Anna in 1938
Edited by Trevor Williams
I received the odd letter or two during this time from Max. I was dreadfully worried about my parents and Max. Every day their situation was worsening and I was powerless to help them. It took all my physical and mental strength to carry on. I wanted so much to return to my old life and lead a normal life. I felt I had been cheated out of some of the good things I had hoped for. On the other hand, I was one of the lucky ones to have escaped the holocaust. It is a period of my life I do not care to look back on.
Gertie and I rented our room from Mr and Mrs Guard. Mr Guard was an elderly Jew married to a much younger second wife. This was an arranged marriage too. They had a five year old boy, Monty, who suffered from Down's Syndrome.
In April 1940, three refugee soldiers arrived at the Guard household to stay for a week. It was a holiday for them. Richard Fedrit was from Vienna and the other two men were from Germany and Czechoslovakia respectively. They had joined the Pioneer Corps and were stationed at Wellington, Shropshire. Richard made a beeline for me, which I found very flattering and gratifying, especially as I was starved of male companionship. Gertie, I and Richard went to the cinema together at first. During the next few days Richard and I took some walks on our own. He was evidently drawn to me. We talked about our personal lives. He was engaged to a gentile girl back in Vienna and intended returning there to her when the present trouble was resolved.
In the meantime, he was not averse to being friendly with a Jewish girl. I told him about Max and the odd arrangement that we were both free to do as we pleased. On this peculiar basis we struck up a friendship. He was twelve years my senior, tall, blond and very good-looking. He was well educated and a lover of classical music. On occasion, he bought me flowers and fruit. We enjoyed each other's company. I must admit that my conscience was pricking me while I was with him. After he had gone back to barracks, I concentrated on writing to Max, who was then still in Antwerp. A few days later, a card arrived for the Guards from Richard, thanking them for looking after him while he stayed at their house, also regards to me and Gertie. I must admit I expected a separate letter from him and felt disappointed, but on reflection thought it might be better if we did not see each other again because of our complicated love lives. Gertie was a little distant for a time. I presumed it was jealousy because of Richard's attention to me. I was very fond of Gertie and dreaded the time when she would be going to live in the States. We were more like sisters than friends. On May 1st we treated ourselves to a visit to the Alexandra Theatre and the next evening we went to the cinema and saw Deanna Durbin in 'First Love'. All very enjoyable, but what was more important to me then, was a postcard I had received from Max.
On Friday, May 10th 1940, the war moved to the foreground. Germany attacked Holland and Belgium. My heart stood still when I listened to the radio commentator describing the bombardment of the various towns and cities. To know that Max was in terrible danger nearly drove me to distraction. On May 16th, Holland gave in. Belgium carried on fighting and thousands more died. Antwerp and Brussels were in German hands on 18th May. Now aliens with category B were being interned here in England.
Max escaped to France on May 19th. King Leopold of Belgium had told his people to lay down their weapons on 28th May. No doubt the world would condemn him for that. It put the British forces into a very bad strategic position because they were partly cut off. 80% of the troops were evacuated from Flanders. They were ferried over the Channel by any boat available. Casualties were very high. This was at Dunkirk. We were now into the beginning of June.
Richard wrote to me. He was working very hard, ten to twelve hours a day. Gertie and I still stayed in touch with some of the nurses and we were invited to join them on a half day excursion. It was a welcome diversion and the weather had turned very warm. I felt tired and had little energy but enjoyed the company.
The war was being felt on the British mainland now. Every night, bombs were dropped, so far not on Birmingham. On June 10th 1940, Italy declared war on France and England. The situation was getting more complex and horrific. British and French troops were withdrawn from parts of Norway. It was very frightening and I was feeling nervous and apprehensive. To cheer ourselves up, Gertie and I decided to go to the cinema on June 11th. We saw Greta Garbo in 'Ninotchka', a wonderful film, which we enjoyed very much.
