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Young Guardian

12 Years That Shook the World Podcast

Released: September 15, 2022

Erwin Haber —State Archives, Brussels; digitized by Kazerne Dossin

In 1937, Erwin Haber, a Jewish boy from Austria, had just turned 13. But months later when the Nazis take over his country, Erwin will be forced to navigate the world without his parents— and help his little sister and grandmother survive the Nazi reign of terror. Featuring Museum researcher Dr. Belinda Blomberg.



Erin Harper: It’s September 1937. And young Erwin Haber is turning 13-years-old. He marks his birthday with a Bar Mitzvah— a Jewish coming-of-age tradition. Erwin reads from the Torah, and recites prayers in Hebrew at his family’s synagogue in Vienna, Austria. That winter, as a birthday gift, Erwin’s parents take him on a ski trip, along with his little sister, Kitty.

Still, at age 13, Erwin is a child, with rounded cheeks. But soon, he will be forced to navigate the world under Nazi occupation without his parents— and help the rest of his family survive.

From the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, this is 12 Years That Shook the World. I’m Erin Harper. 

By all accounts, Erwin was a bright kid. 

Dr. Belinda Blomberg:  He was intelligent— an excellent student. 

Erin Harper: That's Dr. Belinda Blomberg, a researcher at the Museum. 

Dr. Belinda Blomberg: He picked up languages easily. He dreamt of becoming a mechanical engineer. He even created his own designs for airplanes on graph paper. Erwin’s father Samuel, he was a jeweler. He had a very successful jewelry business. He encouraged Erwin to develop his mechanical skills because he brought home old watches for Erwin to fix from his jewelry store.

Erin Harper: At their apartment in Vienna, in the family’s day-to-day life, Erwin and his little sister Kitty roughhouse, and play. Erwin looks after Kitty when the parents go to cafés, or to the opera. The kids also see their grandmother, Leontine, every day after school. She bakes them her famous apple strudel. Kitty often plays with her dolls, and dances to music on the radio. But one night, Kitty has just taken a bath. And she sees her mother, Nelly, listening to the radio — but it’s not music. It’s a newscaster reporting that the leader of Austria has resigned. The next day is March 12, 1938. And the Nazis cross the border from Germany into Austria, and take over the country— in an event known as the Anschluss. Erwin and Kitty’s parents know what this means for them as a Jewish family. And Nelly begins to cry. 

See, by this point, the Nazis have been in power for five years— across the border in Germany. And in that time, targeting Jews with their racist ideology, enacting anti-Jewish laws, and inflicting violence on Jews. So with the Nazis’ takeover of Austria, they will immediately begin to persecute Austrian Jews. And within months, the situation takes another dark turn. It’s November 10th, 1938. 

Dr. Belinda Blomberg:  At 6:30 in the morning, Erwin's apartment superintendent was directed by seven Austrian Nazis to open the doors of all the Jews living in the building. Erwin answered, and the men charged in and began to beat his father.

Erin Harper: The officers instruct the Jewish men to assemble outside. The men are arrested— including Erwin’s father Samuel. Across Germany and Austria, Nazi officers, local police, and some non-Jewish neighbors launch violent attacks on Jews. They arrest Jews, set fire to synagogues, and destroy Jewish-owned property— smashing bricks into windows late into the night. It would become known as Kristallnacht— the Night of Broken Glass. 

A few weeks later, Samuel is released by the Nazis. He returns home and hides in the coal cellar of their apartment building. Samuel tries to get a visa to escape the country, but with so many Jews trying to flee, it becomes nearly impossible. So Samuel hires a smuggler and escapes to Belgium, illegally. Once he makes it safely over the border, Nelly turns her focus to Erwin and Kitty. 

She wants to get the children to Belgium to her husband as quickly as possible. So she sends them alone on a train. This particular train was part of a rescue effort to get kids out of Nazi-occupied territories. So Nelly packs their bags with clean clothes, and a box of cookies. Erwin and Kitty say goodbye to their mother, and board a train to Belgium. 

