Hebrew name: Eliezer
Yiddish name: Leiser
Alternate spelling: Leyzer
1886: The date for Leo's birth has always been given as 13 November 1883. However, the Sokal birth registry indicates 22 February 1886, so we need to accept this as the correct date, and assume that he probably changed his birth date later for some unknown reason.
|Sokal PSA AGAD
Births 1858-1905 | Deaths 1831-1905.
Lwow Wojewodztwa / Ukraine
(records in Fond 300 in AGAD Archive)
Records from: jewishgen.org
|Given Name||Year||Type||Akta||Sygnatura||Sex||Father||Father Surname||Mother||Mother Surname||Mother Town|
|Leiser||1886||B(irth)||19||1180||M||Herz Wolf||KATZ||Sara Cheine||GRUBER||Rozdzalów|
Leiser Katz birth registry: February 1886
Sokal was a small town on the river Bug, in Eastern Galicia, whose population was over 40% Jewish.
There are two versions regarding Leo's parents' occupation.
According to Toni,
"Herz Wolf had a grain business and led a comfortable life. Leo originally worked for his father, but eventually decided he wanted a different life."
Another version however, this one according to Eve Katz:
"Aron's parents ran a restaurant. Aron's father died of natural causes at a relatively early age, in his forties or fifties."
The Sokal archives in Warsaw do contain a reference to a Katz who was an inn-keeper in Sokal at that time, so it's possible that this second version is the correct one.
1911: Leo Married Frida Shulamit Tabak, from Knyaginichi (Knihynicze).
In 1914, Sokal was part of the Austro-Hungarian empire. So, like other Jews from Galicia, Leo fought in the Austrian army, on the side of Germany...
The Russian soldiers invading Galicia were feared by the civilian populations, especially by the Jews who expected the worse from the Cossacks: pogroms, rapes and murder.
While Leo was fighting in the war, Frida, a young baby of hers who wouldn't survive, and Leo's mother Sarah , fled the advancing Russian (or Ukrainian?) army and managed to escape to Czechoslovakia.
Leo had been declared "missing in action" - nobody knew where he was - the story is not clear. Frida met a man she knew - a soldier - in the train station, who told her that her husband was in the same town with his garrison. And so they were reunited briefly during the war.
Then Leo left to bury his mother.
Leo and Frida had apparently both already lost their fathers by then - it seems they both had died relatively young. The fact that Frida ran away with just her mother-in-law probably confirms that her father-in-law was not alive anymore at that time.
Frida lost her first baby around that time. Toni said that the baby had died of malnutrition - or had fallen sick - something about lack of medical care at the time and under the circumstances.
See Ansky's "The Enemy at his Pleasure" for a depiction of the terrorised, homeless refugee population, with starvation, cholera epidemics and children dying of malnutrition.
1918-1919 After the war and the Versailles Treaty, Poland became independent. Soon, despite its engagement to protect the rights of its minorities, the new nation became increasingly unwelcoming for Jews.
Then, in 1919, the Polish-Soviet war broke out, bringing more violence and destruction to Galicia's civilian population.
More and more Jews started to emigrate - to America for those who could get visas, to Palestine for those who shared the Zionist dream, and for many of the others, to neighboring Germany.
For Galician Jews, Germany represented the progress, freedom, culture, and an opportunity to build a better future for their children. Galician Jews were generally Germanophile: Austria had granted them equal rights, many of them had fought in the Austrian army during the war, and as soldiers they had learned German and absorbed part of the German culture.
Two of Leo's brothers - Aron and Mathis - had already immigrated to Gera, Germany. Mathis had been the first to go, and lived there with his wife and daughter. Aron's family had then followed, fleeing Poland in 1914.
The two brothers had a business there - "The same type of store that Jacob had later in Harlem" according to Toni - selling goods on the installment plan.
And so, in 1920 or 1921, Leo left Sokal and the misery of Galicia, and went to Gera to start a new life in the West with the help of his brothers, leaving his family behind. Frida, Toni - who was one or two when her father left, and another child, who would die of meningitis a few years later, stayed behind in Sokal. It is possible that Yitzhack was not born yet when Leo left.
In Gera, Leo first went to work with his brothers Aron and Mathis. Eventually, he started his own business, opening a store of his own.
