If ever a book's title could appropriately capture its contents, Steven Robins' Letters of Stone seems to have succeeded in doing so perfectly. Like the heaviness of stones, the reader is left with dread and knowing as they trace – along with Robins – his grandparents', aunts' and uncle's final years during the Holocaust. By sharing his journey, sparked by a single photograph of his grandmother, Cecilie, and his aunts, Edith and Hildegard, displayed in his family home, Robins provides a deeply personal and painful reflection of the true horror and extent of the Nazis' racial policies against Jews.
"This didn't start off as book, but rather a yearning to know what happened to my father's family. While I was aware that my father and one sibling, Artur, had managed to get out of Germany, an old photo of three unknown women in our family home had haunted me throughout my childhood, and I was curious to know who they were," says Robins as he talks about the family photo of his grandmother and aunts, photographed in Berlin, Germany, before they were deported to various concentration camps and killed.
"My journey to discover their story started in 1989 when I first interviewed my father. I felt it was time to delve into my own family history, but in this one hour interview we never really got around to discussing that photo and my father's family's fate."
Six years after his father, Herbert, passed away in 1996, Robins travelled to the United States to attend a conference of the American Anthropology Association in Washington. While there, he visited the US Holocaust Memorial Museum. Here he discovered the names of his father's family, who had been killed during the Holocaust, in the Berliner Gedenkbuch (in English, The Memorial Book of The Federal Archives for the Victims of the Persecution of Jews in Germany (1933-1945).
"I stopped at the names of the six Robinski family members: Cecilie, David, Edith, Hildegard, Siegfried and another Edith (Siegfried's wife). Next to their names were their addresses in Berlin, dates and places of birth, and dates and places of deportation," writes Robins in his book.
"The discovery, to me, seemed similar to those made by members of the TRC when they unearthed the brutal secrets of the apartheid regime. I remember the confusion on the museum worker's face as he witnessed the satisfaction and relief that passed over me after learning the truth about my family. In my mind, however, the terrifyingly mundane, bureaucratic facts about the Robinski family's deportation and their final destinations gave substance to their existence. It meant the memory of my father's family had not been completely erased off the face of the earth."
With that information in hand, Robins travelled to Berlin, where a stop at the state archive led to the discovery of a folder that had been compiled on the Robinski family by Nazi officials. The folder, like so many others stored there, contained information about his family's racial classification, the property expropriated from them, their deportation and eventual extermination.
"Three days after this form [a declaration of assets] was filled in, my grandparents were deported to Riga," writes Robins.
Following their parents' deportation, Hildegard, Edith and their brother Siegfried would be forced to work as slave labourers at factories in Berlin from October 1942 until February 1943, when all three siblings were deported to Auschwitz.
Robins would use the information obtained at the archive to track down the Berlin apartment building of his uncle Siegfried and his wife Edith, as well as the place in Berlin's city centre where his grandparents, Cecilie and David Robinski once lived. While Siegfried and Edith's apartment building in Kreuzberg still stood, the building his grandparents had once called home had not survived the Allied bombings.
Two years later, while working as an academic at the University of the Western Cape in South Africa, Robins was invited to attend Humboldt University's Law School as a visiting scholar. It was during this visit that he would literally stumble across "brass plaques nested amongst the paving stones of building entrances". These stones, referred to as Stolpersteine (stumbling stones), were inscribed with the names of victims of the Holocaust and the dates of their deportation. They had been installed by Berlin artist Gunter Demnig, a haunting reminder that the buildings in front of which they were placed had once been the homes of Jews who had been deported and murdered. Demnig had placed these stones in various public places in Kreuzberg in the dead of the night and without the permission from municipal authorities.
Robins immediately contacted Demnig and, in 2000, laid the first of these stones for Siegfried and Edith, followed by additional stones for his grandparents and aunts in the area where their apartment had stood in the Berlin neighbourhood of Mitte. This, Robins believed would be the conclusion to a long journey of delving into his family's tragic history.
Back in South Africa, the ghosts of his family would not let Robins rest.
"I found myself drawn towards investigating the life of another Robinski forebear: my great-uncle Eugen Robinski, my grandfather's elder brother who had immigrated to South Africa in the late nineteenth century and settled in the dry Karoo town of Williston," notes Robins.
Together with South African documentary filmmaker Mark Kaplan, and colleague, Prof Kees van der Waal, Robins visited the Karoo to trace Eugen's steps.
"The large footprint that Eugen had left in this small Karoo town differed vastly from the absence of traces of my father's family in Berlin, or the millions of other Jews whose existence has been erased by the Nazis."
Eugen would go on to establish Williston Hotel, own a bottle store and two sheep farms, and become mayor in 1911. Later a street would also be named after him. These achievements were remarkable, but not unique, for a Jewish immigrant in a predominantly Afrikaans farming community and in a country where anti-Semitic sentiments were intensifying.
As Robins delved into Eugen's past, he found himself drawn into South Africa's own dark racialised history. He discovered that Williston was once "a violent frontier world, where colonial brutality led to the virtual extermination of the 'Bushmen' (San) from the area following bloody skirmishes in the 1860s with the Basters [the offspring of white men and Khoikhoi women] and the Trekboer". Eugen himself had taken in a "Bushman girl into his household after her mother came to his home begging to exchange her for medicine and food" and it is believed that even though this girl became the childhood companion to one of Eugen's daughters, that she had ended up primarily working as a servant in his household.
