A while ago a Slovakian girl came to my house as a lodger. I am fascinated by all the different cultures and languages I find around me, and I believed her to be the first Slovakian I had ever met. She said, well no, there’s a lot of us about. And sure enough, that week I noticed several SK car registrations, and met another Slovakian. I told my mum this rather dull anecdote, and she said “You know, my grandmother Fortgang, she came from a little place called Ludrova, near Bratislava. That is in Slovakia, isn’t it?” And, sure enough, when I checked it out, there is no doubt that I am one eighth Slovakian.

Fortgang Family Photo circa 1909
Fortgang family portrait, c.1909

back row: Willi, Fritz, Moritz (aka Ernst), Lui ( aka Alois, Mum’s dad)

front row: Else, Adel, Rudi, Ignac, Olga

Mum said that the Fortgang brothers were devoted to their mother, and my granddad used to visit relatives in Ludrova every summer when mum was a child in Vienna in the 30s. He went back once after the war, but never talked about it. Well, the thing is, we’re going to Vienna in just over a week, and Mum keeps expressing a desire to visit Ludrova. It turns out that Ludrova is over 4 hours from Bratislava by train and bus, plus the short journey from Vienna to Bratislava, so I need more than just Mum’s childhood recollections before planning this trip.

Golden Wedding Samual & Cecilie Brauner Aug 1910
Brauner family group 1910. Adel is seated far left,next to her parents, Cecilie and Samuel

Through the records on I had already discovered that at least two of Adel’s sisters had moved to Vienna before 1900: Rosa, married to Jacob Quallbrunn, and Anna, married to Jacob Kalt, because these gentlemen had signed as witnesses on the Fortgang’s documents.  Searching through  Quallbrunn births I discovered that Rosa and Jacob had married in Ludrova, confirming that that was where the Brauners were living at the time. This wasn’t enough information. Frustratingly, on all documents, husbands and fathers had to give heir place of birth, but not wives and mothers.

Through the Brauner family we are related to Jews across the globe: Samuel and Cecilie’s descendants may be found in Israel, New Zealand, Argentina and Sweden, as well as the UK. But on the genealogy website,, Ludrova was not mentioned as a place of birth. So, as a last resort, I consulted the Holocaust victims’ database at Yad Vashem.

Yad Vashem tells us that 8 Brauners living in and around Ludrova in 1942 were taken and murdered. This included cousins, aunts and uncles of my grandfather, among them Rosa Quallbrunn.  So Mum now knows what her dad didn’t tell her after that post-war trip. She still wants to go there, the only question being whether she will feel up to the travelling.

It seems mysterious why so many stayed while others went to great pains to escape. But assembling all the necessary documents to leave greater Germany legally was by no means easy, and after September 1939, clearly impossible. One of Rosa Quallbrunn’s daughters had themselves smuggled over  Hungary’s eastern border during the war, and thence made their way to Palestine with their family. It was Rosa’s Israeli great-grandson Itzik Goldberger who placed the extended family tree on and established our connection with them. I had a very pleasant skype-chat with Itzik a while ago and we agreed to further investigate all things Brauner.


Just in case you’re confused about these relationships, here’s a little tree I made showing Mum’s ancestors:

7_Generations_of_Ruth_Fortgang (2)


the blog is back

We remember the dead, we have a fabulous time in Vienna, and we get in touch with newly discovered (Jewish) relatives from across the globe. Now read on. . .


5. More about the dead and the living

So, after a ten month hiatus the blog returns. Why the hiatus? I could no longer contemplate the murdered dead. Therefore,  I sought the living, made enquiries, sent emails, and now we are in contact with newly discovered cousins, which is wonderful.

But the victims are like a wall that I cannot get past. Slowly, I learn more about them, and I would like to summarise for you the current state of our knowledge of them. Details of wartime deaths are all from the Yad Vashem database of Holocaust victims. The rest is mainly from my mother’s memories.

