On 1 September 2022 my brother Stephen and I were among several hundred people on the quayside at Harwich to witness the unveiling of Safe Haven, a memorial to the Kindertransport, at a highly moving ceremony with speeches and the Tendring brass band providing the soundtrack.
There were some thirty surviving Kinder (people who came as children on the Kindertransport) present, including a married couple now well into their nineties, and the veteran politician and peer Alf Dubs.
Our mother Ruth and uncle Raymond were among the 9,300 children who escaped almost certain death in Nazi-controlled Europe.
There’s a much-admired Kindertransport memorial at Liverpool Street station in London, where many Kinder arrived in 1938-39, and at the Hook of Holland, where many of them sailed from continental Europe. So the obvious gap in this sculptural trail was Harwich, where most of those children first set foot on British soil. Many spent their first few weeks in unheated holiday chalets at nearby Dovercourt.
The speeches underlined the efforts of ordinary people, helping bring children over to Britain: ‘small acts of kindness that cost so little and meant so much’. Appropriately the backdrop to proceedings was LV18 a historic light vessel; the mayor Ivan Henderson opened by saying that Harwich’s lighthouses acted as beacons of freedom for so many people.
Lord Pickles made the very pertinent points that it was the efforts of volunteers such as Nicholas Winton and the Quakers rather than the British government who were instrumental in getting the Kinder into this country. And that parents of Kinder were excluded. As with my mother and uncle, many children assumed their parents would follow on but very few did. While 9,300 children got out, many more did not.
Four months before Ruth and Raymond’s departure, my grandmother Vera Neumeyer wrote to Beatrice Paish in England, whose family were paying for Ruth and Raymond to travel to live with them, saying ‘I could not bear letting them go away knowing that I should never be able to follow them.’ But Vera never did follow them: she and her husband Hans were unable to leave Nazi Germany.
The sculpture: Safe Haven
Ian Wolter’s sculpture Safe Haven works brilliantly well: it’s simply comprises five children walking off the gangplank of the ship that brought them to safety here. Wolter explained he used real child models, rather than historic photos. One was his daughter Esther; the others were Ben and Marcel ‘who never stood still’ and Daria and Libby. Each has a different attitude: at the fore, a girl looking purposefully ahead, one foot on land; the others are variously inquisitive and anxious, and the child at the back is looking nervously behind at where he’s come from.
We disembarked at Harwich and were taken out into some fields. The sun was shining, the air clean, the grass greener that any I had ever seen, and if ever freedom was a tangible thing, it was so that morning in Harwich.
John Rayner, (now Rabbi Rayner), who arrived in Harwich on a Kindertransport in 1939. Part of this quotation is inscribed on one of the figures of the Safe Haven memorial.
Click here to see a short video I took of the moment Safe Haven was unveiled by Dame Stephanie Shirley. She came to England on a Kindertransport at the age of five, a refugee without her parents, went on to found a hugely successful all-woman software company, and now devotes herself to philanthropy. With her is Mike Levy, Chair of the Harwich Kindertransport Memorial and Learning Trust.
I’m so pleased to have had a couple of extended Zoom chats with Mike Levy, and the opportunity to donate to this hugely impressive achievement instigated by the Harwich Kindertransport Memorial Trust.
My mother and uncle, then aged 15 and 14, arrived in Harwich on 11 May 1939 and never saw their parents again. Thanks to the kindness of the family who adopted them in England they made new lives and settled in this country. It all began at Harwich (or very close to it – the ship actually arrived at Parkeston Quay).
And here we were on 1 September 2022, 83 years and 113 days later, on a poignantly glorious late summer’s day in this beautiful little coastal town, revisiting a key scene of that remarkable rescue operation.
Tatty scraps of paper bearing something written in German long ago, in pencil or crayon, with abundant crossings-out… I had filed these away not realising their importance. I’d taken them to be the fruits of someone’s Sunday afternoon copying out a very long poem.
Then last year I gave them a second glance. There was unmistakably a Star of David drawn on one page. Then – how could have I missed it? – the inscription ‘Irma Kuhn B09’.
Irma Kuhn was the elder sister of my grandfather Hans Neumeyer. The mystery figure – my mother and uncle didn’t tell me anything about her. All I knew was that she used to visit the family from time to time and she eventually went blind and at the age of 68 was deported from a Jewish nursing home in Munich (Hermann-Schmid Strasse 5) in 1942 to Theresienstadt. She perished there the following year.
‘B09’ presumably refers to the hut or building Irma was living in while in Theresienstadt.
I sent a copy of the poem – or poems as there now seemed to be two of them – to historian Lauren Liederman, who is of American nationality but lives in Görlitz with her husband and two young children and is dedicated to preserving the Jewish history of Görlitz (where my grandmother Vera and great aunts lived with their parents, the Ephraims, up to 1922). Lauren passed it onto someone who could decipher the handwriting, and then set about translating it.
And then a very excited message from her: “OMG Tim! Irma’s poem! Had me crying!”
Then we realised it was an artefact from Theresienstadt: the poem was written by Irma, and at the end dedicates it to Hans, her brother. Both were blind, so Irma dictated it to someone called Rina.
Erstmals nach persönlichem Diktat
Zu Papier gebracht im Ghetto Theresienstadt unweit Prag
Nach zehnmonatiger Gefangenschaft von deiner Schwester
(Von der Rimis)
Written for the first time according to personal dictation. Put on paper in the Theresienstadt Ghetto not far from Prague, after ten months of imprisonment, by your sister
Written out by Rina (of the Rimis)
Then the question arose how the poem survived. I got the answer in June, when among the papers and letters received from the extraordinary stash found in the Hellman’s basement in Sweden (see previous post) was a letter from Alois Weiner, who had befriended Hans’ during their incarceration in Theresienstadt. Alois survived the Holocaust and wrote to Dela Blakmar, my grandfather’s secretary and lover, after the war. I had previously only seen Dela’s typed out copy of the letter, which omitted the opening paragraph that said the only things that survived of Hans’ from Theresienstadt were photos of this children (my mother and uncle) and two poems. Alois kept those items and passed them on to Dela. So that is how the poems got to us.
Actually it’s one poem but written out twice – the first time with lots of corrections and amendments, and the second time as a fair copy. It is titled Stern unter Sternen (“Star among Stars”).
What surprised me was its heartfelt Jewish sentiment. I didn’t realise Irma and Hans were such close adherents to the religion, nor that Irma was apparently a woman of great intellect. And clearly they found each other in Theresienstadt. Hans married my grandmother Vera in 1920 – she was the daughter of a Lutheran Christian-Jewish couple, and was herself a devout Lutheran. Hans and Vera brought up their children Ruth (my mother) and Raymond as Lutherans. Hans didn’t attend a synagogue – as a blind man it would have been very difficult travelling to Munich for the purpose (there was no synagogue where they lived, in the town of Dachau). But he still regarded himself as a Jew: ‘As I am a Hebrew, the political situation in Germany has made impossible any activity as a music teacher as well as a composer ‘.
Did Irma perhaps write the poem intending Hans to set music to it? He was surrounded by a coterie of music students (see an earlier post on this blog), who took lessons from him and called him ‘the professor’ – they would have been willing to help.
I present it here in its original German, so you can get an idea of its scansion and rhyme, and then with an annotated literal translation by Lauren. Huge thanks to her for helping identify this artefact.
The photos are all ones I took on a visit to Theresienstadt in 2001, when we lit candles in memory of our family members in the crematorium.
Note: the first version below is the German version. If you have your browser preferences set to translate to English automatically then it may appear in auto-translated English, so I advise you turn that option off on your preferences while reading this.
Stern unter Sternen
1. Besiegelt ist das Schicksal Befehl vom hohen Rat daß nit gerett’ soll werden Der ganze Judenstaat. Schon graut’s in grauen Mauern schon grinst Gevatter Tod. Vernichtung ist die Losung Vernichtung das Gebot Die Sense umgeschultert So naht der Sensenmann Er kürt sich seine Opfer Und legt die Sichel an
2. Wir zahlen die Tribute Zoll der Vasallenzeit Wir zahl’n mit Herzensblute das Blut zum Himmel schreit. 3. Sah’ Ritter, Tod und Teufel die Ausgeburt der Höll, Vermisch’ den Sensensingsang Mit deinem Hohngegröhl Geklirre und Geklapper Welch Dissonanzenklang Geklirre und Geklapper zum letzten Abgesang. 4. Dann meist’re deine Arbeit Mal’ deine Stigmen hin Und drück die Totenmale auf jede bleiche Stirn. Wir stehen still und weinen die Tränen löschen aus
Wir stehen still und beten Verklärung wird daraus.
5. Getragen sind die Särge zu eb’ner Erd’ geschickt Der Rabbi der Gemeinde Die Trostesworte spricht. (Diese erste Strophe 5 ist durchgestrichen. Es folgt eine neue) 5. Wir hungern, darben, frieren, Erleb’n der Klagen zehn. Was könnte außer Polen Uns übles noch geschehn Getragen sind die Särge Zu eb’ner Erd’ geschickt Der Rabbi der Gemeinde Die Trostesworte spricht. 6. Wir stehen an den Särgen Darob das Bahrentuch Geschmückt im Stern der Sterne Sind wir nicht reich genug? Er strahlt mit gold’nem Glanz Im Dunkeln umsomehr Er strahlt mit den Milliarden Am weiten Äthermeer.
7. Das Antlitz gegen Osten Die Sonne im Zenit Rotgold in Sonnbrandsschwaden die Erde überglüht Wir schauen Gottes Wunder voll Inbrunst im Gemüt Bis das die Sonne unter Fernab der Tag entflieht.
8. Dann falt ich meine Hände weiß sie von Sünde rein beseligt wonnetrunken hüllt mich ein Schlummer ein Wir werden nicht vergehen Wir werden fortbestehen Wir werden weiterleben Und Leben um zu sehn.
Mir träumt ein Mene-Tekel Ich deut’ der Runen Schrift Im Schemen ewiger Jude zerbricht Judäa nicht. Ich höre Sphfärenklänge Vernimm der Harfe Lied Und schmück mich mit dem Sterne In dem Judäa siegt. Er führt uns einst von Hause Er führt uns einst zurück Ein Herd, ein Tisch, ein Lager Sei unser höchstes Glück.
10. Und Friede, Friede, Friede, verbreitet sich im Raum Und Friede, Friede, Friede bedeutet dieser Traum Und Friede, Friede, Friede hat uns der Herr geschenkt In Allmacht, Gnade, Güte, behüt, geschirmt, gelenkt Wer nie im seinem Leben Um Freiheit wurd gebracht Kennt nicht der übel größtes Kennt nicht der Freiheit Macht.
11. Allgütiger, Allvater, du hörtest unser Flehen Wer so wie wir erniedrigt, Den kannst du nur erhöhen Wohlan denn, Schwestern, Brüder In Ghettos nah und fern vernehmt die große Kunde Es naht der Tag des Herrn
12. Auf Gletschers höchsten Höhn Klafft drohend Spalt und Kluft Lawinen donnern krachen Auf eines Hamans (?) Gruft. Wir aber Schwestern, Brüder Wir rüsten jetzt zum Fest Das Fest zum Wiedersehen Das Gott uns feiern lässt.
13. Nehmt Euer Hoheitszeichen Aus König Davids Hand Und zeugt euch seiner würdig Und seinem Unterpfand. Im Geist gebannt was immer uns zugefügt der Mob So roll’n die Ghetto Ghettobilder Vorbei im Zoetrop
14. Geknebelt und geknechtet Wir wanken, weichen nicht Wir trotzen den Gewalten In tiefster Zuversicht
15. Entfremdet und entrechtet Volk ohne Raum und Brot Verharrend bis ins letzte In schwerster Schicksalsnacht
16. So wählt ich jene Weise So seelenvoll versiehts, Zu Leitwort und Geleite Zum Ghettoklagelied.
Wer nie sein Brot mit Tränen aß Wer nie in kummervollen Nächten Auf seinem Bett weinend saß Der kennt euch nicht ihr himmlischen Mächte AMEN
Literal translation in English:
Star Among Stars
Sealed is the fate
The order from the high council
is that there shall be no salvation
for any of the Jewish people.
Already the grey walls are shuddering
and the Grim Reaper leers.
Destruction is the watchword
Destruction is the order
With a scythe around his shoulder
the Grim Reaper approaches.
He chooses his victims
And brandishes his scythe.
