When a photograph starts a journey

Following a thread to discover the fate of a Jewish family from Leipzig


A girl, perhaps nine years old, glances sideways at the camera. As I look at the picture, I imagine her big brother standing next to the photographer and making faces. Perhaps her mother had just finished adjusting her hair and collar. It is one child's picture among the thousands that Serge Klarsfeld and his colleagues collected over years of research and published in their "Memorial Book for the Jewish Children Deported from France". In the spring of 2015, when I opened this memorial book for the first time, my gaze lingered on the picture described above and on the girl's unusual name. She was called Leni Affenkraut (literally: monkey cabbage). The caption underneath the photograph provides key data on her short life. She was born on November 8, 1927 in Leipzig, Germany. In 1942, she was deported with her father from the south of France via the Drancy transit camp near Paris to Auschwitz-Birkenau. Presumably both were murdered immediately after their arrival. Leni was 14 years old.

 At that time, I was just under a year older and from the same city as Leni. When I read those few sentences about a girl of about the same age who had grown up in my hometown, I suddenly had many questions. At school, we had learned about Anne Frank, the Wannsee Conference and the novel "The Boy in the Striped Pajamas”. However, we never talked about the fates of Jewish children from Leipzig, or about what had happened in our city. What had it been like to live as Jews in Leipzig in the 1930s? What did Leni have to experience in her hometown before being forced to flee? How did she end up in France? Had I perhaps ever, without knowing it, walked past the house where she grew up? Had she had siblings? Had any of her family survived who could tell me about her? With these questions began a journey that continues to this day.

 After gathering some initial information, I rang the doorbell of the Leipzig branch of the Stolperstein (literally: stumbling stones) association. Since 1995, the artist Gunter Demnig has placed around 89,000 commemorative brass plaques in the sidewalk in front of Shoah victims' last addresses. In Leipzig, as in many other German and European cities, citizens contribute to creating this largest decentralized memorial in Europe, presently in 27 countries. Many times, I had bent down to read the names of the exiled, deported or murdered men, women and children who had once called Leipzig home. At the Stolperstein association I was told that no such plaques had yet been placed for Leni and her father, but that I was welcome to continue my research to make sure their names and stories would also be remembered. From then on, and with the kind support of committed and knowledgeable people from the Stolperstein initiative, I tried to reconstruct Leni's family history.

 The merchant Israel Affenkraut and his wife Reisel Dwora (Dora), née Unger, had come to Leipzig from Eastern Poland and the Bukovina, respectively, shortly before the First World War, together with many hundreds of Jews who settled in the thriving mercantile city during these years. Leipzig's Jewish community was one of the largest in Germany during the interwar period. There were Jewish sports clubs, a Jewish school, and several synagogues representing the various branches of Judaism. Leipzig citizens of the Jewish faith shaped the city as entrepreneurs, scientists, artists, and philanthropists. The neighborhood where Israel and Dora Affenkraut lived was nicknamed "Little Jerusalem”. That is, I learned, where Leni had grown up. And she was not alone. As it turned out she had had not two, not four, but seven siblings. One brother, Igon, and six sisters, five older ones, Sonny, Cilli, Rosel, Klara, Ruthie and one younger one, Edith. Suddenly, my search widened: I was not only looking for Leni, but for her family of ten.

 Israel, Dora and their eight children were torn apart by exile and deportation during the Nazi years. Their only son Igon fled to the then British Mandate of Palestine in the mid-1930s. Two of his sisters, first Cilli and later Ruthie, who left on a Kindertransport, were able to follow him there until the outbreak of the war. The eldest daughter Sonny escaped with her husband and young son via Italy to the USA. The middle daughter Klara was deported with her husband, whom she had met in a forced labor camp, from near Paderborn to Auschwitz-Birkenau, where she was murdered. She was 22 years old. Dora, the mother, and her daughter Rosel were deported to Riga with the first transport from Leipzig - one day after the Wannsee Conference. Dora's trace is lost there. Rosel survived the ghetto in Riga, the Kaiserwald and Stutthof concentration camps as well as several subcamps. After her liberation, she moved first to what would soon become Israel, and then to the U.S.A. Israel had sought refuge first in Belgium and later in France with his two youngest daughters, Leni and Edith. Before Leni and her father were deported to Drancy and from there to Auschwitz-Birkenau, Israel had been able to entrust his youngest daughter to the Jewish children's aid organization OSE (Œuvre de secours aux enfants). Edith survived alone and under a false name in a series of children's homes and convents in southern France. Near the end of the war, she and other Jewish children in hiding crossed the snow-covered Pyrenees on foot. A ship eventually brought their group from Portugal to the United States, where Edith was taken in by her sister Sonny.

 Some 50 years after her arrival in the U.S.A, Edith was interviewed as a survivor by the Shoah Foundation. In her interview, she talks about her childhood in Leipzig, her survival in hiding and about her life after the war. She speaks English with a strong German accent, and also uses many Yiddish words and expressions. At the end, she asks to play the American anthem on her harmonica. After her death, she bequeathed a number of precious family documents to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Discovering that collection meant I finally had someone I could reach out to: her son, whose name appeared as the donator of this collection. When I entered his name into the Internet, an address in California popped up. I decided to try my luck. In my letter, I explained that I was looking for Leni Affenkraut's family. That a few people in Leipzig would like to create a memorial for the family. Would the descendants agree to answer a few questions? It felt like a message in a bottle thrown into the ocean. Did I write to the right person? How will he react to the fact that someone is digging around in his family history? I got lucky. My worries were unfounded. The letter had indeed reached Edith's son. He wrote back, incredibly kindly, very interested to learn more about the Stolpersteine, and offering his full support for all further research. Don't be surprised, he wrote, if you are soon contacted by other Affenkraut cousins. A lively exchange of letters and emails across the ocean began in the months leading up to the Stolpersteine ceremony. The descendants of the four Affenkraut sisters who survived the war and rebuilt their lives in the USA all kindly and generously answered my questions, shared stories, anecdotes and memories. On pictures, I gradually discovered the faces of the other family members that I had read so much about. They are happy pictures taken in prewar Leipzig: family outings in the park, Sonny holding her newborn son surrounded by her younger sisters.

