It is not uncommon for Holocaust survivors and refugees to keep silent about their experiences. The inhumanity that was experienced before fleeing, the guilt of surviving while relatives perished, and the challenges – even impossibilities – of rebuilding a life, or of integrating into a foreign culture with different language can all be insurmountable.
These were the challenges faced by my grandmother, Sally. In knowing and supporting many of the refugees who came to Britain from Nazi-occupied Europe, I was amazed at the number who shared the fact that they arrived on the last boat or the last Kindertransport before the outbreak of war. As her case file at the archive of the Jewish Refugees Committee shows, my grandmother arrived on 31 August 1939. A day later, Germany invaded Poland and, on 3 September, Britain declared war, an act that closed escape routes across the continent. She got out by the skin of her teeth. Try as I might to conjure in my mind what this might have felt like, I can never get close to the bewildering despair and loneliness she must have felt. She left Cologne having endured more than six years of increasing oppression, restriction and humiliation. She would have experienced the terror of the Kristallnacht and the arrest and deportation of her younger brother, Max, as part of the Polenaktion (the deportation from Germany to Poland of Jewish men of Polish extraction). She would also have had to say goodbye to her parents with the family’s security and livelihood under existential threat.
What would she have found on arrival in Britain? Although some 60-70,000 people, mostly from Germany and Austria, found refuge here, Britain during the initial phases of the war was not a place that particularly welcomed the refugees from Nazi Germany. Suspicions that they were, in fact, a fifth column infiltrating British society and secretly helping the German war effort were felt at the highest level and led to Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s order to, “Collar the lot”: the internment of thousands of male German and Austrian refugees aged 16-65. What is lesser known is that Jews and pro-German fascists were often interned together!
From correspondence we found in her house after she passed away, we know that my grandmother was desperately seeking information about her family, even writing to the Soviet embassy. Among her papers were heart-wrenching personal letters from her mother, back in Cologne, carefully scripted to try to avoid the censor. It is not clear whether these letters arrived during the war or in a bundle after May 1945. My grandmother was one of the lucky ones who was able to secure a domestic service visa, which led to her living in various places across the south of England starting in Clevedon in the very south west. At some point in the early 1940s she met my grandfather but with the arrival of my father in May 1944, my grandmother’s life took another turn. Perhaps because of my grandmother’s experiences, my father grew up in an environment that lacked warmth, love and nurture, the son of someone who could not function in a world where trust and the fabric of a family had been destroyed. Whenever he ventured to ask about her family – his grandparents – the conversation was closed down and he was dismissed. My father does not see himself as a victim yet it could easily be argued that the Nazis robbed him of a mother. Like many Baby Boomers (children born around the end of the war) of refugees, he also had no grandparents – a contrast to today, when it is not uncommon for children to know their great-grandparents. He also grew up with a foreign (German) mother.
By the time I, and my sisters, came along, our grandmother was more or less a recluse, a woman who was never really part of our lives. Whereas visiting our maternal grandparents was something we looked forward to, a trip to our paternal grandmother was just not the same. Post-war victorious Britain was ravaged by austerity with the refugees, together with the survivors who came here at the end of the conflict, focused on rebuilding their lives. But, Sally was unable to move on and continued to be deeply affected by her experiences.
Many of the descendants of the Jewish refugees talk about ‘the box’, a never-to-be-opened storage of papers and things to do with the war, often parked at the back of a cupboard or locked away in the attic. Typically, the box contains correspondence, photographs, certificates and other personal effects. In my grandmother’s case, although there was a story about these papers that needed to be told – and to be heard – it took her death for these documents to see the light of day. Perhaps because of his upbringing my father showed no great interest in these papers, so it was left to me to try to piece together the fragments of the story. When I discuss this responsibility with the descendants of other Jewish refugees it strikes me that in each family there is an individual who bears the duty to become the keeper of the family legacy, and how there is a paradox of needing and wanting to carry this heavy burden un-helped, while also needing to share the story.
