Piaski, Auschwitz, Warsaw… where did Vera Neumeyer die?

Vera’s photo in her identity pass, 1939. It is the last photo known to exist of her.

Quite where Vera Neumeyer, my grandmother, ended up is a mystery.

On 17 September 1945 my mother writes in her diary that she has heard news about her mother:

She was deported to Poland in 1942 and is at a place from where there is little news (Lublin). 99% of hope is dead.

Lublin is in the far east of Poland, close to Piaski. It is to Piaski that Vera was said to have been deported in postwar correspondence within the family. There was a ghetto in the town, and close by Lublin was Majdanek concentration camp – the first Nazi concentration camp to have been liberated, by the Russians in July 1944. The camp, including its gas chambers, survived intact, giving the allies first-hand evidence of the scale and method of the Nazi’s mass exterminations.

And until very recently that was the story  I believed to be true.

It may indeed be what happened to Vera, but recently I have unearthed new evidence that indicates she may have died elsewhere.

The decisive date: 13 July 1942

For a start, it seems that she was due to be deported from Munich to Piaski in April 1942. But she appealed against the deportation order, and correspondence shows that her deportation was delayed until July 1942.

Telegram, July 1942: Dela (Hans’ secretary and friend) to Dora (Vera’s sister): ‘Please come with a copy of the request. I will wait at the station.’ This presumably refers to the request to cancel the deportation order.
Telegram, July 1942, Marianne (sister of Dora and Vera) to Dora. explaining that Vera had telephoned and that Dela must to come to Munich immediately, as Vera must depart urgently, as the abridged copy of the request could not prevent this from happening.
(Not easy to translate, as German words are missing. The text seems to be: Vera telefonierte, Dora. Sofort [nach] München [muss] Dela kommen, da [Vera] dringend abreisen muss, falls [die] Eingabeabschriftsabgabe dies noch nicht verhindern könnte.)

According to lists of deportations, there was a transport from Munich to Piaksi in April, but not in July.  It is possible, however, that her train was diverted.

The final Red Cross message from Vera to the family was on 9 July 1942:

Going on journey, but cheerful and happy, healthy. Father same. Keep in touch with aunt Dora Böse, Dresden, Leipzigerstrasse 147.

Keep happy!

Mother

Piaski had been a closed ghetto from June 1941 to March 1942, then played a major role in Operation Reinhard, the secret plan to exterminate Jews. On 6 April 1942, 989 Jews from Munich arrived there, on a transport on which Vera was originally destined to come. However after that, there do not appear to be any further records of transports from Munich, and by June transports of West European Jews went directly to the Nazi death camps at Belzec and Sobibor. For more about the history of Piaski visit the Holocaust Historical Society website.

We know that Vera’s deportation started on 13 July 1942. The deportation list from Germany for that date shows a consignment of 99 passengers coming from Stuttgart via Munich to Auschwitz; however there is a comment in German alongside this entry that the destination is uncertain and could be Warsaw instead: “Das lässt sich noch nicht konkret festlegen; als Bestimmungsort is auch Warschau möglich“.

A list of the 50 passengers who joined at Munich, bound apparently for Auschwitz, is published online. I have checked them all against the archive in the United States Holocaust Museum. This archive is based on records from the German Federal Archives Memorial book (Gedenkbuch), but does not seem to be reliable. While 22 of them do not give details about their destination (and the record gives Vera Neumeyer’s deportation date as 4 April 1942 to Piaski, which we know is incorrect), the remaining 28 were, according to this archive, transported to Theresienstadt. Of those, 11 died in Theresienstadt, three at Auschwitz and the remaining 14 are ‘date and place of death unknown’.

Below is the list (3 pages), with Vera appearing on the second page, taken from the Historical Archives of the Commerzbank. Further information about this deportation together with this list is given here.

The evidence from the letters

In an earlier post on this blog I have given a translation of an extraordinary letter Vera wrote on the train while being deported. She doesn’t know the destination, or if she does she doesn’t give it, but the letter tells us three things that help narrow it down:

We have the precise date of departure. The letter is dated 14 July 1942. They had to get up at 5am on the previous day and travel in a van to the station in Munich.

We have details of the type of train and some of the places it went through. It was an ordinary third-class train rather than a cattle truck. It went through Regensburg and Dresden, where they had to change. At 6am on the 14 July the train passed through Görlitz, where she saw her childhood house (which still stands) from the window. She is writing the letter near Leignitz (Legnica). This is some way east of Theresienstadt, which is southeast of Dresden, so it is most unlikely the train would have ended there as it would have been far quicker to have gone an alternative route, perhaps via Prague. Also, in a letter of 10 July Vera says she is learning Polish from the other girls – as Theresienstadt was in Czechosklovakia rather than Poland it tends to confirm her destination, if she knew it at that stage, was Polish – so that looks more like Auschwitz, Warsaw or another camp in the east of Nazi-occupied Poland.

The Ephraim family villa, built 1905, in Goethestrasse, Görlitz. It was owned by the Ephraims until 1922. Vera glimpsed it from the train when being deported in 1942. The villa still stands and is now a youth hostel.

She mentions three people who were on the train.I occupied a corner place next to the dear Frau Professor Prosche, the widow of a well-known painter, a cultivated and very nice Austrian who attached herself to me on the first day.” I think whoever retyped this letter (the original no longer exists) mistyped Porsche as Prosche – as one of the passengers was Malwine Porsche. Opposite her sat a married couple, the Samsons.

How it ties up: route and possible destinations

The route and possible destinations are shown on this map:

Vera Neumeyer’s deportation: starting point (Munich), route taken (Regensburg, Dresden, Görlitz and Liegnitz) and possible destinations (Auschwitz, Warsaw, Treblinka and Lublin/Piaski/Majdanek). Although Theresienstadt is given in the German Federal Archives Memorial Book as the destination for the passengers it does not fit with this route or with other evidence.

It is stated in the Yad Vashem archive in Israel that in July 1942 there were eleven relatively small transports from Munich to Theresienstadt of 550 elderly Jews in total. Vera was at that time 48, but there were indeed many elderly people on her train. The day of deportation, however, is given as 15 July, which does not tally with the dates of her letters.

When I visited Theresienstadt in 2001 staff at the museum said they had no record of Vera Neumeyer having been there. However they do have cremation records on the card index of her husband Hans and her father Martin, who both died in Theresienstadt.

I have looked through the card index online to see if any of the other 50 deportees who were on that transport from Munich are shown as having died in Theresienstadt, but have drawn a blank.

Dela’s letter, written on the day of Vera’s deportation

My mother Ruth donated this letter to the Imperial War Museum (the only letter she gave the museum, although I will eventually donate the entire archive, which consists of several hundred more). Written hastily and difficult to read, it struck me as obviously of great importance. Someone has pencilled the date 13.7.42 at the top.

