From Schreiberhau to Sydenham: how a distant culinary memory turned round family fortunes

It’s exactly ten years to the day when my mother Ruth (nee Neumeyer) died at the age of 89 on 19 November 2012 in London’s King’s College Hospital.

That was after a struggle with cancer, so we were prepared for it. And she met the end during November, the month she liked least. As I’ve explained previously on this blog, it was then that her family, the Neumeyers, were made homeless by the Nazis on 9 November 1938. Town officials visited the Neumeyer house in Dachau the night before ordering them to leave by dawn or else go to prison. “I intensely dislike these November days,” she wrote in a letter to a friend on 8 November 1977, “they bring back memories of a sinister past.”

Rather than dwell on those dark times this post presents a more upbeat angle of a turnaround after arriving penniless with her brother Raymond on a Kindertransport on 11 May 1939. I’m marking the event by telling how her ingenuity resulted in an amazing stroke of luck that had a bizarre throwback to her and Raymond’s own childhoods in the 1920s and 1930s.

The four houses

In a way, it is a tale threading together four houses, all of which still stand today and all of which I’ve visited: in Görlitz, in Schreiberhau, in Dachau and in Sydenham.

  • 2 Charlecote Grove, Sydenham, London

In Görlitz was the sumptuous Art Nouveau (Jugendstil) villa of my then fabulously wealthy great-grandparents Martin and Hildegard Ephraim, and was where my grandmother Vera, her sisters Marianne (“Tante Janni”) and Dora (“Tante Dodo”) and their brother Herbert grew up in the early 1900s. Today it’s known as the Villa Ephraim. For some reason Martin sold it in 1922 during the period of hyperinflation. As Tante Janni would frequently recall later on, by the time the money came through it was just enough to buy a basket of cherries. So that was a lot of money down the drain, and all they could do was to take a deep breath and think of something else.

The Ephraims moved to their villa Haus Lindenfels in the mountain resort of Schreiberhau, now in Poland and usually known by its Polish name of Szklarska Poręba. It was an idyllic place on the edge of the town overlooking the Riesengebirge (Giant Mountains): the Neumeyers visited on several occasions and Ruth and her brother Raymond had vintage childhood memories.

Some time after Hildegarde’s death in 1933 Martin moved back to an apartment in Görlitz, as he felt unsafe in such a rural location – it ultimately didn’t make much difference, as the Nazis caught up with him eventually and he was deported to Theresienstadt in 1944 where he died at the age of 84 – a once patriotic German severely disillusioned.

In 1920 the Neumeyers acquired a large, rambling house in the artists’ quarter of Dachau. My grandparents can’t have earned much money teaching music theory and eurythmics, so I assume Vera’s parents paid for it. “It was a very good childhood”, reminisced Ruth in an interview recorded by the Imperial War Museum. The architecture of the house may well have had something to do with it. In the 1990s she recorded the whole place room by room for the current owner in a detailed letter that I’ve illustrated on this blog.

Then after the catastrophe of November 1938 and all that followed, she finally made her new family home at 2 Charlecote Grove, Sydenham in 1956. I think the security of the Sydenham house was hugely important to her.

After her marriage to Ronald Locke in 1951 they lived in a house in Alleyn Road, Dulwich, sharing with various refugees. It wasn’t ideal for a family set-up and when she spotted the Sydenham house she reported to my father ‘I’ve think I’ve found our home!’ And she once confided in me that, yes, it did have a certain similarity to the Dachau house she’d lost 18 years previously.

It was a unique hotchpotch of a place, two bits of adjacent houses joined together at various periods: six separate roofs and nine different interior levels, a window above a landing that related to an earlier house within the existing structure, a larder and upstairs loo that overlooked the next-door garden, and an unexplained raised step within the second cellar that led seemingly to nowhere. The whole place had undeniable charm and was a wonderful place to grow up in, despite various plumbing eccentricities and freezing winter temperatures that invariably led to spectacular frost flowers on the inside of windows in the colder months.

While clearing the house after Ruth’s death, I realised her bed was the very same one I had been born in, in 1958. I had to dispose of it, so spent half an hour sawing it up before consigning it to the wheelie bin.

In south London: mementoes of a Bavarian childhood

All round the Sydenham house were reminders of Ruth’s childhood days in the Dachau house, symbols of security: the bookshelf in the hall with a large collection of German books rescued from the house in Dachau and sent over after the war; the wooden statue of St Francis; the photos of the grandparents I’d never known; sheet music; and in the upstairs loo a tile depicting a view of old Dachau town and a Dachau artists’ calendar sent over each year by the Dachau Sparkasse (savings bank).

The upstairs landing doubled as a stage in my childhood and without my understanding it my mother was recreating her own childhood in Dachau when her mother organised plays to be enacted in front of neighbours and friends in the Neumeyer house. In Sydenham the custom was revived. I remember being dressed as a toadstool in our domestically staged Hansel and Gretel. A couple of years ago I found among the family archive my grandmother’s staging notes for the very same fairy tale, performed in the Dachau house in the 1920s or 1930s:

Those plays were such a feature of Ruth’s and Raymond’s childhood in Dachau – up to the traumatic event in 1938 when Gestapo officials broke up the performance and shouted to everyone ‘aren’t you ashamed to be in the house of a Jew?’ – and the following November the Nazis ordered them to leave town by dawn or else go to prison. At her first Christmas in England in 1939 she organised the children of the extended host family (the Paishes, Eckhards and Stirlands) to write and produce a play. A few years later in Cambridge she took part in a performance of Carmen at the Refugee Club in Hills Road. She always said her ideal job would be to paint stage scenery.

Above: Vera Neumeyer’s staging notes for Hansel and Gretel, a play performed by Ruth, Raymond and other children in the Neumeyer house. Years later, in Sydenham, we performed the same play in our own house under Ruth’s supervision. Hansel and Gretel meant a lot to Ruth – the opera by Humperdinck was her favourite. The tale of two children cast out of their house and escaping death at the hands of the evil witch, then to be rescued by their parents, has uncanny parallels to Ruth and Raymond’s own childhood: cast out of their house in Dachau, facing persecution and escaping to England. But the wait their for their parents to come to England turned out to be fruitless.

A helping hand from the Cheese Bureau

That we came to live in the Sydenham house was through a happy slice of luck that brings the story full circle.

My parents and brothers were living in cramped conditions in a multi-occupied house in Alleyn Road, Dulwich. A back-to-back Victorian house shared with various people, including wartime refugees like Ruth. It wasn’t at all ideal for bringing up a family. They had little money and it was a struggle to make ends meet. Being able to afford to move seemed a distant dream.

One day in 1955 my father noticed that a marketing organisation called the Cheese Bureau were holding a recipe competition. All that was required was an original recipe using cheese, and the prizes were remarkably generous: four classes, with a top prize of £200 and a second prize of £50. The major snag was that the closing date was the next day. So without actually trying it out for real, Ruth dictated an improvised recipe involving pancakes, spinach and grated cheese, done in layers, while my father typed it out before hurrying off to post it. They called it ‘cheese in clover’.

And yes, they won £200 (the equivalent of just over £3100 in today’s money) for twenty minutes’ work creating a recipe they hadn’t even tried out. Ruth was interviewed on Radio Luxembourg by the producer of “Cheese Club”, presumably a programme entirely devoted to the foodstuff. It’s surprising to us there was so much investment needed to promote eating cheese in what must have been a hungry society just coming out of wartime rationing. There were 16,000 recipes submitted, so how the winners were selected is a mystery: one of the £50 prizewinners simply involved cream crackers with blackcurrant jam and grated cheese, so maybe the standard of culinary innovation wasn’t that high.

That money was enough for a deposit on a house, which is how they managed to buy 2 Charlecote Grove in 1956, for £2,750 – with a fixed term 3% mortgage from the London Borough of Lewisham, finally paid off in 1981.

My parents gave half of the £200 to my father’s brother Peter and his wife Janet so that they too could buy somewhere to live.

And that money may well have given my parents the option of having a third child – myself – as they now had a four-bedroom house instead of a cramped house share in a couple of bedrooms.

Full circle: back to Schreiberhau

I have one memory of my mother making that cheese, pancakes and spinach recipe, and it was pretty good. I never saw that combination of ingredients on offer until a visit to Schreiberhau in 2014 where we were tracking down the Haus Lindenfels.

Stopping for a drink at a café that day, I noticed on the menu something I’d never seen on a menu before. Pancakes with spinach and cheese. Obviously a local dish, served in the very town Ruth and Raymond used to visit their grandparents; or something their mother had remembered from her own childhood in Silesia and recreated in Dachau. And fortuitously it had somehow imprinted itself on my mother’s memory?

Here’s that very menu, with the charmed offering depicted second from the left, second row from the bottom:

I’d like to think it wasn’t a direct bit of plagiarism on her part, merely a subconscious memory of something enjoyed many years before. In an exquisite turn of fortune, the cheese gods, or Schreiberhau, or the spirit of the Ephraims had somehow set things right. After losing the Görlitz house in the hyperinflation, the Haus Lindenfels in Schreiberhau and the Dachau house to the Nazis, and having been made to pay punitive taxes under the Nazi regime that drained the Neumeyer family of all its resources, it was cheese that finally came to the rescue.

Text and images copyright Tim Locke 2022


Turning this story into a book… or something?

I’ve had many comments from readers of this blog, which has now extended to nearly 100,000 words. What next?

Several have asked me if I plan to make a book out of what I’ve uncovered of my family story. I’ve hesitated to give an answer. I’ve found the blog is such a user-friendly way of accumulating ideas and recording them. Unlike a book, it doesn’t matter where in the story you start, and you can go back and rewrite bits, or merge articles, or delete them altogether. Several thousand books on the Holocaust are published every year; can yet another one have a different slant on what has already been said elsewhere?

I started this blog in May 2014 as a way of making sense of all the inherited objects I had gathered from my mother’s house in Sydenham, and trying to piece the story together with the bits I knew already. Then I worked out where the gaps in my knowledge were, and tried to fill them in. If only I’d asked people more questions while they were still alive… but thank goodness for the internet, which just keeps giving…

I’ve just completed a six-week online writing course with author and journalist Nick Barlay, in a Zoom class of six others. The subject was how to write a memoir of your own family story. Each participant had family connections to the Holocaust, and each very different stories and approaches to writing.

I don’t know what direction it might take from here. Book, semi-fictionalised account, graphic novel, radio programme, TV documentary, children’s book… Comments and suggestions welcome…

Here’s what I came up with for our weekly assignments:

1. Writing an opening

Always one of the hardest things – knowing where to start. So I thought of beginning with my childhood, not really understanding what was going on around me:

Winter 2013, a few months after my mother’s death. I’m in her rambling old house in Sydenham, clearing up a lifetime of accumulated belongings. In her bedroom, I’m sawing up the bedframe of her bed in preparation for its ignominious end in a plastic sack next to the wheely bin. It has dawned on me as I start this operation that this was the very bed I was born in, 54 years earlier, in that very room.

Everywhere I look in the house are silent witnesses to my mother’s past life, hints of what had happened to her and her family in Germany. As I grew up there the story had gradually taken shape, but only gradually, and even now there were huge gaps in the narrative. Now I’m thinking about those early years.

In childhood no one ever sat me down and explained it all.

Why had she come from Germany? And why did I have only one set of grandparents?

In 1963, at the age of five, I’m photographed in the back garden with my two brothers and my mother’s aunt, Tante Janni. She’s from Berlin: gentle, beaming, charismatic, warm. I’m there in the middle of the picture wearing Lederhosen, inherited from my brothers and probably secondhand before they had them. Not many other children wear Lederhosen in southeast London. I’m rather proud of them.

Back then, Tante Janni visits every summer from Berlin and talks to me in English but sometimes when my mother and uncle – Ruth and Raymond – are together gathered round the table in the breakfast room and break into German, which I don’t understand. Their tones are serious and semi-whispered. I’m not intended to be included, so I crawl under the table and exit.  

Outside the breakfast room in a dark corner of the storeroom are leather suitcases with battered luggage labels, some written in German. My mother doesn’t like suitcases, or more precisely she doesn’t like packing to go away. It reminds her of something. It’s on her list of disapproved things, which include large crowds, lofts, aeroplanes, very short haircuts, toy guns and the entire month of November.

