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Dory Sontheimer: “When I was 57 I found out that Nazis had killed 36 members of my family”

Dory Sontheimer, daughter of German Jews, was born in Barcelona in 1946, where she was raised as Catholic.

Dory Sontheimer, daughter of German Jews, was born in Barcelona in 1946, where she was raised as Catholic.

One of the seven boxes she found in the attic of her former room, with documentation of her family members, who were victims of the Holocaust.

One of the seven boxes she found in the attic of her former room, with documentation of her family members, who were victims of the Holocaust.

Rosl and Kurt, Dory Sontheimer’s parents, exiled to Spain during the Franco regime and had to convert to Catholicism.

Rosl and Kurt, Dory Sontheimer’s parents, exiled to Spain during the Franco regime and had to convert to Catholicism.

A series of letters her parents exchanged with her grandparents, from 1040 when they were deported until they died in Auschwitz in 1942.

A series of letters her parents exchanged with her grandparents, from 1040 when they were deported until they died in Auschwitz in 1942.

“Europe behaved like it is behaving now. We don’t change. Political and economic interests are a priority”.

“Europe behaved like it is behaving now. We don’t change. Political and economic interests are a priority”.

17/04/2018

Entrevistes

Dory Sontheimer was born in Barcelona in 1946 and was raised Catholic in Spain under the Franco regime. Her grandfather was the owner of Lehmann factory, which had a subsidiary company in Barcelona, where her parents met and got married in 1936. They had escaped the Anti-Semite Germany and they found a dictatorship in Spain. Not until she turned 18, during the Franco regime, did she know about her Jewish roots, and she lived many years without still knowing about the horror story her family had gone through. She graduated in Pharmacy and Optics at the University of Barcelona and worked as a pharmacist and businesswoman. In 2002, after her mother died, she found a series of seven boxes in the attic of her former room, which revealed a shocking story. “When I was 57 I found out that Nazis had killed 36 members of my family”, she says. Then she started doing research on her origins, which made her to travel the world to meet more than twenty members of her family. She wrote about this long story in two books, Les set caixes (Angle Editorial, 2014) and La vuitena caixa (Capital Books, 2017) and has talked about it in a documentary, titled Les 7 caixes (Carles Canet and David Fontseca). Sontheimer was invited by Salvador García Fortes, vice-rector for Arts, Culture and Heritage, to present this documentary at the UB.

 

How did you find the seven boxes?

My father died of a heart attack in 1984 and my mother was depressed in a way I found hard to understand because she had always been very strong. She started suffering from cerebral infarcts and was in coma for ten years. During this time, she didn’t talk much and it was only in German (she forgot Spanish), and she started screaming “Gestapo will come and take us”. That made me think something had happened to them. When she died, I found these boxes in the attic of my old room, behind some eiderdowns.

What did you find in the boxes?

Letters, photographs, passports… The boxes were numbered and documents were in chronological order. Behind each photograph there was the name of the place, date and name of my family members and each letter had my father’s answer at the back. All of them were censored: Gestapo opened and read all the letters. What a risk they were taking! It was shocking to find all of these. I understood some things but I realized I had to do a lot of research. I was working then (year 2002) so I made an album for my children and closed the boxes until 2006, when I retired and decided to do research and find out everything about my family.

Which is the most shocking document you found?

The folder on my maternal grandparents, because I had never seen any picture of them, I didn’t even know their names. My parents told me they had died at war, and we didn’t talk much about it.

I found all the letters they exchanged with my grandparents from 1940 when they were deported from the Black Forest to France (then I found out it was the only deportation in the area of the Black Forest). They were moved from Gurs camp to another one, Recebedou. Those who could get exit visas could go to Marseille, where the ships left. My grandparents were there. My parents and my uncle fought so they could get the visa. In 1942 they were deported to Drancy, and from Drancy to Auschwitz. They left on September 7, 1942 in a train with a thousand passengers, transported like animals. Two days later, only 899 out of the thousand passengers got there alive: 53 entered Auschwitz and the others were directly brought to the gas chambers. My grandparents were among those, she was 59 and he was 65. Now I understand how hard it must have been for my mother.

Allies knew about the existence of these extermination camps.

Yes. There were news, and leaks. In one of the last letters, my grandparents said “Those who go west do not come back, they disappear”. I guess they did not know what happened there, but allies did. And I wonder: why didn’t they bomb the railway so that trains couldn’t get to the extermination camps? It was easy! They could have saved a lot of people. But Europe behaved like it is behaving now. We don’t change. Political and economic interests are a priority.

Tell me about your parents. They were very young when they came to Barcelona.

They were escaping from fascism, but they found a similar dictatorship here. My father came to Barcelona in 1929-1930 and my mother came in 1933 after being fired from the Chancellery in Freiburg when Hitler rose to power. They met in Barcelona, fell in love and worked on their life projects, thinking that was just temporary. But in 1936, the Spanish Civil War broke out. When it ended, Hitler had been in power for more than six years. Everything happening to the Jewish community in Europe was heard everywhere. In May 1939, Franco approved the Frontier Law and they realized it would be difficult to bring family here. Franco had won the war with Hitler and Mussolini. And my family knew that they had to hide the fact that they were Jewish if they wanted to survive, and convert to Catholicism.