The writer is Dela Blakmar, the secretary and close friend of Hans Neumeyer. She was evidently close to the rest of the family, and in the letter tells Vera’s sister Dora of the grave news that the attempts to stop Vera being deported have failed. This in spite of the fact that Vera – a Mischling (mixed-race Jew, with a non-Jewish mother) had divorced her Jewish husband Hans the year before. Her sisters Dora and Marianne were never deported, although Marianne reported after the war that she narrowly escaped that fate.

Click here for the text of the letter in the original German. Or to see a transcription of the handwritten letter, with rough translation alongside, click here.

Monday 13. 7. 1942

Dear Dora
So everything has been to no avail. The departure took place this morning. I spoke today to two people who have also been with her a lot – she has been brave and collected throughout. But it’s hard, very difficult, harder than it was then! but do not say that to your father. She has sent me two more letters – I will enclose a copy with you and also send copies to your father and sister.

Your journey to Munich, though unsuccessful, was not in vain. Vera knows you’ve tried everything and that certainly means a lot to her. Right now we don’t yet know where the journey is going, but I’ll have that as soon as possible and will of course let you know straight away. And there are very nice people here who will not forget her. As soon as you know the address, we will send all her packages and if I am not here anymore, we’ll made sure that friends will take care of it.

Mr. W. will leave on Thursday, and I will not be able to see him any more [this may refer to Alois Weiner, a merchant from Moosburg, who was sent to Theresienstadt but survived; see “A note from Alois Weiner” at the end of this earlier post], nor will my friend, who has become dear to our hearts.

She and Vera were the two people here who were close to me.

Mr. W. and my friend will probably come home – as well as Rebekkus.

It has certainly been awful for her to go all alone.

But I have been told that some excellent people are there – they will find each other.

In addition, the gentleman who accompanied her to the train said to me that he made sure that she drove with nice people together in the compartment.

Dear Ms Dora, now we can do nothing – for the moment at least – wait and hope that God will not forget and leave them and all of us.

Cordially yours, Dela

Vera in the 1930s

Conclusion?

This is so far a journey without an end. I have looked extensively online for answers but many records are missing, either through deliberate destruction by the Nazis or by accident. What I do now know is that Vera did not go to Theresienstadt, as her train went far beyond that place, and that Piaski/Lublin seem unlikely, particularly in the light of the fact that by July 1942 the Piaski ghetto was no more and Jews were being sent to Belzec or Sobibor instead, though she may have gone to Majdanek (near Piaski). Auschwitz or the Warsaw ghetto seem very possible, although Auschwitz was in summer 1942 running at capacity levels and deportations were often routed elsewhere. And from Warsaw on 22 July mass deportations began to the extermination camp of Treblinka, 100km northeast – in all 750,000 were murdered there, making it the largest Nazi death camp after Auschwitz.

Wherever she ended up, it seems likely as a middle-aged woman she may have been killed very soon after arrival.

But overall: destination unknown; fate unknown.

Text and photos copyright Tim Locke 2019

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VE Day in Cambridge

My mother Ruth’s copious diaries cover nearly all the years from 1937 until her death in 2012. During the war years while living at 19 Adams Road in Cambridge she wrote variously in German and English.

She refers to Pastor Martin Niemöller, who was incarcerated at Sachsenhausen and Dachau concentration camps, but who survived. He was a close associate of Pastor Franz Hildebrandt, who was exiled to Cambridge, where he built up a German-speaking Protestant community. Ruth met Hildebrandt many times and wrote at length in her diaries and letters; in 1951 he conducted the marriage ceremony of her and my father. Niemöller is perhaps best known for his poem that begins “First they came for the Communists, and I did not speak out – because I was not a Communist,” and ends “Then they came for me – and there was no one left to speak for me.”

She had not yet heard any news about her parents’ fate in Nazi camps. The tragic news about them only filtered in a few months later.

This account (which I have edited slightly) vividly captures the scene that greeted her that day in her near-perfect but very slightly broken English:

Ding-dong, ding-dong! This is the day we longed for! this is the day we fought for and this is the day prayed to God for to give us a righteous and just victory. For today is Victory Day, which is

!!!VE-Day!!!!

All through these last months the suspense became more and more strained, but still people’s faces changed to a brighter and more cheerful expression. They have done great things on the continent, the Allied armies and Air-force! With God’s help, Satan was overcome! Pastor Niemöller is free and safe! I wonder how long it will be before we shall hear anything definite about our people.

Ruth’s photos of Cambridge on VE Day – Market Hill (the market square) and the flags on the Guildhall

The tumult started yesterday evening after our rehearsal for the Hans Sachs play. Edna broke the news to us. I then dashed home, fetched my photo album and went round to Leon [Leon Long; Ruth was very close to him and his brother Denys]. On my way I passed a large crowed on the Market Square, groups singing and dancing in the streets. Only later I heard that they very foolishly burned the stalls at the Market. Leon I was trying to phone me. He told me that I looked happier than ever before but I believe it was more so because he saw my face through a happy mind.

I looked out on the street, where I watched flags being hoisted and rockets flying in the sky. We went to Grantchester Meadows and lay there for at least one hour. It was such a pleasant and refreshing time looking into the starry sky and hearing a cheering crowds from time to time. Poor Leon said how nice it was to have somebody to be with and that he often had felt lonely before Denys came to Cambridge. The cool night breeze bade us to shelter in Leon’s coat all the way home.

The morning bright sunshine greeted my waking-up. Two days off from work! Quite by mistake I put on my red dress and realised afterwards what a patriotic one it was.

Ruth's diary 8 May 1945 VE Day

After breakfast I cycled to town. Everybody almost wore something red, white and blue or one of the three colours. By this time more and more flags and colours were decorating the nice old houses. Great big flags of all the Allies hang across streets below gloriously in the sunshine and stood up brightly against the blue sky.  Flags, very expensive, were being sold in the Market Square, where a large mass of people had accumulated to hear the programme of the day being announced from the Guildhall loudspeaker. In between these announcements dance music beckoned people to dance and a Strauss waltz encouraged a good number. Some undergrads marched about dressed up.

For more about Ruth’s Cambridge years click here.

Leon and Ruth on VE Day

Julius Kohn – ‘Onki’: the lodger who perished in Auschwitz

Nicknamed ‘Onki’ (‘Uncle’), Julius Kohn was very much part of the set up of my mother Ruth’s family, the Neumeyers, in their rambling house in Dachau up until the household was evicted by the Nazis on Kristallnacht, 8-9 November 1938. He had Jewish origins and was therefore subject to persecution, and after Kristallnacht adopted the Roman Catholic religion.

