Interview with Torkel S. Wächter

Interview with Torkel S. Wächter


This is an English translation of Interview mit Torkel S. Wächter written by Silvia.

Torkel S. Wächter was born in 1961 in Stockholm, Sweden. He studied at the universities of Lund, Melbourne and Leipzig, and at Paideia – The European Institute for Jewish Studies in Sweden and at the Royal Academy in Stockholm. Between 1986 and 1999 he worked as a pilot for SAS. Wächter’s first novel, Roman Samson was published in 1997 by Verlag Natur och Kultur; his second novel, Roman Ciona, an autobiography that appeared in AlfabetaAnamma, was published in 2002 and was nominated for a major Swedish literary award, Augustpreis. Since 2006 he has both Swedish and German citizenship. Torkel is the founder of the website,, where you will be able to read 32 authentic postcards sent from Hamburg during 1940 and 1941.

MH: What sparked your interest in genealogy?

TSW: I have never spoken to my father about Germany, and he gave me only a summary of  his experiences there. I knew that my grandparents were deported and had not survived the war, but I did not know the details. I was 40 years old when I first saw a photo of my grandparents! When I became a father myself, I thought that I wanted to tell my children about their family story; my interest was in our family’s history. I am fascinated by genealogy.

MH: To what century have you traced your family?

TSW: I am really an amateur genealogist. I focused on the early 20th century, the time of my grandparents. I have investigated as far back as the 18th century, and this will certainly lead to even more possibilities. The Hamburg State Archive has a lot of material, but unfortunately I do not have enough time for it.

The family name became Wächter in the early 19th century, when German Jews assumed fixed surnames. Before this time, it was tradition that the father’s first name was continued as the children’s last name in the next generation. The grandfather, Tobias Elias, had taken his father’s (Elias Jacob) name as his surname in accordance with the custom.

Elias Tobias was born in 1783 in the Free and Hanseatic City of Hamburg. He was a musician and member of the Chevra Kadisha. He woke in the night before the funeral to watch over the body, which was regarded as one of the most distinguished and good deeds, as the deceased had indeed no way to repay the deed. In Yiddish Tobias Elias was called Tobias Wacherle, resulting in High German Tobias Wächter.

MH: What has been your best experience in your genealogical research?

TSW: Let me give two examples:

1. The best friend of my father was Bruno Meyer, called Simba. Between 1934 and 1950, they had no contact, because Simba was in a concentration camp, and then in the Gulag as a prisoner of war because he was forcibly drafted into a SS battalion at the end of the war.

After the war, Simba and my father had a lively correspondence. Of the letters, I have understood that Simba and his wife, Ruth Meyer, saw to it that I was cared for when I was a very small child. I remember when they were taken in Hamburg.

The last of Simba’s letters was written in 1983. Simba died shortly after my father. A few years ago in Hamburg I found in the letterhead of 30-year-old Simba’s letter a phone number, and I called this number. And who responded? Ruth Meyer, who cared for me as a child!

2. A few weeks ago a woman from Manchester, who had seen the website, sent me an e-mail. Together, we learned that a son of Tobias Wächter had settled in Manchester in the 1830s and that I have many relatives in the United Kingdom.

The house where my father grew up no longer exists today. In Eppendorfer Route 40 is instead an anonymous grass surface. On the photo you see the balcony (above the fruit and vegetable business Barehsel and adjacent to the niche with the small statue), where the conscious life of my father in Minna's arms and with Gustav and his brothers began.
Eppendorfer Weg 40, September 1932, Max and Dora's wedding.

MH: Your website has really touched our users. Would you tell us a bit about What caused you to create this site and what do you hope to achieve with it?

TSW: The postcards are only a small part of the estate of my father, but when I saw them for the first time, I was very impressed. At that time I did not know who had written to whom, or what the letters were regarding. Now I see the postcards are a series of art prints, which are almost identical in design.

I then researched the history of postcards as it was very important for me and my family. In art class in high school I made a limited edition book for my family. I then realized that there was great interest in this material, and so I have continued to work with these postcards,  a project that bridges art and literature.

The text format fits very well with the Internet, because the texts are too long. Without comments, you can hardly understand the postcards, but I wanted to keep the comments short so that the postcards will remain in the foreground. I also find it interesting to make this journey in “simulated real time”.

And all this, I can investigate on the web with others. It’s free and open to all who feel concerned to participate, and you can read as much as you wish. You can subscribe to the newsletter or unsubscribe as you see fit.

Minna and Gustav Wächter Bispingen 1929, the summer before the great stock market crash.
Gustav Wächter, Bispingen 1932, when unemployment reached its climax.

MH: As a father, what do you hope your children will take from their family history, and how do you explain this story to them?

