As I have noted in my blog post about this visit, I have just returned from what I regard as my first ‘proper’ visit to Germany, although we did briefly drive into Germany from the Netherlands about thirty years ago.
I don’t recall much about that previous trip, other than feeling uncomfortable about being there. My father was still alive at the time, and understandably, he believed it to be unsafe – for all of us – and I suppose I picked up on that sense of danger and unease.
The National Socialist German state had in any case made my family stateless: we had no country to go back to – no citizenship, no family members, no home. We would still be stateless today if Britain hadn’t taken in my father after seven years of residence, including his wartime service digging ditches with the Pioneer Corps, and taking x-rays with the Royal Army Medical Corps.
In Germany, there was nothing left for us to go back to, or for.
In that, the National Socialist state had been successful.
More recently, however, I had felt it was time to visit my father’s country of birth, and the place that so many of my family members had called home over the generations. If I hadn’t had records to find I might never have gone, but without such a visit our records would always remain incomplete.
I also wanted to see Philanthropin school in Frankfurt, where my father used to teach. Given the anti-Jewish legislation from 1933 onwards, because he was Jewish, this was the only place in Germany that he was able to find employment in the mid 1930s when he left Breslau university.
Hesitantly, I wrote to Philanthropin, and to our delight they very kindly agreed to arrange a visit. They asked if I was prepared to be ‘interviewed’ by some of the girls for the school newspaper; once there, we were offered good hot coffee, fascinating conversation, and a tour of the school. It was to be a rewarding session in a warm, inviting, beautifully maintained school that turns out well-mannered, well-rounded, and thoughtful students.
It was very good to see the school that gave my father refuge at such a time, when no-one else would – and which provided a salary and some private lessons to help him keep his parents and grandmother in food and rent for a little while longer.
The staff who run the school today are kind, committed, serious, hard-working, and emotionally intelligent. They would have to be all these things, I suspect, to take on a school with this history.
I’m immensely grateful to the staff and pupils here, and to those who watch over them. Thank you so much for facilitating our visit. I’ll always be grateful for that day.
The headteacher, who gave us so much of her time also gave us a thoughtful memento of our visit, in the form of a book they had had made about the history of the school. We will treasure it, and keep it safe with our other family materials.
The main Jewish museum in Frankfurt is closed for renovations, so we went instead to the ‘Judengasse’. This was one of Germany’s earliest Jewish ghettoes – the remains of which were uncovered when the city was about to build an administrative complex. They resolved the land-use issue by retaining the remains of five of the seventeen excavated houses as part of an exhibition, and then building the complex over the top.
Just outside the Judengasse is the Jewish cemetery. The most striking aspect of this is perhaps the memorial that runs along its walls.
These metal blocks run five deep, for a full 286 metres of wall. I gather that there are almost 12,000 named blocks, each one representing a Jewish person deported from Frankfurt.
It was salutary, throughout, to see how little of pre-War Germany was still standing. I’ve seen enough of Britain’s destroyed/rebuilt towns and cities to know what devastation was wreaked by the bombers. I also know my history, and that the British airforce was used to retaliate for the Luftwaffe’s heavy bombardment of Britain’s cities early in the war. British children, including my mother and her peers, were evacuated away from their homes and families, and still, many thousands lost their lives or were left traumatised.
As part of the Pioneer Corps, my father would have helped clear up bomb damage in England, and my husband’s grandfather was a fireman in the Midlands: night after night he worked to extinguish fires in a major city as it burned away – the gases and pollution almost certainly cutting short his life.
Seeing these things for oneself in a different context is also important, however, and thought-provoking, and gives one pause. Visiting Poland, and Les Invalides in France recently, and now Germany, has taught me much about different European perspectives on the world war. Perhaps we should all aim to do something similar, to continue to widen our perspectives.
On a ‘day off’ we went to Heidelberg, which is reputed to be a beautiful city, but it was somewhere I couldn’t warm to – although we did have one of the best zucchini soups I’ve ever tasted at a cheerful, friendly student café.
