Leo Steinweg, first husband of Emmy Herzog

December 2, 2000

Leo Steinweg, first husband of Emmy Herzog

Today, Daniel Terna, our son, is a pupil in the eighth grade of the Middle School.  Rebecca Shiffman, Daniel’s mother, is the daughter of survivors of the Shoah, I, Frederick Terna, Daniel’s father, am a survivor.

A few days ago a book arrived in the mail.  It included a letter from my aunt Emmy, six pages written in a somewhat shaky and old-fashioned script.  Emmy Herzog is ninety-seven years old today, and lives in Munster, in Westphalia.  Emmy authored the book last year; it is written in German.

In an earlier note about the Herzog family I mentioned Emmy Steinweg marrying my Uncle Eugene after the war.  I did not know about her life before or during World War II; I only knew that her first husband had perished in a concentration camp.

Emmy’s letter mentions how old age had imposed limits on her, yet her optimism and her zest for life pervades every sentence.  Emmy had outlived her friends and her family, and she was lonely. She mourned the loss of her second husband, my Uncle Eugene, but all these years had suppressed memories of her life with Leo. I’m translating here a few words from her book: “In 1999, while away from home, sitting on balcony and looking at a beautiful landscape the idea came to me to set to words memories that had oppressed me all these years.  Now that I have started, my courage is abandoning me; I see the horrors again. Tears come to my eyes, but I have the firm intention to continue writing.” Back home she sat down in her garden and started on her task. In her letter she tells about her effort to satisfy her need to recollect not only happy memories but also the painful ones. A neighbor noticed her writing day after day, came over, questioned, read a few pages, and insisted that she consider publishing her history.  Then follow in fine detail and in moving sentences the many steps leading to publication. There was her reluctance to publish at all, her fear about rejection, of being laughed at.  The book was finished in December 1999, and published in May 2000; its title is “Leben mit Leo”, Life with Leo.

Conjecture rather than verifiable information about Emmy’s family leads me to wonder about her background.  Before World War I., before 1914, her family had left Poland and moved to Germany, eventually settling in Munster in Westphalia. Why did they leave Poland?  In 1933 when Hitler came to power in Germany they had all the official documentation proving that they and their ancestors were Catholics.  Random remarks heard after the war make me question that background. It included the statement that because of their papers Emmy’s brother had to serve in the German army. Emmy spoke Polish, and she understood Yiddish.  Both of her husbands were Jews.  I assume that both of her marriage ceremonies were civil ones since Emmy’s documents listed her as a Catholic. In 1940, after the German occupation of the Netherlands, Emmy was registered as a single woman using her named Bogatzki, her maiden name.

The book starts in 1924, in Munster, in Westphalia, when Emmy went to a dance, and met there a young Jewish man, Leo Steinweg, who was a professional motorcycle racer for BMW, even then a major manufacturer of motorcycles in Germany.  Leo and Emmy were married, and eventually opened in Munster a business selling and servicing motorcycles. Their business thrived until 1933 when Hitler came to power. Leo immediately lost his driver’s license, and thus was not allowed to participate in motorcycle races. Within a short time their business was confiscated.  Former friends avoided them.  Their other possessions were confiscated, and Leo was not allowed to work. Somehow they managed to earn a living, believing that the Nazi regime would come to an end soon.  In August 1938 a well-connected person informed them that within a few days a major action against Jews living in the area was to happen, and that Leo should at once leave Germany.  By then Leo had a large letter J stamped on each page of his passport, and he was listed as Leo Israel Steinweg.

Leo crossed the border into the Netherlands, stating that he was on a short business trip. Since he had but a small satchel of clothing he was allowed in.  By then the Netherlands had issued an order that no refugees from Germany were to be allowed into the country. Leo found himself to be an illegal resident in the country of his refuge.  He was not allowed to work or to rent a place. Emmy soon afterward left Munster to join Leo in Utrecht.  Emmy was not identified as a Jew, and could travel. The lot of a refugee was a difficult one. They were not allowed to earn a living, and had to depend on handouts from private organizations.  While their life was a difficult one they were not in physical danger.  Emmy and Leo managed to get a visa to emigrate to Brazil.  While waiting for their ship, with all documents and tickets in their pocket, Germany invaded the Netherlands.

Close to two hundred pages record the years from 1924 to the end of World War II, most of them as vivid conversation between Emmy and Leo, and also with people who had an impact on their life.  In the connecting text Emmy describes the circumstances of these dialogues, as well as her feelings about people and events.  She mentions how she remembers the exact words of nearly three-quarters of a century ago.   Her style resembles that of a novel for young women, conversation between young newlyweds, about early struggles that should lead to a happy future. Her account has some of the feeling of a diary. It is the contrast between Emmy’s style and reality that gives the book its impact.

Her book tells of the small details of love and hope, of care and intimacy, of crying and embraces, of fear and horror, all this while in hiding in Utrecht in the Netherlands.  It tells of the search for scraps of food, for a warm coat, for new underwear, about the hundreds of stratagems developed to stay alive.  In diary style meals and unexpected treats supplied by Dutch friends are mentioned, acts of kindness by strangers are acknowledged. First in hiding in one house they were warned about a scheduled raid, and Dutch friends found another place for them on the top floor of a small house.  While it was safe at first, the tenants on the floor below them were forced to relinquish their home to make space for a Nazi sympathizer.  From that moment on Leo and Emmy had to be on their guard twenty-four hour a day.  Leo had to walk in his stocking feet; he could not flush the toilet while alone at home.  Whenever the doorbell rang he climbed from their balcony into a hiding place on the roof until he was assured that it was safe to come down. During winter that was a cold, icy and slippery hideout.

They were betrayed, and their hiding place was discovered. In 1942 Leo was apprehended, and shipped to Auschwitz. From there he was shipped to another concentration camp, Flossenburg, and he perished there early in 1945.   Emmy was taken to the headquarters of the Gestapo, the German secret police, but managed to avoid deportation.  Emmy remained in Utrecht, and was liberated there.

Reading Emmy’s book fills me with admiration for her. She had the strength to recall a very painful part of her past, and to record it in minute detail.  After reading a few pages I had to stop for a while before continuing. My memories and feelings were roused; emotions, close to the surface most of the time, made me pace myself with care.

Our injunction to remember and to observe was acknowledged and accomplished by Emmy Herzog when she was 96 years old.  She too will be remembered, and so will be the life and death of Leo Steinweg.

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