Irv Adler: Searching Holocaust Records For My Grandmother's Story
Temple Member Irv Adler traveled to Vienna to place a Stone of Remembrance in front of the home where his grandmother Clara Bader Nichtern lived before she was killed by the Nazis. Through extensive research that he continues today, Irv learned that his grandmother was murdered in June 1942 at the Maly Trostinets death camp outside of Minsk.

We’re sharing the remarks he made during the commemoration on May 18, 2014 and his story that first was featured in the Temple's August 2014 Bulletin. Irv  spoke at the "Genealogy and the Holocaust" program on November 15, 2015. He presented an update about his research on "Family Members: Lost and Found" on Tuesday, June 6, 2017 at the Temple. Watch his presentation to IPFW Campus Ministry in November 2017.

I was born in 1943 and grew up with my family and extended family in the upper west side of New York City, which – based on what I understand today – was sort of a Vienna transplanted. I never heard the word "Holocaust" until probably sometime in the 1980s. As I got older, I realized that I had European parents. And then I realized that I had Viennese parents. And then I realized that everyone in my family came from Vienna. Other than the fact that they all came from Vienna and that Vienna was a great European city, I had no clue what this meant.

Sometime, I don’t recall exactly when, I found out that my maternal grandmother never got out of Europe and was killed by the Nazis. I had no idea when she died or where she died; and whenever I had a conversation with my mother about this, the conversation was very short, as my mother would become very emotionally distraught and couldn’t talk about anything.

My mother, Elsa Nichtern, left Vienna in September 1938. She went to England and then, two years later, she came to America. When my mother left Vienna, she took her aunt with her, fully expecting to get her mother, Clara Bader Nichtern, out of Vienna also. That never happened. My mother carried that burden with her, her entire life. 

As I was growing up, I got bits and pieces of the story at various times, but never any details of what had happened in Vienna or why the people I knew and met growing up were here in America. And I knew virtually nothing about the family members who didn’t get out.

My mother and father moved to Florida in 1974. In 1996, my father passed away. My mother and I decided it was time to move her from her condo to an independent-living facility. It was during this move that I discovered a leather-bound suitcase that could have been used as a prop on the set of Casablanca. It contained photo albums and various papers relating to my parents and other family members– and a small, tightly wound pack of letters, tied with a pink ribbon, in an old and somewhat yellowish plastic pouch with a zipper on top. 

About one year later, during a visit to my mother’s independent-living facility, I sat down with her. We took out the suitcase, pulled out some old photo albums and I finally got her to provide some more details on her mother and other family members, many of whom I never knew or had even heard of.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but my mother, who was 87, was starting to lose her mental faculties. Shortly thereafter, my mother had a stroke and lost her ability to speak. My mother passed away in December 2003. (Photo: 1932: Irv's mother and grandmother.)

In August of 2010, my wife, Fran, and I took a vacation to Europe, which included stops in Prague, Budapest and Vienna. We got to Vienna late in the afternoon of Sunday, August 8, 2010, and decided to see the Holocaust Memorial at Judenplatz. We noticed a small museum in a corner of the plaza. We entered and looked around. In the museum shop, a woman was sitting behind a counter which had literature about the Viennese Jewish community. I struck up a conversation with the woman and told her that my Viennese grandmother had been killed during the Holocaust and asked her where I could get some more information about victims of the Holocaust. She said we should go to the DOEW (Documentation Centre of Austrian Resistance).

At 9 AM the next day, we were at the DOEW. We were greeted by an elderly woman. We told her we had no appointment and why we came to the DOEW. A few minutes later, we were escorted to an office where we first met Dr. Elisabeth Klamper, the DOEW archivist. After about 15 minutes of searching through the DOEW records, Dr. Klamper raised her head from behind the computer screen. Her face had lost its color. She said, “I have some very bad news to tell you. Your grandmother was killed at Maly Trostinets.” I had no idea what she was talking about, since I had never heard of Maly Trostinets. Dr. Klamper gave us a brief rundown of the Maly Trostinets extermination camp. Since then I have learned a great deal more. I now know more about my grandmother’s life and how she came to live in Leopoldstadt. I now know that my grandmother was murdered in June 1942 at the Maly Trostinets death camp outside of Minsk.

After we met with Dr. Klamper, what originally was planned as a five-day vacation resulted in 2½ days of researching at the Israelische Kultesgemeinde (IKG) and the Archives of the City of Vienna to find out everything I could about my family.

