My Parents were Jewish, so things began to go downhill after 1930
The German My parents were Jewish so things began to go downhill after 1930. In the years between 1928 and 1933 (when I matriculated) there were a lot of fights at school, a lot of anti-semitism and anti-foreign sentiment too. This was in middle Germany, in a town called Mainz, near Frankfurt. Our class was predictably divided into an ever-growing majority of either Nazis or right-wingers, and an ever-decreasing minority of moderates, centre left wing or Jewish people. I think we had about another three Jewish children in our class and we were always being attacked.
It wasn’t an easy life. In fact it wasn’t an easy life from my earliest childhood. When I was four I was trying to play marbles at school and suddenly the children burst into saying “Just a Jewboy, Jewboy, Jewboy.” That imprints itself on your mind, and very few members of my generation somehow never really got over that. They always keep a somewhat paranoid stance.
My parents were business people, who had always planned that my brother and I – there was just the two of us – should take over the business, which was three or four department stores scattered throughout Germany, the main one in Mainz. After matriculating in March my father had arranged for me to spend a period of what is effectively an apprenticeship at one of the major department stores in Berlin. I had visited them with my father. I’d got the appointment and I was due to take it up in May or June. Well in May I got a letter from the Personnel Chief saying that the Personnel Chief who had appointed me had been dismissed because he was a Jew. They knew I was Jewish and said they had no place for me. They were very sorry, but no appointments could be made.
My parents had always intended for me to spend six months in France and six months in England, to learn the language, so they said “You might as well got England now, things will blow over in six months time.” My father arranged for me, through a mutual business friend of his, to become apprenticed as a kind of male au-pair girl in a downquilt factory which was situated in London – Finsbury Square. I arrived at Dover on July 30, 1933 and waddled down with my handbag to the immigration people. “No, you can’t come in. Who are you? Where’s your permit to stay?” “I haven’t got one.” “But you have to have one.” I was marched straight back again, having been given permission to ring up Mr Russell, who was in charge of that factory. He negotiated with the immigration authorities to give me a four weeks visitor’s visa. I was marched back from the ship and told I could enter on condition that I immediately report at the Foreign Office in Whitehall. I did this the week after I arrived. After about three hours waiting I was seen and I was given a four weeks visa. This had to be renewed for another four weeks, another three hour wait, and so on, every time. And then they gave me a six month visa – a kind of student visa, which was renewed.
My contacts with the English were limited to the people in the boarding house in Finchley Road where I stayed and the few people I met in the factory. In the boarding house there was a very charming, sweet little girl, full of prejudices – a representative I now know of millions of boarding house inmates – full of good works for “you poor chaps, you poor foreigners” – always aware of a deep dividing line between the British and the rest of the world. In addition there was a Captain who had been retired after the war and had lost his place in life. And a Major and his wife – both of whom dressed up in dinner dress at night to come down and dine. Her ladyship did too, pearls and all. But all of them totally lost. Not comprehending what was going on. There was also a stockbroker’s clerk. I had very little to do in the factory – I think they paid me £3 in three months. Down in the basement I would go through the old downquilts that had been sent in for recovering and talk about the state of the world with this cockney who worked there. Upstairs I would talk with the office girls, the typists. In the evenings I went home and read Shakespeare and, believe it or not, Ulysses. So from these different sources I learnt my English. I had no knowledge which was the right kind of English, but I learned as much English in three months as I know now, which is to say not very much.
After a while working in this factory didn’t satisfy me. What I really wanted to do was to study philosophy, because they told me in Germany at school “You must become a philosopher.” I didn’t think that was much good and I thought the next best thing would be a psychiatrist, psychologist. I told my mother, who always came visiting from Germany. She said I was a half-wit, that my brains weren’t worth very much! She roared with laughter. I accepted her verdict. Few people would accept such verdicts nowadays from their parents, but that gives you some idea what I was like.
