a little boy named Hans

The call came at dinner time. Jon was just back from work, I was leaving to pick up our order at Chickie’s. The voice was gruff, humorous, tinged with a familiar accent. Uncle Phillip, my mother’s brother, and the repository of my family’s stories. “I know you’re interested in these things,” he says. Something was keeping him up at night, did I have a minute?

Of course I did. I rummaged for a pencil and paper. Jon went for the sandwiches.

This is what troubles Phillip. In April of 1942, a transport from Vienna arrived in Wlodawa. Three people were settled in the attic room of my grandfather’s house; a mother, a father, a 12-year-old boy, the same age as my uncle.

Now he’s laughing; “He was a foot taller than me, but he was wearing lederhosen. His name was Hans. Hans! A real German! I didn’t understand a word he said. He kept asking for the close. The water closet! I didn’t know what he was talking about! I showed him the outhouse, in the yard. He’d never seen one before.”

The family kept waiting for luggage that never arrived. They were very rich, he says. Back in Austria, they owned factories. I can hear him smiling. “They adopted me like I was a son. The mother, you should have seen her! So beautiful! This boy was like a brother to me. I looked up to him.” He hesitates. “The first Aktzia was a few months later, on Shavuos. A Friday. On the first day, the SS took away the Rabbis, the old people. It took them a day to gas and burn them, you understand. On the second day, they took the transport from Vienna.”

The transport was mostly women and children, Phillip explains. These were the families of German soldiers fighting on the Eastern front–German soldiers who had married Jewish women. Wlodawa was just over the Bug River from Russia. They were told they were being moved closer to the front so that they could be nearer to their husbands.

The Germans called Wlodawa die Judenstadt, the Jewish State. The implication was that the town would be the Jews’ new homeland. “People wanted to be on this transport,” he says. “I knew another family, a mother and twin boys, also my age. They sneaked onto the train at Strasbourg. They thought they would be safe.”

What they didn’t know was that Sobibor was about to become operational. The Nazis had no use for these Jewish women and half-Jewish children. The transport from Vienna became the first Jews to die in Sobibor.

This is where history and memory meet. I have read about this transport. But Phillip is telling me details that no website has printed, facts that are not in any book. This is not history to my Uncle Phillip. This is his life.

Uncle Phillip knows where, when and how Hans and his mother died. But what is tugging at him, what is keeping him up at night, is what might have happened to the father. The SS took him away some time earlier, probably to question him about the factories, he thinks. Is it possible he survived, is still alive somewhere in the world?

I ask him the for the family’s name. “Hey, this happened 65 years ago,” he says. “I don’t remember.”

I feel a little helpless; I’ve been asked to find the nameless father of a boy named Hans. He’s going to be very disappointed. But, I give it a half-hearted try, punching “Transport from Austria to Wlodawa” into the Google search box.

It comes up instantly. Transport 18, from Wien to Wlodawa. It’s right there on the Yad Vashem website. The dates match, April 27, 1942. And then, I see the list of names.

A chill goes through me as I realize I’m going to be able to find his friend. All I need to do is find a family of three with a twelve-year-old boy named Hans. And sure enough, there they are, on page three.

I stare at it for a minute. It’s not a story anymore. It’s a murdered twelve-year-old boy named Hans Bruell, with a mother named Rosa, and a father named Paul.

I click on their names. And then I have their birth dates, their street address in Vienna. At the bottom of the page, where it says Victim’s status at the end of World War II, is the word Murdered.

There is no date of death. Perhaps the monsters at Sobibor destroyed the records. The people on the Viennese transport all have the same sentence after their names;

X perished in the Shoah. This information is based on a List of murdered Jews from Austria found in the Namentliche Erfassung der oesterreichischen Holocaustopfer, Dokumentationsarchiv des oesterreichischen Widerstandes (Documentation Centre for Austrian Resistance), Wien.

Except for Hans’ father, Paul. He died in Majdanek concentration camp, on September 13, 1942, four months after his wife and son perished at Sobibor.

I call Uncle Phillip and tell him what I’ve found. “Bruell,” he repeats, remembering the name. “So he didn’t survive. I hoped…”

Only three people from the transport of 1,000 survived the war, I tell him. I can hear him grieving on the other end of the phone, but I can also feel that it brings him closure of some sort.

We say goodbye, and I go back to my messy kitchen and my schedule of laundry and summer camp and car pools. But I am undeniably shaken. For one day, yesterday, the Holocaust leapt out of the text books and became real life.

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4 thoughts on “a little boy named Hans

  1. My grandparents Elsa and Gustav Spitz were on the 18th Transport from Vienna on 27th April 1942. They were 45 and 52 respectively. I have read a couple of times that the Viennese Jews were amongst the first to be murdered but I have similarly seen accounts which suggest that children and elderly were killed in May. There was then an interregnum until 24th October because the railway line subsided after which the remaining Jews in Wlodawa were killed.

    I am not sure what the evidence base is for stating that all the Viennese Jews were killed in May (especially if these were mainly women and children) and the selection was based on these criterion rather than their location of origin.

    I would be very interested if anyone had any information on original source material. I have the sources used by the Yad Vashem book (in the Hebrew version these are all listed) but there is no specific citation of this particular claim and the sources are all very obscure and I have not been successful in finding any to actually read.

    Danny Allen

  2. Hi, Danny–

    My best source for the date that the Viennese Jews were transported was my Uncle Phillip. He remembers it very clearly, that the Viennese Jews were the first to go, it was the holiday of Shavuot. There is a complete list of Transport 18 on the Yad Vashem website, that’s where I found his friends’ names. Believe me, I was very surprised to find anything about them at all.

    There was a Kinderaktzia on July 24th, where the children were taken away.

    The following link has been a very helpful site for me, I’ve confirmed a lot of the information with my mother and with my uncle Phillip. Have you seen it? It’s a really fascinating collection of stories about Wlodawa.

    Good luck in your research–and best wishes for a sweet New Year.

    http://www.nizkor.org/hweb/places/poland/wlodawa/

    • Thanks you for getting back so quickly. I have seen the website you refer to. It is amazing how much information is now available and some of it only in the last few years. For many years my family believed my grandparents had been taken to Izbica and I have information from Arolsen suggesting this but I now have facsimiles of the original orders and the account of the rail journey from the commander of the train along with my grandparents’ names on the inventory clearly showing they were taken to Wlodawa. I have visited the town and seen the railway platform where they arrived as well. Is your uncle still alive? I am guessing you live in the States. I am in the UK.

      A very Happy New Year to you and your family too and well over the fast.

      Danny

      • Yes, my uncle is alive and well, and is incredibly well-informed about the history of the war and of the area. For years he didn’t want to talk about it, but now he does.

        You’re right, it’s amazing how much information there is out there. I was stunned when I found that list. Unbelievable, and sad, about your grandparents. I haven’t seen Wlodawa. I hope to visit it, we have amazing family stories that took place there and in nearby Adampol.

        Nice to meet you, Danny–
        Have an easy and meaningful fast–
        Helen

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