Max Sonntag (1890-1942) and Berta Sonntag, née Kafka (1890-1942). Max and Berta decided to remain in Vienna. They married in a civil ceremony in May 1939. In September 1942 they were transported to the death camp at Maly Trostinec where they were almost certainly shot within 4 days.

Berta Bund, née Sonntag (187?- 194?). Berta was the aunt that Mum’s family stayed with after they lost their home and business at the end of 1938. She had just been widowed in July 1938, and had no children. After Mum’s family left for England in March 1939, she remained to care for her sister Regin, who had had a stroke. Mum does not wish to discover the fate of Berta, but we know that she did not survive the war, nor did she die in Vienna (all Jewish deaths in Vienna would appear in the burial records of the Kultusgemeinde).

Regin Kohn, née Sonntag (1883-1939?). Regin married her sister’s widow, Alfred Kohn, after Mizzi had died in 1921, bringing up their three children. There is a burial record for a Regin Kohn who died in May 1939 and was buried in the grave of Alfred Kohn. Although the names were relatively common, the dates and ages appear to match, and so we hope that Regin died of natural causes soon after Mum’s family left for England. If this is the case her death is directly related to the government policy of denying medical treatment to Jewish people, resulting in a great surge in the death-rate of Jews in Vienna in 1939.

Adolf Eichmann’s graphic showing the overall death-count of Jews in Vienna. Eichmann’s task was to reduce the Jewish population by any means. It should be pointed out that, since up to 80% of the Jews emigrated during this period, the rise in the death rate as a percentage of the  remaining population was huge. (source: Jewish Museum, Vienna)

Max Wessely (1888-1945). Max was the husband of Max Sonntag’s twin sister Hermine (“Minni”). Shortly after the outbreak of war the Wesselys escaped from Vienna, and found their way to Italy. In 1944 Max was picked up  in Rome by the Germans and transported to Buchenwald, where he died. He was a linguist and language teacher.

Minni Wessely (1890-1953) somehow survived the war, probably working as a dressmaker in Italy. Directly after the war she returned to Vienna, where she later committed suicide.

In Vienna, June 1-5, 2015

As soon as we touched down in Vienna, Mum perked up, saying “This is the air I was born to”. The sky was a deep, cloudless blue,temperatures touching 30c, but  she happily walked from the Schwedenplatz  to our hotel. I had been convinced I would have to carry or push her. In the warm evenings we ate outside, watching the world go by in this amazing multicultural crossroads. By coincidence our hotel was in the second district, which was where Sigmund Sonntag and many other galizien Jews had settled in the second half of the 19th century, and was again home to a thriving Orthodox Jewish community.

Cafe culture in the second district

Mum chatted with the couples dining at adjoining tables, and anybody else. All seemed interested in our quest, and open about the history of it all, although there was no doubt that the history was contested:  as we spoke of genocide, they talked of bombed buildings and bridges. What do we care about their bridges, for goodness sake?  But we chat and hope for a better world. The conversations all switched to English due to my lack of German. It is beginning to annoy me.

“The air I was born to”

The second day we spent in the Mittelstadt, mostly in the two Jewish museums. Our third day was dedicated to the enormous City cemetery, the Zentralfriedhof,  looking for family graves.

The gravestones tell a clear story of economic decline.


Sigmund Sonntag himself was placed under an imposing black marble obelisk that had been erected for his brother Isidor some 17 years earlier. A hitherto unknown sister, Charlotte, is also inscribed on the stone. I believe only immediate family members would be buried in the same grave, hence my conviction that they are siblings.



The gravestone of his widow, Helene (my great-grandmother) lay flat on the ground and no writing could be discerned on it, such is the poor quality of the materials used in 1931. We also  found the gravestone of Alfred Kohn. Although a space had been left for his wife, it is blank. Clearly, in 1939, there was no money for a stonemason.



