An attic reveals its secret

January 5, 2015 by Henry Benjamin
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A roof in need of repair in the Slovakian city of Presov has provided a Sydney family with memories of a precious past…a cache of photographs, documents and personal effects hidden by a rabbi before he was transported to his death in Auschwitz.

The rabbi was Rabbi Samuel Gottschall whose son Rabbi Benjamin Gottshall survived the war settling in Australia where he served Jewish communities in Newcastle, Brisbane and Maroubra in Sydney. The family also spent time in New Zealand where Rabbi Gottshall served as spiritual head of the Wellington Jewish community.

Rabbi Samuel and Rebbetzin Eva Gottschall and their family in 1935

Rabbi Samuel and Rebbetzin Eva Gottschall and their family in 1935  Rabbi Benjamin Gottshall is wearing glasses.

The roof of the building which housed the Gottshall family in Presov revealed its secret to local handyman Imrich Girasek who discovered the photographs and documents when he was repairing the roof of a building neighbouring the synagogue at which Rabbi Samuel Gottschall was head chazan.

Three generations: A photo of Rabbi Benjamin Gottshall hangs behind Eva Wittenberg and Alex Gottshall who hold a photo of Rabbi Samuel and Rebbetzin Eva Gottshall.     Photo: Henry Benjamin

Three generations: A photo of Rabbi Benjamin Gottshall hangs behind Eva Wittenberg and Alex Gottshall who hold a photo of Rabbi Samuel and Rebbetzin Eva Gottshall.      Photo: Henry Benjamin

Rabbi Dr. Benjamin Gottshall passed away in Sydney in 1978 unaware that his father had hidden the family’s papers and personal effects. Among the documents Girasek discovered were cantorial sheet music written in Rabbi Samuel’s Gottschall’s hand and bearing his name.

The story was broken by a local TV station journalist Martin Jedinak who having learned that Rabbi Gottschall’s son had moved to Australia initiated a search to locate him or his descendants.

Dusting the newly discovered images

Dusting the newly discovered images

There were no Gottschalls to be found  in Australia. But Jedinak learned of and emailed Alex Gottshall in Sydney…and discovered that Alex and his sister Eva Wittenberg are the grandchildren of the rabbi who had secreted away the family memories. Their father had dropped the “c” from the family name.

The brother and sister were taken totally by surprised and there is no-one in their generation with whom Alex and Eva can share the amazing find.

In Sydney, Alex Gottshall told J-Wire: “We are the only survivors of both our grandfather’s and grandmother’s families. The Nazis murdered every single aunt, uncle and cousin.”

Eva Wittenberg said that her grandfather and grandmother Eva Gottschall  had been taken with one son by the Nazis in 1942. She added: “My late father had been captured the previous year  in Louny, a small town about 40 kms from Prague. He survived the war and had suffered both Theriesenstadt and Auschwitz.  But my grandfather believed he had been murdered and actually sat shiva for him. He had had one sister and three brothers but he was the only family member to survive the camps.”

Rabbi Benjamin Gottshall often mentioned his father to his two children “but we didn’t have any records” said Alex Gottshall. Eva Wittenberg added: “He would commemorate his siblings’ birthdays and which upset him and I remember him weeping on those days. His sister had two little children who were also murdered in the Holocaust.”

Alex Gottshall and Eva Wittenberg do have records of their father’s time in Czechoslovakia. “Our father had entrusted all his personal papers and photographs with the monks of Louny. After the war he retrieved all his personal effects.”

Some of the photographs brought to Australia by Rabbi Benjamin Gottshall are the same as those found in the house in Presov. Eva Wittenberg said: “But there are many we haven’t seen before and we won’t know the extent of the discovery until we receive the package from Slovakia.”

Alex Gottshall, who was named after his grandfather,  added: “What Dad had salvaged was not as comprehensive as what has been discovered. They were a very poor family and amongst the cache were cutlery and empty jewellery boxes.We have no idea why they were empty but maybe shortly after they were hidden someone found them and pilfered what they deemed to be of value.”

Eva Wittenberg’s daughter Lianna is the only member of the family who has physically sighted the trove of precious memories. She lives in Paris and made the trip to Presov where she was interviewed by Jedinak.