Gertie's parents and sister Paula somehow managed to escape to Antwerp too but neither of us had any news from our loved ones for some time. Gertie used to have another sister. She was a beautiful girl but had the misfortune to fall in love with a gentile. Her parents would have never accepted him into the family. Rather than live either without her love or be cast out by her family, the poor girl committed suicide: she gassed herself. The whole family was utterly devastated by this tragedy.
On June June 14th, German troops marched into Paris. On June 18th, Hitler and Mussolini met in Munich and five days later France capitulated.
On June 25th, the first air raid siren sounded in Birmingham but nothing happened then. On June 28th, the first air raid occurred over Birmingham: luckily no bombs fell in our area. The raid lasted two and a half hours.
Gertie and I had a joint friend, Anne Drexlern, who was married. She was ill in hospital at that time and we visited her when we could. Unfortunately, it turned out to be a terminal illness. She was sent home for a time and nursed there by her husband, Gertie and me. About this time Gertie's departure to the States became imminent. She had to present herself at the American embassy in London for an interview and she intended to stay for three days. I was not feeling too happy about losing my best friend. Indeed it seemed that my last link with my previous life was going to disappear now. While Gertie was in London, I took a week off from work to look after Anne Drexlern. The following week, Gertie was going to take her turn with the nursing. The next four weeks prior to Gertie's departure to America flew by with great rapidity. On August 1st, Gertie travelled to Liverpool. Her boat left on August 3rd.
I was on my own now and badly needed company and comfort. I turned more and more to Richard. He felt the same way and we drew nearer. When we both had a day off, we arranged to meet in Wellington on August 9th. Unfortunately, the army had other plans and Richard's leave was cancelled at very short notice. Richard had no chance to let me know about the change. I was not too pleased when he did not turn up and returned home disconsolately. Waiting at home was a letter from Richard, explaining the situation. It had been delivered after I had left for the station in the morning. Apparently, the whole contingent of the Pioneer Corps was moving to another camp and all leave was cancelled.
On the night of Tuesday August 18th 1940, there was an air raid over Birmingham lasting several hours. It was 4.00 am by the time I managed to get to bed. After so little sleep I was hardly fit to do a day's work. This was just the beginning of many harrowing nights we were to endure. I also missed Gertie very much, from whom I had not heard yet. I was worried about her safety on her journey. So many boats were torpedoed in war time. Most of my evenings I spent at my sick friend's bedside, which did not help my fatigue.
On the following Sunday, I had a rendezvous with Richard in Wellington. It was our first meeting for a long time and he seemed very happy to see me. He took me out to lunch and then we went for a walk. It was a very pretty part of the country. The sun was shining and it was warm; a lovely summer's day. Richard was quite a charming fellow and we got on well. He kissed me. I felt friendly, but not loving. My conscience was pricking me but Max was far away and we were, after all, not officially engaged. As it turned out later on, Max and I never saw each other again. The Wrekin is a well known beauty spot and we explored the countryside and made the most of the day. Richard told me more of his life. He had known his girl for ten years. He still wanted to carry on seeing me, in spite of this commitment. Our lives, like so many other refugees, were very mixed up. We both decided to go on with our friendship.
The air raids continued over Birmingham. Hardly a night went by without the dreaded air raid sirens sounding. Sitting in a cellar or a shelter most of the night and then going to work in the day was tough. It was a hair-raising experience to listen to the drone of the planes coming overhead, hearing the sickening noise of the explosions and wondering whether it might be your house or place of work to be demolished by the next bomb. A lot of people were injured and even killed. I was one of the fortunate ones: only my nerves ended up in shreds. The bombing was getting more widespread. London was suffering badly too.
