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Four Thousand Lives
The Rescue of German Jewish Men to Britain, 1939
By Clare Ungerson
The History PressCopyright © 2014 Clare Ungerson
All rights reserved.
TERROR IN GERMANY
On the morning of 10 November 1938, Fritz Mansbacher was woken by his alarm clock at 4.45 a.m. At age 16 he had recently left school and started a job at a local factory, and it was very important that he got to work on time. Many of his Jewish friends had recently lost their jobs, and he hoped that punctuality and reliability would help him keep his. Now that he was earning his own money he was almost an adult and he had moved into a separate flat at the top of his parents' house in Lübeck, Germany.
That morning he was still half asleep as he dressed himself and started to go downstairs to the floors below. Suddenly he stopped:
I thought I had heard voices! Normally nobody would be up and awake at this hour. I listened. A second later I saw two Nazi stormtroopers come out of my parents' apartment door. Quickly I crouched into the shadow and clung as closely to the stairwell wall as possible so as not to be seen. There I stayed quietly, not daring to breathe. Now they tramped down the stairs in their heavy boots. Now they closed the front door. Now they walked down the driveway to the sidewalk. Shortly after I could hear a car motor start up, a car door slam and a car driving away.
Once it was safe to move he ran down the stairs and into his parents' flat. His mother was standing behind their front door, still in her nightdress, shaking and angry. His father was in bed: Mr Mansbacher had been ill for years, struggling with an illness that Fritz only learnt years later was multiple sclerosis:
In a stern voice, mingled with grim humour and sarcasm, my father related what had just taken place in our apartment. He said that the Nazis had come at that unearthly hour of the morning to take him away to a concentration camp. They were very rough at first. They told him that he was under arrest and to get out of bed, get dressed and follow them. My father, strong in character and afraid of nothing, jestingly told them that he would love to go with them but that he could not do so at this time. They demanded to know why not. 'I am sick' he told them. 'Got a cold, I suppose,' said the Nazi. 'No,' answered my father, 'it's worse than that; I cannot walk.' Now the two got impatient with my father. 'Get out of that bed, you swine, and show us how well you can walk!'
Fritz's father was a rational man and he thought that reason and evidence might appeal to these two gentlemen. The only thing to do was to phone his doctor and get him to talk to them, but as Mr Mansbacher picked up the receiver to make the call the stormtroopers had snatched it from him and slammed it down. Perhaps they did not want others to know what was going on, perhaps they thought it was just too much bother to drag a sick man from his bed, get him dressed and push him into their car. Something had stopped them, and in compensation for their weakness in the face of Mr Mansbacher's disability they had set about wrecking the flat, searching – they said – for guns. Eventually they had left, just as Fritz had reached the top of the stairs.
The Mansbachers were horrified. The situation was bad for the Jews as they knew only too well, but this invasion of their house and the threat of arrest was something new. At least they were still intact as a family and they all thought it best to behave as if nothing had happened. Fritz should go to work as usual. As he rode his bicycle into town he was surprised by something else – 'an unusual number of police cars, filled with people, driving toward the railway station'. And then at the factory there was a very odd atmosphere: nobody spoke to him and everyone avoided his gaze. He began to wonder if somehow or other his workmates knew about that morning's incursion and that they felt guilty:
Finally, a fellow worker whom I knew to be a decent fellow, in spite of the fact that he was a member of the Nazi party, took me aside and asked me why I was at work. Did I not know that all the Jewish stores in Lübeck had been smashed, broken into and ransacked and that many of the owners had been badly beaten before being shipped out? And had I not heard that the Synagogue, the Jewish house of worship, had been destroyed? Of course I had not heard about all these events! And at six o'clock in the morning?
Suddenly Fritz's boss appeared and sacked him on the spot. Fritz remonstrated that he had a contract till January 1939 and it was only November 1938. 'The Nazi Party does not honour any agreements or promises. Goodbye!'
Thus Fritz learnt about Kristallnacht. The Mansbachers lived in a quiet Lübeck suburb so they had not heard the rioting, the smashing of shop windows, and the razing of their synagogue, which had taken place in the city centre the previous night. But by the time Fritz came home later that morning his parents had rung round their friends and relatives and discovered even worse news. Almost all the adult men of their acquaintance had been arrested, taken to the railway station and thence they knew not where. And even more serious for them personally was that their friends had added if the Gestapo couldn't find the man of the house they often took the oldest adult son. It was only the odd arrangement of the Mansbacher's house, and its separation into two distinct flats, that had saved Fritz. It would not take long for the Gestapo to realise there was a younger male Mansbacher and they would return. Driven by desperation, Fritz's parents began the process of getting him on a Kindertransport (a train for unaccompanied Jewish children up to the maximum age of 16) to England. They loved their son and that was why they needed to send him away.
