Bnai Brith Magazine — Spring 2012
One Family’s Holocaust
32 Postcards Paint Partial Picture
Torkel Wächter began sorting through the attic of his childhood home in Stockholm, Sweden, in 1998, searching for clues to his family’s past. His father Walter, who passed away in 1983, “didn’t like to talk about the past; he was more interested in the present and future,” he said, and Torkel wanted to learn more.
He uncovered a genealogical family fortune: boxes containing letters, diaries, newspapers and photographs. At the bottom of one of the boxes, Torkel found 32 postcards that were sent between March 1940 and December 1941 from his grandparents, uncles and family friends who were still in Germany to his father, who had found refuge in Sweden in 1938.
It was during this period that life became increasingly perilous for German Jews. According to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, more than 500,000 Jews lived in Germany before January 1933, when Hitler took power. By 1939, 304,000 had emigrated, and only about 16 percent of Jewish workers, their employment rights severely restricted, had steady jobs.
The postcards traced the decline and destruction of the Wächters’ once-prosperous life in Hamburg, as the Nazis sought to eliminate Jews from Germany. The postcards are skeletal; they told mostly of ordinary day-to-day occurrences but hinted at more. Torkel was determined to fill in the blanks. His efforts resulted in the 32 Postkarten project. Starting March 29, 2010, Torkel released each postcard on his website (www.32postkarten.com) in “simulated real time,” the term he coined for posting them on the Internet 70 years to the day after each was written, with his own annotations to provide the missing context.
An Idea Takes Form
Torkel, now 51, is a former commercial pilot, a renowned writer and a part owner of various Internet startups in Sweden, including, most recently, an online pharmacy and an online children’s toy store. He has also worked with his wife, Ylva Svärdson, who founded Scandinavia’s largest online bookseller. Soon after finding the cards, Torkel began to speak with friends and colleagues about the postcards, and the idea began to form. Torkel says that until this project, anything German was anathema to him because of his family’s mistreatment and eventual death at the hands of the Nazis, and he had carried these feelings to his interactions with modernday German society. “I set out onto this journey into the heart of darkness in a way. In the beginning, I really hated Germany and everything German. But through this process…it has changed my relationship with Germany.”
Now that all the postcards have been released, the website is a repository of these documents, a family photo gallery, with detailed descriptions of the Wächter family, as well as a place for viewers to share their thoughts and experiences.
On Unique Website, Son Fills in the Blanks
The Changing Relationship With Germany
Torkel has maintained contact over the years with Ruth Wächter (maiden name Visser), who married (and later divorced) Torkel’s father in Sweden in the early 1940s. She was a German-Jewish refugee who had fled to Denmark in 1941 and then to Sweden in 1943. Torkel refers to Ruth, who also lives in Stockholm, as his “bonus” mother.
In 2000, Torkel asked for her help to sift through the materials from his parents’ attic. The postcards were written in an old Germanic script known as Sütterlin, so he asked Ruth to translate. Though she was familiar with the script, it had been years since she’d used it.
Translating the letters stagnated, but Torkel eventually contacted the Sütterlin-Schreibstube, a group of elderly citizens at a senior center in Hamburg who were able to decipher the old Germanic handwriting.
Then, determined to learn German, he left his family in Sweden for two weeks to enroll in a course at the Goethe-Institut in Rothenburg, Germany. But on the second day, he got into an argument with the teacher “for no reason, just because he was German and I had this history.” Torkel soon left, but the teacher, a compassionate man who seemed to grasp what was going on, set Torkel up in the Munich branch of the Goethe- Institut for the remainder of his two-week visit.
“That was the beginning of my changing relationship with Germany,” Torkel said.
As Torkel learned more about his family’s history, he traveled to Hamburg from time to time. On one of these visits, he went to the Fuhlsbüttel Memorial, the site of the Fuhlsbüttel concentration camp in Hamburg where Walter had been incarcerated for seven months in 1935. Torkel informally shared his story about uncovering the postcards with other visitors he met as well as the memorial staff, who wanted to hear more.
For about a year, Torkel exchanged e-mails and had conversations with the staff, whose offices are at the Neuengamme concentration camp memorial, also in Hamburg. (The Fuhlsbüttel camp was a satellite of the Neuengamme camp.) The staff wanted to include Walter’s story in the planned renovation of the Fuhlsbüttel memorial, and Torkel shared as much information about his father as he could, including many letters Walter had exchanged while he was an inmate at Fuhlsbüttel.