On the train, Kitty gets upset. She tells Erwin she misses her mother and grandmother. She’s also sad that she couldn’t bring her favorite doll. She starts crying, and Erwin tries to cheer her up. He takes Kitty to another train car, where other children are singing and playing. This picks up Kitty’s spirits. And soon, Erwin and Kitty arrive safely, and meet their father in Belgium.

But back in Austria, Erwin’s mother Nelly and grandmother Leontine are still living under the Nazi regime. They, too, cannot obtain visas. They decide to escape illegally to be with their family. Nelly hires a smuggler to cross the border, just like Samuel had done.

Dr. Belinda Blomberg:  But now it's a much more dangerous time to cross the border because so many Jews are fleeing and control of the border has tightened. But Nelly's really willing to take the risk, and was so anxious to be reunited with her husband and children again. 

Erin Harper: Nelly writes to Samuel, and says, “Hopefully it is all worthwhile.” And in March of 1939, Nelly and Leontine make their way towards the Belgian border. 

Dr. Belinda Blomberg: Nelly and her mother climb into the smuggler's car with two other strangers. At the border, the Dutch-Belgian border police try to stop the car as they're crossing, but the smuggler kept driving through the checkpoint, and the border guards shot at the passengers. Nelly was hit by a bullet, and she was killed. 

Erin Harper: Just hours after Nelly’s death, the smuggler leaves her body in the stairwell of the family’s apartment in Belgium. Leontine has to climb the stairs to tell Samuel what happened.

After his mother’s funeral, at the age of 14, Erwin must learn to go on. He tries to resume some semblance of normal life in Belgium. Sometimes he goes swimming, sees a movie, or hangs out in a café. Most of the time he focuses on his education, and pours his heart into his schoolwork. Leontine comes over each day to cook, and help with the household. And for now, despite their grief, the family is safe from the Nazi reign of terror. 

But in September of 1939, the Nazis invade Poland, starting World War II. And a few months later, once again, the Nazis invade Erwin’s world. They take Belgium, as well as the Netherlands, and Luxembourg. 

Samuel is told to report to authorities the next morning. At dawn, Erwin and Kitty say goodbye to their father. And the children think— surely he will return the next day. But instead, the Nazis deport Samuel to a French internment camp, with more than a thousand other Jews. 

But now, at age 15, with his mother passed, and his father deported, Erwin tries to make sense of his world on his own. He hears adults talking about life under Nazi occupation. In a letter to his cousin, Erwin says how it’s all so hard to understand. He wonders: what do Nazi laws mean for him? What will the war bring? And what does his future hold? Despite the uncertainty, Erwin continues to look after Kitty, and keep her spirits up. He finds time to play hide-and-seek with her. Their grandmother Leontine moves in to watch over them. 

For several months, Samuel is detained in the French internment camp. Until one day, during a massive flood, he manages to escape. But instead of going to meet his children in Belgium, he decides to stay in France.

Dr. Belinda Blomberg: It's really not known why he doesn't want to go back to Belgium, but one can imagine that he's feared crossing the border again illegally, especially after what has happened to his wife, and her being killed in the crossing. And there just may be reasons we will never know. 

Erin Harper: Samuel writes letters begging Erwin and Kitty to come to France. But Leontine also doesn’t want to cross the border illegally again. So Erwin makes the difficult decision to stay in Belgium, and care for his sister and grandmother. He said he saw himself as “the man of the house.” 

Dr. Belinda Blomberg:  Erwin's given the responsibility of finding new housing for the family, he has to secure second-hand furniture, and seek out scarce food. The family is very poor, and he has to sell-off gold pieces and jewelry from his father's store in Vienna.