We found the grave shared  by Mizzi Kohn (née Sonntag) and her mother Anna (née Laub), Sigmund’s first wife. To our delight, the stone was clearly legible, and shows that Hermine Wessely-Sonntag was also buried there in 1953. This must have been the work of Willi Sonntag, whom we know was in Vienna at that time. Mum is comforted to know that, after all her sufferings, Minni lies with her own family.

On our final day we decided to go to 52 Zieglergasse, the Sonntag’s home from the 1890s until Selma Sonntag left it in 1939.

On the way Mum wanted to visit an antiquarian bookshop that was advertising original newspapers from the  1880s onwards.


a cornucopia of nostalgia

The shop contained books and memorabilia of all types, from soft porn to railway timetables, but when I explained our interest in all things Jewish the gentlemen became very evasive, adopting the simple ruse of not understanding my German. Mum eventually settled on buying four old newspapers for an inordinate sum. While we were waiting for them to be found and brought from the back of the shop, a large rustic-looking gentleman rushed into the shop and asked for a copy of Mein Kampf. The bookseller opened one of the compartments behind the counter and brought out a sheaf of very old paperbacks. The customer impatiently picked one of the books up, saying “Just this one”, paid and left. The booksellers smiled impassively and a seated lady rolled her eyes. I said to one of the men “Can I look?”, and he replied “Yes, why not. It is better that these things are seen and talked about, no?”  One book was of anti-Nazi caricatures of Hitler, clearly critiquing them. The cover showed a mighty Hitler bestriding a group of weak pen-jabbers. The message was unmistakable. Another was called “The Myth of the 20th Century”, and the bookseller said it was the second most important Nazi text after Mein Kampf. He hastened to stress that the author, Alfred Rosenberg, was not, despite his name, Jewish. He was warming to his theme, and then told me about the great English lady, Walküre Mitford, who they believed would be the Führer’s consort and bring National Socialism to England. We know the lady as Diana Mitford, who married Oswald Mosley.

On leaving the shop, Mum and I reflected that the gentlemen, being around 80 years old (the elder said he was born in 1934), would have spent their formative years under National Socialism, so their nostalgia for it was understandable.


52 Zieglergasse


Although the concrete façade looks relatively modern, the sagging roof of 52 Zieglergasse betrays the building’s age (built by 1841). The ground floor is now a restaurant, and although it was shut we poked our heads through the half-open doorway, and the owner let us come in. Mum could sense memories coming back to her, and the restaurateur became more interested as he overheard our conversation, and came to join us. He revealed that he too was Jewish, and told of his family’s journey from Soviet Tajikistan to Israel to Vienna. He wanted to know all about the Sonntags, and let us explore the inner  courtyard. Mum exclaimed that she could remember her grandmother waving from a first floor balcony that no longer  exists. A memory from when she was no more than 3 years old, since her grandmother died in 1931. I feel indebted to this restaurateur and hope to visit him again.

On the final evening in the hotel, Mum keeps saying “When are we coming again?” I have to point out that my siblings would rightly claim that it would not then be my turn to accompany her. I have the laptop open, still following the development of my family tree on I and others are resolving  data conflicts and joining it to other people’s trees. I remember Itzik Goldberger, who had placed my family on the site several years ago. I click on a link to his profile. Underneath his smiling face it reads “Itzik Goldberger is your 3rd cousin.”


Cousin Daisy

In November I received a reply from the Kultusgemeinde, saying that they had found the living relative I had been looking for, the daughter of Mum’s cousin Edith Sonntag, who  had died in the year 2000. Not only that, but they had spoken to her, and she would be delighted to be in touch, and here is her phone number and address in Vienna. So Mum gets her wish: she is going back to Vienna. And I get my wish: I’m going too.



to Vienna in search of the living, June 2015


Descendants of Sigmund Sonntag to the third generation, with spouses

If you click on the hyperlink above and download this family tree you can see why Mum believes she is the sole survivor of this once-great clan. 15 children, but only seven grandchildren: my mother, her brother, and 5 cousins. Any living cousins would be over 100 years old!

