Here’s the complete text of my presentation at Holocaust Memorial Day in Lewes Town Hall on 27 January 2016, with extracts from an interview made about ten years ago with my mother. The event drew a large audience (over 250) and focused on the stories surrounding those who did something positive to save lives of others in times of genocide. We heard from Wlodka Robertson – a friend of my mother since 1965, she survived the bleakest conditions in the Warsaw Ghetto, where others hid her during round-ups and helped her escape over the wall to safe houses, where various families looked after her for the duration. There were talks from the Refugee Council, from a local architect who recently built shelters for refugees in Calais, and from a photographer exhibiting in shop windows throughout Lewes photo stories about the individual refugees in the UK who made a notable contribution to this country in one form or another. With Priory School pupils reading from the play Kindertransport, and an excellent band of Klezmer musicians, it made for a thought-provoking three hours.
Here’s the text of my talk, with the Powerpoint slides inserted above each corresponding part of the text.
I’d like to share with you the story of my mother’s family when faced with the greatest danger during the Holocaust in Bavaria. Some escaped – my mother and her brother came over to England on the Kindertransport. Others died in Nazi camps.
It is a story of action and inaction. Of survival, of escape and of tragic delay. Those who realised they must do something, and those who acted too late or not at all.
Here they are: Hans, a blind composer and music teacher, and his wife Vera, a teacher of eurhythmics (a music and movement discipline). And in the third picture – Ruth, my mother, and Raimund, my uncle. They lived in the town of Dachau, just outside Munich. Hans was Jewish by birth; Vera had a Jewish father but Aryan mother – she was classified as ‘nicht Arisch’ (‘non-Aryan’) by the Nazis as she was married to a Jew. The family were Lutherans, and there was nothing Jewish about their lifestyle; Ruth and Raimund were quite unaware of their Jewish background.
‘It was a very nice childhood’, said my mother; certainly up to 1933, when Hitler came to power. After then the noose gradually tightened; Hans lost his job, people sometimes threw stones at them and shouted ‘Saujude’ (Jewish pig). But life carried on, and the feeling was that nothing that terrible could really happen to them. They weren’t rich or important, and were Protestants anyway.
The family photo album shows an idyllic, rather bohemian family life in the 1920s. Playing in the garden, hiking in the mountains…
…and a tradition of home-made theatricals, with Vera directing plays acted out in their house by local children. It was during one of these plays in 1937 that Ruth and Raimund’s childhood came to an abrupt end, as my mother describes in an interview made at the Imperial War Museum, a few years before her death in 2012:
In 1938 the Neumeyers were facing real danger. The Burgomaster’s office in Dachau compiled a list of 13 Jewish families living in the town. The Neumeyers are fourth on this list – ‘und zwei Kinder’ (‘and two children’), some official has scribbled at the end.
My mother recalled: There were acts of great kindness from friends, such as the family who ran a grocery store in Dachau, who helped them a lot – they even put out food in the fields for prisoners who were doing forced labour.
It culminated with Kristallnacht, 9-10 November 1938 – there was no pogrom in Dachau that night, but the Neumeyers received orders to leave their house by sunrise.
And so the Nazis rejoiced:’Dachau ist somit judenfrei’ – Dachau is hereby free of Jews.
We never understood why Hans and Vera did not leave: they had contacts in England and Switzerland. But my mother talked of a tension between them at that time.
Hans’ sister Betty – pictured second from the right in the top left picture, escaped on the last Trans-Siberian train out east, then on to Shanghai where she sent these letters to Vera – one of them (top left) is postmarked 3 September 1939, the day the war broke out – then on the last ship to Columbia before war made travel impossible. There she joined her son, Gustl (far right in the same photo), who had emigrated there a few years earlier. Hans’ sister Irma was rounded up by the Nazis and died in Theresienstadt as he did.
Both Vera’s sisters survived. Marianne (Janni; pictured seated) had married an Italian count before the war. It wasn’t the cosiest of set-ups: he made his housekeeper pregnant and his brother was a friend of Mussolini. She separated from him and went to live in Thuringia. Dora (pictured far right) stayed in Dresden throughout the war – not Jewish enough to be persecuted, though her daughter married a Jew and in February 1945 was ordered to turn up the next day for deportation to a concentration camp. As it was, that night Dresden was carpet bombed and the deportation never happened.
Vera’s father, Martin Ephraim, was a retired Jewish industrialist and patriotic German. When told of Nazi atrocities he said ‘That is surely exaggerated. Germans would never do a thing like that.’ His son Herbert, a professional racing car driver (and once national German champion – ‘Ephraim für Deutschland’ – how ironic is that?) – seen here with his new car in the 1920s with Ruth and Raimund on the fender – emigrated to America in 1931. As life became increasingly difficult for Jews, he wrote to Martin several times urging his father to come to America. Martin refused: ‘I was born in Germany and will die here.’ Martin Ephraim was arrested by Nazis and perished in Theresienstadt in 1942.
