Hi there. My name is Abigail Sterne and I’m a distant relative living in the UK. My great grandfather was Kamil Lichtenstern…. I have recently been translating the diary of Oskar Lichtenstern which has been in the possession of my Great Aunt Gertrude Levitt, who is the youngest daughter of Kamil, and a first cousin of Heinz and Poldi….
So starts an email I received earlier this week. I read the email several times as I had never heard of Kamil or Gertrude or Abigail. I asked myself, “Who are these ‘distant relatives’ living in the UK?” I called my mother to ask and she didn’t know either.
I have since had a lovely Facetime conversation with Abigail and we have exchanged several more emails. Abigail and I have a special connection – Okkie’s diary! If you are a regular reader of my blog, you know that Oskar/Okkie is my mother’s paternal grandfather and that he survived the Holocaust with her in Westerbork and Theresienstadt. He wrote a diary about his experiences and I used it as a reference when I wrote Tutti’s Promise. How can Abigail have the diary if I have it? Did he write more than one? Or could it be that she is related to a different Oskar Lichtenstern? This is where our conversation started. I held up the diary for her to see and she did the same. They were identical from the words on the page to the yellowing of the paper. How was it possible? Okkie must have typed with carbon paper. Two copies – one for each of his sons, Heinz (my grandfather) and Poldi. Except there was one difference. Poldi’s copy, the one that Abigail was holding, had Okkie’s yellow star clipped to it. This is the star he wore in Amsterdam and Westerbork and Theresienstadt. This is the star that the Nazis forced him to wear so they could single him out as a Jew. This star represents dehumanization and discrimination.
Abigail’s Aunt Gert is 104 years old and lives in England. She has written a memoir which I have just finished reading. It is filled with so much family history. My understanding of the Lichtenstern family has expanded greatly in just a week.
Okkie was one of seven siblings. They were all born in a small village called Slap on the outskirts of Prague. They are:
- Hugo Mar 25, 1866 — Sept 11, 1940 Prague, CZ
- Malwine (Saphir) Apr 23, 1870 — 1943 Palestine
- Ernst Dec 4, 1871— Apr 6, 1936 Aussig, CZ
- Oskar Dec 3, 1875 — Dec 26, 1954 Amsterdam
- Camil/Kamil (Sterne) Nov 11, 1878 — Oct 26, 1950 South Africa
- Olga (Melnick) July 30, 1880 — ? Israel
- Irma (Pergamenter) December 8, 1882 — ? Israel
Hugo, the only one to stay in Slap, had two daughters – their last names became Pollak and Turk. Malwine married and emigrated to Palestine in the 1920s, so her branch of the family tree continues in Israel as Saphir. Ernst had one daughter whose married name was Glauber and one son who changed his last name to Lexa. While Oskar kept Lichtenstern, his eldest son, Poldi, changed his name to Lister. Camil changed his last name to Sterne when he immigrated to South Africa in 1902. Olga married a man with the last name Melnick. Finally, Irma’s married name is Pergamenter but her only son changed that to Menter.
Apparently, I have a whole bunch of cousins from the Lichtenstern side of the family, but only my grandfather, Heinz, and his son’s descendants kept the name Lichtenstern. A note to my cousins: if I can find you, I might be calling to introduce myself! Or better yet, if you read this, get in touch with me.
To add one more layer to the story, Abigail showed me a letter that Okkie had sent to Camil after he had been liberated from Theresienstadt, but before he made it home to Amsterdam. Here it is, with a translation (by Abigail) that is well worth the read.
He was writing to his brother in South Africa across the world from a displaced persons camp in Holland to let him know he was alive. He could barely afford a stamp. He didn’t know where he would go from there and he had no idea how he would support himself. He had already written to family (possibly Ernst’s children) in the USA to ask for help.
This letter is all about family. Who was alive? Where were they? He was trying to connect. As you can read in the letter, the possibility of seeing his son again pulled him through the worst of times. Family was all he lived for. He yearned for connection after years of uncertainty, starvation, sickness, and fear. Family pulled him through. Family was what he looked forward to. Family matters.