We pay tribute
Duty of servitude
We pay with blood of our heart
Our blood cries to heaven.
I saw the knight, death and devil
the spawn of hell,
Mingle the scything song
With your mocking roar
Crash and clatter
What dissonance sound
Clattering and crashing
until the very last swan song.
Then mostly your work
Paint your stigmas
And press the death marks
On each pale brow.
We stand still and weep
The tears extinguish
We stand still and pray
Transfiguration forms from it.
5. (this verse was crossed out)
Carried are the coffins
Sent into the ground
The rabbi of the congregation
Speaks the words of comfort.
We hunger, we starve, we freeze,
Suffering lamentations times ten.
What else could happen to us
What evil can still befall us
The coffins are carried
Sent into the ground
The rabbi of the congregation
Speaks words of comfort.
We stand by the coffins
Whereof the pall
Adorned in the star of stars
Are we not rich enough?
It shines with golden brilliance
In the dark all the more
It shines with the billions
On the wide ethereal sea.
Facing towards the east
The sun at its zenith
Red gold in sunburn swathes
The earth glows
We watch God’s miracle
Full of fervour in the mind
Until the sun sets
Far away the day flees.
Then I fold my hands
I know them clean from sin
Blissfully drunk with joy
A slumber envelops me
We will not perish
We will endure
We will live on
And live to see.
I dream of a Mene-Tekel
[Mene-Tekel: Old Testament reference the words that appeared on the wall during Belshazzar’s Feast (Daniel 5:25), interpreted by Daniel to mean that God had doomed the kingdom of Belshazzar]
I read the runes’ writing
In the scheme of eternal Judea
Judea does not break.
I hear the sounds of the spheres
I hear the harp’s song
And I am adorned with the star
Within which Judea triumphs.
It leads us once from home
And will lead us back once more.
To our hearth, our table, our camp
It is our highest happiness.
And peace, peace, peace, will spread in the room
Peace signifies this dream
It is peace that the Lord has given us
In omnipotence, grace, goodness,
protected, shielded, guided
He who never in his life
Was deprived of freedom
Does not know the greatest evil
He does not know the power of freedom.
Most gracious Father of all, you have heard our plea
Those who are humiliated like us,
Only you can lift them up
Come then, sisters, brothers
In ghettos near and far
Hear the great news
The day of the Lord is near
On the glacier’s highest peaks
Gaps and chasms are threatening to open
Avalanches will crash
On Haman’s tomb.
[Haman’s tomb- a Haman who is the main antagonist in the Book of Esther for which Purim is celebrated. He sought to annihilate the Jews.]
But we sisters, brothers
We now prepare for the feast
The feast of reunion
That God makes for us to celebrate.
Take your sovereign sign
From King David’s hand
And bear witness to him
And his pledge.
In the spirit we are bound
through whatever will be inflicted on us by the mob
So rolls the ghetto, and its horror
Like in the wheel of the zoetrope
[A zoetrope was a machine invented in 1834 by William George Horner, was an early form of motion picture projector that consisted of a drum containing a set of still images, turned in a circular fashion in order to create the illusion of motion.]
Gagged and chained
We waver, yet do not yield
We defy the forces
In deepest faith
Alienated and disenfranchised
People without room and bread
Persevering to the last
In our heaviest night of fate
So I choose that way
So soulfully do I do it,
To guide and escort others
Through our ghetto lament.
He who never ate his bread with tears
He who never in sorrowful nights
Sat on his bed crying
He does not know you, and your heavenly powers.
A literary – or musical – quotation
The words of the last four lines are Goethe’s, not Irma’s. She is quoting from his work Wilhelm Meister. Those words were set to music by Schubert, as part of a song cycle Gesänge des Harfners aus Wilhelm Meister (Songs of the Harpist from Wilhelm Meister). It seems very likely that song was familiar to both of them.
There is a second verse which Irma omits:
Ihr führt ins Leben uns hinein, Ihr lasst den Armen schuldig werden, Dann überlasst ihr ihn der Pein: Denn alle Schuld rächt sich auf Erden.
The translation: You bring us into life; you deem the poor man guilty, then you leave him in his agony: for all guilt is avenged on earth.
To hear Schubert’s song, in a poignant performance by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, click here.
Special thanks to Lauren Leiderman for her help.
If anyone has any extra information or observations about the wording in this poem please let me know (email@example.com), or add a comment below.
Earlier this year I had an email from Marianne Hellman in Sweden that completely bowled me over. We knew nothing of each other.
Marianne and her husband Mats had been clearing out their basement in Bjärred in Sweden – a village near the city of Lund – for the installation of a heat pump when they discovered a box of old letters. They were all addressed to Dela (Adele) Blakmar (maiden name Mankiewitz), with whom they had had a family connection many years ago. Dela was secretary and friend of my grandfather, Hans Neumeyer. Both were Jewish.
Among these papers were some fifty typed letters to Dela from ‘Hans’, dated 1937, plus a few written out in barely decipherable script. The name meant nothing to Marianne until she googled ‘Dela Blakmar’ and found this blog. Then everything clicked into place.
The relationship between Hans and Dela was something of an unknown to me until then. It was clear that the two were hugely intellectual musicians and valued each other’s musicality. That according to correspondence Dela – a professional violinist and violist – was devastated at the loss of her friend Hans, himself a talented pianist, and that playing with student musicians was not the same. As Hans was blind, she wrote down his compositions, presumably he dictating from a piano. The loss of virtually all his musical output during bombing in Berlin must have been almost as severe a hammer blow as Hans’ death itself.
And there was a gut feeling I had that their relationship might have been more than just platonic. Here at last is the apparent proof.
I have yet to go through all the letters. They also contain a good deal about the musical world of Hans and Dela. More about that in a future blog post.
But picking one at random, I alight upon the words ‘Du glauben, dass ich nicht verstünde, nicht selber tief im Herzen wünschte dass unsere Liebe, unser Einsseinin einem kleinen, jungen schlagendenchen fortlebte und wie das Echo unseres Glückes uns entgegenklingt.’ (‘You believe that I do not understand, do not wish deep in my heart that our love, our oneness, lives on in a small, young, beating little one and how the echo of our happiness rings out to us.’)
They are all passionate love letters.
And among the papers, a letter from one Mimi in 1947: ‘Ich habe sehr viel an Sie gedacht, ich weiss ja, wie eng Sie miteinander verbun den waren, und wie schwer Sie sich Ihr kurzes Glückerkämpft hatten.’ (‘I’ve thought about you a lot, I know how close you were and how hard you fought for your hard-lived happiness.’)
In addition to the 1937 letters are postcards from Hans in the Theresienstadt ghetto, sent in 1944 shortly before his death there. And on top of that a large amount of correspondence from persons unknown, and photos – of Dela, her family and Hans.
One of them, dated 12 April 1944, reads as follows:
Dein Oktoberbrief ist noch immer allein, aber heute erhielt ich Dein drittes Päckchen, aus Lisbon, Liege noch immer im Spital, keine Angst, nicht gefährlich, Gustl könnte öfters an mich denken, ich wundere mich sehr. Gehe bitte zu Gräfin Marianne Mörner, Konzertsängerin, sie wird sich sicher an ihren altern Lehrer erinnern. Mochte gern wissen, was Du beruflich tust und wie es Dir geht. Bin mit allen meine Gedanken bei Dir, warte sehnsüchtig auf ein paar Zeilen von Dir, grüsse Dich innigst.
Your October letter is still the only one I have, but today I received your third package, from Lisbon [parcels were sent via a neutral country], I’m still in the hospital, don’t worry, it’s not dangerous, Gustl [Gustav Güldenstein, a music colleague and family friend based in Switzerland] could often think of me, I’m very surprised. Please go to Countess Marianne Mörner, concert singer, she will surely remember her old teacher. I would like to know how you are doing.
All my thoughts are with you, waiting longingly for a few lines from you, and my warmest greetings.
Marianne and Mats Hellman met Dela on numerous occasions, which is why Dela left a number of her possessions to them, including a quantity of Dela’s printed sheet music. The items lay forgotten in the basement of the Hellmans’ house until very recently.
I have informed the Imperial War Museum and they are very excited by the discovery, stating that they will take it into their archives along with the rest of our family artefacts.
The plan to escape to New York, 1938
Last year I spotted online a reference to a letter to a Jewish composer, Herbert Fromm, referring to an application made by Hans in July 1938 to emigrate to New York with Dela. Nothing came of it, but the letter exists somewhere in an archive in New York.
The letter is listed in a reference book Quellen zur Geschichte emigrierter Musiker 1933-1950 (Sources Relating to the History of Émigré Musicians) by Horst Weber and Stefan Drees, concerning musicians who emigrated to New York during that period. The listing is heavily abbreviated and in German. Here’s a translation (Mankiewitz being Dela’s maiden name):
Hans Neumeyer (residing with Mankiewitz, Berlin) to Herbert Fromm, Signed Typed Letter, 4 p., German Emigration Ausreise / Hans Israel Neumeyer (if possible together with Dela Mankiewitz Blakmar, violinist and teacher (only initials mentioned): Einreise / Hans Neumeyer (immigration conditions no relatives in the USA, Age, health; possibility of recommendation by institutions or persons; integration / Herbert Fromm (positive experiences in exile: new beginning in America) Aktivitäten [Activities]: employment Hans Neumeyer (experience with organising library for the blind; ANTON SCHEIDLER. Director of the Munich Central Blind Institute; possibility of working in the area education for the blind in the USA: request for mediation by Herbert Fromm); recommendation (letters of recommendation and certificates, confirmation of musical activities by Hans Neumeyer); compositions / Hans Neumeyer (harp accompaniment to melodramatic performance of Psalms 90, 97 and 121: works for recorder), public / Herbert Fromm (Interest in music / Herbert Fromm ) Writings Hans Neumeyer (“Modulation Theory”, transcript of the first part, Dela Mankiewitz Blakmar. As a helper); teaching / Hans Neumeyer (practical experience with theory lessons) Reflexion [reflection] Music / Hans Neumeyer (“Modulation Theory”, transcript of the first part, Dela Mankiewitz Blakmar. As assistant); teaching (music theory as the basis of “modulation theory”; for using the recorder) Zeitgescheben [contemporary]: Politik Hans Neumeyer (“Modulation Theory”, transcript of the first part, Dela Mankiewitz Blakmar. As a helper); teaching (Situation in Germany, “Dissonance of the Present”).
I have contacted the author, Stefan Drees, who suggested where the letter might be (he recorded finding it on a trip to New York in the early 2000s) but so far I have drawn a blank. There is no mention of it in the Herbert Fromm archive. Another possibility is the archive of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, but I have been unable to contact them.
If Hans and Dela had made it to New York, would they have attempted to get Vera (Hans’ wife) and the children (my mother Ruth and uncle Raymond) over to America later on?
As far as I can see it, the relationship between Dela and Vera was very close too, and Vera may have had a lover, possibly Leo Weil (see his story about his letters to her and his escape to Shanghai in 1939 here), who was also on close terms with the rest of the family. The set-up looks bohemian, to say the least.
Dela’s connections to the anti-Nazi resistance
Franz Kaufmann in Berlin
More revelations from this hoard came in the form of a letter from the Berlin judge Hans Walter Hirschberg, who had survived Theresienstadt – where he met both Hans and Hans’ father-in-law Martin Ephraim. In it he writes: I was often with your cousin Franz Kaufmann, latterly in the Jewish prison in Berlin where I spent my last ten days before being deported to Theresienstadt, and where he was held for interrogation. A few days after I arrived, he was taken off in chains and executed. He should be honoured as a martyr. We met in his apartment in 1940.
I have seen this letter before and recorded it in a previous blog post, but only in a retyped version that omitted the words ‘Dear Dela’ at the beginning. So we now know that Franz Kaufmann was Dela’s cousin.
An article in Wikipedia explains Kaufmann’s role as a leading member of the Underground movement in Berlin, smuggling Jews out of Nazi Germany.
And the fascinating memoir The Forger by Cioma Schönhaus brilliantly sets the scene. Schönhaus was a young Jewish graphic artist during the Third Reich, living in Berlin. He was able to forge Nazi stamps on false identity papers so that Jews could use them to escape Nazi Germany. He met up with Kaufmann, a Christian Jew who obtained identity cards donated by Berliners – they would surreptitiously deposit their own ID cards in the collection plate at church services and later get replacements. Kaufmann and Hirschberg were both involved in the Christian community in Dahlem, in Berlin.