However, the first sight to greet us on leaving the station was a large, busy AfD stall … and something about the architecture of the town did little to dispel the associations this raised, however unfair that might be. I’ve no way of knowing anything about the place from such a brief visit: I can only portray ‘first impressions’.
On our way to see the famous ruined castle, I noticed a plaque for Hannah Arendt. Apparently she studied at Heidelberg university from 1926 to 1928, and this was the last place she lived while here.
On our final day in Frankfurt we went in search of the last place my dad lived. In November 1938 he was rounded up, I assume from what little I know to date, from Fichardstrasse 9, which is where he lodged with Fräulein Hanau. So this was the next place on my list.
Letter from Else to Werner: extract, Gleiwitz, 29th June 1939 ... I had a pleasant long letter from Frau Wallensteiner on Friday. I had asked her to tell me what I could send to Fräulein Hanau to remember you by. You didn’t answer my question as to what I can give which will be permanent, and Frau W thinks that Fräulein Hanau will certainly be embarrassed if she receives a present now. If I send something all the same, it will be a cake, the same as I sent before; the teachers thought it amusing. I baked the cake yesterday, but I didn’t fill it with chocolate cream because it broke during the thunderstorm, but I used marmalade instead, but I promised that when the weather is cooler I will make one of my usual quality. I added a bottle of 4711, which I already had, and two photos of you as a child: one as a lead soldier, the other possibly a sheep. I didn’t really want to part with the photos. I wouldn’t have given them to anyone other than Fräulein Hanau. I know she will be pleased with the souvenirs. I posted the parcel today...
It was a pleasant walk along Frankfurt’s streets: it’s an interesting, fast-growing, cosmopolitan place. I felt comfortable and at ease here as time went on.
We started to notice Stolpersteine on the pavements: I’m still undecided about these, but it was thought-provoking nevertheless to see them in context, here in Germany.
There were enough original houses left along the street on which my father used to live to see what the area must have been like in the late 1930s. I knew from a bit of Google maps homework that the house he lodged in is no longer there, but I could tell what it would have been, and this remains a pleasant, tree-lined road with some attractive houses along its length.
We walked away from Fichardstrasse, and although I had been at peace, I thought, and interested in our surroundings, as we went back towards the main part of the city, my mind’s eye flashed to a time I’d never experienced.
I had a strange sensation – a vision of these quiet Sunday streets invaded by mobs of people screaming hatred, as uniformed men assaulted Jewish families, dragging the boys and men from their homes. Rings of civilians had shouted at people like my father when they were taken to holding areas in the city, where they were held for many hours and sometimes days – without food or water – before being transported to Dachau.
I can’t begin to imagine their terror and their pain, but I did have a clear sense that day that things here had not always been so civilised and suburban.
Moving on – to Düsseldorf
In general, while it was good to see these places associated with my father, this visit to Germany was always going to be emotionally more troubling than my initial visit to Poland. I was glad I’d not attempted this one first.
In present-day Poland (in areas that were then Germany), my family had had some kind of a life still – albeit in later years under the all-too-necessary protection afforded by the Geneva Convention on Minority Rights. And in somewhere like Pleß, where my father was born, I knew the family had had a decent life, which held good memories. There, they led ordinary lives as relatively ordinary German citizens, at least for a time. By the time my father was in Frankfurt from 1936, however, things were already terrible for German Jews: food was hard to come by, houses were cold, clothes were second-hand, homes were increasingly under threat, and the ‘fines’/taxes on Jews were rising. Fear and need would have stalked everyday lives.
Mundanely, Düsseldorf station didn’t help my sense of unease. Actually, once I was more used to the city, I got used to this area too, and it seemed ok. I was now travelling on my own, and probably spooked more easily, but I nearly gave up on Germany and came home again that first evening.
However, I was here for good reason, and that reason over-rode my misgivings. From Düsseldorf I had access to a couple of archives that I hoped would give us some more information about my father’s uncle Fedor and his daughter Betti. One archive was in Duisburg and the other in Mönchengladbach.
Düsseldorf was the mid-way point with direct trains for Frankfurt and to the other cities I needed to visit.
