In March of 2019, I received an email from a researcher named Eve Brandel. A trained librarian and daughter of two Holocaust survivors, Eve had been in contact for years with various staff of the Museum’s Collections and Exhibitions Department. This time, Eve was hoping to arrange a viewing of eighteen drawings in the Museum collection, whose existence she had discovered several years prior. Created in 1943 by Eve’s father, caricaturist Max Brandel, the drawings were a gift for his fellow internee Jerome Mahrer, who donated them to the Museum nearly fifty years later in 1999. For Eve, this discovery unlocked a cascade of research into the conditions of her father’s imprisonment and the lives of his fellow internees.
Like her father, Eve Brandel renders these men with careful attentiveness and skill. The results of her research on her father’s fellow prisoners at the German civilian internment camps of Tittmoning and Laufen are now available to the public for the first time, in exquisite detail. After working with Eve to publish images of the caricatures, we were grateful that she agreed to be interviewed for the Museum blog. I spoke to Eve about her research journey, the skills that helped her along the way, and her most unforgettable discoveries.
You compiled a remarkably detailed history of your father’s experience in Tittmoning and Laufen. Prior to your research, what did you know about your parents’ Holocaust experiences?
My father acted as if he had been dropped on to the streets of New York in 1948 with no past whatsoever. He never spoke about his family or about his prewar life or about his wartime experiences. My mother was more communicative – she did talk a bit about her childhood and youth, and she would also allude to time spent “in prison” during the war. She told me that she was sent there because she had Costa Rican papers, and she told me that my father had been in a different prison, also because of the Costa Rican papers. For most of my life, though, I really had no context for anything she was saying.
After I found the caricatures, I became somewhat obsessed with finding out about my father’s past. He had died when I was 21 and unconcerned with my family’s history. I also became obsessed with learning the stories of the men who lived alongside my father in Ilag VII. Whenever I tracked down the name of an internee, I tried to find out more about him. I wanted to write about these men and honor their memories.
Did your professional training contribute to the success of your research?
There was very little, really almost nothing, on the internet when I started looking for answers, and there still isn’t. There has not been much research into the German civilian internment camps, and Ilag VII is almost entirely unknown. It soon became clear that if I wanted to learn my family history, I would have to research my way there. I have several decades of reference librarianship under my belt, so I certainly drew on my librarian skills in my research process, although I also attribute the successes I have had to simple persistence and a lot of good luck. Almost every bit of information in my article required research in primary source materials: archival and genealogical records, newspaper and magazine articles, memoirs (both published and unpublished), and email exchanges and in-person interviews with survivors and their descendants. As a librarian, much of this terrain was familiar to me.
Being able to connect with survivors and other people with firsthand knowledge of the camp was really huge. The Museum – in particular, Curator of Collections Esther Brumberg – made it possible for me to connect with Jerry Mahrer, and then Jerry connected me with his brother Peter and with Helen Hiestand (the daughter of Peter Rosenbaum, an internee in one of my father’s caricatures) and her husband Greg, who were also actively researching Ilag VII. I was fortunate to make contact with two other survivors, who sadly have since passed away – time is not your friend when you are searching for people who lived through World War II era events. I was thrilled to find several descendants of internees – an ongoing project – and one of them put me in touch with one of the soldiers who liberated Laufen, now in his nineties and living in Florida.
Could you share some of your most surprising discoveries?
- Finding that many internees devoted their time to music and art and sports and theater – that they organized an educational system – and that they were able to forge meaningful connections with each other in spite of the difficult circumstances and their incredibly different backgrounds.
- Finding out that many Jews, not just my parents, pinned their hopes of Holocaust survival on false Latin American passports. (This turns out to be an area that is currently being researched by a number of people.)
- Uncovering the deeply ironic story of the African Americans civilians – musicians, variety entertainers, athletes, and others – who left American racism behind, only to be swept up in the German war effort and, eventually, made to return to America.
- For pure astonishment value, nothing will ever surpass coming across my father’s Tittmoning caricatures in the Museum’s collections website. The fact that Jerry Mahrer held on to them for decades, and then donated them to the Museum, and that I live in an age where I could sit at my computer and see them – well, I am still astonished about that.
Whether you are a veteran family history researcher or just starting out, Eve Brandel’s research is not to be missed. Read more about her father, Max Brandel, and the German civilian internment camps on Medium.com.