It is 76 years to the day after my mother’s family was ejected from their home in Dachau town on Kristallnacht (‘the night of the broken glass’), November 9-10 1938.
Dachau is a name that for most of the world resonates with horror.
But my mother Ruth Neumeyer, who lived in a few kilometres from the Concentration Camp, was extraordinarily ambivalent about the place: huge affection and extreme bitterness all at the same time. She spent a happy – even idyllic childhood there. For the first ten years of her life, from 1923, all was well. A secure home in a large house. Family photos of children, dancing, dressing up, playing, being children. Her mother Vera taught eurythmics – a method of music and dance pioneered by Jacques Dalcroze while her blind father Hans taught musical composition and theory.
Then from 1933 their world began to fall to pieces. It was to Ruth and Raimund something of a gradual process, as she recalls in her interview with the Imperial War Museum:
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.
On Kristallnacht in November 1938, while Hans was away in Berlin, the family was ordered to leave Dachau before sunrise, and moved into accommodation in Munich – keeping a very low profile as the parents tried desperately to get permissions to leave Germany. Only once did Ruth return to the boarded-up house, with her father – a visit reluctantly granted by the Nazi authorities so that he could sort out some tax matter .
It was then that it was declared that ‘Dachau ist somit judenfrei‘ (Dachau is hereby free of Jews’).
Ruth and her brother Raimund left for England on the Kindertransport in May 1939 and never saw their parents again.
But Ruth, Raimund and their families did see Dachau again, on several occasions. Raimund worked for British Intelligence as a German interpreter after the War, and assisted with the denazification process. While in Dachau he found the house, and denounced the Burgermaster as a Nazi who had ousted the Neumeyers from their house. Like many other ex-Nazis the Dachau Burgermaster didn’t get his come-uppance – more on this later, but it seems that as post-war suspicion of the Russians, grew the Western powers accepted the reinstatement of many who had been associated with the administration of the Third Reich, rather than put anti-Nazis with communist leanings in positions of power.
Ruth married Ronald Locke in 1951 and in August 1953 they took the train back to Germany for a holiday. Quite a strange choice, in retrospect, and her sister-in-law told me recently that on his return Ronald was profoundly changed by the experience. I have only fragmentary records of their visit. A holiday diary records departure on the boat train, with stays in Aachen, Trier, and the journey deeper into Germany to Rothenburg ob der Tauber, only for it tantalisingly to peter out just as they were heading for Dachau. She found her house in Hindenburg Strasse (since renamed Hermann-Stockmann Strasse), and very little had changed.
My childhood glimpse of Dachau
In the 1950s a modicum of compensation for having lost the house and practically everything else was paid to our family by the German government – I think it amounted to a few hundred pounds. That money was used rather masterfully to pay for a series of family holidays – all of which made a profoundly positive impact on me. In 1966 and 1967 we went to Germany – the first occasion involved travelling the day after the World Cup Final (England 4, West Germany 2; the Dover-Ostend ferry packed with German supporters arguing over the dodgy third England goal). Every German village in the Allgäu then had a forlorn-looking noticeboard with dozens of photos of soldiers who had not been seen since the war – it wasn’t at all a distant event back then.
The 1967 visit gave me my first view of Dachau. I didn’t get the full picture at all. I was aware that my mother was born there, but didn’t understand why she had to leave or what really happened to her parents. All the conversation between her and long-lost neighbours and friends was in German, and I grasped none of its meaning. I was parked in a Leiterwagen (a small hand-drawn cart) with my brother Nic in charge of me while my parents visited the elderly owners of a grocery: much later I learnt that these people had displayed remarkable kindness to the Neumeyers throughout the Nazi years, and at great personal risk had often left food concealed out in the fields for concentration camp prisoners doing forced labour on the land. Sure enough, when they emerged from the shop, my parents came laden with more proffered goodies.
I remember a brief visit to the Neumeyer house. Ruth just rang the bell and talked her way in: it had by now been turned into apartments, and somewhat shorn of its original gingerbread quirkiness.
Fifty years on: a momentous memorial
Much more momentous things happened 21 years later. The fiftieth anniversary of Kristallnacht in November 1988 prompted an invitation from the Burgermaster of Dachau for Ruth and Ronald to come to a commemorative exhibition as guests of the town. Ruth initially refused, saying she would only come on two conditions. One was that she wished a proper memorial be erected in the town hall to the Jewish people who were evicted from Dachau. The second was that she would be allowed to visit a school and to talk to children the same age as she was – fifteen – when she left Germany in 1939.
Initially, and almost incredibly, the town of Dachau turned down her first request. Although the Dachau Concentration Camp was a well established international memorial to the horrors of the Holocaust, the idea of a commemorating the aftermath of a typed list of Jewish families living in Dachau during the late 1930s (after Hans and Vera Neumeyer’s name, some pedant had scribbled ‘und 2 Kinder’/’and 2 children’) wasn’t the cosiest of prospects for this satellite commuter town just outside Munich. The authorities seemed to have prided themselves on no actual violence having taken place in the town itself, though many of those evicted were to die elsewhere.
It was a journalist, Hans Holzhaider of the Sud Deutsche Zeitung, who came to the rescue. He had come over to England a year earlier and interviewed the Kindertransport children from those four Dachau families, and wrote a book – Vor Sonnenaufgang (Departure before Sunrise) about their stories. On a late summer day in 1987 he came to my house and spent a day with Ruth and Raymond (as Raimund now spelled his name) while the rest of us cleared off to watch a cricket match. The three pored over family photos and talked to Holzhaider all day.
Holzhaider persuaded the authorities to install a memorial to the Jewish families in Dachau, right beside the town hall. It was a major coup for us.
And Ruth got her wish to visit schoolchildren. She told them she was the same age as them when this happened. I wish I’d been there to have heard it, but apparently they hung on to her every word. They could talk about the Second World War with their parents, they said, but not with their grandparents.
I have a huge amount of gratitude for this journalist’s actions: until then, my mother only fitfully spoke about her German background. But suddenly the floodgates opened – she was exorcised of this dark silence and spoke freely about her experiences. From that point onwards we were able to talk about her parents, their disappearance, her departure. I learnt who she was and why it happened, in a way that I could previously only guess at by fragments of conversations and nuances. And Holzhaider’s succinct book sets it all out beautifully clearly: the fates of the Neumeyers, Julius Kohn, the Wallachs, Fraulein Jaffe, Kurt Bloch, Heinfirch Hirsch, Meinhold Rau and Hermann Gottschalk.