There’s an extraordinary exhibit on the fourth floor of the German American Heritage Center & Museum in Davenport that will be on view for less than two more weeks.
“Witness to the Holocaust: The Mattes Family Letters” was installed last month, to be displayed through Nov. 27, and shares the tragic story of Markus and Anna Mattes.
The Polish Jewish couple moved to Mainz, Germany, in 1908 to raise their family. Through family pictures, documents, maps, and first-hand accounts in letters written by members of the family, we learn of the couple’s witness to the beginnings of the Holocaust, and their desperate attempts to escape Nazi Germany and join their children who found a home in the Quad Cities.
These attempts, which ultimately failed, are haunting and echo the experience of many Jewish families during this time, according to the GAHC. The story of the Mattes family, as told through their own words from 1938-1941, honors the memory of those who did not survive.
Markus and Anna were killed in 1942 either en route to or in the Belzec death camp in Poland.
Killing operations in Belzec began on a mass scale on March 17, 1942. On this date, the first Jewish communities were deported to Belzec, according to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.
Between March and December 1942, the Germans deported approximately 434,500 Jews and an undetermined number of Poles and Romas to Belzec, where they were killed.
Markus and Anna’s children (Norbert and Rose) had immigrated to the United States before the war. Many of the letters in the GAHC exhibit are exchanges between these family members.
“At first, they were pretty optimistic,” center assistant director Clare Tobin said recently of the elder couple. “They had the family business, and they didn’t expect it to be so difficult to leave.”
Markus and Anna had four children, the oldest son died in his youth. The next emigrated to Palestine in 1933. The next, Norbert, emigrated to Brooklyn, N.Y. in 1938, and the youngest, Rose, emigrated to Brooklyn in 1940.
Norbert served in the U.S. Army from 1941-1945 and, while on leave, visited his sister Rose who introduced him to Bobbie (who was born and raised in the QC).
Norbert married Bobbie Mattes and had two children (Alan and John). Rose married David Nitekman (who emigrated to Brooklyn in 1939). Rose and David had three children (Stephen, Mark, and Deborah).
David had family in Davenport, and he and Rose moved there in 1941. Rose died in 1985 at age 72; David died in 1994 at age 86, and Norbert (who lived in Bettendorf) died in 2007 at age 96.
All five grandchildren were born and raised in the Quad Cities — the Nitekmans in Rock Island and the Mattes’ in Bettendorf, said John Mattes (now of Minneapolis).
“It was a good place to grow up,” he said of the QC recently by e-mail. “Our parents are buried there, some of us still have family there, all of us still have friends there. It is a good place to often return to.”
Soon after high school, all five grandkids moved from the QC for reasons of education and vocation — Stephen, an architect; Mark, a radiologist; Deborah, a piano teacher; Alan, a music engineer; and John, a business executive.
In addition to Minneapolis, the five live in Boston and Chicago, John said.
Honoring the family’s memory
The family created the exhibit to learn more about Markus and Anna, and share their harrowing journeys with the world.
Growing up, the grandchildren always knew their grandparents were murdered by the Nazis, but little else, the exhibit introduction says. Their parents never told them details and they were told not to ask.
An emotional 1991 letter from Norbert to his sons – part of the GAHC exhibit — reflected the pain:
“Foremost, it should not be forgotten as useless history, not only for their own generation’s sake but also for the future: that anti-Semitism is still violently growing and a festering cancer virus of mindless bigots with their own brand of neo-poison gospels, lies and distortions of the truth!
“For so many years, I’ve struggled with my conscience and guilty feelings for not having put more efforts and determination into it, to bring my parents to this country,” he wrote. “Be it the reduced immigration quotas for European Jews or the complacent apathy of this country and the still dormant world compassion, inclusive the cool and lethargic with the half-hearted sympathetic assurances of the miscellaneous Jewish organizations and, last if not least, some of my mother’s cousins living in Canada or some in N.Y. and the former friends back home.
“Yet another pertinent reason, my restricted capabilities during my Army service from 1940-45 could speak for itself! To enumerate more reasons and difficulties, sorry to say it never can erase what happened then and will not ever compensate the blood, tears, and lives.”
The exhibit introduction from the grandkids says that through these letters, “we came to know our grandparents. We read of the slow but complete annihilation of their lives, the loss of their business, their home, all their possessions, their family, their friends.
“We read of their agonizing isolation and frustration, the limited communication and the ever-changing and always expiring applications, sponsorships, visas, pre-visas, transit visas, passage tickets,” the grandchildren wrote. “The consequences of trauma, physical and psychological, is passed from generation to generation, diminishing in time but never disappearing.
“In these letters of our grandparents, we came to better know our parents, their dreams, their silent nightmares,” the introduction says. “And we read of what sustained and strengthened our grandparents and our parents, their family, their responsibility as parents, their never-faulting faith.