I sat the Licentiate Exam of the Institute of Builders and passed, but I wasn’t allowed to register. They wrote and Said “Sorry, we can’t do anything for enemy aliens”
I decided I had to do something and so I went to the Brixton School of Building and Building Technology in Ferndale Road and took a 4 years course. After a while I realised I wasn’t cut out for a builder and that I wanted to become a structural engineer. So I did strength of materials, theory of structure, concrete design and so forth and graduated in 1936 with First Class honours. I sat the Licentiate Exam of Builders and passed, but I wasn’t allowed to register. They wrote and said “Sorry, we can’t do anything for enemy aliens.” This was just before the war broke out. At first I couldn’t get a permit to work but eventually through my former college I became an assistant designer with a firm in Queen Anne’s Gate. I stayed with them for a year and then I joined the largest reinforced concrete consulting firm in London – Mouchell and Partners. At the time of Munich (1) I was sent up to Newcastle upon Tyne to help the reinforced concrete shelter design and watertower design.
England was very sticky about immigration. Jews or no Jews, persecution or no persecution, there was a very limited quota
I saw the writing on the wall because of the Munich crisis, and I tried desperately to get my parents out. But England was very sticky about immigration. Jews or no Jews, persecution or no persecution, there was a very limited quota. The conditions introduced were that you had to have a British guarantor. At that time I had a girlfriend whose cousin played guarantor for my parents. They got out of Germany six weeks before the war started.
A few steps before me a woman was walking. When she heard and saw the aeroplanes she fell on her knees, stretched up her hands and shouted: “Hitler! Hitler! Come down to us!”
The Austrian To tell the story I’d better begin with the Anschluss. The Anschluss came on the 12 March, 1938. That was the day Hitler arrived in Vienna. The Anschluss had been very well prepared, and had been prepared for over a year, I might say. The Fifth Column had been very active in Austria and if the Jewish population had had any sense at all they would have got out earlier. But the Austrians, whether Jewish, or Gentile who were not National Socialist or friendly towards the Nazis, always thought “Oh, it won’t be so bad in Austria. The Austrians are kindly, easy go lucky people. They’ll never be as bad as the German Nazis.” Freud thought so too. But they were mistaken.
In March my son was about three months old. On the day of the Anschluss I was going shopping and pushing the baby in the pram, along the street, when suddenly a swarm of aeroplanes flew over in formation. I lived in a small town near Vienna – Baden, a small provincial town. A few steps before me a woman was walking. When she heard and saw the planes she fell on her knees, stretched up her arms and shouted “Hitler! Hitler! Come down to us!” I’ve never forgotten that. So you see, part of the Austrian population were willing to accept Hitler with open arms. The trouble was, if the Church, the Catholic Church in Austria had set an example and opposed Hitler, the population (who are very strong, very staunch Catholics, and a little naive I may say – not like the Anglo Catholics – it’s a kind of peasant catholicism in Austria) if they had opposed Hitler the population would have followed the Church. As it happens, the Archbishop of Vienna, of the day, Archbishop Innitzer welcomed Hitler at Vienna airport in the way Emperors were welcomed in cities in the Middle Ages – that is, the priest walking to meet the conquerors in full Church regalia, bearing the monstrance, ready to give him the blessing. As the Church went over to Hitler completely, that was the sign for the population.
All hell broke loose. There were a lot of shady elements in Vienna and the surrounding areas – prostitutes, pimps, pickpockets – people ready to benefit from the dispossession of others. Like rats they crawled out of their corners. Everything was well organised. All the young people joined the SA or the SS – the Sturmabteilung, and the better class the Sturmstaffel. They were an elite corps. The very crack regiment were the SS Totenkopf – Death Head Brigade – because they wore the black jackboots, the black uniform with the silver insignia and the cap with the skull and crossbones. All the people who had “A” levels, or university degrees – these young people automatically became members of the higher ranks in the SS and Totenkopf brigade.
Life became – I wouldn’t say unbearable – but as if you were living under a black cloud, because you knew you had to get out eventually. People frantically wrote to friends abroad trying to find a visa – it was impossible. The summer passed and the autumn passed in this – for Jewish people – terrible way.
My husband and his brothers owned a factory of water-filters. They had been exporting to America and England. In the summer of 1938 all Jewish owners of businesses and factories were dispossessed. This process was called Aryanisation. My husband and his brothers were forced to sell to an Aryan German firm. It was only nominally a sale. No money changed hands. They had to give away their cars. Whatever was in the factory of their own belongings was taken. From one day to the next they were out of work. People lost their jobs if they were employed by the State.
