My mother Ruth attended a Catholic school in her hometown, Dachau, up to 1938. She held no affection for these school days; as a Protestant she was singled out from the others. Then her Jewish background meant she had to leave school altogether.
I have found these exercise books among her papers. She was made to write in the conventional manner, using pen and ink and writing this extraordinarily neat script – a sharp contrast from the childish scrawl in her diaries. As soon as she left Germany she abandoned that way of writing, though till her death her handwriting had an unmistakably spiky, Germanic style.
Stifling school days
I can’t imagine for a moment she was given any creativity in her German schooldays, under the rule of those formidable-looking nuns. Even Christmas was somewhat scary: around December 6 a man dressed in black purporting to be Saint Nicolas arrived saying he had presents for the good children but would have to take away the bad children. My mother said he was pretty terrifying: he carried a sack with realistic-looking children’s legs sticking out of the top.
Ruth and her brother Raimund were baptised Protestants. Ruth went to the Convent School, while Raimund attended the Thoma-Schule. In 1934-35 Protestant children were compulsorily segregated from Roman Catholic pupils, so both Neumeyer children when to a Protestant school, until it closed in 1937 and they were returned to their original schools.
One day at school she and Raimund were told they had to paint a picture of a green snake spitting venom with the caption “Jews feed on lies and are destroyed by truth”. Their parents forbade them to do this and their teacher Herr Liebl, accepted the parents’ action without saying a word.
“In 1938 we weren’t allowed to go to school any more; it didn’t affect us, we were quite glad not to go.”
She had a reunion with her Dachau school class around, I think, the 50th anniversary commemoration of Kristallnacht in November 1988. I think it was a trying time for her: they all remembered her, but she was hardly aware of any of them.
After Kindertransport: a revelation
When she arrived by the Kindertransport in England she went to stay with a very kind family in Weybridge, and they all became lifelong friends of hers. She absolutely loved her new school, the Hall School, being given a freedom she’d never before encountered:
It was a wonderful private school. It was the first time I ever enjoyed being in a school. There was an enormous lot to learn. My education had been really terrible up to then. The school I went to was a revelation: it was free, we did the most wonderful things – history was fun, maths was quite good, in English you had to learn a poem by heart and recite it in the hall, we had to take part in a play, Macbeth. The art was absolutely fantastic: instead of drawing little flowers in front of you, we had a big sheet of paper and for homework we had to produce a painting, then on Monday morning all the pictures were pinned up on a wall and we had to criticise each other’s pictures.
The note books we’ve inherited from her have survived in pristine condition, and I wonder why she brought them with her at all. Clearly she does not seem to have ever looked at them. I can hardly imagine her delighting in writing numbers of maths lessons in such faultless columns, or of being compelled to write DEUTSCHER SEIN HESST KÄMPFER SEIN beneath a picture of German soldiers. Still, these books survive as a fascinating insight into education in the period.
Words and photos © Tim Locke