Heinz Simon was born on 25 October 1935 in Berlin. He and his sister Erika Esther, who was two-and-a-half years older than him, were raised in a traditional Jewish household; their parents Käthe and Leopold Simon ran a successful jeweller’s and gold items shop on Grunewald Straße in Schöneberg. They lived in an apartment behind the shop. We know very little about his early childhood, but it was certainly affected by the intensifying persecution suffered by the Jewish population in Germany.
When Heinz was three, his parents’ shop was looted and wrecked during the night of pogroms in November 1938. His aunt later testified: “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.” The children will certainly have noticed their parents’ panic as they fled their home with their two small children. The violent mob on the street, the looting and arson in the night of 9 November 1938 must have made a deep impression on them. Heinz and his family went to stay with his grandparents on Bad Straße in Wedding. He never saw his old home again.
Heinz’s grandfather Michaelis Leschnik was a successful clockmaker and jeweller, whose shop in Wedding was also demolished during the pogroms. Out of despair at the loss of his life’s work and fear of what was to come, he took his own life in spring 1939 in the nearby River Panke. This, too, must have made a deep and terrible impression on three-year-old Heinz. Then his grandmother Johanna Leschnik was forced to move to the far west of the city, into a so-called “Jews’ home”. Eventually, Heinz and his family were also given orders to move into rooms let by a Jewish butcher on Oranienburger Straße. A friend of his mother described the quarters as “the smokerooms of a slaughterhouse”.
Here, on 11 June 1941, Heinz’s little brother Micha was born, named after his grandfather Michaelis Leschnik. But under the Nazis’ name-changing law of August 1938, Jewish parents were no longer able to freely choose names for their children and Heinz’s parents were not allowed to call his brother Micha. They were forced to choose from a list of supposedly Jewish names, designed to make children easily identifiable as Jewish, and opted for ‘Mechel’ as this was closest to the name Micha. On the memorial stone that Heinz’s aunt Irene Zimmt had erected after the war for Michaelis Lechnik and his family on the Jewish Cemetery, the name ‘Micha’ appears, not ‘Mechel’.
The older Heinz became, the worse the situation around him was. In January 1942, his great aunt committed suicide to escape her imminent deportation. Then in June 1942 his grandmother was deported to Sobibor. Heinz must have sensed his parents’ concern at not hearing anything of his grandmother afterwards. But the event which must have upset him most was the arrest of his mother Käthe, who was remanded in custody in Moabit in December 1942 because she had organized a place to stay for a resistance fighter of the Herbert Baum group who had gone underground.
At the same time, his father Leopold was made to perform forced labour. During the day, his ten-year-old sister Erika probably had to take care of him and their little brother alone. But worse was still to come. On 27 February 1943, during the Nazis’ “factory campaign”, Leopold Simon was arrested, probably at his workplace, and taken to an assembly camp. Heinz and his sister and brother were left on their own without any news from their father 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 they were together as they travelled to their deaths: Leopold was entered as number 336 on the transport list while the children had the numbers 1839-1841. Heinz and his siblings, and his father too, were murdered immediately on arrival in Auschwitz.
Heinz’s mother Käthe was deported from prison to Auschwitz. Her sister recognized her on a photo of the liberation of Bergen-Belsen concentration camp but that was the last that was seen or heard of her.