1921: Yitzhak, Leo and Frida's youngest child was born 9 August 1921.
1922: Frida, Toni and Yitzack finally left Sokal for Gera in Germany in 1922. Toni was three and Yitzhak was one year old.
The only thing Toni remembered was that at the station in Gera, there was a man looking at the arrivals, her father. Her mother was carrying Yitzhak - he was still too young to walk. Later she was told that a woman from the Red Cross had helped them carry their luggages.
Of Poland, Toni said she remembered nothing, Yitzhak would have been too young to have any memories, and her parents had probably little nostalgia for a place from which they had fled.
Like so many other Jews, they probably felt that they had finally arrived to a safe haven, ready to build a better life for themselves and their children.
They had left behind a third sibling with meningitis, in the care of a family. They would send money every month from Germany to this family to cover his care, and would learn only later that the child had long been dead, but the family handling the child never told them and continued to take the money.
Why did they abandon the child behind? Where there laws that prevented them from bringing sick people into Germany? Did they plan to bring the child at a later date?
The earliest document is this photograph, taken in 1932, taken in the garden of one of their friends.
Yitzhak, Leo and Toni - Gera, 1932
Siegmund Spiegel recalls:
"In 1921, 1922, shortly after they arrived, at the very early stages, they lived for a very short time upstairs in a hotel, near the marketplace."
Their first apartment, where they would live until 1938, was on Margarethengasse, 6. Toni described it as a "nice, middle class, comfortable four room apartment, with kitchen, bathroom, mansardes".
The Katz house on MargaretenGasse, Gera.
According to Siegmund Spiegel, Leo and Frida's store on MargaretenGasse was in the front of the building, while they lived upstairs. They lived on MargaretenGasse until 1937 or 1938. (MargaretenGasse was situated between Roßplatz and the Mühlengasse. The street was renamed MargaretenStrasse in 1939, and was destroyed by allied bombardments in 1945. Although the street looks desolated on this photo, the area was probably rather nice as MargaretenGasse led to Roßplatz which looks on all contemporary photos like a very nice, commercial area.)
Map of Gera: Margaretengasse and Leontinenstrasse.
Leo Katz's addresses in Gera: 6 Margarentgasse, then 8 Leontinenstrasse.
It was a small store that sold linens, underwear and all sorts of goods made out of fabric. The business afforded the Katz family a comfortable existence.
(Leo and Frida) were very honorable, very decent people, who worked hard to make a living in their store.
Like most Eastern European Jews at the time, they worked at the businesses where you had the part-time payment - customers paid on the installment plan, on credit.
Frida was a very energetic lady. She was a business woman. She worked... whereas he stayed to manage the store... They had a retail business, time-payments, and she went out collecting, too.
She went to collect, not him. He was somewhat a slow-moving person, and she was a very energetic lady. She was the tough one, yeah, certainly tougher than he was He was more easygoing...
Leo and Frida worked hard to send Toni to school... She went to public schools for the first three years, but then went to MittelSchule, which cost money.
Photos from this period show Leo wearing a three-piece suit with a gold watch chain, and with a cigarette holder - the image of middle-class success.
"Leo always smoked with cigarette holder", according to S.Spiegel
(Photo courtesy of Shulik Mir)
At home, they spoke mostly German, and maybe some Yiddish. Their friends were mainly Galizianer Jews, they had very little contact with German Jews, and probably even less with non-Jewish Germans, aside from maybe interacting with neighbors. They went to the synagogue where Galician Jews went, while German Jews went to their own synagogue.
Leo and Frida kept a Jewish home: they kept kosher, observed Shabbat, fasted on Yom kippur and celebrated the holidays.
According to Siegmund Spiegel, they were probably Social-Democrats, and Zionists, "like most Galician Jews." But, according to Toni, Leo said that, to go to Israel, you "either had to be very rich and be able to lose your money, or be poor and have nothing (to lose)". He didn't see aliyah as an option for them, although Frida seemed more sympathetic to the idea.
On 30 January 1933, Hitler became the leader of Germany. After an initial boycott of Jewish stores on April 1, the Nazi regime passed a law on April 6, banning Jews from being teachers, judges or holding any government positions. A second law soon followed, barring Jews from being lawyers, doctors and notaries. That same month, German law now also restricted the number of Jewish students at German schools and universities.
