May 25, 2019

Shadows at My Feet

Plaques commemorating Alfred and Hilda Lipstein.

Fueled by the excitement of a newly arrived tourist, I was barreling back to the Villa Florentina, a charming 19th-century home turned boutique hotel in Frankfurt, Germany, when steps away from the driveway entrance, two brass plaques, shining in the afternoon sun, brought me to an abrupt halt. Instantly, my buoyant spirit faded. Embedded in the sidewalk, at my feet, were two stumbling stones, markers that commemorate victims of National Socialism at their last known residence.

Years ago, it was neither tourists nor business travelers who passed through the doors of this quaint four-story structure, but just two people: Alfred and Hilde Lipstein. What is now a popular boutique hotel had been the Lipsteins’ home until their deportation to Terezin in 1942.

 I imagined an elderly, elegant couple, suitcases in hand, slowly making their way down the front path, leaving their home for the last time.

The Lipsteins would have slipped from my memory if not for my next stop, the Hotel am Markt in the famed spa town of Baden-Baden. Another boutique hotel, another stumbling stone. This marker commemorated Frieda Hehl, a victim of the “Aktion T4,” the Nazis’ involuntary euthanasia program designed to rid the nation of the mentally ill and handicapped.

Somehow these inanimate 4-inch-square brass squares, etched with few words — the victim’s name, and dates of birth, deportation and death — seemed to have taken on a life. They had shadowed me on my travels. I began to wonder, who were these people who once inhabited the lodgings that I now used for rest and sleep after a busy day of touring?

I decided to delve into the stories behind these names, beginning with Frieda Hehl, a Catholic woman from Baden-Baden. In early November 1925, Hehl then 27 years old and unable to work because of her mental illness, joined her mother at what was then the Green Tree Hotel. They were not guests. Dagmar Rumpf, director of the Baden Archives, believes that Hehl’s widowed mother was a hotel maid. The challenge of working and caring for Frieda may have become overwhelming for her mother, prompting the mother to make an agonizing decision. Frieda Hehl was institutionalized on Nov. 30, 1925, and would remain so for the rest of her life.

Single and without children, Hehl didn’t leave behind descendants who could create a picture of her life. What can be reconstructed, is her last day of life. T4 authorities left behind ample documentation of their crimes.

On Aug. 8, 1940, a bus from the Charitable Foundation for the Transport of Patients, a T4 front organization, pulled up to the Emmendingen Institute in Baden-Württemberg. For reasons of “economic planning,” Hehl and other patients had been selected for transfer to another facility.

Hotel Villa Florentina.

At the Nuremberg Trials, Viktor Brack, a top T4 organizer and administrator, claimed the victims, “simply went to sleep without even knowing they were going to sleep.” A worker at the Hadamar killing facility, described a different scene.

Before placing Hehl, now 42, on the bus, the staff would have inked her name on her bare back or on a piece of tape that would have been pressed on to her back. Patients weren’t told the name of their new institution. Nor, if they had been capable, could they have gotten their bearings by looking at the passing landscape. All bus windows had been covered with paint or fitted with curtains.

The destination was Grafeneck. Originally a castle in Southern Germany, it had been a Protestant hospital for the handicapped until its seizure by the Nazis in 1940. Perched on a hill, its isolation made it suitable for conversion to a T4 killing center.

As soon as Hehl stepped off the bus, the macabre theater began. She first was asked to disrobe. Her clothes were labeled so they could later be returned. Hehl was weighed, measured and photographed. A doctor gave her a quick exam, verifying her identity and searching for any sign of an illness that later could be cited as a cause of death. The procedures were designed to calm and deceive, having the patients believe that after this orientation, they could settle into their new hospital.

But there was one additional step. Behind the castle was the carriage house, which, using some pipes, sealant and nozzles, had been converted to a gas chamber disguised as a shower room. It is commonly assumed that T4 victims were limited to the mentally ill and handicapped. In truth, those sitting on the wooden benches next to Hehl, waiting for their “showers,” may have included Germans who were blind, deaf, epileptic or elderly individuals with incurable diseases. 

Once the gas started filtering out of the shower heads, Hehl would have been unconscious in five minutes; death would have occurred at the 10-minute mark. After ventilating the chamber, a crew came in to bring the bodies to the crematorium.

At the Nuremberg Trials, Viktor Brack, a top T4 organizer and administrator, claimed the victims, “simply went to sleep without even knowing they were going to sleep.” A worker at the Hadamar killing facility, described a different scene. “In the chamber there were patients, naked people, some semi-collapsed with their mouths terribly open, their chests heaving. … I have never seen anything more gruesome. … I could not imagine that this was completely without pain.”