Erin Harper: Erwin starts working to make money. He buys food, and pays rent. He also develops a friendly relationship with their non-Jewish landlady, who they called Moeke. Moeke looks out for the family. And by doing so, she’s taking a risk, because the Nazis have made it illegal to help Jews. 

Dr. Belinda Blomberg: Moeke has helped them all along by sharing her food rations and letting them listen in her apartment to the BBC radio broadcasts about the war. Jews at that time were forbidden from even having radios. And at one point when the Gestapo come looking for Jews in their apartment building, she also does not reveal the identity of the Jewish families. 

Erin Harper: But still, even with Moeke’s help, Erwin has taken on so much new responsibility. As a result, he has to give up his education, and perhaps, his dream of becoming an engineer. And over time, Erwin begins to change. He becomes more serious. Even a neighbor notices that he’s quieter.

Perhaps Erwin was mourning the loss of his mother, or missing his father, or wishing he could go back to school. But on top of that, Erwin is surrounded by war. It’s early 1941. Erwin is now 16. On the radio, he hears that the Nazis are expanding across Europe. He hangs a map on the wall, and puts pins where the Nazis are fighting. Again, Erwin wonders what this all means for him. 

Another year passes. Then, on the second anniversary of his mother’s death, Erwin lights a candle and says a Jewish prayer of mourning. As the war progresses, it becomes impossible for the children to get to their father in France. So in his letters, Samuel stops asking them to come. 

Then in the summer of 1942, Erwin receives a letter, but it’s not from his father. It’s an official summons, that says — under Nazi orders— he must report to a nearby railway station. Then he’ll be taken to some kind of “work" at an undisclosed location, somewhere East of Belgium.

Dr. Belinda Blomberg:  He knows it'll probably be manual labor, something to benefit Germany's war effort. And he's aware that Jewish men had been conscripted for labor in detention camps after Kristallnacht.

Erin Harper: Erwin was also told that, if he didn’t show up, all three of the Jewish families in his building would be arrested— including his own. Erwin said, “I am young, I can work, why should I put the whole house in danger?” So Erwin packs a small bag with personal items. He brings food, clothing; a pen, and some graph paper.

Dr. Belinda Blomberg: Objects that he does bring are really significant to his identity, especially something like graph paper, which he used to make his drawings of airplanes. 

Erin Harper: Then, Kitty walks with Erwin to the station, and they say goodbye. Erwin boards a train headed to a transit camp about 12 miles away. There, hundreds more Jews begin to arrive. The next morning, the Jews are loaded onto another train, which pulls away, heading Eastward. 

Erwin gets out his graph paper and pen. He starts writing letters to Kitty and Leontine. In the first letter, he writes, “My dear ones! We are leaving now. Where to? I don’t know yet. Till now it wasn’t too bad… Many, many kisses, Erwin.” 

The train continues to barrel East, and makes stops along the way. Again, he writes to his family. He says, “I’m trying to get a few lines to you, which I hope will reach you...” Then, he tells them more about the train route.

Dr. Belinda Blomberg:  He asked them to look at a map, because I think he thinks it's likely that many others will follow this route, too, possibly even his family. 

Erin Harper: Erwin writes, “Stay healthy, God keep you and me, and all Jews. Kisses, Erwin.” Then he looks around the train at the other passengers, and notices something suspicious. There are many children, and elderly Jews aboard. Which — to Erwin — doesn’t add up. He wonders— why would the Nazis send the elderly and the young to work? 

Then the passengers start talking, and estimate the train is headed to German-occupied Poland. And although it’s unclear what Erwin knew about that destination, he finds this news worrisome. He writes a third letter to Kitty and Leontine. And, by now, even if Erwin is full of fear, or doubt, he decides to tell them not to worry. He writes, “Don’t lose hope, everything will be alright…”

He takes his letters, and ties them together in a bundle, along with letters from other passengers to their loved ones. Erwin wraps a note around the bundle, where he writes to a stranger. It says: “Dear Finder! I’m asking you politely to send these letters to [this] address...  I am a Jewish boy … and I beg you to do this favor for me…”

Dr. Belinda Blomberg:  He addresses the finder directly, and tells that person that he was taken from his family in Brussels, he's now being watched by guards, he’s a prisoner, and he's an unfortunate. He thanks them from his heart, if they would assist him. And says, “You are doing a good deed. Not even to me, but to my grandmother and little sister who do not know where I am.”

