You’ve heard the saying. “The death of one person is a tragedy. The death of
ten million people is a statistic.” The death toll of World War II is estimated
at over 60 million people
, including six million Jews in the Holocaust. Each of those deaths is a tragedy, because each has a family story.
In 1995, and again last year, this photograph was passed around and
discussed because of the one German in the crowd who did not perform the Nazi salute. Some sources say the photograph was taken in 1936 at the unveiling of the ship the Horst Wessel
, at which Adolf Hitler was present. However, Irene Landmesser recognized the man as her father August Landmesser, who was sentenced to a labor camp in 1938, and worked in a shipyard
as a prisoner, so the exact date of the photograph may be in doubt.
The Landmesser family’s tragic history under the Nazi regime is chronicled in
Irene Messer’s book A Family Torn Apart by “Rassenschande,”
of which a large
part is available online in English. Auguste Landmesser was sentenced to
two and a half years imprisonment for falling in love. The rest of the family
suffered their own fates.
August Landmesser joined the Nazi party in 1935 because he thought it would help
him with employment. After all, he had a family to support. He had met Irma
Eckler in 1934 and they filled out an application to marry in August of 1935. Their
application to marry was rejected because Irma was Jewish. The law against
such marriages had been passed, but wasn’t supposed to go into effect until
September. Irma’s mother and two sisters had married non-Jews already, and were
grandfathered into law. But the untimely rejection of Landmesser’s application
spelled eventual doom for the family.
Previously, Irma wasn’t quite sure about her racial designation. Her father,http://www.fasena.de/courage/english/7c.htm
Eckler, was the product of a Jewish mother and non-Jewish father. Irma’s
stepfather was a non-Jew, and Irma, her mother, and sisters were all baptized
as Protestants in 1931.
August and Irma nevertheless stayed together and their daughters,
Ingrid and Irene, were born in 1935 and 1937, respectively. Meanwhile, the
German government http://www.fasena.de/courage/english/4.htm
issued an edict in secret:
“Secret directive from the Head of Security Police, 12th June 1937, concerning
Protective Custody of ‘Rassenschänder’ : . . . In the case of ‘Rassenschande’
between a German male and a Jewish female, she is to be taken into Protective
Custody immediately after legal proceedings have been completed. The directive
is not for public release.”
“Protective Custody” in this case was not to be taken literally: it was code
for arrest. The males in these cases were arrested and charged with breaking
the law. August was arrested on July 28, 1937, a few days before his
second daughter, Irene, was born. He was acquitted in May of 1938 on grounds of
insufficient evidence because of the confusion over Irma’s classification.
August was arrested again in July of 1938 because he returned to Irma,
therefore committing another act of Rassenschande
He was sentenced to two and a half years. His conviction set the secret edict
into motion, and Irma was taken into custody. Her children were sent to an
orphanage. Irma’s Aryan stepfather was able to retrieve Ingrid, who was
thereafter raised by her grandmother. Irene stayed behind, eventually to go
into foster care.
August was sent to Börgermoor Prison Camp, where inmates were used
for labor in armament factories and shipyards.
Irma was sent to various internment camps: Oranienburg, Lichtenburg, and Ravensbrück. As war broke out and years went by, conditions
in the camps deteriorated. Irma Eckler was transferred from Ravensbrück to the Bernburg death camp in 1942, where she was led to the gas chamber.
August Landmesser was released from custody in January of 1941. He went to
work in Warnemünde, and in 1943 was engaged to a Russian woman who used the
name Sonya Pastschenko. When the German army occupied Ukraine, they had found
her working as a nurse for the Russian army and deported her to work in
Warnemünde. August contacted his daughters and introduced Sonya in 1943. But
the family was never reunited. August was drafted and sent into battle with Bewährungsbataillon 999
in 1944. He was reported as
missing and presumed dead in November. He was officially declared dead in
1949. Irene was not aware of his status and held hope of his return until 1994,
when she finally saw the notification that her sister Ingrid had received.http://www.fasena.de/courage/english/5e.htm
Eckling (later Landmesser) was born in 1935, before the Nuremberg Laws went into effect, so she was classified as Mischling
(half cast). She therefore escaped much of the anti-Jewish persecution of the
Nazi era. Ingrid stayed with her maternal grandmother until adulthood.
Ingrid’s younger sister Irene, born in 1937, was classified as a Jew, which
meant she was eventually subject to carrying an ID card and wearing a yellow
star at all times. After http://www.fasena.de/courage/english/5d.htm
a period in an orphanage in which she suffered physical
abuse, Irene was taken in by a foster family named Krause in 1940 and then by
the Proskauer family in 1941. She was unofficially renamed Reni Proskauer.
Around this time, the father, Erwill Proskauer, who was Jewish, was made to
perform forced labor. In 1942 Irene, who was five years old, was picked up with
a group of Jewish orphans and was to be sent to the camps. However, an
acquaintance grabbed her out of the group and disappeared into the crowd.
“Auntie Schneemann” took Irene to Austria for several months. She was the only
survivor of the group of orphans.
Upon her return to Hamburg, Irene was hidden in a hospital ward, during
which time her Jewish ID card was “lost.” In 1943, Frau Proskauer, afraid her
daughter “Reni” would be exposed as a Jew, absconded
with the girl to Calvörde in Brandenburg and hid until the end of the war.
Erwill Proskauer had no idea where his wife had gone. After the war, the
never officially adopted Irene, and turmoil in the family
caused her to move in and out of an orphanage. She eventually contacted her
sister Ingrid and began to research the family history.