I’m still unearthing bits of the archive I hadn’t noticed before. A letter from 1947 written by my great-aunt, Marianne Bisi, turns out to be the first correspondence with my mother Ruth after the war had ended.
Marianne – or Janni as everyone knew her – was an adored, charismatic figure during my childhood when she made annual summer visits to us in south London in the 1960s and early 1970s, but I wonder if there was a certain frostiness in relations in 1947.
She had been married to an Italian count but was divorced from him and later lived with and looked after a spinally-injured friend and his daughter in Bad Berka, near Weimar, which ended up in the Russian Zone after the war.
Certainly, this missive has an air of defensiveness about it: she explains why she wasn’t able to go to her sister Vera (Ruth’s mother) when Vera was faced with deportation. We don’t know why this is the first letter between them, as Ruth had been in contact with other family members in Germany since the war ended – perhaps Ruth felt awkward about renewing contact.
Here is the letter in an English translation, passage by passage:
Marianne Bisi 9. April 1947
Am Adelsberg, Bad Berka , near Weimar, Thüringen
Russian Zone, Germany
My dear Ruthi!
I have long awaited a letter for you, but none has come, so I am writing to you first. Maybe you don’t have my address? Vaio , who has finally landed happily in Rome and has returned to his old position, wrote to me that you often wrote to him in Palestine; Rena, too, has had news from you. Dodo [was in touch with Raimund, and recently your friend Güldenstein from Switzerland wrote to me too. So I constantly got news about you, but now I hope I can have direct contact with you and Raimund.
The family had a habit of using nicknames:
- Vaio was Janni’s son Valerio. He was in the Italian army and captured, then held as a Prisoner of War in Egypt. As a civilian he worked with Italian Airlines.
- Rena was Serena, Janni’s daughter, who lived in Berlin. She was raped by Russian soldiers in 1945.
- Siggy was Sigrid, daughter of the man whom Janni lived with in Bad Berka, near Weimar.
- Dodo was Dora, Janni and Vera’s sister, who spent the war and subsequent years in Dresden. Her story is here.
Janni’s letter continues:
I have lived here since autumn 1938 in the “green heart of Germany”, in rich forests and hills, lovely Thuringia with very dear, faithful spirited friends. When I was still in Schreiberhau I met an accomplished flower artist, whose brother had lost his wife two years earlier and lived in Bad Berka with a little daughter in quite an extreme distress and helplessness (he was severely injured in a work accident). Since Nonno wanted to go to Berlin and Rena was already there, and Dora’s house had to be sold, I quickly decided to go to Thuringia and act as substitute mother to the child.
Nonno was Martin Ephraim, the father of Janni and Vera. I don’t know what motivated him to go to Berlin (he may have felt safer there), but I have found at the Wiener Library in London several postcards written by him from various Berlin addresses, including the extraordinary Jewish Hospital (which still exists) where some Jews managed to survive right up to liberation in 1945.
There follows the staggering revelation that Janni was due to be deported in 1944. This is the first time I have heard this news. As women with a Jewish father but non-Jewish mother she and her sister Dora were not first in line for deportation (and Vera would have been in the same position had she not married a Jew) but clearly something was amiss. How she escaped her fate is a mystery:
I was infinitely grateful and joyfully received by dear people and, have here – despite the emergency and danger, in which I languished constantly as a half-Jewish woman – had protection from close friends. Nonno and your dear mother were here for a visit; time and again our friends, despite persecution by the Gestapo, house searches, etc., bravely proved their undying and loyal decency.
Because I was in the house, my foster-daughter Sigrid-Maria, who is now 20 years old, was barred by the Nazis from becoming a teacher. My passport, my only official ID, was taken away, so when we got your mother’s urgent telephone call from Munich to urging us to come to her aid, we were not for one moment allowed to make that trip, because without ID you could not even get from here to Weimar past the permanent checks.
It would also have been too late, because Dodo, who had travelled to my place [in Berlin], already arrived too late … It was made impossible for us to undertake any relief action. I counted as a Jewess under Italian law and was treated accordingly. In the autumn of 44 I was to be taken away by the Gestapo to a labour camp, never to be seen again; only through a miracle was I spared this fate! But I have been forbidden to practise any profession, and I have agonised greatly over Rena, who for the whole period was in terrible air raids and fighting in Berlin, over Vaio, from whom there was often no news from one year to the next, and above all over our beloved Nonno and my beloved little Vera. Oh, I hope even now that she will come back; I certainly believe that she is still alive! May God help to make this the reality!
Vera’s death, probably at Majdanek concentration camp, was never recorded by the Nazi authorities, but as early as 1945 Ruth wrote in her diary that “99% of hope is dead” on the basis of Red Cross information. It is striking that Janni believed Vera could still be alive in 1947.
