IX. My emigration
Germany, England 1939
During May, 1939, the notice boards in the Technical High School announce that all students are to spend the Summer vacations in the Eastern provinces to assist with an expected bumper harvest. In previous years, while still at school, I have been involved in potato picking. I have learned to dislike intensely the togetherness which goes with such activities; primitive accommodation with masses of strangers, bulk feeding and make-shift hygienic facilities have left their mark on me. I am simply too spoiled and have been kept away from the possible advantages of comradeship too long to put up with all of these handicaps for the sake of objectives which I now know not to be my own. Whenever I could manage in the past, I have kept out of mass sport, defence sport and demonstrations for whatever purpose.
The day after the appearance of the harvest order, I present myself to the High School doctor and apply for a certificate of exemption on the grounds that before matriculation I have been declared temporarily medically unfit for Army service. The doctor insists that I face again the Army recruiting panel. Once more I am lucky and am deferred on the grounds of retarded physical development. I virtually dance out of the barracks after having displayed myself in the altogether to the examining board of clothed doctors and officers as well as to others, equally denuded potential defenders of the fatherland.
The University doctor has no option but to declare me unfit for harvest work. Within a few hours, I line up in front of the passport issuing office. In these days, persons subject to conscription can hold passports only for one year at a time. After leaving Koenigsberg, my papers have been transferred to Munich. By some mysterious stroke of luck, the police in Munich is not aware of my ancestral record. Within days, I am issued with a new passport. I am given a note pointing out that I require the permission of the Hitler Youth, if I want to leave the country. At no stage, I have had to display my yellow student card. I decide not to bother about the permission from the Hitler Youth and take my chances at the border. I have never before dealt with that organization.
With freedom virtually within my reach, I resume final
preparations for an important interim examination at the High
School, which also includes an oral examination in mathematics.
My performance is somewhat affected by lack of memory, but a
lengthy discussion with the professor himself on the subject of
the definition of the natural logarithm keeps my record
unblemished. My last act at the University is to leave a postcard
with the tutor who is going to let me know how I fared. Results
are expected during July; my success in the examination is
confirmed in this way before the outbreak of war.
Since I came to Munich early in 1938, much of my leisure time has been devoted to learning English. I frequent the company of English and American students, and visit once weekly an afternoon tea in the American Church, where I borrow reading matter and practice conversation. Occasionally, I go with some of the younger foreign students to the centrally located Artists' Mansion" ( Künstlerhaus) which has been commandeered by Goebbels' Ministry of Propaganda from the artists' colony of Munich, once famous for its liveliness. We speak English and are never stopped on entering. It is the year of the Lambeth Walk which is only played when requested by foreigners.
During 1939, I also spend much time with Norah Trangmar, whom I met at Christmas on the train on the way to Koenigsberg. When she learns about my Jewish origin and the troubles facing my family, she contacts a friend in England on my behalf. By that time, Jobst has gone to England to look for a job after deciding to defer his military service and try to get overseas experience, probably with a view to eventual emigration of the entire family.
During recent months, father has made applications for papers to enter the United States and Australia. However, waiting lists are long and grow rapidly. Officials handling such applications have become bogged down in ever increasing numbers of formalities. One has to expect many months or even years of waiting before emigration will be possible. Many people have begun to sense the urgency of the situation after the Kristallnacht.
Shanghai, under Japanese occupation, is the only port, where landing permits are not required. The gentleman in England rises to the occasion and invites me to meet him in Baden-Baden, a spa in Southern Germany, favoured by English people. I begin to prepare for the possibility of leaving Germany for good. On the last evening, Norah and I walk through the English Garden to a little inn under a huge lime tree, where we have often taken simple meals in the evening. Europe is at its best during this summer. Tourists flock to Munich as fast as the trains can handle them. Weather and Sun are kind to everyone.
I spend the last night in Munich in my friend Schorschl's studio under the roof of a four storey apartment house not far from Schloss Nymphenburg, where only a few weeks earlier Goebbels. celebrated a Feast of German Art with frolicking during which the shapely models of the artistic community posed in their birthday suits on pedestals erected in the spacious?park of the palace. Schorschl is an architect and tried to obtain a ticket for this treat. However, they were reserved for the elect and foreign dignitaries. Fairy tales of the event circulate in Munich for weeks afterwards.
In the morning of Friday, l5th July, the tram takes me to the central station. After a long journey, my contact with my benefactor lasts only a few minutes. I pass the test and have to wait for a letter to the British Consul General in Berlin. I sit up all night in a packed third class train compartment. It is vacation time and no one wants to stay put. I. know that big problems are still ahead, but do not appreciate the amount of luck which I will require and find.
On my arrival in Berlin, I go straight to the British
Consulate on a tree lined avenue near the Tiergarten,
Berlin's beautiful central park. The Consulate is closed.