TSW: It could be said as the train with my grandparents, Gustav and Minna Wächter, leaving Hamburg, ends the story that began with Elias Tobias, who changed his name. Minna and Gustav, all their possessions, their dignity and their German citizenship had been stripped of the family – leaving the Wächters of Hamburg no longer!

But there is a continuation of the story of Gustav and Minna and her German-Jewish family. I do not think of what happened when the train reached Riga. I would rather think about my children, Minna and Gustav’s great-grandchildren. They have inherited Minna’s eyes, Gustav’s optimism, and have received German citizenship, which was taken from their ancestors.

When I walk with my children to the German school in Stockholm by the pedestrian walkway in the middle of the Karlavägen, we often talk about my grandmother and my grandfather. For me, the story of Minna and Gustav continues under the guard of Linden Karlavägen. It continues with the Hebrew word Zachor, the exhortation to remember. Zachor has not in the past but in present and future. Remembering is an activity that is devoted to the present and points to the future. By remembering, we keep the past alive.

Minna and Gustav Wächter, Hamburg 1935, when two of her sons were imprisoned in concentration camps Fuhlsbüttel.
Bispingen in the summer of 1928, the Nazi Party was still only 2.6% of German voters.

MH: What nationality do you feel really attached to?

TSW: I grew up in Sweden with a very German father. As an adult I have lived in many different countries. I think where there are people who know and respect me, that’s where I’m at home.

Germany and my family are now good friends. It has not always been this way, but we have reconciled with each other. My children and I have been German citizens for five years now. The children go to German school in Stockholm. I like the German language and German culture. I feel very comfortable in the Federal Republic, and travel happily on the train. And I am obviously a big fan of the Nationalelf (German national soccer team)!

MH: Do you think your life would have been different had your father told you about his past?

TSW: Sure, but the Third Reich was not a topic we discussed. I understand that this has been the case with many German families. My father died in 1983; he did not see the Berlin Wall and Germany thereafter. Perhaps it would be possible for us today to speak about what he could not speak about then. Maybe …

I think that it’s a requirement of this project that my father had died several years before I started it. He could not speak on the subject, and I respect that. But my father has contributed to the project — when he died, he left materials and the memoirs he started writing.

John, Max and Walter. The photo was taken in 1914, just days before the outbreak of World War II.

MH: And finally, what advice would you give to those researching their family history?

TSW: I am very grateful to all the people I have met along the way who helped me in various ways. In each archive, there are experts who can really provide valuable assistance in specific areas of research. Elderly family members are also a great resource. For example, I have a relative who is 90 years old who made several trips to Germany. I have learned a lot from her.

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  • Gregor Perks

    May 3, 2011

    The site is really awesome, do check it out!

  • Anne Carter

    May 17, 2011

    We in England find this really interesting.Our grandmother was Mabel Waechter. -a forebearer of Torkels. Christopher Jackson,Anne Carter and Merryl Payne.We all have families who are following this with great interest.

  • Pamela Jones

    May 30, 2011

    I am the “Woman from Manchester” who sent the email mentioned earlier in this article . I would just like to say that it has given me great pleasure to prove the connection between Torkel and my friends Anne. Merryl and Chris who are descended from Tobias Elias via his son Lewis Waechter who settled in England round about 1840. I will follow the story of the postcards with special interest.
    To encourage others to use the internet I would point out that I found Torkel from just a simple search for “Waechter + Hamburg”

  • David Probert

    February 18, 2012

    My 95 year old mother recently showed me a photograph of my great grandfather and said his name was Waechter. As this is an unusual name I decided to investigate and via my grandmother’s (Ida May Waechter) marriage certificate found out that his name was Joseph Theadore Waechter. By a little more research I found that his father was Lewis Tobias Waechter, lived in Manchester and originally came from Hamburg. As part of my short research, I came across this website and was really interested to find the comments from the Manchester relations and friend. I was born in Blackpool, but now live in West Yorkshire. I would be interested in knowing more about my great grandfather’s family and how he fits in with their family. I am hoping you will pass my email address on.

  • Anne C Carter

    June 24, 2012

    For David Probert I now have a family tree your great grandfather Joseph Waechter was an older brother of my greatgrandfather John Waechter-Torkels great greatgrandfather was the brother of their father -he came to M/cr too and sadly died there.

  • Karla G Barth

    August 1, 2013

    Congratulations for your beautiful web page.
    My ancestor was Marie Wachter, she was born in Hamburg 1865 ( or 1866). Marie Wachter later change her last name to Wolf. She married Julius Hirchfeld ( who lately change his last name to Clermont).

    By any chance you found a Marie?
    Looking forward for your comments,

  • Beverley

    September 21, 2013

    Hullo I think I may be related. My grandmother was Maggie Scott Waechter, daughter of Joseph Waechter and Margaret Scott Kerr. Joseph was the son of Louis Tobias Waechter b Hamburg about 1817

    I would be interested to anyone who is related. Margaret and Joseph had I think 9 children