When we returned to our home in Fort Wayne, Indiana, I pulled out the suitcase with the letters. I opened the plastic pouch and took out the bundle of letters and started to remove the letters from the tightly wound bundle: one by one and very carefully. Some were damaged, but most were in good shape. Some were on conventional writing paper. Some were on very thin tissue paper. Some were about the size of a standard piece of typing paper. Some were about twice that size. Most had multiple authors. Most were completely covered with writing. There were about 100 letters written from 1938 to 1941.

At this point, I didn’t quite know what I had. But I knew enough to realize that the letters could represent a diary of my grandmother’s life under Nazi occupation. I knew that I had to get them translated. After about 1 year trying to find a translator, and as a result of my wife’s involvement with a Fort Wayne Holocaust education group, we met Joy Gieschen, a graduate student at a local university, who agreed to take on the translation project. Joy studied German as an undergraduate student and had recently returned to the USA after spending 1 year in Austria. At the time of our meeting, Joy was pursuing a master’s degree in education, preparing for a career as a German teacher.

Joy became very involved with the letters and asked if she could use the translated letters as the basis for her master’s degree research project. As Joy was discovering information about my grandmother, it started to become clear that possibly the letters could form the basis of a larger research project and even a broader-based Holocaust research publication. With this in mind, we decided to go back to Vienna; back to the DOEW; back to the IKG; and to visit the places where my grandmother lived. So in June 2012, Fran, Joy and I traveled to Vienna.

As fate would have it, Joy was actively looking for a job during spring 2012. One of the job possibilities was teaching at an international school in Vienna. Joy made arrangements to go there for a preliminary interview when we were in Vienna. We decided to go with her. As we were leaving the school, we mentioned that our main reason for the Vienna trip was to do research on the “Letters” project. One of the teachers at the school asked if we knew about the plaques that had been put into the sidewalks of Leopoldstadt. These plaques identified the last known residences of Viennese Holocaust victims and marked a trail through what was the most concentrated Jewish neighborhood in all of Vienna. We knew nothing about these plaques. We then went to Leopoldstadt and started searching for the Der Weg der Erinnerung. We found it and took down the information about Der Weg. I did some internet research on this project and wrote letters to Dr. Elisabeth Ben David-Hindler. Once I found out more details about Der Weg der Erinnerung project, I knew that I had to preserve my grandmother’s memory by dedicating a stone for her.

So here I am today in the neighborhood where my grandmother and many of her family and friends and thousands of other Viennese Jews lived. Some of them we know and some we will never know. Here is where they lived for many years or for just a short time, before their lives were so tragically and terribly destroyed by Nazi persecution.

May all their memories be for a blessing.

Family Journey Continues in Vienna, Minsk, and Maly Trostenets

During a well-attended program in June 2017 at the Temple, long-time congregant Irv Adler shared his journey through Holocaust records seeking information about his grandmother and family members. He talked about the relatives he lost – and those he’s found – through his work.

His research was inspired by about 100 letters written from 1938 to 1941 by his grandmother Clara Bader Nichtern to his mother, Elsa Nichtern. His grandmother lived in Vienna before she was murdered in June 1942 by the Nazis at the Maly Trostinets death camp outside of Minsk. Irv provided this update on his recent trip to Vienna and Minsk/Maly Trostenets.

On May 14, I left Fort Wayne with my wife, Fran, and our very close family friend Carol Jackson, who has been deeply involved in our “Letters” project, to start what became an emotional two-week journey to Vienna and Minsk/Maly Trostenets.

We visited the site where my grandmother Clara Bader Nichtern was deported and later murdered by the Nazis. I dedicated a “Stone of Remembrance” at the last known address of my uncle and cousin, Leon and Markus Bader, before they were deported and murdered.

After spending a few days in Vienna taking in some of the sites and doing additional research on my “Letters” project (e.g., I verified that I had relatives that lived in Sigmund Freud’s house after he left Vienna), we traveled to Minsk/Maly Trostenets.

Fran, Carol, and I were part of an organized group (IM-MER Association) of 21 persons. During the afternoon of May 23, the group went to the “History Workshop” in Minsk to hear riveting testimonies from four survivors of the Minsk ghetto. They talked about the atrocities they lived through, the many family members they lost, and how they managed to survive against impossible odds.

The next day on May 24, we went to Maly Trostenets, which is located on the Southeastern edge of Minsk, about 15 km from Minsk-Center. Ten thousand Jews from Vienna were among the 400,000 men, women, and children murdered at Maly Trostenets, including my grandmother, who was killed on June 15, 1942.