Thirty thousand Jewish men from all over Greater Germany were arrested during those few days in November 1938. Most of them were taken to one of three concentration camps – Dachau near Munich, Buchenwald near Weimar, and Sachsenhausen near Berlin. All three camps had been in existence for some years. In fact Dachau was the very first such camp, built as soon as Hitler came to power and in operation from 1933 onwards. It was the first really large material indication of the nature of the Nazi regime. The term 'concentration' camp meant a 'concentration' of prisoners in very large numbers, guarded, as efficiently as possible, by a minimum of guards who were encouraged to undertake their work with extreme brutality, meting out severe punishments, including death, for minor infractions of camp regulations. Dachau was the template for its successors: it was there that the term 'Arbeit macht frei' (literally, 'Work brings freedom') was first used on concentration camp gates (a phrase now notoriously linked with the gates to the Auschwitz death camp) and it was at Dachau that the 'Kapo' system of control, whereby brutalised prisoners controlled other prisoners, was first put in place.
In one important respect these camps differed from what was to come a few years later. There were no gas chambers; these early camps were not designed for mass murder on an industrial scale. They were not death camps but there were many deaths. And in the years preceding Kristallnacht their inmates were not necessarily or predominantly Jewish, but rather were people who, in one way or another, had crossed the Nazi regime since its inception in 1933: many were Communists and wore a red badge on their prison uniform, others were homosexual, with a pink badge, and other 'anti socials' including gypsies, 'criminals', Catholics and Quakers wore green badges. The Jewish prisoners wore yellow badges.
Everyone in Germany knew about these camps and the horror of what happened in them. Indeed there was a jingle that had been around since 1935, which went: 'Dear God, make me dumb, that I may not to Dachau come' ('Lieber Gott, mach mich dumm, damit ich nicht nach Dachau kumm'). So the day after Kristallnacht all Jewish families in Greater Germany knew that if their men had escaped immediate arrest it was imperative they get them out of the country as quickly as possible. The Mansbachers had been lucky in a way – their son Fritz was, at age 16, still eligible for the Kindertransport – just.
Fred Pelikan was not so fortunate. He lived with his mother the other side of Germany in Breslau near the German/Polish border and, at age 20, was well beyond the upper age limit for the children's trains. On the morning after Kristallnacht Fred had crept out of the house to see for himself what was going on, and when the Gestapo had called for him his mother was able to say genuinely that she did not know where he was. When Fred did eventually come home he knew the worst. He had seen the blazing synagogue and the laughing crowds, heard the uniformed gangs singing Nazi songs as they ransacked Jewish shops. On his way home he had called at his aunt and uncle's and discovered that his Uncle Martin had already been taken away.
As soon as he got home he threw some things in a bag, kissed his terrified mother goodbye, and made his way to the railway station. The only place he could think of going was Berlin, where an old schoolfriend, David, was now living; by all accounts David's parents were well off and might be able to put him up. The journey to Berlin was uneventful – fortunately nobody recognized him or denounced him as a Jew – but when he got to David's house, David's parents were 'in a state of frenzy', terrified that they were about to lose their only son. They were apparently much more stoical about David's father, who was equally at risk. They were kind and welcoming to Fred, gave him a bed in their large and comfortable flat and then they hunkered down, waiting for the worst. There they stayed for some days, living very quietly and hoping no one would notice them.
A few days later David's father somehow or other made contact with a people-smuggler, a certain 'Herr X', who promised that, for a large fee, he could get both Fred and David over the border to Belgium. It was not to be. Maybe Herr X was a charlatan and a double crosser, maybe the plans simply went wrong, but when the young men reached the village close to the Belgian border, where they were supposed to board a train from which they could – literally – jump into Belgium, they were arrested by the SS. After a rough and aggressive interrogation they were taken to the regular prison in Aachen, close to the German/Belgian border. To Fred and David's surprise, this prison was actually quite bearable – there was adequate food and they had decent sleeping facilities. But it did not last: after twelve days they were suddenly told that all the Jewish prisoners were leaving that evening. In the darkness about 200 of them were loaded onto lorries and driven to Aachen railway station. A special train was waiting for them – not cattle trucks but a train with seats. Once on board, they were told to be absolutely quiet and keep the blinds drawn: no one waiting at a station as they passed through was to know what human cargo this train contained.
All night and well into the next day the train rolled slowly across Germany. There was no food, they were not allowed to go to the toilet and they had absolutely no idea where they were going or how long this journey was going to take. At long last, sometime in the early afternoon, the train ground to a halt:
We must have been waiting a good half an hour when the train was invaded by numerous SS personnel with strange-sounding dialects which some of us recognized as either Bavarian or Austrian. We were literally pushed out onto the platform and ordered to line up for a roll-call ... We were surrounded by a maze of railway lines, an indication of being somewhere near a big city. The SS guards were given the order, 'Fix bayonets' and we marched off over several railway lines, climbing over another platform leading on to the main station. My eyes instantly noticed the name München (Munich) and at the very same time I realized what Munich conveyed: Munich meant Dachau.
It was a chilling moment. And then a woman came out of the jeering crowd, shrieked 'Dirty Jew' and spat straight into his face. 'I can only describe my own feelings: devastated, agonized, humiliated, what on earth did I do to deserve such treatment?'