All over the house there are books, many dating from the early 1900s or before. Hardback volumes of piano music and songs by Beethoven, Mendelssohn and Schumann, some with the name ‘Vera Neumeyer’ pencilled on the opening page. In the hall, a mahogany bookcase contains four shelves of German books whose order no one ever seems to disturb. In the kitchen, a recipe book in German given as a Christmas present to Vera in 1935, its yellowing pages densely printed in Gothic type. In my father’s study is a novel with a swastika on its spine. He has tactfully placed a sticker over the offending symbol.

By my mother’s bed are three pictures within a glass frame of her birthplace in Germany. A house of rustic gables and overhanging eaves. Her mother Vera, looking sideways in a dreamy, detached way.  And a sepia postcard of her family’s town, its hilltop Schloss and onion-domed church. In the upstairs loo, a folksy decorative tile bears an 18th-century scene of the same town, and is inscribed in fancy lettering with its name: DACHAU.

On the landing, is a large, brown leather trunk. Not so much a trunk as the trunk. Throughout my childhood I wanted to explore its contents, but sense it’s out of bounds. I occasionally sneak a look to find it stuffed with parcels of letters, all tied up tightly with string.

In the sewing room, a sketch of a benign-looking man in dark glasses. He’s blind and I’ve never met him. He’s my mother’s father, Hans.

What happened to your parents, I ask my mother. ‘They died in the war’ she answers. For the first nine years of my life I don’t know how they died, and dare not ask.

2. Writing about a person

I chose Tante Janni (Marianne Bisi), my mother’s aunt (sister of Vera Neumeyer), already mentioned above.

My only encounters with my mother’s aunt, whom everyone knew as Tante Janni, were on her annual June visit in the 1960s from her native Berlin to our house in Sydenham. I would have loved to have known her for longer. My only memories are childhood fragments – she snoozing on a garden lounger by the rose-enveloped pergola, or with my mother in earnest conversation in German with about something I was clearly excluded from. Despite her advanced age she pulsated with health and vitality, taking afternoon walks around the southeast London streets beaming at total strangers while charming them into conversation.

The other thing I remember about the Betterware man was that he invariably left us with free miniature samples of floor polish

Other children asked me when Tante Janni was coming to stay so they could pop in for a visit. The Betterwear man made sure his door-to-door sales rota coincided with her presence: more than once I found the two of them sitting in chairs in our front porch, chatting for half the afternoon. That most unpushy of salesmen, sad-faced, very ancient and clad in a long coat and hat even on those warm summer days, never came into the house, and I don’t think any Betterwear products were ever purchased either. What did they talk about for all those hours? He had an undetectable, unfamiliar accent. I wonder now if he had come to England as a refugee.

I watched her in fascination as she consumed meals with daintiness. She crooked her little finger while drinking tea, something I tried to imitate when she wasn’t looking. She was the first vegetarian I’d ever encountered – forgoing meat on principle as she asserted that vegetarianism would solve the world’s hunger problems – and relished the memorably dull-looking dishes of baked marrow that my mother prepared for her.

Her June visits invariably brought a certain exotic glamour. She arrived by plane – no one else we knew then would have travelled that way – as her son Valerio worked in the airline business. She brought with her the little goodies of airline travel, none of which we’d seen before – sachets of perfumed towelettes and eye covers. Once she arrived and said Charlie Chaplin was on the same flight, as if this was the most ordinary thing in the world.

What I knew of her past seemed almost preposterous. She’d been a champion croquet player in her youth. She recounted to me a fabulously expensive wedding to an Italian count at the turn of the century: the wedding guests took trips in hot-air balloons, and startled a peasant by greeting him from high above.

From a shoebox of old photos my mother had kept was a tatty sepia image of the house in Görlitz where Tante Janni had been brought up with her three siblings – Dora, Herbert and my grandmother Vera. It seemed palatially huge – a riotously eccentric Art Nouveau villa with balconies and an octagonal tower soaring like a space rocket from the top. Money had evidently been in the family, and it had all gone. The siblings’ father Martin, a rich Jewish philanthropist, had sold that house at the height of the early 1920s hyperinflation and, in Tante Janni’s words, the money they’d received from the sale was ‘just enough to buy a basket of cherries’. That picture of a notional basket of cherries and a lost past has stayed with me ever since.

Her cheerfulness came to an abrupt end during June thunderstorms. She simply hated them. She’d plug her ears with cotton wool, go up to her room, draw the curtains and lie down, pretending it wasn’t happening. Maybe she shared the same hatred of explosions that my grandmother had.

Her other phobia was trains and railway stations, which she simply refused to go in or even near. They clearly stood for something sinister, and out of my juvenile comprehension.

As a former Montessori nursery teacher she would have had a strong sense of what children needed to know and what they didn’t. She brimmed with positivity and charisma, and her June visits lit up all our childhoods with her sense of fun, but never mentioned the war to us. She was the only link with my mother’s parent’s generation but I last saw her I was twelve and never had an adult conversation with her. She was too considerate to burden children with her dark past: staying in Germany during the war, but as I have since learned unable to save my grandmother from deportation and only escaping a similar fate by a miracle; and in Berlin as the war ended her daughter Serena being raped by Russian soldiers.

Perhaps she had always had that smiling nature, or was it to some extent a survival technique for whatever she’d had to endure during the dark times?

3. Writing about a place

Memories of my first visit to Görlitz, which I mentioned briefly in the piece about Tante Janni above. There’s lots more to say about this fascinating town of course, but I’ve stuck mainly to the Villa Ephraim.

“We passed through Görlitz, and there I saw our house”

Those are words my grandmother Vera Neumeyer wrote on 13 July 1942, as she travelled in a third-class compartment in a train from Munich to Nazi-occupied Poland. She’s packed her thermos and other items and is sitting next to nice Frau Porsche, the widow of an artist. None of them know where this train will take them: archives now identify it as one of two places – Auschwitz or the Warsaw ghetto. None of the passengers survive.

The house she saw was built by her father, Martin Ephraim, in 1905: one of the first of the town’s many art nouveau structures.

Martin was rolling in money from the family’s railway components and iron business, but put it to all sorts of philanthropic uses, as well as making things extremely comfortable for the family. The Villa Ephraim, as it is still called, belonged to her happy, stable upbringing. She’d lived there from birth in 1893 until her marriage 27 years later.

And in 2001, 59 years after Vera’s last journey, I take a train trip two hours east from Dresden for my first ever visit to Görlitz. History has made this town into a very strange mishmash of splendour, decayed grandeur, baroque harmony and semi-dereliction. Since 1945 the German-Polish border has split Görlitz into two, its eastern half now called Zgorzelec and inhabited by people from Lviv in Poland’s far east. During its days behind the Iron Curtain its architectural legacy was barely touched. Today its western, German quarter shows clear signs of depopulation.

Martin Ephraim sold up during the German hyperinflation, and accordingly lost virtually all the money from the sale, and left town in 1922 for his country house in the Silesian mountains, but his influence here remains tangible. I walk into Görlitz’s airy, mosaic-floored, barrel-ceilinged railway entrance hall – its rebuilding during the First World War funded by Martin. He poured money into the arts and applied arts, running a music festival, endowing a museum and financing the building of the synagogue. A fifteen-minute walk through ample, almost deserted streets lined by grandiose six-storey buildings that belong to a 19th-century heyday immediately illustrates why filmmakers flock to this town – its piquantly crumbling atmosphere has been used to evoke fin-de-siècle Paris and its medieval and baroque core, happily being restored as one of Germany’s most intact historic city centres, has lent itself to many other settings. It’s not called Görliwood for nothing.

My image of it is of the sepia photograph from the shoebox at home: the deep-set balconies, the rustic-looking mock timbering and the almost ludicrously oversized tower. And rounding the corner of Goethestrasse, there suddenly it is, Villa Ephraim, now a youth hostel. I climb up the mossy stone steps from the garden gate to the door. Martin’s initials ME are engraved into the glass. Inside, seemingly nothing has changed since the Ephraims’ time: a huge panelled hall lit by stained glass representing the three graces– perhaps a reference to the three Ephraim daughters – while a fresco on the side of the sweeping staircase depicts a parade of cavorting cherubs. Two other windows commemorate other local Ephraim landmarks, both buildings still extant:  their previous house marked by opulent golden gates in Jakobstrasse, where Martin’s father Lesser Ephraim first founded the family business; and the Ruhmeshalle, a mini V&A on the grassy banks of the River Neisse on the Polish side, its empty classical interior now seeking a new purpose. Beyond the villa’s entrance hall in the salon, above the jazzy black and gold zigzag columns is a copy of the portrait of Martin that he donated to the town hall. Ironically it seems the house’s subsequent use by Nazi and then Russian officers has actually preserved it.

I book in for the night, as the only guest, but the warden, Herr Usemann, won’t take any money from me as Martin’s great-grandson and shows me the scrapbook about the Ephraims that he has assembled to teach visiting school parties about ‘the house of a Holocaust victim’. Times have changed: during the DDR era the hostel was known as ‘the house of a capitalist’.

‘Would you like to see your great-grandfather’s factory?’ I’m flabbergasted. That factory still exists? Well, a fragment of it, anyway, just ten minutes away, down a cobbled lane which Martin must have walked along daily – the very Jewish name Ephraim miraculously still emblazoned though much faded across the span of the huge industrial shed, which along with the nearby manager’s house represent the sole survivors of the once mighty Ephraim empire.

Martin’s generosity was perhaps the key to his undoing. He was a patriotic German, a cultured and principled man from an influential Jewish family. ‘I shall live and die in Germany’ he said to his son Herbert who tried to persuade him to come with him to settle in America. He simply refused to believe the worst once the Nazis took power ‘Germans would never do a thing like that’.

On 10 January 1944 he was deported to Theresienstadt at the age of 83,  where he survived less than three months.

4. Dialogue exercise

I don’t really have any dialogue I can use, but there are hundreds of letters. I sifted through some of them and picked out a common theme about the stoical defence mechanism of my mother Ruth and grandmother Vera.

To her many friends, my mother Ruth kept an admirable outward appearance of cheerfulness and resilience, and everyone liked her for that. It wasn’t really allowed to be pessimistic about things, or to feel ill. If the weather forecast was bad, she simply ignored it. When in old age she was diagnosed with cancer she barely mentioned it except to describe it as ‘this stupid cancer’.

So what had she actually been through in those dark years? She told me the facts of her family’s appalling Holocaust story, but never confided in the emotions. I have no doubt that it was her survival technique. Just concentrate on the positive things and the bad things will go away.

Before her family was thrown out of their house in Dachau on Kristallnacht, Ruth was terrified any time there was a knock on the door. But she didn’t tell me this; I only discovered it when reading what a schoolfriend wrote about her in an autobiographical novel about growing up in Dachau:

She tells of the fear with which her family lives, of wincing at every knock and ringing. The hostess whispers that she prefers to hide in the closet and pull the door shut from the inside. “In my dream, I often pack myself in a box and this again in a larger box and so on – I carefully tie each box together,” she continues.

It doesn’t read like fiction to me. She’s closing herself off from the nightmare and hiding away in a box.

For her first 12 years grew up in Nazi Germany in the 1930s without really understanding the danger, and even then didn’t realise her Jewishness. She told me in her usual calm, accentless voice “My parents told us there wasn’t anything to worry about. We weren’t rich. We weren’t important.” And in an interview with the Imperial War Museum archivist confided “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. We were three-quarters Jewish.”

Only when I research the Nuremberg Laws do I realise that by virtue of having three Jewish grandparents she was totally Jewish by Nazi law. Not three-quarters, which would have placed her in less danger. So were her parents shielding her from the truth or had her own memory blocked out this crucial detail?

The Neumeyers: Vera, Hans, Ruth and Raimund, around 1928

Then I read through letters from her mother Vera, written from Munich at absolutely desperate times in 1939, when my mother and uncle Raimund have got to England on a Kindertransport but the chances of their parents joining were rapidly receding, and there’s a strangely familiar echo the same upbeat tone – focusing on news of their friends and relatives, the music they heard in church, what they were eating for supper, and so on – and all the time hiding the awful reality: protect the children from what happened, they really shouldn’t know.