I don’t know what documents and letters Janni is referring to in the next part of the letter, but it may include the Red Cross messages that were sent by Ruth and Raymond to their parents; these messages are now in the Imperial War Museum.
There is still the expectation that Ruth and Raymond will want to reclaim the family home in Dachau. That never happened, although the German government did eventually give some compensation for the losses incurred in the war:
Ruthi, I still have the last documents and letters here, all that she has kept for you in pictures and writings of the past. I am guarding everything carefully, and if you want, as soon as possible, I will send the items to you. Should I go to Rome, they will remain available to you here in a designated suitcase with your address. My landlady is Mrs. Gertrud Küchler, the address you see above.
Dora wrote to me saying that Raimund was in Dachau and you will probably get the house again. Quite right! I give you here the address of a couple living in Dachau, friends of our friend Elli Kindermann, The gentleman is working in a radio factory and would certainly be happy to take care of your interests, and also if you want he could live in the house and manage it for you, so long as eg Dodo cannot: Harald and Else Küffner, Dachau Obb., Bruker Str. 2. They should be very nice, completely reliable and decent people. If you need them and want to get in contact with them, you can always do so by citing Miss Kindermann and me.
And some general chitchat about Ruth’s work as a nursery teacher (one of the few professions available for her as an alien during the war). There’s also mention of a Christian contact of Janni, who was a vegetarian and pacifist:
I was very interested to hear about your work as a municipal kindergarten teacher in Cambridge. Do you remember that during 1928-32 there was in Dresden a “progressive private kindergarten” set up, built on completely new, original principles? The children had individual and collective gymnastics and learned English and French through play, were also trained manually in all kinds of handicrafts, and above all, had their more creative spirit stimulated by inventing toys of their own imagination! I had 20 children to take care of, together with the ingenious artist and professional educator Herbert Küas. Have you been able to use Vera’s rhythmic song games in your kindergarten? “Now we shake out the bedding” .. “Rain, rain, little droplets” .. and so on? I have often used the lovely exercise games in my gymnastics lessons. Vera always wanted to translate them into English and have them printed in England. Could not you take that in hand now? Then I’ll send you what songs are here etc. It would be good to find a publisher and an illustrator who can add some pretty drawings.
As a little girl you also had a lovely talent for drawing. Did you develop that further? I would love to hear about what you are particularly interested in. And Raimund? He always wanted to be a film director, but had such a great gift for acting.
Do you have English nationality now and do you want to stay there? For now, it is certainly a good idea, until everything has become clearer and better sorted out, that you stay where you are. A very dear old man, priest of the New Catholic Church, who used to live in Edinburgh for a long time and has now lived in Cambridge for 14 years, recently wrote to me about a sought after book “The Gospel of the Holy Twelve,” which I wanted to translate. I replied to him and told you about you; it is now very likely that he will invite you to visit him. He seems to be a very cultured, kind person, probably a vegetarian and animal rights activist like me. Do give him my best wishes when you see him.
She enquires of Hans’ sister Betty and her son Gustl. Betty escaped from Germany in 1941 and spent the war years in Colombia with Gustl, who ran a bus company there; she returned to Germany after the war.
The list of clothing requests that follows paints a familiar picture. Ruth sent parcels to Janni and Dora in those postwar years, when life in the Russian Zone of a destroyed Germany must have been a barrel-scraping experience for many. In reciprocation, I remember on our first family holiday in Germany in 1966, Janni sent us a huge food parcel (below) – clearly those days of austerity had not been totally forgotten:
If you have a picture of you and Raimund, please send it to me. You will also get some photos of us as soon as I know that this letter has reached you safely. And, dear child, please write often: I will be so glad if I can at least to a slight extent replace your beloved mother. She and your equally dear father. Do Aunt Betty and Gustel sometimes write? What is their address?
Ruthi, could you possible send me a parcel? We are in dire need here, as you know … And as soon as possible, I’ll reimburse you. I need Stockings size 10, but not too thin, and also a pair of solid sports boots size 40/41 or loafers – at least used ones – if possible with leather soles and heels, also 1 pair of warm knickers, and for father Lüderitz, who is very weak (spine three times broken) 1 pair of warm trousers, about Nonnos size – medium. We don’t mind which colour. Also he really needs some strong shoes. He needs things so much … everything is needed, of course, if you could get it through friends.
We are all so woefully destitute and can buy nothing. Rena also wrote that she needed something to wear, but “only good quality, please, Mutti”. Shoes too, no. 41. I do not want to place heavy burdens on you. You can see if you can somehow find something for us poor persecutees of fascism. We would also be grateful for thin elastic, and size 2B stocking suspenders. I do not dare to ask you for extra food, because you also have a lack of it and you can only send it from your own food card.
All the best for now, my Ruthi, and write soon. Warmest greetings for you and Raimund and let’s hope soon for a happy reunion!
Always your faithful aunt Marianne