 On a cold day in the fall of 2017, Gunter Demnig placed ten Stolpersteine for the Affenkraut family in the sidewalk in front of their last family home. During the ceremony, we talked about the hope that Israel and Dora had presumably associated with their move to Leipzig, about life in "Little Jerusalem", about expulsions and about searching for refuge in a foreign land, about forced labor, deportations, life in hiding, survival, new beginnings and transmission. After a moment of silence, we lit candles and answered the questions of curious passers-by. The descendants – who live in the USA and Israel - could not attend the Stolperstein ceremony. However, a few months later a grandson of the Leipzig Affenkrauts and his wife came by Leipzig on a trip through Europe. We walked through the former Jewish neighborhood, through the park where many family pictures were taken, past the school and the memorial for the destroyed synagogue to finally arrive in front of the Stolpersteine. This first encounter meant a great deal to me and I decided to continue my research.

 Soon it turned out that one of Israel Affenkraut's sisters had also settled in Leipzig. Cilka Goldfaden, née Affenkraut, and her husband Chiel Kalman Goldfaden lived only a few streets away from Israel and Dora. Kalman died in the 1930s due to health problems. He is buried in Leipzig. Cilka was deported to Riga on the same transport as Dora and Rosel in January of 1942. Her trace disappears shortly after, like that of her sister-in-law. Before her deportation, she had been able to send her three children away to safety. Her two daughters emigrated to Palestine, her son to London. For the laying of the Stolpersteine for the Goldfaden family, three generations of descendants traveled to Leipzig from Israel. It was another cold autumn afternoon when Gunter Demnig laid the five Stolpersteine in the sidewalk, in front of a hotel, since the house no longer stands.

 In my interactions with the descendants of the Affenkraut and Goldfadden families I began to reflect on my German and French nationalities and wonder about the the actions or nonactions of my ancestors during that awful period. I never met my German great-grandfather. He was a young soldier on the Eastern Front, where he took many photographs. Years later, he passed on his photo collection to his son. On the first page, he wrote: "Nothing like this should ever happen again." Conversely, I was able to speak to my great-grandmother directly before she passed away. She told me about the "Bund Deutscher Mädel" (Association of German Girls, equivalent of the Hitlerjugend), about the "Kinderlandverschickung" (relocation of children to the countryside) and about her favorite brother, who fell on the Eastern Front. Only after I explicitly asked did she speak of her Jewish friends from elementary school who "suddenly disappeared." Thanks to a class picture from the early 1930s, on the back of which she had written her classmates' names, I was able to find out – some 80 years later - that one of her friends had been expelled to Poland, while another emigrated to England shortly before the war. I wish I had asked more back then.

 During my high school graduation year, I applied for a peace service with Aktion Sühnezeichen Friedensdienste (or Action Reconciliation Service for Peace, short ARSP). In my mind I vaguely imagined I wanted to "discover the world" and "do something useful” before going to university. ARSP's mission and the projects they proposed immediately appealed to me. When I learned that I would go to Washington D.C. and work at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM), it felt like the last few years had come full circle.

 I had been able to reach out to Edith's son through the collection that Edith had donated to the museum. In addition, the databases and experts at the USHMM had been crucial to my own research. During my year at the museum, I was touched by the kindness and dedication of everyone I met. It meant a great deal to me to be able to help – even in a tiny way - other people find answers to their questions, as I knew how valuable this help had been to me.

 But most importantly, while in the U.S.A., I gradually got to meet the descendants of the Leipzig Affenkrauts in person. By this point we had been corresponding through emails, letters and pictures for years. I was welcomed with open arms and hearts, introduced to Jewish and American holidays, lucky enough to visit and get to know different branches of the family, permitted to look through photo albums and ask all my questions, and invited to memorable family gatherings in the summer. For me it is as if I found a second family. I am eternally grateful to ARSP for making my stay in the U.S.A possible, to all my colleagues at the museum for letting me learn from them and to the Affenkrauts for sharing their story with me and for making me feel welcome in a strange land.

 *Addendum: On one of my working days at the USHMM I happened to overhear a man talking about his family from "Lay-pzik". I introduced myself and told him about the Stolperstein project. After returning to Leipzig, I started researching again. In the fall of 2022, five Stolpersteine will be laid for another Jewish family from Leipzig. Of this family, only one person survived.


Serge Klarsfeld: "Memorial Book for the Jewish Children Deported from France" Accessible online under: klarsfeld-ffdjf.org/produit/memorial-enfants-additif-12/



Johanna S. Mai, 2022

Currently a student of history and sociology at the University of Freiburg, Johanna grew up in a French-German family in Leipzig. Alongside her studies, she works at a small museum on the border between Germany and France, which is dedicated to the history of Jewish life in the Upper Rhine valley. She was an ARSP volunteer at the USHMM in 2018/2019.