By Alex Jimenez Nimmo

In 1936, Dr Hedwig Leibetseder (née Abranowicz 1900-1989) jumped from the rear window on the 5th floor of no. 14 Düsseldorfer Strasse in Berlin.  She had just travelled to Prague to retrieve a microphotography copy of the indictment of the first trial against Neu Beginnen, the anti-Nazi resistance group to which she belonged, but the Gestapo were lying in wait to seize the document upon her return. 

In a valiant attempt to protect her comrades, she leapt 28 metres to the street below, sustaining ‘severe rib fractures, spinal injuries and, unfortunately, partial hearing loss’.[1] Dr Leibetseder was detained, questioned by the Gestapo in Moabit Prison and put on trial where she was sentenced to 2 ¼ years internment.  She began her sentence in Jauer prison and ended it in Lichtenburg, a Renaissance castle that was reconverted in 1933 by the Nazis as one of the first concentration camps.

For this Viennese journalist and scholar of English literature, sorrows came not as single spies, but in battalions, as during the years of incarceration she was stripped of her doctorate for anti-Nazi activity and her husband divorced her on the grounds of her Jewish background.  Suffering from hearing loss, which deprived her of the communicative solace of the spoken word behind prison walls, the written word and letters became an even more powerful source of news for Dr Leibetseder. They were also a way of expressing her love and concerns for her family, as the grip of National Socialism tightened across Germany and her native Austria.

Photograph of Dr Hedwig Leibetseder in KZ Lichtenburg, c.1937-1938, Wiener Holocaust Library Collections

Initially, Lichtenburg concentration camp held male prisoners until 1937, when they were transferred to Sachsenhausen and Buchenwald and women prisoners took their place. It became known for its damp, overcrowded conditions, exacerbated by the dilapidated structure of the castle.

In her autobiographical essay ‘Women Prisoners of Hitler’, Dr Leibetseder points out that ‘being a decent person with an upright mind and the courage to stand up for what you believe in, is a signpost that sends you directly to prison in Hitler’s Germany’.[1] She was detained for political activities, but a postcard sent by Dr Leibetseder from Lichtenburg on the 11th November 1938, two days after Kristallnacht, reveals that she was also placed under a month-long ban on packages and letters for Jewish prisoners.[2]

The letters on display in the Library’s current exhibition date from September and December 1938 and are a rare example of correspondence from Lichtenburg. The first was written after Dr Leibetseder had been deprived of communication from her family whilst interned in Jauer and her words are filled with urgency and concern: ‘I am prepared to tolerate hunger and despair and everything imaginable if only I could be together with the people whom I personally love and value’. She then states that she is allowed just 1 parcel and enumerates a series of items she wants her family to pack starting with warm clothes and hygiene products. Her list is suddenly cut short by an incision in the paper, the letter has clearly been censored by the camp authorities.

Censored letter written by Dr Hedwig Leibetseder to her family from Lichtenburg concentration camp, 1938. Wiener Holocaust Library Collections

The painful irony of this ruthless edit would not have escaped Dr Leibetseder, as she worked as an editor for the cultural publication Das Magazin prior to being arrested.  Moreover, the cut-out sections follow her phrase ‘you have to provide your own reading matter here…’, which strongly suggests that she may have requested books viewed as subversive or opposed to Nazi ideology.  

The second letter is written two months later: ‘Between today and the last time – what an eternity!’. Looking forwards now, Dr Leibetseder expresses her desires and anxieties about becoming a refugee in the United Kingdom. She has just received news about her divorce and fears that ‘it can be damaging for my future (the English domain, the English attitude to these things)’.

Birthday letter from Luki, Dr Hedwig Leibetseder’s sister in 1942.

Although laws were introduced to facilitate divorce after WWI, marital separation was still viewed as grounds for judgement and shame throughout the first half of the 20th century and these letters reflect some of the social stigmas female refugees faced. The last passage conveys a message of hope, as despite feeling like she is ‘sitting on a dead branch’, Dr Leibetseder says she knows ‘life will come again’. The letter ends with a clarion call, as she urges her family (and herself) to ‘Emigrate. And write’.

In March 1939, two months before the camp was closed and the remaining women prisoners were transferred to Ravensbrück, Dr Hedwig Leibetseder was released from Lichtenburg with the help of her mother and two sisters and joined the former and her sister Luki who had already reached British shores.

During the war years, Dr Leibetseder adopted the name Vicky Abrams and lived between Belsize Park in London and Nottingham, where she could visit her mother and sister who settled in Ilkeston. The exchange of family letters from this period reveal how mundane conversation could become extraordinary and beautiful in a situation of conflict, a birthday letter sent to Dr Leibetseder by her sister in 1942, for instance, was illustrated with detailed drawings of flowers, including, importantly, the flower forget-me-not.

[1] Miscellaneous writings of Dr Hedwig Leibetseder, Wiener Holocaust Library Collections, 1031/1/202-206.

[2] Postcard from Vicky Abrams to her mother stating that the mail service in KZ Lichtenburg will be suspended on account of the ‘Jewish murder in Paris’ [a reference to the trigger for Kristallnacht], Wiener Holocaust Library Collections, 1031/1/43.

[3] Correspondence between Dr Hedwig Leibetseder and former comrades, Wiener Holocaust Library Collections, 1031/1/158-196.