Erin Harper:  Erwin writes the address of his landlady, Moeke. This is something Erwin learned from his father— to address your letters to the neighbor— so no one has the exact address of where Jews are living. As the train speeds East, Erwin holds the bundle of letters out the train window, and lets go. The letters tumble away into the open landscape. 

Then, the train rolls to a stop in German-occupied Poland. Erwin steps off into the countryside at a place he likely had never heard of — a place called Auschwitz. Erwin finds himself on a ramp, lined up with the 1,000 other Jews from his train. What Erwin doesn’t know is that just months prior, Auschwitz became one of the Nazis’ killing centers in German-occupied Poland. And here, the Nazis have begun murdering Jews in gas chambers. He waits in line as Nazi officers decide who will be sent to forced labor, and who will be sent to their death in the gas chambers. 

Dr. Belinda Blomberg:  He was chosen for labor in the camp. This is likely because he was 17, and a young man who, no doubt, looked able to work hard labor. Age was kind of the principal criteria for selection of work or the gas chamber. Children below 16 years-of-age and the elderly were sent to die. 

Erin Harper: So when Erwin was on the train— thinking it was odd that children and the elderly were being sent to work — he was right. See, the Nazis employed many tactics of deception in their plan to annihilate European Jews. So the Nazis’ invitation for Erwin to bring his personal belongings was their way of creating a false sense of security. The Nazis’ promise of work, and their vague information on the train’s true destination — it was all a cover to maintain order among Jews and other victims, while the Nazis committed mass murder. 

Dr. Belinda Blomberg: And most of the Jews at this time believe that they're not headed to their deaths and perhaps may even return to Belgium someday. 

Erin Harper: But that was not the case. Shortly after his arrival, Erwin began forced labor in Auschwitz. Nazi records from the camp indicate that Erwin died only 37 days later on September 10, 1942. On his death record, the Nazis declared his cause of death to be "heart failure." 

Dr. Belinda Blomberg:  Once Erwin began hard labor at Auschwitz, he probably suffered from too little food, being worked to exhaustion, and he could have even been worked to heart failure or heart attack. Exhaustion to the point of collapsing in the type of labor that was done at Auschwitz was common. He also could have contracted Typhus or Cholera, which we know were rampant in the camp.

Erin Harper: Back in Belgium, Kitty and Leontine await word from Erwin. Then one day, Kitty’s landlady Moeke receives Erwin’s bundle of letters. She turns it over to Kitty. Inside are Erwin’s three letters— telling Kitty of his destination to German-occupied Poland, asking them not to worry, and expressing his love. But what Kitty didn’t know is that, as she read, Erwin was likely already gone. And these were Erwin’s last words to his family.

Kitty later said she imagined a farmer had found Erwin’s letters somewhere in the countryside. She estimated the person read Erwin’s plea, and dropped the letters in the mail. One can only speculate whether or not the finder understood the significance of the letters, or if they knew that the Nazis were murdering Jews. All along, the Nazis had taken many steps to conceal their deportations and killing operations from the public. But they had also committed murder against Jews in plain sight. 

Dr. Belinda Blomberg: It's hard to know how much the non-Jewish population knew about Jews being deported, and especially the destination that the trains were headed in 1942. They may have witnessed acts of persecution of Jews prior to ‘42, or even heard news about Jews being sent to labor camps. And some non-Jews, at this point in time, were disapproving of this terribly inhumane treatment that they’d witnessed, and they tried to help Jews, in greater or lesser ways. 