But there is another reason why we know so little about these cousins. When Mum decided, only a few weeks ago, to recount her recollections of the Sonntags, she was committing herself to exposing memories and emotions long-since hidden away. With the memories have returned the powerful, distressing feelings she had suppressed as a child, and also the reasons why she suppressed them. Ruth recently spoke to me of survivor’s guilt and cowardice as the reasons why she has never enquired about the fates of those they left behind in March 1939. It is still too painful for her, and that desire to forget has led her to ignore the possible existence of living Sonntag relatives.

Yesterday Mum said that it’s wrong that the victims should be forgotten, and I agree. Especially wrong if we, the relatives, forget those who do not have their own children to remember them. Tomorrow we travel to Vienna to start to trace living relatives, but in doing so we are going to the place that reminds us of the loss. We will visit graves and we will look for the buildings where her family lived. We are agreed that we will not consciously seek to find the fates of Holocaust victims, but we will accept those discoveries that come our way. One such discovery has been the fate of Max Sonntag – Onkel Max the communist, and his wife, whose identity Mum did not know.

max and berta wedding day

Max and Berta Sonntag (both 1890-1942)

On the back of the photo is written “24/5/39”. Max Sonntag’s birth record contains the addendum “Hat am 24.5.39 Fam. B. 1211/39 die Ehe geschlossen” (On 24.5.39 Family Court B 1211/39 [he] got married).

Max and Berta Sonntag are listed as prisoners 242 and 243 on  Transport 41 from Vienna to Maly Trostinec on 14/9/42. Maly Trostinec was an extermination camp, and so it is presumed they were not alive after 18/9/42.

There is a family tree on showing Max Sontag (sic) as the husband of Berta Kafka. No source evidence is given for this, so we are hoping to see the marriage record confirming her identity. The family tree shows 4 siblings of Berta Kafka’s, two of whom died in Vienna in the 1980s, so there is the possibility of living relatives to be found.

Edith Hofmann (1906-2000) We are pretty sure this lady was Mum’s first cousin, but need to verify it in order to trace any living family. Her birth record is available on, and shows that she is the daughter of Wilhelm Sonntag, but we need to find further records that prove that this Wilhelm is the same person as my mother’s Onkel Willi. These documents are only available through the Israelitisches Kultusgemeinde Wien, and in order to see them or get copies we need to fill in an absurdly complex form, return it to the IKG and wait patiently for their response, which may take some time as they are currently renovating the archive.

I have been unsuccessful in my attempt to get an interview with the IKG, or with the Town Hall’s Jewish Welcome Service so we are travelling to Vienna with no expectation of a speedy resolution to our queries. But in Vienna there will be good coffee, delicious cakes and wonderful art galleries, so wish us viel Vergnügen und viel Erfolg till we meet again. 1/6/15

3. Going Online

Helene Sonntag, Ruth's grandmother
Helene Sonntag, Ruth’s grandmother

If you enter the terms “Jewish records birth death Vienna” into a search engine you will be directed to the website of the Israelitische Kultusgemeinde Wien (the “IKG”). This body is the keeper of Viennese Jewish civil records from 1826 to 1938, including births, marriages, deaths and burials. This is in addition to records of religious ceremonies held in synagogues. Under this system, from about 1850, the Viennese Jews enjoyed full citizenship of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and Vienna became a magnet for jewish people from the surrounding countries. After Anschluss (the merging of the Austrian state into a greater Germany in March 1938), the IKG was disbanded and then reformed as an instrument through which the  Third Reich organised, firstly, the emigration of the Jewish population, and then their transportation to the death camps. In 1945 the IKG re-opened, but it appears now to be a specifically Orthodox Jewish body, and not easy to communicate with – you may send your enquiry via email; you may visit only by prior arrangement, owing to stringent security measures in force since a terrorist attack in 1985.

