Wall of Memories
May their memories be for a blessing
In Honour of Chaim, Tzipporah and Julius Urbach
Dedicated by Lesley Urbach
My grandfather, Chaim Urbach, who was also known as Heinrich, was born in 1884 in Kattowitz, Upper Silesia, which was then part of the German Empire. It became part of Poland in 1921. Tzipporah, née Schreiber, my grandmother, was born in 1882 in Bochnia near Krakow, and had several sisters. At some point before the First World War they moved to Berlin to improve their lives. Nothing is known about them before they arrived in Berlin, other than they were religious Jews.
Chaim and Tzipporah were just two of the thousands of tailors and seamstresses working piecemeal at home for a booming fashion business, mainly dominated by internationally recognised Jewish designers and manufacturers.
Chaim and Tzipporah’s eldest son, Julius, was born in Berlin on 24th January,1916 and they went on to have three more children: Ruth and Jenny, and my father, Arnold, who was born on 6th December,1919. The children were brought up speaking Yiddish as well as German.
From 1919 until 1935 the family lived on the city outskirts, but in 1930 they opened a dress shop at 165a Oranienstrasse, Kreuzberg, in a densely populated area. Chaim was listed in the Berlin Directory as head of the household. His profession is given as ‘Kaufmann’, a shop owner, although he was also a tailor.
However, the collapse of the world economy had severely damaged the fashion trade and in October 1921, the annexation of Upper Silesia to Poland led to an increase in Jewish migration to Germany. This meant thousands of German-speaking Jewish families had arrived in Berlin, hoping to escape the anti-Semitic climate in smaller towns to the East. With them came many tailors and seamstresses who were prepared to work for less money than their established colleagues. Even before the Nazis came to power, the Jewish fashion industry had been systematically undermined, and owners forced out of business, resulting in the family’s dress shop closing in 1932.
In 1936 the family moved to Große Frankfurter Strasse, near Alexanderplatz where my grandparents had originally lived when they first moved to Berlin. They were poor and life must have been extremely difficult for them in the face of the increasing persecution of the Jews in Nazi Germany.
At the end of March,1938, the Polish parliament passed a law giving the government powers to cancel the passports of Polish citizens who had lived abroad for more than five years. Later that year, in early October, it was announced that Polish citizens living outside Poland needed an endorsement stamp on their passports before October 30th. Any passport without the stamp would immediately become void, resulting in the owner having his citizenship revoked. This meant that when thousands of Polish Jews in Germany presented their passports at Polish consular offices, they were denied the necessary stamp. By enacting this decree and denying the stamp to Jews, the Polish Government made it clear that they had no interest in taking in Jews from the Reich, even those who were Polish citizens.
In response, the Nazi government arrested and expelled as many Polish residents as they could before the deadline while other Polish citizens left voluntarily, fearing the worst.
Between the 28th and 29th October, Chaim, Julius and Arnold were amongst the twenty thousand who were formally deported to Bentschen, on the German-Polish border. Known as Polenaktion, the Polish Action, this was the first coordinated mass deportation of Jews from the German Reich. Once there, the refugees were interned in a temporary refugee camp in appalling conditions. Tzipporah was able to remain in Berlin until the end of May 1939.
Arnold’s Polish passport expired before they arrived and the Polish authorities refused its renewal, so he was returned to Germany. Determined to get out of the country, and having failed in an attempt to reach Holland, Arnold finally managed to escape to Britain in 1939 on an agricultural visa. Remarkably, soon after his arrival he managed to secure visas for his sisters to work in domestic service and they soon followed him to England.
According to the family narrative, when Chaim left the camp in Bentschen he returned to his old home in Katowice. Julius remained in internment until the summer of 1939. He then moved on – or was transported – to Modrow, part of Myslowice in Upper Silesia (some ten kilometres from Katowice) where he lived at Suedring 24.
Tzipporah left Berlin on 26th May,1939. As the date was officially recorded we can conclude that she was expelled and it is believed she joined her husband in Katowice. There is some correspondence via the International Red Cross which suggests that they then joined Julius, in Myslowice.
On 1st September 1939 the German army invaded Poland and took Myslowice within days. In 1943 the Auschwitz Aussenlager Fürstengrube (a sub camp) was established, which was a forced labour camp where the able-bodied men worked in the coal mine until they were exhausted. Once unable to work, they were then murdered in Auschwitz. It seems probable that my uncle Julius was among these men. He was 23 when the Fürstengrube camp was opened.
Many of the Myslowice Jews were deported to the Chrzanów ghetto, where 8,000 were murdered or perished between 1940 and 1943. My grandparents, Tzipporah and Chaim may have been among them, or they may have been taken to Auschwitz, which was nearby. Tzipporah would have been 63 years old on 8th May,1945, at the end of the war against Nazi Germany. Chaim would have been 61.