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“This journey has helped me to understand”

Lennart Spira, a Swiss citizen who was born in Sweden, visited the International Tracing Service (ITS) archive in Bad Arolsen from 12-13 January in order to research documents on his family´s fate. Spira is the son of two Holocaust survivors from Poland. “I know my mother´s story very well, as she documented it,” said the 58-year-old. “I know less about what happened to my father, which is why I´m here. I want to systematically reconstruct his odyssey during the Second World War.”

Nathan Spira was born in 1917 in Zawiercie, Poland, near Krakow. He wanted to be an accountant but before he could finish his training he was forced to join the army as World War Two broke out. He fell into German hands as a POW in September 1939. “He was imprisoned the entire time until he was freed in April 1945,” said his son. “The Jews and Sinti among the Polish POWS were separated at some point, and my father was subsequently sent to different forced labour camps.”

The Nazis then deported Nathan to Kittlitztreben (today Trzebień), a satellite of the concentration camp Gross Rosen. On 9 February 1945 the prisoners left the camp in an evacuation march to Buchenwald. The ITS archive has a list of 746 prisoners who arrived in Buchenwald after a 325 km trek. “My father survived,” said Spira, as he reflected on his father´s six years in prison. “I think that the prisoners who had been there for so long knew all the tricks. They knew what had happened and could rely on their instincts. Luckily my father worked as a paramedic and was spared from heavy manual labour.”

New Beginning in Sweden

After the war ended, his father immediately began searching for relatives, said Spira.  “He located his sister, who had gone to the USA with a childhood friend.” On 24 August 1947 Nathan went to Sweden, after spending time in several Displaced Persons (DP) camps including Belsen, as papers in the ITS archive show. “He learned that a childhood friend, my mother, Sura-Malka Grünberg, was living in Stockholm. Both of them had gone to school together in Zawiercie.”

The Nazis had also persecuted his mother. She was deported to the Lodz Ghetto and then sent to the concentration camps Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen. After she was freed she left the country bound for Stockholm on one of the white Swedish Red Cross buses. Both survivors married in 1948 and had three children. Lennart was born in 1953.

After the end of the war, roughly 1500 eastern European Jews found a new home in Sweden. “They were a homogeneous group and very often talked about their persecution. These conversations were most likely a way for them to release their emotions – their way of dealing with what they experienced,” said Spira. His parents placed enormous value on the education of their children. “They taught me that I should always be prepared to go somewhere else and start a new life if need be.” After stints in Germany and Israel, Spira´s job took him to Switzerland, where he and his family still live. His brother stayed in Sweden and his sister emigrated to Israel. His 92-year-old mother divides her time between Sweden and Israel.

It is important to deal with the past

Spira´s father died in 1995 at the age of 78. “The war was always part of him.  He was exhausted, even though to outsiders it looked as though he led a normal life and was successful in his job,” said his son. Lennart himself knows what it is to struggle with the shadows of the past. “I belong to the “Second Generation,” and we all have our own mental baggage to deal with.”

In order to do this, Spira would like to experience more by viewing documents in the archive, visiting memorials and talking to witnesses. “I think of it as a kind of journey. Of course no one who didn´t experience it can imagine what happened.  But it helps me to better understand the past and perhaps also to be able to accept it. It is important for me to deal with this and see the places where it happened.”

Spira was able to travel to Poland with his mother and brother so they could “see everything. But my father didn´t want to go back.” According to Spira, that´s why it is a good idea for places like the ITS in Bad Arolsen to exist. “I can look at documents here which expose facts and tell it like it is, in black and white,” explained Spira. “I think that many children of Holocaust survivors don´t realize how much material there actually is. I myself was astounded. Those who have not seen the sheer volume of the paperwork don´t understand the bureaucratic machinery, the enormity of the control, the meticulousness, the accounting of human beings. All this is an important part of the story.”

Thanks to the internet, there is now a lively exchange among survivors and their children. “A lot of information is being exchanged, sometimes just by coincidence, but there are a lot of possibilities. It´s like a snowball which starts rolling at the top of the hill and picks up speed, or like a puzzle which can never be finished. And each individual piece is crucial.” Spira is also hoping to learn more by visiting a survivor of the Kittlitztreben death march to Buchenwald, who now lives near Frankfurt am Main.