Train/boat to Britain
Meta Roseneil was seven years old in 1938, and attended synagogue. Until 1933 her orthodox parents Helitta (nee Schwarz, b.19 June 1901) and Schmuel Gonzwa (b.1897 in Czestochowa, Poland, after his family had left Russia), led ‘a cultured life’; they worked as a nurse and carpet dealer respectively in Frankfurt am Main. Despite the rise of Fascism, Kristallnacht and ‘round ups’ of Jewish men, Meta warmly recalled the kindness of an elderly policeman she described as a Righteous Gentile, ‘unlikely to have survived Nazism’. Meta herself had opened the door on 12 November 1938 when he came to arrest her father, and she recounted how he advised Schmuel to change his Sabbath suit for warm clothing, then pack bare essentials as heavy luggage would be burdensome. He also advised that Schmuel grant Helitta power of attorney, and that she should not carry much cash – best to hide it in her corset. Moreover, he walked a little behind Schmuel rather than bedside him going to the local Festhalle, to avoid embarrassment ‘in front of the neighbours’.
Schmuel spent six weeks in Buchenwald. In that time Helitta obtained a visa – his ‘passport to freedom’ from the Panama Consulate, and passage to Buenos Aires, thereby obtaining his release confirmed on a card with the caveat, ‘…if he is still alive’. His release coincided with Herman Goering’s visit to Frankfurt and an early curfew, but haggard Schmuel returned safely. His brother, however, remained in Buchenwald much longer and nearly lost a foot due to frostbite. Washing dishes in a café or window-cleaning etc. to feed the family, Schmuel contacted Kranz, a Polish cousin in Britain who finally relented and provided the requisite guarantee to enter Britain in February 1939, followed by further guarantees for Helitta, Meta and her brother Wolfgang, who arrived via Harwich in May 1939 with a few ‘goods and chattels and 10 mark’. Speaking no English, though ‘on good terms with the locals including non-Jews’, they first stayed in London’s East End, initially living in one room in Parfait Street, then two rooms in Duke’s Place – bombed in 1943 so they moved to Christian Street.
Meta and her brother were duly evacuated, including to Mrs Cowap in Bishop Sutton, near Bristol, and eventually billeted together with Helitta while Schmuel took any work in London. Helitta’s English had improved rapidly, so ‘she was like a governess to the English family’s children’. Somehow, ‘she managed to observe Passover in the hosts’ home’. Having received her Tuete but spent only a year at a Jewish school in Germany, Meta left her English school at fourteen for a short-hand and typing course plus German at Pitman College (later St Giles) in Southampton Row, and sought work through the agency Sabbath Observance, as ‘it was very difficult to obtain time off for Jewish religious occasions’. Later, with flexitime it was easier; she had satisfying work from 1971 as a civil servant in the Dept. of Employment, helping people in Job Centres. Academically inclined Wolfgang did not want to follow his father’s work, while Schmuel was not keen to encourage studies; ‘it was a very stressful time’. Meta’s husband, Joseph, was a second-generation non-orthodox British Jew (her brother’s friend in the Dalston Junction factory where he worked); they were married in Dean Street Great Synagogue (subsequently Ben Uri Library), on 27 October 1968.
Meta visited Israel three times, and ‘felt at home – though not to live’; she had mixed feelings about returning to Germany in 2005. 52 Baumweg no longer existed, nor her grand-parents former apartment at 132 Reuterwag. Helitta had long mourned the loss of her own parents in Teresienstadt; Meta’s uncle Shalom, Aunt Sarah and three cousins in Poland also perished in the Holocaust. Consequently, Meta found that she ‘resented the older German generation – pictured people in Nazi uniforms – but not the younger generation’. She is not bitter, ‘it’s God’s will’ she stated. Her father was ‘very proud’, viewing German compensation as ‘tainted money’; his pension passed to Helitta after his death. Meta received £800 regarding loss of education. Whilst she likes writing ‘as a contact with the past’, Meta also sees the importance of children and continuity, hence is concerned that her sister Frances’ two daughters are currently unmarried. Meta now feels ‘very British’, and does not consider herself a refugee – she does not like the term. Her message is, ‘Be grateful to the UK for letting us in. It’s nice to live in England’.
Key words: Frances; Gonzwa; Helitta; Joseph; Kranz; Kristallnacht; policeman; Meta, orthodox; refugee; Roseneil; Righteous Gentile; Sarah; Shalom; Schmuel, Schwarz; Wolfgang. Baumweg; Buchenwald; Czestochowa; Frankfurt am Main; Germany; Israel; London; Poland; Reuterwag; Teresienstadt.