Apr 2014 Journal
Letters to the Editor
Sir - As usual, Anthony Grenville’s front-page article about the Kindertransport parents (January) is most informative and it is necessary - as he did - to remind younger readers, who have not themselves experienced the ‘obstacle course’ imposed by the Nazi authorities before Jews were permitted to emigrate, how burdensome these bureaucratic procedures were.
However, in my experience (and I still have all the relevant documents), his list is incomplete. Certainly in Berlin, from where I left in April 1939, we had to obtain two Unbedenklichkeitsbescheinigungen - one from the Finanzamt (tax authority) and one from the relevant Bezirksamt (local district authority), both confirming that no taxes or penalties were due. Furthermore – certainly in Berlin – it was also necessary for the Jewish community to certify that no money was owed to them. All these documents had to be produced at an office situated in the Bruedervereinshaus (formerly the headquarters of a lodge) in the Kurfuerstenstrasse, which was manned by Nazi and Jewish officials, sitting side by side. I am sorry to relate that the latter were just as officious and unfriendly as their Nazi colleagues.
In my particular case, as I was 19 at the time and the age of majority was still 21, both my father and I considered it prudent to have me officially declared volljährig, i.e. having reached the age of majority. We both had to attend an interview by a judge to obtain the relevant document. As in all cases of a change of address, the police had to be informed with an Abmeldung.
But most importantly, a list had to be drawn up setting out every single article the would-be emigrant wanted to take with him, down to the last tube of toothpaste. This list had to differentiate between items acquired before and after 1 January 1933, in the latter case stating the date of acquisition and the price paid. The list had to be presented to an ‘expert’ (Sachverstaendiger), who came to the emigrant’s residence and examined all the articles mentioned before they were packed. If he agreed with the values quoted for post-1933 acquisitions, a tax (Ausfuhrfoerderungsabgabe) had to be paid before emigration was permitted. When everything had been packed under the ‘expert’s’ supervision, he put a seal on each suitcase and trunk, which had to be left untouched until all the luggage had crossed the border and was out of the Germans’ jurisdiction. How strictly the examination was enforced depended entirely on the personality of the ‘expert’. In my case, he told us when he went for lunch that we should continue packing while he was out and he would seal the luggage when he came back - a clear case of somebody in an official capacity being ‘on the side of’ the emigrant.
FACTS AND VIEWS
Sir - Peter Simpson (February, Letters) only weakens his criticism of the British government by distorting Anthony Grenville’s wholly factual article in the January journal. His statement that ‘Churchill knew [there would be a war]’ is irrelevant. Mr Churchill was not a member of the government before 1940. But perhaps Peter Simpson doesn’t like facts that don’t support his views.
By comparison, the other Peter in the same issue, Peter Phillips, is obviously an expert on bias, when he attacks Professor Brent’s description of the Guardian as not being based on evidence. Has Mr Phillips any evidence to support his accusation? Has he any evidence for stating that the Daily Telegraph does not lean as far to the right as the Guardian leans to the left? The Telegraph is known as an arch-Tory paper. The Guardian is known as being pro-liberal. I don't believe there is today a British daily that is as far to the left as the Telegraph is to the right. Of course, that depends on the definition of right and left - which is much easier when referring to arms and hands.
Peter Phillips’s bias seems to be a political one, when he attempts to defend Mr Gove’s ravaging of our education system. Personally, I agree that Mr Gove is not inept just because the Guardian said so. The description is much too mild: ‘destructive’, ‘ignorant’ and ‘reactionary’ are much more suitable adjectives to describe the Education Secretary's disgusting policies.
‘IT TAKES ALL SORTS!’
Sir – John Farago (March, Letters) says he is ‘Openly proud to have been born a Jew in Vienna’. Proud, that is, to have been born in a city whose citizens made his fellow Jews scrub the pavements with brushes while at the same time abusing them.
As they say, ‘It takes all sorts!’
HEARING STORIES AT FIRST HAND
Sir - Honoured and proud to be chosen to represent Akiva School at such a prestigious event (Kindertransport Lunch: guest speaker Natasha Kaplinsky), we entered Alyth Gardens Synagogue nervous but excited to hear the extraordinary stories of the Kindertransport refugees.