But to others outside the family the harsher elements emerge as the protective blanket is removed. My grandmother confides with my mother’s guarantors in England that there are difficulties in her marriage, and that this is holding up their possible escape to England. And to her friend Anna in Germany she spills out ‘Although I deeply feel the separation from the children I am glad that they do not have to experience what is happening here.’ She’s wearing that yellow star, and has spent the last four months on forced labour in a market garden.

Poor Vera: managing long-distance parenting until the very end. Hours before arriving at the concentration camp where her murder would have followed immediately after, she writes to the family downplaying of the awfulness of her situation ‘At Dresden we had to change trains, which was a nuisance as we had just made ourselves comfortable…Farewell, I am in good spirits and well prepared for whatever follows.’

Ruth always spoke positively about her years in Cambridge during the war, surrounded by other refugees from the Third Reich, but they must have been fraught with worry, with no news after summer 1942 about her family she’d left behind in Germany.

On her 22nd birthday in September 1945 she finds out what has happened to her mother. ‘She was deported to a part of Poland in 1942 from which there is little news. I think I shall stop now before I drop my pen’, she writes in her diary in her spiky Germanic handwriting, even there not daring to spell out the words to herself that she now knows that Vera is almost certainly dead.

How four of the family were deported to their deaths

Of our family, four were deported by the Nazis to their deaths: Vera Neumeyer and Hans Neumeyer (my grandparents), Irma Kuhn (my great aunt; Hans’s sister) and Martin Ephraim (my great-grandfather and Vera”s father). Three departed from Munich and one from Berlin – all in third-class train carriages rather than cattle trucks.

Here is what I have been able to piece together about those last days. I have mentioned other people on the transports with the hope that descendants of those victims might find this post through internet searches – to date, I’ve had some remarkable messages from those who have found this blog while googling the names of others.

My grandparents and their children (my mother and uncle) had been thrown out of their house in Dachau on 8 November 1938 the night before Kristallnacht. They moved into shared accommodation in Munich. Six months later, the children left to England on a Kindertransport, never to see their parents again.

My great-grandfather Martin was a patriotic German Jew and a rich philanthropist, whose late wife was a Protestant. For many years after the Nazis came to power he was in denial: ‘Germans could never do a thing like that…’. had left his comfortable country house in Silesia and decided it would be safer in Berlin.

I’ve plotted the main places in Munich mentioned here on the map:

Hans Neumeyer: my grandfather – 4 June 1942 to Theresienstadt, transport II/02

As I have recorded previously on this blog we know quite a lot through fellow prisoners Walter Hirschberg and Tommy Mandl, about Hans’s time in Theresienstadt – including his teaching of music to young students and the day of his death.

The Stadtarchiv München (Munich City Archive) website has a list of deportations with biographies of each passenger. The train was numbered II/02 (the Roman numerals II denoting Munich as the departure point), leaving on 4 June 1942 – this was a day before his sister Irma’s deportation and just two days after the very first transportation of German Jews (from Berlin) to Theresienstadt, and carried 50 mostly elderly or sick Jews – all of them perished in the Holocaust. Between then and liberation on 15 April 1945 the SS and police authorities deported around 58,000 Jews there from Germany.

Hans’s address on the deportation list is given as Thorwaldsenstrasse 5, where he and Vera moved in on 22 December 1938 along with their children. He and Vera had separated in 1941, though on amicable terms. Vera is also shown as living from this address, but I have discovered that this is incorrect. It is possible that Hans was moved to another location – perhaps the Jewish hospital where his sister Irma had been placed.

Deported: Emma Abstein, Franziska Arndt*, Philipp Batscha*, Mina Bergmann*, Marie Bernheim*, Franziska Brückner*, Regina Renate Brückner*, Siegfried (Itzig) Cohn*, Dr Julius Fackenheim, Helene Feibusch*, Klara Fischer*, Jacob Franc, Babette Grünfeld*, Hilda Gundelfinger, Samuel Gundelfinger*, Benjamin Hammelbacher, Minna Hirschberg, Emanuel Kocherthaler (he was blind, like Hans), Rosa Kocherthaler, Gerson Landmann, Sofie Landmann, Erna Marx, Friedrich Siegmund*, Salomon Leonhard Mohr*, Vally Philippine Neubauer*, Hans Neumeyer, Paula Neuwirth, Rosa Rebekka Neuwirth, Berta Offenstadt, Julius Joel Offenstadt*, Berta Okuniewski*, Maria Oppenheimer*, Johanna Pollak, Rosalie Karolina Preuss*, Eugen Josef Reis*, Samuel Abraham Sandbank*, Sara Sandbank, Selma Susi Schlorch*, Lina Schloss*, Alice Henriette Schmidt (noted as having to pay a ‘voluntary’ contribution of 10,000 Reichsmarks on 28 January 1942 to finance the Milbertshofen concentration camp near Munich), Artur Schoenberg, Evelyne Schoenberg*, Isabella Swed, Klara Stein, Marja Wadler*, Enslein Weikersheimer*, Louise Weil*, Sophie Weil*, Jeanette Weiss (* denotes address as 5 or 7 Hermann-Schmid Strasse, the Jewish hospital where Irma, Hans’s sister, was residing; see below).

Some of those deported from Munich to Theresienstadt with Hans Neumeyer (Stadtarchiv München)

Hans died on 18 May 1944 – this was strangely timely, as it may have saved him from the ordeal of Auschwitz. The Nazis had been preparing Theresienstadt for a visit by the Red Cross on 23 June, and in preparation for this event between 15 and 18 May deported 7,503 prisoners to Auschwitz to lessen overcrowding. The Red Cross visit was a propaganda coup for the Nazis, which completely took in the Red Cross: weak prisoners were screened from view, a football match with cheering crowds was put on for the benefit of the visitors; children were fed up and told to look happy; prisoners beautified the camp with gardens and rehearsed the opera Brundibár, composed by the prisoner Hans Krása (who was quite possibly one of Hans’s musical acquaintances); housing was painted up and presented as a ‘model village’. The Red Cross departed with the illusion that Theresienstadt was a safe, benevolent haven. Most of those Jews forced to stage this sham presentation of ‘normal life’ were taken to Auschwitz immediately afterwards and murdered there.

A prisoner’s drawing of inmates in the sick bay in Theresienstadt. The blind man third from the right in the bottom corner resembles Hans.

Irma Kuhn: my great-aunt – 5 June 1942 to Theresienstadt, transport II/03

Irma is the mystery character of the four family members to have been deported. Born on 13 August 1874 she was one of two sisters of my grandfather Hans Neumeyer – nearly 13 years his elder. My mother hardly spoke about her although my uncle Raymond can remember her reading them bedtime stories, and she did make visits to the Neumeyers in Dachau. In 1899 she married Heinrich Kuhn, and they first lived in Grünstadt, Pfalz before moving to Munich; he died in 1924 when she was 50. She subsequently moved to the Alpine resort of Garmisch, where her sister Betty Braun lived but in 1935 moved back to Munich. Betty herself was forced to leave home.

Writing to her children – my mother and uncle – in November 1939, my grandmother Vera records visiting Irma and reading the children’s letters to her.

Her deportation on transport II/03 took place just a day after her brother Hans had been taken to the same place. The Stadtarchiv München provides a transport list of her deportation: most deportees have a photograph, but there is none for Irma. She is described as 90% blind – so in Theresienstadt she may well have been put among the other blind people, including Hans. It seems likely that she tried to meet up with him if they were not put in the same place – but Theresienstadt was a huge ghetto, and finding someone in the chaos might have been extremely difficult. She lived there for eleven months, dying on 14 May 1943. None of the other 50 deportees survived.

Deported: Elisabeth Bach*, David Anton Beck*, Johanna Beck*, Henriette Blum, Pauline Brader, Flora Fromm*, Klara Gärtner*, Ludwig Gerngross, Mathilde Gruber*, Flora Grünsfelder, Dr Josef Gunzenhäuser, Henriette Gutmann*, Ida Hellmann*, Ludwig Herz*, Johanna (Jeanette) Hiller*, Rosa Hiller*, Alfred Hönigsberger*, Berta Jordan*, Moritz Kugler*, Rosa Kugler*, Mathilde Kirschbaum*, Emil Eliahu Kuhn, Irma Kuhn*, Wilhelm Lewes*, Hermann Liebmann*, Irma Bernhardine Löwenstein*, Sophie Löwenstein*, Pauline Machol*, Melanie (Malwine) Marx*, Eduard Neuhöfer*, Hugo Oestreicher*, Amalie Oettinger*, Dr Leopold Pappenheimer, Anna Charlotte (Lotte) Parisian*, Charlotte Perutz, Berta Reizenstein*, Anna Loba Ripstein (also Rybsztein)*, Gittel (Gisela) Rosenfeld*, Berta (Belka) Schnapp, Heinrich Schnapp*, Martin Schwarz*, Ludwig Sinn*, Karolina Sommer*, Selma Sonder*, Abraham Thau*, Elise Emma Wahle*, Julie Katharina Weiss*, Joseph Werner*, Regina Wolpe* (* denotes address as 5 or 7 Hermann-Schmid Strasse, the Jewish hospital where Irma was residing).

Some of the other deportees who travelled with Irma from Munich to Theresienstadt on 6 June 1942 (Stadtarchiv München)
General view of Theresienstadt – an 18th-century walled barracks town used by the Nazis as a prison ghetto and holding camp. During the war 33,000 inmates died there, mostly from malnutrition and disease. Many more were taken from there to death camps such as Auschwitz and Treblinka.

The Jewish hospital and nursing home: Hermann-Schmid Strasse 5&7, Munich

We have three addresses for Irma in 1935-36: she moved from Garmish to Römerstrasse 1 on 18 March 1935; then to Reichenbachstrasse 27 on 1 June 1936; then an old people’s home – IKG Altenheim – at Klenzestrasse 4 where she was from 31 July 1936. From 13 June 1941 she was living in the Israelitisches Kranken- und Nuristerheim (Jewish hospital and nursing home) , a hospital for elderly Jews at 7 Hermann-Schmid Strasse, Munich, and it was from there at the age of 77 that she was deported with the other residents to Theresienstadt on 6 June 1942. This hospital was founded in 1910 on the adjacent site, 5 Hermann-Schmid Strasse, and was later enlarged. Until 1933 all denominations were allowed in; after that time Jews were not allowed in state-run hospitals, and after the Kristallnacht of 1938 the Gestapo made sure that only Jews would use the building. Its closure in June 1942 saw all the patients, as well as the doctors and nurses, taken to Munich’s Südbahnof for deportation. The buildings were destroyed by allied bombing in 1944.

Vera Charlotte Neumeyer: my grandmother – 13 July 1942, to Auschwitz or Warsaw

My family’s information received in 1945 and assumed correct until two years ago was that Vera was deported to Piaski, from where she was probably taken to the nearest death camp, Majdanek. But recent evidence has turned that upside down.

According to the Stadtarchiv München, of the 35 transports from Munich during the war, 30 were to Theresienstadt, two to Auschwitz, one to Piaski, one to Kaunas and one to ‘East (Auschwitz)’. The last-mentioned is an unknown quantity, and is the train Vera travelled on. Immediately after the war it was announced she went to Piaski – but that was the train in April 1942 she was originally intended for. Following an appeal, her departure date was postponed until 13 July 1942, and there were no trains to Piaski from Munich then. I’ve been looking for years for the answer, and I think this is the closest we can get. For more on this see my previous post which includes her letter written on the train. In her letter she describes being taken in a truck to the freight station. The Stadtarchiv München explains that apart from the very first two deportations, all the trains left either from the main railway station or from Laim freight station – that tells us she left from Laim (marked on the map, above).

So what we now know is that she definitely didn’t go to Piaski or Theresienstadt, despite what some other official archives say. There was a veil of secrecy around Auschwitz, and it is very possible that for that purpose the authorities did not want the destination known.

The deportees

As with many other transports, the number was exactly 50. The Stadtarchiv München gives the addresses of all of them. I have grouped them into where they were deported from.

Four people are shown with other addresses, but like Vera the record may be incomplete and they may have spent their final days in either the Sisters of Mercy monastery or Milbertshofen:

Franz Brach (Wagnerstrasse 3 – IKG apprentice home / overnight accommodation); Walter Faust; Fritz Kupfer (interned in Dachau concentration camp August 1936 to March 1937 in 1940 he did forced labour with the paving master Alfred Mayer; his parents were deported to Theresienstadt six days after Hans Neumeyer, where the father only survived a few weeks; his mother was murdered in Treblinka); Malwine Emilie Katharina Porsche.

