Jul 2008 Journal

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Quaker Tapestry Centre sheds light on tragic tale

Imagine our family’s surprise when a researcher from the Quaker Tapestry Exhibition Centre in Kendal, Cumbria contacted us after more than 60 years with new information about a cousin who tragically died shortly before the war ended!

Julian Abraham has produced a CDROM entitled These Houses Hold Secrets which features Second World War stories of courage and determination in the Netherlands. Made for use in schools and centres, it describes the work of the Quakers, who were pacifists, many of them risking their lives to help beleaguered Jewish families.

Following Julian Abraham’s phone call to my father Hans Meyer (whose details he had obtained from Yad Vashem), I visited Kendal in the same week as a special exhibition was launched. The exhibition, Weapons of Spirit, documents the Quakers’ response to conflict. It is displayed alongside a series of 77 beautiful embroidered panels. The panel in which I was particularly interested was Friends in the Netherlands – Jewish Children Hidden in Quaker Homes.

When Hitler came to power, our family was forced to leave its native Germany. People went where they could. Some crossed the border into the Netherlands, although it soon transpired that that was not far enough.

A cousin, Ernst Rudolf Reiss, was sent to the Eerde Quaker School in Ommen in the eastern Netherlands - it was thought to be safer than remaining where he was in Hamburg. During this time he made friends with Klaus Seckel, who had arrived from Hanover at the age of eight. Klaus was encouraged to keep a journal. In it he mentions his friend Ernst Rudolf.

Ernst’s father Adolf was the brother of my grandmother Ellen (née Reiss). He was an engineer and scholar who had fought bravely during the First World War. Sadly he died of peritonitis at the age of 35 in 1928 leaving a widow, Marie, and two children, Ingeborg and Ernst.

My grandfather, Martin, tried to persuade Marie to leave Germany when he was about to set off for Palestine with his own family in November 1936. He had also been urged to try to convince her to go to Palestine by relatives who had settled in England to escape persecution. But Marie, from a well-to-do family, could not face the wrench of leaving, with fatal consequences.

Inge, said to have made a derogatory remark about the Nazis in 1942, was deported with her mother to Auschwitz, where they died later that year. Ernst Rudolf arrived in the Netherlands in September 1938, a few months after Klaus. At first they lived at the Eerde School. The former castle building was surrounded by a large estate with moats, gardens, an orchard and an orangery. Klaus describes Ernest as his best friend and as having ‘many intellectual interests’.

Three years later the Jewish children were moved from the rest of the school to another building on the Eerde estate. Here Klaus records in his diary that Ernst Rudolf had told him about the ‘new order of things’, including the need for frugality ‘on account of the finances’.

The Nazis promised they would be safe, but it was not to be. In April 1943 they were sent to Vught concentration camp, then to Westerbork, where Ernst came across my father’s sister Käte. Käte miraculously survived her terrible ordeal and is now nearly 99. She arrived from Bergen-Belsen at the same time as the Russians, who liberated her train.

Meanwhile, both boys were sent to Theresienstadt. Klaus was soon deported to Auschwitz, with Ernst Rudolf following 12 days later. With the approach of the Soviet army, many prisoners were forced to march westwards. Both perished. Ellen records in her journal: ‘The treachery of the departing Nazis meant Ernst was shot together with five other young men when they shouted “freedom”.’

The date of Ernst Rudolf’s death is shown on the memorial in Ommen as 28 January 1945, the day after Auschwitz was liberated. He was 17. Klaus died exactly a month later. It is a desperately sad story.
The Quaker Tapestry is a modern embroidery of 77 fascinating panels. Made by 4,000 men, women and children, this international community project explores three centuries of social history. The Exhibition Centre in Kendal is open to the public from April to October each year. For more information, telephone +44 (0)1539 722975 or visit www.quaker-tapestry.co.uk 

Janet Weston

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