Aug 2008 Journal
Letters to the Editor
THE PAST SHALL NEVER BE FORGOTTEN
Sir – The Archivist at the Wiener Library, Howard Falksohn, would like to receive the original documents relating to our lives, while still living on the Continent or journeying here – letters, certificates, photographs, artefacts. One should of course keep photographs. One day in the future our children will be clearing out our house. They don’t understand German and won’t appreciate the rarity and value of these old papers.
As both of us were born in Berlin, we have given all ours to the Archivist (Dr Aubrey Pomeranz) of the Berlin Jewish Museum after hearing him give an address at the Kindertransport lunch.
We attended two ‘workshops’ at the Berlin Jewish Museum. Our documents had been studied by students from Berlin University, who gave dissertations on some of the original material. There were three subjects of discussion, including one on Theriesenstadt, where a cousin kept a secret diary. She wrote: ‘For my 82nd birthday the best present I received was half a potato from a fellow inmate and on three occasions I waited for hours in the open air en route to the gas chambers of Auschwitz – only to be rejected at the last moment as the train was full.’ She survived the war and lived into her nineties. Also discussed were memories of the Kindertransport. We still had the original numbered label tied round each child’s neck. And the identity card with ‘J’ for Jude printed on it and the extra middle name of Israel inserted. The third subject was Jewish lawyers before the war under Hitler who were forced to stop work in 1938.
We were the first Jews these youngsters had encountered. Perhaps they will now realise more clearly the terrible, murderous deeds their grandfathers were witness to or, more likely, were willing participants. The past shall never be forgotten.
SUPPING WITH THE DEVIL
Sir – I was very impressed by Dr Anthony Grenville’s article (June) about Rudolf Kastner, based on the book by Ladislaus Löb. My late husband spoke to me about this issue many years ago. The information available at the time made him conscious of the dilemma facing this poor man. We were both aware of the devious machinations employed by the Nazis. Thus we sensed he had been unjustly vilified. As you imply, at the time too many Jews, especially in Israel, had a black-and-white perspective relating to the years of our persecution: one was either a hero or a villain. Whilst this attitude has now abated, as you mention, it still reverberates among some right-wing fanatics, with dreadful consequences.
Let us revere the memory of this brave man, who tried, and succeeded, to save so many Jews in desperate circumstances. His murder was a vile deed.
Sir – In recent times, an attempt to re-examine the ‘heroic’ activities of various functionaries, in particular the role of Rudolf Kastner (Kasztner) during the Hungarian Holocaust, was initiated by Anna Porter’s book Kasztner’s Train: The True Story of an Unknown Hero of the Holocaust.
Some 1,600 Jews paid Eichmann for their lives and liberty. We are all grateful that Mr Löb and others were in a position to do so as well as Mr Kastner’s family and were allowed to escape the fate of the other 435,000 victims. This was a remarkable achievement. But further factual recounting of that period is necessary for evaluating the difficult tasks facing the Jewish Council and others.
Irrespective of the claims of some historians that there were many opportunities for the majority of provincial Jews to know of their impending destruction, this was not the case. The few who escaped from Slovakia perhaps warned those who lived close to the borders of the transportations etc, but this information did not filter through. Nor could the BBC World Service in Hungarian be transmitted without severe censorship of the known extermination camps.
Dr Grenville asks: How could Kastner have helped to save those deported? By distributing the information on Auschwitz written by Vrba and Wetzler, the two great heroes who managed to escape that camp and speedily prepared the Auschwitz Protocol to warn Hungarian Jews of the extension of the gas chambers awaiting us. This document was collected by Kastner when he was in Bratislava. We may well remember Professor Ian Kershaw’s view that ‘History is not a one-way path along an inevitable course.’
ONE OF THE LUCKY ONES
Sir – On reading Anthony Grenville’s ‘Reflections on Austria’ in the July issue, I was taken back the 70 years to Vienna and the Anschluss.