I was running a small language school at a place near the town. Aryan people no longer came to be taught but I was still earning money because every Jewish person rushed to speak English. I had a very large class where everyone had to pay only a very little because people didn’t earn money any more. A very strange thing then happened that depressed us very much. All my pupils, who were almost the entire population of that small town, asked me to fill in application forms for them, for emigration to Australia, to Canada – trying desperately to get a visa. You could find out from the embassies of these countries what professions would be likely to find work. My husband was an engineer and they all wanted engineers, but the strange thing is that every one of my pupils whose application form I filled in and who I wrote a testimonial for got a visa, and we were refused – by Australia, by Canada and until today I’ve no idea why.
The SS major said to me very quietly “Have you no friends abroad to whom you could write”
Then came the infamous Reichskristallnacht – Crystal Night, November 10. It got that name because the Nazis were officially encouraged to break into Jewish homes and smash everything, and from the bits and pieces of china and glass the name arose. (2) In this night all the Jewish men they could get hold of were rounded up and taken to the local police station. On the following day they were made to scrub the pavements of the main public square. Stormtroopers had spat on the pavement and they stood around in a circle laughing whilst the men had to scrub it off.
My flat was taken over by a major in the German army and my furniture was taken away. I was very childish – I was young, and I greatly valued my furniture as you can imagine. I had not been married very long and I set great store by that. It was heart-breaking for me. But all that was nothing, nothing when my husband was taken to the Vienna main police station with other Jewish men, where they received a sound beating, and because on the day before the Kristallnacht the refusal of our visa application had arrived, he had that in his pocket and he was sent to Dachau. Then of course I didn’t mind whether the furniture was there or not. That was nothing. Life became the real nightmare then.
They sealed the flat with a huge seal with the German eagle, and they only allowed me to put my coat on, to dress the child, to take one woollen blanket and a potty, and that was how they put me out of the flat.
They took me and the baby down to some barracks outside the town. In the barracks they had already locked up well known socialists and communists of this town. There was an old man there – a communist – and he said to a soldier “Look, if you keep this woman and this child here overnight I guarantee the child will be dead by tomorrow night through lack of milk and water.” I was paralysed with fear, I just cried. I didn’t protest. I was young then, about 25, and one’s afraid of soldiers after all, especially if they are enemy soldiers.
There was a Major there, an SS major and he overheard this. He apparently had some decent feelings because he told me “Get into my car.” He took me and the baby back to the town. On the journey the SS major said to me quietly “Have you no friends abroad to whom you could write?” “But Major,” I said, “we have been told it is forbidden to write abroad about what is happening, because when they broke into my flat they told me not a word of this must be breathed to anyone. I’m afraid to write because some revenge might be taken against my husband in Dachau.” He said quietly “Get some paper and write as quickly as you can.” It was very decent of him. He let me get out at the house where the flat was. The landlady’s flat had not been taken away. She was a Jewish woman as well and she allowed me to stay there as I didn’t know where to go.
I knew England as the country of John Galsworthy’s Forsyte Saga
A couple of years before, when I was a student at Vienna university, I had spent a summer in England. It had been arranged by a branch of the National Union of Students. It was a camp on the Isle of Wight. At the camp was a middle aged schoolteacher from Ilford County High School – a science teacher with a group of boys. His name was Mr Wallington. He took some interest in me because I spoke English fairly well and he spoke German. He had friends in Germany. After the Isle of Wight our Viennese group spent a fortnight in London. Mr Wallington very kindly invited me to spend a day with his family in Gants Hill, Ilford. When the SS major told me to write, I wrote to Mr Wallington. He was fantastic. He went to the Jewish Refugee organisation at their headquarters in Woburn House, in Woburn Square, London and said “I’m a teacher. I’m not a man of means, I cannot help the family financially, but I will guarantee their good character. I will be their moral sponsor.”
The miracle happened. I got a letter from the British Embassy to come and collect my visa. Now came the next step. With this visa I now had to try to get my husband out of Dachau.
The headquarters of the Gestapo in Vienna had to give orders to the Commandant of Dachau concentration camp to release this prisoner. This was very, very hard. Not only did you have to show the visa, but you also had to prove all taxes had been paid. I could prove we had paid our personal taxes but they also required proof that all the taxes on the business had been paid, before it passed into Aryan hands.
Now here I was, having no idea of business. My brother-in-law was in Vienna and was terrified the same thing might happen to him. In Vienna it wasn’t so easy to round up all the Jewish men. It was a large city. It couldn’t be done. But in a small town it was different, where you knew everyone, and where your former non-Jewish friends were only too eager to say “Yes! There’s one in that flat, and there’s one in that flat” – and did it joyfully.
