Dr Bea Lewkowicz, Director of the AJR’s Refugee Voices Archive describes how the luxury of extra time afforded by the national lockdown has enabled her to learn more about her interview subjects and world history.
When we launched the AJR Refugee Voices Archive website last November, I could not have envisaged that six months later we would be dependent upon digital resources to connect to the outside world. Since November we have added more material to the website and made it more user friendly and it is now popular among researchers who normally visit archives and libraries which are currently closed. These researchers can search our website and then request access to specifc interviews which we digitally provide. It is very gratifying to know that our Archive can help researchers and students in these interrupted times.
Another upside of lockdown is that I can further research many stories in our Archive. A recent discovery illustrates the power of these interviews in providing micro histories of historical experiences and also how different interviews, with no obvious connection, can sometimes link to each other in an unusual way.
My discovery concerns interviews with Edgar Feuchtwanger and Margaret Simmons. Edgar Feuchtwanger was born in 1924 in Munich. His father was the director of publishing firm Duncker and Humbolt and his uncle a well-known writer, Lion Feuchtwanger. Edgar’s family lived in the Grillparzerstrasse in the district of Bogenhausen and he attended the Maximiliansgymnasium. In February 1939, aged 15, Edgar was sent to the UK, first staying with a family in Cornwall, then starting Winchester College in September 1939, where he was joined by his parents.
Margaret Simmons was born in Ellrich in 1906, where her father owned a textile factory. She grew up in Nordhausen in Thuringia, got married in 1926 and settled in Cologne. She came to the UK in 1937 after having had to leave her son in Germany and divorce her non-Jewish husband. She worked in domestic service and was later interned as an ‘enemy alien’ on the Isle of Man. She is the oldest interviewee in the Refugee Voices Archive. I interviewed her in 2003 and remember it very clearly. She was 97 years old and highly eloquent. Early in the interview she talked about meeting Hitler while she was staying at Hotel Dreesen in Bad Godesberg. This is how she describes her encounter:
“And on one holiday we went to Bad Godesberg, to Rheinhotel Dreesen, at the same time as Hitler with his crew was coming to the hotel, and young Dreesen showed me full of pride the rooms and bathroom he had prepared for Herr Hitler and Goebbels. And I remember the morning when Hitler came downstairs and all the guests were assembled in the hall of the hotel. I was standing in front with my little boy in his Bavarian lederhosen, grey chequered with green cuffs and so on, and Hitler went straight to my son, touched his cheek, and said, ‘Wo kommst du denn her?’ And John became quite red in his face and said, “von Köln.” And a photographer was standing outside, photographed Hitler doing his raised arm and just caught me at the steps of the hotel. Later, our manager at the hotel insisted that I had to give up the photograph, that I shouldn’t keep it. For me, it was all fun, because I never thought that Hitler was anybody to be taken seriously. He didn’t impress me somehow. He came down, very erect and stately, down the stairs, so to be noticed by everybody”.
Recently one of my colleagues noticed that our interview with Edgar Feuchtwanger also describes seeing Hitler at close proximity, as Edgar lived almost opposite Hitler’s private residence at 16 Prinzregentenplatz. I decided to look in more detail at both Margaret Simmons’ and Edgar Feuchtwanger’s interviews. Here is how Edgar Feuchtwanger describes living near to Hitler:
“We lived in Bogenhausen, yes. And, of course, at the corner of Grillparzerstrasse and Prinzregentenplatz lived from 1929, Herr Hitler. In the same sort of second floor apartment, similar to the one we lived in. You could see it down at the bottom of the road... I can’t have been more than eight, nine. In those days - this must have been perhaps 1933 or that time - you could still walk past. At other times, particularly when he was in it, it was all, you know, the people were kept to the opposite sides of the road and it was quite wide there, it was the sort of end of the square and in the early days you could walk past it and...well I remember walking past it. I thought: I’ll have a look at the bell push and see if it says Hitler...and it didn’t actually. It said Winter, who was by then his housekeeper. Another thing I remember was that he came walking past and suddenly he came out and he was in a...I think there was only one car there. It must have been fairly early in his chancellorship. He was wearing a mackintosh, you know, with the belt, and a sort of trilby hat. It might have been a Tyrolean hat you know. I’m not even sure it didn’t have a feather in it. And there were a few people around, not very many - of course nobody knew him then - and those that were around shouted: ‘Heil Hitler’, and he lifted his hat like that and got in the car, which wouldn’t ever have been the case much later on, you know. Later on, the routine was: there were his cars lined up, four or five, you know, those big black Mercedes, and then suddenly the driver would get in and start the engine. And then his SS bodyguards would come out, you know, and a clattering, all the boots on the pavement, taking their seats in all the three or four cars there were. And then he would come out like that [gestures] and get in behind the driver and whoosh off. It’s funny one does remember sort of visual images when one is small”.
