More Names to Remember and Never Forget

As I move towards closure on my Schoenthal family history, this post has been the hardest one to write.  It is a tragic chapter in that history.

As I’ve already written, four of the six children of my great-great-aunt Rosalie Schoenthal and her husband Willy Heymann left Germany before they could be killed by the Nazis. The three sons went to Chicago, and the oldest daughter Johanna went to Sao Paulo. They all survived.  The other two daughters were not so lucky.

The second oldest daughter, Helene, was born in Geldern in November 9, 1890, a year after Johanna.  She married Julius Mosbach, who was the younger brother of Johanna’s first husband, Hermann Mosbach.  After marrying, Julius and Helene were living in Iserlohn, a town about 80 miles east of Geldern.  According to an article written in 2000 by the archivist of Iserlohn, Gotz Bettge, Julius and Helene Mosbach owned a fruit and vegetable business in the town square in Iserlohn.  They had two daughters: Liesel, who was born March 8, 1921, and Gretel, born October 26, 1926.


Iserlohn By No machine-readable author provided. Asio otus assumed (based on copyright claims). [GFDL (, CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( or CC BY-SA 2.5-2.0-1.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

By No machine-readable author provided. Asio otus assumed (based on copyright claims). [GFDL (, CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( or CC BY-SA 2.5-2.0-1.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons

On December 18, 1939, Liesel married Ernst Georg Lion. From the incredibly moving autobiography written by Ernst Lion entitled The Fountain at the Crossroads and available online here, I was able to learn a great deal about his life and also about the lives of Julius, Helene, and their daughters.  All the information and quotes below are from his book unless otherwise indicated.  (Special thanks to Dorothee Lottmann-Kaeseler for sending me some of the additional links and information.)

Ernst was born December 15, 1915, in Brambauer, the son of Leo Lion and Bertha Weinberg Lion.  When Ernst was a very young child, his father Leo was badly injured while serving in the German army during World War I.   Leo Lion considered himself a German patriot.

Ernst grew up as the only Jewish child in Brambauer during the hard years of the Weimar Republic, but his childhood was overall quite happy. Then Hitler came to power, and his life was forever changed.  The Nazis tried to impose a boycott on his father’s business by having a Gestapo member stand in the doorway and take photographs of those who patronized his store.  Ernst’s father insisted that the man leave, even threatening to beat him up.  He did not think the Nazis would be in power for very long.  But then when the Nuremberg laws were enacted in 1935, the family had to sell their home and their store for less than their value and move to Dortmund.

Many members of the extended Lion/Weinberg family left Germany around that time, but Ernst had difficulty getting the necessary visas and permits to go elsewhere even though he had an affidavit of support from a cousin in New York.  Then on November 9, 1938, Ernst was one of thousands of German Jews who were arrested and sent to Buchenwald in the aftermath of Kristallnacht.  In his autobiography he described in graphic detail his experiences there.  It’s horrifying.

Ernst was released a few weeks later and told to leave the country within three weeks.  All the Jewish businesses were now closed, and he was forced to work on street repairs while waiting to emigrate.


Buchenwald Watch Tower undesarchiv, Bild 183-1983-0825-303 / CC-BY-SA 3.0 [CC BY-SA 3.0 de (], via Wikimedia Commons

Buchenwald Watch Tower
undesarchiv, Bild 183-1983-0825-303 / CC-BY-SA 3.0 [CC BY-SA 3.0 de (, via Wikimedia Commons

But then he met Liesel Mosbach in Iserlohn.  He was introduced by his Aunt Selma who lived there, and they immediately took a liking for each other.  At that time Liesel’s family was living in the apartment above their former business, which had been confiscated by the Nazis.  Julius Mosbach had suffered a nervous breakdown as a result of the harassment by the Nazis and the loss of his business, and he was doing very poorly.

Ernst moved to Iserlohn in 1939, where his aunt was able to help him get a job at a metal working company owned by a family that was unsympathetic to the Nazi government and its policies; the owners even provided Ernst with extra food to supplement the very restrictive allotments allowed to the Jews by the Nazis.

When the Nazis then imposed travel restrictions and required Jews to wear the yellow Star of David, Ernst was no longer able to get to Dortmund to visit his parents.  His mother died shortly thereafter, having given up on life, according to his father; Ernst was not even allowed to go to her funeral.

Yellow badge Star of David called "Judens...

Yellow badge Star of David called “Judenstern”. Part of the exhibition in the Jewish Museum Westphalia, Dorsten, Germany. The wording is the German word for Jew (Jude), written in mock-Hebrew script. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


On December 18, 1939, Ernst and Liesel were married.  As Ernst wrote, although they had no idea what the future would bring, “The secret of maintaining one’s sanity under those conditions is to live as normal a life as one can.” (p. 18)   Unfortunately, that became more and more difficult to do.  Conditions for the Jews continued to worsen, and there was less food available.  People were beginning to hear about Jews being arrested and sent away.