I was one of the lucky ones. My parents – my father, the playwright and journalist Abisz Meisels, and my mother, Klara Meisels – were born in what was the Austro-Hungarian Empire but became Poland after the First World War. This meant, according to the rules that existed at my birth, that I took on Polish nationality, the nationality of my parents, even though I had never been to Poland. It was our Polish citizenship that saved our lives.
As some of your readers may know, most of the Jewish organisations in Vienna had been infiltrated by covert Nazis working as administrators and the like. My father, most of whose plays had a Zionist leaning, belonged to the Zionist organisation, where the secretary was one of these ‘Nazis’. She, however, was a great admirer of my father and informed him that he was down for arrest in a few days’ time, on 9 May. We booked an outing to Brünn (now Brno) in Czechoslovakia for Sunday 8 May. My mother and I were wearing three dresses and three lots of underwear, but my father only took Theodor Herzl’s book Altneuland with him (I still have the copy). Being Polish citizens, we were allowed to pass freely over the border. On arriving in Brünn, we couldn’t believe it – no flags with swastikas and no beatings of Jews. We had escaped the Nazis thanks to a Nazi.
‘A GIFT OF LIFE’
Sir – Further to the letters in your July issue, in my personal experience the actions of the Belgian authorities – the border police, the home office, and particularly the helpful assistance shown at local level – following liberation from the camps are commensurate with the exemplary rescue missions they were involved in.
I was liberated from Mauthausen. After a brief ‘home’ visit to Hungary to see who else had survived, the search for a safe place occupied my mind and those of hundreds of other teenage boys. Without any documents or guarantees, the town of Terwagne near Namur and later Linkebeek housed us and gave us pastoral care. Not ‘a gift of life’ perhaps - but a much-needed trust in humanity helpful towards the rebuilding of a new life.
THE BRITAIN WE LIVE IN
Sir – I was somewhat disenchanted by Jussi Brainin’s article (June) in which he praises Britain excessively. Yes, quite a few German Jews found refuge in Britain. Yes, Britain fought quite well against the Germans, though they started the invasion of Continental Europe very late. Also, at no time should we forget to mention the Patria and the Struma as well as the Exodus. What has to be highlighted is the fact that Russia lost over 20 million people during the Second World War. If it weren’t for the Russians, Göring might have been working from 10 Downing Street.
STOLPERSTEINE DETAILS SOUGHT
Sir – Readers of the AJR Journal will know of the German Stolpersteine project. These are commemorative stones placed outside houses where Jews who were deported had lived. This is to make the present inhabitants realise the horrors of the Nazi period.
I have received the following request from a German friend who lives at Berlin-Schöneberg, Gosslerstr. 21. In her house lived Martha and Gabriele Scheff, who were deported in 1941. Next door lived Max Klein and Alfred Wagner, who died in Lodz in 1942. My friend wants to know more about these four people. She knows that the author Werner Scheff (1888-1947) emigrated to England in 1937. Can any of your readers help in tracing their relations?
NEW SQUARE FOR VIENNA
Sir – An event of great importance for the history of all the distinguished refugees from Austria recently occurred in Vienna. There an important square, facing the United Nations building, has been named Mohammed Assad-Platz. The initiative for this was taken by a Muslim city councillor.
Mohammed Assad was my step-brother. He was born in Lemberg/Lwow, the son of the lawyer Karl Akiva Weiss, a member of a prominent line of rabbis; his name was Leopold Weiss. He converted to Islam in 1926 and became one of the founders of Pakistan. I have deposited important material in the Wiener Library and am now also in possession of the latest newspaper reportage of the recent event in Vienna, including DVDs. I do feel that the honour awarded such a person would be of interest to all our readers.
Sir – Recent events in Zimbabwe remind me of what happened in Austria in 1938. The Schuschnigg regime, on its last legs, was going to call a plebiscite but Hitler invaded Austria in the meantime. However, the plebiscite was still going to be held - Nazi-style. The voting forms ran as follows: ‘Are you in agreement with the National Socialist Party? There will be a large circle for “Yes” and a small one for “No”.’
