Vera Neumeyer’s story

My mother Ruth kept a photo of her mother Vera by her bed throughout my life. I was actually born in that room and in that very bed, so that photo portrait of the handsome, dark-haired woman with a sideways, inwards look, was a constant of my childhood, though of course I’d never met her.

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Vera Ephraim was born in 1893, daughter of Martin and Hildegard Ephraim.

It seems that she had a very pleasant and privileged upbringing in a vast house in Görlitz, with her two sisters – Marianne and Dora – and brother Herbert. The house was sold, sadly at the height of the German hyperinflation, and by the time they received the purchase money, it was enough ‘to buy a basket of cherries’. But her parents still had another large house, in the mountain resort of Schreiberhau (now known as Szklarska Poreba, and in Poland).

The Ephraim villa in Görlitz still has a stained glass window in its hall depicting three female graces – maybe a reference to the three Ephraim daughters.

Eurythmics and music

She was certainly musical: I still have inherited a lot of sheet music from her – Beethoven sonatas, Bach, Mendelssohn songs, Schumann piano works and Lieder, and much more – with her name written inside and the stamp of a bookseller’s in Görlitz on the title page. This, and numerous other books, were kept during the war by friends  – including the Wirsching family – in Dachau and sent over to England in the 1950s.

Music was hugely important to the Neumeyer family, and both her children inherited a love of music. To Ruth and Raimund I believe that classical music was something of a refuge from the chaos of the world, and composers such as Schubert, Mozart and Beethoven were a key part of that. For Ruth particularly two operas she loved that must have originated from her Bavarian childhood were Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel and Weber’s Der Freischütz.

Vera worked as a eurthymics teacher, and it was while studying eurythmics at Hellerau near Dresden that she met Hans Neumeyer, my grandfather, a blind Jewish pianist who played for the eurythmics classes. They married in 1920.

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Vera in eurythmic exercise – one of a number of such pictures we have. Presumably this dates from her teaching days.

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Vera (middle, front row) with fellow students at Hellerau before the First World War. The light style of clothing and the free dance movements that went with it must have been quite a liberation from the restrictive fashions of this period.

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The Festspielhaus – the main centre for eurythmics and performance at Hellerau, which closed in 1914 after only four years of operation. It is now being restored as a theatre.

Family relationships among the Neumeyers

The Neumeyers in the 1920s

Vera and Hans, with children Ruth and Raimund, late 1920s

I’ve never been clear about the dynamics around their marriage, but it seems to have been very happy up until things fell apart in the Third Reich. My mother seems to have had a daughter’s affection for Vera, but occasionally came out with sharp criticisms: ‘she was very aware of her good looks’, or words to that effect, delivered in a surprisingly resentful way for someone as overwhelmingly kind as Ruth.

Vera and Ruth 1924

Vera with Raimund in 1925.

A trivial incident in Ruth’s childhood seemingly caused a schism between the two: Vera was taking a photo of Raimund when he was a baby or toddler, and Ruth asked to be included in the picture. Vera said she couldn’t be in it, and there was apparently something in the tone of how she spoke that upset Ruth dramatically.

Then there’s the untold matter of Vera and Hans. I understand from people who were close to Ruth that both had affairs. Hans’ relationship with his secretary Dela was perhaps more than just a friendship, and Vera seems to have had affairs with several men. But I know no details.

vera neumeyer. identity papers photo

The last known picture of Vera appears on her ID card, embellished as it is with swastikas. She and Hans divorced in the 1940s. It was too late to save Vera, but had she divorced earlier she may well have survived, as only her marriage to Hans classed her as sufficiently Jewish for the Nazis to arrest and deport her. After all, both her sisters survived, spending the war in Germany.

The plays

But Ruth always spoke with huge affection about the plays Vera organised for her children and friends. It must have been quite a social event on the Dachau town calendar, as friends and neighbours packed into the house to see a nativity play or fairytale. The many photos Ruth kept in an album she brought on the Kindertransport show productions that were clearly amply rehearsed and costumed.

The books in her house in London included a volume entitled Deutsche Hausbühne – with twelve one-act plays that Vera had clearly used for her homespun productions. Some are annotated with detailed staging notes.

It was during one of these plays that the Nazis stormed in and stopped everything, taking everyone’s names and arresting the lodger. See the post An innocent childhood shattered in this blog.