Overburdened by applications for entry permits by a significant
proportion of Germany's Jewish population, the office opens only
five days of the week for personal interviews, although inside
the building the ceaseless struggle with forms and documents
continues. How am I to meet my benefactor in Utrecht on Sunday
night to join him on the trip to England? The German policeman in
front of the Consulate informs me of its semi-dormant status and
at the same time is kind enough to give me the Consulate's
telephone number. With a trembling voice and the worst English I
have spoken in months, I explain my plight. I succeed in seeing
the door of the Consulate opened far enough for my benefactor's
letter to be slipped through. A few minutes later, the door opens
again slightly to let my passport follow the letter. I receive a
visitor's visum for a few weeks for the expressed purpose of
learning English. Absence of a J in my passport
and perhaps also failure of the official to check on the presence
of my brothers in England allow me to get over this hurdle.
It is too late to obtain a Dutch visum. I will have to join the train from Baden-Baden to England where it links up with the train from Berlin. Such an FD-train has only first and second class compartments. My funds are not sufficient for this extra expense. A friend of my parents gives me the money required. That evening I call Koenigsberg. Father actually gives reluctantly his approval for my trip and closes our conversation by expressing his hope that I will return within a couple of weeks.
Late Sunday morning, l7th July, 1939, the short train pulls out of Berlin and heads West. It passes through country which I see for the first time. My eyes drink every small detail of the rich plains of Northern Germany, the small villages, fields with ripening wheat and rye, sugar beet, oats, men and women in the fields harvesting, trees along back roads, heath, cattle and horses. The train only stops at Hannover and then at Osnabrueck, where officials get on, in order to control luggage and passports. Ski-boots in Summer? Postcards with surrealist designs? As my luggage is unpacked in my compartment, I improvise explanations which apparently make sense. I mention that I am on my way home to Koenigsberg, where I will later be involved in the harvest, that I am using a sudden opportunity to practice English for a few days and that I am expected to join someone in Utrecht. What about the permission of the Hitler Youth? I plead ignorance. My blue eyes and blond hair are a great help. There is no suspicion of my real aims. How much money? I donate a few Marks to the Winter Help (Winterhilfe) at the border station Bentheim and just manage to climb back on to the train.
In the dusk of a beautiful Summer evening, a population on bicycles faces the train at all crossings in Holland. The train is almost empty and my thoughts can wander freely in the empty compartment. I am a foreigner now, I tell myself, but why? What am I running away from? Is all this a bad dream and I will wake up returning home? It is true that since months the parents are making efforts to emigrate, but at the same time they have expected me to leave all arrangements to them. I have acted as if in a trance. Nevertheless, I have felt sure of myself. Everything is so confusing. Am I only following in my brothers' footsteps? At Utrecht, I meet my benefactor who invites me for dinner while the train continues its journey towards the Hoek of Holland. On the ferry, I cannot sleep and spend much of the night at the bow of the ship piercing with my eyes the night for first signs of the English coast.
We have breakfast on the train into London , change station and reach Chichester on the South coast in the early afternoon. Old Bosham is a small village on an inlet opposite the Isle of Wight. The house looks like a wireless station on a deserted island. It has several big masts and my host spends every night listening and talking to ships at sea. All his life he has been involved in shipping. Twice daily, the huge tide floods the inlet. I have seen a moderate tide only once before in Scotland. The Baltic Sea has no tide. I am disappointed with the lack of sand on the beaches and climb over slippery rocks and shingles. I help in the small garden and try to make myself useful. My host and his sister are old and unaccustomed to having a young person around. After a couple of weeks, they are quite relieved when I depart, temporarily at least, for Esher near London where Phillip and Daphne Horner, friends of my parents, have invited me to stay for a few days.
My efforts to delay my return to Germany have begun. I travel into London a few times and meet other friends of the family. On the basis of my German driving licence, I obtain an English driving licence and get into trouble going the wrong way around the roundabout between Esher and Kingston-on-Thames. I play for the first time lawn tennis, and even in Wimbledon, although on a private court. I visit my piano teacher Margaret Giedat, who is spending the Summer in England to learn English, or does she intend to wait out the beginning of the war? Her Jewish friend has just emigrated and is on his way to Australia. However, some days later, she leaves on one of the last trains for Germany. We will not meet for 12 years.
I return to Bosham for another few days. My brothers have agreed to let me join them for a while in Scotland. On the day on which the pact between Germany and the Soviet Union is announced, I travel North. Uwe works in an engineering office in Glasgow. He lives in the suburb of Rutherglen, a working class district of industrial Scotland. Long rows of terrace houses, hardly any trees, plenty of smoke and soot. While he goes to work, I fill my time wandering around the neighbourhood. A few days later, Ian Brown, a friend of my brother, offers me a ride to Dunfermline, where Jobst is engaged in the installation of German equipment in a coal mine. Ian is trying to teach me double declutch, but I am not the best of students and do not perform to his satisfaction. Soon I will not have demand for such a skill. I resume driving 15 years later.