I must tell you, too, that whilst I was in my landlady’s lodgings the little baby had to eat and drink, of course. I went to the dairy, to the dairy woman who for years had supplied our daily milk. My mother had been her customer. I had been her customer. She refused to sell me any milk. I asked her why. ”My son”, she said “is in the SS and he has forbidden me to sell any milk to Jews.” The same thing happened at the bakers, and so on and so forth. It was partly fear and now I think I can understand it better because few people are heroes. It’s definitely hard for the individual to stand out from the mass. If all the people had risen together in rebellion it would have been very different. But I’m convinced that it’s terribly hard for one individual to stand out and speak out.
Overnight Gentile friends turned into strangers. The strange thing is, propaganda had such an influence. The Jews were labelled as sub-human – Untermenschen. People really believed it, including the people who had known you as a child, who had grown up with you. Propaganda is an awfully strong weapon.
With the taxes, I was told I had to go to the Town Council of Baden to get them to put down on paper that all the taxes of the factory had been paid, and that they had to fix their seal to the document. I consulted a man who had been my husband’s business consultant – their chief accountant – and I managed to remember all the figures and I could furnish all the proof. I cannot remember how I managed to do that. I think when you are really desperate you are able to do things which normally would be beyond you.
To obtain a hearing at the Gestapo place you had to queue up at 5 o’ clock in the morning. There were queues stretching down the road. The entrance was guarded by some of these jackbooted SS people. The queues were all women – all the women who’s husbands were in concentration camps. The soldiers took great delight in kicking us with their boots. They kicked us with their boots and shouted “Dirty Jewess, will you keep in line!”, and so on. But I must say, if you’re desperate, things don’t hurt you. In this way I was able to eventually to get my husband out, after he had been four months in Dachau.
Mr Wallington met us at Croydon airport. I felt very relieved but my husband felt very much afraid.
When he came back I wouldn’t have known him. They shaved him completely and he was emaciated. He never spoke much about his stay. He only told few things. It was winter. He had ben arrested in November. He was there until February. Dachau is on the Dachau Moors, a lonely moor in Bavaria. The men were lined out for the morning roll-call and evening roll-call, standing in deep snow in their bare feet and only wearing pyjama trousers. My husband was a little over 30. Older men often fell and were shot. Their ashes were sent back to the family. “Shot whilst trying to escape.” That was the story. My husband told me it took him all his will power to stand still without moving a muscle. It was fun for the guards. They could make the people stand for an hour, two hours, or even longer. They made them do exercises in the snow.
When they released him he had to sign a form that he would be out of Austria within one week. Fortunately he had a brother in Zurich where we could stop off for my husband to grow some hair before he came to England, and he had all sorts of wounds and sores from bayonet beatings. Switzerland was terrified of the Nazis and would give Jewish refugees only a fortnight’s stay.
On the journey out of Austria there was a last search for jewellery on the train. We had to give it up anyway – we had no jewellery. They made my husband strip and a SS woman took me and my child into an empty compartment which was icy cold and she made us strip and searched us in a very nasty manner for hidden jewellery – in the most revolting manner. My child caught a cold and had an inflammation of the middle ear as a result. He had to have a slight operation in Switzerland, and then we came to England.
Mr Wallington met us at Croydon Airport. I felt very relieved but my husband felt very much afraid. They had broken the men in the concentration camp. He had been a happy, cheerful young man, an excellent sportsman. He had won skiing trophies in the Tyrol. He had been an excellent swimmer, a footballer, a tennis player. But the joy of life had gone out of him.
We had to register with the police. The Refugee Institution paid support. They gave us £3 a week, whilst my husband was not allowed to work. With the police we had to go on regular pilgrimages to Bow Street police station.
One frightening thing, according to your initial of your name in the alphabet you were given a certain day to collect the refugee benefit from Woburn House. There were vast crowds and everyone told you not to talk about a thing, because there were rumours – and I do not know whether they were well founded or not – that the Nazis had spies disguised as Jewish people, partly even speaking Yiddish, which I don’t speak, or Hebrew, to listen to conversations of refugees and report about them. There was an atmosphere of suspicion and fear. You didn’t know if the man standing next to you was genuine or not…..
