried, together with another 10,000 Tarnow Jews, on June 1942. The last postcard we received from them was dated shortly before that.
For more details about the massacre of the Tarnow Jews that were too old to be taken to Labor camps, click here.
However, from the information I have gathered about Herman, and a few letters that have survived, I thing that I can delineate his profile.
Hersh Mendel was born probably before 1877, in Rozwadow, Galicia, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire of the Augsburgs.
The family had certainly a fair Austrian influence. The Yiddish they spoke was very close to German and they wrote it with Latin characters. My own Father had a fairly good command of the German language.
Herman, and at least is brother Moritz (Moshe Baruch), was a house painter.
At the time, house painters used to decorate the house walls with drawings
According to my Father, at a certain stage, grandpa was employed in painting the stations of a new railway line, and he had people working for him in this job. I don't know if this was still when they lived in Rozwadow, or, most probably, after they moved to Tarnow, at the outbreak of World War I.
And, according to my Father, his talent in the drawings he made in the walls of the stations was noticed
I received another testimony of his painting ability from an old lady that I met in Tel Aviv, in 1976, in a gathering of people from Rozwadow. When I mentioned my family name, Steinhardt, nobody would recognize it. But, when I mentioned his trade, this lady, the oldest among the attendants, "corrected" me: "His name was not Steinhardt. He was Hersh Kopels. I was a very young girl when he painted my aunt's restaurant. I still remember the nice little birds that he drew on the walls."
Of course, Hersh Kopels is the Yiddish for Hersh the son of Kopel. Nobody used family surnames in everyday conversation.
My grandfather married Miriam Schwarz before 1900, in Rozwadow.
Miriam died after giving birth to my uncle Siegfried, who was born in 1900.
In his second marriage Herman married before 1904, with Rachel (Regina) Rattenhaus, from the nearby town of Sedziszow.
I have collected some testimonies about Jews with her surname in Sedziszow, but I am not sure about the relationship.
Herman had another six children with Regina: Feiga Sarah, Joachim, Wolf (my father), Etel, Joseph and Pinhas.
He must have been also a "Jack of all trades" with a special curiosity to learn how thinks work and a trend to invent others. This peculiarity my Father must have inherited from him.
At a certain stage of his life, probably when he could no more make a living in house painting, he had a small shop next to the family home in Tarnow, where he sold, among other things, shoe polish, that he manufactured himself.
At the beginning of WWII, when there was no food available in Tarnow, my Father sent them whatever he could. But the type and quantity of goods that could be mailed from Portugal to the territories occupied by the Germans were very restricted. One day my Father mentioned that he could send fresh eggs. But eggs would brake and spoil until they reached Poland.
Immediately my Grand-Father sent detailed instructions on how to preserve the eggs by molding around them boxes made of gypsum. Apparently this was a method used in some places to preserve eggs for winter, before refrigeration was available. The secret was to coat the eggs with a substance, not necessarily gypsum, that would keep them air tight. But gypsum would also protect them from cracking. I don't think that the idea was ever materialized by my Father. It was too difficult to ship anything and soon our packages started to return with a laconic stamp by the German post authorities: "Left without leaving forwarding address."
My Father's fondness of traveling must also have been a family feature. Grand-Father Herman has been several times in Vienna, where he had a brother and a cousin. He traveled also to Antwerp, Belgium, when my Father was living there, after leaving home at the age of 16. That's where he had the opportunity to meet my Mother Hermina.
Also my aunt Etel has planned to join her older brother in Antwerp and at least started the procedures to get a passport for that purpose.
Herman's life was one of hard work and poverty. Raising seven children in Galicia, between two wars was certainly not an easy task. Only two of them found their ways to relieve him from the burden. Siegfried, the oldest son, probably never accepted the step-mother. His temperament was also quite different from his younger half-brothers and sisters. He was calm, had a planning mind, and all his life he knew what he wanted to be and to do. Soon he left home, went to Vienna, stayed with his Uncle at MarieHilferstrasse and managed to go to the University and get a degree in Accountancy. In 1931 he announced to his Father, by letter, that he was going to marry and he would like the Father to join him in Rozwadow for a visit to his Mother's grave.
The second was my Father Wolf, who left home in 1927, at the age of 16, becoming independent since then.
The five others were restless, always on pins and needles to travel, but still they lived at home, or returned home when in need. Eventually each one of them reached the age to get married at the worse time economic wise for the family.
When he reached the age of 60, Herman started to feel in his bones the burden of the years and the stress of the worries. He was anxious to see the youngest daughter, Etel married, to be sure that she would have a husband to take care of her. When she was 21 she wrote wondering why her Father was so anxious to see her married. Joachim and Joseph married and Herman had to help them financially in making a home. Pinhas was still young. At the age of 17, at the beginning of the German invasion, he escaped to Russia, wrote one letter or two, saying he was working as an apprentice of an electrician, and never came back. We don't know to this day what happened to him.
Eventually Etel moved to Krakow, got a job in a chocolate factory, only a few days a week, and found a husband to marry. But she was often very sick, probably from weakness and mal-nutrition.
Until June 1937, Grand-Father has avoided mentioning his ordeal when writing to my Father. But this was his breaking point: "I could write to you here 'our full biography', my beloved son. My strength is gone. Don-t forget that I am over 60 now and well 'worked our; Your Mother sits here by me, while I write to you, and she is weeping bitterly. I cannot stand it any more. We are both barefoot because we don't have shoes. Even if there would be any reason to go to the shop, I couldn't because I don't have anything decent to dress."
Being born in 1932 I was his first grandson. He was very fond of me, although he had never seen me except from two pictures that my Father sent to him.
He always wrote to me some loving lines. Even Grand-Mother Regina wrote to me once, in Yiddish, a few lines which only now I can read, but my Father translated to me.
In 1942, when I could already write, I also wrote them twice with the help of my Father. The second letter never reached him. It came back and I have it now with me.
Then my cousin Kopel Steinhardt was born in 1939. His mother died with typhus when he was only two years old and his father Joseph was also very week and sick, but had to leav the hospital to take care of him at home.
My cousin Helena Guttwillig was born in the same year. They lost their apartment in Krakow and had to move to the Tarnow ghetto, where they lived all in the same apartment. When one the packages that my Father sent reached them in Tarnow, Etel wrote that she was happy with the tea, which she was giving to the baby in stead of milk, which was not available in the ghetto. Max, her husband, in his last letter wrote that Etel was "taken away" and he was now left alone with the baby.
My cousin Eda was born in 1940. Joachim, her Father, had managed to leave Tarnow and Rosa, his wife, didn't know his whereabouts. He ended up in Auschwitz, from where he was able to escape and then caught again. With Frania (Feiga Sarah) who was also in the concentration camp and Siegfried who was a prisoner in Russia, he was one of the only three bothers who lived in Poland and survived.
According to some terrible descriptions of what happened in those days in Tarnow, during the first "Action" the Germans took all the small children from the ghetto to the Rinek, the town square, and holding them by they little feet, smashed their heads against the wall.
I visited this Rinek 60 years later and I could not bear with the idea that my little cousins, Helena, Eda and Kopel ended their short lives there in a such a barbaric way.
I wish and hope that Regina and Herman did not live to witness this.
According to the same narration all the old and frail people, ten thousand people, were taken to the Zwilitowski forest, where a huge grave had already been grubbed by other prisoners for them… and their were just shot.
This was the place where I stopped to remember my ancestors which I never met … and say Kaddish for them.
Glorified and sanctified be God's great name throughout the world which He has created according to His will.