Translation of video:

Martin Jedinak reporter: “ We ‘ve solved the secret hidden seventy years long. The Jewish family from Prešov has hidden their photos in the attic before deportation to Auschwitz. We tracked down the relatives of rabbi, the only one who survived the Holocaust, in distant Australia.”

Lianna Wittenberg: ”Benjamin was the only one who survived.“

Martin Jedinák, news reporter: “ The family Gottshall says it’ s a miracle. They supposed that nothing belonging to their ancestors from Presov was preserved.”

Lianna Wittenberg:“ It ‘s fascinating. We thought that this chapter already closed for our family.“

Lianna Wittenberg and Mr G

Lianna Wittenberg and Mr G

Martin Jedinák, news reporter: “ The old photos and other documents were found in the attic of an old house by Mr. Girasek.”

Images from the past

Images from the past

Imrich Girasek : “ I think that these people were deported to the concentration camp.”

Martin Jedinák, news reporter: “ The family has hidden their valuables before the deportation to Auschwitz, but they didn’t come back. The people working in the Jewish Museum recognized the cantor, who worked in Prešov before the World War II.”
( the beginning of the archival recording, November 24th, 2014)

Margita Eckhaus, the chairman of the Jewish religious community: “This is the theological choir and this, we presume to be Rabbi Gottschall, who led the choir.”

( the end of the archival recording, November 24th, 2014).

Martin Jedinák: “ Samuel Gottschall had five children. His oldest son Benjamin was a rabbi in the Czech Republic. He was the only one who survived the Holocaust, despite the fact he was in three different concentration camps.“

Lianna Wittenberg: “ He was so strong internally, that the Nazis didn’t manage to break him down.“

Martin Jedinák: “ Benjamin led  services in the camps and gave the strength to survive to other people. He got married after the war and moved to Australia with his two children. We tracked down his relatives and his granddaughter Lianna, living in Paris, came to pick up the photos.”

Lianna Wittenberg: “When we got your mail, we were shocked and didn’t know if it’ s true or not. This is our whole family in Sydney.”

Martin Jedinák: “ Benjamin continued to work as  rabbi even in Australia. He died in 1978. The names of his parents and his siblings who didn’t survive the Holocaust are carved into his gravestone. Lianna is planning to send these photos to her family in Australia. They will keep them as family treasure.“

The story continues:

Rabbi Benjamin Gottshall was to become a pillar of the Sydney Jewish community. His son Alex was born one month after the family arrived in Australia in 1949 and was delivered by community stalwart Dr Fanny Reading creating a bond with the National Council of Jewish Women which was to last a lifetime. He was to play an important role in the difficult task of resettling a generation of Holocaust survivors who had found a new home in Sydney.

The Gottshall family

The Gottschall family

The photos and documents are yet to arrive in Australia…but when they do they will provide a deep, meaningful link to the past for Alex Gottshall and Eva Wittenberg…and for Eva’s four children David Wittenberg, Judith Sidley, Lianna Wittenberg and Ben Wittenberg.

Alex Gottshall told J-Wire: “Eva and I were overjoyed when we received the email bearing the news of the discovery. I can’t imagine how we will feel when we actually have our grandfather’s and grandmother’s papers, photos, music and personal objects in our hands. ”

Cleaning the cutlery

Cleaning the cutlery

The discovery of Rabbi Samuel Gottschall’s cache has raised interest at the Jewish museum in Prague. Alex Gottshall told J-Wire: “Lianna has visited them and they have expressed interest in mounting an exhibition on the life of our father whose story as the sole survivor of his family has now been enhanced by the emergence of this cache.”

Rabbi Benjamin Gottshall meets U.S. president Lyndon B. Johnson

Rabbi Benjamin Gottshall meets U.S. president Lyndon B. Johnson

Brother and sister Alex and Eva said: “We now have a link with the past that we never had before. We now know where our grandparents lived. Their personal effects must have been hidden in a hurry and would have been hard to spot as they were covered in 72 years of dust. ”

No-one knows what was in Rabbi Samuel Gottshall’s mind when he hid what he considered to be of value and importance to his family. He and Eva lived in Presov with only one of their five children. If his thoughts entertained the possibility of his never returning and the hope that maybe one day the family heirlooms would be reunited with subsequent generations then that hope has been realised.

And for his two grandchildren, four great-grandchildren and six great-great-grandchildren, the attic in Presov has given up its 72-year-old secret and reunited them with a past which had no tangible links…until now.

 

 

 

 

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