Deportees from the Sisters of Mercy monastery, Clemens Auguststrasse 9

According to the Munich archive, 30 were taken from Clemens Auguststrasse, Berg am Lein, the monastery of the Sisters of Mercy, used as a prison and evacuated by the Geheime Staatspolizei München that day. Vera is not listed among them; instead her address is given as Thorwaldsenstrasse 5, where she had been living since 22 December 1938 with the Köbner family. This was the address from which she and Hans wrote to their children in England, and was the official address for all correspondence, apparently right up to 1942.

However, in her letter sent three days before deportation she writes ‘Onki is here’, referring to the family’s good friend and former lodger Julius Kohn. The Munich archive gives his final address from 29 March 1942 as here – Clemens Auguststrasse 9. So that tells us that Vera was here too:

10 July 1942

I am very well. It has proved very advantageous that I know so many people here. They are just wonderful. I experience over and over again the good that this community brings – giving us a strength that is so rare in these times.

Yesterday I handed the copy of my application to a higher ranking Gestapo official. I wonder whether Dora’s visit was successful. [This probably means Vera’s sister was trying to help lodge an appeal on Vera’s behalf].

Don’t worry if you can’t do anything to help – I believe that I won’t be miserable. I’m learning Polish from the girls and we are very well looked after. I’m also getting some provisions for the trip, and am eating up all the sausages, butter and eggs we have in the meantime. I’ve also got sugar cubes and soap powder.

We’re leaving on Monday morning. Onki is here, but put on reserve. Now follows some names of friends who will be deported next week. [Unfortunately the list of names is missing.]

Julius Kohn was deported eight months later, on 13 March 1943, in a cattle truck to Auschwitz. The Sinti and Roma gypsies from Munich were also deported on that train.

On the eve of departure Vera writes (to Dela, Hans’s secretary):

Darling, thank you for all your efforts. I know you have tried everything and failed, and suffered in trying to achieve it. Thanks to Dora [Vera’s sister] too. I cannot and do not wish to write to anybody any more.

Surely there will also on this transport be a number of people to whom I can give support. The thought of this gives me strength, but requires me to be self-composed.

Please let everyone know. Things are so difficult for you now. I am with you, with a thousand good wishes and love that will last forever. And we shall see each other again.

Dela responds on the day of deportation that she has spoken to a couple of the people she was with, indicating that it was possible for Dela to visit Vera there:

So everything has been in vain, this morning was the departure I spoke today to two people who have also been with her a lot – she has always been brave and collected. But it’s hard, very difficult, harder than it was then! but do not say that to your father. She has sent me two more letters – I will enclose a copy for you and also send copies to your father and sister.

Your visit to Munich, though unsuccessful, was not in vain. Vera knows you’ve tried everything and that certainly means a lot to her. For the time being, we do not yet know where the journey is going, but I’ll have that as soon as possible and will of course give you an instant message. And there are very nice people here who will not forget her. As soon as you know the address, we will send all her parcels and if I am not here anymore, it will be made sure that friends will take it in their hands.

Herr W will leave on Thursday, and I will not be able to see him any more, nor will my friend, who has become dear to our hearts. [See note below.]

She and Vera, these were the two people here who were close to me. Herr W. and my friend will probably come home – as well as Rebekkus [an unknown person, who is mentioned elsewhere and was also in danger], whose departure has been postponed and who didn’t go with Vera.

To read the original letters in German, click here.

Identifying Herr W

Just as I was finalising this blog post, I looked in the Stadtarchiv München for departures on the following Thursday – 17 July 1942 – to see who Vera was referring to in the letter above as Herr W. I found the answer instantly: Alois Weiner, born in Labetin, Bohemia, 6 December 1892 – interestingly the only person on that train who does not have a link to a detailed record. This may be because he was a rare survivor of Theresienstadt. According to an article in the Suddeutsche Zeitung, he was made to work at Lohhof flax factory before deportation – but the article gives the deportation date as November 1942, which is clearly incorrect.

After the war, he returned to life in Moosburg (the only Jew to return to the Freising district, northeast of Munich, after liberation), where he had run a large store selling textiles until moving to Munich in 1937. He resumed work at the textile store and used his savings to support an orphanage, two houses for the poor, an old people’s home and a welfare office and died in 1953. An obituary stated ‘he acted honestly and fought for humanity and human dignity’.

Alois wrote to a mutual family friend Gustav Güldenstein in July 1946 with the news that Hans Neumeyer had taught Czech music students in Theresienstadt and died there.

Hans Neumeyer (left) and Gustav Güldenstein in Garmisch in 1930

In the letters my uncle Raymond wrote to my mother about Alois, it seems that Alois was a stranger to them (he wrote in 1946 that Alois Weiner ‘seemed very nice and I too feel that he might become as good friend of ours as he has been of our parents’. I think what happened was that Vera met Alois in the Sisters of Mercy Chapel, saw him as a trusted person, and asked him to look out for Hans in Theresienstadt. This he did, and Hans told him to make contact, if he survived, with Gustav Güldenstein – who had been the whole family’s contact point in Switzerland during 1939-40.

Letter to Gustav Güldenstein, 1946, from Alois, explaining that his great friend Hans Neumeyer perished in Theresienstadt, where he had taught Czech music students.

Alois had served in the First World War, and was a member of the SPD as well as a local councillor – so as a Jew and a socialist he would have been in great trouble in the Third Reich. After his marriage broke up he narrowly avoided the charge of racial disgrace of having an affair with his Aryan accountant. In May 1942 he converted to Catholicism: he may well have been one of the substantial Christian community in Theresienstadt headed by such figures as Walter Hirschberg, who was friends with my great-grandfather Martin Ephraim (also in Theresienstadt – see below).

When working in Germany as an interpreter for the Military Police in 1945-46, Raymond (Hans and Vera’s son; my uncle) was in touch by letter with Alois after the war and indicated in one letter to my mother that he was intending to visit him.

I have made an 11-minute presentation on YouTube about how I found out about the link to Alois Weiner: click here to view.

The other 30 deportees were: Alwine Altmann; Hedwig Bloch; Gretchen Dillenius; Luise Jeanette Einstein; Metha Filip; Paula Flank; Martha Bravmann; Samuel Bravmann; Siegbert Bravmann;  Therese Gutmann (father was a privy councillor, and brother the composer Pal Ben-Haim, 1897-1984, worked with the conductor Bruno Walter and lived in Israel); David Herz (tried in vain to emigrate to USA, but his son Herbert managed to do so in 1940, via Panama, and thence to  New York – died in 1999); Klara Herz (wife of David Herz); Hanna Holzer (forced in December 1938 to leave Freising, where Stolpersteine were laid for Hanna and her family); Ilse Holzer (daughter of Hanna Holzer; music teacher); Ernestine Löwenherz (husband was murdered at Buchenwald);  Alma Rothmann; Esther Lea Sondhelm (mother and husband deported to Piaski and murdered); Jakob Paul Sondhelm (owned Jakob Paul Sondhelm metal company and fought in First World War); Dr Joseph Waldner (studied at the Academy of Music 1912-1921; pianist and expert on opera, particularly Wagner; after 1934 he was the musical director of the puppet stage in the Jüdischer Kulturbund in Munich); Max Weikersheimer; Selma Weikersheimer; Isabella Weil; Julius Weil;  Eugenie Weinschenk; Edgar Weiss;  Elise Wolf;  Ernst Wollner.

The Sisters of Mercy Monastery, Clemens Auguststrasse 9

The monastery at this address, where Vera, Alois and Julius were imprisoned was called Barmherzigen Schwestern, or Sisters of Mercy. The city’s second largest camp for Jews awaiting deportation, it comprised two floors of a building belonging to the monastery. Many of those placed there had to do forced labour, and living conditions were extremely cramped and basic – sisters from the monastery did their best to alleviate the general stress. Deportations took place regularly, as did suicides. Else Behrend-Rosenfeld (1891-1970), a former SPD member and a Jew, acted as a social worker for Munich’s Jews from 1938 to 1942, and was involved with this ‘camp’; she recorded in her diary on July 26, 1942: ‘My life has become hell; I just drag myself through the days with difficulty.’ She hid for two years in Germany before escaping to Switzerland in 1944.

Deportees from the Flachröste Lohhof

Seven people were Poles taken from the Flachsröste Lohhof, a flax-processing factory 30km north of Munich in Unterschleissheim – where they had been undertaking forced labour. In the letter she wrote on the train, Vera mentions taking Polish lessons from some of the Poles in preparation for what she thought would be a new life in a work camp in Poland. The seven Poles were: Syma Bainberg; Chana Blumenfeld; Zelda Bonkowska; Proja Buchhalter; Fajgla Choina; Jenta Fuks; Surah Orenstein.

The flax-processing factory opened in 1935 and operated until 1945. At first prisoners of war worked there; from 1941 the workforce  comprised mostly Jewish women from Munich, in addition to about 68 women from the Lodz ghetto in Poland; by the end of March 1942 all the Jewish women had either been deported or removed elsewhere, and replaced by older mixed-marriage Jews.

Jewish  civilians and prisoners of war were forced to work there. They had to pluck the flax, soak it in cold water to soften it up, loosen the fibres from the woody core and chop them up for processing into yarn which was used for a variety of purposes – including tents and ropes for the Wehrmacht and from it oil was extracted for use in the German navy.

They were given a very meagre pay or else nothing in return for the rough existence that constituted ‘board and lodging’, and regularly beaten by the foremen and by the German women who worked there. The manager would select older forced labourers for deportation. By autumn 1942 the Jewish forced labour was disbanded and replaced by workers from elsewhere.

Conditions for those forced to work here were harsh in the extreme. Some 90 workers were housed in a barracks on site but others had to travel in – they were not allowed to ride the tram, so had to undertake a long walk: some Jewish forced labourers travelled from Milbertshofen. One survivor reminisced that she had to walk five to six hours in addition to the long working day. ‘In the evening I just fall into bed, I’m so tired. Hopefully it won’t take too long, because I can’t go on for much longer.’

Deportees from Milbertshofen

The barrack camp known as Judensiedlung Milbertshofen at Knorrstrasse 148 was erected by Jewish forced labourers in March 1941, using city funds for the construction costs, but the Jewish Cultural Community had to pay for each inmate, and those interred were required to make a ‘voluntary donation’. The camp was designed as a ghetto to take Jews who had been thrown out of their homes to free up accommodation for party members and other ‘deserving cases’. Its 18 wooden barracks were intended for 1,100 prisoners but was often overcrowded, with 1,376 crammed in at its peak. On arriving, Jews were searched and relieved of their valuables. Later in 1941 deportations to Auschwitz, Theresienstadt and Riga began from the camp, which closed in August 1942, after which it was used by BMW to accommodate forced Italian labourers.

Eight were taken for this deportation from Milbertshofen: Dr  Julius Hechinger (lawyer, apparently emigrated to South Africa in December 1935 but returned; his son emigrated to USA in 1941 but died February 1944 in US army in Italy; formerly at the Jewish hospital,  Hermann-Schmid strasse 7); Isabella Bertha Hummel;  Sara Gitla Prajs (one of the 68 Polish Jewish women from the Lodz ghetto who had to do forced labour in the Flachsröste before  being transferred to Milbertshofen – she was severely ill-treated there by the SA men from the Aryanization office: her hair was shaved, she was hosed down with cold water and forced to sleep in the camp’s own death chamber); Erna Ester Rubin (her husband was probably interned for a period in Dachau; he also perished in the Holocaust); Else Samson; Wilhelm Samson;  Malchen Schülein; Markel Slonimszky; Therese Sternglanz.

The deportation

The deportees were taken in a truck to a goods rail station in Munich. The transport was designated as a ‘penal transport’. It is not at all clear why Vera should have been assigned to it – perhaps it was just to make up the numbers to a round 50 passengers, as was the total for many transports. Of those 50, 16 were annotated with ‘St’, denoting an enemy of the state.

Vera also mentions in that letter three of the passengers in her compartment:

I occupied a corner place next to the dear Frau Professor Porsche, the widow of a well-known painter, a cultivated and very nice Austrian who attached herself to me on the first day. Opposite me sit the Samsons.

