It was early evening in January 1938 in Dachau. Here my mother Ruth Neumeyer and her brother Raimund lived with their parents in a comfortable turn-of-the-century villa at 10 Hindenburg Strasse (now Hermann Stockmann Strasse) with their eurythmics teacher mother Vera and composer and music teacher Hans.
The Neumeyers were one of only four Jewish families in town – Jewish in the definition of the Nazis, although the Vera and the children were practising Lutherans.
Things had steadily been getting more uncomfortable for the Neumeyers since the Nazis had come to power five years earlier. Hans Neumeyer had lost his job as a music teacher, and the family were very hard up. At school Ruth 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’, though happily for them their parents wouldn’t let them do it and the teacher said nothing in reaction to their protest.
One way apparent normality proceeded was in the form of the home-spun plays – short musicals, nativity plays and one-act plays of Hans Sachs – that they staged in their house, involving lots of friends. These formed a key part of family life, and Vera very much encouraged this creative activity. The cherished family photo albums that Ruth brought with her in 1939 on the Kindertransport to England are full of snaps of children in costume and adopting all manner of theatrical poses. Ruth recalled in her interview with the Imperial War Museum:
My mother organised plays in our house, once a year around Christmas, and a lot of children from our school for from my mother’s eurhythmic classes took part. We did a very lovely nativity play around 1936 which attracted a lot of attention.
Ruth loved theatrical dressing up, and while living in Cambridge during and immediately after the war took part backstage in various productions. She said only a few years ago that her ideal job would have been to work painting stage scenery – though that wasn’t an option. And very soon after she arrived in England she was improvising plays with her friend Jane.
Even in my childhood she encouraged us with other children to turn our landing into a stage, put up a curtain across it and transformed it into a little theatre for putting on Hansel and Gretel, Aladdin and various others; I wasn’t aware at the time that there was a peculiar family heritage in home-made theatricals.
Among my mother’s books – most of which were sent over after the war – I’ve found a book of twelve plays evidently used by the Neumeyers: one of them, Die Kreatur by Franz Werner Schmidt is full of pencilled stage directions in Vera’s handwriting.
The ring on the doorbell
But it was at such an event in that the children’s life shattered in a single moment. One evening in January 1938, they were performing a play with about fifteen children, in front of an audience of about forty guests, all crammed into a room. Ruth described the scene:
Everything was ready. The doorbell rang. Up came two SS people who shouted at everybody how they ‘dared to go into the house of a Jew’ and took all their names and addresses. All the children cried and everyone was sent home, and a sort of uncle who was a lodger of ours was put into prison because he tried helping the children. And that was the end of our plays.
It was a story of calamity, a shocking realisation that the Neumeyers’ once-idyllic way of life had come to an end. Ten months later was Kristallnacht, when the family was ordered to leave their house before dawn the next day. More about that on a future post.
Words and photos © Tim Locke