Onki’s friendship with the Neumeyers

Julius was born on 2 February 1886 in Rosenheim, son of Max and Helma Kohn. A gentle, kind man, he was humorous and much loved by Ruth and her brother Raimund. The photo below has Vera with the baby Ruth (born 1923) so clearly Julius was a close family friend and possibly lived with them for at least 14 years. He often talked politics with Hans. Herr Stiegler, the shoemaker, often remembered him accompanying Hans to the shop and remarked of Julius ‘He did not take Hitler at all seriously. He regarded him as a mere puppet.’

Vera with baby Ruth and Hans Neumeyer, with Julius Kohn far right, in autumn 1923. Hans has his guide dog with him. We do not know the identities of the two women on the far left.

We have four letters he wrote to the children after they arrived on a Kindertransport in England in 1939. He writes about nothing of great importance, but all in an upbeat, jovial manner. Julius was an accountant but in his spare time wrote children’s stories and fairy tales, and was an avid book collector.

Local children from Dachau at Fasching (Shrovetide carnival) in happier times (probably early 1930s), with Julius Kohn at the top of the steps and Ruth immediately below him. Raimund is on the right in the second row.

Persecution and deportation

Julius was Jewish according to Nazi law. He met his end at Auschwitz, to where he was deported from Munich on 13 March 1943, and he may well have met it with composure. The family maid Anna Kurzinger recalled ‘He read everything there was to read about religions and said that taking up Roman Catholicism was the right step to take. “If they come to fetch me I shall die in the belief that I shall go to Heaven” he said.’

In a letter to Ruth and Raimund dated 27 June 1939 he mentions the importance of religion:

Sehr gefreut habe ich mich, dass Du beim headmaster selbst wegen des Religionsunterrichts nachgefragt hast. Erstens merkt der headmaster dass es Dir mit der Arbeit ernst und zweitens ist es sehr schön, wenn Du den Herrn und Heiland in Deiner Nähe.

‘I was very happy that you asked the headmaster about religious education. First, the headmaster realises that you are serious about work and, second, it is very nice to have the Lord and Saviour near you.’

The Bundesarchiv Chronology of Deportations records that there were 219 deportees on that train. His date of death is unknown but he was probably sent to the gas chambers on arrival.

He served his country in the First World War, from 1915 to 1917, and later worked as a clerk and accountant in Dachau town hall. He moved into the basement of the Neumeyers’ house (Hindenburg Strasse 10, now named Hermann-Stockmannstrasse 10, Dachau).

A brass Stolperstein commemorating Julius Kohn, installed in the pavement outside the Neumeyers’ house at Hermann-Stockmannstrasse 10, Dachau, in 2005.

In 1938 Nazi officials stormed into the Neumeyers’ house during the performance of a children’s play there. Ruth recalled in an interview with the Imperial War Museum that all the children burst into tears and when he comforted them the Nazis said he shouldn’t touch children and arrested him on the spot. He was taken to Dachau concentration camp for two weeks – he never spoke about what happened there.

He returned to the Neumeyers’ house and stayed there until Kristallnacht, until on 9 November 1938 the household was told to leave town by dawn. I learned recently that on that night he had nowhere to go, so gave himself into the police who installed him in the concentration camp again.

From 21 January 1939 he was living at accommodation provided for the Jewish Community at Mathildenstrasse 8, Munich, where we know he met up with Vera and Hans. In a letter to the children on 15 May 1939 he explains that he has only got permits to ride tramlines 6 and 26 and has a Sunday visa to go to Thorwaldsen Strasse, where Hans and Vera were now living.

The opening page of a letter to Julius to Ruth and Raimund in 1939 or 1940, when the children were safely in England.

On 1 June Vera writes that ‘On Wednesday I went with Onki to the cathedral for the last devotion of May, which was very nice.’ By 22 January 1942 he was staying in the Jewish Community Hospital, and then in an internment camp at Clemens-August-Strasse from 29 June that year.

Julius Kohn’s photo on his identity paper. This is the last known image of him. He appears to be wearing his First World War medal ribbon of the Hindenburg Cross – making a point about his German patriotism.
Document relating to the transport on 13 March 1943 that took Julius to Auschwitz.

Preserving his name for posterity

So like millions of others, Julius Kohn disappeared into oblivion. He had no close family members, although if any distant relations happen to read this blog entry I would love them to make contact with me.

Apart from the Stolperstein and the memorial at Dachau’s town hall to Jews ordered to ‘leave by before sunrise’ on Kristallnacht, there is one rather wonderful way in which Julius Kohn’s name is immortalised:

Julius Kohn is remembered in Dachau by a streetname – Julius Kohn Weg – and its nearby bus stop. Ironically the street and its bus stop are close to the concentration camp memorial.

Copyright Tim Locke 2019. Material from family archives and some additional material from Hans Holzhaider’s book Vor Sonnenoufgang.

The Nathans: fellow Kindertransport passengers

Only recently while looking through my mother’s archive I came across a batch of letters from Paisley, Renfrewshire, dated between 1939 and 1943 addressed variously to Ruth and Raimund.

They were written by two twins, Walter and Clarisse Nathan, living with the Bovey family at 26 Thornly Park, Paisley – not far from Glasgow. They were not names that meant anything to me.

One of the Bovey children was called Mary, who died in 2015 at the age of 94. I found her funeral address in a newsletter of St Cuthbert’s Church, Colinton (on the edge of Edinburgh), and contacted the editor who kindly sent me more information, including some autobiographical details written by Clarisse Nathan (Clarisse Delafield).

The Nathans and the Neumeyers

The parallels with my mother and uncle’s story are remarkable: the Nathans and Neumeyers were close family friends, and the Neumeyers may have lived with them for a period in Munich during 1938–39, although I have no details (Clarisse remembers the Nathan address as Ainmiller Strasse 19). And a detail of Clarisse’s description contains the revelation that the children of both families made the journey to England together.

Their story hints at much of what the Neumeyers would have gone through at the same time, in particular is the process of finding someone in Britain to take in the children, and the journey on the Kindertransport and the children’s life with their new adopted family.

The Boveys’ strong Christian principles are echoed in the letters between the Nathan and Neumeyer children.

Clarisse Nathan_20181011_0001

Clarisse Nathan, while working as a nurse.

Life in Munich under the Nazis

Before the Nazis’ rise to power, the Nathan parents were well off and lived in Munich where the father had his own art gallery, the Ludwigs-Galerie. Walter and Clarisse were born there in 1925; their father died during their childhood.

On 6 November 1938 the children were barred from entering the school after the law for elimination of Jewish children from German state schools was passed on the previous day. The family then realised they would have to emigrate so that the children could continue their education.