Here Schönhaus describes visiting Kaufmann’s villa for the first time:
Dr Kaufmann’s villa, set in elegant parkland, could easily have been some professor’s private clinic. A few magazines lay on the coffee table in the study, where five Jews were waiting, planning to go into hiding in Berlin. Dr Kaufmann received me in his office, seated behind a desk. I had tucked the forged ID card away inside a folded newspaper, where it would not be immediately spotted in a body search. Student-style, Dr Kaufmann rapped the desk with his knuckles in appreciation. ‘Good idea, that business with the newspaper. You’re right: you’ve got to use your head.’
He took the pass, went to the window, said nothing at all, and left the office. I could hear somebody next door thanking him. Then I saw a man walking out through the garden towards the road. ‘You see, Schönhaus, you never met him. That’s my principle; the people you make passes for will not know who you are. Then, if it comes to the worst, they can’t betray you.’
All the visitors had left. He took out his sewing basket from under the bookcase and handed me five more passes, with passport photos to match. He added two more books of ration coupons and declared: ‘I’m happy with your work, Schönhaus. I am appointing you my assistant. I’ll see you next Friday at the same time.’ And then, as though he sensed my misgivings, he went on: ‘Our system has been carefully worked out, you know. What happens in a police check? Somebody is stopped in the street and ordered to produce identification. At worst he is taken to the police station, where they check out whether the owner of the pass is registered with the police. If he is, then they establish whether he’s wanted for any offence. If he’s not, they let him go. Schönhaus, it’s possible that my villa and the apparent normality surrounding my rescue operations are a better way of going about a conspiracy than if I were to meet every one of my protégés at night in a dark place. The Gestapo are not trained in criminology, so, like the man in the street, they think illegal activities only take place under cover of darkness, with the participants going around in turned-up collars looking furtive. My style is the exact opposite, so I don’t fit the Gestapo’s preconceived ideas. That’s what keeps us safe.’
All the same, I knew that on any visit to Dr Kaufmann a Gestapo man might open the door to me. I felt as though I were playing Russian roulette every time I went there.
Dr Kaufmann was satisfied with my first forged pass. But I wasn’t. Once opened and re-closed with pliers, the eyelets fixing the photo to the pass no longer looked absolutely right. What I needed was the sort of tool used by cobblers to fit eyelets for shoelaces…
Helge Blakmar in Copenhagen
And that doesn’t seem Dela’s only family link with the Resistance movements. In September 1933 she married Helge Blakmar and lived for a period at Gotherstade 129 in Copenhagen. She was in Denmark between 1933 and 1938 but seems to have returned to Germany at some time, as she was secretary to Hans from 1936.
Helge’s nephew Mogens Sørensen happened to find this blog and read my earlier post about Dela. He has this week told me more about Helge. The marriage was indeed simply done within months of Hitler coming to power, to help her her escape danger – they later divorced and he married again.
Helge Blakmar (1907-1985; born as Helge Sørensen but changed his name to Blakmar) worked for the Danish resistance movement.
His career was remarkable. He worked as an engineer as well as a paratrooper. And on top of that he spied for the resistance, firstly by taking a job at an aviation factory in Warnemünde for three months, then at an aluminium factory in northern Norway, from where he reported his espionage findings about the heavy water project, in which the Nazis were attempting to manufacture nuclear weapons, to a British consul in Sweden. As a result of the intelligence he gave, a commando raid known as Operation Musketton in September 1942 totally destroyed the Glomfjord power plant in Norway, which provided electricity for a nearby aluminium plant.
He was arrested three times by the Gestapo, but thanks to his language skills, he managed to go free every time. At one point the woman he married after divorcing Dela had to flee to Sweden when the Gestapo caught up with them.
After the war he returned to Denmark but was arrested and jailed because of his work for the Germans. However it soon transpired that he had been spying for the resistance and after a week he was released. In 1950 he and others were honoured with a private audience with the King Haakon of Norway for their heroic efforts.
It was probably thanks to her married status as a Dane that Dela got out of Germany some time after 1938 and then out of Denmark in October 1943, when she and many others fled by boat to Sweden. Her boat’s engine failed but a favourable wind blew them into Swedish territorial waters.
After arriving in Sweden she lived in the mining town of Norberg, sharing a house with a local headmistress, Sara. They became lifelong friends.
And the rest of the archive
In addition to Hans’s letters the box from Marianne and Mats’ basement contains scores of letters, postcards and scribbled notes from mostly unknown people, photos (with nothing written on the back to identify them) including some photos of Hans and some early studio portraits of the Mankiewitz family.
A very comprehensive typed list of possessions was presumably done for the Nazi authorities when she had to change address. And she’s written a 7500-word description of life during the Third Reich – for a purpose I have yet to discover.
Then amongst all this history I find a very unexpected link. It’s a letter written by me at the age of ten, a couple of months after Dela came over to England to give me her spare violin, a large three-quarter size instrument made by Michael Dötsch of Berlin in 1919. I have no recollection of writing it, or playing the violin to her. I am very touched that she kept my missive and hope my fiddle-playing to her wasn’t too excruciating…
Special thanks to Marianne Hellman and Mogens Sørensen for the amazing material that enabled me to write this blog post.
My uncle Raymond and his sister (my mother) Ruth arrived in Britain together on a Kindertransport in May 1939 and rapidly had to adapt to a new way of life, a new language, a new adopted family, a new country – and much more.
They went through the war years not knowing that their parents were dead, but with each week that passed the chances of the family being reunited must have seemed smaller.
Over a hundred letters – in German and English – from Raymond to Ruth, whom he nicknames as Ta, have survived, from 1940 to 1948, with the vast bulk of them dating from his time in the British army.
Thanks to my brother Stephen for translating many of these fascinating letters. Here I’m highlighting just a few of them – including his description of his long-awaited first postwar visit to Munich and Dachau, and his attempts to find lost relatives of friends.
Discovery in 2019
I did not realise this correspondence existed until his widow Ingrid passed them on to me in 2019. And quite a remarkable eye-opener they have proved to be. They flesh out detail of his life – which I have previously written about in another post on this blog. Much more so than anything Ruth wrote, they are full of raw emotion and contemporary detail.
Ingrid told me that Ruth had handed them to him during his final years: as his dementia took a grip he seems to have wanted to think about earlier stages of his life – these letters evidently helped the process of revisiting the past.
Although some letters are almost illegible fragments – according to Ingrid he’d sifted through these letters so often that some fell to pieces – he had put them in some sort of date order and even written the year on some of the undated ones.
At that late stage in life he made lists of events in his life, including exactly where he was during the war and in his military service.
The desire to sign up
As a teenager, Raymond is extremely keen to help the Allied cause and while working in the Birmingham Bicycle Factory in 1942 he tries to join the Air Ministry, but to no avail despite 18 weeks of participation: ‘The Committee knew straight away how I felt, even though I didn’t say anything, and they’ll try to sort something out. So the story may not yet be at an end. I hope that I can soon join Civil Defence.’
In 1943 he signed up for the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers (REME) but instead was put down for the Infantry of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment:
It was either the Infantry or nothing, so I chose the former. I must report to Glasgow on 16 December. To begin with, I will just be in the General Service Corps. I’ll try after that perhaps to join a different corps where I can learn more and will be in less danger. The danger is quite a big issue. It’s not that I’m fearful or anything – just that I feel responsible for our parents and that it’s my duty to try to find them after the war and to look after them.
Constant thoughts about the safety of his parents haunt him. This letter from 16 November 1942 suggests a conflict of opinions between him and his sister about the need to wage war:
The news from our parents is clearly not very positive, and we can be certain that at very least they are living through a very unpleasant time. I’d like to take this opportunity to share with you that I simply can’t agree with your position on Conscientious Objectors. Against a positive evil a real Christian has to fight, and can’t remain neutral.
He is called up just before his 19th birthday. He is told that a man called Raimund Neumeyer cannot serve with the British army with such a German-sounding name, and so is handed a phone book and told to find another name.
In November 1943 he becomes Raymond Newland:
If I have to go abroad, I’ll need to change my name – I’ve thought of Newland – can you think of anything better?
As a signed-up member of the army, his identity card is marked ‘exempt from registration’ that December – it is the first time he felt truly accepted by the United Kingdom:
Army life begins: training in Shrewsbury
Raymond’s native German is useful to the Allies, and he becomes an interpreter, working for the Military Police and Intelligence Corps.
Soon he is posted to The Maltings, Shrewsbury, for his initial training (5 February 1944):
The first impressions here were bleak. It’s certainly not beautiful. The barrack room is the worst I have ever seen, and the toilets are abominable. Even so there are advantages compared with Glasgow. First, proximity to Birmingham, and second, food. Last Sunday I hitchhiked to Birmingham, first on a small American lorry, then on a big lorry and two milk trucks. Everyone in Birmingham was wonderfully nice to me. It’s good for the soul when others are genuinely pleased to see you.
The war seems, thank goodness, to be coming to an end. What the Russians have achieved is quite amazing. If we can attach from the West, it can’t last much longer. If I can get to Europe I will have lots of things to do. Whether we’ll ever get money for our family house, who knows.
On 30 May 1944 he is suffering effects of scarlet fever which means he did not accompany his colleagues on their D-Day mission, which ended in heavy casualties. That illness may well have saved his life:
Here at the barracks I was violently sick on the stroke of midnight which repeated during the night and the next morning so I had to report to the sick bay.
The Maltings barracks are as depressing as ever and each time I leave through the gate it feels like entering a different world.
By June he has learned his father’s whereabouts: ‘The news that Vati is in Theresienstadt (Czechoslovakia) is by the way not so terrible, as the camp there doesn’t seem as bad as the ghettoes in Poland.’ but the following month hears that the Maws, who took him in when he first arrived in Weybridge from Germany, have been bombed out by a flying bomb – they were shaken but uninjured.
He is still hopeful in December 1944 that the parents are alive, being unaware that they have perished – their father in May that year and their mother presumably in 1942. He hitchhikes from Shrewsbury to Birmingham and stays with Mr and Mrs Coleman:
They were wonderfully kind. Doris said that when I find our parents, they can stay in her house. She thinks that a specific address will help with immigration. She also shared with me that if we needed money she could help with anything up to £100.
Happy arrival in France, then Belgium and Germany…
21 January 1945, Louvain:
I very often get stopped by little boys wanting to buy cigarettes (pour papa) and chocolate but the other day when asked without I had a blanket for sale. The schoolchildren seem to regard soldiers as an especially attractive target for snowballs and I had to run through quite a few barrages and can offer but feeble resistance.
He is prohibited from giving names of towns in his letters but is amazed at what can be got without difficulty in the shops. He can get Ruth a fountain pen for £1.
21 February 1945: he has arrived in France and is rather enjoying himself. He’s set about his self-education to make up for all the schooling he has missed out on – a theme that pervades many of his letters, as he asks Ruth to send various text books.
Life here is quite incredible, like a holiday and what I am doing in the way of work and lessons is extremely fascinating and I don’t feel it’s a strain… France has impressed me rather like a neglected garden. The country seems somehow dirty and untidy, probably a result of a four-year occupation and two campaigns of war.
Please send textbooks on tutorial dynamics and applied mathematics. Also urgently required is a North Stafford cap badge, obtainable at various shops for approximately tenpence.
He is still seeking for information about the parents, but to no avail. From Belgium in March he notes:
About the position father and mother, I am still trying to gather information. The main obstacle seems to be that even in high official circles they don’t seem to have made up their minds about that sort of thing.
He reunites a German girl, Maria, with Leon Long – the two were engaged before the war and met while Maria was staying with the Longs in England.
Realisation of what has happened casts a very black shadow over Raymond.
22 April 1945:
With utter horror I heard the facts and saw the pictures of the death pit at Belsen where 60,000 men and women and children were just slaughtered and starved to death. Out of a certain amount of confusion I now know but for all war and horrors the whole German people are directly or indirectly responsible, that I like to see Germany as a nation held in the subjugation for an indefinite period, about half a million of the worst criminals publicly hanged and the very young removed from their parents and educated in a decent manner.
You will probably think that I am saying these things in fury but I am not. I just could not believe everything we were told about the atrocities and now that I have concrete proof, I utterly fail to understand it.
Furthermore I feel no more ties of kinship to any German and hope that once I have left this country have left it once and for all.
