Michael and David Liebrecht are Capetonian brothers whose mother, Lotte, survived the Holocaust by making the seemingly simple decision to extend her stay in South Africa to learn English when her family were here on holiday from Holland one year. Her parents, twin sister Lore and her youngest sister were all killed in Auschwitz when they returned to Holland after their trip.
Suffering immense survivor’s guilt, Lotte contemplated suicide but instead decided to give her life to charity, teaching art to handicapped and autistic children and feeding the poor in her new home of Cape Town, South Africa.
The Chronicle spent some time with Michael and David after they made a special trip to the town their mother had lived in, to reflect on her life before the war, and we asked them about their journey when they returned last month.
“As children we had been told very little of our Mothers experiences. For the first thirteen years life was normal for her and her family. Everything changed when Hitler came into power,” explains Michael.
She had likened this time in Germany to Apartheid in South Africa. Jews were forbidden to go to certain areas, had to sit on separate benches and were separated from the other children at school. The Levy family was barred from attending the theatre even though their Grandfather was the patron. Lotte’s Father, Albert Levy, was taken to Buchenwald and later released on condition that he sign their house over to the Nazis. Her mother was put into prison for high treason for communicating with banned authors. After Levy was released from Buchenwald, the family left Germany and went to live in Holland. Before they crossed the border into Holland the Nazis emptied Levy’s pockets of all the money he was carrying.
“Michael and I, together with my late brother Peter had always wanted to visit the town that my mother had lived in.” says David. “We knew that the house was still there and had been donated by the family to be used as a psychiatric hospital for young people. We also wanted to visit the various businesses owned by our grandfather which included a departmental store, and other buildings belonging to him. We wanted to visit the theatre, the school our mom attended and also the street named after our grandfather ‘Albert Levy Strasse’.”
A few months ago, before they made the journey to Germany the brothers received an email from Christian Repkewitz informing them that the community were laying “Stolpersteine” outside their family’s home in memory of their family who were murdered in Auschwitz, and of family members who escaped and were displaced. “Stolpersteine” are stones made out of brass with the names of the Jews who lived in the house giving their birth dates and how they died. The brothers then decided it was the right time to visit their mother’s hometown.
“We were not sure how we would be received in the town and were wondering if the properties we had heard about from our mother were still standing and what condition they were in, says David. “We were excited that we were going to fulfil a lifelong dream and proud that the town of Altenburg was honouring and remembering our family.”
Michael and David were warmly received by the organisers and even the Mayor of Altenburg held a reception for them. Christian Repkewitz and his wife Nadine were engaging and made them feel very welcome. Repkewitz has dedicated his life to honouring the Jews from Altenburg and keeping their memory alive. The speeches made by Christian and Reinhart Strecker (head of the psychiatric hospital) about the family were incredibly touching and heartfelt.
Michael reflects “the town was really beautiful with very little having changed since before the war. Everything our mother had told us was exactly as she had described.
“We were very happy that we had made the trip. We are very proud of how our family was respected in Altenburg. We learnt that our grandfather was very hard working and supported The stolpesteine laid outside the family’s home many charities, was patron of the theatre and had a street named after him.”
“Our mom only started talking about her experiences late in her life.,” David adds. It felt like a story to us or reading it in a book, but being in the same places and walking in the very same footsteps made us appreciate and understand the horrors that they had to endure. We were shown the square where our grandfather together with other Jews were dragged and put into trucks. Our Grandfather had had previously received the Iron Cross and he really believed that this would protect him.” In the end no Jews were safe.
David and Michael Liebrecht would like to mention three people who have done so much to keep the memory of their family alive.
Gwynne Robins from the Jewish Board of Deputies. Gwynne wrote the book “In Sacred Memory” (1995). This told the story of ten Cape Town families involved with the Holocaust. Gwynne was instrumental in getting our mom to open up and talk about her experiences. In 1996 Gwynne interviewed Lotte Liebrecht which was recorded onto film, sponsored by Steven Spielberg with the proceeds from Schindlers List.
Gunter Demnig, an Artist who comes from Cologne, started the “Stolpesteine” project, laying these copper stones in Germany and throughout Europe on the pavement outside Jewish homes and businesses. He personally lays these stones.
Christian Repkewitz is a young man in his 30s, a historian who works for the Mayor of Altenburg in the council. He has worked tirelessly researching all the Jewish people who lived in Altenburg from 1889 to 1945. He has written a book “Verblasste Spuren” The Life and Suffering of Jewish Inhabitants of Altenburg. Christian has won awards in Israel and America.