The local population knew that assisting Jews in hiding, or in any way could be punishable by the Nazis. And I'm wondering if someone who found Erwin's letters made essentially an unselfish decision to take a risk to help him to get these last messages to loved ones by mailing those letters. 

Erin Harper: Erwin’s letters are not the only letters thrown from Nazi deportation trains. While dozens of these letters have been recovered, it’s unknown how many were swept into the wind, and never found. Or in some cases, perhaps the letters were discovered, although not mailed.

But the fact that the world has these letters today, does tell us one thing: That the finders of the letters had some measure of choice— some amount of agency— to help Jews. And although mailing a letter would not have stopped the killing, perhaps the gesture was the last bit of humanity shown to the Jewish victim— even if they never knew.  Erwin wrote his last letters, having never become an adult. 

Dr. Belinda Blomberg:  As a teenager, his personal dreams of an education, of becoming an engineer, of a life of schoolwork, reading philosophy, hanging out in cafés, and even finding romance, have already been taken from him.

Erin Harper: At the time of Erwin’s death, his father Samuel was living in hiding with other Jews at a monastery in France. But just a few months later, in November of 1942, Kitty gets a letter from Samuel. He tells Kitty that he was discovered by the Gestapo secret police, arrested, and again sent to a French internment camp. Samuel was eventually deported to a sub-camp of Auschwitz, where he was killed.

Now in 1942, Kitty is 13-years-old, and all she has is her grandmother, Leontine. Kitty later said of that moment, “My grandmother was my everything.” Kitty and Leontine remain in hiding. Kitty starts taking small jobs, in secret, to earn money for herself and her grandmother. She also sells jewelry that Erwin had stashed in the home from his father’s jewelry store. Neighbors and members of local resistance groups continue to help Kitty and Leontine— bringing them food, and warning them when they hear about Jews being rounded up in the streets. Kitty and Leontine survived in hiding in Belgium until Allied soldiers liberated their country in September of 1944. Only after liberation did Kitty learn that her brother Erwin was murdered shortly after his arrival in Auschwitz. Kitty had forwarded the other letters from Erwin’s bundle to the families, but very few people on that transport had survived. 

Later in life Kitty reflected on Erwin. In her memory, he was very much a brother. She said, “He always beat me up. Sometimes we play[ed] together, but he always won. He was a lovely boy.” Then, she said, “I always had hoped that my brother would come back because he was so smart and so handy. But he had no chance. They didn't give him a chance.” 

In total, the Nazis and their collaborators murdered more than six million Jews across Europe. Erwin Haber was one of, as many as 1.5 million Jewish children who were killed by the Nazi regime.

Kitty later emigrated to Buenos Aires. She saved Erwin’s final letters, and donated them to the Museum in 1991. She shared her family’s story in an oral testimony with the USC Shoah Foundation – The Institute for Visual History and Education. Kitty passed away in New York in 2016. 

From the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, this is 12 Years That Shook the World. I’m Erin Harper. Joining us was Dr. Belinda Blomberg, a researcher at the Museum. 

Our story is informed by the work of historian Cyril Ruben. We offer a special thank you to Jaap van Opstal for assistance with translation. Our show is produced by myself. Our stories are researched by Meredith Gui. This podcast is funded in part by support from Crown Family Philanthropies and from the Joyce and Irving Goldman Family Foundation. 

Listeners, we want to hear from you. Tell us what you think of the episode. Send an email to, or talk to us on social media. We are @HolocaustMuseum. If you love our show, please follow us on your favorite podcast app, and tell a friend about us. Thanks for listening.

Additional Resources

Further Reading

  • Ruben, Cyril. Een briefkaart redde mijn leven: Een joods meisje overleeft WOII. Davidfonds Uitgeverij, Antwerpen. 2017.  Special thanks to museum volunteer Jaap van Opstal for Dutch translation help. 

Online Resources