Finding a Long-Lost Relative after 77 Years
Family researcher finds missing cousin in JDC Archives Names Database
Recently, I was searching for information about the role played by the JDC in the rescue of 4,000 German Jewish men to Kitchener refugee camp in 1939: my father Werner Weissenberg was one of the men saved. The Kitchener camp, was a former army camp in Kent, England which housed mostly single Jewish men from Germany and Austria who had been released from concentration camps after Kristallnacht, on the condition that they leave Germany immediately.
For years, we believed Werner was the only family member to escape Germany before the war started. Having been imprisoned for some months in Dachau following ‘Kristallnacht’ in November 1938, he was given an ultimatum: leave Germany or be returned to a concentration camp. He left, through a scheme run by the same British and American Jewish organizations that had funded the Kindertransport, although far less is known about this rescue of 4,000 men.
While carrying out my research, I found a link to the JDC Archives website. I knew “the Joint” had played a significant part in organizing the Kitchener rescue, and so I clicked.
As anyone with this background will understand, when I saw the JDC held some searchable records for individuals caught up in the Shoah, I began to type in the names of our “missing,” “just in case.”
To my amazement, one of our family names came up: Betty Bloch.
Betty was a cousin of Werner’s – the only daughter of his uncle Fedor Bloch. Werner’s family in Germany had continued to write to him in Britain until they were deported: so we knew that Betty had been living in France since 1933, had gained a public health qualification in July 1939, but was out of touch throughout 1940. A letter stated she was heard from in February 1941, but not what country she was living in. In winter 1941, Fedor was deported to the Riga ghetto, and my grandmother was deported “East” in 1942. No more news of Betty was ever to arrive: even the Red Cross and International Tracing Service could tell us nothing about Betty’s fate.
Until in 2018, I clicked in the search box on the JDC Archives website!
There was a single card for Betty, which gave her name and date of birth, her French citizenship, her address in Paris, and a friend she named as her beneficiary – Herta Wescher, with her address. The card was dated 1953.
I emailed the JDC, and meanwhile Googled “Herta Wescher” and the address given. Wescher and her husband had apparently been designated as “degenerate artists,” which put their lives at risk; they left Germany for Paris when Hitler came to power in 1933. Searching further, I found that in Germany the Weschers had been living only a few miles from the Bloch family in Mönchengladbach. Perhaps Betty left with the Weschers? Perhaps they were family friends? We will probably never know.
Next, emails with attachments began arriving from the JDC – mainly letters from the 1950s. I did not expect that Betty would still be alive, having been born in 1912, but she might have married – she might have had children. There might be some family “out there.”
It transpired that Betty had survived the Holocaust – although we still don’t know anything more about her war years. However, we did learn from these letters that in the postwar period Betty was working for the JDC in Displaced Persons camps with Holocaust survivors: she had put her public health qualification to work.
Some years later, according to further JDC letters, Betty was working for the city of Münich in an administrative capacity; and she had a relationship with a man who seems subsequently to have abandoned her. Shortly after this, living alone in a flat in Münich, Betty Bloch killed herself. She had tried to do so several times, apparently.
Tragically, Betty and my father had never found out that the other had survived, although I know Werner had been looking for information about his cousin for many years.
I can’t begin to imagine the relentless trauma of Betty’s life: her father was imprisoned for years as a POW in World War I; her mother died when she was 13; she was sent to live abroad at the age of 21; her war experiences; and then years of work with ill, injured, and traumatized death camp survivors.
We families of those caught up in the Shoah seldom expect to receive good news. Most times when we search, we do so in the expectation that each precious life will have ended in some unimaginably terrible way. Yet, the need to keep searching is overwhelmingly compelling: the need to document, to commemorate, to “know,” and to pass on. If we can find and commemorate the precious strands of our families, however awful their ends might have been, these people – our people – are thereby not obliterated from history. We ensure in our searches and in our recording of the results that their names and their memories live on.
With heartfelt thanks for your many kindnesses – to the Joint Distribution Committee.
Simply put, I and my family would not be alive today if the JDC hadn’t helped to save my father Werner through Kitchener camp, and without the JDC’s technological help, we might never have known what happened to Werner’s much-searched-for cousin, Betty Bloch.
About the Author
Dr. Clare Weissenberg is based in England. She is working on a project about the Kitchener camp, which will be donated next year to the Wiener Library. Dr. Weissenberg tracks research on her missing family members in an online project called From Numbers to Names. Having found an old suitcase belonging to her father containing hundreds of German documents, letters, and photographs, she is gradually building a picture of her father’s family in prewar and wartime Germany. This story has been shared with her permission.