12 Postcards: Part 2

soldier Marcus


As the European powers, interlocked through a series of secret and not so secret alliances, blundered towards war, Marcus’s reserve status was cancelled and he was recalled, along with millions of others to active duty. It is highly likely that he was a member of the Austrian Hungarian 1st Army which was billeted in Krakow not far from his family’s home in Grodzisko.

This is supported in part by family legend. According to the stories we were told Marcus was engaged in one of the very first battles of the war and was bayonetted in the rear end and taken prisoner by the Russians. The 1st Army was engaged in one of the first actions of the war, “The Battle of Galicia” which took place from the 23rd of August to September 11, 1914.  Early wins by the Austrio Hungarians quickly turned to a humiliating and devastating loss. In a little less than 3 weeks the Austrian’s suffered 100,000 dead, 220,000 wounded and 130,000 captured. The losses reduced the Armies effective fighting force by 1/3.

As they did with their political prisoners, the Russian’s sent their prisoners of war to Siberia in the far east of the country. This served a number of purposes. First, it took men who would be capable of fighting again if they escaped or were rescued and placed them over 3,000 miles from the battle. Escape would be nearly impossible not only because of the distance but because of the harsh climate where the average annual  temperature is -5C and where the lowest recorded temperature Is -62C. Its remoteness was another reason the Russian’s used Siberia as a dumping ground for prisoners. Even today the population density of Siberia is 7 people per square mile, half of that if you remove the cities from the equation. Looked at a different way, if Montclair NJ had the same population density as Siberia 18 people would live there. There were virtually no roads in and its main access to the west was a railroad.

The trip to Siberia was long and awful taking upwards of 3 months. Prisoners were placed in what were called “warm wagons”, a train car fitted with two to three rows of bunks, a stove and a bucket in the corner served as a latrine. At train stops they were supplied with hot water and were supposed to receive an “allowance” to buy their own food. Often they did not and were reduced to begging. During the entire journey they were never told where they were going or when they would arrive so the days and nights must have seemed endless and perhaps hopeless. I find it difficult to imagine the deprivation let alone the smell of a trip like this. What kind of social skills would you need to live with 100 men locked in a cattle car for months?

The camps varied in Siberia varied in  type. Some were the traditional camps surrounded by barbed wire fencing and others were more open where the prisoners lived in barracks within the town or city they were confined within. In the latter type of camps, prisoners had to report in daily but aside from that requirement they were free to do as they pleased. Others lived within work camps. The camp that Marcus likely went to, as it was opened up shortly after the Battle of Galicia and created for the prisoners from the Austrio Hungarian Empire was called Sretensk


It was an open camp. Prisoners were allowed to mingle with the local population and organize activities such as soccer, tennis, volleyball, and weightlifting, among others. They were allowed to practice their faith including the Jews who held services with the local rabbi.  To survive prisoners needed to work at jobs that included telegraph–post service, railroad maintenance, leather work, logging, photo ateliers, mills, construction work, production of building materials and soap. It may be here that Marcus learned a trade in leather work and brush making.

Despite not having to live behind walls and barb wires and, having the freedom to work and play, life was extremely hard for people in the camp. There was often a lack of food resulting in prisoners eating food stuffs such as onions for weeks and months on end (Marcus onionophobia.) There was also disease with several outbreaks of Typhus, which in the days before antibiotics killed many, and many other diseases. Contact with the outside world was extremely limited. Postal service was spotty and took months as did messages sent through the Red Cross. We do not know if Marcus communicated with anyone outside of the camp. He certainly could not have known where his brother Max was as he had fled to America in 1913,  but perhaps he could have communicated with his family in Grodzisko or Oswiecim. What is clear is the International Red Cross or the Joint Distribution Committee for Jewish War Sufferers have no record of Marcus Rothkopf.

jdc marcus

The camps operation was interrupted by some seismic changes in Russia. First, in early 1917 the February Revolution overthrew the Czars. After a period of provisional government, the October revolution took place where Bolshevik and Soviet forces overthrew the government and promptly pulled Russia out of the war. A civil war erupted with the Reds (communist/socialists/revolutionaries) versus the Whites (anti communists/counter revolutionaries). The civil war lasted until 1923.

This put all prisoners kept by Russia in a precarious position. Not only did the life in the camp become much tougher as money to run the camps dried up and the prisoners left to fend for themselves but when WW1 ended on November 11, 1918 they were left in limbo. Not only had the country they been fighting for disappeared into the annals of history but there was no single entity to negotiate any release within Russia. So Marcus languished in Siberia for three years after the war ended until Spring of 1921 when he was finally released.

I cannot imagine his emotions as he set foot upon the ship in Vladivostok to return home. I am sure he was full of joy at finally being released and returned to a civilized world. I am sure that there was trepidation as well. Not only about his personal life. What was he going to do next but how had the world changed while he had been locked away? Old Europe was gone. The Austrio-Hungarian Empire, Czarist Russia, among other countries no longer existed and new countries such as Czechoslovakia Poland, Hungary and Austria had emerged.

The trip also must have been a great adventure. It covered 1/3 the globe, took well over a month and likely included stops throughout Asia, India, the Middle East.

siberia trieste


The only record we have of this journey is an accordion fold of postcards of the Suez Canal that were bought in Port Said, at the mouth of the canal while the shipped waited its turn to pass through to the Mediterranean. Postcards, then as now, were not expensive items but I am sure he had extremely limited funds at that time so the decision to buy the cards must have been relatively important to him. They must have symbolized something especially important because he kept these cards with him for the rest of his life. Through two marriages, many apartments, fleeing Nazis and a new life in America he kept the post cards in pristine shape. The cards have value in their own right now as they are now nearly a century old but for me the real value of the postcards is knowing how cherished they were by Marcus and the imaginings of what he must of thought of when he looked at them.

Where Marcus went after he left the ship in Trieste is unknown. A new unexplored world awaited him at the same time he had just spent 7 years, nearly half his adult life, in a Siberian work camp deprived of family, friends, and female companionship. It was a greatly changed world.  The Austrian-Hungarian Empire was dissolved into a half dozen states. Vienna, once a premier world capital,  was now a backwater of international diplomacy and a thriving economy had turned to dust. Hyperinflation had settled in and and where 16.1 crowns used to be able to buy a US dollar it now required 70,800. People would go to bakery’s with suitcases to buy loaves of bread.

Perhaps he felt the need to visit family in Grodzisko or Oswiecim. Perhaps he went straight to Vienna to search for work and a new life. We will never know because your Grandfather never told me, and I do not know if his father ever had told him.

What we do know is that he eventually made his way to Vienna and found work as a brush maker, a trade he may have developed while he was in the camp. It was dirty work as much of took place in an abattoir where the animals were slaughtered, their hides treated with caustic chemicals and the end product of hides and bristles created.

Somewhere along the way he also met a woman by the name of Ernestine whom he married. Sadly, she died before they could have any children. Sometime in 1924 he met a 30-year-old seamstress by the name of Jenny Hess, the 10th of 13 children from Sopron, Hungary. They married in June of 1925 and Dad came along in late December of that year which either means that Dad was the fastest developing fetus of all time or that he was conceived long before they married.

baby ernie

Part 3 May 7, 2020

About 34orion

Winston Churchill once said that if you were not a liberal when you were young you had no heart, and if you were not a conservative when you were older then you had no brain. I know I have both so what does that make me?
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