1 May 1945, on a journey from Bremen to Lüneberg, on roads badly damaged by war action:
I sat in the front of the truck next to the driver and had a fine view of everything. Of towns there is very little left… destruction is so terrific that even the bombed East End areas and Coventry are nothing compared to this. Most towns are heaps of not rubble but just dust, the jagged piece of brickwork standing here and a wall on the verge of collapse there. Although we are at this moment in the town in Germany well very much cut off from the world having no wireless, no newspapers and having not received any mail up to now.
One thing I found rather encouraging was the many children waving along the roadside, showing they were not as much saturated with Nazi fanaticism as I feared.
7 May 1945, Lüneburg to Hamburg: it is the eve of VE Day and he has made his application for compassionate leave.
Every day I gather a host of impressions and have one absurd thing happening to me after another. The populace is so very mixed in behaviour and on top of that there are thousands and thousands of ex–prisoners and foreign workers wearing all sorts of uniforms. There are bearded Russians on the one extreme and on the otherlittle Ex BOM and Jungvolk kids still wearing bits of their uniform.
Everybody who is not in the armed forces or otherwise in prison behind barbed wire seems to be doing exactly has he or she pleases. There are German army air officers walking around free, some directing traffic and being saluted by their respective lower ranks.
Nearly everyone calls the Nazis Schweinehunde or Saubande. This morning a girl came up to me and wanted protection against some alleged Nazis who are menacing her family in a certain way. I rather enjoy this topsy–turvy world. One must under no circumstances ever grow soft especially two pathetic cries or appealing eyes and always be ready for immediate self–defence.
VE Day has come and gone, but things are still difficult for Raymond, particularly the uncertainty regarding his parents’ fate but also the chaos of destruction all around. He also is studying hard with the aim of getting a place at LSE after he is demobbed in August 1947.
22 July 1945: Raymond says that when he returns from leave he gets a strong mental depression lasting week or more as well as physical symptoms such as frequent faintness etc he consults himself by saying the depression may be a reaction to the drudgery of army life.
He returns to his post: travels to Folkestone where the streets are brilliantly lit, followed by the long walk to the transit camp. They spend the night by the seafront, an area used for dancing in gambling in peace time. Then a wild sea crossing to Calais. He continues to Brussels.
I have been told that unless I get on the 14-day interpreters’ course, which would enable me to have motorbike lessons, I would have to settle for being a utility interpreter without any prospects of promotion. I have enquired on behalf of a man in Hamburg about Mrs W Atzi, sent to Theresienstadt in 1942.
21 October 1945: he is being looked after by a kind elderly woman refugee from Katowice. She has come practically all the way there on foot having left a comfortable house and a valuable library at the mercy of the Poles.
He sketches details of his leave: day one arrival Birmingham; day two arrival Weybridge; day three arrival teatime in London; day four arrive evening in Cambridge taken days 5 to 11 stay in Cambridge; day 12 departure. Route of travel will be either by Rotterdam to Harwich or else Cuxhaven to Hull.
He is fed up with people imposing on him the need to send parcels to relatives.
16 December 1945:
Braunschweig is a most depressing sight. Mere shells of towns with a sort of deadly, hopeless, indifferent atmosphere about everything. The only human warmth was in the Jewish canteen in Braunschweig.
20 January 1946:
During the week I interpreted at the reading out charges against six war criminals. This was done in a proper courtroom with a huge Union Jack draping the wall behind the judge’s seat. I enjoyed it tremendously and hope I can see the proper trial too. I enjoyed it because it was so formal and dignified, not out of revenge.
10 February 1946: Raymond visits Hamburg by car and finds it much improved from last summer. He is working on an interesting large-scale fraud and ‘impeding the Allies’ case.
It has again a measure of culture and there are cranes, freighters, steamers and smoking chimney pots which tell of a gradual recovery from the chaos.
Classical music is a vital refuge for Raymond, and is much-mentioned in his letters. He attends concerts and listens to the radio with rapt attention. On 17 February 1946 he writes ‘I am listening to the Eroica symphony, the finest thing in my life.’
3 March 1946, Verden:
Civilian rations are being cut again this week and starvation is settling in.
14 April 1946, Verden:
I want people like the Regensburgers and Kestners to stop sending mail and parcels (presumably to forward to relatives) as I haven’t the time to do with it and can’t afford all the postage costs so I will send items back in future.
22 April 1946, Lüneburg: a request for lined foolscap paper, instead of the plain paper that Ruth sent. He cannot obtain foolscap paper in Germany. He’s going to Lüneburg tomorrow for a new posting.
He has had a grim evening with the other interpreter and three girls:
There must be millions like them having nothing to look forward to but a hard and dreary future (and with few marriage prospects). The majority of manhood was wiped out in the war. What a dreary country. The food situation is going steadily worse and you have to watch the sickening spectacle of normal people losing their ideals and self-respect and becoming something of pure materialists. The blooming spring is almost like a mockery.
There is no news about the compassionate leave and Raymond is putting his name down for teacher training.
I will not spend the rest of my life in England. I am not an Englishman.
5 May 1946: a typist, cook and mechanic have now been employed at the house where he is billeted and it has been thoroughly cleaned and equipped with crockery etc. There’s a piano ‘Horribly out of tune, but we have already ordered a piano tuner.’
He is struggling with Latin and aims to register in geography and British history
One of the sergeants is ‘playing’ the piano. I think he’s composing some song about lilac bows and sweet-scented rapture.
My own religious ideas I am afraid are getting more and more mixed.
17 May 1946: there is shattering news in that the rules about leave have changed: 19 days every six months instead of 12 days every four months.
30 June 1946: better news. He has had an interview with a nice and helpful official from the Ministry of Labour and thinks Raymond has a good chance of completing his degree before the teacher’s course, with a government subsidy. And he’s getting a pay rise from 6/– to 8/6d a day.
14 July 1946: less good news. He has heard from Ruth Simmonds of the Birmingham committee that ‘even if I passed the wretched exam I should find it extremely difficult to find a university place.’ The ministry of education said he must reckon to wait at least a year for the emergency training scheme. Raymond feels unsuited to any other profession.
15 September 1946:
The coming winter is something of a nightmare. Unless food is imported on an enormous scale, people will die like flies with the continued threats of rupture between East and West.
22 September 1946: He’s getting a Voigtländer camera tomorrow – has already paid £6 10s for it.
The camera later made its way to my mother and was used for family photos until 1967.
13 October 1946: In his role with the military police he works on a case involving burglary of 12 billiard tablecloths – working in close liaison with the German ‘Kripo’ and had complete success – culprits were put in jail. To recover some of the cloth his team had to go to Cuxhaven.
He has his first horseback ride: he trotted round a big sandy area and made good progress according to the instructor.
Raymond strongly disagrees with Bernard Shaw’s view that the Nazi war criminals on trial should be spared:
This week the world will rid itself of some of the most ghastly human beings in history.
He writes in his diary at the end of 1946 that things have turned a corner:
1946 as compared with 1945 has been an all-round improvement and I hope that I may keep on the upward gradient throughout 1947. The leave too has everything considered been successful. I am growing steadier in my emotions and less subject to outward things which considered from the point of view of contentment is most desirable.
Seeking restitution for the family
He repeatedly mentions in his letters his applications for special leave to go to Dachau, to visit the family house and to set things right: ‘It would give me a certain amount of satisfaction to throw the present inhabitants out.’
23 and25 December 1945, writing from Goslar (he is referring here to Karl Dobler, the Sturmbannführer who evicted the family from their house on the eve of Kristallnacht in November 1938):
Am putting more hopes on the house and garden in Dachau, which even though it was sold it still belongs to us. The transaction was I think quite illegal since the terms were simply dictated by Messrs. Dobler and Jacob. It is good to know that the word of a soldier here counts about 10 times as much as than any German civilian and even more in the American zone.
If Friend Dobler is still alive and free I shall see to it that he gets his proper punishment. There is a value of at least £1000 over here which still belongs to us.
I don’t know how much of that stuff in Munich is still in existence. Frau Steurer is finding out about it and I have written to Fraulein Gertrud Scharll, München Zeppelinstr 67/I. I have here in front of me a list of things in mother’s own handwriting sent by Tante Dodo – where and what they are. One lot is with Frl. Scharrl, another with Lind Meyke Loristr 7, another with Frl Rothmund in Haus Schönfeld, Obergrainau bei Garmisch. Poor Frl Rothmund has, according to the note, since died and I don’t know what happened to that part of our belongings. It all has to be found out.
Maria did tell me about those people from Theresienstadt who are supposed to be at Deggendorf Bayern now. Naturally I making contact with Camp Deggendorf but have not really the slightest hope.
13 January 1946, concerning the family home in Dachau:
Of course it would be useful if we can get it, I thought of selling it properly and buying another small one in the mountains – Tyrol, to be used for holidays, Or else to try to get the money transferred to England. About the transaction between father and Jacob [this is the transaction forced by the Nazis in 1938], I’m only guessing up to now but possibly we find some real evidence. The fact that father got practically nothing out of it seems almost too obvious to be said.
3 February 1946: He has made an application to spend the next leave in Dachau from where he hopes to take a trip Vienna. But there is no question of going to Dresden to visit his aunt Dora because it is in the Russian zone.
10 February 1946, Verden: he has made contact with the Steurers – old family friends from Dachau, who are keen for him and Ruth to go back and live there.
The Steurers’ idea of our returning to Dachau and living at number 10 is high-power imagination. If I ever I came back to the continent for any length of time, I certainly would not choose Dachau to live in. Not even Germany.
6 October, Lüneburg: he has put his case about going to Munich to the Soldiers Sailors and Airmen’s Family Association.
They advised me to write straight to the property control branch of the American military government in Munich, since the Americans are very helpful and fair in such matters as restoration of property. SSAFA say that if their investigations should prove that my claim on the property in Dachau is valid, I shall be granted compassionate leave. I have already written and am waiting for a reply. SSAFA are also keeping their eyes open to arrange a duty journey to the south.
1 November 1946:
I am going to Munich, very probably next week. I am rather excited, naturally. It all started by my handing in another enquiry that house and garden at Hindenburgstr 10 [the Neumeyers’ house in Dachau] to the officer for despatch to the American military government in Munich. When I asked him a few days later the whether he had despatched it he said had not, but wanted me to write the application so that it would carry more weight.
10 November 1946: a week of cruel uncertainty and consequent disquiet and depression. He is granted 72 hours leave to Munich and and is leaving tomorrow at 11.30am to arrive just before 7am the following morning.
Luckily my camera has just come back from repair – I have a film, so I will be able to take some snaps. Funnily it is just eight years since we were pushed out of Dachau so unceremoniously.
17 November 1946: the trip to Munich and Dachau finally happens.
In a 20-page letter written in German he describes the trip. A convoluted train journey, lifts from GIs in jeeps and hitch-hikes.
A scene of devastation greets him at Munich:
I had the first surprise as soon as I entered the main train station. The station hall is only a skeleton and even this has been partially torn away. The train station building – when I think how nice and warm, big and full of promise it always seemed to me – now the debris of bricks, plaster and dirt makes it look like many other train stations in Germany today. HERTIE is still standing, but the shop windows have been boarded over. The Starnberger station and the big buildings in the Bayerstrasse have been badly damaged. I didn’t feel sentimental just a little tired, unshaven and depressed. The Löwenbräukeller has suffered damage and Gloria Palais on Nymphenburgerstrasse has burned down.
I walked through Thorwaldsenstrasse. No. 5 and about 95% of the houses in this street are kaput.
He hitchhikes to Dachau, as far as the paper factory, then walked from there. In contrast to Munich, everything is intact: there’s virtually nothing changed at all.
The first stop is to visit the shop run by the old family friends, the Steuerers. The shop is crowded so he goes to their house and there’s a joyous reunion with the parents and the two daughters, Annerl and Hilda :
They were all incredibly happy. You can’t describe the feelings you have in such moments of reunion, they are too confused. Frau Steurer then told me a lot about her experiences, from the years when my parents were still in Munich. I could only speak superficially. I couldn’t think of anything else to say.
Frau Steurer is white-haired but otherwise the same. Herr Steurer has changed little. Annerl is small and unfortunately not fully developed physically and mentally. Hilde is about my size, plump, fresh and funny (as always).
For more about the Steurers and their correspondence with our family, click here.
