This is the story of a woman’s last message on the way to her death in a Nazi concentration camp in Poland in 1942. It is the first time it has been published anywhere.
My mother (Ruth Locke, nee Ruth Neumeyer) had told me the story long before I found the actual evidence. That her mother Vera Neumeyer had been transported to a camp somewhere in Poland. And on the train she wrote a letter, which was somehow thrown out of the train and got sent to a friend or relative. Now that letter was ‘somewhere in the trunk upstairs’.
The mysterious trunk on the landing of our house in Sydenham was effectively forbidden territory during our childhood. It didn’t reveal its contents, and though my mother never forbade me from looking in it (that just wasn’t her style) it would seem like prying in the worst way into her intimate secrets. I did once or twice glimpse the contents in the deepest recesses: bags and envelopes stuffed with letters that had been neatly – and rather tightly – tied up with string.
Eventually when I was in my thirties, my parents were away and I was there with Anne and my cousins Katja and Toby. We had a sneak look at just one randomly extracted bundle, and hit the jackpot straight away. This was a typescript of the famous letter from my grandmother. The original was sent to her father, Martin Ephraim, and has not survived.
Katja’s native German meant we could translate with ease, and this is what it said:
14 July 1942
TO ALL MY DEAR ONES!
I am writing on the train behind Liegnitz where we all refilled our thermos flasks with water. So far we have not been treated badly. Most of all we feel grateful for the pleasant weather we have had on our trip.
Well: yesterday morning we had to get up at 5 o’clock in M. [presumably Munich], and shortly after 7 o’clock we sat in the moving van which is not as dark and the air not as filthy inside as I had expected. All the luggage was taken care of, at the service (goods train station, a third-class carriage was waiting for us. I occupied a corner place next to the dear Frau Professor Prosche, the widow of a well-known painter, a cultivated and very nice Austrian who attached herself to me on the first day.
I soon became acquainted with the six other fellow travellers and something like a feeling of community began to develop throughout the entire travelling ensemble. The group grew as people joined at Regensburg and Dresden. In Dresden we suddenly had to change carriages, which was a nuisance as we had just made ourselves comfortable for the night and in the hurry and darkness we had trouble finding our belongings.
This morning at 6 o’clock we came through Görlitz, and there I saw our house.
Now we’re travelling through meadows and fields. The woman from Poland lying next to says it looks like this in Poland too.
The mood isn’t bad. Opposite me sit the Samsons, husband and wife, who lived in Starenhäusle for some time. Rebekkus did not come along, in spite of his efforts. However, I experience again an atmosphere of bonhomie, and don’t feel lonely.
Maybe it is best to depend entirely on oneself. Dela, send this letter to father, who will have been informed by Dora in the meantime.
Farewell. I am in good spirits and well prepared for whatever happens.
How strange that they should travel through Görlitz on this last-ever train journey, where her father Martin Ephraim had made, of all things, railway components. And to spot the wonderful Ephraim villa where she was brought up. It still stands, and is now a youth hostel.
The first big wave of transports from Munich started in 1942. A telegram from her sister dated 8 July 1942 shows her sister Marianne making one last desperate attempt to prevent deportation. We don’t know where Vera ended up, but the Red Cross told Ruth at the end of the war that she was taken to Piaski. From there she probably met her death in Majdanek concentration camp where more than 40,000 Jews were murdered in gas chambers in the so called ‘Operation Reinhardt’.
The letter refers to Dora (her eldest sister) and Dela (her husband Hans’ secretary; as Hans was blind, Dela wrote letters and was dictated music as Hans composed; it is thought that Dela and Hans were having an affair).
Preceding this letter are two others, presumably written to her sister Marianne. The first refers to Dora and to Onki (the lodger, Julius Kohn, who died in Auschwitz). I’m not clear to what the last sentence about the list of friends’ names relates:
10 July 1942
I am very well. It has proved very advantageous that I know so many people here. They are just wonderful. I experience over and over again the good that this community brings – giving us a strength that is so rare in these times.
Yesterday I handed the copy of my application to a higher ranking Gestapo official. I wonder whether Dora’s visit was successful.
Don’t worry if you can’t do anything to help – I believe that I won’t be miserable. I’m learning Polish from the girls and we are very well looked after. I’m also getting some provisions for the trip, and am eating up all the sausages, butter and eggs we have in the meantime. I’ve also got sugar cubes and soap powder.
We’re leaving on Monday morning. Onki is here, but put on reserve. Now follows some names of friends who will be deported next week.
Two days later another message was received from Vera:
Sunday evening 12 July 1942
Surely there will also on this transport be a number of people to whom I can give support. The thought of this gives me strength, but requires me to be self-composed.
Please let everyone know. Things are so difficult for you now. I am with you, with a thousand good wishes and love that will last forever. And we shall see each other again.
Images and text © Tim Locke August 2014.