1. What Was Left Behind
Jews had lived in Germany and Austria since Roman times. However, they had only been allowed to enter German society fully after the Enlightenment. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries Jews made an enormous contribution to German and Austrian cultural and economic life.
Jews were prominent by their success in certain fields, though they formed only a tiny proportion of the overall population. They proved to be loyal and patriotic citizens, fighting in large numbers as German or Austrian soldiers in World War I. They tended to cluster in the cities and also in certain commercial and professional occupations. The assimilated Jews from urban, middle-class backgrounds were often those best equipped to overcome the numerous obstacles to emigration to Britain after 1933.
During the nineteenth century the Jews of Germany and Austria had been granted civil and political rights and had integrated into mainstream society. But in the 1930s a change in political conditions radically altered their situation for the worse. The upheavals following the First World War, the instability of the Weimar Republic and the mass unemployment caused by the Great Depression paved the way for a reactionary backlash and for Hitler's rise to power in 1933.
The decades of gradual integration into gentile society had made the Jews of the German-speaking lands feel secure in their position, despite anti-Semitic manifestations. The abiding impression left by Jewish home and family life in the period before the Nazi onslaught was its peaceable normality.
My memories of Halle are… very small, and very fleeting. I remember going with my grandfather to a farm in order to get milk, because he was very, very observant of kashrut and the milk that you would buy locally was not suitable. I remember going with him when I was about four. I remember when my mother’s younger sister got married in Leipzig because I must have been about three. I was a flower girl. She got home, got married in this big apartment. I was throwing flowers along the way. I think, looking back on what happened, what must have stayed in the back of my mind was the Nazis everywhere…which I think greatly, hugely, hugely frightened me. Because, oh, and I do remember also going on a picnic by the river and lying in the grass looking at the trees with the sky. All beautiful, as you can see, happy, sylvan memories. And then I remember leaving Germany, in 1939. We flew out. And I remember looking down from the plane at the rows of the houses below. And that, on one hand, are basically my memories of Germany.
My father believe it or not was born in Auschwitz when it was a tiny little village known for its green background. That is probably why I like trees so much. And he was born in 1898 on the Jewish Easter, Pesach, so he was called Peisach Mendzigusrky.
I’m old enough to have been in the German Youth Movement - the Deutscher Republikanischer Pfadfinderbund. You would call that Boy Scouts, if you like, loyally Republican. In some youth movements, Jews were not desired; in others there was no problem. In the Deutscher Republikanischer Pfadfinderbund every third member must have been Jewish, very strong.
In Paks…all children learned some kind of instrument and playing sports. This was very broad-minded, sort of orthodox in a proper sense. You had to be. You lived in a small town with all our Christian neighbours. We were like sister, brothers, we just accepted each other. It was very peaceful. I can only remember nice things for upbringing and non-Jewish neighbours.
The place I was born was very small, almost like a kibbutz, there were 35 inhabitants and they were all Jewish. The only non-Jewish person was the one who looked after the flock. Everybody was issued with a plot of land, because there was plenty of land in Poland, not inhabited. All the inhabitants of that place were farmers. My father acted as the Rabbi there and, he was the shochet [kosher butcher].
My father played the violin and my mother played the piano. Because my father had a married sister in Vienna, my parents, as far as I remember, left about three or four times a year for about a week or ten days to go to Vienna to breathe in the culture there – the theatres, concerts…
I was always very popular at school, had lots of friends, who were all non-Jewish of course. We had our secret hideout and the roads in the suburbs were reasonably wide. There was very little traffic. If you saw a motor car once every twenty minutes, that was an event. And because we all had bicycles, we bicycled around in perfect safety. We played robbers and police, on bicycles. But our main activity really was playing football in the streets. And we often broke the neighbours’ windows, for which we used to get a good hiding from our parents because they had to pay for the repair. We also did a lot of scrumping. These houses had lots of fruit trees. It was fantastic.
I do remember my auntie’s house a bit, ’cos they had an old-fashioned coach in their garden, which I used to use as a play-room. The type of coach that the queen goes in. Well that’s what they used to use...before they had cars or vans.
One uncle who was carrying on the business from my mother’s birthplace. They were looking after the land, dealing in cattle and he was a shochet. That was in Munzesheim by Bruchsal in the province of Baden. My family lived there for well over 400– possibly close on 500 years.
In Hockenheim there were just under 30 souls left, when I sort of grew up. The rabbi who looked after us came from Heidelberg and before my Bar Mitzvah, they used to take the Sefer Torah out of the ark. The rabbi said, ‘We’ll put the little Sefer Torah in the corner and call it minyan man!’ We did things like that. Maybe not exactly to the law and the rules, but this is how we did things.
In 1925 …I was very much already interested in the arts generally, in theatre, which was very cheap. The Düsseldorf Schauspielhaus under Dumont was quite outstanding. We had perhaps the best performance of Goethe’s Faust. Technically it was ahead of its time; people came from Berlin to visit it. As far as museums were concerned, modern German Expressionism was very much to the fore. Life was between ‘24 and ‘28 easy, and enjoyable, and fruitful and productive in every respect.
