Thursday, 5 September 2013

Book of the Month: Four Girls from Berlin (Marianne Meyerhoff)

On a May morning in 1939, an ocean liner named St. Louis left Hamburg, Germany. Its destination was Cuba. It had 937 passengers on board—all of them Jews, hoping to escape the tightening Nazi noose around their necks. St. Louis was one of the last ocean liners that the Nazis allowed to leave Germany with its cargo of Jewish passengers. Within months of St Louis’s departure from Hamburg, the Second World War would begin that would close all avenues of escape for the German and European Jews.

The passengers aboard St. Louis thought they were lucky. Many had sold what remained of their life-savings—first to line the pockets of the Nazis, intent on fleecing Jews before they were sent into exile, and then the Cuban officials who demanded extortionate fees for landing permits—in order to ensure steamship passage. Many of the refugees also had U.S. quota numbers which they hoped would enable them to go to America.

When St Louis arrived in Havana, its passengers were horrified to learn that Cuban government had invalidated their landing permits. Cuba refused landing permission unless each of its passengers paid additional $ 500 for the visa. The passengers—most of whom had been forced to sell their possessions and homes for a fraction of their values—simply did not have the money.

St Louis laid anchor in Havana Bay and negotiations between the money-grabbing Cuban officials and Gustav Schroder, the captain of St. Louis, commenced, while the passengers—homeless, penniless and unwanted—waited with mounting panic and agitation.

The Havana Harbour Patrol as well as US Coast Guard cutters began circling St. Louis, warning away the passengers—most of them women and children—from entering Cuban or American waters.  Running low on fuel, Gustav Schroder, the heroic German captain of St. Louis, refused to return the passengers to further persecution and certain death in Germany. (After the war Schroder was awarded the Order of Merit by the Federal Republic of Germany; and, in 1993, posthumously, was named as one of the Righteous among the Nations by the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Israel.) Neither Cuba nor America was willing to accept the passengers who could have been easily absorbed as productive members of society of any country that was willing to accept them.

There then followed further squalid negations amongst Britain, France, Netherlands and Belgium about how they were going to divide the refugees, all of whom were Europeans. Finally, the European nations came to an understanding and the passengers were divided amongst these four nations.

As the theatre of war opened in Europe, only those passengers (a couple of hundred) who were granted asylum in England survived. Those who were accepted on the Continent most probably met the same fate as many of their co-religionists in Europe.

One of the passengers on St. Louis who was sent to Netherland and interred, first in Rotterdam and then in the Westerbork detention camp, was a German Jewish woman named Charlotte—‘Lotte’—Wachsner Meyerhoff. She was thought to have perished in the Holocaust. But she didn’t.

Four Girls from Berlin is the story of Lotte Wachsner Meyerhoff and her life in Germany, where her family had lived for almost two centuries, told by Lotte’s daughter, Marianne Meyerhoff. It is also a story of Lotte’s friendship with three other German, non-Jewish, women that survived the war.

Lotte was born in 1915 in Berlin, the first child of Fritz and Charlotte Wachsner. Charlotte died in childbirth and Lotte was named after her. She was raised by her mother’s best friend Paula whom her father married four years later. Lotte had a half-brother, Ernst, or ‘Mops’, who was five years younger than her.

Fritz Wachsner, a staunchly patriotic man who had fought for the Kaiser in the First World War, was a distinguished academician and held a professorial position at Berlin University. He was also a connoisseur of operas and Western classical music. In the 1920s not a week went by in professor Wachsner’s house when there wasn’t a concert. Lotte, his firstborn, was considered a prodigy: she was always first in all the subjects in the class. She also had a magnificent voice and her father –nicknamed Der Alte Fritz (Old Man Fritz) by ‘Mops’, which he pretended to take offence at—was determined that she would fulfil her potential. When Lotte turned 15, Fritz Wachsner deemed her ready to be groomed by a major teacher who would take her on for professional training. That teacher was Ilonka Von Patti. At Ilonka’s house Lotte met two other students: Erica Poch—who was a gifted pianist, and Ursula Bautze who aspired to be a painter. The three girls—all in their late teens—and their teacher, who was a decade older than them, formed a close bond over the next few years. This friendship would continue in the 1930s even as the atmosphere became vitiated by the anti-Semitic propaganda after Hitler became Chancellor in 1933 and the persecution and ostracization of Jews began. It even survived the Second World War. Or so Lotte thought; and her daughter, Marianne.

