At the end of last month I was asked to speak at the Holocaust Memorial Day event in Lewes. The event primarily focused on Terezin (Theresienstadt). We heard from local author Ruth Thomson (who has written a children’s book about Terezin) about the story of the camp, its community, the notorious Nazi sham devised to impress the Red Cross into believing all the camps were well run. We heard cabaret songs composed in the camp, and children from the Priory School in Lewes read poems written by children in the camp (extraordinarily, these poems survived in a suitcase, along with numerous children’s paintings).
The evening was originally scheduled to be in the Town Hall lecture room, but it became apparent that there was huge public interest. So we switched to a much larger space in the White Hart Hotel across the road: capacity about 200, I think, and it was packed out, with many standing at the back.
In the end it was moving but also strangely uplifting and not always as grim as the subject matter suggested.
My own contribution looked not at the inevitable bleakness that my grandparents and great-grandfather must have encountered, but in the survival of the human spirit in the face of the Holocaust.
Here’s the gist of my talk, which was accompanied by a Powerpoint presentation. I have omitted most of the illustrations as they appear elsewhere in this blog.
This picture is of my mother’s family, the Neumeyers, in the little town of Dachau: parents Hans and Vera; Raimund; Ruth (my mother – note the teddy bear – there’s a twist to the tale later). Around 1930 it was a rather idyllic hilltop town with a castle, a bit like a sort of German version of Lewes. The infamous camp was set up later, a couple of kilometres out of town.
The family was Lutheran by religion, but Jewish by descent. On Kristallnacht, November 9 1938 they were ordered by the Nazis to leave town by sunrise. They moved into a series of temporary lodgings in Munich.
When my mother was aged 15 she and her brother Raimund said goodbye to their parents on the railway station platform at Munich in May 1939. The Kindertransport – trains arranged in the nine months prior to the outbreak of war to rescue predominantly Jewish children – took the two children to safety and a new life in England. They never saw their parents again.
Both parents died in camps at the hands of the Nazis. What I’d like to share with you is not the inevitable hardship and suffering but the resilience of two individuals to create the semblance of normality – interludes of calm amid the stress and mayhem.
Hans Neumeyer, my grandfather, was a blind composer and teacher of musical composition and harmony. He arrived on a transport from Munich in Terezin in 1942.
Two young men who met him were Thomas Mandl, a 16-year-old violinist, and his 17-year-old friend Hans Ries. Mandl died in America in 2007. The two young men had the job of taking food to those unable to fetch it themselves, and making sure that others did not steal from them.
They met Neumeyer at the camp’s home for the blind. Probably Mandl’s habit of whistling Bach fugues alerted Neumeyer to their presence. They became his pupils, paying in soup or bread when they had it in return for lessons in harmony and composition. Although blind, Neumeyer survived nearly two years in Terezin before his death in May 1944: his teaching work was surely part of that survival strategy. He was known as The Professor in the camp.
Hans Neumeyer gave the impression of a sharp wit and intelligence. Mandl said that he understood that behind his smiling tolerance was a great mental toughness. Despite the rigours of camp life, Hans met his fate with acceptance and sometimes even humour.
Mandl last saw him in the block washroom. He was shocked at his expression of utter dejection and some sort of strange wild premonition. In May 1944 he heard of his death, and enquired about the day of the funeral.
It was a sunny day: three of Neumeyer’s pupils were among those who saw his crudely made coffin placed among the others on a truck. They followed it to the barrier on the edge of the camp, which was as far as they were allowed to go. The barrier came down: ‘that was the way our dead left us’.
Vera Neumeyer had got separated from her husband, She was in Munich in 1942 and taken on a train to her death in a camp somewhere in eastern Poland: we don’t know where, but it may have been Majdenek. She may well have been executed on arrival. Remarkably we know a lot about her journey. That’s because on the train, she wrote a note, and somehow it was delivered to her family – maybe she threw it out of the window at a station. It strives to be reassuringly normal with touching banality – and almost reads like she’s on a Sunday outing. And this is what it says:
14 July 1942
TO ALL MY DEAR ONES!
I am writing on the train after 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 Munich, and shortly after 7 o’clock we sat in a truck which was 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 seat 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 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.
I took these pictures of the railway line and the house in Görlitz last year.
[These are the photos of the house shown earlier on this blog]
Vera’s father, who built that house in 1904, also perished in Terezin in 1944, aged 84. Martin Ephraim was a wealthy Jewish industrialist – factory made railway carriages and other components; contributed to building of station, synagogue, and an imposing museum which he endowed with a huge collection of applied art and antiquities.
I have a supremely poignant relic in the form of a scrap of paper in Martin’s handwriting which neatly sums up this tactic of self-preservation. He quotes Martin Luther: “If the world would end tomorrow, I would still plant my apple tree today”.
My mother told me that the blue writing below is by his friend and fellow inmate Dr Hirschberg, who survived Terezin, went to Auschwitz after the war and became a public prosecutor of Nazis: “das hilft in Auschwitz/This helped in Auschwitz, 1945.”
And here’s a snatch of Hans Neumeyer’s duo. The performers last year remarked that what little survives of his music shows a wide range of styles, from neoclassical to polyphonic. Here I think he’s harking back to JS Bach…
[at this point I played an extract from the slow movement]
And here he is… 90 years old, looking pretty good after all he’s been through, and making his public debut!
[and here’s the bear (according to the antique teddy shop in Lewes he’s an unknown make), whom I also included at the very start of this blog. I raised him up and there was a huge wave of quite unexpected applause.]