Clarisse wrote of the atmosphere in Munich prior to their departure in 1939:

“What was so frightening was the hysterical atmosphere of patriotism and the feeling of limitless success and glory just round the corner. Boys and girls had to belong to the Hitler Youth Movement, a well organised group indoctrinated with the Third Reich idealism. Church affiliation was not encouraged.

On 5 November 1938, the law for the elimination of Jewish children from German State Schools was passed. On that day we were sitting in our classroom but the following day we were not allowed to enter the school. Mother was extremely angry especially when she had to sign a false declaration that it was her wish that our education be terminated. If she had refused to sign this false document she would have been arrested. Mother was utterly convinced now that the only sensible action to take was to emigrate so that we could continue our education.

My brother and I never felt very Jewish, as we had associated with Aryan children at school and church, and yet we were now such outcasts. We were very fearful of visits by the SS. Certain shops allowed Jews restricted entry only to their premises or none at all. However there were brave people around who did not want to bar their Jewish customers and made secret arrangements with Mother.

As I cast my mind back to the New Year of 1939, our house in Munich was in a state of upheaval and the future uncertain as we sought to make arrangements to emigrate.We were among thousands of children in this predicament and were most thankful that Great Britain, as well as the USA, had opened its doors to receive Jewish children. The Inter-Church Committee came into being and compiled lists of willing host families and investigated their suitability to be foster parents.”

How Lily Nathan got her children out of Germany

Lily made huge efforts to find a home for her children, Clarisse and Walter. She gave a temporary home to a Mrs Abney, was also Jewish and living in Munich but on the verge of escaping to her husband in Glasgow. In gratitude Mrs Abney put her in touch with a Quaker woman,  Mrs Richardson who knew of the Boveys’ wish to take in a Jewish refugee after an earlier attempt to do so had failed.

Clarisse described the moment when good news came at last:

“Not many more weeks elapsed during this waiting period, before a beautiful handwritten letter from Mr Philip Bovey dropped through our letter box! He wrote with great care to explain the family situation and their willingness to take both Walter and myself into their family.

Of course a lot of formalities had to be sorted out before our emigration could be finalised. Every letter with a Scottish post-mark brought much excitement into our lives and on one occasion a family photo was included with the letter.

We studied the atlas, looked up Glasgow and Paisley and tried hard to learn some more English. These letters had to be written in a ‘low key’, due to the Nazis censoring some of the letters. Daddy Bovey was emphatic about his Christian involvement within their local church and community and was pleased to know of our own Lutheran background. We were Jewish by descent but were being instructed in the Christian faith both at school and at Sunday school. Many formalities and obstacles had to be faced up to by our very brave mother.

Eventually all the official papers were duly completed and at last our names came up to be included in the next “Children’s Transport”, which was due to leave about the middle of May. We were told that there would only be four children leaving from Munich on that unforgettable date, 9 May 1939 at the unearthly hour of midnight.

I have a faint recollection of the actual departure and waving to mother, Alex and some friends. It was an emotional moment intermingled with adventure and a feeling of being very grown up. We were joined by more refugee children as the train travelled north.”

The Kindertransport journey

It was 9 May 1939. That date was the very date Ruth and Raimund Neumeyer, my mother and uncle, left. They were the only Kindertransportees on that train and made the whole journey together.

Clarisse describes that one-way trip to England:

“It was a very long journey. By the time we reached the ferry at the Hook of Holland there were about a hundred of us children, all with name tags around our necks. Daddy Bovey’s mother and his brother, Uncle Arthur, lived in London and were glad to be able to meet us. We were going to spend our first night in Mrs Bovey’s home in Chelsea. Uncle Arthur made a special detour pointing out to us some of the famous places in the capital.

Despite our weariness and minimal English we felt a sense of honour and excitement to be shown some of the famous London sights. The next day, Friday 12 May, we were taken by Uncle Arthur to Euston Railway Station where we boarded the train to Scotland.We were still wearing name tags, the guard on the train was instructed to keep an eye on us but we were quite proud to be travelling on our own.

Our arrival at the Central Station in Glasgow and our first meeting with Mr Bovey and his eldest daughter Mary is a moment that Walter and I will always treasure. It was evening now and we were taken in the Boveys’ car to our new home in Paisley.”

Into the arms of the Boveys

Philip and Phyllis Bovey lived in a semi-detached house in Paisley and had four children – Mary, Anthea, Keith and Denis – and were committed Christians. 

In autumn 1938, Mary had learnt from a newspaper report about the persecution of the Jews in Germany and the need of homes for the children of Jewish parents.  She pleaded with her parents to adopt a refugee. Philip reminisced in 1977 after being put in touch with Lily Nathan in Munich about taking in the twins:

“I got into correspondence with her. I went to see John Clarke, the Rector of the school, and he was most sympathetic.  He was sure he could get the Education Committee to admit the children to school. Soon the reply came: not only did they agree that the children should have places in the school, but that they would be free places.  That taught me something I had not realised before: that a Committee could have a heart!

Then we set to to get school clothing made for them, knitwear mostly.  I think it was Mother Nathan’s suggestion because I had sent her samples of school colours.  Boys’ socks and other garments were knitted to Paisley Grammar School colours in faraway Munich.  I always remember this fact with considerable enjoyment, to think that this was going on under the noses of the Nazi authorities.”

Finally the many formalities were completed, including the deposit of a £50 bond for each of the children, which was a lot of money in those days, and Walter and Clarisse could leave for Scotland and their life with the Boveys.

Mary Bovey wrote of the acts of kindness they received from the people in Paisley.

“The doctor and dentist made not charge for visits and the cobbler mended their shoes for free. Later they learned that the dentist’s sister, an English teacher at Paisley Grammar, had paid their pocket money for years.”

Walter said the house was very noisy, with eight people there, but that their beloved adopted parents were very special to them: “Mr Bovey is a very rare person, and much more noble than we deserve”.

Their mother Lily and older brother Helmut came separately to Scotland. Walter wrote in November 1939 that Lily was living only five miles away but because of their status as ‘Enemy Aliens’ he could only visit her with special permission.

Lily, Clarisse, Walter and Alec naturalised as British citizens in 1947 and changed they name from Nathan to Norton.

“Mary certainly had some knowledge of German and Daddy Bovey had also been learning it. Walter and I struggled with our few English words. I have vivid memories of that first evening. We had never heard ‘broken’ German or anyone else from a foreign country trying to speak our native tongue and so found this very peculiar and difficult to understand. Daddy Bovey was certainly taken aback when Walter pronounced quietly in broken English, that it would be better for Daddy to speak English, as we could not understand his broken German. Thankfully no offence was taken and the Boveys chuckled over Walter’s pronouncement.