Jews were not allowed to vote of course. An Aryan acquaintance told me that at the polling station an SA man stood behind each voter, pointed to the large circle, and said ‘Put a cross there!’ No wonder the plebiscite was almost 100 per cent in favour of the Nazis.
Sir - I watched the three episodes recently screened on BBC4 entitled Jews with my non-Jewish husband, who summed the series up most effectively as ‘not doing the “Jews” any favours’.
The programme’s creator advertised in the AJR Journal as she was interested in interviewing members of the ‘second generation’ for an episode in the series. We spoke briefly on the phone and exchanged emails and, although she explained that she was unable to use my comments, I eagerly awaited the screening and imagined that I would hear, see and subsequently empathise with fellow children of survivors. Not!
The programme appeared to be cleverly edited to include only negative narrative. My wonderful 89-year-old mother still ‘survives’ today. My mother taught her children well - we were made aware of her horrific experiences as soon as we were old enough to understand. Contrary to the programme’s portrayal, we had a wonderful loving, caring upbringing. Although perhaps cossetted and protected more preciously by our parents than our ‘English-Jewish’ friends, our childhood was filled with fun and laughter. We felt happy and secure and certainly not alienated. Our mother lost her parents and entire extended family apart from her sister and brother, but in so doing bestowed upon her children all the ‘surplus’ love in her heart. It’s a pity that the programme creator’s narrow interpretation gave out such a sombre message.
It would be interesting to hear how fellow second generation members perceived the programme and if, like me, they feel cheated.
ISRAELIS AND PALESTINIANS
Sir – All parties to a war behave badly at some time or other. Israel is not the only one. Let us therefore face reality and accept these sad facts of life and either stand up for all countries which have suffered as a result of war or shut up. But do not single out Israel for condemnation!
Perhaps Inge Trott would care to pass on this opinion to the Jews for Justice for Palestinians society and to Alternative Jewish Voices.
This brings me to the report that Archbishop Tutu strongly condemned Israel’s actions in Gaza and, in passing, only disapproved of Hamas’s shelling of Israel. I do not know whether this was biased reporting by the media. Nor did I hear reports of the Archbishop voicing a word of criticism of Mugabe! Are the media reports a true reflection of the facts?
Sir – May I be permitted to put forward a solution to the problem faced by your contributors in the July issue whose blood pressure rises when dealing with Jews who espouse the Palestinian cause?
On the Viennese/Bohemian side of my family was a well-to-do banker who had had the foresight to opt for Czech citizenship in 1918 and was thus able to rescue himself and his fortune by emigrating to England unscathed. His sayings were not only amusing but were repeated like holy writ by the more impecunious members of the mishpoche. One of them was ‘Mit meshuggene soll man nicht disputieren’ (Don’t argue with nutters). Another of his sayings was ‘Mit metzies verzettelt man sein ganzes Geld!’ (With bargains, you fritter all your money away).
Sir – Sadly, some Jews do not know that the Palestinians do not want two states: they want only one state – an Arab state. Any survivors from Europe can remember the slogans shouted to us before the war: ‘Jews, go back to Palestine!’ Everyone knows we are from Israel, renamed Palestine.
Sir – I owned until recently a cosh of exactly the type that Victor Ross describes in his article ‘Berlin Days’ in last month’s issue of the Journal. But I then sadly decided to dispose of it as these days one never knows when the police may search your house – and it is a deadly weapon. So it is now merely a memory. I inherited it from my late father, Victor Ehrenberg, but it didn’t look as if it had ever been used.
IN TOUCH WITH THE PAST
Sir – I value and enjoy your little magazine very much – keeps me in touch with the past.
Sir – The AJR Journal always makes very interesting and informative reading. Many thanks.