So, here I was … for a week that at this point seemed to stretch away into being a very long week indeed – on my own in Germany.
My first full day based in Düsseldorf – and I was back on a train, this time heading for Duisberg archives. Using Google maps, in no time at all, I was hiking all over the place – seldom taking a wrong turn and covering on average about seven to eight miles a day. It was exhilarating. You get to ‘know’ a city when it’s passing under your feet, somehow.
Duisberg itself is a fairly ordinary town – like many post-War British towns, I suppose. I was passing through it fairly quickly to get to the archives, but it was good to be walking so much. The one shop I went into for an adaptor had incredibly helpful staff, and we managed my German language ‘shortcomings’ just fine.
Duisberg archives are massive. There’s a chimney-stack structure with no windows in a large section, soaring above. It’s an odd design, but presumably the absence of windows helps keep old documents safe. A strange kind of aesthetic, though.
An awful lot of time was wasted trying to get to grips with the ‘system’, such as it was. A good set of basic written instructions would have helped. And although the archivists knew what I was waiting for, I realised too late that my materials had arrived some time before the hour I had been given, yet no-one had told me they were there. I then couldn’t get through them all before I had to go and catch my return train back to the flat in Düsseldorf in the early evening. Perhaps unfairly, but I got the feeling of being a bit of an unwelcome nuisance.
A simple Google translate plugin for the archive’s searchable database would have made most of my requests for assistance unnecessary. Having made all this effort to get here – emotional and physical – I was told to put in a written request and whatever was found would be emailed or posted to me – for a charge.
It’s an unsatisfactory outcome. I’d far rather have a database designed so that I can search it myself. It’s what I was there for! No-one else is going to be prepared to look as thoroughly as I would be, with archives searchable with up-to-date technology. However, archives rarely have this, which seems a waste of everybody’s time, and means that many historical documents will be going unfound.
This is not specific to Duisberg, I should add – archives generally can be frustratingly old-fashioned in their use of technology. Across this region, for example, nothing seemed to be searchable by a person’s name – and the people at another set of archives wouldn’t even try to search for a marriage certificate I was looking for, saying the search would take too long. Don’t ask me why they waste the space keeping documents they won’t even try to retrieve.
It was a frustrating week in this way, especially by comparison with the kind willingness I had encountered so far in Poland. And when a paid-for search is requested, I keep being sent items I already have, and being billed for the privilege of receiving them a second time: they don’t check with me first. So, for example, one set of archives searched and sent me four poor quality photocopies of birth certificates – three of which I already had – and an invoice for all four, now payable with international transfer fees. It was by no means the first time this kind of thing has happened.
Frustratingly, I am fairly sure there’s a lot more information of ours in the region’s archives (the family lived here for almost 30 years), but whether anyone is prepared to help us find it remains to be seen.
Having said this, I did come away with some fascinating items, and I will gradually write these up on the relevant family pages for Fedor, Betti, and Selma Bloch. Two of the archivists at Duisberg were of great assistance in terms of being prepared to use English, and I am grateful for that, but for whatever reason, people didn’t seem to like doing so. The archivists, for example, were spending a considerable amount of time patiently helping some of the other researchers, so it’s not the case that they don’t see it as their job. I had said that I was travelling to attend the archives, and no-one said, ‘Don’t – we won’t really have time for you if you don’t speak the language’.
And my impression was that it’s this language issue. It seems to be an emotive issue. I don’t speak German because my family were in various ways ‘removed’ from the country in the most horrific ways imaginable – not because I have somehow chosen to live elsewhere and be difficult about it! In my own job I deal daily with people whose first language is not English, and I’m proud and happy to be able to provide whatever help I can. In the context under discussion here – why the resentment – if resentment is what it is? I would have thought people would be happy to help provide assistance with my request for records – especially in this context of so much that has been removed. But perhaps my very presence is an uncomfortable reminder of that past, and this is what was making people tense. If so, it seems I can’t do anything about that: I was smiling, and trying to be friendly and interested. Perhaps it’s simply that I’m not perceived to be a tax payer … who knows?