On the same evening Walter attended a United Nations meeting for young people, called the Nansen Pioneers, at Dr and Mrs Richardsons’ house. They were all keen to meet the newly arrived refugee, and Walter in return was pleased to meet the young Scottish people. He was also eager to meet Mrs Richardson, who was so instrumental in finding our new home in Paisley. I was far too weary to venture out and was excused!

In the next few months we struggled with our new language, asking everyone to speak very slowly.

The exceptional patience of the Bovey family, friends, school teachers and especially of Mr Clarke, the Headmaster of Paisley Grammar School, was instrumental in helping us to learn English and its correct pronunciation. We certainly benefited from this early training and, with the constant corrections of our mistakes, were soon able to converse a little and slowly began to master our new language. Mummy Bovey never tired in her efforts to help us speak correctly. She was very firm with all her children and some words were not allowed within earshot; she did not allow the words ‘kids’ or ‘thanks’, it had to be ‘children’ and always ‘thank you’.”

Breakfast every day began with Philip Bovey leading family prayers, at which all were expected to attend. He would be the first to leave the breakfast table for work as an accountant at the Fairfield shipbuilding yard in Govan. The Nathan children settled into life very well, and were relieved when the plans for removal of all refugee children to North America were abandoned in 1940. The reason for this was ironically tragic: the children’s transport ship, City of Benares, was torpedoed in September of that year.

Walter expressed amazement at Raimund’s descriptions in winter 1941 of air raids in Birmingham as there wasn’t much sign of any war raging in Scotland “Raimund’s dark humour gives a hint of how scary war can be.” Indeed according to Walter their duties in ‘fire watching’ from the church tower were renamed ‘fire sleeping’ as there simply no fires to watch. But Clarisse recalled later “we were all stunned in Paisley when a bomb directly hit a first aid post killing the doctors and nursing staff in attendance.”

Later developments

After the twins reached Paisley, their mother and older brother Helmut (who renamed himself Alec later) joined them. But other relatives were trapped in Germany and died in Theresienstadt, suffering the same fate as Hans Neumeyer, his sister Irma and Vera’s father Martin, who also perished there.

Letter from Christian Council for Refugees re Nathans

A reply from the Christian Council for Refugees from Germany and Central Europe to a letter Ruth wrote from Cambridge in October 1941 asking for help locating Helmut (Alex), who they could not trace. Happily he turned up not long after: the first letter we have from him to Ruth is from an address in Glasgow on 28 January 1942.

Walter wrote in December 1941:

“Since ever we came here we have been glad to learn from our guardians in many ways. But why we are so happy and all feel as if we were part of this family is because our parents fear and love God. This holds us all together.”

In  December 1939 Walter wrote that his and Clarisse’s love for Ruth and Raimund stemmed from the support the Nathan children had from Vera Neumeyer in Munich.

And on 10 October 1942, he continues in a similar vein in broken English:

“May we keep together in this unity of spirit which was and is, I feel, and perceive as yet more clearly, the real bond between us that being rescued from Germany (that which probably would have proved fatal to us).”

Paisley Grammar School as it was when the Nathans attended it.

My thanks to Clarisse and her husband Howard and their extended family for allowing me to reproduce these extracts from Clarisse’s account of her story.

Postscript

Four months after writing this piece I spotted an entry in Ruth’s diary for 27 May 1944, where she visits Helmut at an address in Lord North Street, London having not seen him since she and Raimund left Munich on a Kindertransport in May 1939:

Passing the Houses of Parliament, Westminster Abbey etc. I turned into Lord North Street and knocked at No. 14. No answer. I repeated this about three times when someone opened and greeted me very welcomingly. Was it Helmut? Yes. Gracious, I did not recognise him at all, or he me, only that he was expecting me this afternoon had made him believe it was I! How thrilling it was to see each other again after over five years, when we said good bye on Munich platform! It was strange. We just could not find any words of sense, so we started by talking about the very present. Soon we ascended to his room, talked again, entertaining the sweet little cat. In Helmut’s room I saw photos of Walter etc.

A note from Helmut Nathan arranging Ruth’s visit in May 1944, with directions and a sketch map showing how to get to Lord North Street from Westminster tube station.

Dela Blakmar’s world of music

Dela in the 1930s

My grandfather Hans Neumeyer often visited his sister Betty in the mountain resort of Garmisch, and in 1936 renewed acquaintance with a woman called Dela Blakmar, a violinist and violist whom he had fleetingly met some years before – his prodigious musical knowledge and ability clearly made an impression on her. She became his secretary – as he was blind, she wrote down his music for him as he composed. She was also a family friend. Was she the reason why Hans didn’t leave Germany earlier, while he still had the chance?

Dela was Swedish, but was previously called Dela Mankiewitz. Her sister Hedwig Paula Mankiewitz was the second wife of Raoul Hausmann, who had previously married Elfriede Schaeffer (Elfriede Hausmann), a violinist. Dela and Elfriede played chamber music together.

Raoul Hausmann (1886-1971) was a leading figure in the Berlin Dadaist school and a close friend of Kurt Schwitters, so it is no coincidence that Expressionist painter Conrad Felixmuller painted a portrait of Elfriede. Hitler deemed such art ‘degenerate’.

Hans, meanwhile, spent his time between Munich, Dachau and Berlin. He was in Berlin learning how to make flutes when the Nazis entered the family house in Dachau during a children’s play in January 1938. He stayed in Munich while working there, but after losing his job he did not return there until his family were forced out of Dachau in 1938.

He maintained contact with Dela, who worked with him on music projects, until his deportation to Theresienstadt in 1942. She never saw him again after that.

Portrait of Elfriede Hausmann by the German expressionist Conrad Felixmuller (1897-1977)

“It’s very hard for me to get over Hans’s departure.”

I’ve recently found letters from Dela to Elfriede in an archive in Sweden. In one written on 6 April 1946 she expresses her low spirits having found out that Hans (Neumeyer) is no longer alive ‘I am very sad about it. I want to play quartets with you again – it’s not quite the same playing with my pupils.’ A few weeks later, on 26 May, she mentions the loss of Hans with much regret – since the reports of his death in Theresienstadt came through after the war ended ‘I have lost my technique and drive to play music. Now we’re practising Mozart’s clarinet quintet, which is all very nice but it’s not as good as things were. It’s really hard for me to get over Hans’ departure.’

In 1947, Dela wrote to my mother Ruth explaining about the disappearance of nearly all of Hans’ music. It is particularly tantalising to read of the ‘great work’ that she and Hans had collaborated on. I think the sonata for viola may be the duo for violin and viola, and the trio is certainly the string trio: these are the two chamber works that she later sent to us.

