By Romina Monaco



The last remaining years of her life had long been shrouded in mystery. Like a shipwreck, Antonia’s story had slowly sunk into a seabed of things, places and people long gone. Almost lost forever, she unexpectedly resurfaced one day - coming to life again.




I first heard the name Antonia Ehrenwerth when I attended the 31st Annual Holocaust Education Week at the University of Toronto. It was there that I heard first-hand accounts from Italian Jewish survivors. It was also there that I met Henry Wellisch. 'I’m hoping someone here can help me', Henry said during discussion period, peaking everyone’s interest. ‘My cousin, Antonia was a young Jewish woman living in Yugoslavia’, he explained. 'Her family left Zagreb just before the war. She was supposed to join them but then she disappeared. After the war we discovered that she perished in Auschwitz. For fifty years this was all we knew'. As I watched Henry on the podium a felt a heart-wrenching sadness. From his further description it seemed that she was intelligent, beautiful and her life held endless possibilities.


Ehrenwerth Family after WWII
Henry spent years researching Yad Vashem as well as other sources necessary in the search of misplaced loved-ones. 'I also contacted several organizations that assist the Jewish community with these investigations', he added. Only recently were his efforts fruitfully rewarded when he received a letter from Italy. 'I had never heard of Dr. Rende, but he had collected 300 documents pertaining to Antonia. I don’t know him and have no way of contacting him since I have no return-address. I can only hope to one day to thank him', continued Henry. I was taken aback by the compassion that exists in our world. This was priceless gift…from a stranger!


'I have difficulty understanding this new information as the documentation is written in Italian', he concluded. Warming towards this older gentleman, I felt the impulse to help him. As a non-Jew I knew this would finally be my contribution in reconciling a monstrous moral wrong. As a result, I devoted myself to the translation of these documents. While conducting my own personal research, interviewing Henry as well as referring to Dr. Rende’s documents, I have been able to create a chronological, if somewhat hazy, sequence of events.

Arezzo, Tuscany

Arezzo, Tuscany
Antonia Ehrenwerth was born on August 17th, 1907 in Vienna. According to Henry, the Ehrenwerth family originated from Czechoslovakia, resided in Budapest for a short time and finally settled in Zagreb, former-Yugoslavia. It was here that Antonia’s father, Heinrich, founded a lighting manufacturing company. During the 1930’s Antonia was employed by her father as an accountant managing the business financials. With the dawn of war in the horizon along with the discriminatory violations made towards the Jewish community, Heinrich realized Yugoslavia was no longer safe for his family. The Ehrenwerths quickly packed their belongings and headed for the British Isles. Antonia imprudently chose to stay behind, liquidate the company assets and later join the family in England. However, nations were now at arms and borders were beginning to close in haste. Cross-border communication ceased and correspondence with Antonia comes to an end. Alone and trapped, Antonia found herself in the midst of one of the ugliest conflicts in the history of mankind. In her last letter she informed her family that she was going to make an attempt to enter Switzerland via the Italian Alps where she believed she would find sanctuary.

Thanks to Dr. Rende and the world-wide web I was able to add further information. She entered Italy from Yugoslavia on September 18th 1941, and was registered in the Province of Carnaro, near the city of Gorizia. Suprisingly, Antonia had found love in Italy and married. Ignaz Birkenfeld, a Polish Jew twenty-three years her senior, had resided in Italy since 1922. Owner of a vast men’s fashion retail enterprise, his stores were located across the country. As a wealthy man he was able to purchase several homes in and around these cities.

As of June 10th, 1940 the Minister of Italian Internal Affairs established that all enemy aliens, Jews and stateless Jews (not having any known citizenship to any nation) between the ages of 18 and 60 years of age were to be placed in concentration camps. As a result, Ignaz became a free internee of war, having to abide by police authority. After spending a year in the lax Fascist-controlled concentration camps, he was able to enter a community of free internees in Arezzo, Tuscany on July 2nd, 1941.

It was in this beautiful renaissance town where the couple met. Ignaz chose to reside with his bride at the Hotel Chiavi d’Oro in 1943, moving from a bachelor flat on Montegrappa Street . During this time he was permitted to continue his business affairs as well as therapeutic treatments necessary for his numerous ailments. Due to a lengthy police record the newlyweds found themselves under constant surveillance and could not leave their community without police consent. On record he was described as a threat to the regime and national security because he was seen with someone who later was accused of being an enemy of the state. Being charged with illegal possession of a radio receiver posed a problem since Jews were not allowed to own these devices. He was accused of illegal distribution of men’s raincoats outside the internee community for the purpose of profit. The charges go on and on. It seems that Ignaz had indeed been a target of discrimination.

The couple was arrested and sent to Fossoli Prison Camp in Emilia-Romagna in 1943. It was here, on June 26th 1944, that they were forced to board convoy train #13 with debarkation at Auschwitz Concentration Camp in southern Poland. What crossed their minds as they travelled in the dank darkness of their crammed train car? I can only imagine Antonia’s fear as she planted her feet on the stark hellish terrain of Auschwitz. I envision the tears in her eyes and her desperation as Ignaz is torn from her arms forever. Of the 527 people who boarded convoy #13 only 34 survived. Antonia and her husband were never seen again. The dates of their deaths are unknown.

However, there are other mysteries regarding Antonia. If her objective was to cross the northern border into Switzerland, why did she travel from Gorizia to Arezzo in central Italy? The answer may lie in a bizarre and unrelated document from the Italian Red Cross. In this document Antonia gives the contact name, Anna Reich of Missaglia on Lake Como. Who was Anna Reich and how could Antonia possibly have had any connections in the district of Lake Como, an area which happened to be on the Italian-Swiss border? Did she indeed try to cross the border only to be arrested and sent to the internee community in Arezzo? No doubt now deceased, could Anna have left behind a journal or perhaps an oral account of Antonia?

Henry was able to find some closure after his evening at the lectures. He met a woman who knew Dr. Rende and assured him that she would pass on his gratitude. Although Antonia died senselessly in one of the most diabolical concentration camps of WW11 he now has found some peace.

'At least now I know that she wasn’t alone and that she was able to live in relative comfort for a while. That she was happy for awhile. I feel better knowing this', said Henry.


Rest In Peace
Antonia Ehrenweth Berkinfeld
1907-1944-45?




Fossoli Concentration Camp

Fossoli Concentration Camp

Antonia leaning her head gently on her mother's shoulder

Antonia leaning her head gently on her mother's shoulder
A family still united: Julius, Antonia, Etelka and Heinrich Ehrenwerth

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Freed women of Auschwitz

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