My earliest memory of my father: his hand, slowly moving in front of my face, placing his cigarette case and some matches on the top shelf of his wooden bookcase. Being very small then, this placed them at my eye level. I remember his hand, and the sleeve of his tweed jacket. I must have been under 5 years old, as this was at our first house in Yorkshire.
It’s funny – having now read my grandmother and great-grandmother’s letters, with all the references to my dad and his cigarettes – to realise how long this habit had gone on. My mother always said he’d picked up smoking in the Army! However, he must have quit soon after this, as I have no recollection of him smoking.
Letter from Else, Gleiwitz, 2nd August 1939 Dear Werner, ... As to the cigarettes, my son, it is your own fault. I can’t save you from the blame. Why didn’t you ask before the event not after, because the cost of tax on them is prohibitive. That is why they were returned. Haven’t you been able to calm down the officials at the savings bank? Please write and tell us how often we are allowed to post goods, then you can receive a replacement. It has occurred to me that I wrote on ordinary paper instead of airmail. Did you have to pay extra for that? A fine? Are they being returned (the cigarettes) in a packet or singly? Father stopped smoking; he was only grumpy for the first four days ...
My second memory of my father is being bounced on his knee in our next Yorkshire home, in Lindley. He would sit in his favourite Guardian-crossword-solving armchair and, just occasionally, bounce me up and down on his knee while he whistled the William Tell Overture.
My dad taught me to waltz – round and round in the sitting room: even in older age, with painful feet and a tired heart, he’d still get up to have a quick twirl around the room for a few minutes. He danced beautifully.
Dad also helped me to learn to swim – it didn’t matter where we were or what the temperature of the water – he’d be in it in seconds, swim a little, lie flat on his back floating for a short while, and then he was out again. Having read all these letters now about my dad’s early life, I can see where these interests and passions of his came from. It’s been soul-warming to see how our lives formed a continuation for him of some good things from his past.
Gleiwitz, 17th August, 1939 Dear Werner, ... I am pleased that you have the chance of enjoying bathing in the sea; sea water makes you stronger, but don’t stay in the water too long. The doctor advised me to stay in only three minutes – advice I didn’t heed as much as I should have, although I am now passing it on to you. I expect you immerse yourself in the water – do you have a high and low tide? ...
These few, brief recollections encapsulate my good memories of my dad – him ensconced in his chair, with his crossword always at his side, and his love of classical music. He had a large old-fashioned radio on the bookshelves, on which he’d listen to Radio Three concerts when things were quiet. He took me to concerts as I grew a little older, which I loved; for me, there’s still nothing to beat a classical music concert of some kind. We were lucky, growing up in Yorkshire – we had the Huddersfield Choral Society, the Halle, Leeds Playhouse (where my mother took me to the theatre and the ballet); Bradford also figured here: St George’s Hall, I think it was. We were ringed with venues around those northern cities, and I don’t remember a time when I didn’t come out as light as air, feet barely touching the ground, filled with the joy of whatever we’d just seen or heard.
I attended Waverley School (which no longer exists), Wakefield Girls’ High School, and the University of Edinburgh. I duly obtained my indifferent O’levels, rather better A’levels, a decent BA, and eventually a doctorate, which my dad never saw me get, sadly – I’d just started back at university when he died.
I married in my early twenties, and we had had our three daughters by the time I was thirty.
I wish they could have known my dad, and that he could have known them.
So, although we’ve missed Werner greatly all these many long years since he died – when I was only in my mid twenties – in many ways, he’s still with us, living on in our children.
And in myself, of course.
As this website is a testament – I’m still very much my father’s girl, and my grandmother’s too, I feel.
And I take that responsibility seriously.
From numbers to names
These days, with our children grown up and doing their own things, I still work with academic writing much of the time, as well as making the attempt to learn something about putting a website together. This project has also enabled me to go back to research, which I love doing – although this area is different to the one I trained in, and I am still very much finding my feet.
I sometimes wonder what my dad would have made of this project.
He spent years trying to find out what happened to his family, and to get some measure of – what do I call it – a reckoning (?) – from the German government. He died over twenty years ago, before the advent of the Internet, so there was never an opportunity to look into it fully back then. In many ways he seemed a very private person, yet things I have read amongst his papers also suggest that he carried an anger with him about Germany and the events before, during, and after the war, which also meant that he would call people out when they were acting in a bigoted way. This makes me feel – or at least hope – that I am perhaps carrying on with something he needed to do – although I may not be doing so in a way he would have chosen. As this method wasn’t open to him when he was alive, it is impossible to judge. However, after 50 years of keeping the family past a guilty secret, until well after his death, I needed to find my own way now of assimilating our past. I am finally at peace with this.
Undertaking this project has changed my life in ways I could never have imagined. I have met with interest and disinterest; with immeasurable kindnesses and generosity, and with stubborn blocking; I have seen things I thought I’d never see, and had things explained to me either verbally or in the form of artefacts and documents that I never imagined existed.
And I have come as close as it is possible to come, perhaps, to the missing members of my family.
And I’m grateful for that.
This work feels like a meaningful project – for our family, and for our future.
Today, I finally feel free enough of the trauma of the past, through being immersed in it, to know that this has been – and continues to be – my life’s most important project.
From numbers to names