“In these letters of our grandparents, we came to better know ourselves and to better realize the importance of their stories, our stories to be told, to be understood, to be remembered.”
The exhibit includes reproductions of letters, photos, and genealogies of the Mattes family. They are of family members from Germany and Poland, and those who emigrated before World War II.
It includes photos of their home and business before and after the Nazi takeover. Some posters also displayed the effects of Kristallnacht on the synagogue of the family. Letters describe heartache, loss, guilt at being helpless to aid their relatives, family news, and the frustration of quotas of Jews instigated by the U.S. and Canadian governments. Genealogy charts help link the European side of the family to the QC contemporary family members.
History with the letters
John Mattes, who is now 68, said recently that the five of them had all seen the letters in their own quiet places. The exhibit includes only one-third of all the letters – they are shown side by side in the original German and in English translation.
“It was a little surrealistic, however, to see them, and to see each other see them, in such a public space,” John said, noting the family came to the GAHC for a reunion on Oct. 30.
“Our original intention was for the letters (and supplemental documents, photographs, maps, timelines, and family tree) to be read only by the five of us and our families,” he said by e-mail. “As the letters were neither written by us or to us, we felt a responsibility to protect the privacy of our grandparents and parents. However, we also felt a responsibility to bear witness to the Nazi murder of our grandparents.
“Our decision to exhibit was made, in part, because of the unique opportunity to tell our family’s story in our community (where few know our story and some don’t know the similar stories of so many other families),” John said.
“And, in large part, because of the courage of the German American Heritage Center & Museum to partner with us in great spirit and with great sensitivity to tell the story.”
Tobin of the center said the exhibit is so extraordinary because it personalizes the unimaginable horror and scale of the Holocaust, which killed six million Jews.
“This is not the only family this happened to – it happened to millions of people. But a lot of documents were lost,” she said. “The Nazis tried to destroy everything they were doing. So having this, we really get a glimpse of what Jewish people in Germany and Poland were dealing with, and how difficult it was to get out of there.
“It’s a good learning tool, and people have to remember this really happened,” she said. “We’re not far from it.”
The closest Mattes family members are in the Chicago suburbs, Tobin said. Having Holocaust education exhibits through the QC’s comprehensive “Out of Darkness” initiative connects current problems to the past.
“We’re seeing the same things today with marginalizing certain groups, scapegoating people,” she said. Of the Mattes exhibit, Tobin noted: “People have received it well, with the White Rose stuff downstairs.”
The White Rose Student Resistance to Hitler, Munich 1942/43, is on display on the first floor of GAHC through Feb. 12, 2023.
John said that “Out of Darkness: Holocaust Messages for Today” is a “unique and remarkable achievement for the leading cultural and educational organizations of the QC to come together in this way at this time to provide light on today’s issues from the darkness of one people’s genocide.
“We are grateful for the opportunity to share our story,” he said. “We all have an opportunity to share our stories, to better know ourselves and to better know one another. To say our name, to say their name, and to know them by their name. And then, maybe then, they will no longer be the other.”
Mother and son bond in music
The GAHC hosted a concert Oct. 30 in the exhibit room, featuring Debbi (one of the grandchildren) on piano, and her son Daniel Katz on cello (a member of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra). They played music from Jewish composers and pieces from the era.
John introduced the program, speaking of the Jewish tradition of using a stone to memorialize friends and relatives who have passed on; the stone being a metaphor to help us unite spiritually with our loved ones and to unite communally with those who are different than us.
Before the Oct. 30 concert, John said:
“We have no stone to place at the grave of Anna or Markus, for they have no grave. So, instead, we place this exhibit in this community where we, their American grandchildren, were born and raised. This exhibit bears witness that Anna and Markus were loved, are loved, and their memories are worthy of being cherished.
“To whom do we bear witness? To the one who passes by us, passes after us, and sees the stone, literal or metaphorical,” John said. “We, the one who places the stone and the one who sees the stone, meet in community, united by the one at whose grave we both have stood, the one whose memory is worthy of being cherished, whose stories are worthy of being told and retold, in words spoken and written, in words heard and read.”
The exhibit also reflects a plea for tolerance and understanding.
“And in this place and at this time, the one who looks different than us, prays differently than us, loves differently than us, lives differently than us — the one we call the migrant, the refugee, the immigrant — the one we call the stranger, the other, the freak — the one whose name we’ve never said, the one whose name we’ve never read on a headstone — will be known by their name,” John said.
“And then, maybe then, they will be loved and we will know their lives are worthy of being cherished and then, maybe then, our lives will be worthy of being cherished.”
For more information on GAHC (at 2nd and Gaines streets, Davenport), visit its website.