Frau Porsche (mistyped as Prosche in the version we have) was Malwine Emilie Katharina Porsche: the ‘St’ for ‘enemy of the state’ has been written next to her name on the deportation list. Born in Hungary in 1878, she was the widow of the (Aryan) artist Otto Maria Porsche (1858-1931). Less than three weeks after the Nazis were elected the largest party in March 1933, the Porsches moved from Lotzbeckstrasse 4 to Akademiestrasse 19.

By a remarkable coincidence, a day after I discovered Malwine’s entry and photograph in the Stadtarchiv München, I was contacted by Ronald Kammer, Malwine’s great-nephew, writing from Pennsylvania. He was thrilled to make the connection: he had never seen a photo of Malwine as an adult and had been led to believe by information at the US Holocaust Museum that she perished at Theresienstadt – ‘it brought tears to my eyes’. All he had were family photos from his grandmother’s album – his middle name, Melvin, is a tribute to Malwine, Ronald’s father’s favourite aunt.

(And in another wonderful coincidence, Ronald read the entry in my blog about the Neumeyer’s friends and neighbours, the Wallach family, and told me his mother was great friends with the daughter of Julius Wallach. His family – the Boths, as well as the Wallachs and the Neumeyers all in the early 20th century owned large stores in Munich, so they may have all known each other as prominent figures in Munich’s commerce in decades past.)

Vera and Malwine seemed to have formed a bond. One speculates if they kept together to the very end. If the train went to Auschwitz, they would have suffered the same fate as other Jews who had started to be brought there in huge numbers – taken to the gas chambers, told to undress and leave their possessions outside so they could collect them later, then locked inside for a terrible final few minutes.

The likely alternative was the huge ghetto in Warsaw – the largest of all the Nazi’s ghettos. Just over a week later, trains began to take Jews in cattle trucks in to the newly finished concentration camp of Treblinka. The gas chambers struggled to cope with the vast numbers who were arriving daily, and many Jews were shot on arrival.

Ronald sent me copies of the other pictures below:

The Samsons, who sat opposite Vera and Malwine in the train, were Wilhelm Samson, a trader born in 1877, and his wife Else (née Lauchmeier), born 1887. They had lived in Munich since moving there from Stuttgart in 1919; their last address was Rumfordstrasse 8; they were forced to work at the Lohhof flax factory. (Stadtarchiv München)

Martin Ephraim: my great-grandfather – 10-11 January 1944, to Theresienstadt, transport I/105

The cultured, patriotic Martin was a great benefactor, who retired from the extremely prosperous family iron business in Görlitz back in 1911 and eleven years later moved to Schreiberhau (Szklarska Poreba, now in Poland). For years he did not believe that Germany could possibly descend to the depths he did, despite his Jewish status. Eventually, though, he decided it would be safer to move to Berlin as he was too conspicuous in Schreiberhau.

Postcards written to a friend, Felix Hepner, in Vevey, Switzerland, show his Berlin addresses included at Heilbronner Strasse 28 during 1941, with someone called Friedman at Mosel Strasse 10 in 1942, and with Dr Ziegelroth in Prinz Handjery Strasse 76 in 1943. Outside the last of these addresses is now a memorial Stolperstein to one Klara Blumenfeld (née Nussbaum, born 1856), who was deported to Theresienstadt on 28 May 1943 and perished that year on 2 August.

In 1943 he was moved into room 261 of the Jewish Hospital, in Iranischer Strasse – not for medical reasons but because it was used as a holding place.

Here Martin spent his last days before being deported. His daughter (and my great aunt) Marianne (‘Tante Janni’) wrote a note about this period. (Click here for the original text in German; note this is from a photocopy and one or two words off the right margin are not visible – I do not possess the original document.) What we get is an impression of someone loyally German and stubbornly unable to believe what was happening in the outside world:

“In his little bedroom in the Jewish hospital, Iranischer Str 2, with the window barred with wood with almost no view after the constant air-raids, in the far north [of Germany], during the coldest winter in 34 years, he was an example of courage and calm. “I can console others on the way and so will have something to do”, he said, as an admiring nurse wrote to me afterwards.”

Martin and Hildegard Ephraim, around 1930
Martin and Hildegard Ephraim, around 1930

‘He never wanted to leave his beloved homeland, despite multiple invitations from his son Herbert in America. “I was born here, and I will die here too!” was his constant refrain. And also in his pride he did not want to be dependent on anyone. Meanwhile he did not even receive his small pension from the ironworks any more.’

‘When someone hinted at the atrocities of the Nazis, he always answered ‘That is surely exaggerated. A GERMAN WOULD NEVER DO THAT!’.’

‘In his child-like innocence, he saw only the good in others; his trusting nature could not even imagine the possibility of such crimes on the part of German people!’

‘All his care and love was for us, his children and grandchildren. Many people came to him full of sadness, to ask for his advice and help, and poured their hearts out to him! He helped them all patiently, with words and deeds. What he promised, he did, reliably and punctually. He kept  things in scrupulous order, so that everything was always immediately dealt with.’

The Jewish Hospital in Berlin around 1930
The Jewish Hospital in Berlin around 1930

Remarkably, the Jewish hospital in Berlin survived the war and still stands, complete with inscription “Krankenaus  der Judischen Gemeinde,” (Hospital of  the Jewish Community). On Kristallnacht there seems to have been a deliberate policy not to damage the building. In May 2014 I went to the address and imagined him peering out of a window into the street outside.

Even more remarkably, there were 800 Jews still living inside the hospital near the end of the war. Daniel Silver’s book A Refuge in Hell gives the full story. See also

Martin’s wife Hildegard died in 1932, a year before Hitler’s rise to power. What a tragedy that Martin did not end his days that same year instead of having to suffer a ten-year slide into oblivion.

The deportation

Some Jews survived the entire war in that hospital, but at the age of 83 Martin was deported on 10 January 1944 on transport I/105 – the Roman numeral I denotes Berlin. This was one of the 123 Alterstransporte – deportations of the elderly. On board were 352 or 353 Jews, five of them under 18, and 208 over 60. They included Jews who had married Aryans.

The train travelled through the night, via Dresden and Aussig, arriving on 11 January. In Theresienstadt many of the older people, including Martin, died of disease or starvation in the appalling conditions. Others were taken to death camps such as Auschwitz.

Martin survived less than three months in Theresienstadt. In an earlier post I have featured his weeks in the ghetto, as described by his friend Walter Hirschberg. His date of death is recorded as 6 April 1944.

A complete list of those deported on this transport can be seen here.

The Jewish family businesses

Money wasn’t a commodity we had a lot of when I was growing up, and my mother in particular found ostentation and money somewhat distasteful. She tended to  distance herself from the  fact that in the early 1900s our German ancestors were considerably wealthy. But her attitude was that the money had gone. That’s it. It was only money, anyway.

Nathan Neumeyer (1843-1923)


Nathan in old age, early 20th century

Hans Neumeyer’s father – my great-grandfather – was a bit of a mystery man. He died the same year my mother was born, so she told me very little about him. The only tangible evidence of his existence as I grew up was the silver napkin  ring that was always part of our family table settings. It is inscribed NN 1872-1897 – marking Nathan’s silver wedding date – he’d married Frieda Gutmann from Wassertrüdingen in Bavaria in 1872. It’s now in the Imperial War Museum archives:

Nathan Neumeyer napkin ring

Nathan Neumeyer’s napkin ring, dated 1872-1897, marking his silver wedding with Frieda.

Then a few weeks ago I came across this trading stamp on the internet, and bought it off a dealer in Germany. It depicts the business owned by my great-grandfather Nathan Neumeyer.Nathan Neumeyer advertising stamp_20180313_0001

All I knew about  him was that he ran this clothing and tailoring business in the middle of Munich, and was Jewish.

We have one photo of his shop, clearly identifiable in the stamp above. He and Frieda had four children: Hans, Irma, Betty and Eugen (the latter died in childhood). We don’t have any other record of his life other than that, but we know Hans and his sisters Betty and Irma did not follow into their father’s business. Nathan appears in the photo below, along with his clothing store in, with (according to my mother, Ruth) his family members standing by the upper floor windows.

The building no longer stands; it was at the corner of Sendlingserstrasse and Hackenstrasse in the city centre – still the prime shopping area.

Irma is presumably one of the little faces in this photo but unfortunately we don’t have any other photographic record of her. She was born 13 August 1874 and lived at 9 Franz Josef Strasse in Munich; her husband Heinrich Kuhn from Grinstadt died in 1924. Known as ‘Tante Irma’ she visited Hans’ family in Dachau for Christmas during the 1920s. During the war she was living in an old people’s home at Hermann-Schmidt  Strasse in Munich. A day after her younger brother was deported, she was taken to Theresienstadt on 6 June 1942 (Transport II/3, no. 114) and died there the following year on 14 May.


Nathan Neumeyer’s clothing store in Munich, with his family members standing by the upper floor windows

The Ephraims’ manufacturing empire in Görlitz


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Previously I’ve written on this blog about my great-grandfather, Martin Ephraim, and his manufacturing empire in Görlitz, and the sorry tale of losing almost all the money from their mansion sale at the time of the hyperinflation in Germany.

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Lesser Ephraim

Lesser Ephraim born 1820 Posen Poznan died 1900 Jakobstrasse 5

Lesser Ephraim at an earlier stage in life

But the story begins with his father, Lesser Ephraim, born in Poznan in 1820, moved to Görlitz in 1852. There he founded Ephraim Eisenhandelsgesellschaft, a trading business in  assorted ironmongery. Business was brisk and he was soon supplying agricultural and commercial businesses. He broadened further into constructing railway tracks for the line to Berlin, and business spread far and wide. The original premises in Neissstrasse were outgrown, and he acquired a larger property at Jakobstrasse 5, in the centre of the city. The building is commemorated in stained glass in the villa that his son built . Both the villa and the Jakobstrasse house still stand – the villa as a youth hostel and the Jakobstrasse property, still with its golden gate monogrammed EG (Ephraim, Görlitz) now run as holiday apartments.

He was elevated to the rank of Kommerzienrat, though a document signed by Kaiser Wilhelm. We have loaned this artefact to the Kaisertrutz museum in Görlitz, as described in a previous post.

Lesser Ephraim donated to the Naturforschende Gesellschaft zu Görlitz (now the Senckenberg Museum of Natural History Görlitz) an important collection of molluscs he had purchased in 1873 from the estate of the jurist Carl Edmund Lepsius. These supplemented other items he had presented previously, including an albatross, a flamingo and a rare magpie, which the museum’s journal for 1865 explains were given by Lesser Ephraim “from whom the society has already received many rare and beautiful things”. 

While visiting Görlitz in 2014 for the ceremony of laying a Stolperstein outside the Ephraim’s factory manager’s house, we were presented with a facsimile of a commemorative booklet about the Ephraim business. The photos  inside  give an outstanding impression  of the factory (which still stands – now a recycling centre, although the Ephraim name has recently been removed) in its heyday:

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Hildegard Ephraim as a young woman

His son Martin, born in 1860, attended the Augustum grammar school and was then apprenticed to the business, and worked for several years in Belgium and England to hone his skills, during which time he became interested in arts and crafts. After he married Hildegard Rauthe, a Protestant, who was one of the first women to go to university, he  remained a member of the liberal Jewish community.

Martin  became a partner in the family enterprise in 1883 and took over at the age of 31. They lived in the family house in Jacobstrasse until he built the Villa Ephraim – the first Jugendstil (Art Nouveau) house in Görlitz. It still stands, spectacularly unchanged inside, and is now a youth hostel. 

Martin oversaw huge expansion of the firm, which acquired land around the railway, and included a railway siding. Iron constructions made by the Ephraim company were used in the town hall, brewery, barracks, hospital, city theatre and numerous other industrial and residential buildings, and he put money into rebuilding the railway station – which was on Ephraim land – as an impressive Jugendstil structure. He also made huge donations to Görlitz’s cultural scene, founding the Ruhmeshalle (Hall of Fame, in what is now called the Dom Kultury) and Synagogue, as well as promoting the Silesian Music Festival and giving support to local sports clubs.

Martin Ephraim was on the finance committee for the highly successful trade and industry exhibition in 1905.

Martin Ephraim was given the title of Kommerzienrat in 1903. He resigned from the business in 1911, and Max Lustig took over. 