The German During the famous “Crystal Night” my father had been arrested and interned at Buchenwald. He spent three weeks at Buchenwald until my mother got him out by bribing some Nazi authorities in Darmstadt, the local land capital. He came out more dead than alive. He had caught pneumonia in hospital and was very weak when he arrived. He never recovered his former self. He had been pretty badly treated. He had to sign a piece of paper saying that he would not communicate the fact that he had been interned to anyone. Nor did they give him any certificate that he had been sent to a concentration camp. The German authorities were ready to let them leave (he had signed an undertaking that he would leave) provided they handed in all their valuables. Because they weren’t allowed to take anything out my mother thought “What shall I do?”
I had to constantly side with the British so that she wouldn’t feel too embittered
She had a couple of rings and a fur coat. I got a friend of my girlfriend to go to Germany and bring that blessed fur coat out by wearing it. She arrived at Dover a month before my parents were due to arrive and was promptly spotted. “What’s that fur coat? Doesn’t look like you.” She stammered “It’s my fur coat.” But she couldn’t prove it and she spilt the beans. After they arrived my parents found themselves with a Customs court case, for attempting to smuggling, for which they took the blame.
We briefed a barrister and the case came up – (and this throws a sidelight on the “rectitude and correctness” of British authorities). Our barrister very nicely explained, although he wasn’t much good, that the girl had instructions not to say anything because it might get back to Germany and then my parents would undoubtedly find themselves in prison. So she hadn’t said anything. My parents had meanwhile arrived and their passports had been stamped “Refugees from Nazi Oppression.” Would that not be sufficient? “No”‘ said the presiding magistrate. “Confiscation of your fur coat and the two diamond rings” plus the usual customs duty which was £300 plus a £400 fine. (3)
That was all the money my parents had managed to bring out and they paid it over, and were thereafter penniless. That’s justice for you! Dad could never get over that. It was terrible. My mother said “They had to be taken by these people!” She could imagine the Nazis taking them, but why should the British? I had to constantly side with the British so that she wouldn’t feel too embittered, which didn’t endear myself to my mother very much. I had a little bit of money and we then tried to buy a house in Newcastle upon Tyne. But the war broke out and the building society refused to sanction the mortgage because we were enemy aliens.
The Austrian When we arrived in England, at first Mr and Mrs Wellington allowed me and the child to stay with them in return for some help I gave them. Meanwhile my husband had to have a little room in London and he occasionally came to see me at week-ends. He was unhappy. Bitterly unhappy. After a month and a half at Mr Wallingtons (I think Mrs Wallington was a little disappointed) I asked them if they would mind if I went to London to join my husband.
I had helped Mrs Wallington with the housework and I remember bringing early morning tea with the biscuits, knocking at the bedroom door and presenting them with this. Then getting the breakfast ready downstairs. Very English: frying rashers of bacon which I had never done before, toasting the bread, just right, special golden brown, and so on. They were extremely kind. Extremely kind.
My husband was bitterly lonely. He had been living in a little furnished room in Priory Road, Kilburn. Kilburn was cheap, not Irish at the time. Full of Jewish refugees. The wealthier ones went off to Hampstead and Golders Green. For us it was the immediate vicinity of the Kilburn High Road – Abbots Place. The house still stands, it’s off Priory Road. They’re early Victorian houses, once presumably family houses, now with furnished rooms.
We were lucky because we met up with a couple who had been my husband’s friends in Vienna and who were in the same position. There was one kitchen and one bathroom, the whole house shared. There was an old English ex-actress and some very interesting characters. It’s like a novel, to remember it all. So it was not too unhappy a time, although for the two men it was very bad. My husband’s friend, who was a doctor of Social Science, managed to get a visa to Australia because he had his sitter living there. They went off. Then war broke out.
1. The Munich Crisis and Settlement, September, 1938. The British and French Governments caved in to further German expansionist demands, this time for the Czech Sudetenland. Chamberlain returned by air from the conference in Munich waving a piece of paper after disembarking at Croydon Airport – the ‘agreement’ – declaring “Peace in Our Time”.
2. 10 September, 1938. Nazi-organised burning, smashing and looting of synagogues, shops and homes, and arrest of Jews throughout Germany and Austria, following the assassination of Vom Rath, Counsellor at the German Embassy in Paris. The assassin was a 17 year old Polish Jew, Herschel Grynsban.
3. The average yearly wage at the time for unskilled manual and clerical workers was approximately £160.