Giving a Face to the Fallen: Uncovering the Life of the Late Menachem Baumgarten

In May 1943, a mysterious Hebrew soldier was among the hundreds killed when German bombers struck the British ship, SS Erinpura. Documents found in the National Library shed light on the life of a young man who perished at sea


The SS Erinpura and the late Menachem Baumgarten

In May 1943, a soldier from the Land of Israel, Menachem Baumgarten, was killed along with 138 of his Jewish comrades when German bombers struck the British ship, SS Erinpura.

Details of Baumgarten’s story and identity were sparse. But, after diligent research, utilizing the resources of the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People, details and documents have been uncovered that offer at least a partial picture of the young Jew who perished at sea on his way to fight the Germans.


•Menachem Baumgarten and his comrades from the 462 Transport Company. Baumgarten is the crouching figure on the far left. From the book, The Hebrew Transport Company in World War II. Tel Aviv, 1994
Menachem Baumgarten and his comrades from the 462 Transport Company. Baumgarten is the crouching figure on the far left. From the book, “The Hebrew Transport Company in World War II” [Hebrew]. Tel Aviv, 1994

May 1, 1943. A convoy of British ships en route from Alexandria to Malta is spotted and attacked by a 12 plane German bomber squadron. The brunt of the attack is focused on the SS Erinpura, carrying more than a thousand soldiers and crew members. 664 soldiers are killed, including 139 soldiers from the Land of Israel who had enlisted in the British Army.


Announcement published in the newspaper, HaMashkif, in regard to missing persons who had perished at sea (Menachem Baumgarten's name is marked in yellow). Click for the full article on the Historical Press website
Announcement published in the newspaper, HaMashkif, in regard to missing persons who had perished at sea (Menachem Baumgarten’s name is marked in yellow). Click for the full article on the Historical Jewish Press website

Among those killed in the attack is Menachem (Leopold) Baumgarten. Information about the young man was almost nonexistent. Other than his name, his year of birth and a few notes regarding his activities and movements throughout the years, there was almost no record of the young man’s existence.


Baumgarten’s picture on the Izkor website
Baumgarten’s picture on the Izkor website


The volunteer organization, “Giving a Face to the Fallen“, initiated an attempt to obtain more information about Baumgarten by contacting the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People at the National Library. The archive staff meticulously combed through thousands of files, mainly focusing on official appeals to immigrate to the Land of Israel from Vienna, which saw a great influx between the years 1938-1940.


The SS Erinpura memorial at the military cemetery on Mount Herzl. Photo: Dr. Avishai Teicher
The SS Erinpura memorial at the military cemetery on Mount Herzl. Photo: Dr. Avishai Teicher

The search finally bore fruit when the archive staff discovered Baumgarten’s file in the Vienna Jewish Community Archives. The file revealed previously unknown details about the young soldier. The document included Baumgarten’s exact birthdate and birthplace, as well as a small amount of detail about his background and family. Documents found in the Zionist Archives provided additional information, including the date of his emigration to Mandatory Palestine (August 16, 1939). His Youth Aliyah card, which was also unearthed in the search, documented Menachem’s placement at Kibbutz Tel Yosef upon his arrival in the Land of Israel and his subsequent departure from the Kibbutz on June 8, 1941, in order to enlist in the 462 Transport Company. The Yad Vashem archive also provided details that further serve to complete a portrait of Menachem Baumgarten.


Here are some of the documents found in the Vienna Archive:


This emigration questionnaire reveals, among other things, Baumgarten’s exact date of birth - December 3, 1923
This emigration questionnaire reveals, among other things, Baumgarten’s exact date of birth: December 3, 1923


The questionnaire also reveals the names of Menachem's relatives - including his mother Irma, his brother Josef, and his sister Edith
The questionnaire also reveals the names of Menachem’s relatives – including his mother Irma, his brother Josef, and his sister Edith



Translation of the above document:

Attention final processing!

