Family Matters

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.

10 thoughts on “Family Matters

  1. Peter Lister says:

    Thank you for forwarding this to me. I’ll add a few notes that may, or may not, be of interest.

    To the best of my recollections;
    The original of my grandfathers diary was lost on the travels back to Amsterdam. The memories were rewritten after the families return. It was later translated by Tutti in to English. I have a copy of both the 2nd original and the later translation. Of course not a copy of the original. You are correct in stating that the “rewrite” was typed with several copies and carbon paper between.
    My mother, her mother, her two brothers, both sister-in laws and their children, if any, escaped to the US near the end of 1939. My mother and I certainly with the help of my uncle Heinz.
    My father being of Polish birth could not got a visa for the States and was able to get to England.
    When drafted into the. British army he was advised to change his name from Lichtenstern to Lister in case of capture by the Germans and cross reference to living relatives in German captivity. My mother and I did likewise. Neither remarried or divorced or ever lived together again. They did meet on the occasion of my wedding and the BarMitzva of our oldest son. If memory serves me correctly also the wedding of our middle son EVAN.
    And so, life goes on. My wife, Mireille and I live in a Jewish retirement community in LA near to our oldest son GARY. Visitors always welcome.

  2. Lori Lyth-Frantz says:

    The story of your family gets more and more interesting. Heart breaking letter—not having any idea of where or with whom he will land. Can’t imagine. Thanks for sharing!!

    >

  3. Susan Taylor says:

    This is so wonderful, Heidi. Thanks for sharing. I look forward to hearing/reading more about your family and this great journey of discovery and exploration. Lots of love – Susan

  4. Barbara Livingston says:

    Dear Heidi,

    You’re probably wondering who in the world this “sewnfly@gmail.com” is. I am Jillian Livingston’s mother-in-law. I have been following your blog and your journey for years. I purchased a copy of Tutti’s Promise and couldn’t put it down! Your family history and experiences/horrors during the war and liberation are riveting accounts. This latest email and subsequent FaceTime conversation with a distant relative must just take your breath away! It did mine!

    I wanted to convey to you how very much I have gained through your efforts to document your mother’s experience. What your mother and her family endured along with countless others is truly humbling. It is unfathomable! You have brought to life a priceless body of work. Thank you!

    Barbara Livingston

    P.S. My copy of “Tutti’s Promise” is on a priceless journey…being passed from friend to friend and home to home. We must never forget that an act so unthinkable could actually be brought on mankind. Thank you, again.

    Sent from my iPad

    >

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s