In 1935, anti-semitic propaganda increased, and on September 15, the Nuremberg Laws were passed, removing Jews from German society. Jews were no longer citizens and were now deprived of basic citizen rights.
Leo, Gera, 1930's.
Frau Kraft, Gertrud Knoll, Herr Kraft, Leo Katz. Gera, 1930's.
In 1975, Gertrud Plötner (widow Knoll) send Toni this photo along with some explanations:
My husband (Rudy Knoll) took this picture. Sitting next to your father is Plumber Master Kraft (he lived Rossplatzgaesschen), then it's me (Gertrude Knoll) and next to me is Frau Kraft.
We sat together in the kitchen with a nice glass of grogg. Your father didn't drink any alcohol. Most likely, we brought up some apple juice for him from the basement. The photograph is from the '30s. We often sat together with your father.
My dear sister in law Lucie (born Knoll) also passed away. You knew her well, you used to go and visit the Knolls in Gera-Frankenthal.
This photo, and the last line ("you used to go and visit the Knolls...") suggests that there was some form of socializing with "real" Germans, although I don't know how close such bonds were. Furthermore, because Leo looks similar in the next tphotos below taken in 1936, this picture may have been taken around the same time. This would make this socializing quite surprizing considering the status of Jews in Germany by then.
In 1936, Jews were banned from all professional jobs. Between 1937 and 1938, new laws were implemented, and the segregation of Jews from the "German Aryan" population was completed. In particular, Jews were punished financially for being Jewish.
Leo, Frida, Yitzhak and Toni, Gera, October 1936.
Note the gold watch chain on Leo's vest, and Frieda's jewelry.
When the situation for Jews started to get really bad, Leo thought that maybe it would be better to go back to Poland after all, but Frida rejected the idea categorically, she would NEVER go back, she was terrified by the thought. No matter how bad things had become in Nazi Germany by then, Poland seemed to her a worse choice...
1937 - 1938
At some point, Leo and Frida couldn't keep their store anymore because of the anti-Jewish boycot and racial laws. They now conducted business from their home. They kept their merchandise in their appartment, and customers came to their house instead.
The family moved to 8, Leontinenstrasse, in a smaller, four room apartment, which also served as the warehouse for their linen and ready to wear merchandise.
"I think when they lost their business on MargaretenGasse, then they moved to Leontinenstrasse. That was already a smaller apartment, I think at that point, already, economically, things were not going too good..."
From that point on, they had to run their store from their apartment.
"You had a closet full of merchandise, and that's it! Because then most of the business was conducted, literally, going to your customers and - usually a house - and bringing stuff, peddling... It went back to peddling in a sense."
In 1937, their son Yitzhak left Germany and went to Palestine with the Youth Aliyah, apparently against his parents' wish. Some time before his departure, the family posed for a series of photos. Yitzhak would bring these pictures to Palestine, salvaging the only images of Leo and Frida.
Leo, Frida, Yitzhak and Toni. Gera, August 15, 1937.
(Photo courtesy of Shulik Mir)
Leo, Frida, Yitzhak and Toni. Gera, August 15, 1937.
Leo was apparently extremely affected by the departure of Yitzhak, and later said he would have been devastated if both kids had gone at the same time - he didn't know how he would have dealt with it. Frida seemed to deal better with it, "she was stronger". Leo however had not opposed the departure, saying that nobody knew what was going to happen, and he could tell the children not to do it.
Note that on these 1937 photos, the gold watch has disappeared from Leo's vest; gone also are the necklace and earrings present on Frieda on the photos taken in 1936.
Leo and Frida, Gera, probably 1937.
By 1937, the government set out to impoverish Jews and remove them from the German economy by requiring them to register their property.
Even before the Olympics, the Nazi government had initiated the practice of "Aryanizing" Jewish businesses, meaning the dismissal of Jewish workers and managers of a company and/or the takeover of Jewish-owned businesses by non-Jewish Germans who bought them at bargain prices fixed by government or Nazi party officials.
By January 1, 1938, German Jews were prohibited from operating businesses and trades, and from offering goods and services.
1938, October In early October, the Polish government decreed that it wouldn't accept Jews of Polish origin after October 29th.
The Nazis did not want to "inherit" the soon-to-be stateless Polish Jews living in Germany, and a day before the deadline, on October 28, 1938, they rounded up all the Polish Jews living in Germany in a single day and deported them back to Poland.