Leopold Baumgarten, a Jew, according to his beliefs. Completely without means, applied to the social welfare office in his area of residence, his father is deceased.

Applicant is traveling with Youth Aliyah to Palestine on 15.8.1939.

In regard to his travel, he cannot afford to pay for his travel expenses, therefore he directs the expenses of the (immigration) contract to the Palestine Office (RM 166.35 + £ 1.14).

(RM – German currency, £ – Sterling)

The applicant is referred to final processing.




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How Capt. Isaac Benkowitz Saved a World of Jewish Books

A rare look into two volumes that contain hints of a cultural world that was and is no more...


In the city of Offenbach, near Frankfurt am Main, inside a five-story building, Captain Isaac Benkowitz stood among hundreds of boxes of books, wondering what to do. His unit’s mission, part of the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives program (MFAA) responsible for the preservation of cultural property under the Allied Military Government, was to return all the identifiable books in the Offenbach warehouse looted by the Nazis to the countries they belonged to.

The Nazis stole millions of books during the Holocaust. Nearly two million volumes had found their way from Eastern and Western Europe to the Institute for the Research of the Jewish Question in Frankfurt. Founded by Alfred Rosenberg, the Nazi regime’s chief ideologue, this institute was just a small part of his grandiose plan to establish a network of research institutes for Nazi studies under the umbrella of an Academic Institute for Nazi Studies (Hohe Schule der NSDAP), for which he had received Hitler’s personal blessing. However, Hitler asked that Rosenberg begin with the establishment of a library and wait until after the war to establish the institute. Nevertheless, the institute in Frankfurt began to operate during the war and its library became the largest “Jewish Library” in Europe.

אנשי צוותי העבודה של רוזנברג ממיינים ספרים שנגנבו
Members of Rosenberg’s staff sorting through stolen books

Because Frankfurt was under bombardment, the institute sent most of the books to the town of Hungen, where American forces found them at the end of the war. In order to deal with these books and the many others that continued to surface in various storerooms and cellars, all the books were sent to the warehouse in Offenbach.

It was Benkowitz’s predecessor, another Jewish officer by the name of Seymour Pomrenze, who established the Offenbach Archival Depot (as it was known). A huge and daunting task lay ahead of him but within a short while he had the whole process of sorting and organizing the books up and running. In a matter of months, he was able to return roughly a million and a half books. Pomrenze was fortunate not to have to sort through all of them, as a large portion of the books, mainly from The Netherlands and France, were still in the crates from their original libraries. All he had to do was examine the crates and arrange for their return.

מימין: סימור פומרנץ; משמאל: אייזיק בנקוביץ
Left: Isaac Benkowitz, right: Seymour Pomrenze

Benkowitz, on the other hand, who had been Pomrenze’s assistant and right hand until the latter’s departure, knew that he would have to deal with hundreds of thousands of other books from all across Europe, each from a different place.

The majority of the books were from Jewish libraries and institutions, and some had stamps to that effect.

Benkowitz entered the huge sorting room, picked up a volume of the Talmud and saw the ex-libris of a communal rabbi from Lodz. He saw a book of Yiddish poetry that had recently been the property of a school library in Vilna. In a Jewish philosophy book in German, he found the stamp of a Jewish community library in Berlin.

Years later, Benkowitz would write in his memoirs:

There was something sad and mournful about these volumes … as if they were whispering a tale of yearning and hope since obliterated … I would find myself straightening out these books and arranging them in the boxes with a personal sense of tenderness as if they had belonged to someone dear to me, someone recently deceased

Benkowitz did not know then whether these books would actually be returned to the countries they had been stolen from. Was it possible that Germany would receive the books of the Jews they had murdered? That Soviet Ukraine would be given the prayer books from the now empty synagogues in Kiev?