The memoir vividly brings alive for the reader the German Jewish life in the first of half of twentieth century. It also movingly describes the plight of this cultured, proud and patriotic family in the 1930s when the Nazis came to power in Germany. As one reads Professor Wachsner’s unflinchingly loyal views towards Germany even as draconian laws were in effect reducing Jews to sub-human levels one can only shake one’s head in disbelief at the misplaced patriotism. The writing was on the wall, but Fritz Waschsner refused to see it. His teenage son, ‘Mops’, unlike his father, knew where it was all heading. As early as 1935 he was exhorting his father to leave Germany and find a safe haven in another country. Fritz refused. It was inconceivable to him that he should leave the country he had called his home and leave behind a large clan that included his octogenarian mother and mothers-in law.  What was his advice to his son? "Keep your head down and don’t bring attention to yourself. This is a test of our patriotism and our country needs us now more than any time else." The response of professor Fritz to the horror unfolding in Germany is perhaps emblematic of the Jewish people of his generation: keep your head down, don’t make yourself too visible, and hope that you will be left alone. The trouble was the Jews were not going to be left alone; the new chancellor of Germany was determined to erase the Jewish race from the face of the earth, another thing professor Fritz and men of his generation simply could not envisage, even though Hitler had made his anti-Semite views clear in his autobiography a decade earlier. It was this passivity and inability (or reluctance) to think the unthinkable that saw thousands of cultured Jewish men and women march to their deaths; and in case of Frtiz Wachsner, also condemned the younger generation to wholly avoidable death.

Years later, while speaking to her daughter about that period (a rare occasion, as she avoided talking about it) Lotte said: ‘The Nazis took over and we began to feel in our bones Gleichschaltung. Mariane asked Lotte to translate the word into English. Lotte, who, despite decades of living in America had not quite mastered the foreign tongue and preferred to speak in her mother-tongue, German, had to consult German-English dictionary. She found that no equivalent word existed in English, and the closest translation was: ‘The forced and mindless joining in lockstep with the crowd.’

The sense of Gleichschaltung must have become acute for the Wachsners after the Anschluss and reports of widespread destruction of Jewish properties and synagogues in Vienna. And any doubts as to the intentions of the regime were removed on 9 November 1938 after Kristallnacht—when SA stormstroopers brought terror on the streets of Germany, wantonly destructing Jewish properties and synagogues. Fritz Wachsner was finally forced to confront the truth he was denying until then: the country he had called his home, where his family had lived for centuries, and in which Jews were fully integrated, the country for which he had fought 25 years earlier, was going to kill him and his family. But now it was too late, or almost too late. The once wealthy Wachsners were reduced to near penury, Fritz having lost his job. It was also clear that Fritz and his wife Paula would find it impossible to leave Germany because of their ages; in any case the family did not have enough money to pay for the fare of all of them. Lotte was hurriedly married to a German Jewish man named Russell Mayerhoff. The plan was: the newly-weds would leave Germany for Cuba and from there to America; from America they would arrange for the transport of the rest of the Wachsner family, including ‘Mops’ who  had wanted his father to leave Germany years earlier. ‘Mops’ was, by this time, 19. Of course it did not go according to plan at all, although Lotte managed to escape the detainment camp in Netherland (thanks to her father’s contacts and some brave Dutch who hid her in their house for several months), and arrived in America where in 1941 Marianne Meyerhoff was born. Her father, a restless soul, enlisted in the American army and returned to Europe to fight against what was until only a year earlier was his homeland. In the meanwhile Fritz and Paula carried on with their increasingly impoverished and precarious existence in Berlin, their suitcases packed—one for each—waiting for the knock on the door, which came one day in 1943. The last letter Lotte received from her beloved brother informed her that their parents had been ‘taken east’.  After that the correspondence stopped. Lotte died forty years later not knowing what happened to her brother. Marianne who, almost by accident, had found out the terrible fate of her uncle whom she had never met, simply did not have the heart to tell her mother.

Marianne Meyerhoff grew up in America, oblivious, initially, of her family’s history. A few months after the war ended they received a huge carton that had arrived from Germany. The carton was full of photographs, letters, and such personal belongings of the Wachsners as could be saved. It was then that Marianne Meyerhoff first became aware of the three Berlin friends of her mother. Soon the correspondence began between the old friends. Lotte Wachsner Meyerhoff, who was herself leading hand-to-mouth existence—her marriage to Russell Meyerhoff had broken down—sent parcels of food and chocolates to her friends back in Germany who were now facing starvation.

