Saturday 29 December 2018

Fleeing Nazi Germany

Inspired by: ‘My mother’s childhood stories.’

Michal Reibenbach

camomile tea 

The older I become the more my mind wonders back to my childhood. I turn the pages back to when I was a young and insecure child. We lived in Leipzig in Germany. My father was a businessman, a furrier. We were quite wealthy and even had a chauffeur. My mother was a spoilt lady of leisure; she spent her days doing beautiful embroidery and playing the piano. I remember that I loved to watch her as she sat dressed in one of her beautiful green or red velvet dresses and played classical music.

To me as a child, the first sign of the segregation on Jews came about when I wasn’t allowed into public parks, and not allowed to sit on public benches. Later I also noticed that there were all sorts of other restrictions: Jews weren’t allowed to go to cinemas, theaters, restaurants (except for Jewish restaurants) and the sign ‘Jews unwelcome’ was hung up in certain areas and businesses. Also, we had frightening, threatening telephone calls in the night. My older sister and I attended a Jewish school, during the breaks, we had to keep absolutely silent because ‘Jews make such a lot of noise’.
A girlfriend of mine knew someone who owned an allotment, which was a piece of land on which to grow vegetables and fruit.  Even though it was forbidden for Jews to go onto allotments, this person kindly gave us permission to play in it. One day after we had been playing in the allotment my friend and I trotted off to a sweet shop to buy some sweets. I bought a bag of Jelly Babies. As we were stepping out of the shop I was accosted by a strange, rough looking little girl who said to me, “I saw you playing in that allotment and I know you’re Jewish. If you don’t give me your bag of sweets I’ll snitch on you to my Nazi father. I’ll tell him that I saw you playing there, and he’ll come to kill your parents!”

I was only seven years old and I felt absolutely terrified. I quickly shoved my bag of sweets into her hands, and I ran off home as fast as my legs would carry me. Upon arriving home I didn’t have the courage to tell my mother what had happened, I did, however, confide in my older sister. She was a mere thirteen years old herself and also at a loss as to what we should do? For ages, I lived in dread lest the Nazi’s come to arrest my parents because of me. These restrictions on our lives caused me to live in fear. Sometimes I’d wake up in the middle of the night in a panic and I’d cry.

By the year 1938, my father decided that it was high time that we leave Germany. In order to do so, we had to pretend that we are going on holiday to Switzerland since that is the only way that we can leave the country. One day my mother, sister and I packed only a few suitcases so that we wouldn’t look suspicious, and leaving all our worldly goods behind departed for Switzerland. It must have been very hard for my mother. For the time being, only the three of us set off, my father remained behind since he wanted to persuade his three brothers to leave Germany with us. We boarded a train to Switzerland and while we were traveling through Germany our mother forbade us to speak German and she was very tense the whole time, afraid less we would be arrested and sent back. When we crossed the Swiss border she was greatly relieved and could relax at long last. Finally, we arrived at our destination and were greeted by a small town, Ascona which was in the Italian part of Switzerland, on the shore of Lake Maggiore, and surrounded by gorgeous stunning views. There my mother registered us into a dingy hotel which rented out studio apartments. Our apartment consisted of one room in which the three of us slept, our beds cramped up together. 

The sunny, golden weather enticed us to explore the surrounding areas. Much to my delight, I remember seeing grapes growing in vineyards for the first time in my life. Quite soon my mother was able to register my sister and me into a German-speaking school which unlike the school I’d attended in Germany I quite enjoyed. After school, she would collect us and take us to the village square. There we’d sit at a café where there was always a German daily newspaper which customers could read for free. We girls would drink lemon juice while our mother drank coffee and read the newspaper. It was the only way in which she could learn what was going on in Germany. Our lives felt suspended and the days past by slowly. We waited for three months for our father to join us. During that anxious period, it was distressing to see my mother constantly weeping. Over time her continual crying caused abscesses to developed on the rims of her eyes. She was petrified lest her husband for some reason wouldn’t be able to join us and we would become destitute. 

