“…until we meet again, safe and sound”

Jewish Museum Berlin

Bianka Hassel and her Liberation from the Theresienstadt Ghetto

In May 1945 the Red Army liberated the Theresienstadt ghetto situated to the north of Prague. Of the 140,000 men, women, and children interned in the ghetto, only 17,000 had survived. One of them was Bianka Hassel from Berlin.

Liberation
For fifteen months, 64-year-old Bianka Hassel had faced terrible living conditions in the Theresienstadt ghetto. It was with great relief that her two children in Berlin, Hella and Hans, learned of their mother’s survival. It seemed the worst was over now, and the two of them hoped to see their mother home again soon, “safe and sound.”
Origins
Bianka Hassel hailed from Graetz in Posen, where she was born in 1881 to Louis Streisand and his wife Clara, née Cohn. Her father had a bookbinding business. Both her parents were Jewish—“of Mosaic faith,” as was noted on Bianka’s birth certificate. She married Paul Hassel (1876–1933), a Protestant from Cologne, and bore two children, who were raised in the Christian faith. In the mid-1920s she left Paul and moved with the children to Berlin. Here, as late as 1936, she had herself christened.
Punishment order
Her Evangelical faith was, however, no protection against antisemitic persecution by the Nazi regime. Bianka Hassel too was obliged to use the mandatory name “Sara” as of January 1939. She refused, and was therefore issued with a punishment order in 1941. She had to pay a fine, and was threatened with a prison sentence should she fail to comply.
Deportation
In 1941 some 66,000 Jews were still living in Berlin. Then began the “transports east:” their deportation to concentration camps. Bianka Hassel received the dreaded notification in February 1944. She was to be taken to Theresienstadt, the “old people’s ghetto.” She had little time to pack her scant belongings. She listed her hand luggage: clothing, sewing kit, toiletries bag, and personal papers.

Theresienstadt, to the north of Prague, served as a ghetto since the end of 1941. The former fortress had massive ramparts so it could be easily sealed off and only a minimum number of SS troops was necessary to guard the prisoners.

Bianka Hassel was assigned to Badhausgasse 19 in the garrison city, to the southeast of the market, between Blocks D V and C V.

Contact with the Outside World
Postal communication between prisoners and their relatives back home was possible yet it was very strictly censored. Every card that left Theresienstadt was subject first to censorship by the Jewish “self-government” then monitored a second time by the German commandant’s office.
News from Berlin
Bianka Hassel’s daughter, Hella—who was not deported, since under Nazi racial law she was of “mixed race, first degree,” like her brother—regularly sent post to her mother. On closely written postcards she expressed her longing to see her mother: “Not a minute goes by, when I don’t think about what you may be doing and how you are keeping.” Twelve postcards have survived. They show that the daughter tried very hard to stay in touch.
Gifts of Love
Sending ghetto prisoners a package of up to 2 kg in weight was permitted. Additional food and commodities were a vital support for the prisoners, who permanently lacked the most basic necessities. Hella Hassel sent a little package to her mother as often as possible. But since she received no letters in reply, she anxiously wondered whether her post ever arrived.
Forced Labor in Theresienstadt
Persons over the age of 14 who were deemed “fit to work” had to do ten to twelve hours of forced labor every day. The “Jewish self-government” organized the work assignments, under SS command. Prisoners worked in the camp administration, kitchens, and gardens, in agriculture or war production, or took care of the young and the elderly. Some were put to work outside the camp, under the close guard of the SS. On account of her age, Bianka Hassel was assigned to domestic service, a lighter type of labor within the camp compound. She had to keep her work permit on her at all times, and show it on demand.
Repatriation
After the Liberation in early May 1945 the question arose as to whether and how prisoners could return to their home country. They came above all from central and western Europe, mostly from Czechoslovakia, Germany, Austria, and the Netherlands. The Czechoslovak Repatriation Office took up its work on 10 May—yet the task of returning people home lasted for months. Bianka Hassel received news on 18 June that her transport to Berlin was scheduled. However, the exact date of departure was still uncertain.

This certificate gave Bianka Hassel permission to travel to her home country. One whole month had gone by since the end of the war, and her children were still waiting in vain for their mother to arrive.
Not only the Czech authorities but also the French Commission, the American Joint Distribution Committee, and the Red Army helped organize displaced prisoners’ return home.

The liberated ghetto was under the command of the Red Army. In order to be able to return to Berlin, Bianka Hassel needed a pass, which was issued her by a Soviet commandant. He tersely certified that: “the citizen Gosel Bilanka [Hassel Bianka] is permitted to leave the Terezin camp with her luggage.”

Typhus Epidemic
Since the end of April 1945, thousands of starving and sick prisoners from disbanded concentration camps further east had arrived at the Theresienstadt ghetto. The catastrophic lack of hygiene fostered the rapid onset of contagious diseases and epidemic typhus was diagnosed there for the first time on 24 April. Well over 2,000 people fell sick. On 14 May the Soviets put Theresienstadt in quarantine. The Swiss newspaper Neue Zürcher Zeitung reported that an aid program was delivering food and medication, because “between 80 and 100 people are dying each day.”

Bianka Hassel too showed signs of an infectious illness, as a doctor in Theresienstadt certified. On account of the spread of epidemic typhus in the camp, he advised her to take extra care.

Shortly before the Homecoming
On 6 July 1945, shortly before the longed-for return to her children in Berlin, Bianka Hassel died in Theresienstadt. Whether she too had contracted typhus or died from complications linked with her weak heart, we will never know. The death certificate, which was issued in Theresienstadt, does not specify the cause of death.

Bianka Hassel’s luggage was sent to Berlin and arrived at the Jewish Hospital in Iranische Strasse. The Jewish Community of Berlin forwarded this information on a postcard addressed to Bianka Hassel.
Evidently, the Community had not been informed of her death and assumed that she had returned to Berlin on one of the transports.

Bianka Hassel’s very few remaining belongings, including the documents and letters from Theresienstadt, finally reached her daughter. Hella Hassel held on to these last traces of her mother then bequeathed them to the Jewish Museum Berlin shortly before her death.

Credits: Story

All documents and photographs:
Jewish Museum Berlin:
– Hassel Family Collection
– Getzel / Domke Family Collection
– Gertrud and Margarete Zuelzer Collection
– Fritz Rathenau Collection

Text and exhibit selection: Franziska Bogdanov

Editor: Henriette Kolb, Jörg Waßmer, assistance: Lisa Schank
Translation: Jill Denton
Proofreading: Julia Bosson
Photo reproduction: Jens Ziehe

We would like to express our sincere gratitude to the donors Hella Hassel (Z"L), Ingrid Beck, Max Bloch and Jan J. Rathenau.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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