Source: Clare Weissenberg, Sandwich, Kent, Photograph, pers. archive
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Letter extract, Else Weissenberg to her son, Werner, resident of Kitchener camp in 1939; translation Gleiwitz, 15th June 1939 We have cleaned your bike, it looks really good, as I have always said – don’t be too quick to discard it. Who would have thought you could use it for excursions in England.
While we are finding out much about the collective nature of our Kitchener history, as descendants we each also have our personal family histories and narratives on which to draw.
For me, the group visit to Sandwich was engaging and fun – there’s something special about having the chance to talk with others who have a similar background.
This is probably often true of groups who share a common interest, but I suspect it may be more so for us, who have lived with little to no knowledge of these events, and with little understanding of them. Where people have lived with silence, absences, and often deep trauma among families, it should not seem strange that we should find such connections especially useful, perhaps.
But my visit to Sandwich also had its sobering moments, as I found on the Saturday before our meeting.
I had decided to spend Saturday working my way around various sites to take photos for the website.
One of the places I wanted to locate was a coastal path that a number of sources mention: the men travelled, often by bike, to go swimming here.
Today the coastal road out of Sandwich is still very popular with cyclists, and it goes alongside a stunning curve of pebbled beach.
Standing here on the beach, I felt very close to my missing family members, somehow – no doubt because of my grandmother’s letters, which talk about this stretch of England, and these outings my father made with his Kitchener friends.
Gleiwitz, 17th August, 1939 Your letter took a long time on its travels; it only arrived today in the afternoon. We began to wonder whether you were in London or even ill... 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?
My grandmother Else, who did not make it out of Germany but was killed in the Shoah, wrote regularly to my father while he was in Kitchener.
In a number of places she makes reference in her letters to these cycle rides, and to the men’s time on the coast, and in the sea.
The backdrop of her letters almost always returns to the situation from which her son has escaped .
Gleiwitz, 24th August, 1939 Dear Werner Your letter arrived only today with the first delivery, but I was not worried about the lengthy pause, because I suspected you used the lovely weather to spend some time at the seaside. I am pleased that you were able to enjoy bathing and able to raise a smile or peals of laughter. Yesterday a Mr Angress came to visit; he is a good friend of Burg. He applied to go to the Camp in February, but he didn’t hear any more about it. He made half-hearted attempts to emigrate to Columbia where he has an eighteen-year-old son who is a decorator; he is also interested in Shanghai. Both attempts were unsuccessful. He wrote to the R.J.F., to a Herr Ernst Rosenthal, and now he has received confirmation from the Camp and hopes to be travelling in the next few weeks. He will bring you greetings from us.
One reference always makes my throat tighten – in a way that will be familiar to anyone with this background.
For whereas Kitchener was a remarkable rescue of so many lives, there is not one of us who visited Sandwich at the weekend – as well as among every other family with this history – who does not know that moment when the tears well, unbidden, often at unexpected moments: our throats constrict, and once more our hearts break for the missing grandmothers and grandfathers, aunts, uncles, and cousins.
I had just such a moment, standing here on the pebbles in the sunshine, looking out to the sea in that beautiful location.
I felt deeply the longing expressed simply by my grandmother, wanting only to be with her only son, whom she would never see again.
Gleiwitz, 29th June 1939 I would love to walk along the coast with you, my son.
And I wondered about the Kitchener men, who must have looked out over this blue water – and must have felt how close their families were, and yet how far away.
I picked up a pure white stone, sun-warmed, and held it close, and thought about my grandmother. And I picked up three pure white shells as we walked back up to the road – each item somehow becoming a talisman to help me leave again, and to come back to the present day.