During September I met Richard again in Wellington. As time went on, I found out more about his girl. She was a dancer, her name was Erna, and he had promised to marry her. I wondered at the time, if she was remembering that too. In the meantime we were seeing each other. On my 20th birthday, Richard presented me with a beautiful box of chocolates and a charming letter arrived too. I was beginning to feel cherished and, dare I say it, happy. He came to spend the day with me on Wednesday, September 25th. I met him at the station, which was a surprise to him. He hugged me so hard, I was afraid for my ribs. We went for a walk and decided to go to Cannon Hill Park where it was green and pretty. We had lunch in Birmingham and then went back to Mrs Guard's for tea. At that time I shared my room with Sofie. She had a date that evening, so we had some privacy.
At the beginning of October that year it was the Jewish New Year, Rosh Hashanah. Franz Drexlern, Anne's husband, sent me a telegram to meet him at Selly Oak Hospital at twelve noon. This rather upset me, as I thought it was a matter of life and death. It turned out that he just needed moral support. Anne had been readmitted but her condition was not too serious at that time. I caught a heavy chill during that week and had to go to bed myself with a high fever and severe chest pains. At times like these I missed my dear Mama so very much; very childish, but probably understandable. I longed for her loving and comforting arms. She probably needed comfort herself then, poor woman. Mrs Guard was very kind to me and I was grateful for her ministrations.
On October 7th, a letter from Gertie arrived from the States. She was settling in very well at her aunt's but was worried about me because of the air raids. She was attending a secretarial college.
I was looking forward to a week's leave, which Richard was going to spend in Birmingham very shortly. He always wrote the most charming letters to me. One sentence I still remember well: 'I love you more than I ought to'. His conscience was evidently troubling him. So was mine, because of the respective loves we had left behind. Nevertheless, we enjoyed each other's company and even seemed to draw closer together.
On the night of Tuesday October 16th we endured a very heavy air raid. A great many bombs fell in our area. Several delayed action bombs dropped all around us and at 4.00 am we had to leave the house. Sofie, who was still single then, and Friedel, another girl in the house, had to stay at a hostel until Saturday noon. The bomb disposal squad worked very hard to make the area safe but it took time. After this last attack we were too frightened to stay in the house during an alert. The moment we heard the sirens wailing, we grabbed a small ready packed suitcase with some of our belongings and ran to the nearest public air raid shelter. We spent many a sleepless night in discomfort and fear. In the morning we would return home, have a wash, eat a little breakfast and then go to work, if you were lucky enough to have a bus service. How we managed to survive those dreadful times is still a mystery to me.
At this time I joined the 'Refugee Club' and on Sundays Sofie, Friedel and I usually ended up there. One Sunday we three decided to go for a walk and noticed a soldier with a Pioneer Corps badge on his uniform. He stopped and started chatting to us. As we were on the way to the club, he joined us. His name was Heinrich and he came from Czechoslovakia. He made a beeline for Sofie. At the club we ran into two of his friends, one Jew and one Gentile. Friedel teamed up with the Jew and I was left with the Gentile. He spoke several languages, but only spoke English on principle. I was not really interested in him and never saw him again.
On the other hand, Sofie's romance blossomed. She was a diminutive, dark-haired girl and very attractive. Heinrich proposed to her after a very short courtship and they were married at the Register Office in Birmingham. Their wedding night was disturbed by the bombing, but it did not deter the ardent new husband from consummating the marriage.
On Thursday, October 24th, the centre of Birmingham was on fire and was practically burnt out; also, the area where I lived and the factory centre. Hundreds of incendiary bombs had been dropped. The firemen were working flat out to put out the fires. Two factories near where I worked in Heath Mill Lane were completely destroyed. Birmingham seemed to be in chaos. On the following Sunday I visited Kath Griffin in Monkspath. Her younger sister Margaret, who taught in Cambridge, had gone through a terrifying experience. She had been blown out of her bed by a bomb. She had struggled to stand up, fallen over a chair in the darkness and then trodden on some splintered glass. Luckily she got away with just shock and fright. The same evening I was spending my time once again in the public air raid shelter. The noise from the bombs and anti-aircraft fire was worse than ever. Sofie and Friedel had not come home. We assumed they were sheltering somewhere in the city.
