In 1932, the Eschwege family lived in Schenklengsfeld, a village in eastern Hessen, Germany. In 1933, there were 132 Jews living there. Josef Eschwege taught at the local Jewish primary school, where there was one classroom for all ages, and everyone studied together. Josef was also a cantor and Shohet (ritual slaughterer). Until her marriage, Berta (née Adler) worked as a teacher at the Jewish primary school. Josef and Berta had five children: Shimon (b. 1922), Shlomo (b. 1923), Yehudit (b. 1925), Chana (b. 1926) and Nathan (b. 1930). In 1933, following the Nazis' rise to power in Germany, ritual slaughter was outlawed. The Jewish school was closed in December the same year, and the Eschwege children started attending the Christian school in the village. Yosef continued to teach them Jewish studies.
In 1936, the family moved to Frankfurt am Main, where Josef got a job at the Jewish primary school. The children attended school, and joined youth movements: Shimon and Shlomo joined "Bahad" (Brit Halutzim Datiyim - League of Religious Pioneers), and Yehudit and Chana joined Ezra.
In October 1938, Shimon immigrated to Eretz Israel (Mandatory Palestine) with the Youth Aliyah, and reached "Mikve Israel". On 1938, during the November pogrom (Kristallnacht), rioters came to the Eschweges' apartment building. They banged on the doors and shouted: "Are there Jews here?" A German neighbor who was active in the Nazi party answered: "There are decent people here!", and the rabble left without causing any harm. On 12 November, Josef went to pray at the synagogue housed in a next-door orphanage. That day, all those who came to the synagogue were arrested, including Yosef. He was taken to Buchenwald, and released five weeks later. His military service in World War I was presumably helpful in securing his release. He returned home battered and bruised, with a shaven head. Berta and Josef started exploring every avenue to get their children out of Germany.
On 5 January, Yehudit, Chana and Nathan left home with a group of children organized by Isidore Marks, director of the Jewish orphanage in Frankfurt, and arrived at the children's home in Heiden, Switzerland. Berta and Josef tried to persuade Shlomo to leave Germany and join his brother in Eretz Israel. Shlomo didn't want to leave his parents alone, but eventually capitulated. In August 1939, he immigrated with the Youth Aliyah and joined his brother in "Mikve Israel". Berta and Josef remained in Frankfurt. Meanwhile, the Jewish school in Frankfurt was closed down, and Josef started giving private lessons at home.
Until November 1941, they managed to maintain a steady correspondence with their children in Eretz Israel and Switzerland, sending letters every week. They did their best to educate their children from afar, and to give them spiritual guidance to help them cope until their reunion. Berta and Josef tried everything to leave Germany, but all their efforts were in vain.
On 19 November 1941, Berta and Josef were forced to leave their home, and were crowded together with other Jews in a factory building in Frankfurt's wholesale market. A day earlier, they had written to their children:
Thank you from the bottom of our hearts for your precious letter, which we were so happy to receive… God has looked after us, and bestowed His goodness upon us. He will stretch out His hand, which protects us, and will bring us together again when He sees fit, as we recite in the evening prayer: "The guardian of Israel neither slumbers nor sleeps." So don't fear, darling children, until you know our new address… From your father.
A short time before we set off on our way, I send you my heartfelt blessings. Filled with hope and faith, we look to our Father in Heaven, who will ensure a good outcome for you and for us. And you, dear children, be strong, and maintain faith and trust in God, may His name be blessed, and live according to His will and His precepts, and then – when He sees fit – He will save us all… Kisses from Mother
This letter was the last sign of life from Berta and Josef. On 22 November, they were deported from Frankfurt on the third deportation from the city, a transport carrying over 900 Jews. Their destination was Riga, Latvia, but due to the severe overcrowding in the Riga ghetto at that time, the destination was altered and the train travelled to Kovno, Lithuania, approximately 1,500 km northeast of Frankfurt. The journey took three days. On 25 November, the deportees, including Berta and Josef, were murdered at the Ninth Fort, the murder site of Kovno Jewry. None of the Jews on the transport from Frankfurt survived.
The children's home in Heiden, Switzerland, where the Eschwege children arrived with another 40 children from Germany, was a home for Jewish orphans, which Jewish children from the area attended for summer camp. The young refugees from Germany didn't go to school, but studied with the help of a Jewish student refugee from Hungary. The older children worked in the kitchen, laundry and vegetable garden. When Yehudit turned 16, she had to leave the children's home to work as a housekeeper with a Jewish family in Lucerne. A few months later, Chana also left the home and went to work as a housekeeper. The family Chana lived with took Nathan out of the children's home so that he would be in a more religious environment, and prepared him for his Bar Mitzvah, but Nathan contracted meningitis and died in Lucerne in January 1945.
After the war, Shimon, Shalom, Yehudit and Chana discovered their parents' tragic fate. Yehudit got married in Switzerland, and in 1945, Chana immigrated to Eretz Israel.
In 1955, Shimon Esch (Eschwege) submitted Pages of Testimony in memory of his parents Josef and Berta Eschwege. In 2012, Chana Gutman (Eschwege) donated the dozens of letters and postcards that her parents had sent their children in Eretz Israel and Switzerland, to Yad Vashem as part of the national project "Gathering the Fragments".