Until he received a formal decision, Benkowitz was tasked with the work of sorting. Such a vast number of books required a professional and skilled staff. He had a team. The army had placed under his supervision German workers who were assigned a variety of jobs after the war. But these Germans weren’t librarians, most had no foreign language skills and did not know how to sort books. While a large portion of the books contained stamps bearing the owners’ names, the Germans weren’t able to read the names in Yiddish, Polish or any of the other languages.

עובדים גרמנים ממיינים ספרים במחסן באופנבך
Workers sorting books in the warehouse in Offenbach


אורזים את הספרים למשלוח חזרה לארצות מוצאם
Books being packaged to be sent to their countries of origin

Benkowitz had an idea. He and his team collected stamps that were found repeatedly in a variety of books in the storeroom. He photographed the stamps and pasted them into a large catalogue organized by country. There were countries with hundreds of stamps of institutions and single owners, and countries with smaller representation. The wording, shape or color of the stamps of some of the institutions had changed over the years, and Benkowitz made sure that all the variations appeared on the same page in the volume.

The German workers thus did not have to read the writing. They just had to identify the form of the stamp and the letters. In this way, hundreds of thousands of books were sorted into crates according to country. Benkowitz prepared two volumes containing thousands of stamps. The first volume contained stamps from Austria, France, Germany, The Netherlands and other countries in Western Europe. The second contained stamps from countries in Eastern Europe such as Czechoslovakia, Lithuania, Poland, Belarus and Ukraine as well as a detailed list of libraries in a number of cities.

שני כרכי הקטלוגים מתוך ארכיון הספרייה הלאומית


שני כרכי הקטלוגים מתוך ארכיון הספרייה הלאומית
The two stamp catalogs from the Offenbach warehouse, the National Library collections

The books were sorted with the help of these catalogs, but they were not necessarily returned to their countries of origin. In the years after the war, additional books were discovered. A large portion of these books eventually reached the National Library in Jerusalem through the Jewish Cultural Reconstruction organization, which took over responsibility for the Offenbach warehouse from the US Army. That is the reason that today we find books in the National Library bearing the stamp of the JCR and of the original library from where the books were stolen by the Nazis.

For example, here is a Midrash Rabbah book which can be identified as part of the collection of the Strashun Library in Vilnius, named after Rabbi Mattityahu Strashun. Warehouse workers who were incapable of reading the Hebrew letters could make use of the stamps collected in the Offenbach catalog. The book also contains JCR stamps.

מימין: חותמת בית עקד ספרים על שם שטראשון בקטלוג החותמות; משמאל: חותמת הספרייה
Right: the stamp of the Strashun Library in the Midrash Rabbah book, left: the same stamp as it appears in the Offenbach catalog.

Here is another example, featuring a book from the Jewish Theological Seminary of Breslau, alongside the stamp used to identify the book’s origin. This stamp appears in the list of German stamps in the Offenbach catalog.

חותמת ספריית הסמינר היהודי בברסלאו
Right: the stamp of the Jewish Theological Seminary of Breslau, left: the same stamp as it appears in the Offenbach catalog.

Like his predecessor, Benkowitz did not remain long in his post in the Offenbach warehouse, but during his time there he was able to sort through the identifiable books. There was no longer a need for the volumes with the stamps and he took them back with him to the United States. Shortly after, he decided to donate them to the National Library in Jerusalem and since May 1947 they have been kept in the Library’s archives. Copies of the volumes can be also found in the archive of Seymour Pomrenze, the first director of the Offenbach warehouse. His archive is preserved by the American Jewish Historical Society in New York and there are some who posit that it was actually Pomrenze who came up with the idea for the catalogs. Of course, it is possible that Pomrenze and Benkowitz came up with the idea together.

Today, seventy years later, these heavy tomes from the warehouse of looted books in Offenbach serve as a kind of obituary list. Not a list of names of those murdered in the Holocaust, whose final resting places remain unknown, but an eternal memorial of the Jewish schools, yeshivas, and community centers across Europe. Institutions in which the sounds of learning and of memorization were silenced by the Holocaust. The memory of these institutions is commemorated among the pages of these volumes and now online as well, following the digitization of these two books by experts at the National Library.

