Leopold Simon was born on 12 June 1902 in Czarnków (German: Czarnikau) in the province of Posen. Little is known about his childhood and youth, but police records show that he registered as resident in Berlin in 1917. As he was still very young, it is likely that he learned the watchmaker’s craft after moving to Berlin.
On 20 March 1931, Leopold married Käthe Leschnik, whose father also came from Czarnków and who ran two very successful clockmaker’s and jeweller’s shops in Berlin. It is likely that the two families knew each other from Posen and perhaps cooperated on business. His sister-in-law Irene Zimmt later wrote: “My sister received a dowry from my father Michaelis Leschnik (…) of 10,000 Reichmarks in cash and a trousseau encompassing everything, furniture, linens and other household goods. After marrying, my sister became self-employed and opened her own clockmaker’s and gold items shop with a workshop attached for carrying out repairs (…). My sister attended to the customers there while her husband saw to any clock repairs that were required.” A shop is first registered under Leopold Simon’s name in the Berlin directory of 1932, at Bülow Straße 11, right on Nollendorfplatz.
In May 1933 Leopold’s wife Käthe gave birth to their daughter Erika Esther. Half a year later, in October 1933, they had to say goodbye to Leopold’s sister-in-law Irene and her husband, who emigrated to Palestine. No doubt the step had been discussed within the family, but Leopold and Käthe obviously decided not to give up their supposedly secure existence in Berlin for a life of uncertainty in an undeveloped and hot country. In October 1935 their son Heinz was born. Leopold Simon and his family had apparently moved the previous year as their gold items shop was now registered under the address Grunewald Straße 63 in Schöneberg. Here, they employed several members of staff. There was an apartment behind the shop where the Simons lived. Despite the Nazis’ anti-Jewish measures and boycott of Jewish businesses, the Simons’ shop prospered. This suddenly changed, however, with the November pogrom in 1938. Leopold’s sister-in-law Irene later wrote: “In the Night of Broken Glass, several people broke into the shop from the street. My sister and her family immediately fled the apartment though the window overlooking the courtyard to my parents’ home. The clockmaker’s shop and the adjacent apartment were completely destroyed, and all the valuables looted.” Leopold Simon and his family moved in with his parents-in-law in Bad Straße in Wedding. “Neither my brother-in-law nor my sister ever dared go back to the shop or the apartment on Grunewald Straße again,” wrote Irene. Robbed of their means of existence, Leopold and Käthe then suffered the loss of Michaelis Leschnik, whose shops had also been wrecked and looted in the November pogrom, and who took his own life in despair at the hopelessness of the situation in March 1939. Johanna Leschnik, Käthe’s mother, was forced to move into a so-called “Jews’ home” in Wilmersdorf.
The Simons were also forced to vacate the apartment on 15 September 1940 and move to Oranienburger Straße 90, where they were allocated three empty rooms in the courtyard building, let by a Jewish butcher. A friend of Leopold’s wife Käthe described the quarters as “the smokerooms of a slaughterhouse”. Here, on 11 June 1941, their son Micha was born, named after Käthe’s father Michaelis Leschnik. But under the Nazis’ name-changing law of August 1938, Jewish parents could no longer freely choose names for their children. Leopold and Käthe Simon were forced to select one from a list of supposedly Jewish names, designed to make the children easily identifiable as Jewish, and opted for ‘Mechel’ as this was closest to the name Micha. On the memorial stone that Irene Zimmt had erected after the war for Michaelis Lechnik and his family on the Jewish Cemetery, the name ‘Micha’ appears, not ‘Mechel’.
The year 1942 must have been marked by growing fears for Leopold and his family. First, they experienced the suicide of Käthe’s aunt, who took her own life to escape deportation. Then in the summer, Käthe’s mother, Johanna Leschnik, was deported. Their fruitless wait for a sign of life from her must have filled them with concern and apprehension.
We know nothing about the Simons’ views of the situation, which they no doubt discussed. We don’t know whether they approved of the Herbert Baum group’s attack on the Nazi propaganda exhibition ‘The Soviet Paradise’, or not. But the crackdown that followed was also to hit them. Käthe Simon had organized a place to hide for the young resistance fighter Felix Heymann, a member of the Herbert Baum group who had gone underground during the ensuing wave of arrests, in the home of some friends. “In December 1942, Frau Simon was arrested following a complaint that she had hidden a young resistance fighter. She was remanded in custody until August 1943 in Moabit, where I was permitted to visit her every four weeks,” stated a schoolfriend of Käthe in the 1950s.
While Käthe was in prison, Leopold had to perform forced labour and leave their three children alone at home. On 27 February 1943 he was arrested during the Nazis’ “factory campaign”, probably at his workplace, and taken to an assembly camp. The three children must have been left to fend for themselves for several days as they were not collected from the apartment until shortly before their deportation. They and their father were deported to Auschwitz on 1 March 1943. But that is not to say that they were together on the journey to their deaths: Leopold was entered as number 336 on the transport list while the children had the numbers 1839-1841. We do not know if they were crammed into the same cattle truck or whether they even knew of each other’s presence. As Leopold Simon’s name was not registered at Auschwitz, we can presume that he, like his children, was murdered in the gas chambers immediately on arrival.