A Death in the Family

My cousin, Melanie Levensohn, died.  She died at Auschwitz concentration camp in December 1943 at age 19.

I didn’t even know I had a cousin named Melanie until four weeks ago.

My father escaped from a concentration camp in Romania over 60 years ago and died of lung cancer in 1974 when I was fourteen years old.  In my family, we didn’t discuss what happened to him as a child—occasionally he would offer a story of the brutality he endured as a slave laborer forced to work naked, digging trenches with his bare hands– but I never got the whole story.  It was not OK to bring up the topic, and even today I know too little about my family.

I was shocked to learn about Melanie from her two half-sisters, my cousins Dina and Jackie, over lunch the day before my daughter’s Bat Mizvah last month.  Dina and Jackie are my father’s two first cousins; as toddlers they and their father, Lazar, escaped from Romania via Austria and eventually made it to New Zealand.  My father helped bring their family to join him in Canada in the early ‘50’s.  Melanie was their older sister from my uncle Lazar’s first marriage, and she was not as lucky as the rest of them.

Jackie spent over six years researching Melanie’s whereabouts to honor her father’s dying wish—that Melanie’s fate be known so that our family could recite the mourner’s Kaddish in her memory.  In her research, Jackie contacted the Holocaust and War Victims Tracing and Information Center division of the American Red Cross, local government officials in Paris and Nice, the United States Holocaust Museum, and the Klarsfeld Foundation in Paris.

Today, I know the following:

Melanie was born in Galatz, Romania on October 19, 1924.  Her mother, Ernestine, was divorced from my uncle Lazar in the early 1930’s and moved to France, where she re-married a gentleman named Goldenberg.  Due to fears for Melanie’s safety from the Nazis, sometime in 1942 or 1943 she moved from Paris to Nice to attend university and lived there with her uncle, whose last name was Grumberg.

Melanie was deported from Nice to the Drancy staging camp in France in November 1943 and arrived in Drancy on December 1.
Melanie was assigned to Convoy 63 on December 17, destination Auschwitz.  501 males, 345 females (and 4 more people of unspecified gender) boarded this cursed transport.  Ninety nine of them were under eighteen years of age, and Melanie had just celebrated her 19th birthday a few weeks prior.  Oddly, the record notes that Convoy 63 followed Convoy 64.  The train left Paris/Bobigny at 12:10 PM on the 17th.

“When they arrived in Auschwitz, 233 men were selected and received numbers 169735 through 169967.  112 women received numbers 72323 through 72434.  The other 505 were gassed.  In 1945 there were 31 survivors.  Six were women.”

Source: “Les Transferts de Juifs de la Region de Nice Vers Le Camp de Drancy en Vue de Leur Deportation, 31 Aout 1942 – 30 Juillet 1944”, edited and published by “Les Fils et Filles des Deportes Juifs de France” and the Beate Klarsfeld Foundation.

Camille Touboul, another victim of the Nazis who documented her experience in a manuscript, described the trip to Auschwitz:

“I still think, today, when I would like to free myself from this horror, to escape this nightmare, of all those who were part of this convoy, of the children, the innocent among the innocent, suffering from thirst, hunger, and who during the trip never stopped complaining, crying, shouting…  We were at our wits end, we were dying of thirst, very soon of hunger, the lack of air and sleep made us mad, we yelled out, we screamed, we cried, as if we could expect or hope for some assistance…  Oh, for some air, some air, to get out of this freightcar!  Panic took over…”

Tonight, I will be attending the annual Yom Hashoah gathering in commemoration of the 60th anniversary of liberation, in memory of those who perished during the Holocaust, and in honor of our local survivors, at Temple Emanu El in San Francisco.  Tonight I will be able to pray for you, too, Melanie, and I will honor your memory. 

"Oseh shalom beem’roh’mahv, hoo ya’aseh shalom, aleynu v’al kohl yisrael v’eemru: Amen"
"He who makes peace in His heights, may He make peace upon us and upon all Israel.   Amen"


Melanie Levensohn circa 1943

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