It All Began With a Picture

In 2006, a German man named Rudiger Pohlmann traveled to Berlin. He came across a leaflet from the second world war with information about a "training" camp close to Berlin, where young Jewish men and women were trained for work in agriculture prior to emigrating to Israel: the "Hachshara".

לגרסת הבלוג בעברית: הכל החל בתמונה

Full chronological list: a story of a family

In 2008, a known Swiss author named Urs Faes finished writing a book about his family. His mother had an affair with a Jewish man during the second world war. After the affair was over, she married Urs father – but it remained unclear if Urs father was indeed that man. It appears that Urs preferred that his father would have been that Jew.

In 2009 I first visited Hamburg, where my family lived. My grandmother emigrated to Israel before the war, but the family that had remained in Hamburg was entirely wiped out by the Nazis. I went to the place where my family had lived before being banished to the camps.

I was surprised to see "Stumble Stones" (Stolpersteine) in front of the house, with the names of my family members who had lived in the building and died in the Holocaust. These stones exist throughout Europe. I traveled back to Israel, continued my job in the high-tech industry, drank beer and proceeded to read up on a lot of history.

Rudiger Pohlmann decided to investigate the origins of a photograph he encountered in the leaflet he found in Berlin. In the photograph, a young Jewish man and woman are striking a pose for the photographer. Rudiger investigated further and found out that the photograph was later used for a postcard. The young man in the photograph was named Rolf, and was a training guide at the camp who decided to remain working at the camp instead of emigrating to Israel, in order to further train young men and women who themselves wanted to emigrate. When finally Rolf and ten other guides were left at the training camp, they were required to renovate the building and were then sent to concentration camps by the Nazis. A deal's a deal.

Urs Faes publication house was in charge of his book's cover, and decided to select a black and white photo of a young man and woman. A really nice photo. The book, by the way, sold a respectably large amount of copies and was considered a literary success.

Rudiger Pohlmann encountered a book recommendation in a German publication in 2009, and saw a small photo of the book's cover. He ran to the bookstore and checked the actual cover of the book – it was the same photograph he had encountered years prior and had investigated the origin of. He sent Urs Faes a letter with information regarding the identity of the young man in the photo.


roly and (unknown yet) at the hachshara camp

© Herbert Sonnenfeld

Urs did more research and decided to write a book about the young man, Rolf, and the young woman in the photo. The connection between Rolf, nothing more than a photographic wrapper to Urs book about his own family, is entirely incidental, but still manages to seem like the long arm of fate.

He traveled to Yad Vashem in Jerusalem and found the address belonging to Rolf's sister, Maggie. He called – no answer. He then decided to travel back to Switzerland with the understanding that this was where the story had ended.

Yad Vashem, however, didn't give up. They contacted Magen David Adom (Israeli emergency medical services) and retrieved the information that this Maggie – my aunt – had passed away a month beforehand. They received the contact information for another family member, Gali, who told Yad Vashem that her cousin – me – was currently living in Hamburg.

In Summer 2012 I decided to move to Hamburg. Three months after the move, as I was walking down the street with my dog, I got a phone call from a Swiss author named Urs Faes.

Today, January 26th, a day before the international Holocaust memorial day, we met the three of us – Urs Faes, Rudiger Pohlman and myself, three people whose lives that have touched that of the other, and we completed each other's pieces of the puzzle.

Meeting Urs Faes and seeing the first photos:

Before the meeting, I did not know the story. I did not know what he would tell me, maybe he was a hero, a partisan, was perhaps a criminal, a fraud. In the end, it was the most important story of those dark periods – a love story.

I'm mostly quite shocked how a single, beautiful photograph had incidentally connected the lives of otherwise unconnected people, and that Rolf's story was part of their lives without them even being familiar with my family. In the end, that connected them to the family story, and me to them.

Meeting Urs Faes and hearing about the letters:


Thanks for helping with the research

Urs Faes, Dr. Christiane Pritzlaff, Ruediger Pohlmann, Erika Hirsch, Arnold Bischinger, Mimi Swalski, Corinna Stietenroth, Miko Harunian

Read next: a story of a family