I have in front of me a substantial pile of letters – some dated, others not – from Vera and Hans Neumeyer to their children (from my grandparents to my mother and uncle), the latter newly arrived via Kindertransport and starting new lives in England. Most are written in Vera’s neat handwriting. A handful are typed by the blind Hans. His typewriter ribbon is getting fainter with each successive letter. On one letter there’s hardly a character legible.
Though the letters are 78 years old, they’re red-hot news. I’ve never till this week got round to reading them: it’s a slow process, but I’m starting on the translation, hugely helped by Jürgen from Gross-Gerau (the father of my cousin’s cousin) who’s transcribing them one by one, and giving lots of useful advice. There are over fifty in total, and so far he has done the first eight that are dated.
I’ve had a look ahead to July and learn that Vera is planning an escape to England by car with the Ephraims: more on that in a future post.
Suddenly Vera and Hans have a voice: there’s a new dimension to the story and they’ve come to life. We get the picture of everyday life at the Neumeyers, and even hints of Ruth and Raymond’s lives in England – as so much of the content of the children’s letters is referred to.
Read the letters in the original German
A pdf of the originals of this batch of letters can be viewed here: Vera’s letters dated 01
Hans wrote far less often: all his letters can be viewed here: Hans Neumeyer letters to children 1939
So here are the letters and postcards from May and June, partly edited (there are other undated letters which I’ve yet to translate; some of these may well fit in here):
11 May 1939 – after the Kindertransport train rolled away
This is the date Ruth and Raymond arrived in England. We learn that after saying goodbye to the children at Munich’s railway station, Hans and Vera realised they had forgot to give them some bread rolls they had brought for their journey. Then they walked back home and had tea.
My dear children! So here is the first greeting to my long-travelled ones. So this is what happened! After your train rolled away, we rolled away too. We went home on foot. Then we drank a little tea – ‘of course’, Mani [Raymond] will say.
Wednesday did not go until Leo appeared at half past ten in the morning. In the afternoon, In the evening I spoke to Dela [Dela Blakmar, Hans’ secretary] in Lucerne on the phone. She was very happy about your disappearance – yes, we’ve let you go! We are glad that you are fine so far and are looking forward to your further reports. All the best, my dear little ones and keep happy.
From Vera; we do not know the identities of the friends referred to:
My beloved sparrows!
Now you have happily completed the great journey and are in the big country, where everything is new to you. Our thoughts are always with you. Today, your card came with the first post from Frankfurt and the second post brought your card from Cologne, as well as a letter from Käte Holler, in which she says how she was happy with you and how happy you are. She also sent enclosed greetings from Grossvati [Grandfather – Martin Ephraim], which he had sent to her to hand it to you; But that letter only arrived when she returned from the train, and so she sent it to me.
Mrs Nathan [presumably one of the Kindertransport administrators] phoned me to let me know that today you will have lunch at Harwich and arrive in London in the afternoon. I’m really looking forward to your reports. But first you have to sleep well!
This afternoon I will call you, then I go to the “Heidelinden”, to Mrs. Bergmann and to Helmuth.
I have a cold, otherwise all is fine. Yesterday, Leo came here to eat [more about Leo in the letter of 1 June 1939, when Vera reports that he’s going to Shanghai – so we can guess Leo was Jewish and had to flee]: we had scrambled eggs and salad, in the evening I ate the rest of the noodle soup, today we’re having rice with chives and in the evening whipped cream.
Yesterday I picked up my winter coat from the tailor who had done a good job on it.
When the train left I remembered I’d forgotten the rolls. I immediately thought that you would have got some fresh ones in Frankfurt.
A thousand greetings
13 May 1939: long-distance parenting
From Vera. The children are about to start school. There’s a reference to Clarisse and Walter, who we can assume were also children who had arrived on the Kindertransport. Lots of advice and long-distance parenting in evidence here:
From Hans; the postal service between England and Germany was staggeringly fast in 1939 and was a source of wonderment:
My dear, good children!
I have received many messages from you; two arrived yesterday evening, and took less than 24 hours to get here; we’ve had one from Mrs Paish, who is very enthusiastic about you. You may already have news from Marie Oppenheim and Grete Marx; they would have liked to come to meet your train [the arrival of the Kindertransport at Liverpool Street], but it was only possible to get access with a special ID card, which is for guarantors only. Mrs Paish was told that that she should be at the train at 2.30: you had to wait quite a long time in the hall and hopefully did not get too hungry.
Good to hear that the luggage has come with you; so you have everything with you now. The strip on the big suitcase should soon be repositioned; it does not seem to last long.
Do not be shy and be prepared to talk! In 4 weeks you will be able to communicate well; but only if you really talk a lot and are not afraid of making mistakes.
Mrs Paish writes that the car unfortunately only drove through back streets of London; I am glad that you have already seen some of the famous buildings; surely you will soon see more of the city. I’ve also read the cards that Clarisse and Walter wrote home. The telegram that announced your happy arrival just arrived at when we were having our semolina soup on Thursday evening.
