I am one of several members of the Jewish Community of Oporto whose families have been tragically affected by the Holocaust.
Until quite recently, I have rarely spoken in any detail of my maternal grandparents’ tragic fate. However, I have come to realise that their stories must be told; current and future generations must be able to read the personal stories of Holocaust victims and survivors.
My grandfather Leonhard Bock was born into a middle-class Berlin family in 1879 and became the eldest of 16 brothers and sisters. By the end of the Great War, only 8 were still living – 6 had died as babies, and another two had given their lives for their country in the war.
Leonhard married my grandmother Else Neustadt, and they had two children – my uncle Werner, born in 1921, and my mother Marianne, born in 1923. Leonhard joined his father-in-law’s business, the Neustadt chain of four or five shoe shops, which he took over when Else’s father died, but which was reduced to a single shop around 1929 during the Great Depression.
In 1933, when the Nazis came to power, Else urged Leonhard to emigrate immediately, saying "Let's pack everything up right away, let's go to France, tomorrow!" – but Leonhard was afraid of not being able to support his family in a new country, and in any case, he believed that Hitler would not stay in power more than nine months.
During the violence of Kristallnacht on 9th November 1938, Jewish businesses all over Germany had their windows broken, and that included the last remaining Neustadt shoe shop.
This tragic night persuaded the British government to allow the immigration of unaccompanied endangered children from Germany and other countries, leading to the creation of a programme for their organised rescue, the Kindertransport, which, by August 1939, saved the lives of 10 000 mostly Jewish children.
In 1939 Leonhard and Else sent their children separately to safety in England via the Kindertransport, my uncle, in April, nearly 18, and my mother, in July, age 15. She was sent to live with a distant relative in Manchester.
That year, after all Leonhard’s younger siblings had emigrated, Leonhard and Else finally attempted to leave Germany themselves, but tragically their visas arrived one week after war was declared, at which point emigration was no longer possible.
During the next few years, they exchanged letters via the Red Cross with Marianne and Werner, who learnt that their parents had lost the business and been forced to move out of “Jew-free” areas.
Only after the war did Marianne and Werner learn from their Uncle Max Bock about their parents being posted into forced labour:
“I already wrote to you how we had been treated like slaves, and how I, for more than three years, was conscripted into unbelievable forced labour on the railway tracks. Regardless of the seasons and in all weather we went to work, about 30 km outside of Berlin near Oranienburg, every morning at 4 a.m. summer and winter, and one was fortunate to be able to live at home and not in a camp, that is as long as one had what one could call a home.
Your dear Parents had to live under circumstances like these for many years and had to reconcile themselves to these circumstances. They both had to work in factories, your father due to his technical skill, in an engineering works in Treptow [Berlin], and your mother had it almost harder since she was employed by Siemens on war work. At least this gave them the chance to earn a little money to help support them, since there were no other possibilities for creating any income.”
On 15th February 1943 Leonhard and Else sent what would be their last message to their children:
We send warm regards again and hope for a healthy reunion
A warm kiss
The next day, 16th February, they were taken to the collection camp on Grosse Hamburger Strasse, a former Jewish old age home.
Sometime before this, Leonhard had had to submit “asset declarations” in which he registered very few possessions other than his 800 books.
Three days later, on 19th February 1943, Leonhard and Else were deported to Auschwitz.
We have no information about my grandparents’ time in Auschwitz, and can only imagine their state of mind, knowing the certain fate that awaited them, and that they would never see their dear children again.
The only certainty is that my grandparents were murdered in Auschwitz.
For many years, my grandparents had no gravestone or memorial. Their first memorial was a reference on my mother’s grave in Manchester, followed later by “stumbling stones” (small brass plates inserted into the pavement) that my uncle had placed outside their Berlin residence for much of the war, and which read:
Here lived Else Bock, born Neustadt, year of birth 1895. Deported 19.2.1943. Auschwitz. Murdered.
Here lived Leonhard Bock, year of birth 1879. Deported 19.2.1943. Auschwitz. Murdered.
Now the Oporto Holocaust Museum, of which I am the current Director, has a room of remembrance honouring the names of many Holocaust victims, including family members of Community members, which include my grandparents Leonhard and Else Bock.
The Oporto Holocaust Museum strives to keep alive the memory of the victims of the Holocaust and their suffering. Keeping alive awareness of the Holocaust amongst current and future generations is fundamental to the underlying goal: that no such atrocity should ever happen again.