In some ways I feel bad about writing this, because I did encounter some helpful people, but something also felt ‘off’ for much of the time.
Anyway, as is said in Yorkshire, ‘There’s nowt so queer as folk’. If anything else comes through, I’ll let you know!
So today was the day I finally managed to visit the town in which great-uncle Fedor lived with his wife Selma and daughter Betty. My dad had looked for Fedor and Betty for many years in his post-War searches, to no avail. They were often mentioned in family letters, and these are people with whom I feel a strong affinity, so this visit was significant.
Just before I left for Germany I had received some extraordinary news from the Mönchengladbach archivist. In fact, Betty did not die during the war, and we are still trying to find out how this was never made known to my father. Where was she in all those intervening years? Was she married (it seems not), and did she have children? If so, are they still alive? In fact, it transpires, Betty died in Münich in 1966, having last been seen by a neighbour four days previously. She was only 54 years old. Her death is registered under her maiden name of Bloch.
I actually can’t write about this now. I will write about Betty on her page when I feel able to do so. It’s still too raw a shock for the time being.
So – to the town itself. Somehow I had always had the impression that Mönchengladbach was a lovely town – perhaps from something my dad had said. And one can see from what is left after the wartime bombardment that indeed it must have been a pretty town in its day. I took photographs of some of the remaining old buildings to give an idea of the local vernacular at the time Fedor and his family were living here.
The archivist in Mönchengladbach could not have been more kind and helpful and I very much appreciated this. As with Duisberg, I had emailed in advance of my visit, and he was in his office when I arrived. He was obviously in the middle of a busy day, but made time – including over his lunch hour – to find me some remarkable documents, which I will upload onto the relevant family pages for Fedor, Betty and Selma. Something he’d been able to clarify before I left the UK was the reason my dad hadn’t been searching for Selma after the war is that she had died some years before the war started.
One of the reasons this came as more than a surprise to us was that in a letter Else wrote to Werner, she mentioned that Fedor had finally heard from Betty, and that she had a suitcase with her, and was staying in a first class hotel with her mother and two children in Le Touquet, in France. This had led us to assume that although my dad was searching for her post-War as Betty Bloch, for some reason he must have been mistaken. It slowed down my attempts to find out about her, because I didn’t have what I assumed was her married name.
Now, we don’t know what to think. Was she married? Did she have children? It transpires that her mother died in 1925, so she certainly wasn’t with Betty in Le Touquet in August 1939. Is the rest of it true?
Letter extract: Gleiwitz, 2nd August 1939 Dear Werner, ... Betty is in Le Touquet with her 2 children and her mother on the coast in a 1st class hotel for 2 months, if nothing untoward happens. She was welcomed by their Father as well as Baur. He will contact Baur or write to him and report what has been happening. The application for a passport was made today. It has been raining here nonstop for 36 hours and there were large floods. Uncle Fedor is wondering what we have to write about every week and my paper has run out. Stay well... (Translation by Helga Brown BA Dip. Ed. née Steinhardt)
I asked the archivist to take quick look at the original of the letter, in case something had been mistranslated, but it wasn’t that. He made an interesting suggestion – that perhaps it was some kind of code. We know Else was using code names later, in the war years, but it isn’t beyond the bounds of possibility that the family might have used location and other kinds of codes long before this. I have been doing a bit of research into this issue since I got back, and codes and false addresses were often used, apparently. As I get more of my research on the matter finished, I will write it up.
As far as Betty is concerned, two possibilities have been suggested: one by the archivist – that if we search local Münich archives, we might find a newspaper obituary if she had remaining relatives, and this would give us some further information; and the second suggestion by a friend is to find out whether wills and estates are public records: they are in the UK. This might provide another route by which we could find out whether Betty had children. If she did – given that she survived – somewhere, somehow – did they?
Düsseldorf: my last day
On my last day, I had been going to return to Duisberg archives, but there didn’t seem a lot of point; I had been advised to write in for information, rather than attend. Somehow, on my own, I didn’t feel up to facing more of the same in person. Instead, I decided to have a look round Düsseldorf.