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Ephraim factory in 1936-37 directory

So these were prosperous times for the Ephraims. They were very well known and highly respected in town, and lived very comfortably. Martin wrote out this family tree, going back to the 17th century, which gives us dates and names but nothing more: Friedle Moses (possibly lived in Wieleń/Filehne in Poland), Chaym Moses (1680-1732), Chaym Asch (1716-44), Joseph Wilhelm Ephraim (presumably the son of Chaymy Asch but we don’t know why the name Ephraim was apparently adopted; his long-lived wife Jitte(?) Wolf died in 1848 a day before her 105th birthday), Josef Ephraim (1761-1827), Mendel Josef Ephraim (1791 or 1785-1848), married to Hanna –  they had three children – Edward, Emanuel (1833-1905) and Lesser (1820-1900).

Martin's notes on Ephraim family tree1

Martin's notes on Ephraim family tree2Remarkably, Görlitz still has a Jewish cemetery, and what is even more striking is that on my visit I found it had survived apparently intact. And there it was: the grave of Lesser Ephraim and his  wife Henriette (née Philippson), neat and respectable, seemingly oblivious to the catastrophic fate of so many Jews many years after his quiet death in 1900:

Jewish cemetery Goerlitz

Lesser Ephraim’s grave in the Jewish cemetery in Görlitz

This photograph has no description on the back but my mother told me it was of Lesser Ephraim with his wife Henriette. There isn’t a strong resemblance with other pictures of him I’ve shown here, and I have not been able to confirm it is definitely him. If it is, then it is likely that the photo was taken in Görlitz.

The Ephraims’ car-rallying antics

On July 13-14 1909 Martin’s son (my great uncle) Herbert Ephraim gained fourth  place in a field of 23 in the Ostdeutsche Tourenpreisfahrt, a rally in eastern Germany, driving an Opel.  Two years later he took part in The Prince Henry Tour, an automobile race between Britain and Germany in honour of George V’s coronation. It started from Homburg on 4 July 1911 and finished in London on 19 July, with the British team victors. One of the drivers racing for Britain was the author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle: the story of Conan Doyle’s participation is recounted here.

The Prince Henry Tour was an automobile race organised by Prince Henry (Prinz Albert Wilhelm Heinrich von Preußen, 1862-1929). This tour was a gesture of sporting good will in honour of King George V’s coronation. Prince Henry participated to the tour himself. The race featured 37 German cars from the Kaiserlichter Automobil-Klub (mostly Opel, Benz and Mercedes) versus 28 British cars from the Royal Automobile Club.

Motoring historian Anders Clausager has also contacted me with more information. in 1906 Martin Ephraim took part in the Herkomer Fahrt, a motor rally in Germany, driving a Daimler. Anders thought it was most unusual for a German to have owned an English car, but it may have been to do with Martin’s previous travels in England.

Neumeyers in Herbert Ephraims car in Schreiberhau
Martin Ephraim in the front passenger seat of the family car at Schreiberhau. Behind them are Hans and Vera Neumeyer, clearly visible; the other passengers are unknown (as is the make of car).

A historic delve at the Wiener Library

Seventy-three years on: Ephraims’ postcards rediscovered

A few weeks back I made a visit to London’s Wiener Library, in Bloomsbury – a few paces from the British Museum (29 Russell Square; It owes its origins to  Alfred Wiener (1885-1964), who fought in World War I. He was an academic orientalist and secretary of a Jewish human rights group, and while in Berlin in 1928 he set up a collection of documents charting the development of anti-Semitism. It is the only Holocaust-related institution in the world that predates Hitler’s rise to power.

This was not originally intended as a library but his archive grew rapidly.  In 1933 he realised the danger to his family so moved to Amsterdam with his collection. Five years later he packed up the whole lot and moved it to London, where the Wiener Library opened in 1939.

The Tuesday tour

I was drawn to the place after Googling for Martin Ephraim and discovering that the library holds a number items of correspondence written by him during World War II from three addresses in Berlin.

I timed my visit with the highly recommended free Tuesday lunchtime tour of the establishment. Our volunteer guide Kerrstyn showed us  to the store rooms: a Hitler Youth colouring book, a Lyons tea sachet concealing a German resistance pamphlet, the family archive of the Neumann family in Essen with a certificate pronouncing the takeover of the  Jewish textile factory in 1938. We glimpsed shelves and shelves of this vast collection, including its archive of 17,000 photos.


In the reception hall is this hauntingly sinister board game from the Third Reich. Called “Juden Raus!” (Jews Out), it was manufactured in Dresden in 1936 and bears the legend in the bottom right-hand corner ‘”Auf nach Palӓstina!” (Begone to Palestine!). The rule state: “show your skill with the dice by collecting as many Jews as you can! If you succeed in chasing out 6 Jews you will be the unquestioned victor!”

During the war, Wiener arrived in England and was like many other alien Jews interred in the Isle of Man; meanwhile his parents were trapped in Berlin. He later joined the Home Guard in the Midlands and spent some time in the USA. He was involved in  working for the Jewish Relief Unit from 1946 to 1949 and it was not until 1947 that he found out about the deaths of his parents in concentration camps.

The library played an important part in the prosecution of Nazi war criminals in the Nuremberg Trials, and its resources were also used in the libel case against Holocaust denier David Irving in 2000.

Martin Ephraim’s missives

Ephraim postcards in Wiener libraryIt was quite something to handle these postcards (and one letter) last touched by a family member in the early 1940s. Dating from 1941 to 1943 they were all addressed to Felix Hepner at the Pension Beau Séjour in Vevey in Switzerland and written by my great-grandfather Martin Ephraim (presumably in that much-cherished fountain pen he kept in Theresienstadt only to lose it to another inmate who ended up on the special transport from there to Switzerland, as described elsewhere on this blog).

They appear to be thanks for various things sent, including tins of sardines and cocoa. In one card he says he knows the whereabouts of two of his daughters, but has no news of Vera (my mother’s mother, whose end in a Nazi concentration camp in Poland was not confirmed until after the end of the war).


The last known correspondence from Martin Ephraim, dated 20 December 1943. He was at the Jewish Hospital in Berlin, which astonishingly was in use until the end of the war. From here he was deported on 10 January 1944 to Theresienstadt, where he died in April of the same year.

The addresses are all from Berlin: Moselstrasse 10, Heilbronne Strasse 28 (marked “deportiert” – deported), Iranische Strasse 2 (the Jewish Hospital, described on the previous post in this blog, where he was until being deported to Theresienstadt). The last one, from the Jewish Hospital, room 261, is dated 20 December 1943.

He signs off: “Dein alter Freund, Martin” – your old friend, Martin. I’ve not been able to find out more about Felix and where he slots into the Ephraim story.

Martin Ephraim’s last days in Theresienstadt

A previously unpublished account of life in Theresienstadt: this is a translation of a document written by Dr Hans Walter Hirschberg, transcribed by Marianne Bisi, daughter of Martin Ephraim and sister of Vera Neumeyer (and my great aunt). Marianne, known to my family as Tante Janni, survived the war and lived in Berlin until 1973.

Dr Hirschberg was a friend of Martin Ephraim (my great-grandfather) and his family. He was born a Jew but converted to Christianity. On 10 February 1944 he arrived at Theresienstadt on transport number I/107 from Berlin. He led the Lutheran church within the camp and painted an altarpiece used by Protestants and Catholics. Following liberation he worked at Auschwitz gathering evidence and prosecuting Nazis.

Hirshberg had helped Jews in the underground movement, forging identity papers and helping them get across borders into neutral countries. He was also part of an international resistance movement against Nazis and Italian fascists. Nazis arrested him for his left-wing standing and political/resistance activities rather than for his Jewish background. Other survivors remembered him for his courage, empathy and composure.

This is one of two reports, and as it has more personal detail and seems to have been more intended for the family than the other report (featured previously on this blog), which was also deposited as a public record in Görlitz.

Marianne headed this as “Report of Herr Dr Hirschberg, state youth lawyer, about our beloved father Martin Ephraim’s last days in Theresienstadt, the infamous Nazi concentration camp for Jews, where he was deported on 10 January 1944 at the age of 84.” Salomon Goldschmidt, the trader, could be the same person described on page 19 of a website about his town Eberswalde, which describes a Salomon Goldschmidt (1874-1951) who was in Theresienstadt and was a trader from Eberswalde; his wife Emma died in the camp.

For the original version of the Hirschberg letter in German, click here.

Martin Ephraim

Martin Ephraim

“I arrived in Theresienstadt on 11 February 1944. One of my first calls was to your father. A human wreck staggered towards me. He had noticeably aged since I said farewell to him in the Jewish hospital in Berlin, little more than four weeks before. Above all he had lost his sense of humour, which had never left him in Berlin.”

The reference to the hospital in Berlin is something I’ll be looking at in a later post in this blog.

“The extraordinarily primitive standard of accommodation weighed particularly heavily on him. He was in a so-called sick bay of the Cavalry Barracks, where around 20 elderly men of various backgrounds lay in 2 rows of beds with scarcely 1m between them in a long, stretched-out room. Your father was near the window, so at least he had daylight, and he read enthusiastically. In Berlin, he had got to know again through me former friends from Eberswalde, Salomon Goldschmidt, a self-employed trader with intellectual interests, and his wife. I spent 19 February with them celebrating my son’s birthday and I still remember the joy with which your father consumed the ‘Leckerbissen’ and crispbread with honey I had brought.”


Theresienstadt’s spectacular desolation on my visit in 2001. The town was built as a barracks town in the 18th century and is still lived in, its star-shaped fortifications very much intact. During World War II it served as a Nazi camp, and some 150,000 were held there. Most either died of illness in the camp or were deported to Auschwitz, Treblinka or other extermination camps.

“I mention this to show how primitive the food was. I don’t want to say that we were being systematically starved. But the rations were hardly sufficient for the elderly even with strong stomachs, as they had their food allocated, while those capable of work were accordingly better provided for, and everyone who could collect their own food from the mess had the opportunity to get ‘seconds’ and leftovers.”

“Some time after my arrival I noticed a kind of loss of the will to live in your father. Without any medical reason that I could identify, he stayed in bed and told me that the doctor had advised it, and also that he did not really have any wish to go out any more. A little parcel – from one of you [his daughters Dora and Marianne], if my memory is not mistaken, or from Fraulein Rena [Serena, daughter of Marianne], brought him great joy.”

receipt for packet for Ephraim in Theresienstadt 1944

A receipt for a package received by Martin Ephraim in Theresienstadt on 31 March 1944. Might it be the one referred to in this missive from Dr Hirschberg?

“The last weeks passed waiting in vain for further signs of life. On his birthday, I believe, I found him out of bed for the last time and lying down with Goldschmidt, who was housed one level above him and who, as the oldest person in the room, had a little more space. Again I was able to contribute a little something to the day’s [catering?] arrangements.”


Abandoned rail tracks in Theresienstadt

The lost pen and the Salvation Train

In Theresienstadt, prisoners were not stripped of all their possession as they were in other camps. The fact that Martin Ephraim’s pen was so treasured hints that such items were surely key to retaining one’s identity.

He mentions Gernot: this is Martin’s nephew, and the son of Dora. He died with the German army on the Russian front.

I assumed at first that the reference below to ‘transport to Switzerland’ was a Theresienstadt joke meaning transport to Auschwitz though in fact there was an arrangement for 1200 prisoners to be released from Theresienstadt in 1945. This was orchestrated by the former Swiss president Jean-Marie Musy who negotiated with the German High Command to make a payment of 5 million Swiss francs that had been donated by Jews in the USA. The train (later to be known as the ‘Salvation Train’) departed on 5 February 1945 – the actual date ties in with Hirschberg’s account (click here for the full story):

“When I learned that your brother-in-law, Hans Neumeyer, was also in Theresienstadt, I visited him. He was in a room for those with lung diseases in quite a distant barracks and was bed-ridden. The two could not come to see each other. On his birthday I brought your father a very warm letter from his son-in-law. But then it became clear that he [Martin Ephraim] was rapidly going downhill. One day I heard, from asking about him daily, that he had just quietly died in his sleep (that must have been on 4 April, his sister Ida’s birthday M.B.) [note added by Marianne].”