[Pre-war years] With the non-Jewish children? Fantastic. We had… First of all, my brothers and myself, we used to play football. Very good in football. And in the area where we used to live, we had a little group. We were the main players in the group. All my brothers. Very good. One of my brothers later became an international Israeli football player.
My father had a shop not far from the centre and people used to bring watches. Or, even later a little bit, my brother used to travel around the villages around Worms. There was a system that you can pay the town clerk going with a bell around the village: ‘There is a watchmaker- If you have watches to repair, bring them to this and this restaurant.’ He used to collect them, take them home to my father- he used to repair the watches. My brother used to go back, give them back and collect the money. So he was repairing watches not only for Worms. It was for the whole area.
My blind aunt had a very good education. She was looked after. And through her they used to get tickets for the Vienna Opera. And she used to take a companion. Not only tickets, she used to get boxes. Free. And the first opera I took her to - I may only have been 12 - was Aida. I was amazed. My brothers also used to take her. We couldn’t have managed to go by ourselves. That was our musical education.
My father’s view was that there would be a Polish Jewish community and Jews have got to be engaged in it. He had been an officer in the Austro-Hungarian Army. He then became an officer in the Polish Army reserve out of belief that Jews cannot achieve full citizenship rights if they did not take part in the defence of the country. That was a very important thing to him.
My father was very, very active in one of the biggest athletics clubs in Germany called the Sport Club Charlottenburg. I’ve been to visit them. They still remember him. He was the only ever Jewish President of that club. He organised the Potsdam-Berlin relay races in 1922. He wrote the history of the club.
Visiting my grandma, Oma Kuttner, was always a joy. She would entertain us with her piano playing and make the most wonderful meals. What stands out for me was the cheese blintzes she made – very difficult to do. Apparently you make them in the frying pan and then you bake them. So they’re sort of twice cooked. Very labour intensive, but for her family this was not too much trouble.
I was fascinated by the theatre and music. In Karlsruhe, the opera. As a matter of fact my parents weren’t allowed to know that I went to the opera. But I loved it so much, so I had somebody took me and I had to use excuses, sometime: ‘Where have you been so late at night?’
My uncle in Téglás had a beautiful winery. And he had an orchard with fruit. We had a horse and cart and went to take all the grapes and put it in the pressure. And he had a cellar and we put all the wine there. In the summer - it was fantastic.
We had good holidays, you know. The surroundings of Berlin are very beautiful, the lakes- Berlin is a very green city. It was. I don’t know how it is now, but it was a very green city. And we had a good life. We had visitors once a week and we were invited another weekend. And it was very, very normal.
My father was one of the agents for bananas from Jamaica and from Africa. He imported them and they arrived, green, on long branches. My my father sort of invented ripening warehouses. We had such a ripening place not far from where we lived. Sometimes big spiders arrived and we had to call in the authorities, they had to first examine them and then destroy them.
King Edward the 8th came to visit Zinner [the shop where LP modelled lingerie] and of course we were all stunned when we saw him. He was very charming. And he bought beautiful nightdresses - they were very, very expensive, and we thought, well, he must have somebody there to buy that for! And we were all staring at him, because they were with handwork and pure silk – they were really absolutely exquisite. And he bought quite a bit there. When I modelled lingerie, I didn’t have to undress, you always had a dressing gown around and you just opened the dressing gown. But it was quite something.
Oh, and one memory is [clears throat] somehow, in a room, which must have been underground because there were no [unintelligible] windows and my grandmother sitting at a sewing machine. And I imagine she was preparing stuff for us to take with us. She was a wonderful seamstress and made a knitting and sewing clothes and so on. And she was at the machine. I was peering, and she said, "Be careful. This is a very sharp needle, be careful." And of course, being a child I had to try and the needle pricked my finger. I do remember that, but otherwise, I have no memories of Berlin. That's all.
I used to love to go…It wasn’t every Sunday but most Sundays in the better weather from about March till September, October, Sunday morning my father took me to the Vienna woods and particularly one restaurant sitting on top of – now, where was it? You know my memory’s gone - the Klagenfurt, perhaps. No it wasn’t, just outside Vienna. I’ve forgotten the name. It’s right on top of a huge hill and I was always treated to a glass of sour milk. We got a tram to a certain point. It was out in the country already and it doesn’t exist anymore. I’ve tried desperately on my four visits to Vienna to find that tram and I never could find it. And then there was always a bus waiting at the end of the tram and that bus took us through the woods to the café, which does exist because on the last visit I visited the café and we had a glass of sour milk in summer.
[what helped RN to live with her experiences:]
To be better, to be good with people. Try to do my best to avoid that people become bad. I learnt that you should be good to each other. Give your best. To be helpful. That’s all what I think, you know. I always said the children – my wish was the children should have a better life than I had. They should have first of all the freedom, peace. Peace, always was for me the biggest thing. Peace and health, and that’s all what we say Shalom, and the health. That’s the biggest thing in life.