Written by Lutz Schneider/Yehuda Alexander
WEDNESDAY, MAY 4th 2005
The EL AL flight brought us – my wife Adina and I, Yehuda, from Tel Aviv to Warsaw. Most of the other passengers were on their way to the memorial ceremony at Auschwitz.
At the airport we were greeted by Mrs Liebgard Grabosch , Mrs. Stammberg and Mr. Gunther Scheumann. Mrs. Grabosch presented my wife with a rose.,
We had been invited by Mr. Alfred Denda, who publishes a little newspaper which he distributes to ex-Ortelsburgers and those from the surrounding area so that they can keep in touch, to join some of them in a group coming from Germany to visit Ortelsburg (now Szczytno in Poland), their old hometown, in order to unveil a memorial stone commemorating all the Ortelsburg citizens – both past and present.
During the warm reception at the airport we first greeted our new friends in English, but saw they were slightly disappointed we did not speak German, wondering how we would be able to communicate. When I continued speaking German this time, they were both delighted and relieved!
At the hotel we had the opportunity to invite them for supper and this gave us another opportunity to get to know each other better.
THURSDAY, MAY 5th 2005
Leaving Warsaw in Gunther Scheuman’s car, we drove 300 km north to Ortelsburg. Most of the way it rained and when we stopped here and there and got out of the car to stretch our legs, a strong, cold wind hit us.
We arrived at the hotel in Szczytno in the afternoon. That same evening a bus arrived with the 22 German participants – they were all originally born in Ortelsburg or in the vicinity and had lived there till close to the end of World War Two.
When they entered the hotel I was sitting on a sofa in the hall reading a book. I heard German being spoken and saw a woman walking up the stairs. I asked her if she was from the German group and if Mr. Alfred Denda was with them. At once she asked me if I was Yehuda from Israel. It turned out that while they were still in Germany, Mr. Denda had told the participants how he and I had started our association through the internet and become friends. I was quite surprised and asked her for more details. She then said that Mr. Denda had told them all about me. He told them he had invited us to join the group in Ortelsburg and that we had accepted his invitation gladly.
Meeting Mr. Denda in person was very emotional. He is researching families from the former East Prussia, and while looking on the internet for additional information he had seen my profile on the Missing Identity website.
He wrote me by email that my story and subsequent search had touched him deeply and that he would like to help me. From this point on, our contact with some of the former inhabitants of Ortelsburg began. In the past it was a town in Greater Germany; now it is called Szczytno and is part of Poland.
As a consequence of his informing them of my existence, two women wrote to us from Germany. One of them, Mrs. Grabosch, had for four years been a classmate of my second-oldest sister Hertha. She even sent me a photo showing Hertha, she herself as a young girl and some other girls dancing in the forest on a picnic arranged by the school.
That first evening together with the group at the hotel in Szczytno, during supper, the head of the German group welcomed us in a short speech, and the others in the group also wished us welcome. I was so overcome with their kindness that I felt compelled to say a few words, also (in English), and my ‘speech’ was very well received.
FRIDAY, MAY 6th 2005
On Friday we all started a guided bus tour of Szczytno. Here and there members of the group recognized familiar places and shared their memories of the place with us. The driver (who was born and brought up in the area but later moved to Germany), tried to bring us all to what had once been Dickmannstrasse where I was born and lived with my family, but it was impossible to get there by bus as the streets were too narrow.
Later that same day, Gunther, Mrs Grabosch and another member of the group who used to live a few streets away from Dickmannstrasse , brought us by car to that area once more, but we were not able to verify if this was the right street. There was no building with the number four (I used to live in Dickmannstrasse 4), only an empty plot with some fruit trees. The neighbors we asked, spoke only Polish, but somehow managed to tell us that the house had been burnt down by the Russians. One of them suggested we speak with another Polish lady who spoke German and took us to her house in the next street. Mrs. Grabosch suddenly recognized this lady as Marian from their school years in Ortelsburg, but unfortunately Marian was also not sure where Dickmannstrasse had been.