The Passport Office of the British General Consulate in Berlin requests father's passport on 9th August, 1939
Early in August, we receive the news that the family will be issued with landing permits for Australia, valid until the 10th May, 1940. We have to bring with us 1,000 Pounds Sterling. This sum is, of course, additional to the fares for all of us. These are now astronomical figures. The urgency of getting father out of Germany has increased; however, there are so many papers involved, each of which has to be in the right sequence and depends on the availability of all the preceding ones. Nothing can be done about it.in a few days or even weeks.
Our own position is very precarious. We three are on temporary visas and theoretically, if the bureaucracy could act quickly enough, I might still find myself back in Germany before long. As the clouds gather and the first inklings of Germany's attack on Poland become known, the brothers discuss by telephone the question where we could go, so that we can stay together until our status is sorted out. We are in contact with a refugee committee in London which is acting on our and father's behalf. However, all these organizations are so overrun that also from them quick action cannot be expected.
The brothers decide during the day of the attack on Poland, Friday, lst September, 1939, that we avail ourselves of an offer by friends of Jobst to harbour us for the time being. They live on a property outside Middlesborough in the Midlands, a long way from Glasgow. A friend of Uwe agrees to drive us there during the night of that day. As we pass through the border country in the middle of the night, we are stopped frequently by nervous air raid wardens. There is an atmosphere of uneasiness about, because no one really knows what is going to happen next. It is a new experience for everyone. The Government's reaction to Germany's attack after so many earlier hesitations in Austria, Czechoslovakia and quite lately in Lithuania, the pact between the Soviet Union and Germany also do not simplify the situation. After all, was not Hitler at one time given support in the expectation that he would deal with the "communist menace from the East"? The world is learning the doubtful value of spoken and written agreements.
Early in the morning of Saturday, we pull up outside the magnificent residence of our prospective hosts and wait until we consider it reasonable to knock at the door. The extensive buildings are surrounded by a park through which we pass on our way to the portal. For the time being, at least, our living standard is rising. I am in awe of all this splendour. The picture becomes complete when the butler in style opens the door and welcomes us. At breakfast, we meet our hosts. They have been involved for years in helping refugees from the Republican side of the Spanish Civil War, which finished in 1938 with the victory of Franco and which in many respects served as weapons testing ground for Germany and the U.S.S.R. They are already sheltering refugees from Spain.
Our hosts are very kind to us. The accommodation is luxurious. Morning tea in bed, huge cooked breakfasts where one helps oneself from a wide selection of food laid out on a sideboard, other meals served at the table or in the drawing room, and no possibility to do anything whatsoever in return. The entire place is running smoothly, as if we are not at all present. Occasionally, after volunteering, we are allowed to act as drovers when neighbours assemble to hunt partridges in the fields and moors close by. However, our movements are restricted to the park and a special request must be made to the police for this event.
From the window of my bedroom, I see the barrage balloons over Middlesborough. On the first evening, a thunderstorm brings down several of them which light the sky with their flames. We hear that a few weeks earlier several balloons made their way across the North Sea to Germany and were returned with the compliments of Goering.
Out on the estate, we notice little of the mobilisation which
undoubtedly is underway. Everything is unexpected, like all items
in the press which lives on descriptions beyond appreciation by
the man in the street: Warsaw is destroyed, Danzig is heavily
damaged, Gdynia is in ruins, Poland's cavalry fights German
tanks, her population is on the move. If you have not been once
at least in the middle of such events, their description reads
like a novel with a historical background. One can almost say
that the media offer a sort of entertainment which all readers
have become accustomed to. No one questions the value and
usefulness of this kind of reporting which tends to neglect
events closer home which are within one's range of understanding.
The B.B.C. news become the centre of all activities. Everyone who can manage assembles in the drawing room to listen on Sunday, 3rd September, 1939, to the Prime Minsister's announcement at 11 a.m.
Since Poland's invasion, France and England have sent Hitler ultimata the time of which is running out at that time. It is a sombre affair. All assemble: Our host, an invalid from the World War, married to the nurse who looked after him for years, several victims of the Spanish War, and us three, refugees from German racial persecution. When Chamberlain closes with the words and now this country is at war with Germany, the national anthem is played, all stand up, and I recall distinctly how also the old dog lying in front of the fireplace gradually rises to its feet.
Saturday night, 23rd September, our host informs us that after due consideration and consultation, the Home Office has decided to intern us on the following morning. I cannot understand the reasons for this decision, but at least something is happening and we will again have a status, we will be able to plan what to do next. Strange as this sentiment may sound, it is a fact that hope is associated with uncertainty and, in turn, with activity. Adverse decisions instantly generate action and, in turn, hope, etc.
One more night between linen sheets, one more morning cup of
tea which is a pastime I have never got used to, although I do
not mind at all serving it to those who appreciate it, one more
breakfast with choice of tomatoes, kippers, bacon, eggs, kidneys,
tea, coffee. How quickly one gets used to good things. How will
be not so good things? Our hosts give us away to the officials,
who are to conduct us to our new abode, and promises all possible
assistance with any attempts we may undertake to rehabilitate
ourselves. The fight with officialdom, a phantom, begins.