But help is at hand! Several organisations have taken on the task of placing genealogical records online, and an extensive set of microfilmed records from the IKG has been created and made freely available by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, aka the CLDS, aka the Mormons. So, I signed up! I simply answered “no” to the question “Are you a member of the CLDS?”

But it turns out you don’t have to join, you can just view the records here

The the time, care and resources invested, and the generosity of the CLDS, impress me greatly.

Up to this point my knowledge of the Sonntags was based almost entirely on my mother’s memories. I wanted to find the identity of Sigmund’s second wife, and so looked in the records of the Zentralfriedhof (a graveyard the size of an average town, with a railway station in the middle), around two years before the birth of Flora, whom Mum believed to be Helene’s first child. To my shock, I found this:

Burial record for a stillborn Sontag child
Burial record for a stillborn Sontag child

The sixth column clearly shows the age of the deceased as 0. The second entry (Brand) shows 11m (months), and another 14t (14 days), so this child is certainly stillborn. Worse, there is an identical record at the bottom of the previous page. The Sonntag surname is unusual and Mum thinks the address is familiar, so she is shocked to discover something that her mother had never mentioned. We still cannot be sure of this find, as it does not cross-reference to any certain data we have. More questions than answers.

So Dominic Rivron’s intervention 2 weeks ago was timely and invaluable. He showed me that somebody else, on a site called, had already constructed a partial tree for Sigmund Sonntag, involving one wife and three children, and our knowledge took a quantum leap forward. The tree contains a hyperlink to this:

Wedding record of Sigmund and Johanna Hermine Sonntag
Wedding record of Sigmund and Johanna Hermine Wallfisch,344266302,344288601

The page contains the records of four weddings, and you can see our man at the top.This document contains a wealth of information, and is the real starting point through which we have been able to construct a much more complete picture of the family. The marriage record contains dates of other events which enable me to track more records down. And so on. It turns out that Helene, Sigmund’s third wife, was the younger sister of this bride, Johanna Hermine Wallfisch. Johanna died in 1890, shortly after giving birth to twins. She was 28 years old. Helene, three years her junior, married in April 1892. Her first pregnancy resulted in the stillborn twins just 10 months later. I phone Mum to tell her about these facts as they are uncovered, and there are long silences as the reality of their lives sinks in.

At this moment in time we believe that Sigmund fathered 15 children, of whom 8 survived into adulthood. Of those that died in childhood or were stillborn, Ruth was only aware of one, Friedrich, her mother’s beloved brother who died at the age of 10. We now know that Anna Sonntag, the first wife, died of tuberculosis a month after giving birth to a son. The child had already died of “lebenswache” (“life-weak”) after 12 days. Anna was 32. It appears that Anna and Sigmund came to Vienna together with their three children, Bertha, Wilhelm and “Mizzi”. Anna was born Anna Laub, in the town of Przemysl in the Polish region of Galicia, only 50km from Sigmund’s birthplace Zolynia, right by the current Ukranian border. Of Anna’s 4 preganancies after arriving in Vienna, only one, Regina, survived infancy.

This is all obviously quite shocking for Mum, but she is facinated by it, too. Also slightly disconcerting is that our identities are being managed by North American Jewish genealogists, who appear to be legion on They take remembering very seriously. Even I, insignificant half-Jew that I am, find that my identity is “managed” by a gentleman named Itzik Goldberger. I feel honoured.

Well, I’m sorry this entry has been so heavy, and I must stop. I have bought a 27” monitor so I can scan through stuff more quickly, but really Mum and I need to get away from this and into planning our trip, which is only 3 weeks away!

Because of the sheer quantity of info and sources I have had to construct an index page, and for those of you who wish to see more, here it is. But please don’t feel obliged. Tata for now.