Von den Arbeiten Deines Vaters habe ich nur ganz wenig bei mir – ich konnte ja damals bei meiner sehr spannenden Reise aus Deutschland kaum etwas mitnehmen, und was wir dort bei Freunden zurückliessen, ist zum allgergrössten Teil verbrannt*. Ich habe hier eine schöne Sonate für Bratsche und eine Streichttrio studie, ausser dem den Anfang zu einer grossen musitheortischen Arbeit, an der wir in der letzten Münchener Jahren gearbeitet hatten. Ja, ich würde dir gern viel erzähalen, Ruthi, auch von Deiner Mutter, mit der ich in den letzten Wochen sehr viel und sehr nah zusammenwar, noch von ihrer Reise schrieb sie mir einen sehr lieben Brief, den ich aber ihrem Vater Schickte. Auch ihn, Deinen Grossvater, traf ich noch einige Male in Berlin vor meiner Abreise – ach all das kommt einem völlig spukhaft unwirklich vor. Dass all das doch wahr ist, wird man wohl nie ganz begreifen können.

Of the work of your father I have only very little with me – I could hardly take anything with me during my very exciting journey from Germany, and what we leave there with friends is burned* to the largest extent. I have here a beautiful sonata for viola, and a string trio study, besides the beginning of a great musical work, on which we had worked in the last Munich years. Yes, I would like to tell you much, Ruthi, also from your mother, with whom I have been very close and very close during the last few weeks, she wrote me a very dear letter from her journey, which I sent to her father. I met him, your grandfather, a few times in Berlin before my departure – all this seems to be totally unreal.

*The German ‘verbrannt’ means ‘burnt’ but we do not know if this means it was deliberately burnt (perhaps by the Nazis) or destroyed in bombing.

A postcard to Hedwig Hausmann from Dela
The opening movement of Hans Neumeyer’s string trio in A minor, composed in 1940 and handwritten by Dela

Vera’s deportation

In July 1942, Dela was the last person we know of to have seen my grandmother, Vera Neumeyer, before Vera’s deportation to a Nazi concentration camp in Poland (she seems to have died either in the Piaski ghetto, in the nearby Madjdanek camp or in Auschwitz).

There was clearly a close friendship between the two women, although Dela had a very strong bond with Hans too.

The opening of the letter from Dela to Dora announcing that Vera had been deported

The letter, written on 13 July 1942 and now in the archive of the Imperial War Museum in London, describes what happened:

Montag 13. 7. 1942

Liebe Frau Dora –

nun ist also doch alles vergeblich gewesen, heute früh war die Abreise.

Ich habe heute zwei Menschen gesprochen, die auch viel mit ihr zusammen gewesen sind –  sie ist wie immer tapfer und gefasst gewesen.

Aber schwer, sehr schwer ist es ihr, schwerer als damals!

aber sagen Sie das nicht Ihrem Vater.

Sie hat mir noch zwei Briefe gesandt – ich werde Ihnen einen Durchschlag  beilegen und   auch Ihrem Vater und Ihrer Schwester Durchschläge senden.

Ihr Kommen nach München, wenn es auch erfolglos gewesen ist,  war aber nicht umsonst.


So everything has been in vain, this morning was the date of departure. I spoke today to two people who have also been with her a lot – she has always been brave and collected. But it’s hard, very difficult, harder than it was then! but do not say that to your father. She has sent me two more letters – I will enclose a copy with you and also send copies to your father and sister.

Her coming to Munich, though unsuccessful, was not in vain.

Vera weiss,  dass Sie alles versucht haben und das bedeutet sicherlich viel für sie. Vorläufig weiss man noch nicht, wohin  die Reise geht, aber das werde  ich ja  als bald ( = alsbald) erfahren haben und gebe Ihnen natürlich sofort Nachricht.

Und es sind sehr liebe Menschen hier, die sie (= Vera) nicht vergessen werden.

Sobald man  die Adresse weiss, werden wir alle ihr (= Vera) Pakete schicken und wenn ich nicht mehr hier sein sollte, so ist  dafür gesorgt, dass Freunde es in die Hand nehmen werden.


Vera knows you’ve tried everything and that certainly means a lot to her. For the time being, we do not yet know where she is going, but I’ll have that as soon as possible and will of course let you know straight away. And there are very nice people here who will not forget her. As soon as you know the address, we will send her packages and if I am not here anymore, I’ll make sure that friends will do this on my behalf.

Das ist für  ist für sie  sicherlich  noch ein Schmerz gewesen, so ganz allein gehen zu müssen.

Aber man sagte mir, dass einige  sehr  ausgezeichnete Menschen dabei  seien – sie werden sich finden.

Außerdem sagte mir der Herr, der sie noch zur Bahn begleitet hat, dass er dafür gesorgt hat,  dass sie mit netten Menschen zusammen im Abtheil (= Abteil) fährt. 

Liebe Frau Dora, jetzt können wir nichts mehr tun  – im Augenblick wenigstens – warten und hoffen, dass der liebe Gott sie und uns alle nicht vergessen und verlassen wird.

Ich grüsse Sie ( =Dora) herzlich

Ihre D(ela)

It was certainly been painful for her to go all by herself.

But I was told that some very good people were there too – they will find each other.

In addition, the gentleman who accompanied her to the train said to me that he made sure that she shared a compartment with some nice people.

My dear Dora, we can’t do anything else – for the moment at least – wait and hope that God will not forget and leave them and all of us.

Cordial greetings,

Yours, Dela

For the letter Vera wrote from the train en route to her unknown destination, click here.

From Dela: a violin, and gold the Nazis never got hold of

I met Dela once, about 1971, when she visited my mother in Sydenham and gave me her spare violin. It was a large three-quarter sized German instrument made by Michael Dötsch in Berlin in 1919, and had a very beautiful back. I now regret selling it to a London dealer in 1983 – though it was a bit small for me, and had a crack on its face which a couple of repairs failed to remedy. But I still have this piece of cloth the violin was wrapped in, within its case – it bears the initials DM – for Dela Mankiewitz.

While clearing our family house after Ruth’s death in 2012, we found at the back of her wardrobe some jewellery that was quite unfamiliar – including two rings and these pendants and bracelet. In a letter written soon after the war Dela refers to the ‘Schmuck’ (jewellery) and asks if Ruth has received it – so we are fairly sure this is where it came from.

The beautiful gold locket bears a photograph of Martin Ephraim’s wife Hildegard (who died in 1932) on the back.

Jewellery the Nazis never got hold of – presumably kept safe within the family, and sent on by Dela to Ruth. The gold locket, seen here at the top, has on its back a photo of Martin Ephraim’s wife, Hildegard.