On that Friday morning, Leo and Frida were deported to Poland, together with Aron, Gusti, Saul, Mathis and Margula, sharing the fate of 17 000 Polish Jews all across Germany.
They were put on trains to Poland, and were allowed to take with them one suitcase per person and no more than 10 Marks. According to Hitler, since "Jews had come to Germany with nothing, they would leave with nothing."
While her parents were beeing rounded up for deportation, Toni was in Hascharah in the north of the Germany and, having been warned of the upcoming "Aktion", managed to escape the fate of her parents.
When she finally came back home in Gera, she found an empty house. She said the expulsion had been so fast, there was still a cake in the oven that haden't finished baking...
The entire contents of their apartment - furniture, carpets, paintings, linen, porcelain, silverware, etc. as well as the merchandise they had been storing at home - had been left behind.
Deportation to Poland
Whereas most Jews deported to Poland were incarcerated in the Zbaszyn camp after their arrival, Leo and Frida managed to go to Kraków - either immediatly, or at least very soon after their arrival. Toni said:
"Most Jews went to a camp, but they were able to go to Kraków instead, because they probably had put some money aside".
This is also confirmed by a letter sent to Aryeh Rebisch (Frida's cousin) by his sister in December 31, 1938:
Letter to Aryeh Rebisch, December 31, 1938.
"Freydl and Leyzer (Frida and Leo) have been in Krakow for two months.(*)[indecipherable name Tantse? Toni?] stayed there (DA: in Germany) because she was on Hachshara (...)"
They may have had some relatives in Kraków - H.W. Katz' mother came from that city. Also, Max Frankel describes in his memoir how his family went to Kraków after their deportation from Germany, because his father had transferred some money there. Did the Katz brothers decide to stay togeter and help each other? Or was this their most logical destination?
While Mary and Max would eventually manage to go back to Germany, then obtain exit visas for the USA, the rest of the family was now trapped in Poland, and would never be able to escape.
At first, Leo and Frida survived in Kraków with money their daughter Toni managed to send them from Gera - money they had left with friends, "une cassette" (a lock box?). Toni also sent them some of their furniture and belongings - although only part of the what she sent ever arrived.
Later Frida made "corsets, gloves, etc... That's how they survived... It was harder for men to adjust..."
While Max and Mary Frankel were in Kraków, Frida would sometime take care of him. According to Mary Frankel, one day they couldn't find Max and started to worry, until Frida came and said she had just taken Max to the movies because "it wasn't good for a kid to be around grown-ups who worried all the time..."
On September 1, 1939, Germany invaded Poland, and on September 6, German forces occupied Kraków. Persecution of the Jewish population began soon after the German troops entered the city. In November 1939, all Jews 12 years or older were required to wear identifying armbands. In December the Germans carried out an extensive terror campaign in the Jewish neighborhoods of Kraków, aimed primarily at confiscating vast amounts of Jewish property.
In May 1940, the Nazi occupation authority announced that Kraków should become the "cleanest" city in the General Government, and the Germans began expelling the Jews of Kraków to nearby towns. Of the more than 68,000 Jews in Kraków when the Germans invaded, only 15,000 workers and their families were permitted to remain, with all other Jews ordered out of the city, to be resettled into surrounding rural areas.
March 1941: Krakow Ghetto
In early March 1941, the Germans ordered the establishment of a ghetto, to be situated in Podgorze, located in the south of Krakow, rather than in Kazimierz, the traditional Jewish quarter of the city. This required that the non-Jewish population move out before the Jewish population could be forced in.
Although Leo and Frida's names don't appear on the Krakow Ghetto's registry, their names appear on the Police Registration list of the Jews who were forced to move into the ghetto . Their address is listed as Zgody Platz 4/4 - the main square of the ghetto.
Police Registration list - Change of address, March 1941.
Last message, May 1942
In early November 1941, their daughter Toni sent them a message from Tel-Aviv through the Red Cross.
The letter was sent to their address in Kraków - Zgody Platz 4/4. However by the time the card arrived on November 25, 1941, Leo and Frida were not in the Kraków anymore, and the card was forwarded to Tuchow, a small Polish town in Tarnow county, 55 miles (85 km) from Kraków.
