Weston Selectman David Muller never knew much about his great-uncle Leopold — his grandfather’s brother. Leopold seemed to vanish without a trace in 1942 during the Holocaust in World War II. That was the last time Mr. Muller’s grandfather Felix and great-aunt Regina heard from him.
Who Uncle Leopold was and the circumstances surrounding his death remained a family mystery for years — until recently.
Thanks to some sleuthing, including a visit to Germany by Mr. Muller’s brother Eric in 2007, Mr. Muller learned that Leopold, born in 1889, was a Jewish businessman who owned a clothing store with his wife, Irene, in Bad Kissingen, Germany. He served his homeland proudly and lost the use of an arm on a battlefield in World War I.
For his efforts, Leopold was awarded two King Ludwig crosses — bronze medals instituted in 1916 by King Ludwig III of Germany.
Leopold’s last known place of residence was Izbica, a Jewish ghetto and concentration camp in occupied Poland. It was created by the Nazis in 1941 and overseen by Commandant Kurt Engels, who was known for his exceptional cruelty.
Of the approximately 15,000 Jews who were transported to Izbica, the average stay (life expectancy) was usually no more than four days. Prisoners were either packed liked sardines into barracks or forced to live outdoors with very little to eat. Many succumbed to typhus from unsanitary conditions. Izbica was a transit camp for Jews on their way to the death camps of Belzec, Sobibor and Treblinka.
A few months ago, Mr. Muller got a phone call at home in Weston from a representative of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., asking to borrow Leopold Muller’s King Ludwig medals for an upcoming exhibit titled Some Were Neighbors: Collaboration and Complicity in the Holocaust, which is scheduled to open in April 2013, in honor of the museum’s 20th anniversary.
Mr. Muller had one of Leopold’s medals, while his brother Eric had the other, and both have lent them to the exhibit. “I’ve visited the Holocaust Museum before and I’m very much looking forward to this exhibit,” Mr. Muller said.
Information comes to light
Because Mr. Muller’s grandfather did not discuss Leopold or the war very much, the family did not know what happened to Leopold until new information came to light in 2000. Regina’s son Robert forwarded to Dave and Eric Muller a copy of a 1974 court case that sought restitution and reparation on Leopold’s behalf.
The case involved the forced sale of Leopold’s clothing store business and property. In 1938, it became illegal for German Jews to own businesses and many were forced to sell to non-Jews on the cheap. After the war, some Jewish families tried to reclaim their businesses, and various lawsuits and class action suits were filed.
The case piqued the interest of Mr. Muller and his brother Eric, a scholar and author of the book American Inquisition about the internment of Japanese Americans in World War II. Eric was named after Leopold and given the middle name “Leigh,” in the Jewish tradition of using the first letter of a dead relative’s name but not the same name.
While conducting research on Leopold at the Holocaust Museum, Eric came across a book from a secret Gestapo file with a picture of Leopold in it. “Until then, none of us knew that book existed,” Mr. Muller said.
When Eric traveled to Germany in 2007, he was allowed to look at a file the Gestapo had on Leopold. The Germans kept meticulous and detailed records. Taped inauspiciously to the file’s inside cover was an envelope containing Leopold’s two King Ludwig medals.
There were also documents that gave a better understanding of what likely happened to Leopold and a timeline of his fate, preserved in these previously secret files for more than 60 years.
Leopold’s name appeared on a 1937 list of Jews from Bad Kissingen. In 1939, he was listed on a German minority census. On March 29, 1942, his name appeared on a list of those “to be evacuated” from Bad Kissingen. On April 3, 1942, his name was on a list of those “to be evacuated” from the Mainfranken region.
There is one final entry — Leopold’s name was on a list dated around April 25, 1942, saying he was to be deported to Izbica via the German town of Wurzburg.
The lists clarified Leopold’s final whereabouts, and because there are no other entries — and because of the reputation of the Izbica camp — the family believes Leopold died there.
Mr. Muller’s grandfather, Felix, was more fortunate than Leopold. He was arrested on Kristallnacht (Night of Broken Glass) in 1938 and sent to a concentration camp at Buchenwald. But he was released and allowed to emigrate to Switzerland with his family.
After a year, they moved to Geneva and found refuge with Alice Paul, the famous Ridgefield suffragette, who was working with the World’s Woman’s Party at the time. The family then emigrated to the United States in 1941.
Leopold’s sister Regina sent her son Robert to school in England and moved there herself at the beginning of the war. She moved back to Germany afterwards and remained there until she died.
Mr. Muller’s father, James, a lawyer in New Jersey, gives occasional talks about the Holocaust, and includes a story about how he was almost hung from a tree by Nazi Youth boys in Frankfurt shortly before the family emigrated to Switzerland.
The last tangible evidence of Leopold’s life are his two King Ludwig medals. Mr. Muller believes they were in the Gestapo’s file because when Leopold was arrested, he likely offered them to show that he had served his country proudly and honorably in World War I, and had even sacrificed his arm.
“Learning this about my great-uncle was very important to me, and it put a human face on a Holocaust victim. This is proof that Leopold lived and that he thought he was being a good German. But to the Nazis, it didn’t matter who you were, it just mattered what you were,” Mr. Muller said.