I walked down into the centre of the city, photographing some of the remaining old buildings. I briefly visited a church, which is apparently also used as a Jewish community centre, and then walked down to the river. The rivers I saw in every town in Germany are huge and very much in use for commercial transport, and in themselves would be worth a return visit to explore them further.
Düsseldorf is quite a large city and feels successful and cosmopolitan: it has the usual big-city array of high-end shops and what looks like a fair-sized financial centre. Walking across it over the next few hours, I felt exhilarated and curious.
I noted that a war museum of some kind was in the centre of town (Mahn und Gedenkstätte / Dungeon and Memorial) and went in for a look around. It was an interesting concept – taking the histories of a series of children born around the same time as the ‘youngsters’ in our family (around 1910 to 1930), from different backgrounds, and exploring what their life outcomes were, given where they started – as children in Jewish families, or as people who were homosexual, or who were from families where parents were Communist, or who were Jehovah’s Witnesses, or children of Nationalist Socialist parents, for example. I don’t know whether there is a Jewish museum in Düsseldorf – I was unable to find one in the time I had available. Anyway, this place was thought-provoking on its own terms, and the staff were helpful and pleasant.
The city must have been impressive in its day; today, it is a curious mix of the kind of housing still visible in Mönchengladbach, with brightly painted period houses and apartments, as well as many buildings of civic stature, the creepily fascistic, and the familiar contemporary glass and steel constructions typical of many of the world’s financial cities.
While in the museum I had noted that there was a memorial to the synagogue destroyed in November 1938 on Kasernenstraße, so towards the end of the afternoon I decided to wander down to take a look. There were also more Stolpersteine there, I had read, so it seemed a street worth visiting in our context.
I started at one end of the road (the wrong end, as it turned out) and began to walk up it, looking out for anything that might look like the memorial stone I had seen in a picture at the museum. I had no idea what size it was, however, and there was a lot of construction work going on at this end of the long street. I never did find a stolperstein: perhaps there aren’t any, or perhaps they have been temporarily (one would hope) dug up along with all the pavements, to be replaced later. Anyway, I crossed road junctions and turned back on myself a couple of times, unable to find the memorial. I was about to give up, and figured I would just go to the furthest end of the road and then head back to the flat I was staying in, which was in that direction anyway. I assumed by this time that the whole lot had been hidden by the metres and meters of building work and scaffolding.
As I came towards the end of the street, however, I glanced across the road and spotted the synagogue memorial stone. If I’d not had some idea of what I was looking for I’d never have seen it in the darkness of the road at that time of day. It rather blends into the building behind it. It was on the opposite side of the road to where I was walking, and there was a pedestrian crossing just to my left. Cars had pulled up at the red lights, but the driver of the next car heading towards the lights seemed to see me, and stopped, leaving a big gap between himself and the cars in front, so that he would not block my view of the memorial.
I stared across the road at the stone, and was aware of the consideration of the driver, and vaguely thought how kind he was. And then I realised that water was pouring down my face. My eyes were streaming tears, even though I had no idea that I was crying – or why. I wasn’t sobbing, or breathing fast – none of the usual signs of crying. Just tears cascading, unstoppable, down my face. I turned my face away to the wall until I had got myself together enough to cross the road and approach the memorial. I don’t know how much time passed.
A young woman stood next to the memorial, near some bikes on a stand, and I think she may have been concerned for me – or curious. I don’t know. But she didn’t move on, and I did wish she would just go and leave me with some privacy. The tears were again pouring from me – the whole thing was very strange. I didn’t have any family connection with Düsseldorf – except that Fedor had been brought here by the Gestapo for deportation to Riga. Many tens of thousands of Jewish people were brought through this city on trains, with horrendous days-long journeys ahead of them to their deaths in ghettoes in the East. But we had no other family connection to this city, other than as a transit area.
I walked away. I couldn’t even touch the memorial stone while the woman was there, unmoving. I needed to be on my own, but couldn’t be.
