In 1975, Käthe Starke-Goldschmidt published her memoirs The author published under her married name Starke, which she used from the late 1940s. In reference to other publications and for better readability, she will be called Käthe Starke-Goldschmidt in the following. of her time in the Theresienstadt ghetto and transit camp under the title “Der Führer schenkt den Juden eine Stadt” [“The Führer Gives the Jews a City” ]. She begins with a critical, at times bitter-seeming classification of the period before 1933, describes in detail her life, her work and her encounters in Theresienstadt, and ends with her return to Hamburg on August 2, 1945. Particularly stirring is the description of her deportation, which, despite its sober far-sightedness, is highly emotionally charged – it will be the focus here.
Her book contains all the artworks from Theresienstadt that she was able to save. In addition, it contains an account of a trip to Terezín with her son Pit in 1964, which she ambiguously and similarly sarcastically titled “Stadt meiner Träume” [“City of my Dreams”]. An extensive document section includes both an account of the Central Library and evidence of deportations to and from Theresienstadt. The book also includes a reproduction of Starke-Goldschmidt's “certificate” issued on July 28, 1945 by the Jewish self-government, which identifies her as a former prisoner.
The book has long been out of print and can only be purchased from antiquarian booksellers at rather high prices. The documents saved by Käthe Starke-Goldschmidt were exhibited by the Altona Museum in 2002. Axel Feuß, Das Theresienstadt-Konvolut, Hamburg / Munich 2002. The museum still keeps the Theresienstadt collection, which is in the possession of her son, on permanent loan.
Käthe Starke-Goldschmidt was born on September 27, 1905 and grew up with her older sister Erna in Altona. Her father, banker Iska Goldschmidt, died in 1938, her mother Hulda Goldschmidt in 1941. Käthe Starke-Goldschmidt began studying German, philosophy and art history in 1927; first in Heidelberg, later in Munich theater and literature. There she was active as an actress and director. In 1935 she had a son with Martin Starke, a Jew and political opponent of National Socialism, her son survived the National Socialist era disguised as a non-Jewish child. In 1937 she returned to Hamburg and was initially employed as a dramaturge in the Jewish Cultural Association Jüdischer Kulturbund. After it was banned, she worked in the Jewish congregation. Käthe and Erna Goldschmidt were forced to move into a “Judenhaus” at Beneckestraße 2 in September 1942. There was an office of the Gestapo in the same building. On June 23, 1943, “in the bright light of a cheerful summer day,” Käthe Starke, Der Führer schenkt den Juden eine Stadt. Bilder, Impressionen, Reportagen, Dokumente, Berlin 1975, p. 24. as she writes in her memoirs, the two sisters were deported to Theresienstadt with 106 other women and men, including many employees of the Jewish congregation. In the summer of 1943, Käthe Starke-Goldschmidt certainly knew through her work in the congregation, which was administratively involved in the deportations, what lay ahead of her. The sequence of the book in which she discusses the departure is unique because of the many atmospheric details and her ability to assess and describe people. The deportations were not carried out in secrecy; she elaborates on this with the almost poetic description “in the bright light of a serene summer day” and particularly emphasizes what did not happen on this “occasion” but which she had expected and perhaps observed in previous deportations: no kicking, no shouting, no beating, and no photographing or filming of the undignified events.
Käthe Starke-Goldschmidt was conscripted into forced labor in Theresienstadt like everyone else. At first she was part of the cleaning crew, later she worked in the central library, which contained over 60,000 volumes previously looted from Jews. There, she managed to get hold of and eventually save drawings and paintings by German and Czech artists imprisoned in Theresienstadt, as well as the collection of photographs and biographies of celebrities named on the so-called List A From 1942 onwards, there were two groups of “prominent persons” in Theresienstadt. On List A were persons who were selected by the SS. They received some privileges with regard to living conditions, which the SS, however, could also withdraw. The “prominent persons” on List B were proposed by the “Council of Elders” of the ghetto administration. compiled by the Council of Elders, the committee appointed by the Nazi camp administration for the internal administration of the ghetto. These documents form the so-called Terezín Collection.
On July 28, 1945, Käthe Starke-Goldschmidt returned to Hamburg with other survivors. In 1947 her son joined her, and in 1948 she completed her dissertation in theater studies. In the late 1940s, she married the father of her child, Martin Starke, who had survived deportation to Auschwitz-Birkenau. Immediately after the war, she was employed as an assistant director for Helmut Käutner. Käthe and Martin Starke, their son Pit Goldschmidt and Käthe's sister Erna Goldschmidt, who was employed by the Jewish Trust Corporation after returning from Theresienstadt, lived together in a house in Hamburg-Othmarschen. Käthe Starke-Goldschmidt died on August 10, 1990. In 2015, stumbling stones were laid for Käthe Starke-Goldschmidt and Erna Goldschmidt. Birgit Gewehr, Biographisches Portrait über Erna und Käthe Goldschmidt, in: ibid., Stolpersteine in Hamburg-Altona mit Elbvororten. Biographische Spurensuche, Hamburg 2008, p. 81.