What would have happened to them had the Franco regime found they were Jewish?

Gestapo was working in Barcelona and they were in danger. Actually, my father was called twice to attend the German consulate in Barcelona. The German consulate was in contact with the Spanish police, so if those attending were Jewish they were usually deported to the frontier. Being deported to the frontier meant death. They only called my father, not my mother. It may have been for his surname Sontheimer. He did not go to the consulate but he shortened his surname to Sont. After having found these boxes, I wanted to get my father’s surname back.

You found out about your Jewish origins when you were eighteen. How did that come up?

I think it was because I had started dating my boyfriend, who is now my husband, and I guess my father thought I should know about my origins before committing to anyone. I remember him saying “we are Jewish, but don’t tell anyone because it is dangerous”. But that was in 1964. I didn’t understand about its danger but I respected his request. However, I was relieved to see my family was not Nazi, because my parents were very proud of being German.

You were at the university already...

Yes, I was studying Pharmacy at the University of Barcelona. My university days coincided with the last days of the Franco regime. I wasn’t a revolutionary girl but I was anti-establishment, and my parents were worried I would end up involved in political issues. At that time I didn’t understand them but now I do.

Do you think your parents promised each other not to tell you about this?

Indeed. They may have kept this secret because they wanted their kids to be happy. They must have thought: “Why do we have to get them worried if we couldn’t do anything about it?”. This shows how much they loved us. But then, they didn’t get rid of it, they left it there so that we could find it later. I am sure my parents wanted us to know about what happened to them and therefore they left many tools so that we could find it out. But they didn’t do so when alive out of fear.

And when you were 57 you discovered a past you never knew about. How does this new reality go with your identity?

I have not undergone any identity crisis. I feel I am the same person, but now I am more open, more plural. I was raised catholic and now I discovered Judaism and I am proud of my origins, but I will not give my identity up because that is built where you grow up. And I feel Mediterranean, I am Catalan.

How was the reconstruction process in the family history?

Like I said before, it was 2006 when I started working on those boxes. I was collaborating with a program called “Perseguits i salvats”, launched by the Shoah Memorial in Paris, the Topography of Terror of Berlin and the Barcelona Provincial Council. This helped me to gather information, because I got to meet a lot of people, mainly historians and sociologists. I wanted to find the family members of both sides of my family. I did not care whether they were just a few or a lot. And I found them. I travelled to Tel Aviv, Buenos Aires, Prague, Boston, Montreal, New York and London. Thanks to these boxes, my family grew up to 25 more people, the sons and daughters of those people could leave Germany, or those whose parents could send them abroad. There is one of them who is a survivor of the extermination camps! Meeting them was a splash of joy and excitement. It is a way to show the world we were able to fight and win Nazism. The only family members I still don’t know are descendants of my paternal grandfather, who live in Germany.

Why did you decide to write about this in the book Les set caixes?

I thought I had to write this book as a tribute, not only to my family but to all those families who underwent that horror. Like the journalist Vicenç Villatoro said, “six million victims are six million personal stories”. This was about giving a name and a face to those striped pyjamas.

I joined a writing course and became keen on the idea of writing. When I finished Les set caixes and found out that thirty-six members of my family had been killed I thought about the children. I needed to know what had happened to those kids during Nazism. That’s how the second book, La vuitena caixa, was born. I will never understand how such an educated society like Germany was able to create a mass murder and kill more than a million kids. This is really scary, to see how far the human mind can get! You realize that humans, in general, are easily manipulated and that is why it is so important to insist and tell youngsters that they should not believe in demagogy or totalitarianism, they should think for themselves. Each one has his/her own conscience and knows right from wrong.

Is that why you give informative sessions in high schools?

Yes, I take part in a program of the Department of Education called “Testimonis a l’aula”. I am glad to carry this task out with young people because they are the future. They have to know about the past, which is not that far, so that they do not make the same mistakes. This cannot happen again. And truth is, they listen to me with their eyes wide open. Silence. Imagine teenagers like that!

I think Europe is not doing enough to teach people’s minds and that is very important. The governments and the United Nations are not working on it. This is why I am worried about the refugees. We have to think that we could be immigrants one day. In fact, my parents were. Then you see all the far-right parties, mainly when there is an economic crisis, and they blame the ones from abroad. My parent, who was a tolerant man with a clear idea of ethics, taught me that human values are over identities. Regardless of being agnostic, Catholic, Jewish, Protestant or Muslim, you are a person. I think this is universal and needs some work on, not only words.

Last, have you thought about what to do with the information after some years?

I am sure I will have to keep them somewhere. These are valuable documents and have to be kept in the right place. The World Holocaust Remembrance Center of Jerusalem, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum are interested in having them, and the museums we have here too, but I still have to think about it. I know I do not want them in some shelf, I want them somewhere where they will be analysed and studied. I am sure we can get a lot of information I have been unable to find out yet.
 

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