Small acts of kindness

Doing this research is hard. Reading my Oma’s diaries and memoirs can be pretty depressing, and the more I learn about the whole period, the bleaker it seems. My family – although temporarily exempted from the mass deportations of Jews – lived under harsh restrictions, with increasingly meagre food rations and in constant fear for their lives. In many ways it must have felt like they were completely alone in a society trying to get rid of them. But even in one of the cruellest dictatorships, lots of ordinary people still went out of their way to help those in need. My Oma (Susanne) noted many people in her diaries and memoirs who took risks or made sacrifices to help her and her family.

For a start, Susanne’s mother’s family, who were ‘Aryan’, did not desert them. Many ‘Aryan’ women who married Jewish men were disowned by their families, leaving them and their husbands much more vulnerable to persecution. As I discussed in an earlier blog post, it was the initial social and physical segregation of the Jewish people from their fellow ‘Aryan’ citizens, which allowed the mass deportation and murder of millions. But my great-grandmother’s parents and siblings stuck by the family throughout the war. In particular, Marianne’s sister, Anneliese, visited the family regularly, and even housed them temporarily when their flat was destroyed by bombing at the end of August 1943. She had a husband and children of her own, and allowing a ‘mischehe’ family into her home certainly put them all at risk. Then the Edingers, not even relatives but old friends of Tante Liesel, invited the family to live with them permanently, an act of extreme courage and generosity.

There was also (at least in the late 1930s) a strong network of Jewish Germans who supported the family, even though they had never been active members of the Jewish community. My Oma remembered that it was through this network that they received early warnings of new anti-Semitic legislation, pogroms and raids. A mysterious intermarried couple, in which the wife was “a Russian Jewess”, took in my great-grandfather (Philipp) for about a week during the first round-up of Jews in Berlin, and kept him safely hidden. Susanne and her brother were not allowed to know who this family was, in case they inadvertently gave away their father’s location. And during this time Nazi officers did in fact arrive at the family’s apartment looking for Philipp. We will never know for sure what would have happened if he had been there that day.

Philipp’s doctoral thesis
(I haven’t read it)

Philipp had several degrees, including a doctorate in physics, and had been a maths and physics teacher before the war. While the Nazis took his ‘Dr’ title away from him, Philipp always considered himself a philosopher and an academic, and was ill-suited to the manual labour he was forced into. It must have meant a great deal to him, then, that his friend Herr Dr von Sybel continued to visit him for the philosophical debates they enjoyed so much, even though doing so was extremely dangerous. Likewise, a member of the clergy at the Protestant church that my Oma and her brother were confirmed into regularly visited Philipp, a man who was an open atheist. In general the Protestant church resisted Nazi rule far less than the Catholic church, but in her memoir my Oma wrote that, at the Paul Gerhardt Church in Berlin Schöneberg, she “felt completely accepted and among friends”.

The Paul Gerhardt Church, Berlin Schöneberg

Some of my Oma’s school friends were also kind and loyal to her. An Italian girl called Tony, whose family were surely also struggling on rations, gave Susanne bread coupons and potatoes several times. Another of her friends, Birgitte, also shared bread coupons with her. Susanne’s best friend during her early teen years was a girl called Renate Maiweg. Even though Renate’s father was a Nazi official, her parents were always kind; they were happy to have Susanne round for dinner, and they didn’t seem to think twice about allowing their daughter to visit her house. By refusing to completely alienate Susanne and her family, all these people (most probably unconsciously) ensured that the Nazis wouldn’t risk deporting them and ‘mixed’ families like them.

Perhaps the most influential person in my Oma’s school life was her form teacher, Dr Margarete Vester. The following extract from the paragraph dedicated to her in my Oma’s memoir perhaps explains her significance best:

From 1939 to 1943 I had the good fortune to have Dr Margarete Vester as my form teacher. During these four years I learned that she was a convinced opponent of the Nazis, and she gave me her constant support in a wide variety of ways. In spite of the danger involved she showed her strong concern for the fortunes of our family, helped us with bread coupons and later, when my father could no longer pay the monthly school fees for Hermann and myself, she took over these payments with the help of anonymous friends. All of this had to take place with the greatest care and secrecy, especially when she handed money over to me in school. In lessons she was one of the few teachers who made absolutely no compromises where moral and human values were concerned.

