My young self first encountered my father’s family background at the age of six or seven – maybe younger. I came home from school one day referring to someone as ‘a cheating rabbi’.
I had no idea what it meant; indeed, I had no idea what a rabbi was. I was brought up under my mother’s religion and attended a very English Church of England school: it held daily prayers in its chapel; we wore pinafores in the winter, and blazers and beribboned straw boater hats in the summer.
No doubt such charming phrases often tripped off the lips of my schoolmates, presumably learnt from their parents…
Meanwhile, back at home, my mother frowned and took me off to one side, and gently explained that I mustn’t say things like that – that my father’s family were Jewish.
I had no idea what ‘Jewish’ was.
And so she talked some more.
It was low key, very English, very middle class, very hushed, very polite, but somehow … it changed everything. We were different.
The context to this was that my father never spoke German, and was never to return to his family’s faith – or to any faith, for that matter. I knew we had an ‘odd’ surname that no-one in Yorkshire in the 1970s could pronounce or spell, but that was about all I knew. My father silently attended the same Christian cultural rites we did – the family funerals and weddings; my brother and I were christened, and I chose to undergo confirmation as a teenager.
From that first whispered conversation onwards, my mother said I was not to talk about it in front of my father because it would upset him, or make him ill: ‘Don’t mention the war’…
Thus, gradually, for the child, ‘Jewish’ was connected to trauma, to violent death, to hatred and scorn, and to the absence of a grandmother, and the absence of a grandfather. And it was connected to secrecy. This wasn’t to be spoken of.
But it was also something of a mystery, and mysteries are there to be solved.
I’m not going to enlarge here on the kinds of traumas that became apparent over the years: anyone with a survivor parent will know the kinds of behaviours and reactions broadly referred to, and the literature on second and third generation repercussions is now pretty extensive.
While growing up I would hear snippets, though, especially about my grandmother. There was always a photograph of her as a young woman in our home. Her dark hair was swept up, and she wore a beautiful high-collared white lace dress. I have what I’ve always referred to as my ‘sleepy eyebrow’ and she has one just like it. When my mother dressed me up for parties, with my long dark hair also swept up into a bun, my father would smile and say I reminded him of her.
Very occasionally he spoke to me about my grandmother before the war – never of the war years, nor of the many deprivations and humiliations they must have suffered. She loved to read, and he later said that if women had gone to university then, she would also have studied literature, as I did.
Half-stories and half-truths
The scant information imparted about ‘what happened’ to our father’s family in the war came in whispered moments, and always from my mother. Only many decades later did I find out how unreliable much of this information was.
We were told that my father had left for England on one of the last refugee boats out of Germany; that he had had to leave everyone behind; he arrived with just his trunk, the contents of which were rifled by the British Army; his mother had said she was too old to leave and to start again somewhere new, and so she stayed behind and was killed; he had a poor relationship with his father, with whom he had been angry because his father had abandoned his mother and gone to live in Switzerland, where he later died. We were told that my dad had a cousin, Margot, who had survived Auschwitz – but that everyone else had died.
As was to be the case throughout my long search, I was later to find out that there were threads of reality here, but only threads.
I was told that my father was extremely intelligent – one of that generation of brilliant young German Jewish physicists of the 1930s – and an extraordinary chess player – and this we knew to be true from our own years with him. His brilliance was given as the reason that he had been allowed to finish his degree at the University of Breslau: he had always had to do twice as well as anyone else to be allowed to continue. Academic achievement, then, was everything.
And I filled in the gaps as best I could. Whenever my parents were out and some documentary or film was on television that pertained to the holocaust, I would watch in secret, perched on the arm of a chair, at best, with one ear listening out for the key in the latch, so I could hit the ‘off’ button quickly: half caught between the trauma of what I was watching and the fear of being ‘found out’ watching it.
One day while cleaning their room to help my mother out, I found an old leather suitcase under my parents’ bed, and opened it. There were documents that smelled musty – of mothballs and a bit damp. There were references that I gathered concerned all this dark mystery, but I couldn’t read much German and I couldn’t get any further with it. I certainly couldn’t ask about it. It was returned to the darkness of its under-bed life.
On another occasion, my brother went on a school ski trip to Italy, and unbeknownst to my parents until they were about to leave, they were to break their coach journey for a salutary visit to Dachau. My father hadn’t even known they were going into Germany: the tension and hushed stress were palpable. More whispers from my mother informed me that my father would never go back to Germany and that he believed it to be terribly unsafe for all of us. Little sleep was had until my brother was delivered back from the lion’s den. When my brother returned, he was reported as saying it was an awful, too-quiet place – where no birds sang.
Sometimes more snippets would come my way: at one point my mother told me that my father had left via Holland, in secret. That a family there had helped him escape, and that he had promised never to reveal who they were.
As I grew older, I watched more films, and read many books, and learned quite a lot about the context, but no more about our own family’s past.
And that’s about it – what is outlined here encompasses what I believed to be my knowledge about my family – however partial and untrue much of it turned out to be.