Working at the Association of Jewish Refugees (AJR), I knew of various archives and specialist information centres with access to resources that have proved to be invaluable. I also knew that I would need to visit Cologne to see for myself the streets that she and her family walked, and to orientate a part of my own identity. One document in her cache also caught my eye because it was not written in German but was a confirmation from the High Court in England of the dissolution of my grandfather’s (Sally’s husband’s) first marriage, thus enabling him to marry my grandmother. While that in itself was interesting to learn, more significantly, it gave me his full name and date of birth, from which I was able to research his side of the family. What I have discovered is a whole new dimension to my identity: a non-Jewish and very English heritage that stretches back (so far) to around the year 1400 in Cornwall (coincidentally not far from Clevedon where Sally first found refuge). More specifically, to a town in the south-east of Cornwall called Constantine. My paternal grandfather and his brother were born in the first few years of the twentieth century in London. Probably in a nod to their heritage, my great uncle’s middle name was Constantine! So, having grown up in areas of London where the Jewish community lives and having (then) reached the grand age of 42 (!) only to discover I am more English than the Queen has come as quite a surprise.
Through clues in my grandmother’s papers, I have also been able to piece together the fate of her parents, but am frustrated that the trail of what happened to her brother, Max, has gone cold. In October 1941, Sally’s mother, Rachel, was forced onto one of the two transports from Cologne to the Lodz ghetto. Given her age, 54, I at first thought she would have perished on the journey. I was amazed to learn not only that she had survived to reach the ghetto but, according to research conducted by the NSDOK at the El De Haus, archives show where she would have lived there. But, nothing prepared me to discover that she was taken from Lodz to Chelmno (Kulmhof), where she was murdered by the Nazis’ first crude attempt to asphyxiate people, by using a mobile gas van.
Her father, my great-grandfather, Meier, a textile merchant, was incarcerated in the Gestapo prison in Cologne for a month from September 1939; it is not known how he evaded the Polenaktion. From there, he was taken to Buchenwald, where he was assigned the prisoner number 8222. As if the degradation and inhumanity of being forced to labour in a quarry for 12 hours a day with meagre rations, having already endured a two-hour roll call, were not enough, at the return from being used as a slave, prisoners at Buchenwald had to tend to a flower and vegetable garden sited alongside each of the barracks. This additional work was supposedly in the prisoners’ ‘free time’, but punishments were meted out where the greenery looked unkempt.
The Kommandant at Buchenwald, Karl-Otto Koch, was so determined to make his camp distinctive that, rather than use the same Arbeit Macht Frei (work makes you free) sign above the entrance gate as at other places of persecution, he commissioned a group to come up with an alternative. The result: Jedem Das Seine – “to each his own” or “to each what he deserves” speaks to the deep psychological damage the Nazis sought to inflict alongside the physical brutality.
As well as surviving for 18 months as a slave labourer, my great-grandfather also came through the tuberculosis epidemic that was rife at the time of his arrival in the barrack where he was initially housed. His death, aged 55, in April 1941, is recorded as heart failure and lung tuberculosis, but this could have been a euphemism. Prisoners reporting to the infirmary were often given lethal injections or simply shot. The functioning of a well-run operation was uppermost in Nazi priorities. Following his death, his possessions, together with the modest balance of Reichsmarks from his prisoner money, were returned, with great efficiency in the middle of the war, to my great-grandmother in Cologne. So many individual aspects of the persecution fill me with horror and grief, but knowing that she went to her death with the knowledge that her husband had already died somehow seems a further twist of the knife. The alternative of going to one’s death not knowing the fate of one’s immediate family would be equally impossible to handle.
And, what of Max? All we know is that he was deported to Zbaszyn, on the border of Germany and Poland and presumably perished in no man’s land. Unlike his relatives, no records exist for him, but, as is the way in Ashkenazi Jewish tradition, I am named for him: the name of someone about whom I know very little, and of whom I have never seen even one photograph. But, we have immortalised his name as well as those of Rachel and Meier. In Cologne, on the pavement outside what was the apartment where they lived (now the City Library), our family has arranged for “Stolpersteine” so that passers-by will know for evermore that there once lived a family whose lives were snatched away.
In April 2018, I was invited to speak about Meier at Buchenwald as part of the annual commemoration. To say his name there, at a place of death, and walk around the perimeter of the very barrack where he ‘lived’; to be able to say Kaddish (Jewish memorial prayers) outside the Jewish block, and take the walk from his barrack to the infirmary to replicate his final journey, were a great comfort to me, my father and my sister, with whom I shared this journey – and one that we are already passing on to the next generation. We will remember them all.Pedestrians encounter these memorials throughout the city; we saw plaques for a three-year-old boy deported to Auschwitz, and a 90-year-old woman taken to Theresienstadt.