To the memory of Bruno Reiss 1934-1942
I couldn’t say exactly when everything started. I was always interested in linguistics and skillful in learning various languages. On birthdays, my family sings Happy Birthday in several languages, even if we don’t know them: Spanish, English, Italian, German, and more. When my husband Daniel came into the family, we started to sing also in Hebrew and Yiddish.
Through the Or Jadash Community Center in the Flores neighborhood of Buenos Aires, I was able to fulfill my dream of dancing Rikudim (Israeli folk dancing). I had wished to do so for a long time but my children were still very young and I had no one else to take care of them while I danced. When Or Jadash decided to offer Rikudim for moms while the children were in the Kinderclub, my opportunity had arrived and I joined in to dance. Every single mom was lovely, sympathetic and funny. Since I am a German teacher, the morah, the Rikudim teacher, told me about her Oma and about the swear words she could say in German. At that moment I knew that Leda also came from a German-speaking family.
In April 2015 I recorded myself singing Happy Birthday in Yiddish to Leda for her birthday and sent the recording to her via e-mail. And so began this story.
We started exchanging e-mails. I asked and she told me about her parents and grandmother. I translate excerpts of what she wrote:
At home, although my grandmother and my dad emigrated from Europe when my dad was five, they didn’t speak Yiddish… I don’t know why. But I remember clearly that when they argued, they did so in German. My grandmother was Austrian.
My grandmother spoke Yiddish only with her cousin. I know she came from a border town and could speak four different dialects, but she always spoke Spanish at home and that with no European accent. She had lost her entire family in the war, but she never told me any anecdotes or memories. My dad did, but she didn’t.
At Yad Vashem there is a record of surnames, but I didn’t find the surnames of my grandmother who was Byk (paternal) and Reiss (maternal).
Leda told me that she had some papers in German—“someday someone is going to translate them for me.”
We met once for a couple of hours before our Rikudim dancing lesson. Leda showed me some carefully saved letters written in German, letters she had never read because of her lack of German knowledge. We read them together, sitting in the La Continental coffee shop, at the corner of Eva Peron and Varela Streets. The letters, written in 1938 and 1939, contained desperate pleas from Vienna asking Leizor Altura, grandfather of my friend Leda, to obtain permission to allow the married couple Klara Fernhoff and Isak Asher Reiss to immigrate to Argentina with their son Bruno. Isak Asher Reiss was a brother of Lola Byk Reiss, Leda’s grandmother, and wife of Leizor Altura.
Leizor Altura, wife Lola, Wilhelm, and Charlotte; Brody,
Both Leda and I are teachers and, being busy, our time was taken up by other matters. In December 2015, both of us had our long vacation and were finally able to turn our attention again to the letters. In addition to the seven letters, Leda showed me a report of 11 pages about the resistance in the Brody Ghetto. The report mentioned a Munie Altura, who had spent some months hidden at the top of the church in Brody. We had no idea who he was or how he might be related to Leda.
The Family of Leda's Grandmother
Six of the letters saved by my friend Leda were sent from Vienna between March 29th, 1938 and February 13th, 1939. The seventh letter was sent from the United States January 30th, 1960.
The translation of the seven letters took me a whole weekend. It was a hard work, mostly because of the emotional involvement it meant to me: with each word of these letters I could feel the desperation of the family wanting to escape from Vienna.
Translated excerpts from the letters from Vienna:
We’re doing well, my Bruno is very cute, and we are determined to be with you, if you allow us the journey by submitting an entry permit.
Please discuss this matter; our dear cousin Josef may help you.
(Signed by Isak, March 29th, 1938).
We believe the decision to emigrate was related to the Anschluss, the incorporation of Austria into Nazi Germany, that occurred March 12th, 1938.
Almost a month later, probably after an answer from Buenos Aires, the following letter arrived:
I had already sent away the birth certificates, before your letter arrived, perhaps you will need them yet.
So a Request would be very, very helpful, but please without tickets, we are getting them here. Unfortunately, we can't send money from here. [The Request or “Anforderung” or “Llamada” was a mandatory step to begin the immigration process.]
Does a Request help as an entry permit?