The Sonntag Index

Jakob Sonntag (?,?) father of Sigmund

Sara Sonntag, née ? (?,?), mother of Sigmund

Sigmund or Zische Sonntag.               born Zolynia, Poland 25/5/50, died Vienna 26/6/1928

Sigmund’s possible siblings: Leopold, Isidore, Süssman. Their names appear in documents in Vienna

Anna Sonntag, née Laub              born 1854, Przemysl, Galicia, Poland (50km from Zolynia)

married Sigmund Sonntag location? date?

died Vienna, 10/7/86,344266202,345944901

Anna and Sigmund’s children:

Wilhelm “Willi” Sonntag               born ?, ? died ?,?

? Sonntag, née ?                   born ??; died ?, ?;

married Wilhelm Sonntag ?,?

their two daughters ???

Bertha Sonntag                           born ?, died ?,?

Married A.Bund(t) ?,? at ? on ?,?. No children.

Margareta (“Mizzi”) Sonntag        born?,?, Died ?,?

married Alfred Kohn at ? on ?,?

their 3 children: “Anni” born Vienna,? Died London, c.1975; Albert “Berti” (?,?); Kurt (?,?)

Arthur Sonntag                           born Vienna 1881,344266802,344436201

died Vienna 1884

Louis Adolf Sonntag                    born Vienna 1882,344266802,344436201

died Vienna 1883

Regina (“Ginchi”) Sonntag           born Vienna 1883,344266802,344440801

died ?,?

married Alfred Kohn following the death of Margareta Kohn

baby boy Sonntag                        born Vienna 28/5/86; died Vienna 9/6/86,344266202,345944901

Johanna Hermine Sonntag, née Wallfisch      born Parkany, Hungary (now Slovakia) 22/12/61;                                                 married Sigmund Sonntag, Vienna 3/4/87,344266302,344288601

Died Vienna ?

Johanna and Sigmund’s children:

Marta Sonntag                            born Vienna 26/6/88,344266802,34448401

died ?,?

Hermine “Minna” Sonntag            born Vienna 13/4/90;

married Max Wessely ?,? at ? on ?; no children

died Vienna 1953

Max Sonntag                              born Vienna, 13/4/90,

married ? (?,?), Vienna 5/39; no children ?

died 1942, Maly Trostinec, Belarus

Helene Sonntag, née Wallfisch       born Parkany, Hungary (now Slovakia) ?, died Vienna ??/31

m Sigmund Sonntag 29/5/92,?

Helene and Sigmund’s children:

Twins, girl and boy                     stillborn   27/3/93,

buried 29/3/93,344266602,344327901

Friedrich “Friedl” Sonntag            born Vienna 18/3/94,344618001,344715601

; died Vienna ?/       ?/04

Flora Sonntag                             born Vienna, 28/5/95,344618001,344837101

; died London ?/?/51

married ?/?/27 Alois Fortgang (?,?)

their two children: Ruth born Vienna 20/8/28, still living; Robert born Vienna ?/?/31; died London 2009

Selma Sonntag                            born Vienna 14/2/99;,344618001,345179301

died London 1983

2: in which my mother tells me about the Sonntag family

2014-11-16-0622(0)“The Fortgangs are very noisy” my mother announced to me one day. “We should talk about the Sonntags, they’ve always been much quieter.”

And it was true, for whereas my mother’s father’s family, the Fortgangs, had survived the war intact, keeping their history alive, the story of her mother’s family was, to me, shrouded in mystery. Amazingly, I have met 12 of the 13 Fortgangs in the photo from 1941/2 (see blog 1), the only exception being my grandmother, Flora, née Sonntag.

Mum had already given me 90 minutes of recorded recollections of her childhood. While we talk, her maternal grandparents look on – their portraits have been hanging on the living room wall for as long as I can remember, and I have to confess, I had hardly any notion of who they are. Here is a transcript of our first recorded conversation regarding the Sonntags:2015-04-26-1067(0)

“On your mother’s side, your mother had a younger sister, Selma.”