Too bad that I cannot get you any camera film. Can you get some there? How are you getting on sleeping in English beds? What is the food like?
Thank you very much for writing so nicely. You do not need to write until Wednesday, then Mani can tell us about school and Ruthi about the lessons, etc. Do you get marks? In any case, I enclose a reply slip.
Always put your clothes and clothes neatly on the chair when you get undressed! If you do not need the new woollen blankets, please hand them over to Mrs. Eckhard for protection against moths.
A big kiss from me,
We have been able to follow your journey very well. Your card, which arrived punctually, formed a lifeline that made us very happy. On Thursday evening, about half past nine we got the telegram of Mrs. Paish which brought great reassurance. We have now received a very loving and detailed letter from Mrs. P. and can now imagine a little how things are with you.
Your letter, which you sent to us on Thursday was a particularly nice surprise, because it came here so quickly – as if it had known that it was so eagerly awaited; it arrived on Friday evening. Quite how that happened, I don’t understand.
So for now the sounds of English speech will be wafting across your peckers. Well, that will change soon enough. By the way, I can understand it very well, it would be no different for me either. I hope Raymond isn’t bursting because he wants to speak and nothing comes out. Dreadful, that sort of thing, isn’t it?
It was nice of your luggage to follow in your footsteps. For that reason, you must handle your things well and be friendly with them.
Here at home there is still nothing new, as the task of fishing out another part of my tooth is really nothing new at all – it belongs to the order of the day. But now it’s just once, and that’s it. Finish. I am very happy that I am not a shark, as I would be forced to tread all too often that lovely path to the ‘yanking animal’ [i.e. the dentist].
Dela has been back since yesterday afternoon and will prove it to you with a couple of handwritten lines. Goodbye my good people. Please greet your dear protectors and greetings to you.
From your Vati
15 May 1939: we can accompany you in spirit on your journey
From Vera (more marvelling at the speed of the post service; we learn that she is also sending over items such as an cake-icing syringe):
My beloved children! To think that your letter arrived on Sunday morning and was stamped in N. only on Saturday 4 clock in the afternoon)! This is faster than the post here goes from the suburbs to the city. The Doctor [one of several references to the ‘Doctor’ in these letters; maybe he was living with them?] thinks that all English mail is carried by plane (across the Channel), and otherwise this speed would be inexplicable. Anyway, I’m terribly happy that mail is arriving so quickly and I hope that this airmail letter will not be too long on the way.
Your reports are quite famous and have made us very happy. They have been read out at least four times, one has been forwarded by Grandfather to Tante Dodo and Tante Janni, one to Tante Betty, and Anna E. also read it at noon today. You write in such detail and so vividly that we can accompany you in spirit on your whole journey.
We see that everything went well on the way and that you had no opportunity to starve. The cabins must have been really nice, I can well imagine them according to your description and Ruth’s drawing. Why you’ve had to get up so early, when got off from the ship at 11.00, is not quite that strange to me. But the main thing is that you’re well rested and ready to face all the new, beautiful, if difficult, things with fresh energy. I know all these language difficulties from my own experience, but it will not be very long before it will be easier.
Am longing to know about the Eckhards and the beginning of the school!
Please tell me if you are given stamps.
I want you to keep in touch with the Lesers [the family the Neumeyers lived with for a time in Munich; Ursula Leser was Ruth’s age and she, her sister Annemie and her mother all came to England – Ursula and Ruth remained close friends throughout their lives] and Nathan. Just as I was with Helmuth today, the first letter from Walter and Clarisse came from P.
Incidentally, I address my letters alternately to each of you; of course, they are always meant for both of you.
It also seems to be pretty cold in England, because Ruthi had to warm her hands while writing.
It really surprised me that you and all luggage fitted into a car. Have you taken any pictures yet? Yesterday I thought about you all the time, how you went to an English church for the first time. You need to get a hymn book. If you want anything or need anything translated, write to me.
I have found Ruthi’s cake icing syringe and the belt of her striped summer dress and send it to you. How many bars of chocolate have you eaten? And how are you getting on with English food?
Many thousands of greetings and kisses from Mutti.
29 May 1939: visits to London, cookery ingredients and Dalcroze lessons
From Vera. There was an agreement between the parents and children to write twice a week, so that they could be reassured that all was well, but it was evidently extremely worrying if post didn’t turn up. This letter was written 12 days since the previous one, so I assume that some of the undated letters – which I’ve yet to look at – intervened:
It was high time that your letter arrived. I almost sent a telegram, because I was very worried that you hadn’t written and I was thinking about what could have possibly happened. So, in the future, you’ll keep what we’ve agreed and divide the long letter on either Saturdays or Sundays, the shorter one (which may even be just a note) on Wednesday.
I was very glad to hear about your trip to London and that you have now experienced this interesting city. How are Paishes and their children? Mrs Eckhard has written me a nice little letter that everyone likes you very much and you are fine. She asks me to tell you that you would like to turn to her in confidence if you or Mani need something for example, if you are clogged up (“constipated’ in English). [there follows a list of ailments, translated into English]
Very surprised to hear that it’s so hot in England and the sun shines until 9. Not the case here: it’s pouring and cold.