(Signed by Klara, April 25th, 1938)
Two months later the following letter arrived, reporting the first bureaucratic obstacles. Immigration to Argentina was becoming more difficult as the Argentine government increased its restrictions on immigration.
Only today I could get a report from the Consulate.
I’m sending the Request back because it must be confirmed by your local authorities, as the Secretary in the Consulate told me.
Therefore, we ask you to do this for us as soon as possible.
We know how much effort and money it costs you, we will hopefully be able to return the favor. Please find out where exactly it needs to be confirmed.
It is possible that you will need our documents again, you, dear brother-in-law, should have not sent them to us since we have got others. In case you’ll need them again, please let us know.
You can’t imagine what a good thing you are doing for us, we will never forget it in our life.
As soon as you have started let us hope everything will be all right. You just have to make a little bit of effort.
We are really sorry that we have to bother you so much, but who else would do this for us, if not our own blood relatives?
We greet and kiss you.
(Signed by Klara, June 1st, 1938)
After a month we can read Klara’s impatience due to the lack of an answer. We learn that the head of the family in Vienna has lost his job:
We are very surprised because of your silence. What does it mean? On June 1st I sent the Request back asking you to please get it officially confirmed by the local authority, and unfortunately we have yet received no answer.
We are very concerned, we hope nothing bad has happened, we hope everybody is healthy. Please let us know immediately if you can speed up the process, my Isak is already unemployed. My friend is travelling already at the end of this month to Buenos Aires to meet her sisters and brothers, I gave her your address so you can know more about us. I think that the Request is not valid without immigration permission, so you must ask very well. As I learned, you have to obtain immigration permission, and this includes, if possible, the Request, both officially confirmed. Please, if it is possible, write to us to tell us how long it could take.
…Otherwise everything about us is doing well, we are hoping to hear good news from you. We kiss you and ask you for an answer, telling us what you can do for us. We will thank you in joy.
(Signed by Klara, July 4th, 1938)
During this time, Leizor Altura had passed away. The family in Buenos Aires decided not to share this news with Klara and Isak in Vienna so they would not lose hope. More than two months after the above letter, the following letter arrived. We can read here about their gratitude, resignation, despair and still a glimmer of hope, due to the arrival of the Jewish New Year—but already without any basis.
I thank you my dears for your effort and sacrifice, we see it and understand it, you can’t do anything further for us because of your lack of means.
We have left our destiny to our dear God, we're out of luck, unfortunately. My Isak can’t travel as a tourist, it’s impossible.
At the moment nothing has changed, and we are very desperate. Many poor families have obtained Affidavits from rich relatives. We asked Adolf for an Affidavit and he sent us one but with a very small base, useful only for one person, therefore we have lost every hope and, even if it were valid, we could only use it in two years, since the Polish quota is locked.
But please do not get sad, let’s hope the New Year may bring something good, we must not lose hope.
(Signed by Klara, September 21st, 1938)
About five months later, the following letter arrived, the final one from Vienna. It is difficult to understand, but I didn’t want to correct it, since I think even the hand writing, style, and lack of punctuation, show the despair. The letter was signed by Isak:
Vienna February 13th 1939
My dear sister!
Dear sister! Please excuse me, I’m very sorry that I didn’t write soon, you had to wait so long for our answer
Unfortunately is no wonder my nerves are really wrecked and I am concerned that we cannot get away so quickly
I have received the Ferstendignung [understanding, notification] from the Consulate on February 4th that the Invedewet [unreadable in original] is arrived unfortunately we have to wait without existences what I saved from earlier I had to eat everything I got to sell my bedroom to live when it is finished I will have to dish out in the common pot for some soup and vegetable go to fetch a piece of bread for the day we won’t starve, we hope everything will be so quiet like it is now. My dear sister! I knew from a man who was in the Argentinian Consulate that he had heard that many Provosionisten had got the visa unfortunately the man arrived too late the Argentine Consul said that now it is locked because there are in Argentina 20,000 Requests to resolve
We have received from Mrs. Makijewski last week a letter telling she's going well she receives nothing because we are not in, she writes that unfortunately she not able to help us the immigration is locked if the watchmaker has a sensitive heart to save a so may he please have the goodness to make a Request to the Ministry telling that I'm a good watchmaker and can certify long experience I believe so the Request will be allowed I worked 19 years in Vienna at a great watchmaker in case he’s no needing me he must not hold me so I can stay with you until the time I can travel from there to Adolfen. Please I beg you to tell Herman he should make a little effort to help me in this moment why he doesn’t write me I have done nothing bad to him, and if I did I beg him to forgive me”
(Signed by Isak, February 13th, 1939)
In 2015, we learned from the Department of Records at the Israelitische Kultusgemeinde Wien (Vienna Jewish Community) that Isak Asher Reiss, Klara Fernhoff Reiss and their child Bruno were sent to Riga on January 11th, 1942. They were deported from the address IX, Pramergasse Nr. 1, door 5 towards Riga, with the transport number 14.
