By Miriam Schwab
April 12th, 2010
Ralph Schwab was your typical South African citizen. He worked hard to support his family and raise his son, Norman, to be a principled and responsible man. He was also active in the Jewish community, founding the first Reform temple in Johannesburg.
Norman knew that his father was originally from Germany, and that his grandparents and uncle had been killed by the Nazis. But details were scarce, as Ralph rarely spoke about his past and conducted himself like most other South African fathers. Yet every Sunday, Norman vividly recalls how his father would put on dress clothes and a bow tie, position himself in front of his typewriter, and write letters. He wrote for hours, but what he wrote was unknown.
Tragedy befell the Schwab family when Ralph was hit by a car and killed in 1971. His letters were forgotten, abandoned on a shelf in the family garage for over thirty years, until the end of 2009.
Daniel Schwab, Norman’s son, moved to Israel in 1995. Around 2008, he found himself spending more and more time in South Africa for business. He welcomed the opportunity to get to know his family again after ten years apart. One day, Daniel was in his parents’ garage and noticed some boxes that didn’t seem to fit the general theme of the work tools in the garage. Curious, he opened them to see what they contained.
What he found would eventually affect his identity in profound ways. Over 2000 letters, written in German and English, covering the stories of Ralph’s family, friends, and the Jews as they struggled with the new reality of Nazi Germany, and efforts post-war to find out what had happened to those he loved. Ralph had made carbon copies of almost every letter he wrote, and had kept the letters he had received in return. The letters contain descriptions of day-to-day life, like the preparations for his brother Hans’ bar mitzvah, as well as details related to efforts to help his family escape Nazi Germany. The letters include communication with governments and organizations, like the rejection letter from the South African government, who refused to allow his family to immigrate, and letters from and via the Red Cross related to his parents.
What do the letters say?
Most of the letters are written in German. Daniel has succeeded in finding a volunteer, Omer Vanvoorden, who has translated tens of the documents into English. What the translations have revealed is astounding, as the joys and pain of Ralph and his family before, during and after the Holocaust are honestly and touchingly expressed, and important communication with governments and organizations including Ralph’s efforts to get reparations, can now be accessed by his family. However, there is much work to be done in order to translate all the letters and documents, and produce them in a format that allows them to become a part of the important archival activities of preserving the memory of the Holocaust.
So far, the letters have revealed the story of Ralph and his parents Max and Martha, and his younger brother Hans. Through the letters, we have learned that Ralph escaped Nazi Germany in 1933, having been tipped off by his best German friend Karl Kipfer, a Nazi party member that he was about to get arrested. He tried to convince his family to leave as well, but Max was a proud German, who could not fathom that his mother land would turn against him. Max had fought in the German in army in WWI, volunteering to serve on the front lines. He was subsequently decorated with a medal of bravery, and after the war was extremely active in the community. Ralph was only 23 when he left the security of his family and country, and spent many years moving from country to country to escape the Nazis, and struggling to make ends meet all the while. He eventually settled in South Africa.
While Ralph was moving around, his family was too. They were forced to leave Hanau, the city that had been their family’s hometown for hundreds of years, and moved to Frankfurt. Ralph and his father exchanged many letters contemplating the situation of the Jews, and what it meant to be a Jew and a German at that time. Eventually Ralph lost contact with his family, and spent five years writing to the various authorities until he ultimately discovered that his father had been tortured and killed in Saschenshausen, Oranienburg Concentration Camp near Berlin, and his mother and brother were killed in Auschwitz.
Ralph and Rudolph
For years Ralph dealt with these issues alone, only expressing his worries and pain in the letters he wrote. Those around him never knew more than the few details that he told them: he escaped Germany, his parents and brother were killed. As the picture becomes clearer through the letters, the horror of what he must have experienced is becoming revealed. The pain of leaving his family; the fear of the unknown that lay ahead; the guilt that he did not succeed in convincing them to come with him; the struggle to start a new life alone; the joy of raising his son.
What more will be revealed in the letters? Only time will tell.