In January, 1941, Julius Masbach was admitted to a mental hospital and died shortly thereafter.  Ernst wrote (p.15):

We soon discovered that we should have opposed the doctor’s decision [to hospitalize Julius], for the Nazis had decided that all institutionalized, so-called “insane” persons no longer had the right to live and had become a burden to society.  They were led into sheds equipped with gasoline engines, which were installed in reverse fashion: the exhaust escaped to the inside of the building.  After they were asphyxiated, the bodies were burned and the ashes delivered to the surviving families.  No one realized that this activity was the rehearsal for later mass destruction of humans.

On April 28, 1942, Helene Heymann Mosbach, my grandmother’s first cousin, and her daughter Gretel, just sixteen years old, were arrested and sent to Zamosc, near Lublin, Poland.  They were never heard from again.  Ernst’s father Leo Lion was also arrested around this time, and Ernst never heard from him again either.

To add to this heartbreaking account, Helene’s sister Hilda, the youngest of the six children of Rosalie Schoenthal and Willy Heymann, was also killed by the Nazis.  Although she is not mentioned in Ernst Lion’s autobiography or on the website memorializing the Mosbach family, according to Yad Vashem, Hilda also had been living in Iserlohn before being sent Zamosc where her sister Helene and niece Gretel had been deported.   I assume that Hilda had moved to Iserlohn to live with her sister Helene after both her mother Rosalie (1937) and her father Willy (1939) had died.

I had not heard of Zamosc before, and my friend Dorothee Lottmann-Kaeseler sent me this link that reveals the absolutely horrifying story of this place.  There are no records of what happened specifically to Helene, Gretel, and Hilda, but it is possible that they were killed in Zamosc itself or deported to the death camp at Majdanek or Belzec or Sobibor, where they were killed.


Crematoria at Majdanek death camp near Lublin, Poland Deutsche Fotothek‎ [CC BY-SA 3.0 de (], via Wikimedia Commons

Crematoria at Majdanek death camp near Lublin, Poland
Deutsche Fotothek‎ [CC BY-SA 3.0 de (, via Wikimedia Commons

On February 26, 1943, Ernst and Liesel received orders to report to a school in Dortmund with just one suitcase each.  There were about a thousand people at the school that night, and everyone was forced to sleep on the floor. Ernst wrote, “They took our wedding bands and watches, telling us that we would not need them where we were going.” (p. 19)

The next morning they were put on a freight train (pp.19-20):

I found myself inside such a freight car among a hundred men, women and children.  The doors were locked; there were no windows to look through.  This precaution would keep us from recognizing our route or destination.  A few buckets for relief, no food or water.  This should be a short ride, I mused.

… Liesel was shoved on this train with me.  At least we were together.  Just twenty-three, she was a thin, wiry lady, strong and energetic.  Her dark eyes expressed the will to endure.  I was twenty-four.  Where was our future?

Although they were told they were being taken to a safe place for resettlement, Ernst was skeptical, as he had good reason to be.  They were being taken to Auschwitz-Birkenau.  When they arrived, they were told to leave their suitcases on the train; then they stepped onto the platform surrounded by SS guards and prisoners in striped uniforms who were helping with the unloading.

Then the men and women were separated.

Ernst wrote, “All the women were led away.  My wife looked at me for one last time before she disappeared.  It was dark now, and I saw her walk away like a shadow.”

He never saw her again.  Liesel Mosbach Lion, my father’s second cousin, was murdered at Auschwitz.


English: Aushwitz I crematoria memorial

English: Aushwitz I crematoria memorial (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


I consider the entire family to be victims of the Holocaust: Rosalie, Willy, Helene, Julius, Liesel, Gretel, and Hilda as well as Leo and Bertha Lion.


Stolperstein for Julius Mosbach and family


Ernst Lion, however, survived.  The story of how he survived is remarkable.  It’s a tale of incredible courage, strength, persistence, and luck. It’s also a horrifying, nightmarish account of how cruel human beings can be to one another.  You should all read it.  I cannot do it justice in a blog post.  You must read it.  Again, you can find it here.  Please read it.

I am so grateful that Ernst, Liesel’s husband, survived and recorded his story and their story for us all to read.  We must never forget.




