I have been asked a number of times how the Kitchener project started, about my interest in it, and why I do it. So a blog post is probably in order to clarify for people who weren’t involved at the start.
And it’s a reasonable question because Kitchener families are being asked to put trust in this work, so I’ll address it seriously.
If you’re interested in this question, put the kettle on and settle in … And if you’re not, I’ll see you in a couple of days for the next topic!
(Note: Although only now uploaded, this blog post was written about 15 months into the Kitchener camp project)
My father was a Kitchener refugee – Werner Weissenberg. I haven’t had time to do much with his Kitchener pages for the project – I’ve been too busy with the project itself! And I have this website space to write about my own family. I want to prioritise other families for the Kitchener Project.
The Kitchener project is viewable here: https://kitchenercamp.co.uk
There are one or two bits and pieces uploaded from my dad’s collection, and I hope at some point to get around to adding more.
What to say?
Firstly, it seems relevant to say that I have carried out formal and informal research in areas of Holocaust theory and first-generation testimony for many years.
My specific interest in Kitchener started a couple of years ago.
Werner was born and lived most of his life in Upper Silesia. Most of our family bumped along the borderland of Germany and Poland; and most lived on the German side. One bit of the family lived in Poland: uncle Kurt, who taught my dad to play chess. And he taught him well: Werner would play a roomful of people at once, even by the time I was born, decades later.
The family’s main base was Beuthen (in Germany; now Bytom, Poland), where Werner lived with two maiden aunts during school term-time when he attended a humanities gymnasium (a grammar school).
He went on to read physics and mathematics at the University of Breslau, among colleagues who developed much of what we now know as quantum physics.
Werner’s studies were initially protected to some extent by the ‘Geneva accord’ or ‘Geneva convention’ – which protected minority rights in Silesia until the accord came to an end in the mid 1930s.
Nevertheless, despite this legal protection, Werner had to take a one-year break from his studies in part because his father lost his main source of income as a result of the Nuremberg laws; as far as I have been able to tell, my grandfather was struggling to meet his son’s university costs. Administratively, Werner was also struggling against dismissal from the university at a time when almost all Jews were being thrown out – staff and students alike. Attacks on Jews in Breslau were both horrific and routine. The city was notorious for its enthusiastic participation in anti-Jewish actions from 1933 onwards, and people died as a consequence.
Online, there are copies of Breslau staff handbooks from 1930/31 through to the 1937/38 edition. The loss of staff over this time is marked: if memory serves, by 1937 staff numbers were around half what they had been before anti-Jewish laws came into force.
Having deferred a year, Werner returned to Breslau to continue his research, but he was forced to leave, one term before he was due to be awarded his doctorate, in 1936. It was always said in the family that he had had to do twice as well as his peers to be able to stay even this long, and I don’t think he ever recovered from the emotional impact of having to abandon his research.
We know that many doors were closed to Jews by this time. Werner eventually obtained poorly paid employment teaching at a well-known Jewish school that was by now crammed beyond capacity. Jewish children were being sent here from across Germany when they were forced out of mainstream education. The school was called Philanthropin, in Frankfurt-am-Main.
At home in Britain, decades later, none of us knew about any of this. I only found out after he died that my father had been in a concentration camp. I was looking through the paperwork to settle his estate, to spare my mother the task, and came across a document in German, with the eagle stamp, my father’s name, and the word Dachau.
Over the late 1930s my father wrote many letters to try to get out of Germany, drawing on his membership of the Breslau Jewish fraternity – the Kartell-Convent – to obtain help.
As with all our Kitchener relatives arrested at this time, Werner had to attend a police station each week after his release from Dachau until he left the country. This left the men at risk of re-arrest, which would have meant almost certain death. Our fathers, grandfathers, and uncles saw hundreds of their peers die in the concentration camps following the arrests in November 1938. This was no ‘night of broken glass’ resulting in broken shop windows: around 30,000 Jewish men and boys were arrested over these few days, and around two and a half thousand were killed or died over the following weeks and months.
Direct testimonies from victims of these arrests attest that our fathers and grandfathers were beaten and tortured from the moment of arrival in the camps.
I learned a few months ago during research for Kitchener that a frequent torture in Dachau at this time was to pinion the victim upside down and beat the soles of the feet for prolonged periods. Only then did I put this together with the debilitating pain my father endured for years whenever he walked. The doctors here never did find out what was wrong, and I don’t know if the two were connected, but I will always wonder about it.
It’s unbelievably hard to acknowledge and understand that my father – and all these men in our homes, who loved and provided for us as best they could – were physically and verbally assaulted and tortured.
It’s the hardest thing I’ve had to come to terms with, I think, in relation to learning more about this history.
And why? What was it for? Such hatred and bodily violence directed against my intelligent, gentle, quiet father.
I have to acknowledge that however much I may commit to the searches for records, and for our history, there will never be an answer that makes sense of these years of horror.
I sometimes wonder if our activity is somehow bound up in our need to find an answer for events and actions for which there simply is no explanation. From where does this hatred come, and why?