“Yes, mother was born in ’95 and Selma in ’99.”

“And various other siblings, or half-siblings.”

“One sibling, Siegfried, died when he was 13. He had an accident, got concussion and he died. They never stopped talking about him, most lovingly. They never forgot him. Then there were twins which were older, from the middle wife, because grandfather married three times, his wives kept popping off. And there were twins: Max und Minna, Tante Minni und Onkel Max. There were older ones and there were three girls and a boy there.”

“Did any of these figure in your life?”

“Not much from the first lot, but Max and Minna a lot. Tante Minna a lot. And she kept visiting us in London. She survived the war. But Max. her twin did not survive. And, the older ones they were much older, they would have been in their 70s by then if they had survived.”

“So your grandfather Sonntag was a lot older.”

“Yes. I never saw Onkel Willi Sonntag, I don’t remember him at all, and then he had 3 sisters: Bertha, Mizzi – I think she must have been Margareta, Tante Mizzi. But I never knew her, she had died. But they talked about the dead people as though they were there, they were part of the family.”

“Who did?”

“The family. And her husband, when she died, married her younger sister, Regin. They called her Tante Ginchi.”

“Could you explain that to me again?”

“My grandfather Sonntag had four children by his first wife: Willi, whom I don’t remember at all ,and then three daughters: Tante Bertha, with whom we stayed when we lost everything, and then 2 sisters. Mizzi married a man called Alfred Kohn, and they had 3 children. And she must have died, I don’t know when, but then Alfred Kohn then married Mizzi’s younger sister. That was very common in Jewish families. And Tante Ginchi brought them up. And she was their mother, I only knew her as that: Anni, Kurt and Berti’s mother. None of them had any children of their own. Willi, Wilhelm the eldest son, I think he had daughters, but of the 3 sisters, they had the 3 Kohn off-spring and none of them had children. And neither of the twins had children either, Max and Minna.  And then Willi the eldest[´s children] and the Kohn children and then Robert and me, were the only grandchildren of that huge family. Extraordinary, isn’t it – Selma didn’t have any, her brother died as a child. Max and Minna didn’t have any.”

My mother had just told me so much about her family, but it was still very much a mystery. What had happened to them all? Who had perished under the Nazis? Was it possible that other descendents of Sigmund Sonntag were alive somewhere?

Based on the information we had to hand I made my first attempt at a family tree starting with my great grandfather Sigmund Sonntag. It is a mess.2015-04-27-1069

However, as a piece of narrative it goes something like this:

Sigmund Sonntag, or Sontag,  was born in Poland around 1860, and came to Vienna in the 1880s to make his fortune. He had three wives and nine children and a prosperous business. We do not even know the names of his first two wives. Only three of his children themselves had children, totalling seven grandchildren. To our knowledge my siblings and I are the only great grandchildren, but we don’t know what happened to Willi Sonntag and his two daughters. Maybe we have relatives out there somewhere?

To look for answers to these and many other questions, Mum and I have decided to go to Vienna, and it’s all booked! Three days at the beginning of June.  But before then it’s going to be vital to find out as much as we can from our existing documents, and from online sources. Next time I will tell you how I came to sign up with the Mormons, and what came of it. 26/4/15


1.   Ruth Adele Fortgang (1928-present)

My mother was born in Vienna to a secular Jewish family. The Viennese Jews’ distinct identity was perpetuated because their births, marriages, deaths and burials were registered separately from the rest of the population.

Her parents both came from large families who, up until the outbreak of the First World War, had been quite prosperous. Alois Fortgang (1890-1979) was the 2nd of 7 children of Isaack Chaim Fortgang (1860?- ?) and Adele, née Brauner (?- ?). Flora Sonntag (1895-1951), my grandmother, was the 8th of 9 surviving children of Sigmund Sonntag (1850-1928). He had three wives, the third of whom, Helene, née Wallfisch (?-1931), was my great-grandmother.