Next stop, the lawyer’s office to sort out the family house in Dachau:
I went to the savings bank and from there to the notary Mr. Demeter, who seemed to be a very nice and good man. He had the rights to the house on Hindenburg Strasse (which is now called Hermann Stockmannstrasse, by the way). It was sold on October 31, 1939 to a Mr. Meyer. Price apparently 18000 RM. Of this, about 11,000 RM covered tax arrears and mortgages and the rest went to a blocked account from certain percentages which the so-called ‘Aryanization Office’ set up. Father was ‘allowed’ to deduct small monthly amounts from the blocked account, what is left of it is not known – no documents. The whole affair has been confirmed to me again by Dela in a letter that arrived today and which I will send you. It’s all highly complicated.
This means that the current owner is not allowed to resell it and a prognostic rate of the rent goes into a blocked account (supervised by the Military Government). The law of restitution is not yet in force, but it is expected soon. The notary says that we have every chance that the house will be returned to us. His statements were confirmed by the Property Control of the Military Government (in the Town Hall) and later by a Jewish Committee (in the Café Alt-Dachau). We now just have to wait for the law. There’s not much you can do before then.
The above reference to the Café Alt-Dachau is interesting: after the Beer Hall Putsch in 1923 it became the first meeting place in Dachau for a national paramilitary group, and later for the Nazis; on 26 April 1933 the BDM (League of German Girls) had its first meeting there. For more about this building click here.
Then he walks on to find the house from which the family had been evicted by the Nazis in November 1938:
Later on Wednesday afternoon I went to the house. The two ash trees and the garden wall have gone, a garage has been built on the Köbler’s side close to the house, otherwise little has changed from the outside. The garden has been completely transformed however: many trees felled, all shrubs gone, and all the paths have disappeared.
Frau Meyer lives in the bedroom and the verandah. There was a man in long lederhosen with her who said that he had known our parents well. I let him show me the whole house. The studio is divided in two by a screen or something similar. The upper floor is occupied by a Polish Jew, his wife and children. The Baumgartners live on the entire ground floor, including the reception room. I looked at her apartment but neither he nor she recognised me – not even when I remarked ‘Nothing has changed, has it?’ The man in the lederhosen then remarked, ‘That’s Neumeyer’s son’. Fr Baumgartner screamed ‘Mani’ [Raymond’s nickname] in a rather hysterical tone. I then said goodbye immediately without shaking her hand and went into the basement.
An old man and woman live in the basement. All rooms in the house look different with other furniture of course but the studio is recognisable.
For my mother’s description of the house as it was in 1938 click here.
Returning to Munich, he pays a visit to the State Commissioner for Victims of Fascism. He mentions some paintings, presumably that the family owned. It’s the first time we have heard about these and have no idea what happened to them:
I found the state commissioner and found out that there are still five pictures left and about 890 Reichsmarks. The five pictures (religious, and said not to be of great value) and 200 Reichsmarks were delivered at the beginning of the year by Eduard Salisko (Obermenzinger School), who had kept them safe during the war. The 890 Reichsmarks are deposited in the Bankhaus Seider & Co Löwengrube 18.
The final stop on his tour was to visit Alois Weiner, who survived Theresienstadt and who met Raymond and Ruth’s mother Vera (my grandmother) shortly before her deportation in July 1942. Vera knew Alois was bound for Theresienstadt and it appears she asked him to look out for her blind husband Hans who was there. Alois made friends with Hans and was with him when Hans died in Theresienstadt in 1944. Before Theresienstadt Alois was deported to do forced labour at the Lohhof Flax Roast factory north of Munich.
Alois subsequently wrote to the family and Raymond felt it would be good to make contact with him. He made a two-and-half-hour visit to Alois, the only Jew living in Moosburg. This is the first time they had ever met:
He is an elderly man, somewhat frail at the same time amiable and jovial. Also a bit harsh and cynical through everything he’s been through, but those traits only come out sometimes. He owns a department store and is apparently a very prominent citizen in Moosburg. He also has a very comfortable and nice apartment and apparently enough to eat. He told me a lot about mother – he worked with her before he was deported to Lohhof. He was in Theresienstadt with his father and grandfather. He gave me more details about their life and death in the camp.
He gave me a silver pocket watch from grandfather and the Schreiberhau guest book. I brought both things with me and will bring them home on my next vacation.
We don’t know what happened to the silver pocket watch or the guest book from the grandparents’ county house at Schreiberhau.
My earlier post about the family members’ deportations has more about Alois’s story. Click here and scroll down to the heading Identifying Herr W.
19 November 1946: Raymond writes a letter to the authorities, urging that former Sturmbannführer Dobler be punished for his Nazi activities. As a result, Dobler loses his job, but what else happened to him is unknown:
In his overall attitude, Dobler showed himself to be a zealous Nazi. For this reason he should be kept under constant and keen observation. In any case, he should not be given a position with public responsibility.
It took many years for our family to get compensation, but eventually money came – some time in the 1960s. It was enough to pay for several family summer holidays, including two visits to Germany.
Caught up in the Holocaust: Anitta Weiss and her mother
Raymond’s generous nature extends beyond sending parcels to friends and contacts in need. Lore and Erika Weiss – twins from Vienna who arrived in Cambridge with their father as refugees before war broke out – have become very close friends of both Ruth and Raymond. He repeatedly tries to trace their mother and sister Anitta but risks getting into trouble as they are not blood relatives.
On 20 January 1946 he reports that although Anitta was supposed to have been detained at Gross Rosen KZ at the end of February 1945, he hears now that the entire camp was evacuated on 18 February 1945.
Further enquiries are made by phone to Belsen, and he is looking at applying for compassionate leave to the American zone to visit family members for tracing purposes and to make trips to Munich (where his family were) and Vienna (where the Weisses were, but they aren’t actually relatives).
Undated, probably late November 1944:
It would be really fantastic if I could find Lore and Erica’s mother and sister. I will make it my duty to do everything within my power.
3 June 1945:
I have typed out everything I know about father and the Weisses in the form of a request and signed by the officer. This together with one personal letter addressed to directly to father and one to Mrs Weiss and Anitta, what has it into eight attachments of the military government, who promised to do their best to pass it onto the Russian authorities, and thus get a reply. How long it will take, or whether we will be successful is impossible to predict.
In July he visits the British Red Cross having filled in for such forms making a slight lie about the twins’ relationship to him and Ruth which was necessary; and is awaiting a reply from the World Jewish Congress in London. He has heard of that a centre for missing people has been set up in Hannover and another would be shortly set up in Lübeck.
The search is fruitless. In December he hears that someone at Theresienstadt said they had been deported and heard they were then sent to Auschwitz. Anitta came out of Auschwitz and while she was on the transport destined for Belsen she was unloaded at Gross Rosen Niederschlesien camp because of a heavy attack of angina in February or March 1945.
Raymond reports that most of the staff at the concentration camps are so embittered so as to make them not in the least cooperative. ‘On the contrary they often look with contempt on the efforts to trace someone.’
On 30 December he announces plans to go to Belsen concentration camp with photos of the two women and see if he can find out more.
What happened to Susi Lamberg
He also tries to trace Anitta’s friend Susi (Susanne) Lamberg. Born in Vienna on 3 November 1925, she was in five concentration camps, ending at Belsen, but somehow managed to survive the ordeal.
14 April 1946 he pleads with Ruth to offer assistance:
Please pull your weight to help that Susi girl. You know that will take a weight off my mind. You don’t seem interested in helping her after all she has been through. I think people in England including you are lacking that sense of urgency which is necessary when seeking further missing people.
Raymond learns that Susi is in Holland for recuperation. She subsequently then gets to Sweden and later misses the special transport to Vienna for displaced persons.
13 May 1946: he receives a severe reprimand from the commanding officer sending a letter to the research bureau about Susi Lamberg. It was forwarded to the Deputy Provost Marshal of the 30 Corps District for disciplinary action: ‘apparently I committed to all three offences by writing as I did.’ They thought was the letter was ignorant and offensive. Raymond felt somewhat staggered and he has dropped enquiries ‘I don’t intend to burn my fingers again.’
6 October 1946:
The transport that Susi Lamberg missed was the last of its kind and subsequent journeys to Austria must be either organised and financed by a Jewish Committee or else undertaken privately. Susi will have to opt to go privately as she is presumably not Jewish by religion.
She finally returned to Vienna in 1949 at her own expense: here she moved in with her grandmother, who had survived Theresienstadt.
‘A classmate called me ‘Judensau’. I didn’t even know I was Jewish. I got kicked out of ballet school. I had to leave school. I was no longer allowed to go out – not to the cinema, not to a bar, not to the park. The caretaker fetched me when snow had to be shovelled. They just took our apartment away from us. Then I had to wear the Star of David. And suddenly I was definitely marked.’
The SS picked them up, for a deportation to Theresienstadt on 1 October 1942, where she found conditions not too bad – now 17 years old, she worked in the machine shop and, among other things, made some money setting up bunk beds. Friends at the food counter often gave her double servings. She was there with her mother, father and grandfather. Two years later a transport from there took them to Auschwitz. Her mother was taken straight to the gas chamber, while the SS official shouted at Susi ‘you are young and can work’ and sent her to the other side – she never said goodbye to her mother. Her father perished in Dachau later.
From Auschwitz she was sent to a labour camp in Silesia, digging tank traps.
When the sound of distant Russian cannons signalled things were nearing an end, the Nazis took them on a forced death march, through extreme cold in winter. Those who collapsed were shot. ‘I actually never saw it, you only ever heard the shots.’
They ended up in Gross-Rosen camp, then were crammed into onto open coal wagons where coal dust was still lying inside. They arrived at Buchenwald in terrible condition. The camp was full and they had to wait outside, still in the coal wagons, while Allied bombers flew overhead and dropped bombs around Weimar.
From there they were moved on again, this time to Bergen-Belsen. ‘That was definitely the worst camp. There was no work at all there, the only thing we did was that we got each other’s lice off. But we were no longer assigned work there.’
Aged 20 when liberated she was extremely ill and frail, weighing just 35 kilograms, suffering typhus and emaciated to the bone.
Yet she never considered suicide by throwing herself to the electric fence: ‘I always wanted to live. My only thought was that I want to get out of this, I want to live like I always have.’
‘In 1945 I was 20 and at the end. I was deathly ill, weighted 35 kilograms. I had lost my family. I had seen more dad bodies than anyone. But I wanted to live. And to go home. Austria and Vienna were my home. Despite it all. And because I had no other home. So I came back. And I stayed.’
One particularly gratifying aspect of writing this blog is the connections that I have made with readers. Ron Kammer from Pennysylvania read the account of my grandmother being deported in 1942 to certain death somewhere in Nazi-occupied Poland, and the letter in which she described her friendship with the woman sitting next to her as one Malwine Porsche. That woman was Ron’s aunt. The internet has reunited two descendants of women who may well have been murdered just hours later in Auschwitz, perhaps dying in each other’s arms.
Then Jan Qvick explained that Dela Blakmar, secretary to my musician grandfather Hans Neumeyer had been Jan’s music teacher in the 1960s, and that Dela had arrived in Sweden in a dramatic fashion:
She played in the Berliner Philharmonic and mentioned a husband she had left and left for Denmark and escaped to Sweden over Öresund with a boat together with many other refugees. The Engine of the boat got a problem and German patrol boats followed them in the complete dark searching with floodlights, but they were lucky the wind was from the west (which it normally is in this country) and they drifted into Swedish territorial water and were picked up by the coastguards.
It seems almost certain that while fleeing from the Nazis she rescued rescued the two sole surviving pieces of chamber music composed by Hans in 1940.
A revelation from a stranger
And then one Saturday night this summer I had an email from another total stranger – one Bruno Sandkühler, whose father Konrad I had mentioned in the blog as a friend of Hans without knowing very much else about him:
While working on my biography, I just wanted to check some details concerning the ways my parents came together. I knew that both of them were friends of Hans Neumeyer, and that they first met when they accompanied Hans on a journey from Munich to Garmisch, but I was hoping to find further details on the internet. That’s how I came across your blog, and I am so thrilled by this discovery that I could not go to sleep without writing this short message.
So remarkably the internet had now put me in contact with someone whose parents actually met through Hans, probably in 1919, when Hans was 32 – Konrad and Hans having first met in in Munich around 1906 when they were studying at the university and Academy of Music respectively. Bruno’s father was a Waldorf teacher as well as a philologist. But the connection with Hans was music. Konrad was a violist, and later played with the Dresden Philharmonic.