Volume I

Volume II


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Double-Crossed by Eichmann: New Lists from the Kasztner Train Revealed

Rudolf Israel Kasztner negotiated with Adolf Eichmann directly to transport nearly 1,700 Jews from Hungary to Switzerland.

רכבת קסטנר

Kasztner train passengers, travelling from Budapest, via the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, to Switzerland, August or December 1944

When the atrocities of the Holocaust began to unfold, many attempts were made by both Jewish and non-Jewish organizations and individuals to influence and bribe powerful officials in the hopes of sparing as many human lives from the fate that awaited them at the hands of the Nazis. In 1944, the efforts of one man bore fruit and, while the number of those rescued was small in comparison to the number of Jews in danger, those who were included were spared the gruesome deaths that claimed so many others.

Rudolf (Rezső) Israel Kasztner was a Jewish Hungarian journalist and lawyer who helped found the Relief and Rescue Committee in Budapest that worked to smuggle Jewish refugees from Poland and Slovakia into Hungary in the hopes of escaping the Nazis. With the German invasion of Hungary in 1944, the Committee refocused its efforts to negotiations with the Nazis – in the hopes of exchanging human lives for military supplies and trucks. This effort came to be known as “Blood for Goods.”

Rudolf (Rezső) Israel Kasztner

In the summer of 1944, as a part of his efforts, Kasztner met repeatedly with Adolf Eichmann who was charged with deporting Hungary’s Jews. In late June, Kasztner succeeded in convincing Eichmann to spare the lives of some 1,700 Jews. Kasztner, along with a committee of other prominent Jews, drew up the list of those to be included in a transport that would leave Hungary for the safety of the neutral state of Switzerland.

On June 30, 1944, 1,684 Jews boarded a transport that was dubbed “Noah’s Ark.” The group was largely Hungarian and consisted mostly of Jews of prominence – those with money and influence – and close acquaintances of Rudolf Kasztner, including his family, friends and many people from his hometown of Cluj (Transylvania). This fact eventually brought tremendous backlash on Kasztner following the war.


רכבת קסטנר
A page from the list of the 318 who boarded the transport to Switzerland. Image courtesy of the Central Archives of the History of the Jewish People. View the digitized list here.

Unsurprisingly, Eichmann did not stay true to his word and instead of arriving in Switzerland, the transport stopped at Bergen-Belsen where the passengers were detained. A month later, following a new round of intensive negotiations, a new list containing the names of 318 people from among the original passengers was issued and those fortunate enough to be included boarded a new transport for Switzerland in late August 1944. It was only on December 7, 1944, that the remaining 1,354 passengers were released from Bergen-Belsen and sent to their original destination.

These never before published lists of the two transports which departed from Bergen-Belsen were given to the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People by Rabbi David Moses Rosen. Rabbi Rosen served as the Chief Rabbi of Romania during the Communist period. A copy of the lists was kept by the Bucharest office of the Romanian branch of the World Jewish Congress, along with additional important documentation of Romanian and Transylvanian Jewry from the Holocaust period. A significant portion of the branch’s archive was eventually passed on by Rabbi Rosen to the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People, where it was recently reregistered by Dr. Miriam Caloianu, who is in charge of the Romania collection in the archives. Among other things, this collection includes important evidence regarding the survivors of the camps in Transnistria, in Northern Transylvania and the Iași pogrom.


רכבת קסטנר
This page from the list of the transport of 1,354 includes the name of Rabbi Joel Teitelbaum, founder and first Grand Rebbe of the Satmar dynasty. Image courtesy of the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People. View the digitized list here.

In contrast to lists published in the past which revealed the early stages of this process and the original transport, these lists reveal the names of those who arrived at their intended destination and even include the Swiss addresses of the passengers’ new homes. Included on these lists are the names of Kasztner’s family members and the name of Rabbi Joel Teitelbaum, founder and first Grand Rebbe of the Satmar dynasty.