In the fall of 2003, Ruth and Torkel took the first of several trips together to Hamburg to attend the re-inaugration of the Fuhlsbüttel camp memorial, which included a memorial wall about his father. The wall is now part of the permanent exhibition.
“I think he made a fantastic project…it’s quite special,” Ruth said. She explained how impressed she was that the family was able to maintain their letter writing, even though they were in four different countries at the time.
“I think the whole Postkarten story is a heroic one,” she said.
“They wrote so that neither Walter nor the family would lose their hope.”
Reading, and Researching, Between the Lines
During his travels through Germany with Ruth, Torkel visited museums and archives where he uncovered documents that rounded out the stories only alluded to in the cards.
In the card dated April 20, 1940, for example, Walter’s father Gustav writes: “Have you received your work permit, dear Walter? And the extension for your passport?”
What he cannot say in the postcard is that Walter’s passport and work permit are both expired, and the German consulate won’t renew his passport. Accordingly, Walter—almost 27 years old—is in Sweden illegally. Walter’s father also writes: “This afternoon we’ve been invited to the Blumenthals, and the Pralls are coming to us tomorrow. He had to take six weeks off work after spraining his left arm.” Torkel explains that this coded message alludes to the fact that their family friend’s arm was sprained during a Gestapo interrogation.
In Torkel’s commentary, he explains that on May 17, the war had reached Hamburg with its first heavy air raid. On June 1, 1940, Walter’s mother Minna writes: “I can’t recount any cat stories today—little Heinerle [the family cat] has become very cautious,” expressing their apprehension about the war that was closing in on them, how life was getting increasingly harder for Jewish families.
On Oct. 26, 1940, Gustav thanks Walter for his birthday wishes. Torkel explains that this 65th birthday should have doubled as a retirement celebration after a 40-year career as a civil servant with the Hamburg Tax Authority. But through a heartbreaking turn of events, in 1933 Gustav had been forced into early retirement due to an investigation into alleged inappropriate conduct on the job, charges which were eventually reduced to conducting political propaganda in the workplace.
At the Hamburg State Archives, Torkel was able to read through documents from the investigation, records of interviews of Gustav’s colleagues at the tax authority— some of whom were openly Nazi, some who were just frightened, and “a very few of them are people with integrity trying to stand up against this evilness that is coming into the German society,” he said.
In a card dated Sept. 20, 1941, Gustav tells his son how Walter’s brother John began an accounting position in São Paolo, Brazil. But beginning in October, all remaining Jews in Germany were forbidden to leave the country. It was too late for John’s income to make a difference. In his commentary, Torkel writes that John is “unable to use it to prevent the deportation of his parents and his aunt.”
In the last postcard, written in December 1941, Gustav claims they have enough food and everything is fine. He handed the card to a policeman on the train platform in Bad Oldesloe and asked him to send it. From the Bad Oldesloe train station, Gustav and Minna embarked on their last journey—to the Jungfernhof concentration camp outside Riga, in present-day Latvia. They perished on an unknown date.
Searching Through the Archives
When Torkel first visited the State Archives in Hamburg about eight years ago, he met Jürgen Sielemann, a writer and retired civil servant. He is also the chairman of the Jewish Genealogical Society of Hamburg, although he is not Jewish.
When he met Sielemann “it was back when I had a very ambiguous relationship with Germany. It felt a bit queasy to me, but he was so helpful,” Torkel said. “It was like magic to see him work in the vault of the [archives], it completely blew me away.”
Torkel said that in two hours, Sielemann was able to trace the Wächter family roots all the way back to the 17th century. When Torkel returned to Hamburg several times, Sielemann uncovered more information about his family.
“Not only me, but other people are very impressed with his idea with the 32 postcards, because it puts the past into the present and makes it much more visible,” Sielemann said.
Through Sielemann, Torkel met Sybille Baumbach, a German historian and writer who runs her own family research firm, Dokusearch. When Torkel began to dig deeper, he hired Baumbach to help him. He has worked with Sielemann and Baumbach on a fairly regular basis for the past several years.
“This project is very unique, and it’s a smart idea to bring this period to younger people,” Baumbach said. “In five or 10 years, nobody who suffered during this period will still be alive.” She said innovative ways to learn about this period are crucial, and Torkel’s project is a perfect example because it will reach a wider audience through the Internet.