Late in life Konrad wrote his autobiography, Wirker durch Worte und Klänge: Autobiographie eines Waldorflehrers (Work through words and sounds: autobiography of a Waldorf teacher). In it he gives quite a bit of detail about the musical world of Hans Neumeyer that I hadn’t known about before.
Hans, being blind, needed assistance when he travelled. His sister Betty lived in Garmisch, in the Bavarian Alps, and on one visit he asked his pupil Konrad Sandkühler to accompany him. There, in Hans’s musical circle was also Jutta Kronecker: the two fell in love, and in 1918 moved to Munich and married there.
My blind friend Hans Neumeyer tried to help me and suggested that I take a job at a private high school in Garmisch-Partenkirchen. He had heard about it from the writer Fritz Müller-Partenkirchen, who was friends with him and who himself taught at this private high school. First, however, I became acquainted with the small group of students that Hans Neumeyer taught music theory. After Hans Neumeyer had corresponded with Fritz Müller, he invited me to take him on a trip to Garmisch-Partenkirchen. He needed a companion on all of his journeys.
Music making in Munich
Bruno heard his parents talk warmly about Hans many times but never met him.
Here is what Konrad says about his music-making, when a university student, with Hans:
The man in whose house we made music was a person of very special quality and one of the few really brilliant people I got to know. He had a very high level of education. He came from a wealthy Jewish family and was blind, not from birth; he had become blind when he was about twelve years old. When I later met the tragic personality of Jacques Lusseyran[a blind French author and Resistance activist], I remembered this old friend who bore his blindness in a similar way, but died in an even more tragic way in World War II: he died in Theresienstadt.
We had a deep friendship with this man. He was a pianist and composer and gave excellent theoretical music lessons. In him we not only had an excellent supporter of our playing, our programme also expanded, as we repeatedly practised piano trios, piano quartets or piano quintets with him. He took the study of the works very carefully and quickly knew the score of each of these works by heart after they had been played to him a few times and then precisely dictated. That was very stimulating for us and the rest of the friends who helped him.
Our friend was called Hans Neumeyer: life with him was very beneficial for all of us and especially for me. Adoration of his personality and factual thoroughness in our work were the cornerstones of our friendship. The best Munich life prevailed in this house, and all the good qualities that characterise the people of this city were at work there to make everyone who came there a good person. From there I got to know many of the musical personalities who were working in Munich at the time. Such acquaintances were a great asset to me.
Hans would have played the piano at such gatherings, which presumably were at his parents’ house in Munich.
After the war, a large quantity of printed music belonging to the Neumeyers was sent over from Germany – among other items these books were stored with acquaintances for safe keeping during the war itself. While we don’t have any chamber music, there are piano works and songs by Schubert, Schumann, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms and Mendelssohn, and these give an idea of the music Hans liked to play.
So perhaps the chamber group he formed would have played such works as the Schumann and Brahms piano quintets, Mozart piano quartets and the piano trios of Beethoven, Mendelssohn and Schubert.
The broader musical circle
Hans helped launch Konrad’s younger brother Wendelin’s career as a musician. As a child, Wendelin showed no interest in taking up an instrument, but Hans encouraged him and gave him piano and theory lessons. Progress was stupendous, and Wendelin’s prodigious talent was unleashed: he studied music, and became a talented cellist as well as a choral conductor. But his life was tragically cut short by the First World War: he joined up as an infantryman, and was bullied by his superiors, who sent him to to the front where he was wounded, and his hearing severely impaired. In October 1915 he was killed on the front lines in northern France.
Jutta and Konrad played chamber music with Hans on many occasions, as well as with Philippine Schick, Hans Werner and (and one of Hans Neumeyer’s pupils) Gretel von Kap-Herr. Another insight into Konrad’s world hints at the musical life in Munich at the time – Felix Mottl was one of Hans’s examiners at the Academy of Music:
I found a friend in the student new philology association in Hans Werner who, in addition to Romance studies, mainly studied music and later became a conductor. This man personally knew all the major musicians of the time, Richard Strauss, Gustav Mahler, the great conductors, Mottl, Nikisch, Ferdinand Löwe, Bruckner’s friend, and many others. I went to many concerts with him, especially the big symphony concerts and the performances of new orchestral works or operas. We studied Richard Wagner’s oeuvre whenever a musical drama of his was performed. The world of music opened up in the deepest way.
Hans with some of his pupils. The woman in the white dress to the right of and just behind Hans looks very much like Jutta.
[Note: those looking for my interview with BBC1 Southeast Today for Holocaust Memorial Day 2022, click here]
It has taken over six years in the making – longer than the Second World War itself. But certainly worth the wait.
London’s Imperial War Museum has completed its largest ever project, the Second World War and Holocaust galleries, opened 20 October 2021 at the cost of over £30million.
The day before its opening to the public, I had my first sight of the new Holocaust gallery, at a preview event for those who contributed their family stories to this massive display. The fourth photo in the slideshow below shows a V-1 (“Doodlebug”) flying bomb: the V-1s were assembled by Jews forced into slave labour; downstairs, the V-1 appears overhead in the Second World War gallery. In this way the two galleries are linked, making this the first museum in the world to link Second World War and Holocaust exhibitions under one roof.
And among all this, are those items my brothers and I grew up with in our family house in Sydenham. The teddy bear and dressing gown that came over on our mother’s Kindertransport in May 1939. The recorder duets composed by our grandfather, Hans Neumeyer, and which languished in the piano stool until I suggested my mother (Ruth) donate it to the museum. The printed book of plays that our grandmother Vera Neumeyer annotated when she got children to perform them in the Neumeyers’ home in Dachau. It started with a confused clutter of artefacts plonked on our kitchen table for the visit of the IWM staff to our house back in 2017, and it’s wonderful to see them publicly displayed like this.
And years back we grew up with these objects, not really appreciating them – monogrammed silver cutlery from our great-grandparents that was used every day, the dressing gown hanging on a hook, the bear (known by Ruth merely as ‘The Bear’) in a toy basket for years before retirement on a chair in Ruth’s bedroom, the silver napkin rings bearing ancestral dates and names that were on the table for every meal…
At the end of the exhibition is a “witness room” with two hours of recordings of interviews with children of Holocaust survivors talking about their experiences living with this family history. My brothers Stephen, Nic and myself are featured. I arrived while Isabel and Mark Robertson, family friends from Sydenham, appeared on screen talking about growing up with their mother Wlodka, who escaped from the Warsaw ghetto and who managed to survive the war sheltering with Polish peasant families until eventually being reunited with their father. When Wlodka and my mother met in 1965 they immediately became close friends. I was delighted to see Wlodka at this gallery preview.
I have uploaded the full three-hour interview, uncut, which you can see here.
In another case is a letter from my 21-year-old uncle Raymond denouncing the former mayor of Dachau, Carl Dobler, who in his role as Sturmbannführer, evicted the Neumeyers from their house in Dachau on 8 November 1938, telling them to leave by dawn or else go to prison. While working as an interpreter in Germany for the British army (in the Military Police), Raymond went on leave, visited Dachau and sought Dobler’s prosecution.
On a recent visit to Dachau, I heard that the XI Mayor of Dachau, Mr. Dobler, will shortly appear in front of the Spruchkammer.
Up to November 1938 I lived in Dachau. I can therefore state that Dobler has been culpable in at least one case. On November 9th, 1938, it was Dobler who was responsible for the nightly evictions of all Jewish families from the district and district of Dachau.
I heard that this was done on Mr Dobler’s own initiative and without special orders from above. In fact, he gave every family the eviction order, threatening them with the destruction of their homes and unlimited imprisonment if the order was not followed.
In his overall attitude, Dobler showed himself to be a zealous Nazi. For this reason he should be kept under constant and keen observation. In any case, he should not be given a position with public responsibility.
Translation of Raymond’s letter to the authorities
For more about how Imperial War Museum curator Lucy May Maxwell and I worked together on the family-related content of those displays, see a post in my school alumni newsletter (we both attended Alleyn’s School in southeast London, though at different times).
Two weeks earlier, I spoke on a panel at the Association for Jewish Refugees (AJR) at their two day conference in Chelsea football club’s stadium. I was on a panel of six after lunch on the second day, following on from Anne Karpf, author of The War After in which she brilliantly describes her life growing up as the daughter of Holocaust survivors: my yellowed copy of her book is full of paperclips where I’ve marked pages that seem hauntingly close to my own experiences.
The panel consisted of people from the Wiener Holocaust Library, the National Holocaust Centre and the Imperial War Museum, each in conversation with a person about a specific item they had donated. Lucy May Maxwell from the IWM talked to me about Raymond’s letter denouncing Dobler.
That letter tells of retribution. Raymond wanted to set things right. He realised now he couldn’t get his parents back but he had a keen sense of justice and Nazis like Dobler should not get away with it. While Ruth stoically drew a line under the traumatic events of her family’s recent past – it of course affected her but she largely chose not to show it – Raymond displayed his emotions much more outwardly, certainly in the letters he wrote Ruth from Germany while in the army.
In the event Dobler lost whatever job he then had, although what happened to him subsequently is something we have yet to find out.
We have the chance here to start to change the way people think about these events – we can’t allow this just something that happened in a distant black and white past which some people have described as ‘Planet Auschwitz’. This is something that happened in our world. This is who we are.
The German law allows for descendants of people made stateless by the Third Reich to be able to reclaim their German citizenship.
On 15 September 1935 Hitler’s Nuremberg laws rendered all those deemed to be Jews to lose their status as German citizenship. That included my mother’s family, even though she, her brother and her mother were Lutherans. But 86 years and 8 days later, in a capacious chandelier-lit room in London’s German Embassy, the pleasant woman official stamped the certificate and said ‘It is a great honour for Germany to give you back the citizenship that your family should never have lost’.
So on 23 September 2021, two and a half years after applying, my brother Stephen and I became German citizens
Not that I intend to move from Britain to mainland Europe. But it really feels a very right thing to do. More done as a symbolic gesture than for practical reasons.
As I’ve been researching this blog and finding out about the story of my mother Ruth and her family, everyday objects I’ve always been aware of have suddenly taken on a new meaning.
When we cleared my family house where I grew up, we threw out some of the ancient kitchen equipment. Some of it I now realise dates from prewar years – including a cake icer with a muslin sack for containing the icing. My grandmother Vera referred to when writing to my mother on 15 May 1939 – one of a number of letters we have that were sent after the family was irreversibly split up. This letter was sent four days after Ruth and her brother Raymund (then spelled Raimund) had arrived in England on a Kindertransport: I have found Ruthi’s cake icing syringe and the belt of her striped summer dress and send it to you. There was a box of slightly rusty metal shapes for cutting Christmas biscuits too – very probably a remnant of the family’s life in 1920s/1930s Dachau.
Among the toys that came from the family home in Dachau were wooden houses, two dolls, Ruth’s teddy bear and a set of school desks. And these Kasperl-Figuren – Punch and Judy puppets. Vera mentions them in a letter sent from Munich to her children England in 1939, referring to a theatre that they were making for the puppets: “The puppet theatre will be a lot of work, but it will certainly be nice too. Have the Kasperl figures ever performed before?” So evidently the puppets had been sent to them shortly after arrival in Weybridge.
In a postcard sent to my parents just after their marriage in 1951, news came that the Neumeyers’ books had arrived in England and were with the Eckhards, the couple who took in Ruth and Raymond when they arrived in May 1939. We don’t know who sent the books over, or how they’d been kept together during the war. Perhaps before the family was thrown out of their Dachau house in November 1938, the parents had seen the warning signs and left some items with friends for safe keeping.
There were German books all over our house in Sydenham, particularly in a bookcase in the hall: there were German classics such as the works of Goethe, as well as children’s books, poetry and novels. We disposed of most of them when clearing the house in 2013, but kept some of the more special items.
Two sinister books
We had a few ornamental items from the Neumeyers scattered around the house in Sydenham, just a hint of what was in the Dachau home up to 1938.