Until dad died.
The dread of something after death
I was 25, numbed by my father’s sudden decline and death: I took over the estate paperwork for my mother, who, fifteen years younger than dad, was beyond distraught. And as I started to go through these papers – many written in the strange-looking German language, which I had learned from reading first-generation accounts to both fear and loathe – one document stood out among the others. It was stamped with a black German eagle and had my dad’s name on it, as well as the word ‘Dachau‘. With time and patience (and a dictionary, I assume, though cannot now recall), it became clear that my dad had been incarcerated there.
I cannot really remember how I felt when I saw this. I have some vague memory of shock, of staring at the heap of paperwork – horrified, guilty, grief-stricken all over again.
The times we had not been patient enough; the times we had not been loving enough; the times – all those times – we had not understood. We should have understood.
Never, now, to be undone. Never, now, to be rectified.
I took this to my mother, who seemed to think she might after all have known something about it – the stories here were confused and confusing. She was a great raconteur of family narratives, but they were often unstable tales that could change over time and with the telling. It must have been unbelievably difficult to be married to someone with whom she could not discuss the most significant influences on his life.
So, we now had a version in which dad had been imprisoned for some unknown reason, but the Nazis had imprisoned so many teachers that they were short of them, and so they let him out – which is when he ‘escaped’ via Holland…
I remember a conversation with my brother, when I began to speculate about what on earth our father must have done or said to be allowed to go free at such a time. My brother cut me off, peremptorily saying that he didn’t care what his father might have done – the important thing was to have got out, and to have escaped. At such a time, no-one could or should judge in retrospect – who knows how they might act, or what they might do unless faced with such a choice. I knew he was right, yet none of it really made any sense to me. I was convinced there was more to know.
For years there was little I could do: I didn’t speak German and, raising our own young family, there was never a time when I could afford either to go searching or to have translations done on the paperwork we had. I never even looked through it particularly closely – partly because we were busy with our lives, and partly because I couldn’t understand it when I sometimes tried. So it was boxed up and put away again.
And then the internet came into our homes and our research horizons began to expand. I was still reading anything I could get my hands on, and had started to do some more serious research on holocaust theory after I had completed my PhD on something completely different. From time to time I would try a search to see if I could find a mention of a family name: something so momentous must surely be mentioned, somewhere.
I had found a small scrap of paper on which was enscribed a child’s hand-written family tree that I remember my dad had helped me to create – so I had his family names and birth dates. But not one of the names I had on that paper came back with anything in my searches. Until, one day, probably about ten years ago now, some deportation lists appeared online. I believed I had found my grandmother’s name and one of dad’s uncles. Soon after, however, the list disappeared – the site had shut down. I still went to the web address from time to time, but it never reappeared. When you have so little information, you’ll grasp at anything that provides some hope – some form of contact.
Then, last year my mother died, and I had to go through all her paperwork to sort out her estate, and I rediscovered my dad’s boxes and files. This time, with my children grown up and living their own lives, I had both the time and the resources to finally do something to find out – who I was and where I came from. A little late in the day, some might think, but it never goes away, really – the need to know.
What was known at the start – and what I thought I knew
My father’s name, date of birth, place of birth, and the fact that he had been imprisoned in Dachau for some reason, sometime before the war, but released before war began – reason unknown; route out unknown.
My great grandmother’s name and maiden name, date of birth, place of birth, and the assumption that she had died in Auschwitz.
My grandmother’s name and maiden name, date of birth, place of birth, and the assumption that she had died in Auschwitz.
My grandfather’s name and date of birth, and the assumption that he had run off and left the family to their fate, ending up in Switzerland, at some point dying there (these assumptions about grandfather turned out to be quite wrong).
Aunt Margot’s name, date of birth, and the assumption that she had been in Auschwitz, and had had a baby while there; somehow both of them were said to have survived the camp and later emigrated to the USA. Her husband was said to have had died at some point. I didn’t know his name or her daughter’s name. She lived in New York (which I knew to be true). As with much else, there were threads of reality here, but only threads.
And so on – I had very little to go on – though more than many, I would suppose, thanks to one otherwise dull afternoon in our dining room at home, when my father helped me to write down his family tree.
And finally, over the last two years, I began some more fruitful research online – via Yad Vashem, which had nothing of ours*, sadly, but does have plenty of contextual information, some of which is referred to throughout these pages; via German government archives online, which at last have started to show some of our information, as records are laboriously being uploaded (an ongoing task); and mainly via the Wiener Library, which was my key starting point. A wonderful researcher there was patient and so very kind. I couldn’t have got nearly so far as I have without the open, generous, empathetic Christine Schmidt at the Wiener Library. Bless her patience with the ITS database and with us – the families – struggling to understand who they are, where they came from, and to find the many millions of our family members lost forever – save what information about them we can find in such places and with such help.
Thus, as you click through the information on our family members, you’ll see how far we’ve come, as well as how far we’ve yet to travel. This is very much a work in progress.
From numbers to names.