A Profound Effect
The project has also had a profound effect on readers. The “Share Your Thoughts” section on the website has received nearly 70 responses from all over the world—from Sweden to California, England to Germany, Israel to Ukraine, and elsewhere. On Aug. 15, 2011, James, from San Jose, Calif., wrote: “What a creative way to convey the gamut of emotions German Jews under the Nazis were subjected to. I applaud and admire you as I await the [next] postcard.”
Lisa Ohlin from Sweden wrote on Dec. 6, 2011, that Torkel shares “so much more than facts and events. The confusion, the unspoken questions, the unspoken fears, the lifelong guilt of the ones that survived echoes behind the lines…”
This project has allowed Torkel to meet and contact family he had not known existed. Pamela Jones, a hobby genealogist in northern England, learned of the Postkarten project when researching the family history of friends descended from Louis Tobias Waechter, who settled in England around 1840. After learning about Torkel’s project, Jones contacted him by e-mail and was able to connect him with other family members throughout England.
The project has been covered in press throughout Germany and the world in newspapers, magazines, blogs, and radio and TV programming in multiple languages.
“With the postcards I’ve been trying to let my grandparents tell their story, although they [did] that in an environment with censorship,” Torkel said. “I’ve been trying to give them the chance and be the vehicle, helping them comment on things that otherwise wouldn’t be possible to understand.”
A book based on these postcards has been discussed—ideally a bilingual English-German publication— but remains to be done. Meanwhile, he plans to release the second phase of his family’s story online, using more primary sources. His target release date is Jan. 30, 2013, precisely 80 years after Hitler took power.
This process has also strongly affected Torkel’s identity, allowing him to share his family’s story with his children. He was 40 years old before he saw a photo of his grandmother for the first time, but he says he recognized her eyes immediately.
Though the postcards only address the time between 1940 and 1941, his research has unveiled details of his family’s history before and after.
“It’s been a revelation to find out that my family had a very good life in Hamburg up until the beginning of the ’30s. Before that, I thought that being a Jew in Germany was really terrible,” Torkel said.
Before this project, Torkel says he was not particularly religious. As he was growing up, his father was a self-proclaimed “free thinker, not interested in religion but culturally very Jewish,” Torkel said. During Passover, Walter would buy matzah and “never missed the chance to tell the story of Jewish authors and scientists.” Torkel married a non-Jew and lives in what he calls a “joint household,” but as this project progressed and he uncovered more about his family, they began to build a strong foundation in Judaism.
His wife Ylva has been a strong supporter of this project and was the one who encouraged them to send their children to a Jewish kindergarten. They have family dinners each Friday for Shabbat, attended by his 83-year-old Swedish mother Greta Bengfeldt, who lives in a senior center. Though he doesn’t go to synagogue often, he attends the 140-year-old Great Synagogue of Stockholm, one of three congregations in the Swedish capital.
“I grew up not really knowing what I am, and that has given me quite a lot of work to find out later in life,” Wächter said. In reference to his children, he said: “I think that I’m doing them a favor telling them from the beginning.”
Translating Family Correspondence
We waited until today before writing because we were hoping to get your letter. It hasn’t come yet, so we’re writing to the old address. Thank you very much for the lovely postcard from Gothenburg. We’re so glad that you’re doing well —long may it continue. I’ve told your brothers about the wedding. John and Else send belated birthday wishes to Erna. Have you found a joint situation yet? All our friends are delighted that you’re married and send their best wishes for a happy future together. We were so sad not to be able to send any gifts; we would have liked to send even a telegram, but it isn’t possible. Still, we’re hoping to make up for that later.
Aunt Frieda wrote. She sends her best wishes to you and your young bride. She writes: ‘I hope, dear Walter, this is some compensation for the hardships of recent years.’ She asked for your new address because she wants to write to you directly. Apart from that, there’s nothing much to report. Heartfelt wishes to you both, Your Ever-Devoted Father
My dear Erna, my dear Walter!
We’re longing to read your long letter —we can’t wait to hear about all the interesting things you’ve been up to. I hope you’ve found a suitable job by now. We should like to write to you at your new address, as would Aunt Hanna and Dora. Fondest wishes, Your Mother and Everyone Here