Gertrud Kirsch, 1895-1942

Reliving the Holocaust, Stone by Stone

gertrud kirsch stolperstein
A brass "stolperstein'' or memorial stone is one of 5,000 in Berlin and 38,000 across Europe laid by Gunter Demnig, who began laying the stones in front of the residences of Holocaust victims in 1992.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    The story of Gertrud Kirsch, a Jewish woman from Berlin who ran a boarding house, is the story of millions of Jews killed by the Nazis during World War II.

  • Facts

    Facts

    • Gertrud Kirsch sent her daughter Helga to safety in Britain in 1941, but could not obtain a permit to emigrate herself.
    • Ms. Kirsch tried to obtain passage to Shanghai, Switzerland and the United States, but was deported to Riga, Latvia in 1942.
    • Her daughter, Helga, gave copies of her mother’s last letters to Markus Hesselmann, the editor in chief of Tagesspiegel.de.
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  • Audio

    Audio

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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.

 

gertrud kirsch and her daughter helga in the 30s privat
Gertrud Kirsch and her daughter Helga in the 1930s. Source: private

 

“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.”

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