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A Family Tree Shredded

Written and produced by Michael Smith and Lisa Malin Petersen
jeremy_von_halle.jpgJeremy von Halle, grandson of Hamburg native Gerd von Halle, has hundreds of old documents that were left to him by his grandfather. He keeps them in tact and uses them to track his family history.

Pre-World War II documents are scattered across a round, light brown kitchen table. Clear, rectangular storage boxes filled with birth certificates, letters and pictures lay on top of each other as Jeremy von Halle, a 25-year old Chicago native, thumbs through photos of his family in Germany, the Netherlands and Switzerland in the early half of the 20th century.

Each picture tells a different story, recalls a different memory. But together, they tell one horrific story — one of the evils of the Holocaust and how it affected Jeremy’s family.

Eleven million people died in the Holocaust, including six million Jews. Oscar von Halle and Hans Jürgen von Halle, Jeremy’s great-grandfather and great-uncle, were two of those six million. But someone close to Jeremy also survived.

Jeremy learned of the horrors of the Holocaust and what he and his family experienced through his grandfather, Gerd.

Nearly 70 years after the end of World War II, the number of Holocaust survivors is rapidly dwindling, making it especially important to remember these stories so future generations never forget what happened.

Gerd von Halle was born in 1922 in Eppendorf, a district in Hamburg, Germany. He lived with his parents, Oscar and Henriette, and his older brother, Hans Jürgen. Growing up in Hamburg, Gerd lived a pleasant youth, with many benefits, including spending a year at a Swiss boarding school. But his happy upbringing came to an abrupt halt in 1933.

Gerd von Halle bundled up on his way to school as a young boy.
Gerd von Halle grew up in Husumer Straße 10 in Hamburg, Eppendorf.

That is the year Adolf Hitler became chancellor of Germany, and he von Halle family moved to the Netherlands and settled in its capital city of Amsterdam, where life became increasingly difficult for Jews in the now Nazi-controlled nation. Gerd was 11 years old and it was the first time the von Halle family had lived outside Germany. A part of their family identity was gone.

Before moving to Amsterdam, the von Halle family had been in Germany for almost 300 years. Abraham von Halle, the first person with that surname, lived in Altona, a heavily Jewish part of Hamburg. That was in the late 1600s, according to a family history Jeremy von Halle uncovered while at Duke University. Abraham was one of the richest men in Altona. He was also an important political figure and even bought property to establish a synagogue in Altona, before his death in 1736.

Throughout the next 200 years the von Halle family remained in Germany. They were German. They were also Jewish. That made what happened with the rise of the Nazi party even more of a tragedy for this family. They were loyal German citizens, but their country betrayed them with hatred, with discrimination, and with murder.

Gerd was one year younger than his brother, Hans Jürgen, whom he considered his hero. The two spent a lot of time together, especially when they were younger, playing their favorite game of baseball.

On June 11, 1941, two Gestapo officers took the two brothers in for questioning. After they were transported to a Gestapo headquarters, the Nazis lined up hundreds of boys and asked if any of them had any contagious diseases. Jeremy recalls that Hans Jürgen, always the caretaker of his younger brother, whispered in his grandfather’s ear, encouraging him to say he had tuberculosis.

That whisper saved Gerd’s life.

Weeks later, after receiving a doctor’s note from a physician who was a von Halle family friend, the Gestapo released Gerd back to his parents in Amsterdam. The rest of the boys taken by the Gestapo, including Gerd’s brother, were sent to the Mauthausen concentration camp in Nazi-controlled Austria. Gerd never saw his older brother again.

Over the next several months, Hans Jürgen sent his family letters to update them on his condition. Through those letters he attempted to send secret signals to his family. For example, he wrote “give my best to Uncle Paul.” Paul was not his uncle. He was a family acquaintance that Hans Jürgen thought could pull some strings to help him escape.

The family relayed Hans Jürgen messages, writing back that Uncle Paul sent his warmest regards. But there was no escape. Only months after he was taken, in September 1941, he died. The official cause of death, according to camp officials, was pneumonia, but that remains controversial. But to this day Jeremy does not believe this.

Less than a year later, tragedy struck the von Halle family again.

In late 1942 the Gestapo broke into the von Halle family’s home in Amsterdam and took Gerd’s father, Oscar. As Gerd and his mother were hiding they could hear Oscar speaking with the Gestapo officers, but his words apparently had no effect. The Gestapo walked out of the house with Oscar, who was eventually transported to Auschwitz. He died there on January 31, 1944.

A father and son had died, but one brother had survived.

The horrors experienced by the von Halle have stayed with Jeremy to this day. To learn more about his family background in Germany, he has traveled to Germany and is in the process of applying for German citizenship. As part of German reparation, Holocaust survivors and their descendants are entitled to a German passport.

Even though the von Halle family had always been Jewish, their religious identity of Gerd and his parents before the war was more cultural than religious.

“My grandfather was not very religious growing up,” Jeremy says. “It wasn’t until after the Holocaust that he started going to synagogue.”

Gerd came to the United States after the war ended in 1945. He settled first in New York, then after a short time, moved to New Jersey, where he spent more than 60 years.

Jeremy knows Gerd’s story — but it wasn’t always easy to encourage Gerd to speak about his early life in Europe.

“My grandfather didn’t start speaking about [the Holocaust] until the 1980s,” Jeremy says. “It was a big deal for my grandfather. I think he kind of wanted to let me know.”

Jeremy says Gerd wanted his grandson to know about what happened because as a second-generation von Halle in America, it is important for a younger generation to recollect and to gain strength from those recollections.

“I never saw my grandfather get emotional when talking about [his experience]” Jeremy says.

After marrying, Gerd and his wife had two sons — Robert, who is Jeremy’s father, and Peter. Robert von Halle settled in Chicago after attending business school at Northwestern University.

“My dad would consider his childhood raised in more of a German household than a Jewish household,” Jeremy says.

The family’s German identity was not erased, even after what had happened in what once was their nation. Jeremy says his father grew up in a strict, very regimented household, which he attributed to Gerd’s very disciplined German background.

Gerd never spoke about what he went through for nearly 40 years, until his grandson was born. As Jeremy recalls in his college thesis:

“My grandfather, using the imagery of a tree, explained that Hitler nearly sheared off all the branches of the von Halle tree. After World War II, my grandfather was the last remaining male von Halle of the family.”

Some information was used from Jeremy von Halle’s 2011 thesis at Duke University. Loss, Perserverance, and Triumph: The Story of Gerd and the von Halle Family Continue with the next story →
Posted on June 02, 2014