November 6th was a sad day: my friend Anne Drexlern died in Selly Oak Hospital. Franz, her husband, was very upset and shocked. It was left to me to make the funeral arrangements.
The same day, Richard came to Birmingham on his week's leave. We went for walks and managed a visit to the cinema, but most of the nights were spent in an air raid shelter; not very conducive for romance. The weather was turning colder and wetter.
On November 17th, I caught the train to Wellington to meet Richard there. It was raining hard that day and we just sat around in various cafes and talked. Not a very inspiring or thrilling day for us. A few days later, a colleague of his delivered a letter to me by hand. It was quite a romantic missive and I was very touched by it.
On Tuesday, November 19th, we had one of the worst bombing raids so far. The Guards' house was badly damaged by a landmine, which exploded on the opposite side of the road. There was hardly a house in Birmingham with all the windows intact. The factory where I worked was put out of action by a landmine from next door. I had not worked for nearly a week. I sent Richard a telegram to tell him I was safe.
On Friday, November 22nd, my factory was completely gutted by fire. Now I was without a job and looking for work again. I started a new job on November 27th at Town Hills Ltd in Carrs Lane, where they manufactured men's clothes. Life was very strange then. I hardly had time for a meal when I got back from work. The air raid siren would sound and I'd grab my little emergency bag and run to the shelter. Sometimes I took Monty with me. He was a bit slow, but it gave Mrs Guard a chance to grab a few things and also helped her husband along.
One night when I was rushing to the shelter on my own, incendiary bombs had fallen very early on in the raid and even the sky seemed to be alight. One of the hated German planes was swooping very low and machine-gunning the street. A great wave of anger engulfed me. I had escaped from Austria to the safety (?) of England and was determined that no German would shoot me down. I ran as I had never run before. I made it.
On Wednesday, December 10th 1940, we experienced thirteen hours of bombing. The school, where we sheltered, was on fire. A high explosive bomb was also dropped on it. One woman was killed and several people injured. The shelter was full of dust and debris and people screaming with terror.
In January 1941, Mr and Mrs Guard moved to another house in Balsall Heath Road. Their old house was too badly damaged to continue living in it. I went along with them. Sofie left to be near her husband's camp. She did not seem very happy. Friedel also left. Now I had a room to myself. Mrs Guard took in a new lodger, an Irish Jew. There was also another young man who rented another room. He was a Norwegian and a very quiet, unassuming fellow. One day, we realised that he had not been seen for a day or so. I peeped into his room and saw him lying in bed looking very ill indeed. On the bedside table stood a half empty tin of plums. I suspected poisoning and called an ambulance. The poor man died later in hospital.
March 11th 1941 was Richard's birthday. I sent him a silver-plated cigarette case, which I had engraved with his initials. He had been moved to another camp somewhere in Gloucestershire and we were not able to see each other for the time being. I had made a new friend, Gwen. We decided to go to a concert at the town hall, which we enjoyed very much. Before Richard was moved to his new camp, in February, he spent a week's leave in Birmingham. We had a very nice time and I decided then to live by the Latin proverb: carpe diem - enjoy the day.
There had been a lull in the bombing but it came to an end on Sunday 20th April. I had just had a bath when the alert sounded and the bombs followed very quickly. Direct hits on both sides of the house sent bricks and rubble and broken glass flying about our ears. We all fled into the cellar and had to dig ourselves out later. The entire house was a shambles but we were alive. In the one house next door, eight people were killed; on the other side, three. The streets around us had huge craters where unexploded bombs had fallen. The air raid wardens advised us to go to a public shelter for the rest of the night. We scrambled over the rubble as best we could. In the morning, when we were allowed to go back to the house, we realized that we had clambered over unexploded bombs, which could have blown us sky high. My nerves were in a bad state now and Kath and Tom were really worried about my safety. They suggested that I should live with Mrs Cox, Kath's mother, who had sold her house in Gillott Road, Edgbaston and had bought the house next door to her daughter's in Hay Lane Monkspath. I decided to accept the offer gratefully. Richard came to see me after the raid and was pleased that I was moving into the country. He was always very nice to me and very considerate but I could not forget that he was only 'on loan' so to speak. Franz Drexlern also turned up to see if I was still alive. I had a feeling he had a girlfriend. Who could blame him? Loneliness is one of the scourges of mankind.