By early 1939 the parents were desperate to get their children to safety. The first Kindertransport had started late in 1938: Vera undertook lots of queuing and form-filling, and waiting to see if Ruth and Raimund could get a place on one of the transports to England. Hans and Vera had remembered they had a contact from England, Beatrice Paish, whom they’d met years before at a Dalcroze Eurythmic school near Dresden. Vera wrote to her and to their joy Beatrice and her husband Frank agreed to take in Ruth and Raimund. Meanwhile Vera had received a promise from the Jewish Blind Society in England that accommodation could be found for them, but the visas never came. Here’s how Ruth describes the arrangements for the Kindertransport:
May 10 1939: Munich Hauptbahnhof. Vera and Hans say goodbye for the very last time Ruth and Raimund. Ruth is sure that their parents will follow: after the children arrive in England, Vera and Hans write frequent letters, all upbeat and concealing their true emotions; then after war begins in September, only short Red Cross messages come, maximum 20 words, one a month – the last says simply ‘going on a journey’; then after 1942, nothing. Here’s how Ruth remembers it:
May 11 1939: Ruth and Raimund arrive in Weybridge. The first word of English pops up in her diary for May 12: cornflakes.
Her new life in England was a revelation. She loved her new family; they loved her. She wasn’t homesick, just pleased to get away from the tension and awfulness. She enjoyed school for the first time. Her new friend Jane said ‘before Ruth came, our family was rather boring. Then she came and everything was wonderful.’ Ruth slipped into the English language without even remembering how she learnt it.
Raimund had a tougher time and had to live elsewhere and work on a farm, which he hated, then in a bicycle factory, which wasn’t much better. After the war he worked for British army intelligence as an interpreter and revisited Germany – he even denounced the burgomaster of Dachau – the very man who had ordered the Neumeyers out of their house on Kristallnacht – to the authorities, who were able to prosecute as a result.
But both children stayed on in England and married and had families.
Fast forward half a century: Ruth maintained contact with friends in Dachau and in 1988 was invited to attend an exhibition in the town hall to mark the 50th anniversary of Kristallnacht.
Ruth was still very ambivalent about Germany. ‘The only thing I really like about it is the mountains.’ She said she would only attend if the town of Dachau would agree to two things.  That they would erect a memorial to the Jewish families from Dachau who had been forced out on Kristallnacht. And  That she could visit a school and talk to children the same age as she was when she was forced to leave in 1939. Dachau’s town council at first refused, giving the reason that no persecutions of Jews had happened in Dachau town itself. But she persisted and a German journalist, Hans Holzhaider, came to her aid. He had written a book about the stories of the Jewish families ousted from Dachau and I think he had helped her come to terms with a lot of her past. He argued it out with the authorities, who eventually gave in.
Ruth had her wish. Here’s the memorial, and a photo taken at a school in Dachau. Here she’s speaking to a class of children; the teacher sits to the right, and to the right of him is my father Ronald.
Meanwhile she always asked the question: why didn’t her parents leave when they had the chance?
It was only after the end of the war that she found out that her parents died in camps. Until then, there was always a glimmer of hope.
And finally: the kindness of these people – Bea and Frank Paish – rescued two children from oblivion. They didn’t have to do it, and would have known hardly anything about Ruth and Raimund themselves. Frank Paish, a distinguished economist, said late in his life that taking in the two Neumeyer children was ‘the best thing we ever did in our lives’. They certainly didn’t stand by.
They weren’t able to take in Ruth and Raimund into their house, but their extended family – the Paishes, Eckhards and Stirlands – came to the rescue. The children stayed first with Oscar Eckard, who ran a shop in Weybridge and instantly took to them. The adopted family became a lifelong bond.
Finally, do have a look at some of the items Ruth brought over on the Kindertransport – on show at the library till the end of this month: the teddy, the dressing gown, her diaries, the suitcase with a tatty luggage label, the silver knife, fork and spoon…
I’ll now introduce the next musical item.
Ruth’s father, Hans Neumeyer, was a blind composer and teacher of musical theory who survived two years in Theresienstadt, apparently helped by giving music lessons to fellow prisoners in exchange for food, before his death there in 1944. All of his compositions perished in bombing, except for two chamber works. We are now going to hear the slow movement from a duo for violin and viola, written in 1940, two years before his deportation. It will be played by Anna Lowenstein and Stephen Giles; many thanks to Stephen for agreeing to play this at very short notice.
Anna and Stephen gave a very moving account of this movement of the duo. Anna had first heard it when I played a couple of minutes of it from the recording, at last years HMD event in Lewes: she liked it so much she asked me if she could use it as her student recital piece in Manchester last year, and then a few weeks back asked me to look for a viola player so she could play it again at this event. Happily, Stephen Giles – a professional viola player and viola teacher based in Lewes – volunteered his services.