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Long lost books link my past to my present

Jenny Teich was my grandmother, my mother’s mother who perished in Treblinka. I was five when we fled Berlin but remember yom tov gatherings where a gentle old lady would pass out chocolate goodies when we kissed her velvet cheeks. She was a widow living with the eldest of her four daughters. My mother was the first to leave in 1938, but Jenny still felt safe in Berlin for who would harm an old lady? The postcards continued to come until early 1942 and then – nothing. We know now she was send to Theresienstadt, but shortly after was included in a transport of the old and sick sent to Treblinka. The records state that some had to be carried to the train on stretchers. Why does that detail particularly horrify me? Two of her daughters, together with their families, also perished.

Seventy plus years later there are still four grandchildren who actually remember her. I am the youngest, aged 81. Soon she will be only a name, incised as a memorial on her daughter’s gravestone. But her story has a new chapter. In 2014 I wrote to the International Tracing Service seeking for further information on the Lifschutz family from Rszeszow, my father’s siblings. All of them had perished.  As an afterthought, I added the name of Jenny Teich. Their reply gave no new information but a final paragraph stated that three years ago there had been a request for information about Jenny from someone who held prayer books inscribed with her name! Nothing more. Immediately I asked if I could contact this person. They needed permission, but within 24 hours, I was given an email address. It did not have a country suffix.

So who was I writing to and in what language? I decided the books had probably been found in Germany so wrote in my childlike German, explaining that I lived in Australia, was the granddaughter of Jenny, our own daughter was named in her honour, and it would mean a great deal to us if my religiously observant daughter, now living in Israel, could have these books. Could I purchase them?

The warm reply, in English, came from Sao Paulo. Brazil? What was the story? Ilona Strimber was the child of Holocaust Survivors. Her parents had survived the war in Berlin with false documents and the help of several non-Jews. In the 1950s, they immigrated to South America. When her mother passed away three years ago, Ilona found the books among her possessions. The name was unfamiliar so she wrote to the ITS for further information.

How did these books come into her mother’s possession? Did the young woman and my grandmother pray in the same synagogue? Did they know each other? More likely, prayer books salvaged after the war were given to religious survivors by the Berlin Jewish authorities. But from where were Jenny’s books salvaged? There were no answers.

Ilona then explained that the books were no longer in her possession. In 2011, having been informed that Jenny was murdered in Treblinka, she returned them to Berlin. They were handed over to the Central Judaicum. To me this seemed to be the end of the story. But my family urged me to keep going. Perhaps the books were still in Berlin. So another message, an offer to pay for someone to search the storerooms, and a week later, the books had been found! (…)

Jenny Teich died more than 70 years ago, one of the six million of our people. Today I can link up with a family in Brazil with whom I share a common history and a deep cultural understanding. (…)

Two big institutions took the trouble to help with a small enquiry. Now these books have been returned to Jenny, the great granddaughter of the original owner, linking our people across borders and through time and generations.

Discovering some surprising information has helped keep my grandmother’s legacy alive, writes Susie Ehrmann