From the photo album Ruth brought in the Kindertransport in May 1939. The album is absolutely packed with photos, including many of the plays. I can imagine Vera and Ruth frantically cutting out all the family pictures and glueing them in, ordered by theme. Here are several of their friends; Ruth helpfully captioned them all a few years ago. She's top right; Raimund (with lamb) is bottom left. At a reunion in Dachau about 20 years ago one old man turned unannounced to Ruth and his first words were 'I am the holy Joseph!' She then knew exactly who she was. The two remained friends and in close contact until the end of her life in 2012.

From the photo album Ruth brought with her on the Kindertransport in May 1939. The album is absolutely packed with photos, including many of the plays. I can imagine Vera and Ruth in the days before the children’s departure to England frantically cutting out all the family pictures and glueing them in, ordered by theme. Here are several of their friends; Ruth helpfully captioned them all a few years ago. She’s top right; Raimund (with lamb) is bottom middle. At a reunion in Dachau about 20 years ago one elderly man, turned unannounced to Ruth and his first words were ‘I am the holy Joseph!’ She then knew exactly who he was: her childhood friend Hans Engl, who had appeared in one of Vera’s Nativity plays acting the role of Joseph. The two remained friends and in close contact until the end of her life in 2012.

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Vera’s staging notes in one of the plays performed in the Neumeyers’ house in Dachau.

The recipe books

Vera was apparently, according to Ruth, not much of a cook, and Hans did all the more refined cooking (making a particular speciality of gnocchi), though I’ve never quite understood why it was that so many of Vera’s well-thumbed recipe books, including one entirely written out by hand, have survived to this day. Maybe Vera dictated all of this to Hans.

The handwritten book contains various recipes for cakes, soups, omelettes, souflees, risottos and puddings. Ruth kept them in a drawer in the kitchen in Sydenham, along with other cookery books and various utensils. I rescued them when clearing out the house in 2012.

Pages from Vera's handwritten recipes, in a well-thumbed exercise book.

Pages from Vera’s handwritten recipes, in a well-thumbed exercise book.

It's incredible that Ruth didn't throw this away years ago. While in the kitchen with her in Sydenham about ten years ago she said 'Gosh, I've still got that old recipe.' The story was that her parents stopped by a cafe while on a walk and had some delicious cake. Vera complimented the woman proprietor, who said Vera should give them her address and she'd post the recipe to them. And here it is. Only at the end of the message the woman signs off with 'Heil Hitler'. Ruth said to me 'Somehow I don't think my mother ever made that cake!'

It’s incredible that Ruth didn’t throw this away years ago. While in the kitchen with her in Sydenham about ten years ago she said ‘Gosh, I’ve still got that old recipe.’ The story was that her parents stopped by a cafe while on a walk in September 1938 and had some delicious cake there. Vera complimented the woman proprietor who had baked it. The woman said Vera should give them her address and she’d post the recipe to them. And here it is. Only at the end of the message the woman signs off with ‘Heil Hitler’. Ruth said to me ‘Somehow I don’t think my mother ever made that cake!’

The end: Majdanek 1942

The most poignant of her many letters was the one delivered from the train while being deported to a death camp in Poland. She was deported on Monday, 13 July 1942 to Lublin, where she was very likely taken to Majdanek forced labour camp. No record exists of what happened to her there. None of the people on this transport is known to have survived. Majdanek was established as a sorting centre for sending prisoners on to Treblinka, Sobibor and Belzec, but the previous March it too had been turned into a killing centre. The gas chambers were used from September onwards. I just hope she came to a swift end and her suffering wasn’t drawn out.

Aftermath: heirlooms from Vera

I never met Vera, of course, but thankfully we have a substantial amount of material from her. Ruth kept all her letters from 1939 and the Red Cross messages that followed, as well as the photos I’ve mentioned above. Her cousin Karin kept aside a few items which were collected by Raimund in the 1960s, and include the perfectly useless electric teapot that is photographed with the Neumeyers enjoying afternoon tea in Dachau around 1929.

These two items are particularly treasured mementoes:

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Vera’s napkin ring was a christening present and is dated 3 September 1893, her date of birth – 46 years to the day before the Second World War broke out. Ruth brought this item with her on the Kindertransport when fleeing Nazi Germany in 1939 and to my knowledge used it pretty much every day of her life thereafter.

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This bronze statuette of Vera as a young woman in her eurythmics costume was sculpted by Emilio Bisi (1850-1920), her sister’s father-in-law, in 1913. Bisi carved stone figures outside several Italian cathedrals, including at Milan and Trieste. His father Luigi Bisi was also a distinguished artist.

Vera Ephraim 1898 or 1899 studio portrait

A studio portrait of Vera taken by Max Ganzel in Görlitz in 1898 or 1899

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Vera around the late 1910s or early 1920s; location unknown.

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