A stack of letters in London and a “stolperstein,” a small, brass plate embedded in the cobblestone sidewalk on Güntzelstrasse in Berlin’s Wilmersdorf neighborhood, are all that is left of Gertrud Kirsch, a Jewish woman from Berlin who was deported and murdered by the Nazis in the Holocaust.
Even though her letters arrived, Ms. Kirsch never made it to England, where she had sent her daughter Helga ahead of her to keep her safe from the Nazis.
“If you write to Shanghai, please tell them to get in touch with me.”
That was the last sentence of the last preserved letter Gertrud Kirsch sent to Helga on October 27, 1941. Two years before, Gertrud, a 46-year-old Jewish widow, had sent her 18-year-old daughter to safety in London.
She herself was forced to remain in Berlin, denied an entry permit into Great Britain. Her mention of Shanghai sounds hopeful. Many Jews went to Shanghai at the time to flee the Nazis.
Ursula Krechel, a German writer who lives around the corner from the house on Güntzelstrasse where Gertrud Kirsch once lived, tells the stories of Jews who had fled to China in her novel “Shanghai fern von wo,” which in English means: Shanghai, Far From Everywhere.
“Hope” is a recurring theme in Ms. Krechel’s book: The hope of making it out of Germany, but also the hope of getting out of “the waiting room that was Shanghai” after the Japanese, Nazi Germany’s allies, marched into the city.
Relatives and friends of Ms. Kirsch had managed to escape or “depart.” Departed was used at the time to describe the forced emigration in letters that were routinely censored. Many of Berlin’s Jews “departed” to the United States, South America, Shanghai and to Great Britain.
“Everyone is going to London; it’s become a second Berlin,” Ms. Kirsch wrote.
But for Gertrud, the hope of escaping to China was no longer realistic. It was only after the war that her daughter was able to contact the relatives who had fled to Shanghai.
In Berlin, October 1941 marked the first three deportation trains that departed from the Grunewald train station in its city’s wooded southwest, taking more than 3,000 people to the Jewish ghetto in Lodz, Poland.
Hermann Göring, the German Reichspresident, had already ordered Reinhard Heydrich, a high-ranking Nazi official, to prepare for the “final solution of the Jewish question.”