It had turned out that the area I was staying in was a bit down at heel (being near the station, for convenience), and I didn’t want to be walking back to the flat while still visibly upset. I saw on my map that there was a small park on the next street over, and headed for that. It was on Graf-Adolf Platz …
Regardless, I sat there and waited until I was calmed and then went back to the flat to recover my composure. I had an early supper, and a cup of tea, and started to feel better, although a bit puzzled at myself.
A couple of hours later, feeling stronger and calm, I decided to go back to the memorial. I didn’t want this trauma reaction to be the memory I was left with.
The area would hopefully now be clear of people and traffic: it was in the financial centre, and I was betting that as in the City of London after 6pm, it would be quieter, and I was correct in that assumption.
On my own now, I was able to approach the memorial calmly, read what it said, translate the words using my phone, and take some photographs. I was fine this time, and was glad I had gone back.
As I had sat in the Graf-Adolf park that afternoon, pondering my reaction, I thought deeply about what had ‘got to me’ so badly that tears flowed down my face, unbidden, yet no ‘crying’ was felt. I had stared from my seat here, back at the huge company and financial buildings, which in effect have obliterated the Jews of Düsseldorf all over again. There were buildings like this where Fedor’s home used to be, in Mönchengladbach, and here were more, where the synagogue had stood.
What I felt coming back at me from the city was an overwhelming sense of indifference. That was what had caught me by surprise, I think. And my tears were a form of shock.
The strange thing was that the driver in the car who stopped in order not to block my view of the memorial, and the young woman whom I think/hope stayed out of concern, both suggest there isn’t in fact a human indifference today to what has happened here, yet the sensation I got, that overwhelmed my soul with sadness, was of a kind of architectural – or perhaps structural – indifference.
And I realised something, rightly or wrongly: that what my family would have encountered might not have been the screaming hatred of my vision in Frankfurt – although that was certainly present, in spades. Mostly, what they will have encountered in these large city spaces would have been complete indifference. A kind of Bruegel-esque turning away from millions of people being impoverished, torn from their families, herded away from all they knew and loved, tortured, starved, and slaughtered.
And who cared?
Who cares today?
We are supposed to forget, and move on.
Should we still not be here, with our inconvenient questions, our reminders of the past in our very presence, and in our lack of German language skills? And perhaps in our reluctance to seek equivalence between other war crimes and this one? Grief in person is more compelling than stones – and who wants to be compelled to look back in grief, or in guilt?
Except that some of us are incapable of not looking back. It isn’t a choice.
A few stones as memorials, at best.
The Jews of Europe – my timid father, my loving, capable grandmother, my hard-working grandfather, my characterful, life-affirming great-aunts and uncles, and their young children … one way or another they were once part of the emotional and human landscape of this vast country, before the landscape was coated instead by their pain and by their ashes. Now their lives lie compressed into these small stones and their accompanying stone words, which don’t take up too much light or too much space, and don’t ask awkward questions, and don’t draw attention to the reason for their ‘difference’ by speaking a foreign language.
If all you have is stones and carved out words, you don’t actually have to confront the lived reality of what was committed here against millions of people: just because of a happenstance of birth and belief, which the world has always loathed – for some reason that I will never come close to fathoming.
It is strange. I am trying to come to terms with and to understand what I’ve been feeling since coming home again. I had been feeling exhilarated about going to visit Germany. I was, I suppose, proud to have been able to ‘move on’ enough from past trauma to contemplate my travels with interest and curiosity. Perhaps I was simply being naive.
In part, given current politics in the UK, I had hoped I was over this enough to at least consider living here, in this one-time land of my father’s, at least for a few years.
Now, I’m not so sure. At best, for the moment, I cannot envisage staying here any longer than necessary. And I cannot imagine calling this place home.
Maybe I should have realised how hard this would be, and I feel my visit has set me back. I won’t be emotionally destroyed by this, but it has deeply unsettled me, and for the time being, I’m not sure what I feel …
About suffering they were never wrong,
The old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position: how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.
In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water, and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.
W H Auden, Musee des Beaux Arts, December 1938