Flora and Ruth, Schönbrunn 1929
Flora and Ruth, Schönbrunn 1929

My mother believes that whilst her grandparents were conventionally religiously observant, none of her parents’ generation was. And the Jewish friends they had were those who, like them, were “unjewish”, as she puts it. Her family did not live or work in a predominantly Jewish area. It was a period of deep economic depression and her parents ran a shop/bar where her father mixed liqueurs and her mother made ham rolls. They lived in a modest, two-room, council-owned flat. My mother had a younger brother, Robert Ernst (1930-2009) and two nearby cousins, with whom she spent a lot of time. She describes her early childhood as “idyllic”.

l-r cousins Getraute and Günther, Robert and Ruth
l-r cousins Getraute and Günther, Robert and Ruth. Schönbrunn 1934








On the arrival of the Nazi government in 1938, the changes were rapid and profound. My mother was expelled from her school (subsequent investigations revealed that even the record of her attendance had been expunged). The family were evicted from their flat, and lived in a store-room behind the bar. They were then evicted from the bar. On the day after Kristalnacht (November 1938), whilst queuing for an exit visa, Alois Fortgang was arrested and transported in a cattle train to the concentration camp at Dachau. Flora and her two children went to stay with her sisters, Bertha and Regin, hardly daring to leave the flat.

For reasons as yet unclear, Alois was released from Dachau in January 1939; around the same time his brother Fritz was released from the camp at Buchenwald. It may be to do with them being veterans of the Austrian army from the 1914-18 war. And, although Alois was subsquently re-arrested, Flora managed to obtain all the necessary passports and visas to travel to the UK. In March 1939, the four of them arrived in Britain on 3 month visitors’visas; and here they stayed.

A page from Flora Fortgang´s passport
A page from Flora Fortgang´s passport

Remarkably, all the six surviving Fortgang siblings (sister Elisabeth had died earlier in the ‘30s) managed to escape, along with their wives and children. Ernst, the eldest, had emigrated to the USA before 1914, but the rest all eventually settled around North West London, where they lived to a ripe old age, long enough for me to have met them all. The only exception, sadly, was my grandmother Flora who died suddenly of a stroke in 1951. In the previous year my mother had married Philip Ridley (1921-97), thus achieving her stated desire to become an English housewife. I am the third of her four children, and she, like her aunts and uncles, has lived a long life, seemingly unhurt by the traumas she has lived through.

A Fortgang gathering, possibly 1941. Ruth is on the right.
A Fortgang gathering, possibly 1941. Ruth is on the right.

Although I did not have much contact with the Fortgangs throughout my childhood, I have recently begun to go to some of their get-togethers as my mother’s chauffeur. At the most recent of these, two of my multitude of Fortgang second-cousins, Helen and Trelawney, expressed a desire to talk to Ruth, and to hear her recount her memories. Now 86 years old, she still has all her faculties, and it was clear at the family gathering that people were listening to her as the teller of tales of the family and the old days. Mum seemed perfectly happy to be interviewed about her recollections, but as time went by it seemed less likely to occur, due to the normal way of these things, so I asked her if she would be interviewed by me.

I think that the recent news coverage marking the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz had heightened my consciousness of this part of our history. I knew that if my mum was to tell me her life story there would be difficult memories to negotiate, for it could not be that no-one she knew had died in the Holocaust, although she had never talked of it. And so it turned out. She bravely spoke of those who had been lost, friends and relatives, and now I too know their names, which is a strange, sad burden.

So this blog is a description of the process of putting together the memories and the family history in order to make an account for whoever may be interested. I have to thank Helen and Trelawney for setting me on this path, and as the projected website might be a very long time in the making, I think there could be a fair amount of blogging along the way. 12/4/15