How Dela met the Neumeyers

In a letter from Dela to Ruth in 1960, Dela mentions that she met Hans and Vera through a dancer called Erna Bial. I had never heard of her until reading this letter a few weeks ago. Googling that name, I found Erna was a dancer who had been reviewed in 1921 by a Jewish newspaper in Breslau, Poland:

From a concert advertisement flyer for a performance on 29 March 1921

The young Breslau native gave a modern dance recital, notably to Scriabin’s Prelude where she perfectly combined music and movement to give expression to the subtle nuances of interior emotion. Even more impressive were three dances performed without music which revealed her keen creativity.

Then I remembered I had an old edition of Scriabin’s 24 Preludes for piano, inherited from the Neumeyers. That name ‘Bial’ rang a bell: I found the music in the attic, and there it was – someone had written her name on the cover:

The pencil annotations beneath the music of Scriabin’s first prelude: are these connected with Erna Bial’s dance performance in 1921? Perhaps they’re a list of the order in which certain preludes are to be played.

Tributes to Hans Neumeyer

Hans Neumeyer Garmisch 1930s
Hans near his sister’s house at Garmisch, in the German Alps

The life and fate of my grandfather Hans Neumeyer has been described elsewhere on this blog, including his work as a composer and his deportation to Theresienstadt.

As a blind musician he employed a secretary, Dela Blakmar, to work with him. Dela was a close friend of the family and kept in touch with my mother for some forty years after the war. She wrote to my mother, Ruth, after the war with the news that virtually all of his compositions had been burnt in the war. Only a trio, a duo, two recorder duets and a Christmas song survived.

In one of her letters she copied out notes from two men who knew Hans.

Dr Elias Manuelidis was a Yale Professor of Neurology at Yale. He died in 1992 aged 74. He wrote to Dela:

Munich 17 July 1947

Kurz nach dem Einmarsch der Amerikaner suchte ich Dr Spanier auf und von diesem erfuhr ich als erster das tragische Schicksal, das unsern lieben Hans getroffen hat. Die Nachtricht war für mich ganz besonders schmerzlich, weil ich in den letzten Kriegsmonaten mich ganz besonders auf ein baldiges Wiedersehen mit ihm freute.

Ich brauche Ihnen, liebe Dela, nicht zu betonen, dass Hans in meiner seelischen Entwicklung in meiner Studentenzeit die grösste Rolle gespiet hat. Das “Nicht Hassen” habe ich ihm zu verdanken. Ich erinnere mich oft an seine Worte, dass der Hass etwas Negatives kommnung und zu einer Produtivität im geistigen Gebiet Führe kann. Ich habe sehr viels miterlebt, jedoch an seine Worte muss ich immer denken.
“Shortly after the American invasion I visited Dr Spanier and from this I was the first to experience the tragic fate that has befallen our dear Hans. The nightmare was especially painful for me because in the last months of the war I was especially looking forward to seeing him again soon. I need hardly tell you, dear Dela, the major role Hans played in my development in my student days. I owe to him the principle “not to hate”. I often think of his words that hatred can lead to negativity and to productivity in the spiritual realm. I’ve been through a lot, and what he said is always dear to my heart .”

Alois Weiner, his friend, was with him in Theresienstadt concentration camp. Another letter from Alois has already been recorded in this blog.

12 September 1946

Der gute Hans ist tot. Zwei jahre lang war er eigentlich glücklicher als viel von uns, weil er einige Schüler hatte, hauptsäntlich junge Lehrer aus der Tchechoslovakei. Diese Schüler haben ihn verehrt und, was dort am wichtigsten war, haben ihn zusätzlich reichlich mit Lebensmittel versorgt, den sie bekamen im Gegensatz zu uns mehr und grössere Pakete. Dass er mit dem was er bekam nicht geizte, kann niemand besser bestätigen als ich und mir machte es wiederum Freude, wenn mir ein Päckchen zuflog, mit ihm zu teilen…. Kurz vor seinem Tod kam Ihr letztes Päckchen. Ich erinnere mich noch, dass es Oelsardinen waren und dass er mir eine davon unbedingt aufdrängte…

Aber eines Tage kam seine Krankheit zum Ausbruch und das Schlimme war, dass er in ein Krankenhaus eingeliefert wurde, aus dem er nie an die frische Luft herauskam, sondern immer in einem Zimmer mit etwa acht andern Leuten lag. Bedenkt man seine Blindheit ohnehin und dieses körperliche Leiden dazu, so hat er alles mit grösster Geduld getragen
“The good Hans is dead. For two years he was actually happier than many of us, because he had some students, mainly young teachers from Czechoslovakia. These disciples venerated him and, most importantly, provided him with plenty of food, which they got, unlike us, more and larger packages. No one could confirm better than I can how generous he was with  his share,, and I would chuck him a packet to share …. Shortly before his death came his last package. I still remember that they were sardines in oil and that he urged me on one of them … But one day there was an outbreak of illness and he was taken to a hospital from which he never came out into the fresh air; his fate was to spend all the time lying  in a room with about eight other people. Considering his blindness and suffering, he bore everything with great patience.”

Hans lost his job after the Nazis came to power in 1933 and money was a constant problem thereafter for the Neumeyer family.

Here’s Hans’ CV, typed out in English when presumably he was seeking a way of gaining employment in the UK:

Screen Shot 2018-04-08 at 10.05.59

Hans Neumeyer’s music gets more performances

There have been several recent performances of Hans Neumeyer’s trio and duo in various places, including at a music festival in Murcia, Spain, and in Lewes and a Violins of Hope concert (using instruments that belonged to Holocaust victims, including some actually played by concentration camp bands) in Dachau. There’s a complete recording on youtube of the Duo, recorded at a summer festival at the Waldheim Palace, performed by Oleg Fedchuk  (violin) and  Iakov Zats (viola).

Trio in Murcia playing Neumeyer trio 30 Jan 2015
A performance of Hans Neumeyer’s trio, January 2015 in Murcia

Escaped to Shanghai: and who was Leo Weil?

In our family archive are four pieces of correspondence, three postmarked from Shanghai, and the other from Brindisi, from where he departed for China. They are all from one Leo Weil. From other family correspondence, it’s clear that he was a close family friend and lived in Munich up to summer 1939 – but we don’t know how he knew the Neumeyers.

He refers in one letter to the Christian refugee community in Shanghai, so we know he was, like the Neumeyers, Jewish according to Nazi law but followed Christianity.

Shanghai had been held by the Japanese since 1937 and 20,000 Jews found refuge here during the Third Reich when the Jewish ghetto Shanghai became the only place outside the Dominican Republic where Jews could come without a visa – in what was officially known as the Restricted Sector for Stateless Refugees. 

When Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941 this fragile point of refuge came to an end.