The fact that the postcard was successfully forwarded to their new location indicates that someone in Kraków - either the German authorities, or the Judenrat - knew about their whereabouts, meaning that Leo and Frida were not hiding, but had been relocated (deported) there.
There is no exact date when they were deported to Tuchow, but it can be estimated having taken place sometime between April and November 1941, as they are not on the list of transports from Krakow for the period between 29 Nov 1940 and 2 Apr 1941, and Toni's card was rerouted on November 25, 1941.
It took more than six months for this card to finally reach its destination. However, the date of the reply (May 1942) is also surprising. The ghetto in Tuchow was established in June 1942, yet Leo and Frida were already in Tuchow in May of that year, if not earlier. Would the Germans have transferred Jews to another town without imprisoning them?
This would be the last message Toni would receive from her parents, six simple words:
May 11, 1942: "We are well (in good health), and so is aunt Margula".
The message was sent using a special International Red Cross form used to communicate between German-occupied territories and countries at war with Nazi Germany, such as Great Britain and its mandatory territory Eretz Israel. These letters only allowed for few words, and mostly one form of wording: "We are well," details of names, "We hope you are also okay," and suchlike.
This was the last Toni ever heard from her parents. Four months later, the Jews from Tuchow were deported to the Belzec death camp.
Red Cross Card, message from Toni, 6 November 1941
Red Cross Card, Leo's reply and last message, 11 May 1942
From: Toni Liebergot
Ben Yehuda Str 61
To: Leo Katz
Platz Zgody 4/IV
"My husband and I are in good health and doing well. So is Ischok (Yitzhak). I see him every week
Toni and David
"We are in good health, and so is Aunt Margule"
The boundaries of the Tuchow ghetto encompassed 17 buildings in the southern section of the town. At the time of its establishment, additional deportees from the region were brought in, and the Jewish population reached 3,000.
At the end of the summer of 1942, the Germans ordered the Judenrat to conduct an exact census of all the residents of the ghetto. An "Aktion" took place in September 1942. The exact time of the "Aktion" is not known, but it was apparently prior to Rosh Hashanah of 5703. The ghetto was surrounded by the German and Polish police, and all of its residents were ordered to gather in the town square, where a selection took place.
Most Jews from Tuchow were deported to the Belzec death camp a few months later in September 1942.
Unlike concentration camps like Auschwitz were Jews fit to work were spared to be used as slaves for a few months until they collapsed, Belzec was a "death factory". Its only function was to kill the daily human cargo brought in by train from the surrounding ghettos - several thousand Jews a day, every day. Victims arrived in the morning and were exterminated before the day was over, their bodies dumped into collective pits.
Only one (some say two) person is know to have successfully escaped from Belzec and survived the war. Between 500 000 and 600 000 Jews were killed during the 10 months Belzec operated. The camp was dismantled after less than a year of operation, its goal - the extermination of all the Jews from the region - accomplished. Trees were planted to hide the nature of the camp. After the camp was closed, Polish peasants from the area dug up the remains looking for "Jewish gold."
A monument was finally erected on the site in 2004.
Since many Jews from Kraków, and Jews from Sokal were also deported to Belzec (September 17 and October 28 1942), it is likely that most, if not all of the Katzes - those who still lived in Sokal, those who had stayed in Kraków, and those who went to Tuchow, all shared the same final destination.
1945/1946 After the war, Yitzhak would search for any trace of Leo and Frida, looking in lists of survivors and in Deplaced People camps, in vain.
- Special Thanks:
- Shulik Mir, for sharing family photos
- Siegmund Spiegel, for sharing his memories on Leo and Frida Katz.
- Ruthy Erez, for sharing correspondence to Aryeh Rebisch mentioning Leo's family.
- USHMM for providing a copy of the 1941 Krakow Police Registration file.
- Bernd Philipsen, for helping me recover the original copy of the Red Cross card from the Lower Saxony State Archives in Hannover (Niedersächsisches Landesarchiv Hannover).
- Sources and References
- Juden in Gera vol I, vol II Publisher: Hartung-Gorre Verlag Konstanz
- Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka. Indiana University Press, 1999
1920 Diary Isaac Babel.
Description of Sokal during the Polish-Russian war.
The Enemy at this pleasure S. Ansky.
Description of Sokal during WW1 war.