"The giving of the statutes [Torah] was a one-time event, but they will be in force for as long as the world exists. The commandments are so sacred and immutable that we must aspire to observe them under any circumstances."
Siegfried Bodenheimer wrote these words in his last letter to his son Ernst in the children's home in Montintin, three months before Ernst's Bar Mitzvah.
Eliezer ben Yehoshua (Ernst Bodenheimer) was born in 1929 in Niederhöchstadt, a town in southwest Germany. He was the second child born to Klara and Siegfried Bodenheimer, a World War I veteran. His older sister Ilse (later Ilana Yaron), was born in 1928.
On 10 November 1938, during the Kristallnacht pogrom, ten-year-old Ilse and her brother Ernst were made to stand apart from all the other children in the courtyard of the Christian school they attended. There, in the presence of all the kindergarten and schoolchildren, they were forced to witness the burning of the Torah scrolls and Jewish books from the adjacent synagogue.
That same afternoon, SS men burst into their home and arrested Siegfried. Klara and the two children were evicted from Niederhöchstadt the next day, together with all the town's Jews. Siegfried was released several weeks later, and the family was permitted to return home.
In February 1939, Ilse was sent on the Kindertransport to France. The group, numbering 120 children who left Germany and Austria after Kristallnacht, was entrusted to the care of the Baroness de Rothschild in France, and housed in one of her palaces. In 1941, the OSE Jewish aid society in France assumed responsibility for the children.
Siegfried, Klara and Ernst were deported to the Gurs transit camp, and from there to the Rivesaltes camp. Later on, Ernst was taken out of the camp by the OSE and sent to the Montintin children's home in France. The OSE also made sure that the siblings were able to meet on occasion.
Following rumors that the children may be deported to Drancy, Ilse was transferred to a convent in the Villefranche area, together with a group of girls whose German accent was likely to give them away. The girls were equipped with false papers and hid there under assumed identities.
In July 1944, Ilse and other children were smuggled from France into Spain via the Pyrenees and were brought to a home for Jewish children in Barcelona. This group reached Eretz Israel (Mandatory Palestine) in early November 1944. Eventually Ilse, who had changed her name to Ilana, married Mordechai, who was also German-born and immigrated on the same ship. In 1946, two years after his sister, Ernst immigrated to Eretz Israel. He changed his name to Eliezer ben Yehoshua and became a member of Kibbutz Shluchot in the Bet Shean Valley.
In August 1942, Siegfried and Klara Bodenheimer were deported from Drancy to Auschwitz, where they were murdered. In 1955, Eliezer ben Yehoshua submitted Pages of Testimony in memory of his parents, Siegfried and Klara. In 2017 Eliezer's widow, Rachel ben Yehoshua, donated Siegfried Bodenheimer's last letter to Yad Vashem for posterity.
Les Milles camp, 18.5.42
My beloved Ernst,
Yesterday I received your letter of 10.5 and was glad to hear that you are well. We are always very interested to hear how your Achilles tendon is faring. What I hear from you alleviates my anxiety and I see that as far as you are concerned, all is well. Let's hope it stays that way. What do you hear from your beloved Ilse and from Mother? You will always receive mail from La Chatre.
Dear Ernst, although we [the family] are spread out, we have to thank God for one thing: that as of now, all of us are more or less healthy. Do you feel the same way, dear Ernst? We are now approaching Shavuot. What this means for us – I don't need to tell you. The giving of the statutes [Torah] was a one-time event, but they will be in force for as long as the world exists. The commandments are so sacred and immutable that we must aspire to observe them under any circumstances. From this year forward, my dear son, you will have to observe them, and therefore, please act accordingly. But despite everything, always remain happy and good-hearted. Come what may, the war will still go on for a long time. The most important thing is that you learn something that will be useful.
Here, nothing significant has taken place. In the last week, many people have been forced to leave and go out to work. A few friends left for the US, and on Shabbat, a few received evacuation notices [transports to Auschwitz] for mid-June.
Have I already written to you that we have two beautiful dogs, called Pateraf and Conchet?
I see that you can already correct my mistakes! Yes, I spelled the word Mattre wrong. The French doesn't penetrate my old head. For example: today – Monday – I had an English lesson, and in the morning, a French lesson.
Dear Ernst, observe the festival well, and regards and kisses from your father.
Heartfelt regards to all the children we know, especially Av Maksel.
Can you read my handwriting?