In the 1860s, the Basters were dispossessed of their land in Williston as a result of new racial laws and they eventually settled in Rehoboth in German South West Africa (now Namibia).
"What was interesting was that while I was discovering the history of the town my great uncle lived in, I remembered how I had come across the work of German anthropologist and eugenicist Eugen Fischer during my visit in 1996 to the Holocaust Museum in the United States. Fischer came to South West Africa in 1908 to study the effects of miscegenation amongst the Rehoboth Basters, and the more I looked into Fischer's history, the more I realised that his study, published in 1913, had created the scientific ideas that were to be later taken up by many other Nazi racial scientists," says Robins.
Nearly two decades after his 1908 visit to Rehoboth, Fischer established the Berlin-based Kaiser-Wilhelm Institute for Anthropology, Human Hereditary and Eugenics, which was funded by the Rockefeller Foundation and Carnegie Institute. Then, in 1933, he was appointed as Chancellor of the Friedrich Wilhelm University (now Humboldt University) by Hitler. German racial science, which had originated in studies conducted in the Baster settlement in Rehoboth would later shape racial policies regarding Jews, Roma and Sinti leading up the Holocaust.
"The argument about Jews was that they were racially mixed and that they threatened to dilute the Aryan purity of the German nation. This was translated into Fischer's studies. But what I learnt is that these ideas influenced immigration policies in the United States, Europe and other parts of the world too. In the US, laws such as the 1924 Immigration Restriction Act made it nearly impossible for German and Eastern European Jews to gain entry, and eventually Jewish immigration into the US dropped to a trickle. The same was happening in South Africa, where a rise in Afrikaner nationalism led to the Aliens Act of 1937, and thereby closed the door to German Jewish refugees. Driven by HF Verwoerd, who was a professor at Stellenbosch University earlier, and who later became the architect of apartheid, this law prevented my father from rescuing his family trapped in Berlin," explains Robins.
It was this rise of anti-semitism in South Africa, especially in the 1930s and the war years, that also led his father and relatives to change their names from Robinski to Robins, he says.
In 2012, Robins would be drawn back to Berlin following the discovery of a bag of letters that his cousins, David Robins and Cecilia Singer, found amongst their late mother's belongings at her Sea Point flat. The letters had been in the custody of Artur, David and Cecilia's father. The letters, written between 1936 when Herbert and Artur had moved to South Africa, and 1942, when the Robinski family members in Berlin had been deported, finally provided Robins with insights into the inner lives and thoughts of his extended family.
"The letters, which were mostly written by my grandmother and her daughter Edith, as well as family members who had fled to Bolivia, Sweden and other parts of the world, gave me insights into who my family members were, their struggles to get out of Germany and the racial laws that slowly and systematically stripped them of their citizenship, human rights and dignity."
To access the content of the letters, which were written in a German Gothic script, Robins had to enlist the help of Ute Ben Josef, an art historian and the former Director of the Jacob Gitlin Library in the Cape Town Holocaust Centre. The letters had to be transcribedinto modern German before Ute could begin translating them into English. "Ute was not only able to translate, but to read between the lines and to understand what could not be said because of Nazi censorship, and because of the self-censorship on the part of my grandmother, who did not wish to burden her sons in Africa."
One of these letters from Robins' grandmother following Kristallnacht – the deliberate destruction of Jewish homes, public institutions, businesses and places of worship by Nazi soldiers and members of the armed and paramilitary wing of the Nazi Party – on 14 November 1938, read: "Thank God that Artur has managed to get to Rhodesia legally … I am so happy that he is away from here, because you will have read in the newspapers about all that has happened."
She goes on to write: "Hermann Holz has been absent since Friday and Aunt Hildchen is quite heartbroken", hinting at the incarceration of thousands of Jews in concentration camps following Kristallnacht. Two weeks later, Cecilie's desperation to leave Germany was clearly apparent.
"It would be very desirable if we would also succeed in emigrating as soon as possible and you must try to submit an application on our behalf," she wrote to Herbert.
Cecilie, her husband and her three children, and many other family members, would, despite all their efforts, never leave Germany, and they were all killed in concentration camps in Riga and Auschwitz.
"This book is written in different genres – on the one hand it is a family memoir, but it locates my family within a much broader historical era and situates their story within the larger processes of twentieth century colonialism, eugenics, Nazism and Apartheid. It shows us the scientific pathways of destruction and how scientifically- based policies can impact directly upon the everyday lives of people. But of course it is also the story of millions of others as well. It is not only confined to what happened to my family in Berlin."
"So while initially this project was a personal project about trying to find out wat happened to my family, it turned into a project which integrated my academic world and personal life. The boundaries were blurred between my family's history in Berlin and the history of racial science that emerged in the colonies and was taken to Europe, and ended up shaping not only Nazism but also influencing immigration policies in the US, South Africa and elsewhere. All of these developments colluded to trap my family in Germany, and eventually led to their extermination."
Letters of Stone can be purchased for R250 at bookshops.
Photo: The discovery of the fates of the three women in this family picture would drive social anthropologist and Stellenbosch academic Steven Robins' to pen Letters of Stone. The book recounts his "journey of discovery about the lives and fates of the Robinksi family, in southern Africa, Berlin, Riga and Auschwitz". This account of his father's family takes place amidst a worldwide rise of eugenics and racial science, which would eventually become the justification for the murder of Jews, Roma and Sinti by the Nazis and cause South Africa and other countries to close their doors to Jewish refugees seeking asylum. (Photo supplied.)