Sometimes the past comes to life like a gift, and today was like that for me. I have heard and read stories about WW2 all my life. It was such a major part of life for my parents’ generation. Dad’s experiences in New Guinea and the death of mum’s first love in Europe loomed large for them.
When I last went to see Pam she told me of having got a little embroidered dress that was her mother’s back from a neighbour who was mending it, and that she hoped to be able to donate it and some other things to a Holocaust museum that is to be set up here.
Her mother came from Germany and escaped with her family to the US just before the start of the war. Pam sent me through a piece her mother had written about her experiences especially in the years from 1933 onwards, before they left Europe. It was very moving – daily life blighted by the edicts of the Nazis, the luck and fortitude that led to survival, the terrible loss. I went to visit Pam this morning to have a look at some of the items she has from her mother and the photos of her family – those who lived and those who did not. I was most struck by the physicality of the memories. Pam has some of her mother’s clothes, her embroidery, her mother’s embroidery, tablecloths, cross stitch, pulled thread work and more. It gave such a strong sense of the reality of this history. The actual lives, not just the facts. The stitches hand done, the colours still vivid.
One story concerned Pam’s mother Anni and her uncle Marek, her father’s brother, who came to visit the family in the small town they lived in not far from Leipzig, in 1935. They went to the shop to get some ice-cream to celebrate the visit, to find a notice on the door saying that Jews would not be served. Anni apparently thought that would be the end of it, but Uncle Marek was having none of it, and just went in and bought the ice cream – a small act of defiance. Uncle Marek was just about the only member of Anni’s father’s family who survived the war. There is a photo of Anni and Marek at the time of the visit – and Pam still has the very dress that her mother is wearing… (click to enlarge the photos below).
Anni’s brother Henry got out of Germany in 1937 on an educational visa to the US, where his mother’s brother had settled after the first world war. Without him being there it would have been impossible for Henry, and subsequently Anni and her parents, to leave Germany. Very few members of Anni’s extended family, her mother’s and father’s parents, sisters, brothers, cousins, etc survived the war and had they not been able to go to America it is very likely that they would have perished also. Since then their much reduced family has continued, with Pam now here in Australia, her daughter in Canada and a new grandchild – the chanciness of it all, the terrible price of war and oppression, and the strength of the drive to live…