These lists not only attest to the tremendous efforts made by Jewish communities and organizations to rescue their brethren, they are also critical in properly understanding the full unfolding of these events, shedding new light on the plight of the Jewish community of Hungary which saw over 400,000 perish in the Holocaust.

רכבת קסטנר
This page from the list of the transport of 1,354 includes the names of the Kasztner family members. Image courtesy of the Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People. View the digitized list here.

Following the war, Kasztner immigrated to the Land of Israel. In 1953, his negotiations with the Nazis in general and Eichmann, in particular, made headlines when a journalist named Malchiel Gruenwald published a pamphlet accusing Kasztner of being a Nazi collaborator, stating that he negotiated for his own personal benefit and contributed to the destruction of Hungarian Jewry. Kasztner sued Gruenwald for libel, an act that eventually transformed these accusations into an indictment. The presiding judge determined that Kasztner had in fact contributed to the destruction of Hungarian Jewry by selecting his friends, family, and acquaintances as those who would be spared from horrors of the gas chambers.

This decision was overturned by Israel’s Supreme Court in January of 1958, however, before the new decision could be announced, Kasztner was assassinated near his home in Tel Aviv on the night of March 4, 1957. He died of his wounds twelve days later.

The lists from the Kasztner Train have been digitized and can be viewed online here.  


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From a Jewish Haven in Vienna to the Death Marches of the Holocaust

It was only when Leo saw the smoke from the crematorium that he understood that he would never see his father again.


Moshe and Golda Luster, 1942. Photo courtesy of Centropa.

Before the First World War, Vienna, the seat of the old Habsburg dynasty, was the capital of a great multi-ethnic empire brimming with culture, art, and history. It’s where more than 175,000 Jews lived including textile salesman Moshe Luster and his wife Golda.

Moshe and Golda were married in Vienna in 1919 and in 1921, their first child, Helli, was born. Six years later, their son, Leo joined the family. The Lusters lived, like many other Jewish families, in Vienna’s second district, on 12 Schreygasse Street which was a Jewish world of its own. The children attended a religious school and the family attended the local synagogue on Shabbat and holidays. The Lusters enjoyed the cultural experiences Vienna had to offer and particularly loved going to the theatre together to watch the comedic films of the era. But as the years went by, the Lusters learned that the Jews had nothing to laugh about.

Moses and Golda Luster’s wedding photo. Photo courtesy of Centropa.

Friday, March 11, 1938.

Moshe and Leo Luster were in the synagogue for traditional Shabbat prayers. On their way home, a neighbor stopped Moshe on the street and said, “Mr. Luster, something terrible has happened. Chancellor Schuschnigg (Chancellor of the Federal State of Austria) has resigned.” Moshe Luster knew at once: this was the beginning of the end.

Leo Luster
Leo Luster, 1935. Photo courtesy of Centropa.

The Austrian military had been instructed not to resist and the next day the Germans marched on Austria. The Viennese public quickly took up the cause and began wearing swastika armbands. Soon after, the Jews of Austria became a hunted minority. The beautiful multi-ethnic metropolis that was Vienna ceased to exist as the Nazi party took over the country and occupied all government functions.

The country’s Jews, including Moshe Luster, lost their jobs, their apartments, and their dignity. Eight months after the initial invasion of the Germans, the pogrom of Kristallnacht brought out the worst in a nation that had once been so accepting.

Moshe, Golda, and their children watched as their Viennese neighbors rioted.

They stood helplessly by as they burned synagogues and destroyed Jewish shops.

Thousands of Jewish men were arrested – Moshe was among them.

He was eventually released by the Nazis but was given strict orders not to speak of the horrors he experienced at the hands of his imprisoners or risk further trouble.