I have really been struggling to figure out how to write about our second day in Poland, which started with a trip to the ghetto established by the Nazis in Podgorze, across the river from Krakow, and ended with a trip to Auschwitz.  We had an incredible guide, Tomasz Cebulski from Polin Travel.  He is a scholar in the field of the history of Polish Jewry and the Holocaust as well as an articulate, thoughtful, and sensitive person, and he wanted us to understand on a deeper level the methodology used by the Nazis during the Holocaust.  Without Tomasz and his way of preparing us for Auschwitz, I do not think we would have fully appreciated the horror of what we were seeing.

The ghetto in Podgorze.  The empty chairs evoke the chairs that were left behind by those who had been sitting while awaiting the transports that took them to the camps

The ghetto in Podgorze. The empty chairs evoke the chairs that were left behind by those who had been sitting while awaiting the transports that took them to the camps

Having said that, there is just no way that I can do the same for anyone reading this post.  Most of us have seen photographs; we’ve seen movies and read books about Auschwitz. Many of us have been to Yad Vashem and/or the Holocaust Museum in Washington. We think we understand what happened there.  But we don’t.  Even being there, I still don’t.  The more you learn about it, the less you understand.

What we learned from Tomasz was how ingenious the Nazis were in using psychology and technology and the instinct for greed to enlist not only Germans but citizens of other countries including France, Austria, Hungary, and Poland into their program for annihilating the Jewish population of the world.  And Jews weren’t helpless sheep being led to the slaughter; they also were the victims of the Nazi propaganda machine and its use of psychology to create the impression that somehow all would be fine in the end.   Corporations like IBM and many others saw the opportunities for making fortunes in developing the technology and equipment needed to facilitate the operation of the Nazi death machine.  Jews were also used as slave labor in the companies of many industrialists; Oskar Schindler was the exception, doing something to protect these people who were being forced to work in his factory across the river from Krakow and close to the concentration camp at Plaszow, which we also visited.


Ghetto Wall in Podgorze, built to look like headstones to demoralize the Jewish residents

Ghetto Wall in Podgorze, built to look like headstones to demoralize the Jewish residents

And the world sat back and let it happen, pretending that things could not be that bad, that focusing on the war effort itself was sufficient, and that there really could not be such things as death camps.  That a place like Auschwitz could not exist.  Are we any better today? Just as the Jews could not believe that they would be slaughtered like animals but that things would be okay in the end, so do we all.  We delude ourselves over and over again into believing that we can’t do anything to stop genocide, just as the world did during World War II.  We bend to the profit motive, and we buy into propaganda.  We forget, and we move on.

But Auschwitz is still there.  Although the other death camps were destroyed by the Nazis when they realized that they were losing the war (see Note below), Auschwitz survived more or less intact.  The Nazis did bomb the gas chambers and the crematoria, but there was enough evidence left to show the world what happened there.  And the fact that the Nazis made one serious error—placing the gas chambers and crematoria adjacent to barracks for concentration camp prisoners who could witness how they were being used—also ensured that history would not allow the Nazis to cover up their satanic ways completely.

Auschwitz memorial

Auschwitz is still there.  You can stand on the watchtower, and you can see the foundations of hundreds of barracks almost as far as the eye can see.  You can see the crematoria, the remains of the gas chambers, the barracks, the train tracks.  You can see the confiscated property of the people who were killed there—glasses, suitcases, clothing, ritual objects. Their hair and their prosthetic devices.  The glass case exhibiting baby clothes made me weep.  The clothes of children younger than my grandsons—evidence of the complete evil of these animals who watched babies get carried to their deaths with their mothers.  More than anything else, that devastated me.

How do you walk away from this and still have faith in humanity?  How can you have hope that good and beauty and love will prevail when there is so much capacity for evil? How can you ever trust anyone to be compassionate, fair, understanding?

You just have to.  Because it is just too painful to think that people can be so evil.  Because in fact most of us are good and loving and compassionate and fair.  Because we have no choice but to see the beauty and the love and the hope or we would all just give up and fall into the darkness.  We have to walk away, and we have to get up the next day and embrace life.  Otherwise, the Nazis and all the other evildoers in the world defeat us.  Yes, we need to stand up to evil.  Yes, we cannot close our eyes and hide.  But we also have to go on seeing the good in each other and loving each other as best we can.



Important Note: Although the other death camps were substantially destroyed by the Nazis to hide their genocidal activities, there is a movement to preserve the limited remains of the Belzec death camp in eastern Poland.  You can read about that project here.  It’s in German, but you can use Google Translate to read it in English.  There is some urgency as the property is to be sold at a public auction on June 22.  Please help preserve this place as another reminder us of our potential for evil and our need to fight against it.

UPDATE:  Due to public pressure, the auction has been cancelled, and the money already collected will be used for preservation.  The organization is no longer collecting donations.