You should know that an English ounce = 28 grams. Now you can convert recipes.
There are certainly noodles over there, maybe they are called vermicelli. Otherwise you can make it easy yourself What is called bouillon cube, I do not know exactly. Anyway, Fleisch extract ] is called Extract of meat and Würfel is “Cube” . I will to see if I can send some; but it is easier if you look in Mr. Eckhard’s grocery store [the children were staying with Oscar Eckhard, who ran this shop, and helped him there], if he has none and ask him.
Good to hear that the school is so nice. Everything you tell me is good news to me; also your lovely excursion with the churches and the windmill you drew.
Write what you do in your Dalcroze lessons! Of course I think it’s a good idea to change the black dress to a Dalcroze dress.[Ruth was learning Dalcroze eurythmics at the school; since Vera taught the Dalcroze method, she must have been very pleased about that.]
When is your performance? Do you understand A Midsummer Night’s Dream in English? How is cricket played? I do not know it. We played lacrosse with hard rubber balls caught in nets attached to bars. Is Mani playing tennis?
Does the girl whose mother knows Miss Hirst, Freeman?
I am very happy to hear about your pocket money.
Thanks for the nice house plan, I can now imagine everything well. Take care of the gas stove.
Where are Mani’s clothes and things kept? Do you have room for everything?
For today, darling. A kiss from your Mutti
P.S. Many greetings to the teddies.
How are you getting on with washing and ironing?
1 June 1939: “You are my beloved sparrows who happily trudge around the world and use your little wings”
My beloved children! Yesterday came your letter from London, which was opened this time by customs. It’s nice that you have spent those days in London. Your description of the house is so good that we can picture it perfectly. You are my beloved sparrows, and I am so glad when you so happily trudge around in the world and use your little wings. You are very independent and you are way ahead of others; you have learned that by traveling much earlier. It’s nice for Mutti as she can see the world completely fresh through your eyes.
So the underground or tube was so ghost-like! Yes, that must be strange when the stairs come rolling up with all those people reading their newspapers!
The Paishes’ garden must be beautiful, and the high rhododendrons in the new garden must be gorgeous.What do those very, very funny monkey-puzzle trees look like, Mani? And Ruthi, don’t keep saying “unfortunately”. Did you get the noodles I sent?
I’m sitting in the sunshine with Frau Spielmann on her balcony on the 3rd floor. It’s lovely up here, you can see the hawthorn, the golden rain and the towers of the Paulskirche. It reminds me how beautiful St Paul’s Cathedral in London is – you have to see it. By the way, if you haven’t written to Rosie, please do so now; she wrote me a very nice letter and asks for your address, so she can visit you when she comes to England soon. Address: 150 Claremont Ave [this is in Manhattan, New York; they knew her as Tante Rosie but she seems to have been a family friend; we have four letters from 1941-43 from her, including two asking for news of Hans and Vera after their disappearance] .
Mrs. Paish sent a card with her house on it and wrote that she would like to send photos soon.
Ruth’s questionnaire idea is excellent and we’ll do that soon. So you two frogs have green school uniforms! I am so happy that you both are at school. Am terribly curious for more news about it. At Mani’s school, things will probably be very difficult at first, because I think English boys’ schools are very demanding. Don’t lose heart! You will get to like it over time. On Wednesday I went with Onki [Julius Kohn, the Neumeyer’s lodger and friend; he died in Auschwitz] to the cathedral for the last devotion of May, which was very nice.
Leo has had a letter returned that he sent to you but had misaddressed. So he’s really going to Shanghai.
That’s all for today.
Have a lovely weekend,
14 June 1939: party games, Shanghai and Woking
A postcard from Vera, suggesting party games for children, mentioning the departure of their friend Leo to Shanghai. and requesting photos of the children’s new family in England. She mentions Aranka: this is Aranka Wirsching, who lived at the Pollnhof at Dachau; the Aranka and Otto Wirsching were artist friends of the Neumeyers, and maintained contact after the war – her son Anselm wrote numerous letters to Ruth from a British Prisoner of War camp in Egypt during 1946-47; I have yet to translate them.
Your letter arrived earlier, this time it took a bit longer because it had been opened by customs. I’m glad that you have the balance and can bake now. The birthday party should be fun. For games I suggest you play ‘grab the sausage’, climbing blindfolded over bottles, a sack race or a three-legged race (arms crossed), a sliding race or tying pairs of wrists together and getting each pair of children to untie themselves.
Anna is almost always there at noon. Today Aranka visited me. Unfortunately, you can not write to Leo here because he is leaving for Shanghai today; he will certainly write to you on the way. It must be nice in Woking! At noon there were strawberries with milk. There isn’t any cream. I hope we’ll get some pictures from you soon; don’t the Eckhards have any equipment? Your questions will be answered in the next letter.