From December of 1938, the Jews were segregated from the rest of the city. Jewish children were required to attend separate schools and were not allowed to play in public parks. The Jewish community found the only solution available – they opened the Jewish cemetery as new playgrounds for the local children.

With their synagogue lying in ruins, the Luster family was forced to hold Leo’s bar mitzvah quietly in the family home, with the curtains drawn tight.

Jews began frantically fleeing Vienna, taking refuge wherever it was offered. Moshe managed to get Helli out of the country and sent her on her way to the Land of Israel. Leo and his parents were not so lucky.

On 24 September 1942, the Nazis deported Moshe, Golda, and Leo from Vienna. Leo was just 15 years old when he was forced into a crowded train car for the two-day journey to Theresienstadt

Postcard with a photo of Terezín before it became a Jewish ghetto. Photo courtesy of Centropa.

Terezín was originally built by Emperor Joseph II as a fortress in the 1780s, and after 1918, it was used by the Czechoslovakian army. The Nazis turned it into the Jewish ghetto of Theresienstadt and filled it with tens of thousands of people forced to live in squalor.

Leo was put to work in the kitchens. While the work was labor intensive, he was grateful to have enough to eat. Sometimes the youth was even able to smuggle rations out of the kitchen to his parents. Leo would watch as people were hauled out of the Ghetto in train car after train car. On September 28th, 1944, Leo, Moshe, and 2,500 others were added to the transport list.  Golda was left behind to fend with fates unknown.

Postcard of Theresienstadt. Photo courtesy of Centropa.

Moshe and Leo spent two days traveling in a cramped cattle car. The train stopped suddenly in the middle of the night and the men were forced out of the car into a brightly lit area surrounded by electric fences where they were stripped of all their belongings. One by one they were forced to stand in front of an SS officer.

“What is your profession,” the officer asked Leo.

He wisely answered, “electrician.”

Leo was sent to one side, Moshe to the other. It was only a few hours later, when he saw the fires from the crematorium, that he understood that he would never see his father again.

Three weeks later, Leo was sent to a labor camp in Gliwice where he was forced to repair train cars. A few weeks later, on January 18, 1945, the SS officers gathered their prisoners and forced them to march through the terrible conditions of the dead of winter, barefoot and in tattered clothing. Those who could not go on were shot and left for dead.

Finally, they stopped marching. They had arrived at a camp called Blechhammer. The SS officers locked their prisoners in the barracks and set fire to the buildings. Those who tried to escape were shot. But Leo managed to hide and avoid the inferno that claimed the lives of his fellow prisoners.

After some time, Leo dared to sneak out of his hiding space. The Nazis were gone and Leo set off, walking along the street that led out of the camp in search of help. He came upon a group of trucks with red stars on their hoods. A Russian soldier approached him and Leo shouted out in Yiddish: “Yid, ja. Yid, Yid.” – I am a Jew.

The soldier looked at him and said, “Ja tosche Yid.” – I too am a Jew.

Leo Luster in Katowice with Polish and Russian soldiers in 1945. Photo courtesy of Centropa.

Leo guided the soldiers back to the smoldering ruins of the camp. The soldiers gave the surviving Jews food and water and cared for them. A few weeks later they made their way to Krakow, where they received identification documents from the Red Cross.

One day, a Russian officer turned to Leo and said, “The war is over, you can go wherever you want.”

Leo had but one mission in mind: to find out what became of his poor, beloved mother Golda who had been left behind to fend for herself.  He set out on his journey to Theresienstadt. He traveled by train and through the kindness of others who were willing to pick up a refugee hitchhiker. He arrived in the newly liberated Ghetto and immediately sought out those who would have information on Golda’s whereabouts.

Leo found Golda hiding in a tiny attic.

“Where is your father?” she asked.

For more on the story of Leo Luster, please visit the Centropa website.

This post was written as part of Gesher L’Europa, the NLI’s initiative to connect with Europe and make our collections available to diverse audiences in Europe and beyond.