When, in 1943, a law was passed whereby all Mischling ersten grades had to leave school, my Oma and her brother (aged 16 and 14, respectively) were forced to go to work. Their godmother, Tante Else, managed to find Hermann work as an apprentice cook in Strasbourg, where he was relatively safe from air raids, and always had enough food. Susanne also recalled that “An old student friend of [her] father’s, Professor Jean Herring, kept a friendly eye on him and helped him to keep up with some schoolwork”. Ursel Wilberg, the parish assistant from the Paul Gerhardt Church, put my Oma in touch with a Protestant Pastor and his family (the Funkes), who took her in as a mother’s help. Although Susanne was often homesick, the family appear to have been very kind to her, and were clearly not pro-Nazi.

Frau Funke wrote Susanne letters while she was away, gave her gifts on her birthday, and visited her when she was in hospital with scarlet fever, hundreds of miles from her home. Herr Funke also went out of his way to make Susanne feel welcome in his house, allowing her to borrow any book she liked from his personal library. While Susanne lived in Berlin with the Funkes, her brother was able to visit her sometimes for lunch, and Susanne was even allowed to take the young children she was looking after to her own home. When the family evacuated Berlin to stay with Frau Funke’s cousin in Presslau (this cousin was, in fact, a powerful Nazi judge, and a staunch anti-Semite – I’m not sure if he knew Susanne was a Mischling) Susanne was treated as a member of the family. The Polish cook in this house befriended my Oma and, realising how hungry she must have been in Berlin, always made sure to feed her extra helpings in the kitchen after mealtimes.

Watercolour by Susanne, showing herself, Frau Funke, and baby Bernhard at the train station on the way to Preussenfeld

After the war there were many other people who helped my Oma and her family. There was the caretaker’s wife, who risked herself to save Susanne from a lecherous Russian soldier; the American journalist who helped the family to get in touch with Philipp’s cousins, the Vollmers, who had managed to emigrate to America in 1935; the Vollmers themselves, who sent CARE parcels to the family which my Oma believed “certainly saved [their] lives”; and the English soldier, Kenneth Ward – a very distant family friend – who tracked down the family and gave them tobacco and chocolate, which they could trade for food. I hope to write about all these people, and the vital help they offered, in a future blog.

When I was planning this post, I scanned through my Oma’s diaries again, noting down the names of every person who she mentioned had helped her or her family in some way. The list was much longer than I had expected. It’s nice to not be able to fit everyone who helped into one blog post! I’m hoping to track down the descendants of the people my Oma mentions, to let them know how their ancestors helped a family who desperately needed them.

I’ve often wondered how I would have acted had I lived in Nazi-occupied Germany (particularly if I had no Jewish ancestry). Last year I read Bart van Ess’s book ‘The Cut Out Girl’, which I highly recommend. The story he tells of Lientje’s life is full of brave people who, for various reasons, risked their own lives to save the lives of strangers. Van Ess recounts the story of one man who, in order to get time off work to build a hiding place for Jewish children without raising suspicions, cut off his own finger. I can safely say that I would not have done the same in his position.

It’s easy to claim that we would never let an atrocity like the holocaust happen again, but how many of us would actually sacrifice ourselves to prevent it? How many people are actively fighting against the current imprisonment of refugees in America, or protesting the Muslim camps in China? Honestly, I don’t have it in me to be a martyr; although I’m certain I wouldn’t have actively gone along with the Nazis, I can’t be sure I would have been brave enough to actively defy them either. It was a huge risk, and I’m quite lazy.

At a time when we are aware of so much tragedy in the world, it can feel a bit overwhelming to fix things. There are so many people who need help, and so many obstacles in the way of helping them. I don’t know what ordinary people can do in the face of fascist dictatorships and state-sanctioned genocide. But I will say that, although an individual act of kindness can feel insignificant, these little things can mean so much to those who feel friendless in the world. So let’s be nice to each other.

Further reading:

van Es, B. 2018. The Cut Out Girl: A Story of War and Family, Lost and Found. Penguin Books

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