Our group, which included a Rabbi and a Cantor, carried out a deeply moving funeral service for 61 Viennese Jews murdered there. A eulogy was read aloud for each of them. Then we went into the killing field and attached yellow plaques to trees to symbolically represent gravestone markers. A permanent memorial with the names of all the Jews murdered at Maly Trostenets is planned at the site in the near future.

That afternoon we went to the commemorative monuments at Katyn. Katyn was a village of 26 houses and 156 inhabitants, 50 km due west of Minsk-Center. On March 22, 1943, the entire population of the village was massacred by the Nazis and their collaborators. The Katyn monuments memorialize the impact of the Holocaust on Belarus; the 500 villages that were burned to the ground, of which 186 are gone forever; the villages where pogroms occurred, which was every village in Belarus; and finally, the 2.4 million Belarusians that died during the Holocaust, about 1/3 of the population.  

Later that week, we returned to Vienna for the “Stone of Remembrance” dedication for my uncle and cousin, who were deported from the apartment where they lived with my grandmother for 3 ½ years. On March 12, 1941, Leon (#229) and Markus (#300) were put on Transport 5 and deported with 997 Jewish men, women and children to Lagow/Opataw, Poland. The ghettos of Lagow/Opatow were liquidated by the Nazis during October 20-22, 1942. Leon and Markus either died before or during the liquidation, or were sent to and killed at an extermination camp, probably Treblinka. There are no records of what happened to them: not even the date of their death.

Traveling to Vienna and Maly Trostenets provided a way for me to get some closure. It gave me the chance to give my grandmother the funeral service she never had.

As was the case with my grandmother (see “Temple Bulletin” August 2014), I dedicated a Stone of Remembrance for Leon and Markus Bader. By doing so, they have a grave marker with their names on it so that they don’t disappear from our collective memories.

I plan to continuing doing research on the “Letters” to put them into historical context and to provide a diary of my grandmother’s life under Nazi oppression. I want to describe what a wonderful person she was - and how, even under incredibly difficult conditions, she always maintained a cheerful and positive attitude. She tried not to burden my mother, who was living in England and then in the U.S.A., with the miseries that she dealt with daily.

If my efforts lead to what becomes a diary of the life of the wonderful grandmother I never knew and that I can share with my family and others, then I will have accomplished a most worthwhile and meaningful life goal.

Additional Stones of Remembrance Honoring Family

We continued sharing Irv's story in the June/July 2018 Temple Bulletin. 

May 3 was a solemn yet special day for Irv Adler, his cousin Shaul Spielmann, and 11 family members from Israel and the U.S., the Israeli family that Irv discovered researching his grandmother’s letters. They all met in Vienna to dedicate two Stones of Remembrance to honor the lives of five family members who were killed in the Holocaust. (Irv had previously dedicated a Stone for his grandmother in 2014 and one for his great uncle and cousin in 2017.)

In the morning, the family gathered at Novaragasse 4, in the second district of Vienna, to dedicate a Stone for Adolf and Emma Loeff, Shaul’s aunt and uncle, and their son Kurt – his cousin and closest childhood friend. This was a deportation collection apartment and the Loeffs’ last residence before they were deported in October 1942 to Theresienstadt and ultimately to Auschwitz, where they were murdered. Both Irv and Shaul shared stories about the Loeff family with the relatives and friends who joined them there.

In the afternoon the group was part of a larger assemblage of people dedicating Stones of Remembrance for lost family members at four sites in the first district of Vienna. The third stop, Fleischmarkt 22, was the last place Shaul and his parents, Josefine and Benno Spielmann, lived before they were deported to Theresienstadt in 1942.

Standing in the courtyard of the building, surrounded by his family as well as friends from both the U.S. and Vienna, Shaul spoke movingly about the horrors he and his parents had endured, starting with the night when he was seven years old and Nazi thugs broke into his home, put a gun to his head, and threatened his parents with their son’s death unless they gave up their valuables.

After Theresienstadt the family was deported to Auschwitz, where Josefine was murdered in 1943. Benno was deported to Buchenwald and was murdered in 1945. Shaul was moved from camp to camp and survived the Death March before he was finally liberated at Mauthausen. He was 14 in 1945 when he went, all alone, to start a new life in what would become the state of Israel. Shaul said that, with his return to his last home in Vienna, his life had now come full circle.

Dedicating Stones of Remembrance will ensure that the lives of these family members will not be forgotten. May their memory be a blessing.