During our lunch we had the opportunity to hear first-hand stories of what it was like to leave your parents at such a young age. Most of them were our age - or even younger - and it made us feel in awe of how they had to cope during this time - which we still find hard to comprehend!
On returning to school, we were buzzing to share our experiences and other stories that we have now inherited from the ‘Kinder’ themselves.
We are really grateful to have had this opportunity to enhance our knowledge of, and empathy with, the lives of those people who lived through a cruel, yet vital, lesson in history.
TREATED WITH COURTESY BY VIENNA SCHOOL
Sir – George Vulcan’s offhand treatment by the notoriously snotty Schottengymnasium (March, Letters) was most regrettable – so unlike my old school, the Gymnasium Wien XIII (Hietzing), where we were treated with courtesy until the day we left.
Recently a plaque was mounted in the school showing the names of all pupils excluded in 1938. I was unfortunately unable to attend the ceremony but am aware that every known survivor was invited, with help for expenses offered. The Archbishop, the Bürgermaster and other notables were to participate in the unveiling.
CHILDREN'S MUSEUM IN SEARCH OF VISUAL MATERIAL
Sir - We would like to develop our presentation of the history of the Kindertransport. Could readers get in touch if they have any visual material that we could include in a school’s presentation or on our webpage? Hearing the voices of child survivors or seeing images from their war is particularly important for students. I’m hopeful that more visual records are being produced now with digital film.
The Museum would like to present children’s art from Terezin in April and May. We are completing the loan agreement just now with Terezin Museum and I'm looking for venues for this important exhibition. Please let me know if you can think of anyone who may be interested in presenting the children’s art and history.
Thank you again to everyone who has contacted the Museum with letters, poems, memoirs and phone calls.
COPIES OF NEWSLETTER SOUGHT
Sir - At the Wiener Library we have a great collection of newsletters published by refugee and exile groups. Today this kind of material is incredibly hard to find as the paper quality was often poor and publication numbers low.
To complete our holdings, we are looking for issues of Frau in Arbeit: periodical of the working refugee woman. Currently we have only one issue: number 17, 1941. This newsletter was published in London by the Gemeinschaft Werktätiger Frauen and it would be fascinating material for our readers. We would be very grateful if you would consider donating any copies you may have to the Library. Please contact Marek Jaros on 020 7636 7247 or at email@example.com
Sir – Dr Anthony Grenville’s article ‘The Miliband Controversy in Historical Perspective’ (December, 2013) is very much appreciated and has proven to be an interesting read in the office.
‘THE ENGLISH WAY’
Sir - I happened to be leafing through a past number of the Journal and spotted the little photo entitled ‘Squares for Blankets’. It reminded me that as a refugee arriving here in 1939 (on the ‘Winton Train’), my little sister and I lived with a lovely English couple and I attended a local council school in Ashton-under-Lyne (near Manchester).
In my class of ten-year-olds we were all given wool and needles to knit squares for blankets. I could knit so I got on with it. After a while the whole class became silent watching me. As you may be aware, Continentals hold their knitting needles differently. The teacher asked me what I was doing. ‘Knitting,’ I said.
Unfortunately, in her eyes I was not knitting and, until I learned to knit ‘the English way’, I wasn’t allowed to knit squares.
TO PALESTINE VIA THE DANUBE
Sir - I recently read another ‘batch’ of AJR Journals during a visit to my mother. As usual, there were many fascinating sagas and life stories.
With regard to the query about boats of young Zionists attempting to reach Palestine via the Danube: in 2012 there took place in Vienna a commemoration of the so-called 'Kladovo Transport'. This photographic exhibition, together with a commemorative book, was dedicated to some 800 young Austrians whose boat was unfortunately held up by ice on the river as it reached the village of Kladovo in Romania at the end of 1939. They were held there until September 1940, when they were taken across the River Sava to Sabac in Serbia, which was occupied by the Germans in 1941. The men were shot and the women and children forced to march to Belgrade, where they in turn were executed. One can barely imagine what it was like for them during these months. In 2002 the Kultusgemeinde in Vienna erected a memorial in the Jewish cemetery in Belgrade.