When she was in her 20s Marianne Meyerhoff visited Germany—a country where, in another reality, she might have been born and bred—for the first time, and met  all of her mother’s friends save Ilonka who had tragically passed on soon after the war. Upon arriving in Germany she fell acutely ill with life-threatening hepatitis and was nursed for several months by Ursula and her husband Bruno as if she were their own daughter. From Erica who was living in Berlin Marianne learnt how Ilonka and Erica—Ursula was in Africa with Bruno, who was a missionary, for the duration of the war—secretly visited her grandparents and supplied them with food on a weekly basis. The girls had taken a great risk in doing this, as by that time the regime had prohibited Aryans to have any relations with the Jews and the punishment for breaking the law was severe. She also learnt how Ilonka and Erica secreted out what they could from the apartment after the Wachsners were ‘taken East’ and ‘Mops’ went into hiding, and kept it hidden—another crime for which there were severe penalties—through the war. Thus started a friendship between Marianne and her mother’s friends. Erica had remained unmarried but Ursula had married and had several children. Marianne struck a close friendship with the wife of Ursulla’s youngest son, Jochin, which, in fullness of time, led to startling revelations about Ursula’s husband Bruno’s activities during the war.

The Four Girls from Berlin is a tragic tale of dreams shattered, family destroyed and people deracinated. Lotte Meyerhoff lived in Germany for the first 24 years of her life before she was violently uprooted and lost all her family. Months in the detention camp in Holland ruined her health, and this woman, for whom her academic father had great dreams, ended up leading an impecunious existence for most of her life. She eventually trained as a nurse; however health problems meant that she had to give even that up after a few years. She never sang again.

Lotte Meyerhoff never really felt at home in America, her adopted home for almost five decades where she breathed her last at the age of seventy. It was clear to her daughter that she hankered after the lost life in Germany; however she refused to return to Germany even for a visit even when her daughter urged her. The idea of returning to a country which was simultaneously a place of fond memories and indescribable sorrow and which ultimately had rejected her was obviously unbearable to her. She very rarely spoke about her life in Berlin, her family and friends, and such information as Marianne Meyerhoff gleaned was from other sources. Certain traumas stay with you for the rest of your life; the passage of time does little to heal the wounds.

It is also interesting that Marianne Meyerhoff was interested in finding out more about the mother’s side of the family and spent a lot of her adult life tracing those roots. Her father’s family, too,—his brothers and mother—perished in the Holocaust; however, beyond a couple of photographs of his father’s family in Germany and a paragraph which describes her father, as an American soldier in Germany, going back to the village where he was born and raised and discovering the horrific fates of his kin, there is no mention of the Meyerhoffs. One guesses that this has happened because the parents divorced when the author was very young; the father remarried (to a non-Jewish German woman whom he met in Germany) and raised another family; and, while he continued to live in America, was mostly absent when the author grew up. Lotte Meyerhoff did not remarry and, apart from her only daughter whom she raised on her own, had nobody. The author writes about her father (who, we learn, passed on a few years after her mother died) without bitterness; indeed she even goes to speculate that her parents were probably not temperamentally suited for one another and in ordinary circumstances would not have married.

A word about the prose style. As I began reading the book the prose seemed a bit flowery, self-consciously hyperbolic, and it jarred a bit; however, as I continued reading, I got into its rhythm and stopped noticing its peculiarities.

Lotte Wachsner Meyerhoff died in the 1980s. While clearing her house Marianne Meyerhoff came across a cache of letters Lotte must have received from her German friends at the end of the Second World War. Amongst them was a letter from her grandfather addressed to Marianne (which her mother had not shown her).  Fritz Wachsner was stranded in Nazi Germany when his only grandchild was born thousands of miles away in America. Fritz had two more years to live before he would make his final journey. As he wrote the letter Fritz would have known that he would not see his grandchild. It is quite extraordinary that the letter he wrote, under the shadow of death, was full of optimism for his grandchild’s future, and wished her all the happiness in the world. There was no mention at all in the letter of the appalling circumstances of his existence.

The quiet courage of Der Alte Fritz lingers in your mind long after you finish reading this moving memoir.

                                           The girl on the extreme right is Lotte Wachsner