“Hier ist kein warum”
Eventually, after much letter writing, Werner was allocated a much-coveted place at Kitchener camp and the rest – thanks to all our ‘Kitchener family’ efforts – is now ‘history’. A kind, philanthropic American man who had never met Werner, and who was not a family relative, stood as his guarantor so that he could obtain his number for a US visa: we still have this man’s paperwork and tax forms among my dad’s things. And those bits of paper, gained with the help of his fraternity friends, are how my dad ‘got his place’ here.
Werner left Germany in June 1939 and never returned. He did not speak German in our home, and he never spoke about this period of his life. He did sometimes talk about his family in the pre-war years, but never about the hardships and deprivations, and seldom about ‘the war’, except occasionally in flippant terms (“Volunteers? You, you and you!”), or poor food, or about the luggage at Kitchener being stolen by members of the British Army.
Every so often my dad had to be left alone while he did his German paperwork – his claim for his ‘pension’ under BEG legislation. It was the only time he wrote in German, as far as I know; and he was always in a terrible mood afterwards. He seemed to tackle this as a form of retribution as much as it was for the money. I don’t believe he would ever have regarded it as ‘compensation’. Not for one moment.
Pretty much all we knew about these years was that we didn’t have grandparents and we didn’t have an extended family. We vaguely knew ‘everyone’ had been killed, but we were never to talk about it or ask about it, because it would make my father ‘ill’.
As many will attest – this narrative is not unusual, and something of this kind forms a history that in one form or another is repeated across many Kitchener families.
Every family history in this context is unique, but many have similar threads running through them.
Werner didn’t marry until late in life – in 1960. And he died many years ago, when I was in my mid-twenties.
When my mother died in 2014, I inherited my dad’s suitcase of German Letters, Documents, and Photographs (and hence the categorisations on the Kitchener camp website).
I started to have the materials translated, and taught myself to put what I was finding onto a small website (the one you’re reading now), so our family could see the results. I became very involved in the history, traveling to Germany and Poland to visit archives and family sites, as many of us do.
And then I came across references to Kitchener camp among my dad’s documents, and I didn’t really understand what it was. I Googled for it, but nothing much came back.
At the time, I was volunteering at the Wiener Holocaust Library, learning to help families find International Tracing Service records at Arolsen Archives.
So I asked Wiener staff what Kitchener camp was, and they recommended Clare Ungerson’s book and gave me her email address. She and I corresponded a little, I read her excellent book, and we were going to meet to chat about it, but I was ill for a time, and so that meeting was delayed for many months.
Around this time I spotted an advert in the journal of the AJR, placed by Stephen Nelken, whose father had been in the same Jewish fraternity as my dad in Breslau. He was asking if there were others with a similar background.
I replied and we chatted on email and found that our fathers had also both been in Kitchener! And gradually, we decided to find out if there were more of ‘us’ who might want to meet and try to find out more – which led to another small advert in the AJR journal – and to Stephen and Clare Ungerson arranging lunch in Sandwich for about 40 Kitchener ‘descendants’, and Clare also gave us a talk about the rescue.
The meeting was interesting and engaging and people said they wanted to meet again and to learn more. Few fathers had talked much about this, it seemed, and most families had a background of Shoah trauma. Being ‘allowed’ to discuss and to ask questions was like taking a cork out of a bottle …
Anyway, I returned home, and having taught myself to create this simple website for our family history, I had the idea for the Kitchener website – to try to see if we could make connections further afield. And this presented the beginnings of the idea for the Kitchener project. It took me a couple of months to put something together, and we got going properly about 15 months ago.
I genuinely assumed I’d spend most of my days in archives …
However, it has been – and continues to be – an incredible experience of connection after connection with Kitchener ‘descendants’. I’ve met so many extraordinary people in person and through email. What felt through most of my life like some kind of an aberration turns out to have been an experience shared by so many others – and there is a comfort in that, somehow.
Suddenly, we are not alone in our experience of these deeply traumatised fathers and grandfathers, and missing family members – and I think we now understand so much more about what made these men who and what they were. And that does help.
I think, too, that understanding more – and realising that our life experiences in relation to these men were not unique – also alleviates some of the guilt. And most of you – especially with fathers who went through this – will know what I mean by this.
I suppose at some point my own work on this has become a kind of tribute to my dad and to my family – to my absent grandmother and grandfather, and to my father’s aunts, uncles, and young cousins – who did not survive the Shoah.
My dad was the only one of our close family to get out ahead of it.
And so, this project is important and meaningful in ways that I can’t really put into words – despite my somewhat lengthy attempts here …
But I approach it knowing that every Kitchener family has something of this terrible loss in the background of their relative’s extraordinary rescue – be it the loss of close family members, of friends, of community, or of country. In most cases, the loss would have extended across all of these.
Like many who put trust in the Kitchener project by contributing to it, I do this work for all the family members we all lost in such terrible circumstances; I do it for our fathers and grandfathers, who often needed to ‘know’ what happened, but didn’t have access to the resources we have today; and I do it for my own dad, who believed above everything else in the importance and value of knowledge and education.
Education and the pursuit of knowledge is what my dad believed saved his life – and thus made our lives possible.
May this project educate others: and if it moves or changes even one mind, it will have been worthwhile.
Above, Werner Weissenberg, Photograph, In postwar Britain. Source: Werner Weissenberg, pers. archive, copyright retained