I confess that until I was specifically invited, I had never heard of this particular tragic incident. Like the ‘death train to Ias’ of 1941, there are so many stories remaining to be properly revealed. Those wishing for further details can contact the initiator of the commemoration at firstname.lastname@example.org
Also, as I serve as the (part-time) Rabbi of the Liberal Jewish community 'Or Chadasch' in Vienna, may I remind any readers planning to visit Vienna, or planning to lay commemorative plaques, that we would love to welcome them to our services - see our website for details - or they can contact me at Rothschild-Berlin@t-online.de
Sir – My sister Eva was one of those who left Austria on a ship sailing east on the Danube. According to her, these ships were organised by the right-wing Zionist organisation Betar.
Eva was single and 18 years old. She left in early 1939. They sailed for Romania, whence they were accommodated on Turkish coastal vessels. They landed close to Netanya, where they were hidden in a cinema. One vessel was boarded by the British navy and the refugees were interned.
SAVED BY AN SS MAN
Sir - My parents’ lives were saved by an SS man. In the thirties we lived in what was then Danzig, at Dominikswall 9. My father had a small business, Polish Asiatic Company, which imported tea from the UK. One morning in 1932 a young man, a German, came to the office and asked my father for a job. He said he was unemployed, had a wife and two children and was starving. He said he was an accounts clerk. My father gave him a job. Some 18 months later he left with thanks for some other career.
In June 1939, my parents were getting ready to leave Danzig for Poland when the doorbell rang. Our housekeeper opened the door. Standing there was an SS man. He put his finger to his lips and said ‘Tell your master to leave immediately. He will be arrested this afternoon. I was the poor clerk to whom your master gave a job when I needed it badly. I am repaying his kindness.’ He then left.
My parents immediately packed a case and left for Warsaw. I was already in London.
In 1940 they made their way from the bombed Warsaw through Romania and Bulgaria to Istanbul, where they boarded the Polish ship Warszawa for Haifa. On board the ship they had another experience. While walking on deck, my father caught a glimpse of a German businessman he had known in Danzig as a Nazi sympathiser. My father immediately informed the captain, who said he should leave things in his hands.
From Haifa, my parents were taken to Tel Aviv. While sitting in a roadside café, they saw the German from Danzig and from the ship walking along the road. He saw my parents, smiled, walked towards their table and greeted them. He was dressed in the uniform of a captain in the British Army. You can draw your own conclusions .…
RETURN TO HILDESHEIM
Sir - I read with great interest Janet Howley’s account of her family’s history from Hildesheim, Germany, in your January edition. My family too originates from Hildesheim. I was born Heinz Manfred in January 1937; my sister Eva Johanna was born in 1927. The family managed to get out of Germany with ‘J’ passports in July 1939.
Our family background in Hildesheim is extraordinarily similar to that of the David Meier family which Janet relates. My father, Leopold Cohn, also fought in the First World War. He was also later interned in Buchenwald but my mother, Else Cohn (née Feige), managed to obtain his release – pleading with the Gestapo was quite a feat in itself!
My grandparents, Julius and Ida Feige, who owned a successful real estate agency in Hildesheim, could also be classed as ‘a reasonably wealthy German-Jewish family’. Their longstanding address was an apartment in Bernwardstr. 23, a property owned by the Jewish banking family Hess, but they were forced by circumstances (Hess sold up to emigrate) to move to another apartment, in Altes Dorf, and again later to one in Wallstrasse.
Of course, at the age of 18 months, I knew nothing of life in Hildesheim but in May 1988 my sister and her husband, my wife and I, and a few other former Hildesheim residents were invited by the Stadt Hildesheim to visit our birthplace, which proved a most interesting and rewarding experience. At that time, a certain Hans-Jurgen Hahn of the Robert-Bosch Gesamtschule (a UNESCO Model school) was leading a team in the preservation and restoration of the chapel in the Jewish cemetery, where we were shown the grave of our grandmother, Ida Feige.
In the ensuing years, my parents passed away here in London. I have also ‘lost’ my sister and two uncles so, from my heritage, I don’t have a living blood relative. However, my wife and I can celebrate 50 years of marriage this year. We have a great son and two wonderful grandchildren - hopefully the beginning of a new family dynasty!
Sir - In his interesting article about Hans Oster (February), Dr Grenville mentioned Jews in the guise of Abwehr agents being helped to escape to Switzerland. Were these ‘pseudo-spies’ perhaps the ‘Jews in the Abwehr’ that Wikipedia reports?