As an alien, even a friendly one, I had to ask permission to change my address and the police were making it difficult for me. Eventually, the Griffins intervened and vouched for me. At the end of April, I moved my few belongings to Mrs Cox's charming house where I occupied a small room. I looked after myself and only paid for gas and electricity. She did not want to charge me any rent. The bus fare into Birmingham was quite steep, so I did not gain anything financially. I was very happy to be there and was sorry for the people still in the city.
In May I received a postcard from my uncle Sigmund from Haifa, Palestine. He told me that he had arrived there on May 25th 1940 after a very difficult journey of three months. Just before the ship was due to land, it was torpedoed. He had jumped into the sea and swum to the shore. Luckily he was unhurt. He was going to remain in the camp at Athlit for several months. Later, he moved to Haifa and met a young woman, Lola, who had been widowed. She lived with her daughter and mother. Sigmund fell in love with her and they had a short happy marriage. Sigmund started a small business in watch repairing. He never lost touch with me. He still worried and wondered about his first wife and his beloved son.
In June 1941, the month clothes rationing began, I heard from my old friend Mimi Kriss. She and her mother were also now living in England but had been interned. During March they had been released and gone to live in Leeds. Mimi wrote to me and told me the glad tidings. She had also happened to run into Max's middle brother, nicknamed Bullu. His real name was Israel Michael but he now used his second name exclusively. Michael wrote to me and asked me if I had any news about Max. It so happened, that I had received a letter from him at that time. His mother was with him in Antwerp for a time until the Germans overran Belgium. They both fled to the South of France to Marseilles but there their luck deserted them. Max was put in a labour camp and was only allowed to visit her occasionally. Eventually, in September 1942, the poor woman was deported to Poland and never heard of again.
In his letter, Max begged me to try and do something on his behalf to get him to the States. This seemed an impossible task for me, as I had no connections in the States except Gertie and she could not do much herself.
On June 22nd 1941, Germany attacked Russian territory.
During the second half of July I developed a sore heel, which turned septic and I had to rest at home. Mrs Cox was very kind and looked after me while I could not walk about. Richard had 48 hours leave and came to visit me and cheer me up. At the beginning of August Mrs Cox decided to visit Margaret in Cambridge and spend a weekend with her. I went back to work during the first week in August, as soon as my heel was better. On Saturday, August 9th, I met Franz Drexlern in Birmingham. He was feeling rather depressed, as his father had recently died. He took me to the Casino, where we watched the dancers, as neither of us was proficient at dancing. He brought me some pop socks which had belonged to his late wife, Anne. I was not too pleased about this present, nor too impressed. Anne's sister and sister-in-law had their pick of all the other belongings which were worthwhile. While Anne was ill, they had not come near her very often. However, Anne had given me a very good cookery book which I have appreciated ever since.
On Saturday August 23rd 1941, Richard came to Birmingham for the day. It rained heavily all day and we spent our time in cafes and at a restaurant having lunch. In the afternoon, we went to the Theatre Royal and saw the Anglo-Polish ballet. It was a lovely performance and we enjoyed the music and graceful dancing. We decided that it would be a good idea to have a holiday. Richard booked a couple of rooms at a guesthouse in Harlech, Wales. We started our break on Tuesday 2nd September and stayed for a week. It was a revelation to me. I had only been to a seaside place once before, just for a day, and that was Blackpool in the height of the season in a heat wave. Harlech was a pretty, quiet and unspoiled place. We went for long walks and bathed in the sea. It was a very happy time for both of us. On the surface we behaved like any other courting couple. Unfortunately this euphoria did not last.
