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Brothers reunited after decades

Since May 2014, Alfons Gerlach, born in 1938, has a brother again. Till then he had been living without any single trace of his originally extended family. He last had contact with them at the Catholic orphanage in Augsburg where all twelve brothers and sisters had been taken in 1939. About 1950, his brother Willi, who was only one year older, went to live in foster families, while Alfons stayed at the orphanage; so these two brothers finally lost sight of each other as well. The family reunion after more than 60 years became possible thanks to a search for family members in the archives of the International Tracing Service (ITS). However, this inquiry also revealed to Alfons Gerlach how he and his siblings had become orphans at all, because his mother Anna Barbara Gerlach had been persecuted by the National Socialists and killed in Concentration Camp Ravensbrück II.

Incarceration, forced labor and death of their mother

On 6 May 1942, Anna Gerlach, daughter of the farmers Ignaz and Barbara Gerlach from Obernau, was arrested and committed to the district court prison in Hof. On May 7, she was already transferred to the police prison in Leipzig and, again one day later, to the women’s concentration camp in Ravensbrück. There she died only six months later, on 6 November 1942. Information regarding the last months of her life and about the circumstances of her death is not available. But taking the history of this concentration camp into account, especially the developments in the year 1942, it is possible to deduce assumptions of what has probably happened to her. Anna Gerlach belongs to a group of Nazi victims who particularly suffered from a lack of recognition and from unjustified shame after the war.

The historian Christa Schikorra has done research relating to the group of prisoners in the women’s concentration camp of Ravensbrück categorized as “asocial” by the Nazis. She observed that, during the war, more and more “asocial” women arrested by the criminal police were eventually deported to the Ravensbrück concentration camp: while 240 of altogether 974 internees belonged to this group in 1939, their number totaled up to 1,976 out of 7,216 women in 1942, the year when Anna Gerlach was arrested. She describes who would fall within this category: “If abundance of children and poverty coincided with tuberculosis, alcohol problems and delinquency, families would quickly be classified as ‘asocial’. It could affect (…) so-called ‘Fürsorgezöglinge’ - persons who were not able or willing to integrate into the proclaimed German community.” (Translation of a quotation from: Christa Schikorra, “Asoziale” Häftlinge im Frauenkonzentrationslager Ravensbrück, Ravensbrückblätter, 27th Volume, No. 108, September 2001)

Anna Gerlach, a Catholic woman, single mother of twelve children, was classed with this National Socialist way of thinking. She was declared a “Berufsverbrecherin” (professional criminal) and was taken into “Vorbeugehaft” (preventive detention). “Vernichtung durch Arbeit” (extermination through labor) – that was the fate awaiting her and many other camp inmates in Ravensbrück.

Few memories

Alfons Gerlach himself has no memory of his mother, because he was still a baby when he was taken to the orphanage. “I even hardly knew Willi and my other siblings,” he reports about his childhood in Augsburg. The brothers and sisters grew up in small groups separated according to age and sex, so that there were hardly any possibilities for contact between them. Alfons Gerlach emphasizes, however, that he always had the feeling to be in good hands at the children’s home. He was particularly close to one of the nuns. “Sister Engelbirgis told me that we had been a family of twelve children and promised me that she would tell me all about my family when I would be grown up.” But this never happened, because the school nurse had already passed away when Alfons Gerlach returned to Augsburg for a visit after his apprenticeship; other sisters and the management pretended not to know anything about him. So, the fate of his family remained unknown to him who was the youngest of the twelve children. “I had nothing, no aunts, no uncles, no brothers and sisters any more,” he recounts.

Inquiry to the ITS

After the death of his wife in 2008, the feeling of uprootedness was growing again in the life of Alfons Gerlach who worked as a balneotherapist at the “Gasthof Alpenrose” inn in Mittenwald at that time. Bärbel Ostler, the innkeeper’s sister, knew his story and started the search by contacting the ITS; Alfons Gerlach had agreed to an examination of the documents in the ITS archive. As a result, Willi Gerlach was found, obviously the only brother who is still alive. The search was not that easy, because he had lived in two foster families, had temporarily even changed his name, and had stayed abroad for a longer period of time.

Encounter in Mittenwald

On a Saturday in May 2014, the great moment had finally come: Bärbel Ostler had asked Alfons Gerlach to come to the inn. He did not suspect why. The innkeeper’s family had invited Willi Gerlach from Erlangen and had arranged an unforgettable day for the brothers: time to talk to each other, first-rate catering, and a church service. “It almost reminded me of a wedding,” Alfons Gerlach relates, still feeling grateful.

Painful knowledge

However gratifying the encounter was, all the more painful were many facts Alfons Gerlach learned on that day. Willi Gerlach knew from the children’s home that most of their siblings had been killed in a bomb attack that was also hitting the orphanage in February 1944. Although the ITS succeeded in finding the names and some data of three other children, neither the two sisters nor the older brother are still alive today. It may be a slight consolation to Alfons Gerlach that some names and partly also details about family members of his siblings are known to him now, that eventually the picture of a family is forming.

The story of his family is a tragic one, brought about by Nazi persecution. Alfons Gerlach is hoping from now on to have regular contact and many more encounters at least with his brother Willi.