Starting in 1941, the German occupation had the garrison town of Theresienstadt cleared of its inhabitants and set up as a ghetto-like camp for Jews from the German Reich and the “Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia,” the Nazi designation for a large part of Czechoslovakia it occupied. By July 1943, almost the entire Jewish population of the “Protectorate” had been deported to Theresienstadt. In addition to nearly 5,000 Jews from the Wehrmacht-occupied Netherlands, among whom were numerous German emigrants, there were 1,270 Jews from Poland, 1,100 from Hungary, and 470 Jews from Denmark. About 43,000 Austrian and German Jews were deported to Theresienstadt starting in June 1942. Prior to their deportation, they had to sign costly “home purchase contracts,” which promised them a retirement home. However, Theresienstadt turned out to be a camp full to bursting with mass accommodations in inadequately equipped barracks. Life there was characterized by overcrowding, hunger and catastrophic hygienic conditions. In eleven transports from Hamburg – the first on July 15, 1942, the last on February 14, 1945 – 2,362 Jews were deported to Theresienstadt. It is documented that 1,886 people did not survive these deportations. Jürgen Sielemann, Hamburger Jüdische Opfer des Nationalsozialismus. Gedenkbuch, Hamburg 1995, p. XIX.
The title for Käthe Starke-Goldschmidt's haunting memoir of Theresienstadt refers to a propaganda film that was shot on location in August and September 1944 and became known after the war as a fragment under the title “Der Führer schenkt den Juden eine Stadt” [“The Führer Gives the Jews a City”]. The reason for its creation was the visit of a commission of the International Committee of the Red Cross in June 1944. After rumors about the murder of Jews could no longer be ignored, the commission wanted to find out about the living conditions of the prisoners in Theresienstadt. The camp management responded to this inspection by sending numerous prisoners to Auschwitz to their certain death. In addition, it ordered a series of paradoxical beautification measures to be carried out in Theresienstadt itself. The prisoners must have considered it a bottomless absurdity that all of a sudden flowers were planted, a coffee house was set up and stores were opened just to make a good impression for the visitors. “Didn't the commission have any doubts in view of this shiny, untouched beauty?” Starke, Führer, pp. 122f. Numerous contributors were deported to Auschwitz-Birkenau after the end of the film and murdered there. In the last months before the arrival of the Red Army on May 9, 1945, when epidemics were rampant in Theresienstadt, quite a few people arrived at the camp from the German Reich, from Slovakia and from concentration camps that had been evacuated due to the advancing front. At the same time, the Red Cross managed to transport some groups of prisoners out of Theresienstadt. In the first days of May the SS troops fled. Käthe Starke writes laconically: “Right in the first days there was a roll call in the Magdeburg [barracks], where one of our liberators gave a long speech. It sounded propagandistic in tone and was so poorly translated that we could only gather from it that as long as we obeyed, we would be fine. We had studied obeying extensively, we could do that. So we were doing fine.” Starke, Führer, p. 164.
In her memoirs, Käthe Starke mentions a nightmare that haunted her again and again for years after the liberation and to which she refers in the title of the descriptions of her postwar visit to Terezín: “I had to find my way home [from the library] […] in the darkness, step by step, until I reached the saving wall of the Genie barracks This refers to the Genie Barracks, which housed a hospital and hosted cultural events. across the city park, past the market square, which guided me to the corner of Neue Gasse, and of all the nightmares that had carried me off to Theresienstadt at night for years, this one remained: in black night and soundless silence I must seek my way alone. From the moonless sky not even the gutters stand out to show me the direction. The stones of the Genie barracks are so cold that I can't touch them, at the corner I lose the last grip and don't know where to turn.” Starke, Führer, p. 130. Starke-Goldschmidt hints at the loneliness and abandonment she felt in Theresienstadt as feelings that would not leave her even long after liberation.
Among the memoir texts about deportation and imprisonment in Theresienstadt, Käthe Starke-Goldschmidt’s account stands out because she describes life under camp conditions and the relationships among the inmates with a fine feeling for language almost entirely free of sentimentality. The effort to maintain a distance from her experiences and to capture the feelings they triggered can be clearly felt between the lines. This is particularly evident in those passages in which she writes from the perspective of animals being led to the slaughterhouse and thus unknowingly to their death. In her description of the transport, this becomes apparent in an almost painful way. She begins with the following words: “What the slaughter animals feel when they roll along dully crammed into the cattle car – I know it from experience.” She ends with the only seemingly contradictory need: “[…] one should scream – if only no one starts screaming.” Starke, Führer, p. 23. Thus she encodes her fears and shouts them out at the same time. The author allows herself here to hint at her state of mind, how vital it was not to lose her temper. This self-imposed requirement to pull oneself together permeates the entire text like a gnawing basic tension, which – as far as this can be understood at all – perhaps came close to the feeling of life in Theresienstadt and which would not fade throughout the rest of a life spent living with survival.
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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.
Linde Apel, “This cannot end well.” Käthe Starke-Goldschmidt's Memories of Theresienstadt (translated by Insa Kummer), in: Key Documents of German-Jewish History, May 12, 2021. <https://dx.doi.org/10.23691/jgo:article-273.en.v1> [September 30, 2023].