Mar 2003 Journal

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Eric Kaufman: a profile

Eric Kaufman and his wife Gerda live in their comfortable home, tucked away in a northwest London suburb. He had just returned from a visit to Berlin to view an exhibition on the life and work of one of his relatives. Nothing remarkable about that, you might conclude, but this month Eric celebrates his 90th birthday. A sprightly man and dapper dresser, he appears all of 20 years younger, and maintains many interests and a zest for life.

Surprisingly, Eric reveals that he was born in West Hampstead on 24 March 1913. His father had quit his native Mannheim to see something of the world and joined relatives who had already established a business trading in cereals in England. While on a visit to Germany in 1912, he met and married a lady from Münster and returned to London with his bride. In 1915, following the torpedoing of the Lusitania, Eric’s father was interned with other ‘enemy aliens’ on the Isle of Man. Before the war’s end, Eric’s mother was offered, and accepted, an opportunity, through the Quakers, to return to Germany with her son in exchange for British civilian prisoners of war, in the mistaken hope that it would hasten her husband’s release.

As a five-year-old German boy speaking only English, Eric found himself “thrown out” of the hotel in which his grandmother lodged, by German officers on leave from the front - as a British spy! He was sent to an aunt in Berlin “bang in the middle of the 1918 German revolution”. Eric also clearly remembers occupying French soldiers marching down the street to requisition accommodation for officers.

In 1919 Eric’s father was finally released from internment and reunited with his wife and child. When he joined the family grain business in 1921, they moved to Düsseldorf. One of five Jewish children in his class, Eric recalls never experiencing antisemitism; he was Barmitzvah, and well aware of his Jewish identity.

The value of the mark plummeted in the hyperinflation of 1923. By 1930 the National Socialists had gained 107 seats in the Reichstag and Jews were increasingly aware of the Nazis’ rising influence. Now aged 17, Eric was apprenticed in an accounts department, a year later obtaining a transfer to a Netherlands branch where, unfortunately, his new boss became an enthusiastic Dutch Nazi!

Returning to Düsseldorf in 1932, he witnessed street battles between the Communists, Social Democrats and Nazis. Even venturing onto the street brought its dangers. “One lived and feared what was going to happen,” he remembers. Having obtained his British passport, on 15 July 1933 he left for England. He was accompanied by his mother, who attempted to alert the British Government to what the Nazis meant for the fate of the Jews, by contacting a niece of Sir Herbert Samuel, the former Home Secretary, before returning to Germany.

Eric’s father, whose passport had been taken from him by the Gestapo, secured its return only by the intervention of a sympathetic Nazi official. In 1934, dismissed from his business, with his possessions sold, he embarked for England with his wife and younger son, and re-established his cereal trading business in London with Eric working for him.

Eric recalls the newspapers’ poor understanding of Nazi Germany. Although The Times favoured appeasement, the Morning Post printed more accurate reports. Eric spoke at the League of Nations Youth Union and argued with fascist supporters at Hyde Park Corner and Tower Hill. Joining the 33 Club for Refugees at the West London Synagogue in 1936 proved a smart move as, in the following year, he met Gerda Philipp and they married in 1942.

Seeing the inevitability of war, Eric volunteered to join the Auxiliary Fire Service and was attached to stations in Hendon and Golders Green. In 1940 their firm’s office in the City of London was destroyed in the Blitz, where Eric, serving as a fireman, discovered the destruction himself. The Blitz continued for 57 nights before the Luftwaffe turned its devastating attacks on the Coventrys and Plymouths. Eric became a full-time fire service administrator in Golders Green and then in Pinner.

After the war the Kaufmans kept their business, though in austerity Britain everything was either licensed or rationed. When his father died in 1962, Eric and his brother carried on until Eric retired in 1987 at the age of 74. But with his many interests - including philately, genealogy, art, theatre, travel and reading, especially twentieth-century political biography - Eric found he had “more to do than ever before.” Having decided to research the history of his mother’s family, the Flechtheims, Eric believes he can trace them back to 1648! An exhibition in Düsseldorf marking the 50th anniversary of the death of his mother’s cousin, Alfred Flechtheim, a leading art dealer, only served to increase his interest.

Eric takes pride in their son Andrew (present Chairman of the AJR), his wife Susie, and their grandchildren. Eric and Gerda still count “quite a few other German-Jewish refugees” among their circle and correspond with German and Jewish friends in Europe and the United States.
Ronald Channing

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