Later in the interview Edgar Feuchtwanger describes what he saw in 1934 on the first day of the Röhm Putsch (Röhm Purge) - a series of extrajudicial arrests and executions of the SA (Storm troopers) leadership and other political opponents ordered by Hitler to consolidate his power and alleviate concerns of the German military.
“What I distinctly remember was: it was a Saturday morning; it was light, sort of seven, half past seven, quite light. I heard a lot of noise and I went to the window, and I could only just look over the windowsill and I could see there were cars outside Hitler’s at, and people were rushing in and out. You heard that jackboot sort of noise on the pavement and that was obviously Hitler’s motorcade being prepared to go out to the Tegernsee to beard Ernst Röhm and have him arrested and have some of the others shot and that was 30 June 1934...I don’t know whether Hitler actually stopped at his at before going to beard Röhm, who was at the time on the Tegernsee in the Hotel Hanselbauer"
The specificity of the locations in both interviews, the Hotel Dreesen in Bad Godesberg and the private flat of Hitler on the Prinzregentenplatz, really enrich these accounts. It is so much more tangible to imagine history in specific locations and it also makes me think of Hannah Arendt’s notion of the ‘banality of evil’. I would have never thought about the small detail of what name appeared on the bell of Hitler’s residence in Munich if it was not for Edgar Feuchtwanger’s account. But there is more than locations linking Edgar’s and Margaret’s interviews, it is also the dates. Margaret Simmons is very specific when asked about her encounter with Hitler: “That can be dated exactly because Hitler left the next day to Munich because of the Röhm Putsch in Munich”.
On reading this I realised that Margaret and Edgar were describing two consecutive days in 1934: 29 and 30 June, which is remarkable. I then discovered it was no coincidence that Hitler was in Bad Godesberg on 29 June. He was meeting Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels and SS commander Sepp Dietrich, who on 25 June had requisitioned substantial ammunition and weapons from the Ministry of Defence. Dietrich was ordered to go to Munich and make two SS squadron available. In the early hours of 30 June Hitler flew to Munich and, after stopping off at the Bavarian Ministry of Interior, drove with his entourage to the Hotel Hanselbauer, the spa hotel where Röhm was holidaying, to arrest him and other SA leaders. They were brought to the Stadelheim prison in Munich and executed, and Röhm was shot on 1 July. In the days that followed over 1000 people were arrested for treason across Germany and nearly 200 people were killed. On 3 July this political action was legalised on the basis that it was ‘Staatsnotwehr’ (in defence of the state).
The Röhm Purge is considered a watershed moment by many. It consolidated Hitler’s power and demonstrated the willingness of the regime to commit murder and go outside the law. While we can learn about this event from history books, I am grateful to Margaret Simmons and Edgar Feuchtwanger for bringing my attention to these two days in June 1934. The next time somebody mentions the Röhm Purge, I will not only think of the bigger political picture but of the historical details we normally don’t hear: the Hotel Dreesen in Bad Godesberg (which is still a prominent Hotel) and the Hotel Hanselbauer (which changed its name to Hotel Lederer and only closed down in 2017) in Bad Wissee on the Tegernsee. I will also think of the 10-year-old Edgar watching events unfold from his window in the Grillparzerstrasse.