Esther Bauer (1924–2016) was born in Hamburg. She was the only child of Alberto Jonas, the director of the Israelite School for Girls Israelitische Töchterschule, and physician Marie Jonas, née Levinsohn. She grew up in a sheltered environment and initially remained largely unaware of National Socialist persecution. In 1940, however, the family was forced to move out of their spacious apartment in Hamburg’s neighborhood of Eppendorf and had to move into a so-called “house for Jews” [Judenhaus]. In July 1942, her family was deported to Theresienstadt, where her father died soon after. Esther Bauer fell in love with Czech camp inmate Hanuš Leiner Hanuš (Honza) Leiner (1914–1945?) was deported in 1941 from Prague, his place of birth, to Theresienstadt. According to Esther Bauer, he was active in Theresienstadt as a cook. Hanuš Leiner was deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau on 28.9.1944. This transport comprised 2,488 persons; 2,015 did not survive. and married him. When her husband was deported to another camp in 1944, she volunteered for a transport. Esther Bauer ended up in Auschwitz-Birkenau and, a few days after her arrival, was assigned to forced labor in the satellite camp at Freiberg. She never saw her husband again. In 1945, nearly starved to death, she was forced on a death march. She witnessed the liberation at the KZ Mauthausen. Her mother had been murdered at Auschwitz-Birkenau. Esther returned to Hamburg, where the occupation authorities assigned her a room in her parents’ old apartment in Eppendorf. The man who had taken over the apartment after her family was forced to move into the “Judenhaus” still lived there as well, however. Due to this unbearable situation, Esther emigrated from Hamburg to the United States a short time later. She married again and first worked in her husband’s textile business and later in a large advertising agency. Today she is widowed and has one son and two grandchildren. She lives near New York City with her partner. Thanks to Esther Bauer’s efforts, the former Israelite School for Girls, which has been a place of remembrance and education run by the local Volkshochschule since 1988, was named after her father. She also successfully campaigned for a square in Hamburg’s Eppendorf neighborhood being named for her mother. In both Germany and the United States, she has been speaking publicly about her experiences as a victim of National Socialist persecution for several years now. In 2007, the German government awarded her the Federal Cross of Merit [Bundesverdienstkreuz] for her educational work. Her life story has inspired author Christiane Richers to write the plays “Esther Leben” [Esther Life] and “Das ist Esther” [This is Esther].
“For the first 40 years after the war, nobody wanted to hear anything about my story,” Esther Bauer stated in a 2006 article written about her in the Hamburger Abendblatt. This statement, most likely edited for effect, not only reflects the fact that it took decades for a large segment of German society to show interest in the stories of Jewish victims, it can also be read as an expression of personal gratification at the now lively interest in her story. The discussion of the history of National Socialism and the Holocaust characterizing Germany’s victim-focused culture of remembrance today had its beginnings in the 1970s. Extensive media coverage of the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II and liberation Hamburger Senatskanzlei (ed.), 50 Jahre Kriegsende. Veranstaltungen zum 50. Jahrestag des Kriegsendes in Hamburg. Hamburg 1995. contributed in no small part to the broad public interest in the discussion of the war and National Socialism beyond academic circles. In the mid-1990s, increasing fear of a “dying out of eye witnesses” prompted a boom in the recording of memories. When the Workshop of Memory Werkstatt der Erinnerung, whose purpose it is to collect interviews with Hamburg’s victims of Nazi persecution, was founded in 1990, its main focus was on collecting basic historical information, particularly on Hamburg’s Jewish history during the time of Nazi persecution. Today, the prevailing methodological approach in German-language research is the biographical-narrative Interview, which gives the interviewee space for creating their life story. Earlier oral history interviews were structured more strongly by the questions of the interviewer, as is this interview with Esther Bauer. It is the methodological grounding in this earlier oral history tradition which makes it possible to direct attention to the interviewee’s sense of self what Alf Lüdtke calls “Eigen-Sinn”. Aside from the framework of the culture of remembrance, personal motives, too, shaped the way in which this interview came about. For Esther Bauer, who had travelled to Hamburg in 1998 in order to symbolically return the memory of her deported and murdered father to the city, also used the occasion to complete her story, not all of which she was able to tell in the first interview.
