In 2019 Lord Finkelstein wrote an article about the AJR Refugee Voices Archive for the Jewish Chronicle. He said that the collected interviews are
‘voices from the past telling truth to the future’.
These words resonated strongly with me when I was fortunate to attend, together with Michael Newman OBE, the opening of a new Kindertransport exhibition at the German Bundestag in Berlin entitled ‘I said auf Wiedersehen’. The exhibition, curated by Ruth Ur and created by the Berthold Leibinger Stiftung and the Freundeskreis Yad Vashem, in association with the Wiener Holocaust Library and the Association of Jewish Refugees, focuses on the correspondence between the Kinder and their parents. Five installations represent five Kinder and their families – covering five broader themes relevant for all Kindertransport refugees: Departure, New Home, Estrangement, Longing, Uncertainty.
The centrepiece of the exhibition is a four-meters-high, white partition wall, in the shape of a booklet, which featured 10 guiding principles, written in German. The words are poetic and moving. There is no other text on this white installation. The visitor has to go to the first installation to find out who wrote these words and to whom.
I know where those words come from, who wrote them and how they ended up in this modern structure near the Reichstag building in Berlin, and was extremely moved to see that the voice of Ferdinand Brann, a German-Jewish banker from Berlin, who was murdered in Auschwitz, has been restored, at least for the duration of the exhibition, in the centre of Berlin, being read by the many visitors and school children who are going to come and see this important and timely exhibition.
The words by Ferdinand Brann were read to me many years ago in 2007, when I conducted an interview with Ursula Gilbert, the only surviving member of the Brann family. It was a long interview and Ursula very quickly wanted to talk about her beloved father and his role in the working on the Kindertransport scheme, as an employee of the Berlin Jewish community. This is a theme she come back to a few times during the interview in which she describes in great detail her own journey on the Kindertransport on the 15th of March 1939, leaving behind her father Ferdinand, mother Rose-Marie and sister Stephanie Klara, who was one year too old to qualify to leave Germany on the Kindertransport.
In the interview Ursula tells us about her experiences in the UK, when she was first fostered by a Jewish family and later lived in Boarding houses and hostels, while doing war work. She also describes her life after the war, when she married fellow refugee Harry Gilbert, had two sons, and was a proud member of Belsize Square Synagogue. At the end of the interview she showed me very proudly the letters she has kept, written by her parents and sisters from Berlin and another precious item, a prayer book given to her prior to her departure in March 1939. On the first page, you can see the beautiful handwriting of her father and the 10 guiding principles, signed by her father ‘Berlin, March 1939, seiner lieben Ulla zur Auswanderung’ (to his dearest Ulla on the occasion of her emigration).
At the time, I think I understood how important the prayer book was for Ursula but also that they had greater significance, they seem to speak for the voices of the many parents who sent their children away to safety and express the feelings of a generation of German Jews, who were proud German citizen and who were proud Jews. I am grateful today that I asked Ursula to read the inscriptions from the prayer book in German, which she proudly did.
I never met Ursula again but the prayer book stayed with me and I often spoke about it as an extraordinary item, digitally captured in the AJR Refugee Voices Archive. So when Ruth Ur approached the AJR for material on the forthcoming exhibition, I immediately thought of Ferdinand’s Brann prayer book. While we had the words written in the prayer book, Ruth was determined to display the original prayer book, filmed in 2007. We contacted the family but sadly they could not find the book, which has gone missing after Ursula’s death in 2015.
The journey of trying to find the prayer book, however, led me to Ursula’s grandson Ollie Gilbert and to the huge archive of correspondence Ursula left behind. I collected some of the letters and photographs now displayed in Berlin, in a cottage near Dorchester. I had never seen such an extensive correspondence of postcards and letters, which also included many letters from an uncle who managed to emigrate to Sweden. Ursula herself had put red stickers on some of the letters and summarised important topics in red ink on the top of the letters. While we could not find the prayer book, Ursula’s family has decided to donate the entire archive to the Wiener Holocaust Library. So the quest for the prayer book for the Berlin Kindertransport exhibition will enable future generations to read the entire correspondence of the Branns to their daughter in London.
The story of Ferdinand’s Brann prayer book illustrates the power of testimonies ‘telling truth to the future’. Just because Ursula Gilbert decided to share her story with the AJR Refugee Voices Archive and to show me her precious prayer book, visitors in Berlin today can read her father’s words, words which otherwise would have been lost and forgotten.
It was also a privilege to meet Ursula’s three grand-sons who came to Berlin on the occasion of the opening, Ollie, Alex and Daniel Gilbert. When I asked them how they felt standing in front of the 10 guiding principles, they said: ‘We are very proud to have her legacy celebrated in this exhibition, we are very humbled’.
I hope that sooner or later the exhibition will make it to Britain and that British audiences will be able to learn more about the story of the ten guiding principles written by Ferdinand Brann.