When I returned home to Monkspath, Mrs Cox told me she was going to pay a prolonged visit to her daughter-in-law in South Wales. I would have the house to myself for that period. Mrs Cox was away for about a month. During that period, a letter from Max arrived, telling me that his brother in Leeds was getting married to his girl Trude Reininger in October. As it happened I knew about it and had received a wedding invitation from Michael. I never attended that ceremony.
Richard came to Birmingham for two days: November 7th and 8th 1941. We attended a concert at the town hall together. He still had a bad conscience about our attachment and suggested we should see less of each other, a sort of slow withdrawal. He was evidently thinking of the time when he would be returning to Vienna to marry Erna. I was very hurt and upset and to my shame began to cry. I offered a platonic relationship, but this he would not accept. He thought it would make us both unhappy when the time of parting came. Our so-called love affair was turning sour. This conversation was taking place on the platform of New Street Station and when the train arrived, Richard was going to board. I was very unhappy. At the last minute before departing, Richard begged me to forget everything he had said and leave things as they were. How could a girl forget that she had just been told she was only a stopgap? I went home disconsolate.
At that time I decided to help in the war effort and was to start a course at a government training centre in Garrison Lane shortly. I found a room in Birmingham at 2 Newton Road, Sparkhill. I was very sorry to leave Mrs Cox, but as air raids had subsided and I was going to work different hours, I needed to live in a more central area. I moved to my new abode on Saturday December 13th.
I met Richard in Birmingham and we had another serious discussion. He did not want to part from me and wanted to carry on as before. He took me to the cinema and we saw 'Hold back the Dawn' with Charles Boyer and Olivia de Havilland. It was a very good film, but I was not in a very appreciative mood. I was at a crossroad with regards to my relationship with Richard. Had he proposed to me, I would have said yes, but nothing was further from his mind. He told me I was too touchy and that I had misunderstood him and so on. On the surface everything was as before, but deep down, I knew that I had moved on.
The hours at the training centre were 7.00 - 2.00 one week and 2.15 - 9.15 the next. This was a completely new world and environment for me, with new faces and a strange new job too. My new landlady did not enjoy good health, although she was no more than 35-40 years old. She was crippled with arthritis and in a lot of pain most of the time. This did not improve her temper or her sharp tongue and I soon began to feel very unhappy there. It was a far cry from my dear friend Mrs Cox, who had treated me like one of her own daughters. Nevertheless I carried on with my training course. It was attended by all sorts of different people, all wanting to help to win the war. Our instructor's name was Mr Wood, who was quite a pleasant man but unfortunately too fond of a drink. I felt I was back at school and found the written work easy enough to cope with. The technical side was rather more strange to me. Factory work, which I was eventually going to do, was harder to get used to than I had expected.
While I was training, I met Gerald Williams. Gerry, as he liked to be called, was a nice looking, dark haired and dark eyed young man, who seemed to be very attracted to me. He rode a motorbike and offered me a lift home after the first time we spoke to each other. I was working on the late shift and buses were not very frequent, so I accepted his offer. Because of the blackout restrictions, I could not even see the motorbike, so I just felt the outline of the pillion before I sat on it. The minute I got on, we were whizzing along the street, my heart in my mouth - my very first time on a motorcycle. It was the beginning of January 1942 and it was very cold. Gerry was a lively young man, full of fun and always ready to crack a joke. He was good at drawing cartoons too. One day, we had a particularly tasteless canteen meal and just for fun Gerry drew a cartoon of the canteen manager standing by a mincing machine pushing a cat into the top of it. It was a very good likeness of the canteen manager. Suddenly the much maligned man appeared and wanted to know who had drawn the picture. Gerry owned up and was requested to wipe the table clean. Everyone thought it was a pity to destroy such a masterpiece.