With this new information it fell on my friend Leda the sad task, the "Mitzvah", the responsibility for verifying that their names were included at Yad Vashem and for completing the Pages of Testimony to commemorate these victims.
Leda still hopes to learn about the Byk Reiss siblings: Lizette Blime, Uszer, and Bronie.
The Family of Leda’s Grandfather
As mentioned above, the translated letters included one that did not come from Vienna, but had been sent in 1960 from the United States to Lola, the grandmother of my friend Leda. It was signed by "Pepi". Pepi explained that she was the niece of Leizor Altura, Leda’s grandfather, who immigrated to Argentina in 1927. This meant that Pepi was daughter of Abraham, brother of Leizor. Pepi reported in her letter that only she and her brother Max Altura had survived the war. We realized that Pepi could perhaps be still alive, as well as her children that she mentioned in the letter.
Excerpt from Pepi's Letter to Lola; click here for full page
I immediately began to search the internet for more information about Pepi. One of the sites I visited was JewishGen. I was looking for female Jewish names that begin with "P" and which could correspond to the nickname "Pepi". I learned about and joined a Facebook group called JEWS - Jekkes Engaged Worldwide in Social Networking hoping they could help me find information regarding Pepi.
Over the two days following the posting of my inquiry regarding Pepi to the Facebook group, I received an amazing exchange of ideas and information. When I read the replies on Facebook, I knew right away that they had found the information we were looking for and my eyes filled with tears. They asked me if I was sure, and I said: “Yes”. I promised to provide the group the letter that proved it. There was no doubt. Pepi was Paula Tencer.
Sadly, Pepi had passed away, but she had written her memoir and published it on the Brody Kehilalinks website on JewishGen. What a gift! When Leda read this memoir, she knew who the Munie Altura hidden at the top of the church was: it was Max Altura, Pepi’s brother and nephew of her grandfather Leizor. Max, who had participated in the resistance in Brody.
Pepi’s three children were found on Facebook. We wrote them messages in English and Leda left them requests to be Facebook friends. The youngest daughter answered first and, luckily for Leda, she was very excited about re-establishing the family relationship. There has been an intense exchange of information, trying to recover a family history that has been truncated for more than 66 years—or even longer if one considers that Leizor came to Argentina in 1927, leaving his brother Abraham in Brody. Abraham did not survive the Holocaust.
From this intense experience I want to highlight the importance of the knowledge of the languages in which the family communicated; the conservation of photos, documents and correspondence of family members; and the fact that someone, in this case Pepi, left her testimony for posterity. In addition to her written testimony on JewishGen, Pepi left a two-hour filmed interview prepared for American schools.
After we fulfilled the objective of finding Pepi, I needed to make the effort to step aside. It’s now up to others to continue. Leda tells me that she is in touch with the two daughters of Pepi and the daughter of Max. They exchange photos and stories, and it's exciting to see that the descendants in both North and South America all keep and transmit their Judaism.
I would like to end this story with a positive message, but it is difficult considering what happened, the fate of those left behind in Europe, especially of the child Bruno. Perhaps we can encourage people who are looking for family members by saying don’t give up. Sometimes a person is not searching for a particular family member because they are not aware of his or her existence (for example, the daughters of Pepi did not know of the existence of Leda in Buenos Aires). Sometimes it is a stranger, someone on one of JewishGen’s discussion groups or a member of a Facebook group, who reveals the existence of vital information or possesses the key to open the door that connects the family’s past with the present.
Buenos Aires, Argentina
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