This millefiori paperweight always occupied the window sill in our sitting room in Sydenham, and my mother never explained to me where it came from. A quick Google of ‘antique German paperweights’ comes up with many in very similar styles, including a number originating from Silesia, where Vera’s family, the Ephraims, came from. A recent discovery of a letter sheds new light. Dora wrote to Raymond on 6 December 1945: “Dela Blakmar was great friends with your Mutti and loved her very much . she was also good to me. Would you like to know about her in Copenhagen? She probably went there in April 1943. I’m making for you a list of things I got from Vera [my grandmother; Hans’ wife]. We have here a blanket and two coats still as new, which Irmi sometimes wears… Also from I have a memento from your father – I think it’s a paperweight. I’ve looked after it carefully.”
Lying unnoticed in a drawer for over 40 years, these crayons have suddenly revealed their provenance. In summer 2021 we stayed at the family cottage in the Welsh borders: when my parents bought it in 1974 they filled it with various bits of spare furniture, kitchen equipment and the like from our Sydenham house. The crayons were presumably brought then, but I don’t think anyone used them.
They are all marked “Goldfaber” and have gold-striped barrels. The high-quality Goldfaber brand was extant between 1935 and 1942 (though relaunched in 2017). When the company Johann Faber was fully taken over by A.W. Faber Stein in 1942, the brand name Goldfaber changed to A.W. Faber-Castell.
Which means the crayons must have been brought over to England in 1939. They are small enough to have been packed into the children’s luggage when they travelled from Munich on a Kindertransport in May that year.
Very possibly these are what Ruth used when colouring her school books:
As the Nazis intensified activity against Jews, life for my mother’s family in Dachau got harder by the month. Her parents Hans and Vera Neumeyer were denied from having permanent jobs, and the little they earned from teaching here and there hardly made ends meet. But there were Aryan friends in Dachau who looked after them. I have written already about the kindness of the Steurers, who ran a grocery shop in the town and whose daughters were childhood friends of my mother Ruth and uncle Raimund, and whose poignant postwar letters reveal the plight of ordinary people like them living in Germany under the Third Reich.
Another close bond was between the Neumeyers and the Wirschings. Anselm Wirsching, a childhood friend of Ruth and Raimund, was a vet and son of artists – Otto and Aranka Wirsching. Otto died long before, in 1919 and Aranka vastly outlived him, dying as late as 1965. They lived in the Pollnhof, one of the oldest houses in Dachau, and itself a frequent subject of the numerous Dachau-based artists.
After Hitler came to power in 1933, the Wirschings had helped look after the impoverished Neumeyers. Meanwhile Anselm qualified as a vet, and was called into the military service in that role.
But then the tables turned. Anselm was captured by the Allies. He was incarcerated in Prisoner of War camp 305 in Egypt and held there until 1947, and wrote numerous letters to Ruth from there in 1946 and 1947. He particularly needed Ruth to help get his life sorted out in time for his return to Dachau.
He was made to attend a Denazification process at Wilton Park in England and his mother wrote to Ruth pleading for her to write to authorities explaining that he was not a Nazi.
Anselm’s letters from POW camp 380, Middle East, Egypt
Anselm qualified as a vet in 1941, practised in Russia, Crimea, Greece and Crete. He served in the German army and was captured by the Allies in Crete and taken as a Prisoner of War. We have 25 letters to Ruth from his time during 1946-47 at a POW camp in Egypt, giving an idea of what was on his mind during those long days in the desert.
14 July 1946 The earliest letter we have from him. “There’s not much to do and can’t practise [as a vet] behind barbed wire. There is no immediate prospect of release and letters are the only source of interest.” He enquires whether a German veterinary qualification is valid in the UK.
22 September1946 “I have been transferred to a better camp [POW camp 305], 30km from Suez. I’m about to ask you some favours, including for a friend who has a medium-sized factory in the US zone of Germany, making portfolios, handbags etc of genuine or imitation leather – is there any outlet for these in Britain? Please send 20 airmail envelopes and 40 or 50 airmail papers.”
17 & 26 November 1946 Anselm requests Ruth send him some reading matter, especially textbooks if it’s not too much trouble, and wonders if the German Society in Cambridge University could help. He gets a weekly pocket money of five shillings. “Routine here is dull. I wish I had been sent to England. We’re allowed out one day a week to wander over the sand dunes. Otherwise the main activities are learning English, sleeping, eating and waiting for mail. Sometimes there’s a good film. Everybody is thinking about when and how they can get released. The Austrians seem likely to be repatriated first.”
13 February 1947 Anselm is really grateful for Ruth’s help, and thanks too for the efforts in getting the textbooks. “There are lots of opportunities to dwell about the past here. We’ve all change physically, but I haven’t lost my sense of humour.As a Category C prisoner I’m having to wait a long time for my release. Another desert summer beckons!”
In October 1946, the Allied Control Council announced five categories of Nazis. Each of these had separate treatment:
Major offenders (to be sentenced to life imprisonment/death)
Activists, militarists and profiteers (up to ten years imprisonment)
Lesser offenders (probation for up to three years)
Nazi followers and supporters (surveillance and fine)
Exonerated individuals (no punishment)
There are around 250,000 German prisoners in this country, and no one can say when they are likely to see their homes again.
For nearly two years the Political Intelligence Department of the Foreign Office have been working hard to “re-educate” these men. They are tying to ensure that when they do return to Germany it will not be as unrepentant Nazis, but as men able to become useful citizens of a new Germany’.
Evening Standard, 18 March 1946
Pleas for help from Aranka
My mother never confided in me about the help that she gave Anselm, but clearly she was instrumental in getting him back to civilian life after the war ended.
Raymond was in those postwar years working for the British army in Germany as an interpreter in the military police. During his leave he managed to take a trip to Dachau and to visit Aranka.
Among Aranka’s letters are these comments:
30 March 1946 to Raymond Anselm’s mother Aranka has heard about his upcoming visit to Dachau in summer. “Anselm is in Egypt as a prisoner of war. I hope that God has spared your mother Vera and that she is still alive. Can Ruth send a packet of tea? You know that Vera and I were great tea-drinkers.”
12 December 1946, to Raymond She has sent a letter to Ruth to provide a written statement that Anselm was not a Nazi. “I’m sending you some carved wooden Christmas decorations similar to the ones Vera loved. It was wonderful to see you after so many years and so much suffering.”
23 January 1947 to Ruth “Please could you confirm that I was a good friend of your mother and that I helped her a lot during the years of persecution. None of us ever sympathised with the Nazis. Your confirmation needs to be strong enough to persuade and be credible. Send your letter to Egypt by air mail. I hope the woodcuts arrived.”
18 February 1947 to Raymond “You are a hero driving a car with missing parts – I would be very scared; you have inherited your mother’s good spirit. Thank you for what you did for Anselm: he is now free and allowed to practise as a vet, although he has not yet returned home. He wouldn’t have deserved further incarceration because he was neither a warmonger nor a Nazi. Can you get any news of when he’ll come back?
Was Hilde Steurer with you. I am amazed how this Bavarian girl travelled and wonder how she got on in northern Germany. is there any news of your cousin Valerio in Germany?
I’m sending a package of 3 metres of material to Ruth.”
10 August 1947 to Ruth “Repatriation prospects for Anselm are still so bleak that I must make a last bid for your help through this letter. I was advised that the best way to get Anselm released is to deliver in person a request for a release to the War Office in London. Please do this for your childhood friend. Ilse Mayer from New York now has American citizenship – she was also a witness to what happened, and I’m seeking her help too. Anselm is not to know about any of these efforts, in case they raise false hopes.”
26 August 1947 to Ruth “Please let me know how you get on at the War Office and keep in touch with Ilse Mayer in New York. People are gradually being released from captivity now – this is a source of joy.”
10 January 1948 to Ruth “I heard you spent your holidays in an old windmill [this was at Ringstead in Norfolk]; your mother would have loved it too, with its wide views and inner warmth. Pleasures like this are impossible in present-day Germany.
I’m a person who likes helping others, but everything’s such a mess that anything I could do would be a drop in the ocean.
What did you make from the three meters of material I sent? Do you hear from your relatives? Didn’t your mother have a brother in America? Is he still there?
Many people are now resettling in Palestine, a country said to have a great future. Please send the enclosed letter on to Ilse Mayer in New York – I can’t afford airmail from here.”
Reunion and gratitude
My mother and my father Ronald Locke paid their first postwar visit to Germany in 1953, taking a train from London and travelling via Trier and Rothenburg to Dachau. There they had emotional reunions with several Dachau friends, including the Steurers, Ruth’s former nanny Anna Kürzinger and Aranka and Anselm Wirsching.
We had one painting in our house by Aranka Wirsching, of these tulips. My hunch is that it was given by her to Ruth in thanks for Anselm’s return to civilian life.
I’ve had many comments from readers of this blog, which has now extended to nearly 100,000 words. What next?
Several have asked me if I plan to make a book out of what I’ve uncovered of my family story. I’ve hesitated to give an answer. I’ve found the blog is such a user-friendly way of accumulating ideas and recording them. Unlike a book, it doesn’t matter where in the story you start, and you can go back and rewrite bits, or merge articles, or delete them altogether. Several thousand books on the Holocaust are published every year; can yet another one have a different slant on what has already been said elsewhere?
I started this blog in May 2014 as a way of making sense of all the inherited objects I had gathered from my mother’s house in Sydenham, and trying to piece the story together with the bits I knew already. Then I worked out where the gaps in my knowledge were, and tried to fill them in. If only I’d asked people more questions while they were still alive… but thank goodness for the internet, which just keeps giving…
I’ve just completed a six-week online writing course with author and journalist Nick Barlay, in a Zoom class of six others. The subject was how to write a memoir of your own family story. Each participant had family connections to the Holocaust, and each very different stories and approaches to writing.
I don’t know what direction it might take from here. Book, semi-fictionalised account, graphic novel, radio programme, TV documentary, children’s book… Comments and suggestions welcome…
Here’s what I came up with for our weekly assignments:
1. Writing an opening
Always one of the hardest things – knowing where to start. So I thought of beginning with my childhood, not really understanding what was going on around me:
Winter 2013, a few months after my mother’s death. I’m in her rambling old house in Sydenham, clearing up a lifetime of accumulated belongings. In her bedroom, I’m sawing up the bedframe of her bed in preparation for its ignominious end in a plastic sack next to the wheely bin. It has dawned on me as I start this operation that this was the very bed I was born in, 54 years earlier, in that very room.
Everywhere I look in the house are silent witnesses to my mother’s past life, hints of what had happened to her and her family in Germany. As I grew up there the story had gradually taken shape, but only gradually, and even now there were huge gaps in the narrative. Now I’m thinking about those early years.
In childhood no one ever sat me down and explained it all.
Why had she come from Germany? And why did I have only one set of grandparents?
In 1963, at the age of five, I’m photographed in the back garden with my two brothers and my mother’s aunt, Tante Janni. She’s from Berlin: gentle, beaming, charismatic, warm. I’m there in the middle of the picture wearing Lederhosen, inherited from my brothers and probably secondhand before they had them. Not many other children wear Lederhosen in southeast London. I’m rather proud of them.
Back then, Tante Janni visits every summer from Berlin and talks to me in English but sometimes when my mother and uncle – Ruth and Raymond – are together gathered round the table in the breakfast room and break into German, which I don’t understand. Their tones are serious and semi-whispered. I’m not intended to be included, so I crawl under the table and exit.
Outside the breakfast room in a dark corner of the storeroom are leather suitcases with battered luggage labels, some written in German. My mother doesn’t like suitcases, or more precisely she doesn’t like packing to go away. It reminds her of something. It’s on her list of disapproved things, which include large crowds, lofts, aeroplanes, very short haircuts, toy guns and the entire month of November.
All over the house there are books, many dating from the early 1900s or before. Hardback volumes of piano music and songs by Beethoven, Mendelssohn and Schumann, some with the name ‘Vera Neumeyer’ pencilled on the opening page. In the hall, a mahogany bookcase contains four shelves of German books whose order no one ever seems to disturb. In the kitchen, a recipe book in German given as a Christmas present to Vera in 1935, its yellowing pages densely printed in Gothic type. In my father’s study is a novel with a swastika on its spine. He has tactfully placed a sticker over the offending symbol.
By my mother’s bed are three pictures within a glass frame of her birthplace in Germany. A house of rustic gables and overhanging eaves. Her mother Vera, looking sideways in a dreamy, detached way. And a sepia postcard of her family’s town, its hilltop Schloss and onion-domed church. In the upstairs loo, a folksy decorative tile bears an 18th-century scene of the same town, and is inscribed in fancy lettering with its name: DACHAU.