One day Gerry asked me to come to his home, where he lived with his mother, stepfather and youngest sister Peggy. I accepted the invitation very reluctantly, as I was still seeing Richard at that time. It seemed I was complicating my life more than ever. I had only known Gerry for a week, when he proposed to me. Things were going much too fast for my liking and I really did not want to get involved. There were all sorts of reasons why I should not become entangled. For one, he was not a Jew and at that time this was a big factor to consider. I consented to meet him on Saturday, January 3rd 1942, at 4.30 in the afternoon. At 3.00 pm Richard paid me an unexpected visit. I was not too happy about his sudden appearance and told him that I had a date, which I was going to keep. After this meeting I only saw Richard once more a few weeks later. I told him then that I thought it would be better for both of us not to see each other again. There was no future for us and although I was sorry to hurt him, I felt it was a sensible move on my part. He was very unhappy and depressed when we said goodbye. I saw him only once again from the top of a bus in New Street some months later. He was on his own then.
While at the training centre, I met Hilda Fisk. She was single then, but living with a young man who adored her. She came from Berlin and had lost her family. Her sister had perished at the notorious concentration camp Theresienstadt. We have been friends ever since.
Uncle Paul and Aunt Susan, who had come to England before I did, had been working in a large house in a domestic capacity. He was a butler and Susan was a parlour maid. Paul told me he was asked whether he knew how to clean silver. As a jeweller, he had felt insulted at the time but saw the funny side of it in retrospect. After a time they managed to move to London, where they rented a small flat and began to rebuild their shattered lives. I visited them there and remember being taken to a concert at the Albert Hall.
On Monday February 16th 1942, I started work at the factory (Pugh's). It was a far cry from nursing and I must admit I did not enjoy the work, which was hard and exhausting. I was working on a lathe, turning six-pound shell cases. The metal shavings (swarf), which came off the shell cases in the process, cut my hands badly and it was very painful to wash myself. I had to grit my teeth whenever I had to wash. Life was certainly getting harder and stranger for me. Gerry was a very persistent chap and I must admit I was getting fonder of him. I needed love and tenderness and he certainly was not mean in this respect.
Meanwhile, my landlady was turning more and more unpleasant and I decided to look for another room. I happened to look in a newsagent's window one day and saw an advertisement for a furnished room not far from where I lived. I called round to have a look at it. A pleasant lady opened the door, invited me in and showed me a lovely, large room on the ground floor with a french window and good furniture too. She seemed very friendly and genuine. She told me that she also had another guest, a lady, renting a room on the first floor. I could use her kitchen, except on Sundays, when she would cook lunch for everybody who wanted a meal and I was welcome to join her and her husband Ernest and son Albert. I decided to take the room. It was a relief to leave my grumpy landlady. Mrs Hocking turned out to be a good friend to me.
For a long time, I had heard nothing from Max. Occasionally, a letter would arrive from his brother, Michael. In November 1942 another letter came from Leeds. He announced the birth of his first daughter Vera, who was by then three months old. His younger brother David had married in the previous July. Michael was desperately worried about Max and their mother. He had sent money to her and a telegram. The telegram was returned undelivered. About this time, President Laval was going to send some 15,000 refugees back to Germany from unoccupied France. When it came to the crunch, Max escaped to Switzerland where he also got married. He stayed there until 1950. Later, he moved to Chicago and then to Los Angeles. The youngest Bibring brother, David, escaped to Israel and lived in a kibbutz at first, but later left to get married and moved to Tel Aviv.
In contrast, I'd had no sign of life from my parents since the end of 1941.
My life was settling into a pattern now. I was working at Pugh's, where Hilda also had a job. Some weeks I had to work on the nightshift, which I disliked. I emerged in the morning feeling like a zombie. One morning, when I was crossing the road in the blackout not far from home, a cyclist knocked me to the ground. He did not even stop and I managed to creep home and crawl into bed. I had a very bruised and swollen face. In the evening I made an effort and walked to the local surgery to see the doctor. He diagnosed concussion and ordered me to rest for a week. While I was in the waiting room, Gerry walked in. I was sitting there with a handkerchief in front of my disfigured face and feeling very self-conscious and embarrassed. I did not want anybody to see me like that. Gerry was very kind and considerate and looked after me when he was home from work. He was having further training at Anne Road, Handsworth. This was his opportunity to learn a trade, die milling, and as he was a bright young man, he became very proficient at it. He later obtained job at a firm in Selly Oak, where he stayed for the rest of his working life.
