Letters from my Grandparents
After my aunt Esther died in 2004, her children found a box of letters which she had kept.
The letters were written by her parents, my grandparents, between January 1939 and August 1942 to the three of their 5 children whom they had managed to send to England.
Two of these children were sent by Kindertransport on January 5th 1939, my father Nathan and my aunt Esther, who had kept the letters written to all three. The third sibling, Lottie, reached England in June 1939, once she had secured a position as a trainee nurse in Biggleswade Isolation Hospital for lung cancer.
In May 1939 my grandparents were expelled from their home in Sassanfahrt, Bavaria, Germany to the nearby town of Bamberg and from there by July 1939 had managed to smuggle themselves and their two remaining children into Brussels, Belgium. They had exhausted their flimsy resources in escaping Germany and were impoverished and dependent on the charity of Jewish Benevolent Committees, and on what their teenage children could send them from England. Their many attempts to leave continental Europe failed, as the letters testify. In May 1940, in the face of the advancing German army, they fled Belgium for southern France and there they were soon picked up and separated. Grandmother, Mina Merel, was dispatched with the two little girls to the infamous internment camp at Rivesaltes, Vichy France, where she died in May 1941. She was buried in a marked grave in nearby Perpignan. In 1979, my father (Nathan) travelled to Perpignan to disinter his mother’s bones and in a very moving nighttime ceremony she was reburied in the ancient Jewish cemetery on the Mount of Olives in the presence of her surviving descendants.
After their mother’s death, the two girls, Sophie and Jeni, were smuggled out of Rivesaltes camp by the OSE Underground and were housed in the Chateau du Couret home for refugee children and later with various Christian families and organisations, before being smuggled to safety in Switzerland in 1943.
Grandfather Samuel was displaced again and again, sent to various work camps and down a mine, until late in August 1942 he was dispatched to Drancy, Paris and on to Auschwitz, as we confirmed much later at Yad Vashem. Samuel continued sending letters and postcards to his children in England until August 24th. We believe that he was gassed in Auschwitz on arrival there on August 28th 1942.
The original letters and postcards are now archived at Yad Vashem in Jerusalem.
They total approximately 200 written sides, about two-thirds are dated and the rest not. Most are written in German mixed with Yiddish, with a couple in French and English. Yad Vashem provided a one-page synopsis of the salient points. Of these the most striking is the fact that Samuel had at least two opportunities to escape but would not leave his wife and small daughters. In addition, both he and Mina constantly declare their faith and trust in the Almighty and admonish their children to keep to the Jewish tradition in which they were raised, and to take good care of each other. Most striking is the fact that for $250-300 then ($4000-5000 in today’s money) they could all have reached safety in Cuba or Bolivia, but they were penniless by then and couldn’t raise the funds.
The 5 children survived the War and where re-united in London in 1945. The two youngest are still alive.