“His remains had already been removed from the room, the belongings shared out, apart from those which Herr Weiner, an acquaintance of the Neumeyers from Munich, had taken. I took a picture of your father in his forties to bring to you. It was to be lost with a suitcase in Prague. He had entrusted his bed neighbour Seelig with his beautiful fountain pen, but at the last minute arranged for Seelig, who died a few days after your father, to pass the pen on to me. I was to use it but later give it to Gernot. It was quite likely that Gernot was no longer alive at the time. I kept the fountain pen for ten months. Then it needed some minor repairs. A specialist was recommended to me. He delayed the delivery. On 5 February [1945] I went to his accommodation. It was empty! He had been assigned for transport to Switzerland. I went to the place where those on the transport were gathered. With difficulty I found the guy. He was very embarrassed: ‘I cannot get to the pen just now, but I can give you this one as a substitute’. He gave me a really bad one. There was nothing to be done about it.”


The tragic story of the dumping of the ashes from the crematorium into the river, described below, is one of the much-cited anecdotes about Theresienstadt.


Alfred Philippson, the eminent geographer, who lost his job during the Third Reich. After the war he resumed his major work on Greek landscapes.

A happier ending awaited Professor Philippson, described at the end of this report. Alfred Philippson (1864-1953), was a distinguished geographer and geologist. He was also related to the Ephraims; Lesser Ephraim, Martin’s father, was married to Henrietta Philippson. While in Theresienstadt he wrote his memoir Wie ich zum Geographen wurde. 

For more about the Philippsons, click here.

“Frau Goldschmidt died a few days after your father, also without any particular illness being identified, and poor Neumeyer after a few weeks. I sent some women to read to him, but he was already too frail and sent most of the reading volunteers away without requiring their service.”


Inside the crematorium on my 2001 visit, I lit candles for my grandparents – Hans and Vera Neumeyer – and for Martin Ephraim. All perished in camps – Hans and Martin died here.

“I could not even pay my last respects to him, because I was not informed in time. On the other hand I was present at the cremation of your father. The naturally rather simple coffins, Jews and Christians in separate rooms in a double hall, were put on the bier next to each other and some acquaintances gathered around them.”

“The clergy performed the funeral rites according to the religious customs. Some men then lifted the coffins onto a cart that moved them to the crematorium. Outside the ghetto proper, there was an urn cemetery, with over 25,000 urns, which had to be thrown into the River Eger in the late autumn of 1944. This was one of the most barbaric of all SS orders.”

“I kept up your father’s tradition by visiting Professor Philippson, with whom I kept very much in touch towards the end.”

In June 1945 the city of Bonn picked him up in a private car. I had long-standing family relations with the Philippsons.

“Later I took part professionally in many funeral ceremonies. The Catholic community would recite the entire service during transports to the east. Then the Lutheran minister would take over. These were elderly men, who were strained in winter by these early-morning outdoor missions. Then I turned up and became, if I may say so myself, the winter organiser for both denominations…”


I have yet to uncover the details of Hirschberg’s work as a prosecutor after the war, but he later wrote this about his time in Theresienstadt:

One tenth of the Jews who had been interned there belonged to a Christian confession. Some were Protestants, some Catholics. Among these Jews, there was a group of Evangelical Jewish Christians from Holland, four hundred in number that distinguished themselves. They even had a Jewish Christian pastor with them. Many of our ‘church members’ had, although they had been baptized, never really considered being followers of Jesus until they came to Theresienstadt. But here, under the influence of God’s word, many of them were truly converted. Jews who had been Christians in name only became true Christians. Many Mosaic Jews and Jews who had no faith whatsoever found Jesus and were saved in Theresienstadt. I am one of the few survivors from the concentration camp in Theresienstadt. Most of my brothers went home to be with the Lord. But my Saviour saved me out of this camp so that I might proclaim the wonderful things that He performed among those who were in “the valley of the shadow of death.”

Life in Theresienstadt: a sword of Damocles

A public prosecutor recalls his friend Martin Ephraim and Hans Neumeyer while incarcerated in Theresienstadt camp in 1944. This is a hitherto unpublished report (translated by Phil Goddard) by Dr Hans Walter Hirschberg, a Berlin judge, inmate of Theresienstadt concentration camp from February 1944 to May 1945. He was a friend of Martin Ephraim, my great-grandfather.

For the original version in German click here.

Theresienstadt was in many ways a sham set up by the Nazis, partly to impress the Red Cross: many arriving Jews believed they were coming to some sort of Jewish retirement home, and handed all their money over for the privilege, with the option of having a room with a view over the park, or whatever. Some brought their evening dress. Only when they arrived did it become apparent that this was far from the case.

Yet Hirschberg’s report hints that some aspects were not so terrible at certain times: a view that seems hard to swallow now when it was seemingly hell on earth in so many respects. Hans Walter Hirschberg arrived at Theresienstadt on transport number I/107, which left Berlin on 10 February 1944. He played an active in Protestant church life in the camp and painted an altarpiece used by Protestants and Catholics. In 1945 he wrote an unpublished eight-page manuscript Christen im Ghetto (Christ in the Ghetto), explaining the close relations between Protestants and Catholics in Theresienstadt. “Every tenth prisoner was Christian. There were clearly no differences between Lutherans, Calvinists and Bohemian-Moravian Brethren. But also between Protestants and Catholics, fraternal unity was the rule. From the very first, every sect had made it a point to invite the others to their lecture evenings.”

Hirschberg begins:

I arrived in Theresienstadt on 11 February 1944 and of course went to find Martin Ephraim straight away. He had declined a great deal mentally since coming to Theresienstadt a few weeks previously, and had lost much of his freshness and initiative. This is the only explanation I can see for the fact it was not until several weeks later that he mentioned, almost in passing, that Hans Neumeyer was also in Theresienstadt.

Martin Ephraim May 1939 (2)

Martin Ephraim in the late 1930s

Shortly before Martin’s birthday on 23 March (he was so weak that he no longer went outside), I went to see Hans in the engineers’ barracks, part of which had been fitted out as a hospital for lung diseases. I found him to be typical of patients with serious lung problems. I introduced myself, and he was delighted to meet someone who showed such great sympathy for him; the only other person apart from me was Mr Weiner, from Munich. Hans wrote a few very warm words to Martin, which I handed over to him on his birthday, much to his pleasure.

Martin died on 4 April. I believe he was very depressed, though I think there is little point in enquiring about the cause of death when the patient is 84 years old.

Hans Neumeyer’s final demise

Although not an extermination camp as such, Theresienstadt was a point from where prisoners were regularly transported to Auschwitz and the gas chambers. In Theresienstadt, conditions were grossly overcrowded, and disease was rife. However, despite his blindness my grandfather Hans Neumeyer survived an extraordinarily long time there. He arrived on transport II/76 on 4 June 1942, on a transport bearing sick and disabled people, and lived until 19 May 1944, giving music lessons in exchange for food. He was known to his pupils as ‘The Professor’. Indeed music positively thrived here: there were regular concerts and an extraordinary range of talented musicians. Nearly all of them perished.

Hans Neumeyer

Hans Neumeyer

Hirschberg continues:

From then onwards, I often visited Hans. Although I have spent time with many tuberculosis patients, I did not suspect that he was so close to the end of his earthly life. However, he was becoming increasingly weak. The first few times we talked about music, but this soon became too much of an exertion, for him. He was sharing a room with about six men, and sometimes we all engaged in political discussions, but these made him irritable and often resulted in voices being raised. However, as far as I am aware, Hans did not suffer a great deal: he did not have the convulsive coughing and shortness of breath that are the usual symptoms of the final stage of tuberculosis, and this made me rather too optimistic about his overall condition.

is this man in Terezin Hans Neumeyer?

Inmates in Theresienstadt: a drawing by Leo Haas. I showed an earlier sketch for this drawing to my uncle, Raymond Newland (Raimund Neumeyer, son of Hans) who was certain that the man in dark glasses in the foreground is a depiction of the blind Hans Neumeyer himself. Hans survived two years in the camp, giving music lessons in exchange for food. The caption in the museum in Thereisenstadt describes the sketch ‘Those affected with a disease’, so it confirms that the scene is in a sick bay.

There were two women who went and read to Hans at my request, but they told me that he kept falling asleep, and with hindsight there was not much point in making these efforts at this late stage.

When I visited him one day in May, I found Mr Weiner very concerned about him, and he had deteriorated so much that I withdrew straight away. I believe he died on the following day. Unfortunately, Mr Weiner did not know where to find me, so he did not manage to tell me about the cremation in time.

In Theresienstadt, cremations were required to take place within 24 hours of death, so when I came to see Hans on the afternoon of that day, the bed was empty and the funeral had taken place a few hours beforehand. There is very little else I can say.

I  do not know how far Hans’ lung disease was a result of Theresienstadt or whether he was a direct victim of persecution. The healthcare was well organised, at least at the time when I arrived, when 10 per cent of all the inmates were employed in this area. The people with lung diseases were kept in beds with white sheets, and the “ward”, with its matron’s inspections and visiting times, was little different from an ordinary sanatorium.

Like many people, you may have been given the impression by propaganda, press coverage etc. that Theresienstadt was a hell, but that was not true of the time I spent there. It was intended as a model camp because foreign committees quite often visited it. There was a lot of pomp and circumstance put on for their benefit, but in fact this was not really necessary.

The worst thing about Theresienstadt was the mental aspect: the fact that we had been deprived of our freedom and there was a sword of Damocles hanging over us because we did not know what they were planning to do with us. We heard afterwards that they were planning to gas us all in April 1945. It was said at the camp commandant’s trial that he had made every effort to sabotage the gassing, but he was executed because he was accused of being responsible for the atrocities that took place in the small fortress 500 metres from Theresienstadt.

 “Paradise on earth; everything is relative”

sm Martin Ephraim's writing

This scrap of paper bears Martin Ephraim’s handwriting: 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 Dr Hirschberg: “This helped in Auschwitz, 1945.” The records show Hirschberg as a survivor at Theresienstadt, so I presume he went to Auschwitz in his role of public prosecutor.

Hirschberg returned soon after the war in the role of public prosecutor. I am not clear to whom he is addressing this, but the reference to Franz Kaufmann is interesting. This would appear to be the man who was responsible for underground activity in Berlin in assisting many Jews to escape the Nazis by providing them with false documents. Kaufmann was taken to Sachsenhausen in February 1944 and shot:

Today I met a former inmate of the camp who came to the east in the autumn of 1944 and was one of the few people to be saved. He said that in the eastern camps, Theresienstadt was regarded as a paradise on earth. Everything is relative.

I was often with your cousin Franz Kaufmann, latterly in the Jewish prison in Berlin where I spent my last ten days before being deported to Theresienstadt, and where he was held for interrogation. A few days after I arrived, he was taken off in chains and executed. He should be honoured as a martyr. We met in his apartment in 1940.

I have not experienced any anti-Semitism during my six-month stay. Most of the men look emaciated, though the women tend to be better off. We are also fact in winter and there is an unprecedented shortage of heating fuel. My salvation is my job as a public prosecutor working with young people, which gives me great pleasure, stops me from thinking too much, and takes my mind off the fact that my stomach is rumbling.

A note from Alois Weiner

Hirschberg mentions Alois Weiner in his report above. Weiner was from Moosburg in Bavaria, and survived Theresienstadt, returning to his home town after liberation in 1945, where he took part in the democratic reconstruction of municipality and became deputy mayor. Before the war he ran a textile store and was forced by the Nazis to divorce his Aryan wife. Among my mother’s papers  I found an account written in German by Weiner on 25 July 1946, addressed to Herr Gustav Guldenstein, of the Academy of Music in Basle, and a colleague of Hans Neumeyer. He describes Hans’ demise in Theresienstadt:

For Hans Neumeyer things were tough here because of his blindness and camp life was a heavy burden too.   At times he had 3-5 students, The Czech students who took lessons in composition from him had continued to support him with food.  But one day his lung trouble erupted and he was taken into the hospital and unfortunately had to breathe the air in the room. His final decline was rapid and he knew he was at an end. He died on May 18, 1944. As was the custom in Theresienstadt all that was left of him was taken to the cremation chamber. He was cremated on May 21.

© Tim Locke 

The Ephraim villa revisited

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As a poignant symbol for a loss in fortunes it’s hard to beat: this strange-looking mansion was the first Jugendstil (art nouveau) house to be built in Görlitz, when my great-grandfather Martin Ephraim (1860–1944) purchased land in Goethestrasse in 1905. He commissioned the architect Hugo Behr, who later was responsible for the city’s museum, the Oberlausitzer Ruhmeshalle, which Ephraim also funded in 1905.