At another meeting at the hotel (and on other occasions as well), several of those present remembered my father Willy Schneider and some recognized him on the photo I had brought with me. The people in the group included some who live outside Germany. A famous woman artist who lives in Italy, told me a lot about Ortelsburg and my family. In addition, it was very emotional or the various participants to meet others whom they hadn’t seen for decades. Many walked up to us, shook our hands and told us they were glad to see us. Imagine, not only were we the only Israelis attending, but probably also the only Jews in the whole of Masuria (that part of Poland), that week! Some of the Germans told us they had visited Israel several times.
SATURDAY, MAY 7th 2005
During our meetings with various people, we learnt more and more what life had been like in Ortelsburg during the Nazi regime. For example, the head of the group told us that as an eleven-year-old boy, he saw from his house-window, how the synagogue was going up in flames. When he tried to get closer (children’s natural curiosity) his parents prevented him from doing so, without giving any explanation.
Several people told us how they lived peacefully with their Jewish neighbors till one morning when they got up, the 120 Jews of Ortelsburg had disappeared overnight. For us,
in retrospect, it is hard to understand that they had not seen or heard anything, but then we also know that under such a dictatorship, the ordinary citizens were terrified and tried to avoid any matter that did not concern them personally. In that area there were many communists, and even local inhabitants were willing to denounce not only Jews but also others if they thought they could gain anything from it. In some cases it could be money, in other cases the property of the victim was taken away and given to the denouncer.
As for the Jewish population, first they had to pay all kinds of special taxes and had to follow different new laws limiting their civil rights. They could only have a certain amount of money in their bank accounts, had to wear a yellow ‘Star of David’, were not allowed to ride on an animal or in a cart as otherwise they would be ‘higher’ than an Aryan, etc.
The situation got worse and worse till the property was taken away from the Jewish inhabitants. My father, Willy Schneider, owned a shop with a restaurant downstairs and rooms for rent upstairs. The business was located at the right end of a building in the main street (Kaiserstrasse) and behind that, a little further on, was the synagogue.
Some members of the German group – children of my father’s clients back then, told me that my father did not sell alcoholic drinks so after the prayers in the synagogue, the Jews would go to my father’s restaurant to drink and eat a light meal. Some talked about Izaak Schneider, though, at that time, we could not figure out if this was a relative of mine, or not.
(Later, after we had visited the Archives in Allenstein (now Olsztyn), I found out that Izaak Schneider was my grandfather!)
That evening, we were treated to a ‘Folklore Song-and-Dance’ which was very enjoyable. The participants’ costumes were colorful, they sang nicely, the band was lively and later, the audience was invited to join them in dancing!
SUNDAY, MAY 8th 2005
On Sunday we visited the school where Mrs. Grabosch and my sister Hertha had been pupils. Their old classroom had now been turned into the school’s kitchen, but
Mrs. Grabosch showed me the stairs Hertha used to come down. Suddenly she turned away, overcome by emotion, and said in a choked voice that she couldn’t talk any more about it. Then Mr. Gunther Scheumann took over and showed us where his old classroom had been. Gunther told us that his father had been the vice principal of the school. At that time my father, Willy Schneider, had lost his livelihood, because his restaurant had been confiscated, so he was forced to work as a janitor at the school. Both Gunther and his sister (in a letter to me as she could not join her brother on the trip to Ortelsburg), told me how their father Mr. Scheumann, would secretly leave packs of cigarettes in flower pots for my father to take home. They and also others in the group remembered how many of the township’s families had given clothes to my and other Jewish families in secret and even took them in / hid them for some time.
This Sunday I was sitting on the veranda at the hotel. It is all quiet and the view is beautiful. It is cloudy and a little cold, and I am even wearing a long-sleeved sweater! I feel a little mixed up and confused during this visit, but I have finally been able to close some chapters in my life after 8 years of research and the help of many good people.
That afternoon, Mrs. Grabosch and Gunther also took us to the Jewish cemetery or – to be more exact – to what is left of the cemetery. The place is neglected, the gravestones have been turned over, and somebody had tried to wash away the Iron Crosses that had been painted on the gravestones. We could still see the words “Juden, raus!” written there. We found two gravestones with the family name Schneider and one on of them we could read that this was the grave of a woman who had died in the 19th century. We were surprised to find small red glass containers with the remains of memorial candles and wondered who had lit them. Poles? Jews? Germans? We put a little stone on one of the Schneider graves and left the cemetery sad and upset.
