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Egon’s story: The Nazi state steals the family silver

Egon’s story: The Nazi state steals the family silver

Thursday, 6 September 2012

This blog is part three of the story of 24-year-old Jew Egon Schoenberger and his flight from the Nazi Holocaust of World War II to New Zealand.

Egon's onboard diary 7-8 August, 1939 (translated).

Auckland War Memorial Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira

As the Marnix approaches British controlled Port Said in Egypt, Egon hands over his passport to a member of the ship’s crew. No one travelling on a German passport is to be allowed ashore.

Egon's passport, stamped with a J to indicate he was Jewish.

Schoenberger, Egon. Papers 1892-1960s. Auckland War Memorial Museum Library. MS-2002-74.

Egon may have travelled on a German passport but the Nazi German state had, since 1933, been passing laws which by turns segregated and persecuted Germany’s Jewish people, making them second class citizens with lesser rights than “true Germans”. Before the rise of Hitler most of the country’s Jews considered themselves more German than Jewish.

On March 6 1939, Egon’s family in Mainz, Germany received a type written letter (see below) informing them of exceptions to the latest anti-Jewish law requiring them to hand over their jewellery and silver (for which they had to pay 15 Reich pennys for the paper work to do so.)

Written under the banner of the local Jewish authority the letter detailed what small things they could keep under “the Decree on the Extension of the Deadline for the Surrender by Jews of Jewels and Objects made of Precious Metals from 3/3/39″. This included: a wedding ring, two sets of silver cutlery per person, and small silver items (less than 40gm) that together did not exceed 200gms of weight.

Egon’s family in Mainz hid their silver service and advanced their plans to escape from Germany. They would make it as far as Rhiems, across the border in France.

Most Jewish people found it almost impossible to believe their fellow countrymen would turn against them with such hatred. However, the night of broken glass, or Kristallnacht, convinced many that it was no longer safe for them to stay in Germany. The pogrom on the 9–10 November 1938 saw the wholesale destruction of Jewish-owned businesses, synagogues and homes and the murder of 91 Jews. A further 30,000 were arrested and incarcerated.

But escape from Germany was severely hampered by an almost total unwillingness among other nations to accept Jews as refugees. Six months after Kristallnacht nearly 1000 Jewish refugees set sail on the St Louis for Cuba, from where they hoped to find safety in the United States. The boat was turned back and a quarter of the passengers met their end in the Holocaust.

Letter from the Israelite Religious Congregation (left) and translation (right).

Schoenberger, Egon. Papers 1892-1960s. Auckland War Memorial Museum Library. MS-2002-74.

Previous blog: The family champagne factory is confiscated

Next blog: Schonberger Cabinet

Throughout this series of 24 blog posts we’d love to hear from you. If you have any questions, would like to learn more about any aspects of Egon’s story or share your thoughts please use the comment box. We’ll do our very best to respond and answer your questions.  And thank you to everyone who has commented so far.

  • Post by: Kirsten MacFarlane

    Kirsten MacFarlane is a part-time editor and writer for Auckland Museum. She also edits and writes feature articles for various publications.