Leo Weil letter from Shanghai_envelope showing surname and address
The back of this envelope is the only evidence we have of Leo’s surname – ‘Weil’ is just legible. The rest of the address, partly torn off, is ‘Jewish Committee, PO Box 1131, Shanghai, China’. The letter has a Hong Kong postmark.

The letters

For the original letters in German click here.

Four letters from Shanghai survive. The longest is from 28 August, followed by a short note the following day. Then nothing until a one-page letter 13 November, and a similarly brief letter on 17 November.

On 28 August 1939, six days before Britain declared war on Germany, Leo Weil wrote to my grandmother, Vera Neumeyer, who was then living in Munich, some months after her children Ruth and Raimund had left for England. The letter went via London and was returned to Shanghai but somehow got to Vera.

Leo Weil letter from Shanghai_20171205_0003
Postmarked on the day of the outbreak of war between Britain and Germany, and ironically on Vera’s birthday. This letter had a long journey, returned from London to Shanghai and somehow delivered eventually to Munich.

Life is manageable in Shanghai but clearly there’s a lot of concern about the broader picture and whether he’ll see Vera again. But was Leo hoping Vera would join him in Brindisi so they could go to China together, without Hans? If so, it poses some questions about the state of marriage between Vera and Hans, who divorced two years later, either to save Vera from her legal status being married to a Jew, or for personal reasons:

I hope you got my airmail letter. I want now to explain why I didn’t write for such a long time after my arrival. On the ship I waited in vain for a sign of life from you, as you promised on the last evening when we were together. I thought that you didn’t want to hear any more from me.After we arrived I was constantly going to and fro the bank to see if any post had arrived. But there was no news. I was distraught and even incapable of writing.

A namesake called Weil received my entire forwarded mail from the bank, and instead of giving this back to the bank, he took it to the Postroom Committee, where I had never assumed there might be any mail for me. After several weeks, a certain Ludwig Weil, whom I’d got to know, told me that there was mail for me. I was deeply thankful to get my mail as a result of this chance event, as the Committee doesn’t reforward mail.

In my last letter I should indeed have explained everything to you, but everything weighed so heavily upon me that I could only write after I’d got all my mail. As ever, my thoughts have been preoccupied with you day and night; there is so much from the past going through my head that I cannot be more at peace with myself after you had written to me so tenderly. There is so much haunting me, and I have a crazy idée fixe in my head, because from the very beginning I didn’t genuinely live with you. But now I am here in Asia it’s no point grieving over what is missing. That way lies madness. You have a good heart, and I am sure you would be willing to help me to overcome this awful time. From my letters you will be able to work out very clearly how things stand with me. Don’t have any doubt that the time will soon pass and that we will be back together again. I hope you reply to my last letter.

My dear Veralein, I know very well how dreadful everything is, and I pray to God that your heavy burdens will be lifted. I know you are a practical person and can cope well with adversity – I have learned a lot from you…

How are the dear children [Ruth and Raimund]? I am sure they are in your heart. It is difficult to live so very far apart.

He continues in an upbeat vein. But it must have been quite a shock to get off the ship at Shanghai after a long journey from Brindisi to find a very different world. Refugees got some help from fellow Jews: the Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) was the main source of help – financing makeshift shelters, hospital beds and soup kitchens.

Life here isn’t too bad. The climate is mild. In any event, people say that it is easy to enjoy everything Shanghai has to offer. It is also easy to live independently here. Meanwhile I hope it will be possible to join my brother in Australia, when the war eventually comes to an end. I am fine in terms of physical health; we live in the Chinese quarter. Shanghai is now closed off to Chinese, so the people here live very frugally and waste nothing,

While I am here please keep in contact.

Leo

There are mentions of Leo in letters in 1939 from Vera and Hans in Munich to her children in England, Ruth and Raimund. In a letter written on 11 May 1939, two days after the children departed from Munich on the Kindertransport, the parents report that Leo came to have lunch with them (“Rührei und Salat” – scrambled eggs and salad). And later there are several mentions asking  if they’ve heard from Leo – so he was obviously a good friend to the family. He was evidently very fond of Vera.

The ghetto in Shanghai

1.6.39 from Vera:

Der Leo hat einen Brief an Euch, den er falsch adressiert hatte, zurückbekommen. Er fährt  nun also wirklich nach Schanghai.

Leo has had a letter returned that he sent to you but had misaddressed. So he’s really going to Shanghai.

14.6.39 from Vera:

Dem Leo könnt Ihr  hierher leider nicht mehr schreiben, da er heute nach Sch(anghai) abreist; er wird Euch sicher von unterwegs schreiben.

Unfortunately, you can not write to Leo here because he is leaving for Shanghai today; he will certainly write to you on the way.

16.8.39 from Vera:

Heute bekam ich einen Brief von Leo aus Sh(anghai). Er hat sich so mit Eurem Briefel gefreut. Zu gefallen scheint es ihm nicht besonders, hoffentlich kann er von dort bald woanders hin.  

Today I got a letter from Leo from Sh(anghai). He was so happy with your letter. He does not particularly like it, and hopefully he will be able to go somewhere else soon

Neumeyer family holidays 1938_20170421_0005 (1)
Vera Neumeyer

The trail goes cold

We don’t know what happened to Leo thereafter, or if he made it to Australia. Certainly Shanghai would have been a relief after the horrors of Nazi Germany – things were relatively safe in the the district of Hongkew – the International Settlement under the eyes of the Japanese – compared to Nazi Germany. There was on the one hand grinding poverty, overcrowding and disease, with open sewers, high unemployment, near starvation and appalling housing conditions. But at the same time there was a thriving cultural life, with schools, newspapers, German and Yiddish theatres, sports teams and restaurants with cabarets. At that time the Japanese, who had occupied Shanghai since the Battle of Shanghai in 1937, were wary of upsetting the European Jews as they were seen as extremely powerful. But when Pearl Harbor was bombed by the Japanese in December 1941, all changed in the ghetto, as the Jews became prisoners of war.

The climate wasn’t that easy to live with: although Leo mentions it was mild when he wrote the letter in late August it could be punishingly hot in summer and bitterly cold in winter – let’s hope he managed to get out before the winter chill set in.

In summer 1939, Vera Neumeyer, meanwhile, would certainly have still intended to escape to England to be reunited with her children, rather than join Leo and sail to Shanghai. But for her any form of escape was never to happen.

To get an idea of life in the Shanghai Ghetto during the early war years, see the 90-minute documentary Shanghai Ghetto (youtube).

postcard from Brindisi from Leo Weil 1
postcard from Brindisi from Leo Weil 2

The last correspondence Leo Weil wrote to the Neumeyers from Europe: from Brindisi, awaiting his voyage to Shanghai in June 1939.

Special thanks to my brother Stephen for deciphering and translating Leo’s letters.