On Sunday was the ceremony for unveiling the memorial in Szczytno in honor of those who had lived there – both Poles and Germans.
There had been some tension regarding the text on this memorial. The Germans wanted the text in German though the Polish governor had insisted that the text should be in Polish. As a result of this dispute, it was not clear whether the ceremony would be a peaceful one, so the Germans suggested that Adina and I stay at the hotel so as not to be confronted with a possibly unpleasant situation. In the end Gunther took us in his car to the ceremony but on the way, turning into a parking lot, he hit another car. Fortunately we were not wounded, but the cars needed repair, so we went ahead on foot while he was exchanging details with the other driver. As things turned out, we got there when the ceremony was over but as the bus had not yet come to pick us up, my wife Adina asked to see the place where the photo I mentioned before (the schoolgirls’ picnic), had been taken. Mrs. Grabosch very kindly took us there. Despite the 70 years that had passed in the meantime, her memory served her well and she could still recognize the place. We took a photo of ourselves on the spot.
Afterwards we were all invited to another local hotel, the ‘Krista’, for an official lunch attended by the governor, representing the Polish …., and the Mayor and his deputy. When the head of our German group gave his speech, he mentioned the names of those who had come from other countries to attend the gathering and from where they were. Amongst others, he also mentioned that Adina and I had come from Israel.
After the lunch, the Mayor came up to us, shook our hands and talked to us for about 15 minutes. We asked him for documents concerning my family. He invited us to come to the Town Hall where his staff would help us get any document that could be found in their archives. He told us that most of the documents were burnt by the Russians when they retreated.
That same evening at our hotel there was another reception attended by the former mayor of Szczytno, now the present deputy mayor. During our conversation with him, talking about any property that may have belonged to my family, he promised to help us. He is a lawyer and notary and has already represented others in their claims for property which had been taken away from them by force.
MONDAY MAY 9th 2005
The group had plans for different trips in the area, so we traveled with them.. The bus passed by what had once been Hitler’s summer bunker (residence). We ate a wonderful lunch next to a lake that in the summer is full of people on vacation.
We visited a small village where one of the members of the group once lived. He showed us the school where he had been a pupil and we were taken on a tour around it. Some of the young pupils put on an enjoyable little skit for our benefit. The classrooms were clean, organized, decorated with posters and flowers. In one class they student had just started to learn German so Gunther wrote “Thank you for your hospitality” in German on the blackboard. My wife Adina added the same sentence in English and in Hebrew!
After we returned to the hotel that evening, there was a special goodbye meal. The next day the group was splitting up. Some were going back to Germany and the others each had their own travel plans.
When we had finished our very enjoyable meal, I felt the need to say a few words to the group. I spoke in English. First of all, I thanked those who had received us so nicely in Warsaw and helped us in every way imaginable. Then I thanked the whole group for their warm welcome and their wonderful support. The participants clapped and shook our hands. Afterwards a lady from the group presented us with a cloth bag which had the symbols/logos of Ortelsburg and the surrounding villages embroidered on it. We had not expected any presents and were quite overwhelmed. After all, we had already gotten so much help from them.
My wife Adina also thanked them for this unexpected present and kissed the lady who had presented the gift to us. Then that lady informed us that we were now invited to be members of their organization for former citizens of Ortelsburg and that in future we would receive their newsletters, edited by Mr. Alfred Denda, to whom we owed the invitation to be there. This was a particularly emotional occasion.
TUESDAY, MAY 10th 2005
Before saying goodbye, more photos were taken, addresses exchanged and there were hugs and kisses. One woman I had not talked to earlier, walked up to me and asked if I was Mr. Schneider and then told me about my father’s restaurant in Kaiserstrasse and the rooms he rented out upstairs. The group brought us to the Town Hall where the very emotional final goodbyes took place. We left a good impression in particular because we had been able to speak German. I am very proud of my wife Adina who had learnt German as a foreign language in a very short time. We waved to the group from the steps of the Town Hall, wishing them a safe trip home. At that point Adina was overcome and could not even speak. There are no words to describe how much we owe these wonderful people who helped us despite the fact that some of them were warned not to help Jews.