On the landing, is a large, brown leather trunk. Not so much a trunk as the trunk. Throughout my childhood I wanted to explore its contents, but sense it’s out of bounds. I occasionally sneak a look to find it stuffed with parcels of letters, all tied up tightly with string.
In the sewing room, a sketch of a benign-looking man in dark glasses. He’s blind and I’ve never met him. He’s my mother’s father, Hans.
What happened to your parents, I ask my mother. ‘They died in the war’ she answers. For the first nine years of my life I don’t know how they died, and dare not ask.
2. Writing about a person
I chose Tante Janni (Marianne Bisi), my mother’s aunt (sister of Vera Neumeyer), already mentioned above.
My only encounters with my mother’s aunt, whom everyone knew as Tante Janni, were on her annual June visit in the 1960s from her native Berlin to our house in Sydenham. I would have loved to have known her for longer. My only memories are childhood fragments – she snoozing on a garden lounger by the rose-enveloped pergola, or with my mother in earnest conversation in German with about something I was clearly excluded from. Despite her advanced age she pulsated with health and vitality, taking afternoon walks around the southeast London streets beaming at total strangers while charming them into conversation.
Other children asked me when Tante Janni was coming to stay so they could pop in for a visit. The Betterwear man made sure his door-to-door sales rota coincided with her presence: more than once I found the two of them sitting in chairs in our front porch, chatting for half the afternoon. That most unpushy of salesmen, sad-faced, very ancient and clad in a long coat and hat even on those warm summer days, never came into the house, and I don’t think any Betterwear products were ever purchased either. What did they talk about for all those hours? He had an undetectable, unfamiliar accent. I wonder now if he had come to England as a refugee.
I watched her in fascination as she consumed meals with daintiness. She crooked her little finger while drinking tea, something I tried to imitate when she wasn’t looking. She was the first vegetarian I’d ever encountered – forgoing meat on principle as she asserted that vegetarianism would solve the world’s hunger problems – and relished the memorably dull-looking dishes of baked marrow that my mother prepared for her.
Her June visits invariably brought a certain exotic glamour. She arrived by plane – no one else we knew then would have travelled that way – as her son Valerio worked in the airline business. She brought with her the little goodies of airline travel, none of which we’d seen before – sachets of perfumed towelettes and eye covers. Once she arrived and said Charlie Chaplin was on the same flight, as if this was the most ordinary thing in the world.
What I knew of her past seemed almost preposterous. She’d been a champion croquet player in her youth. She recounted to me a fabulously expensive wedding to an Italian count at the turn of the century: the wedding guests took trips in hot-air balloons, and startled a peasant by greeting him from high above.
From a shoebox of old photos my mother had kept was a tatty sepia image of the house in Görlitz where Tante Janni had been brought up with her three siblings – Dora, Herbert and my grandmother Vera. It seemed palatially huge – a riotously eccentric Art Nouveau villa with balconies and an octagonal tower soaring like a space rocket from the top. Money had evidently been in the family, and it had all gone. The siblings’ father Martin, a rich Jewish philanthropist, had sold that house at the height of the early 1920s hyperinflation and, in Tante Janni’s words, the money they’d received from the sale was ‘just enough to buy a basket of cherries’. That picture of a notional basket of cherries and a lost past has stayed with me ever since.
Her cheerfulness came to an abrupt end during June thunderstorms. She simply hated them. She’d plug her ears with cotton wool, go up to her room, draw the curtains and lie down, pretending it wasn’t happening. Maybe she shared the same hatred of explosions that my grandmother had.
Her other phobia was trains and railway stations, which she simply refused to go in or even near. They clearly stood for something sinister, and out of my juvenile comprehension.
As a former Montessori nursery teacher she would have had a strong sense of what children needed to know and what they didn’t. She brimmed with positivity and charisma, and her June visits lit up all our childhoods with her sense of fun, but never mentioned the war to us. She was the only link with my mother’s parent’s generation but I last saw her I was twelve and never had an adult conversation with her. She was too considerate to burden children with her dark past: staying in Germany during the war, but as I have since learned unable to save my grandmother from deportation and only escaping a similar fate by a miracle; and in Berlin as the war ended her daughter Serena being raped by Russian soldiers.
Perhaps she had always had that smiling nature, or was it to some extent a survival technique for whatever she’d had to endure during the dark times?
3. Writing about a place
Memories of my first visit to Görlitz, which I mentioned briefly in the piece about Tante Janni above. There’s lots more to say about this fascinating town of course, but I’ve stuck mainly to the Villa Ephraim.
“We passed through Görlitz, and there I saw our house”
Those are words my grandmother Vera Neumeyer wrote on 13 July 1942, as she travelled in a third-class compartment in a train from Munich to Nazi-occupied Poland. She’s packed her thermos and other items and is sitting next to nice Frau Porsche, the widow of an artist. None of them know where this train will take them: archives now identify it as one of two places – Auschwitz or the Warsaw ghetto. None of the passengers survive.
The house she saw was built by her father, Martin Ephraim, in 1905: one of the first of the town’s many art nouveau structures.
Martin was rolling in money from the family’s railway components and iron business, but put it to all sorts of philanthropic uses, as well as making things extremely comfortable for the family. The Villa Ephraim, as it is still called, belonged to her happy, stable upbringing. She’d lived there from birth in 1893 until her marriage 27 years later.
And in 2001, 59 years after Vera’s last journey, I take a train trip two hours east from Dresden for my first ever visit to Görlitz. History has made this town into a very strange mishmash of splendour, decayed grandeur, baroque harmony and semi-dereliction. Since 1945 the German-Polish border has split Görlitz into two, its eastern half now called Zgorzelec and inhabited by people from Lviv in Poland’s far east. During its days behind the Iron Curtain its architectural legacy was barely touched. Today its western, German quarter shows clear signs of depopulation.
Martin Ephraim sold up during the German hyperinflation, and accordingly lost virtually all the money from the sale, and left town in 1922 for his country house in the Silesian mountains, but his influence here remains tangible. I walk into Görlitz’s airy, mosaic-floored, barrel-ceilinged railway entrance hall – its rebuilding during the First World War funded by Martin. He poured money into the arts and applied arts, running a music festival, endowing a museum and financing the building of the synagogue. A fifteen-minute walk through ample, almost deserted streets lined by grandiose six-storey buildings that belong to a 19th-century heyday immediately illustrates why filmmakers flock to this town – its piquantly crumbling atmosphere has been used to evoke fin-de-siècle Paris and its medieval and baroque core, happily being restored as one of Germany’s most intact historic city centres, has lent itself to many other settings. It’s not called Görliwood for nothing.
My image of it is of the sepia photograph from the shoebox at home: the deep-set balconies, the rustic-looking mock timbering and the almost ludicrously oversized tower. And rounding the corner of Goethestrasse, there suddenly it is, Villa Ephraim, now a youth hostel. I climb up the mossy stone steps from the garden gate to the door. Martin’s initials ME are engraved into the glass. Inside, seemingly nothing has changed since the Ephraims’ time: a huge panelled hall lit by stained glass representing the three graces– perhaps a reference to the three Ephraim daughters – while a fresco on the side of the sweeping staircase depicts a parade of cavorting cherubs. Two other windows commemorate other local Ephraim landmarks, both buildings still extant: their previous house marked by opulent golden gates in Jakobstrasse, where Martin’s father Lesser Ephraim first founded the family business; and the Ruhmeshalle, a mini V&A on the grassy banks of the River Neisse on the Polish side, its empty classical interior now seeking a new purpose. Beyond the villa’s entrance hall in the salon, above the jazzy black and gold zigzag columns is a copy of the portrait of Martin that he donated to the town hall. Ironically it seems the house’s subsequent use by Nazi and then Russian officers has actually preserved it.
I book in for the night, as the only guest, but the warden, Herr Usemann, won’t take any money from me as Martin’s great-grandson and shows me the scrapbook about the Ephraims that he has assembled to teach visiting school parties about ‘the house of a Holocaust victim’. Times have changed: during the DDR era the hostel was known as ‘the house of a capitalist’.
‘Would you like to see your great-grandfather’s factory?’ I’m flabbergasted. That factory still exists? Well, a fragment of it, anyway, just ten minutes away, down a cobbled lane which Martin must have walked along daily – the very Jewish name Ephraim miraculously still emblazoned though much faded across the span of the huge industrial shed, which along with the nearby manager’s house represent the sole survivors of the once mighty Ephraim empire.
Martin’s generosity was perhaps the key to his undoing. He was a patriotic German, a cultured and principled man from an influential Jewish family. ‘I shall live and die in Germany’ he said to his son Herbert who tried to persuade him to come with him to settle in America. He simply refused to believe the worst once the Nazis took power ‘Germans would never do a thing like that’.
On 10 January 1944 he was deported to Theresienstadt at the age of 83, where he survived less than three months.
4. Dialogue exercise
I don’t really have any dialogue I can use, but there are hundreds of letters. I sifted through some of them and picked out a common theme about the stoical defence mechanism of my mother Ruth and grandmother Vera.
To her many friends, my mother Ruth kept an admirable outward appearance of cheerfulness and resilience, and everyone liked her for that. It wasn’t really allowed to be pessimistic about things, or to feel ill. If the weather forecast was bad, she simply ignored it. When in old age she was diagnosed with cancer she barely mentioned it except to describe it as ‘this stupid cancer’.
So what had she actually been through in those dark years? She told me the facts of her family’s appalling Holocaust story, but never confided in the emotions. I have no doubt that it was her survival technique. Just concentrate on the positive things and the bad things will go away.
Before her family was thrown out of their house in Dachau on Kristallnacht, Ruth was terrified any time there was a knock on the door. But she didn’t tell me this; I only discovered it when reading what a schoolfriend wrote about her in an autobiographical novel about growing up in Dachau:
She tells of the fear with which her family lives, of wincing at every knock and ringing. The hostess whispers that she prefers to hide in the closet and pull the door shut from the inside. “In my dream, I often pack myself in a box and this again in a larger box and so on – I carefully tie each box together,” she continues.
It doesn’t read like fiction to me. She’s closing herself off from the nightmare and hiding away in a box.
For her first 12 years grew up in Nazi Germany in the 1930s without really understanding the danger, and even then didn’t realise her Jewishness. She told me in her usual calm, accentless voice “My parents told us there wasn’t anything to worry about. We weren’t rich. We weren’t important.” And in an interview with the Imperial War Museum archivist confided “We didn’t actually know we had a Jewish background. We suddenly realised we were different when I was about twelve… It was the sort of time parents really kept children innocent and didn’t share their burden. We were three-quarters Jewish.”
Only when I research the Nuremberg Laws do I realise that by virtue of having three Jewish grandparents she was totally Jewish by Nazi law. Not three-quarters, which would have placed her in less danger. So were her parents shielding her from the truth or had her own memory blocked out this crucial detail?
Then I read through letters from her mother Vera, written from Munich at absolutely desperate times in 1939, when my mother and uncle Raimund have got to England on a Kindertransport but the chances of their parents joining were rapidly receding, and there’s a strangely familiar echo the same upbeat tone – focusing on news of their friends and relatives, the music they heard in church, what they were eating for supper, and so on – and all the time hiding the awful reality: protect the children from what happened, they really shouldn’t know.
But to others outside the family the harsher elements emerge as the protective blanket is removed. My grandmother confides with my mother’s guarantors in England that there are difficulties in her marriage, and that this is holding up their possible escape to England. And to her friend Anna in Germany she spills out ‘Although I deeply feel the separation from the children I am glad that they do not have to experience what is happening here.’ She’s wearing that yellow star, and has spent the last four months on forced labour in a market garden.
Poor Vera: managing long-distance parenting until the very end. Hours before arriving at the concentration camp where her murder would have followed immediately after, she writes to the family downplaying of the awfulness of her situation ‘At Dresden we had to change trains, which was a nuisance as we had just made ourselves comfortable…Farewell, I am in good spirits and well prepared for whatever follows.’
Ruth always spoke positively about her years in Cambridge during the war, surrounded by other refugees from the Third Reich, but they must have been fraught with worry, with no news after summer 1942 about her family she’d left behind in Germany.
On her 22nd birthday in September 1945 she finds out what has happened to her mother. ‘She was deported to a part of Poland in 1942 from which there is little news. I think I shall stop now before I drop my pen’, she writes in her diary in her spiky Germanic handwriting, even there not daring to spell out the words to herself that she now knows that Vera is almost certainly dead.