Close to Ascona was a tall hill (350 meters high) by the name of Monte Verita or in translation ‘The Mountain of Truth’. It was a place where a number of intellectuals and Jewish writers lived. On the weekends, my sister and I would climb up the trail of the high hill. On either side of the trail, chestnut trees grew, the sunlight which filtered down upon us through the tree’s branches and leaves and the fragrance of the woodland around us was magical to us little girls and for a while, we’d completely forget that we were fugitives with an uncertain future. We’d gathered arms full of chestnut and take them back to the apartment with us. One day while climbing the mountain we discovered a tiny village nestling on the side of the mountain.

Three months later and as always during every afternoon, we were sitting in the café. The bright blue sky above had only a sprinkle of barely moving clouds. As my mother was searching through the newspaper her worst nightmare, came true when she read that Germany had closed its borders. This, of course, meant that her husband wouldn’t be able to leave. She slammed the newspaper down hard on the table and cried out in anguish, “Oh, no! What am I going to do?” She swiftly took us, girls, back to the hotel and put us straight to bed forgetting to give us our usual evening glass of milk and cheese biscuits. Her mind was in a torment, she didn’t know how she’d manage.? “I complained and said, “Mummy I’m hungry.” 

“Leave me alone,” she answered pitifully. 

In the middle of the night, our telephone extension from the hotel lobby rang. Upon answering it our mother was ecstatic to hear her husband’s voice. After replacing the telephone back into its cradle she turned to us and said, “That was your father. He’s in Zurich and he’ll be coming in the morning.” Then she plonked the whole box of cheese biscuits on my bed and said, “Here eat them all.”   

The next day when our father turned up we came together for a big hug and we all cried in happiness. He explained that he’d taken the last train out of Germany and that for the last three months, he had been doing his best to convince his brothers to leave Germany with him but to no avail. They felt sure that nothing would happen to them, they were veterans of the last war, and in addition, they were married to gentiles. Sadly they would be proven wrong in their assumptions and were eventually exterminated in the concentration camps.

Our father stayed with us for a few days before setting off to England ahead of us in order to organize our visas and also a place for us to live.  He rented a flat in Bayswater because there was a school nearby for German-speaking immigrants. 

We traveled by train to Zurich from where we would fly to England. In Zurich. while waiting for our flight, we stayed in a hotel for a couple of days. As a treat, our mother bought us girls an ice cream special with whipped cream and chocolate syrup. I couldn’t finish mine. When my sister finished her own ice-cream she eagerly also gobbled down mine, after which she was promptly sick. 

A short while after arriving in England one day as we were eating a typical English meal in a restaurant. It consisted of roast beef, roast potatoes, Brussels sprouts, and gravy, (although I wasn’t to keen on the roast beef for I’d never eaten it before). We heard a terrifying broadcast on the BBC. Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain announced that Britain was at war with Germany. It was 3 September 1939.  Since our father wanted to get us out of the center of London to a safer place,  he rented a small house with a garden in Mill Hill which was a suburb of London. Living in England must have been difficult for my parents, but in Mill Hill I was happy. I was free to go where ever I liked without restriction and I had my family. 

During the Blitz, we built an air-raid shelter at the end of our garden to which we would run every time the sirens went off. In the mornings on my way to school, I’d collect pieces of shrapnel often still warm from the night before. It was a wartime hobby with most of the kids. My father returned to his former trade in London. When he set off for work In the mornings my mother was always anxious less she never sees him again. At daybreak, the sky over London was bright red from all fires the bombings had caused during the night. Because of his age, my father was exempt from the army, however, he volunteered as a Home Guard. The Home Guard ’s main job was to see that all the house’s windows In his street were blackened out and also that everyone went down to the air raid shelter when the sirens screeched. My mother grew vegetables in the garden and kept chickens so that we’d have fresh eggs to eat. She was stoic and never once complained about how our standard of living had changed for the worse. She was still a young woman but her hair had turned completely white from all the stress.

I will forever be grateful to England for she saved our lives when we fled from Nazi Germany.


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