Does any reader know if some Jews really spied for Hitler (under pressures that must soften harsh judgements about them)? If so, where were they active and what became of them?
PETITION AGAINST FRENCH RAILWAYS
Sir - We have been working with members of the US Congress for a law that would facilitate our fight against the SNCF. Working with change.org, we have created a petition to obtain grass-roots support.
We need your help - and the help of your family and friends. Please go to http://www.change.org/petitions/sncf-pay-reparations-to-victims-of-the-holocaust Sign the petition online and ask everyone in your family to sign it separately. After you sign it, send it to everyone on your email list and ask them to sign it and send it to their family and friends. Share it with your synagogue, members of any clubs or associations you belong to and with your neighbours.
We want 76,000 names on the petition to represent the 76,000 Jews who were deported. With your help, it will happen. Thank you.
Letter from Israel
The subject is tricky because, on the one hand, Israel aspires to be a modern, democratic society, treating men and women equally in the public sphere. On the other hand, the laws regarding marriage and divorce are subject to the restrictions, regulations and constraints of its ancient, patriarchal religion.
The reasons for this are complex. Jewish religious law regarding marriage and divorce was adopted when the State of Israel was established as part of the price the ‘founding fathers’ paid in order to bring the religious parties into the coalition government. Back then, however, the religious parties were very different in their mien and outlook from the ultra-orthodox version that now prevails.
Thus, the laws set out in the Bible regarding the role of women in marriage are upheld to this day. If a woman’s husband dies without there having been any children - sons, that is - his brothers must either marry or release her. Yes, in Israel today! There is no such thing as civil marriage. Members of each religious group – Jews, Muslims, Christians – may marry only in accordance with their religion, continuing the arrangement of the over 400 years of Ottoman rule throughout the Middle East.
If a Jewish woman wishes to get divorced she can do so only if her husband agrees to this. This harks back to the time when the wife was regarded as the property of her husband and this approach continues to cast its long shadow over the situation of women in Israel today. It has given rise to many injustices towards women over the centuries and it is not unknown for a man to deny his wife a divorce unless she gives him some material benefit or grants him custody of their children or whatever takes his fancy. The rabbinical courts which judge these cases consist entirely of men so that the tendency is to favour men. Divorce isn’t pleasant at the best of times but the lot of a woman in Israel is particularly hard. The process involved is a long-drawn-out, demeaning and painful Via Dolorosa and can even end in failure.
Recently I attended a talk by Susan Weiss entitled ‘How a Good Jewish Girl Became a Radical Feminist’. Susan is an American-born attorney now living in Israel. When she immigrated to Israel some 30 years ago, she was an orthodox Jewish woman with a husband and three small children. Unable to work in her profession, she volunteered for various women’s organisations, where she encountered the problem of women denied a divorce by their husband (Agunot). Using her legal training, Susan was able to help in some of these cases but also found herself moving away from her strict adherence to orthodox Judaism. Fortunately, her husband has been very understanding about this process.
There are many other archaic aspects of Jewish law that restrict women’s rights but they are too numerous and arcane to mention here, to the extent that a person born into the modern world will find it difficult to believe that in Israel this is still the law and is enforced by the agencies of the state.
In 2004 Susan founded the Centre for Women’s Justice (CWJ), an organisation devoted to protecting the right of women in Israel to equality, dignity and justice in Jewish Law. It has achieved much in upholding women’s rights in the rabbinical courts and has even instituted proceedings in the civil court for damages against recalcitrant husbands. These cases have been upheld, resulting in positive outcomes and setting an important legal precedent.
Written together with journalist Netty Gross-Horowitz, Susan’s book, Marriage and Divorce in the Jewish State: Israel’s Civil War, has been published by the Brandeis Series on Gender, Culture, Religion, and Law. It describes cases dealt with by the CWJ in which women were denied a divorce by their husbands or on whom various restrictions were imposed by the rabbinical court. Incidentally, even a woman who has been married abroad in a civil ceremony (which is recognised in Israel) must seek a divorce in the rabbinical court.
The ultimate solution to the situation, Susan claims, is the separation of religion and state in Israel, bringing the country into line with the tenets of a modern democracy, enabling couples to wed according to their own inclinations, and releasing the stranglehold of the rabbinical courts on legal procedures in Israel. Roll on the day!