At age 74, when Fred Pelican (he changed the 'k' to the anglicised 'c' when he enlisted in the British Army in 1940) came to write his autobiography, he remembered his time in Dachau as though it were yesterday. An inmate of Room 4, Block 10, he found himself one young man among about 150 prisoners in his 'room'. He seemed to be younger than most of the others and that meant that he could struggle more effectively for space to move about in and, in particular, for a bunk bed.
He also came to know his 'Kapo' very well. This Kapo was a man in his late twenties who had already been in Dachau for four years, having been arrested for being a Communist. It was the Kapo's responsibility to see that all the 150 men under his 'care' obeyed. However useless the occupation and however cruel the treatment, the Kapo knew that if his men did not do as they were ordered, and at the double, then the Kapo would be punished. And the punishment at Dachau, as at all these concentration camps, was a form of torture – with hands bound tightly behind their backs, men were suspended by their bonds from a 'gallows' for up to three hours. At the same time the Kapo enjoyed certain privileges: 'he slept in a segregated area from the prisoners and was always well supplied with clothes, shoes and underwear taken from prisoners who had passed away'.
Fred's experience at Dachau turned out to be rather unusual. For the first few days after his arrival there was nothing to do – evidently the camp authorities were at a loss as to what tasks to devise for this sudden influx, post-Kristallnacht, of large numbers of new inmates. Fred became bored and rather irritated by his fellow inmates, who 'sat around either brooding, lamenting or even crying'. So he went to the washroom (Dachau, being the first concentration camp, had reasonable washing facilities), found a bucket and a mop and set about cleaning the entire place. He did this all day for four days. The windows sparkled, the floors shone. He knew the Kapo had noticed but neither man acknowledged the other. On the fourth day the camp authorities took action – they invented a task for the new inmates that involved shovelling the heavy snow (which had fallen the previous few days) from one part of the camp to another. It was to be dreadful work, from which many, particularly the older men, would fall ill with frostbite and exertion and eventually die. But Fred, along with two others, was selected out by the Kapo – these three were to be 'Room Orderlies'. Fred's devotion to washroom cleanliness had been rewarded and in a very satisfactory manner. He would be relatively warm, autonomous, and, so long as he did the work properly, would not be beaten. Thus Fred became an observer of horror rather than a participant:
To see the prisoners return from work was a dreadful sight. Most of the men had never done manual work, they may have been academics, teachers, some even doctors. As time went on, some of those going out to work looked more dead than alive, especially the sixty to seventy age group. I felt very sorry for them, I carried inside me a feeling of guilt, that, as a young strong person, I stayed indoors in relative comfort while old men began to die [...] the reality of Dachau became more evident by the day. We had men in our room lying down for a night's sleep and not getting up in the morning. They were dead, their bodies collected by a special commando every morning. Gradually their numbers increased.
Sometimes the men tried to help each other. A Dr Klein from Vienna took to administering his tiny supply of Vaseline in a useless effort to ease his companions' frostbite. This had a disastrous consequence. Betrayed to the Kapo, presumably by someone trying to curry favour, Dr Klein was taken away for the 'gallows' treatment. 'When he returned to the room, he seemed to have aged by ten years. Both his arms were swollen and he was completely mute. For days one could not get a single word out of him, as if he had lost his voice completely.'
In his memoir, Fred describes himself as becoming progressively inured to brutality – 'we seemed to have lost our feelings, we were going through a process of dehumanization'. But this did not prevent him taking pity on one particular elderly man and agreeing to swap places with him 'for one day only'. Fred himself says that perhaps he was driven by curiosity as much as by sympathy – 'I was curious about what really went on outside the huts on the working parties. Was it really as bad as others described?' – and he thought that as a fit young man he would be capable of dealing with whatever hardship and brutality was in store. But he had underestimated the irrationality of the camp regime – a young man working instead of an old, sick man was not a legitimate exchange. No permission had been asked for or given – it was against orders. He was spotted, and the result was two dreadful beatings, one from the SS overseer who first identified him and then a far worse one from the Kapo, who told him that the next time he would kill him. The Kapo was sentenced to the relatively lenient sentence of one hour on the 'gallows'.
Excerpted from Four Thousand Lives by Clare Ungerson. Copyright © 2014 Clare Ungerson. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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Table of Contents
1 Terror in Germany,
2 The British Response,
3 Choices and Resources,
4 An Arrival and a Party,
5 More Arrivals and a Fracas,
6 Jews Selecting Jews,
7 Moving Towards a New Life,
8 Minds and Bodies,
10 Fascists Offensive,
11 Race Against Time,
13 Same Difference: Military Service, Internment and Closure,
14 Identity and Death,
15 Forgetting and Remembrance,
Appendix: A Letter to The Times,
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This book takes a small slice of WWII history and makes an engaging story about the pre-war rescue of German Jews and response of a small English community to their camp. Wonderful human stories that the author carried through to decades later to put the emigration story in full context. She documents both the prejudice and welcome that these young German working-class received in England and the dilemmas the refugees faced. Highly readable and a serious addition to the Jewish story of WWII.