This excerpt, which is the beginning of the interview, opens with the interviewer’s question about Esther Bauer’s motivation to sit down for another interview. She reacts with the unexpected statement that her husband had been “terribly jealous,” for which reason she had omitted an important piece of information in her first interview in 1993, namely her marriage in Theresienstadt. She subsequently describes vividly and in great detail how she met her first husband, Hanuš Leiner, and how she got to Auschwitz. Her narrative, molded into a coherent “story,” ends with Esther Bauer’s transfer to the satellite camp at Freiberg. After she says “There, I think I told you this before...” her account turns to the different stages of persecution, which is identical to the 1993 interview in terms of content. The selected passage is more than a love story. In terms of narrative logic, it is a key moment. Without it, the listener cannot follow Esther Bauer’s interpretation and understand why she got to Auschwitz-Birkenau: “I must be one of very few people who voluntarily went to Auschwitz.” In her case, the wedding is not (just) a significant and – in such a place – unexpected event in a woman’s life, but of key importance in understanding her history of persecution. Mentioning her romantic relationship enables her to adequately relate her time, her life, and her survival in Theresienstadt both for herself and her audience: “He Hanuš Leiner helped me a lot,” particularly by providing her with the additional food rations essential for survival. It was also thanks to him that she (and her mother) did not have to live in a barracks like “a thousand people from Hamburg, men, women, and children all together, no beds, nothing to sit on, just the floor.” Her emphasis on the fact that things could have been a lot worse and that she ran into people who helped her in unexpected moments represents a recurrent theme in her account. In the interviews, Esther Bauer repeatedly focuses on friendships and kind gestures during the National Socialist terror regime as well as on postwar reunions with people she believed to be dead. Personal encounters allowed her to survive and to rebuild her life. At the time of her first interview, Esther Bauer was unable to mention her marriage in Theresienstadt since her second husband Werner Bauer was present during the interview. After his death, she no longer wanted to hide this biographically relevant event. This text passage shows that the selection of events and experiences which become part of a biographical narrative as well as their composition into a coherent whole strongly depend on the circumstances under which they are told and thus are subject to constant change. While biographical interviews are shaped by the present, they always have a historic dimension as well. They may not offer direct access to a past “reality,” yet as “factual” texts they refer to the historic context in which they are rooted. Thus the account of her privileged situation thanks to her relationship with a Czech camp inmate also allows for a differentiated examination of circumstances among the inmates of the ghetto and transit camp at Theresienstadt, which reflected the hierarchies of power in the ghetto. Within the emerging social structure of the ghetto, young Czech men assigned to the so-called “Aufbaukommandos” [construction detail] in particular obtained a status which gave them access to important positions and material resources Anna Hájková, Die fabelhaften Jungs aus Theresienstadt. Junge tschechische Männer als dominante soziale Elite im Theresienstädter Ghetto, in: Christoph Dieckmann/Babette Quinkert (ed.), Im Ghetto 1939-1945. Neue Forschungen zu Alltag und Umfeld. Göttingen 2009, pp. 116-135. (i.e. in the kitchens). Love and sex between inmates in exchange for protection and privileges occurred in all concentration camps. For a long time, these relationships in concentration camps Maja Suderland, Ein Extremfall des Sozialen. Die Häftlingsgesellschaft in den nationalsozialistischen Konzentrationslagern. Frankfurt 2009. and ghettos, and their material aspect in particular, were hardly ever mentioned in oral history accounts or discussed in academic literature. Thus this interview with Esther Bauer contributes to historical research on the factual level as well.
This interview can be considered a “key document” of German-Jewish history in several respects. First of all, it teaches us a great deal about the way a Jewish Holocaust survivor deals with the consequences of National Socialist persecution and with the experience of violence and loss. Since more than one interview with Esther Bauer exists, we can show that they are not simply fixed testimonies or emotional attestations of aspects of German-Jewish history, since that is what eye witness testimony is often reduced to in this age of “historicization” and mediatization of the Holocaust. What the selected text passage illustrates is that the narrative always represents a synthesis of experiences shaped by current perspective and the circumstances of the interview. The interviewer’s desire for knowledge and the interviewee’s desire to tell their story as well as the respective discourse on the culture of remembrance and biographical context all define what enters into the narrative – what can be told and what cannot. Esther Bauer’s first interview is not false because crucial information about her marriage is missing. Rather, it represents her subjective way of dealing with her story differently at different points in her life. The narrated view of the self and the world emerging from this interview is a valuable source for historians eager to write German-Jewish history in the sense of an interpretive history. Finally, the excerpt from this interview represents an example of the collection of oral history sources by Jewish citizens of Hamburg housed at the Workshop of Memory Werkstatt der Erinnerung, which is unique in Germany. About 700 accounts by victims of Nazi persecution have been collected and are made available for use in research, teaching, and education.
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Andrea Althaus, M.A., born in 1981, is research assistant at "Werkstatt der Erinnerung", the Oral History Archives of the Research Centre for Contemporary History in Hamburg (FZH). Her focus of research: oral history and narrative research; history of migration in the 20th century; women- and gender history.
Linde Apel, Dr. phil., born 1963, is director of the "Werkstatt der Erinnerung", the Oral History Archives of the Research Centre for Contemporary History in Hamburg (FZH). Her focus of research: oral history, history of the Holocaust, contemporary history of the 1960s and 1970s.
Andrea Althaus, Linde Apel, Narrative Layers of History. The Oral History Interviews with Holocaust Survivor Esther Bauer (translated by Insa Kummer), in: Key Documents of German-Jewish History, September 22, 2016. <https://dx.doi.org/10.23691/jgo:article-2.en.v1> [September 22, 2023].