Early in 2017, when I was beginning my research on my new book Women’s Experiences in the Holocaust’, my eye was caught by a press article about a young girl in the Holocaust in Germany. Her name was Edith Erbrich and she was deported to Theresienstadt with her Jewish father Norbert Bär and her big sister Hella. As they walked to the meeting point Edith held her mother’s hand and kept looking at her, so she could remember what she looked like because Susanna, a Catholic, was not allowed to accompany them.
After a lot of ‘Googling’ and e mailing I was amazed to get a reply in English from someone called Wolfgang Gehrke on Edith’s behalf. He promised they would send her memoir to me but unfortunately it was in German. In fact German was the first language I spoke, but when we came to England I was not yet three and my parents always spoke English to me so I would not have an accent. That they achieved, but as a result I am an abysmal linguist and no longer speak German..
Edith’s book duly arrived, followed quite soon by an invitation to visit Frankfurt to meet Edith and interview her plus giving some talks in schools and at the Anne Frank House in Frankfurt. I was rather overwhelmed partly because I had no experience of this type of speaking tour but also doing it in Germany made it a much greater task. Having thought about it, I decided it was something I should do and so I told Wolfgang I would accept his kind offer.
In the event the Anne Frank event did not happen which was disappointing. However Wolfgang organised everything for me and I arrived at Frankfurt on 3 October, in spite of Lufthansa’s efforts. Wolfgang and his wife Ellen met me at the airport and took me to my hotel.
The next day was free so I visited Frankfurt with Uwe Hartwig who is the Chair of the Friends of Auschwitz Survivors’ group who were my hosts.
We first visited part of the Jewish Museum. The main part was shut for renovations, but the smaller one was open. It mainly consists of the remains of a row of houses in the old ghetto area. It is fascinating and gives insight into the very cramped conditions in which the Jews had lived.
We next visited the Goethe University which I was particularly keen to visit as it was situated in the old IG Farben HQ. I had written so much about Farben’s activities under the Nazis in my book ‘Who Betrayed The Jews?’ that I was keen to see the site. It is an amazing building designed by Hans Poelzig (1869-1936). He was an associate of Walter Gropius of the Bauhaus School. Although the building was only nine stories high it employed techniques used in the skyscrapers in America. It was completed in 1931. His wife Marlene Moeschke-Poelzig who was herself an architect and sculptress. She planned the décor and the rooms layout.
Two thousand employees moved into the building however it was also where the Board of Directors met and decided to build the I G Auschwitz plant and also to use concentration camp prisoners as slave labour. The building survived the war and was taken over by the US Army in March 1945. It was after the departure of the US troops in 1995, that the Johann Wolfgang Goethe University moved into the building and grounds. Since then they have found dealing with I G Farben’s role in National Socialism rather problematic.
They have installed a rather small memorial to Norbert Wollheim (1913-1985) whom I also wrote about in ‘Who Betrayed The Jews?’ I was very pleased he had been remembered and visitors could learn his story.
Wollheim had been involved in the creation of the Kindertransport. In March 1943 he was sent to Auschwitz with his pregnant wife and three year old son, who were both gassed. He lost 80 relatives – all murdered by the Nazis. He was one of 25,000 Jews sent to the synthetic-rubber plant for Farben at Monotwitz – it was known as Auschwitz III. He described the terrible conditions they slave labourers endured. He was tattooed with the number 107984 which is placed on the memorial building. He had studied law as a young man but was unable to qualify because of the Nazis. However in 1951 he sued IG Farben for his two years labour for them and won his case in Frankfurt with three German judges. Although he died in 1985 he had highlighted a very important legal responsibility. The judges had concluded:
The fundamental principles of equality, justice and humanity must have been known to all civilised persons, and the IG Farben corporation cannot evade its responsibility any more than can an individual….
They must have known of the selections for it was their human duty to know the condition of their employees. Their alleged total lack of knowledge merely confirms their lack of interest in the lives of the Jewish prisoners for whom they had a duty of care, at least during the time the inmates were in their power. There was a duty to do whatever they could to protect the life, body and health of the plaintiff – which they failed to carry out. For that failure, which was at least negligent, the company is liable.
After a walk around the inside of the building and a drink and a bun I was quite exhausted and Uwe took me back to my hotel.
The next day 5 October, I visited the first school in Giessen which has put the following on its website – see http://www.ostschule.de/web/sitemap/8-news/neuigkeiten/467-vortrag-von-agnes-grunwald-spier
The students were very attentive especially as I spoke in English and we had some good questions. I was presented with a jar of honey from the school’s hives, processed by the school’s pupils which was a lovely gift.
Later in the day I spoke at the Holocaust Literature department at the Justus-Liebeg University in Giessen – see https://www.holocaustliteratur.de/ under the charismatic young Professor Sascha Feuchert. It worked out fine, once we found the building – it proved difficult because none of the buildings on the campus had names on display. Again the students were most attentive and asked interesting questions. A large group of them and the Professor took me out for dinner afterwards which was great. We had a chance to have a good chat and they were very keen for me to come back in 2018 to talk about my new book. We have to confirm the dates and then it will happen. They have recorded my visit on their website and reported the publication of my new book – see link. https://www.holocaustliteratur.de/deutsch/22Women92s-experiences-in-the-Holocaust-in-their-own-words22-2305/
The next day, 6 October, I spoke at another school Gesamtschile Konradsdorf in Ortenberg where there were about 150 students. The teacher spoke excellent English and I paused regularly for her to precis what I had said for them. They too asked excellent questions and were very receptive. When it came to taking a photo many were rather shy but I persuaded them all to come up.
The students decided to hold my books up for the photo.
A local reporter who was present, wrote an article for the Kreis Anzeiger newspaper which you can read in German at this link – http://www.kreis-anzeiger.de/lokales/wetteraukreis/ortenberg/meine-mutter-muss-sehr-stark-gewesen-sein_18237952.htm
In the afternoon we went to visit Edith in her flat in Langen. It was difficult for us to communicate as neither of us spoke the other’s language, but Wolfgang did a valiant job of interpreting and she told me quite a bit. I especially asked about what happened to her mother whilst the three of them were away. Apparently during that time she visited the convent near their home and spoke to the nuns.
I also asked Edith about the impact of her experiences on her life. She told me:
My mother felt it was important to live a ‘normal life’ and that meant not complaining about her imprisonment. Up to receiving my pension I never spoke about the deportation and never complained about anything. I worked in an office and only my boss knew about it from my file. I feel the fact that I could talk to Hella lessened the impact. I always tell people ‘Keep your eyes and ears open – so that never again will such things happen.’
It was an extraordinary few days. I was overwhelmed by the warmth of my reception, particularly from the students. Some of them sidled up to me afterwards wanting to have selfies with me. I was impressed by the students’ knowledge of English and the quality of their questions. It is flattering that Professor Dr. Sachsa Feuchert of the Justus Liebeg University in Giessen has invited me back later this year to speak about my new book. So watch this space for another blog!!!