An extravagant basket of cherries

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The villa, complete with prospect tower. When built it would have had a grand view over the town, but the trees have since grown up around it. My grandmother, Vera Neumeyer, saw it when travelling through the town on the train to a concentration camp in Poland. More on her last letter written on that train in a later post.

My grandmother Vera Ephraim grew up here with her two sisters (Dora and Marianne) and brother Herbert. The family were here until 1920, when they moved to their house in the mountains in Schreiberhau, and let out what’s now known as the Villa Ephraim.

Too bad they sold off the villa at the height of the German hyper-inflation in 1923: by the time the money came through it was, as family legend recounts, just enough to buy a basket of cherries. I remember as a small child my great aunt Marianne (‘Tante Janni’) recounting the story and reminiscing with great fondness of this place called Görlitz, wherever that was.

That astronomically costly basket of cherries always represented to me the point of no return: the spectacular blowing of a fortune amassed by shrewd Jewish businessman Martin Ephraim and his father Lesser Ephraim. They made railway components, bridges, agricultural products and more in the nearby factory, just a few minutes’ walk away, and still extant.

Martin’s wife Hildegard died shortly before the Nazis came to power. Martin, alas, did not – and the last eleven years of his life everything in his life imploded. He gave my mother a photo of him signed as ‘a souvenir of your grandpa’ the month she emigrated to England on the Kindertransport, and ended his days in the concentration camp of Theresienstadt.

The hall of the Ephraim villa when they lived there. It has changed little, apart from the removal of the furniture and of the painting seen at the top of the stairs.

The most beautiful hostel in the DDR

I made my first visit to Görlitz in 2001 and sought out the Ephraim villa. In the 1970s it became  ‘the most beautiful hostel in the DDR’, also remembered as ‘the house of a capitalist’. Later on it became known as ‘the house of a Holocaust victim’. Happily it’s still a hostel, open to all, and known simply as the Alte Herberge.

I was pleasantly startled by how little the interior must have changed over the years. The woodwork, stained glass, mosaic-inlaid columns, inlaid wood and twirly Jugendstil lamp fittings are all there. A copy of the portrait of Martin Ephraim (original painting now in the city’s main museum within the Kaisertrutz) gazed down benevolently on our family reunion party as we tucked into coffee and cakes in our revisit in 2014.

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The stained-glass panels depict the Ruhmeshalle (far left) as well as the former Ephraim residence (still standing, and now providing very characterful holiday apartments) in the centre of town.

Martin Ephraim, probably in the 1920s or early 1930s

It’s quite a surprise still seeing ‘ME’ – Martin Ephraim’s initials (pictured here) – in the door of the house where the Stadtkommandant of the German Army was based from 20 March to 7 May  1945 and which the Russians took over from 30 September in the same year. The three graces in the glass over the main staircase – I wonder if the Ephraims put them up with reference to their three daughters?

The warden, Herr Usemann, compiled a huge scrapbook of photos, articles and archival information about the Ephraim story, and we have a lot to thank him for keeping this story alive and telling it to thousands of young people who have stayed here and enjoyed the legacy of the Ephraims over the years.

Click here to read my article about the Ephraim villa, published in hidden europe magazine in May 2005.

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Our extended family meet-up at the Ephraim villa, with relatives from Dresden, Berlin, London and Erfurt, May 2014

Museum rejoices as documents come back to Görlitz 111 years later

I couldn’t have expected such a joyous reaction from the museum staff in Görlitz when earlier this May we returned some documents that have been lurking away in the family archives for many years.

Kaiser Wilhelm II signed this unmistakably Prussian-looking document bestowing the title of Kommerzienrat (Commercial Councillor) on Martin Ephraim on 16 May 1904, in the days when Ephraim was a very big cheese in town, building the railway station and an art gallery, as well as opening the synagogue. We also handed over a similar document for Lesser Ephraim.

Two of the documents bestow the rank of Kommerzienrat (Commercial Councillor) upon my great-great-grandfather Lesser Ephraim in 1875 and his son Martin Ephraim in 1903. They are signed at the Neues Palais in Potsdam by the respective Kaisers of the time –Wilhelm I and Wilhelm II.

Both of these Ephraims were successful industrialists who put Görlitz on the map. It seemed only right that these documents honouring their achievements should be kept in safekeeping in the town museum. Besides, recent visits of mice in our attic have persuaded me that the Kaiser’s signatures might not exist for posterity if we keep these imposing-looking bits of paper up there much longer.

sm Magistrate document 1903 Martin EphraimEphraim’s grand gesture: the Fröhlich Collection

What I hadn’t appreciated was the importance of the third, less spectacular-seeming document (pictured on the right) from the Magistrate in Görlitz, and written in very pleasing but totally impenetrable calligraphy.

Only when Kai Wenzel and Ines Anders of the town museum within the Kaisertrutz gave us a tour around their wonderfully reorganised collection did we get the story, that this was a thanks from the town to Martin Ephraim for his generous endowment of items for the museum. No wonder they were glad to have them: the document confirms the very setting up of the museum itself.

Martin Ephraim gave the hugely valuable Fröhlich Collection of art, applied art and peasant artifacts from Bautzen to the town. He also contributed to the funding of a purpose-built gallery, and purchased cabinets for it. The gallery – the Dom Kultury or Ruhmeshalle – still stands on the Polish side of town, in the part known as Zgorzelec. I wandered over the bridge and found it much as it looked on my previous visit in 2001: a huge neoclassical Tate Gallery of a place, except it’s totally empty. More about that in a future post.

All a bit sad, and I’m afraid a lot of the Fröhlich Collection that Martin Ephraim donated got swiped by the Nazis and then the Russians.

Happily a few things remain, within the museums that occupy the German side of town, including his portrait and a sculpture that stood in Ephraim’s villa grounds.

How pleasing, then, to restore something back to its rightful place.

What the Magistrate said

Ines Anders has sent me this transcription of the Magistrate’s document, evidently written in very formal German. The gist of it is that the Magistrate conveys thanks to Martin Ephraim for his charitable gesture in donating the  Fröhlich Collection of antiquities, arts and crafts, as well as the display cabinets, and that the town looks forward to the opening of the Kaiser Friederich Museum to the public.

Görlitz, den 6. Dezember 1903

Magistrat zu Görlitz

Journal  No. II 3406/03

Die durch die sachkundige Hand des Direktor Feyerabend vorgenommene Sichtung der von Ihnen dem Kaiser-Friedrich-Museum geschenkten Fröhlich´schen Sammlung kunstgewerblicher Altertümer und die verständnisvolle Vorbereitung zur Aufstellung in den außerordentlich zweckmäßig eingerichteten und für das Auge gefälligen, ebenfalls von Ihnen geschenkten Schränken bringt uns erst jetzt zum vollen Bewußtsein, welche wertvolle Bereicherung unser Museum durch Ihre Güte erfahren hat. Wir hoffen, dass in einigen Monaten die Aufstellung beendet sein wird und freuen uns schon jetzt auf den Zeitpunkt, in welchem wir mit einem würdigen Akt diesen Teil des Kaiser Friedrich Museums der Öffentlichkeit zugänglich machen werden. Einstweilen aber wollen wir es uns nicht versagen, Ihnen für Ihre auf dem Gebiete der Wohltätigkeit sowohl, wie auf dem der Kunst schon so oft bewiesenen gemeinnützige Gesinnung auch bei dieser Veranlassung herzlich zu danken

Signed by Oberbürgermeister Büchtemann and Bürgermeister Heyne

To see the Fröhlich collection of artisan antiquities you donated to the Kaiser-Friedrich-Museum, carried out by the expert hand of the director Feyerabend, and the installation in the extraordinarily functional and pleasing cabinets, which were also donated by you, bring us only now to full awareness of the valuable enrichment our museum has received from your kindness. We hope that the list will be finished in a few months and are already looking forward to the time when we will make this part of the Kaiser Friedrich Museum accessible to the public with a worthy act. For the time being, however, we wish to thank you warmly for your charitable spirit.

A Stolperstein for Martin Ephraim

stolpersteinOn 2 May in Görlitz, Gunter Demnig removed a cobblestone in front of a derelict factory manager’s house. In its place he inserted a simple memorial – one of well over 30,000 that he has created, in the form of a brass plaque called a Stolperstein – literally ‘stumbling stone’, a reference to a non-pc jest that if you stumble on a paving stone you have tripped over the grave of a Jew.

Thus was the simple commemoration of Martin Ephraim, my great-grandfather who made a huge contribution to the town in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, both commercially and culturally. He and his father Lesser Ephraim made their fortune manufacturing articles for the iron trade.

He endowed public buildings in Görlitz: the synagogue,  the railway station and an imposing neoclassical museum. I’ll explain shortly in this blog some of the discoveries we made, and a very special presentation we made to the town’s museum.

Masterpieces of understatement

The Stolpersteine have a hand-made, unofficial look to them: nothing sentimental – just the bare facts recorded:  Here worked Martin Ephraim, born 1860, deported 1944, Theresienstadt, murdered 6.4.1944. The actual date of deportation was 10 January 1944 – Transport I/105, no. 14368 from Berlin, which carried 366 elderly people to Theresienstadt.

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Gunter Demnig at the ceremony

They are humble, understated memorials, but at the same time permanent and moving. Once you have seen one, you can’t help noticing others. Demnig has installed them in numerous European countries. Wearing his trademark leather hat, he cemented this one in place while speeches were made.

My brother Stephen spoke for the family:

It is a great pleasure to be here in Görlitz today as a member of the British branch of Martin Ephraim’s family. My brother Tim is also here, and Nic the third brother, wishes he was but was unable to come from New York.

Martin Ephraim never knew about the families produced by his two grandchildren, Ruth and Raimund [Raymond] Neumeyer  after they migrated on the Kindertransport to Britain. But I am sure he would not have been surprised to see us here.

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Martin and Hildegard Ephraim. Martin was Jewish, and died in Theresienstadt camp in 1944; Hildegard died just before the Nazi era.

For many years, he appeared in our lives only as a sepia photograph sitting in the hall of our house in London – and as a family legend, famous both for being rich and successful and also for selling off his home in Goethestrasse during the great inflation of 1923 for a sum that was just enough to buy one basket of cherries the following day.

But gradually, with the passing of time, Martin Ephraim became a much bigger and more important figure – through for example the evidence of family relatives and through our mother’s comments as she became less reluctant to talk about the past, and most recently through the many documents we have found since our mother Ruth’s death in December 2012.

We owe a particular debt to Gunter Demnig for his excellent Stolpersteine initiative – not only for the way in which it commemorates the people who were taken away, but also for the way it has brought families together.

There are two messages that stand out for me from this experience, and which I would like to share with you. The first is that memories are important – without them we lose the vital connection with what has gone before. The second is that time is short – Martin Ephraim died eight years before I was born; this seemed a long time when I was young but now seems like nothing at all. Thanks to Gunter Demnig and to gatherings ceremonies like this one I feel closer to my great grandfather and his family than ever before.

The Stolperstein was placed in front of the manager’s house of the Ephraim factory. The house is now being refurbished as accommodation for retired people by local property developer Ronny Otto, who has created a great deal of social housing in the town.

Click here for a TV news item, including an interview with Stephen, by a local German broadcaster.

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The former Ephraim factory

A peek at the Ephraim factory

I wandered down behind the house, along a cobbled lane that leads into the industrial estate. The accounts department building is still there, and there at the bottom of the slope is the former Ephraim factory. Last time I was there the very Jewish name ‘Ephraim’ was still painted across the top. Astonishing it had survived the passage of time and the Nazi era in particular; now only an over-enthusiastic paintbrush removed it in the innocent smartening up of the building, now a recycling centre.

They made railway components here. My mother recalled having at their family house in Dachau a wonderful large model railway carriage, with opening doors and seats – I wonder whether if it was a commercial model produced at this factory.

Just two minutes’ walk away from this, in Goethestrasse, is the former Ephraim villa, the first Jugendstil (art nouveau) house in the town. It now functions as a youth hostel, and miraculously the interior, downstairs at least, is virtually unchanged – even the ME (Martin Ephraim) monogrammed glass is still set in the front door. More about that on a future blog post.

Words and photos ©  Tim Locke