Frieda Hehl was murdered on Aug. 8, 1940, the day she arrived at Grafeneck. “The killing centers,” wrote historian Henry Friedlander, “processed living human beings into ashes in less than 24 hours.” In its one year of operation, an estimated 10,654 victims were murdered at Grafeneck.

Ten days after Hehl’s death, a waiting period instituted to avoid arousing family suspicions, a condolence letter would have been sent to Hehl’s family, informing them that Frieda had died “suddenly and unexpectedly.”

Two years later, Hilde and Alfred Lipstein, commemorated by the stumbling stones at the Villa Florentina in Frankfurt, were also caught in the Nazis’ vortex of death. But they would meet their end under different circumstances.

In 1907, when the couple married, and began life together in their stately home, a wedding gift from Hilde’s parents, their future must have seemed limitless. Alfred, a 31-year-old doctor specializing in gastroenterological diseases, had married well. His wife Hilde, 10 years his junior, was the granddaughter of Rudolf Sulzbach, a commanding figure in Frankfurt’s commercial world. A dynamic financier, Sulzbach co-founded or participated in the establishment of the Mitteldeutsche Credit Bank, the German mortgage bank
Meiningen, the S. Sulzbach Bank and the South German Real Estate Co. When
Deutsche Bank was established, in 1870, Sulzbach was the largest shareholder, serving on the board of directors until his death.

While acknowledging  his  grand-mother’s illustrious family lineage, Mark Lipton, a chemistry professor at Purdue University, notes, “my grandfather was no slouch either. He was actually quite good friends with Max Born, a Nobel prize-winning physicist, who was a relation by marriage in his family.”

The grand and imposing West End Synagogue, a short walk from the Lipstein home, indicates that their neighborhood had a significant Jewish presence. But the Lipsteins were not part of this community. Great niece Maureen Kirchholtes recalls being told that Beate, the Lipstein’s older daughter, “never knew she was Jewish until she went to school and the kids started calling her names.” Ironically, although there is no evidence that they practiced their new religion, Beate and her siblings had been baptized.

Perhaps the children bullying Beate were unaware of her baptism. Or perhaps, their jeers were a foreshadowing of Nazi ideology that contended a trip to the baptismal font couldn’t erase one’s Jewish identity.

When the Nazis assumed power in 1933, Alfred Lipstein admonished his children to “get the hell out of Germany.” By 1938, all four Lipstein children had set off to embark on new lives. Beate eventually settled in Palestine, building the new State of Israel and pursuing a career as a gynecologist. Walter, the Lipstein’s younger son, became a psychiatric social worker in the United States. The other two children entered the legal world. Kurt Lipstein, a distinguished professor, pioneered the field of comparative law at Cambridge University. Margot, their youngest child, who had settled in the U.S., returned to Germany in 1945 as the legal assistant for Robert Kempner, an assistant U.S. chief counsel at the Nuremberg Trials.

Why hadn’t the Lipsteins joined their children, leaving Nazi Germany as early as possible? The likely answer is family responsibility. Before they died, Hilde Lipstein had promised her parents that she would take care of her brother, who had epilepsy, a condition that would have prevented entry into the U.S., under the U.S. Immigration Act of 1917, and may have hindered admission to other nations.

Grandson Joram Davidson, of Israel, believes there may have been an additional reason his grandparents stayed in Germany until it was too late, when all hopes of emigration had faded. “I think my grandfather took care of a lot of older relatives, not just financially but spiritually. From talking with people, that is the impression I got of him.”

It is unclear from Hilde Lipstein’s Terezin death certificate whether she died of natural causes or committed suicide on Sept. 16, 1942, the day after her arrival at the camp. Regarding her husband, Alfred, the record is clear; he committed suicide the following month.

German artist Gunter Demnig created the stumbling stone in 1995. Today they can be found in more than 610 German towns, cities, and villages. The stone for Frieda Hehl, a middle-aged woman, with working-class roots, who was afflicted with a severe mental illness, and the markers for the Lipsteins, an elderly couple, who were the quintessential German Jewish success story, are linked together as part of a virtual stumbling stone path that winds its way through Germany. Welcome or unwanted, these testimonies to Nazi genocide and persecution are everywhere, shadows at our feet.


Charlotte Bonelli is the author of  “Exit Berlin: How One Woman Saved Her Family From Nazi Germany” (Yale University Press, 2014).