Although Gerry had had a good start in life, fate intervened and shattered the lives of the whole family. He grew up in comparative luxury in Cannock. He had three older sisters, one younger sister, Peggy, and one younger brother. His father was managing director of a fertilizer firm, which was doing quite well. His mother, a good-looking woman when young and adored by her husband, who was quite a bit older than she was, was illiterate. That did not stop her appreciating the good things in life. They had servants and a chauffeur and the children were sent to private schools. Gerry was the apple of his father's eye, being the only son for a time. Gradually, business deteriorated and Gerry's father borrowed some of the firm's cash, hoping to repay it before it was missed. His wife had no idea how to cut down her spending. Unfortunately, the borrowed money was missed and Gerry's father was committed for trial and convicted. He fell ill in prison and died there. Consequently, when Gerry was seven years old, the family suffered the cruel blow of being left without a roof over their heads. The house was sold and the mother left with six children, the youngest a baby boy. The chauffeur was this child's father and the boy was left with him and his wife, while the rest of the family went to stay with relatives in Birmingham for a time.
The eldest girl, Kathleen, a child by a previous marriage, and Norah were old enough to work. Gerry was put in a children's home and Peggy stayed with her mother. Eventually, his mother found a house, which she rented, and moved in with her daughters. Gerry stayed in the children's home from the age of seven until he was fourteen. He visited his mother when he grew a little older but she never went to see him at the home. He got on well at school and wanted to carry on with his education after the official school leaving age of fourteen. His mother had different ideas. As soon as he reached his fourteenth birthday, she insisted that he came home to her. She wanted him to find a job to help out with the family finances. The lad tried very hard to get a job, which was quite difficult in those days too. One job was making shoelaces, not a very inspiring for a career for a bright young lad. Every penny he earned, he had to hand over to his mother. She did not even leave him the bus fare to work. He had to walk. Eventually he ended up at a large dry-salter's firm. Whenever his mother decided to supplement her money by doing a little cleaning job, she managed to persuade Gerry to do the work for her in his lunchtime and then pocketed the money herself. After some years she married again. Her husband's name was Cyril Molesworth. He was a short man and rather odd looking. He and Gerry just about tolerated each other.
When Gerry began to take me home, his mother seemed to accept me. Whenever I went there, the place seemed to be full of young people. She took in paying guests, usually young men working away from home. Gerry had to share his room with them. Sometimes the paying guest would be a girl and then Peggy was expected to share her room, which was not too popular with her.
I found out that Gerry had been engaged to be married before we went to the training centre. This association ended after about two years and left him very unhappy. Then Eileen came on the scene: she was one of his mother's paying guests. This affair came to an end because of his mother's interference. Eileen was a high-spirited girl and fun loving. Unfortunately, she became pregnant: no such thing as the pill in those days. Gerry's mother insinuated that Eileen had been going out with other men besides Gerry. Eileen went home to her mother in Hartlepool when she could not persuade Gerry that the child was his. The baby was a boy and she called him Gerald. Later she filed a paternity suit against Gerry and won. He had to pay maintenance for many years. Eileen died of TB while the child was growing up and her mother looked after him after her death. This trouble rather clouded our relationship for a time.
Gerry always insisted that he only loved me and wanted to marry me. Eventually, I gave in. As soon as his mother found out that we were contemplating matrimony, various rumours began to circulate about me. I remember being stopped in the street one day by a friend. She asked me whether certain unpleasant things she'd heard about me were true. Gerry and I realised that I was probably not his mother's first victim. It made him more determined than ever to marry me. We set the wedding date: it was to be the Tuesday after Easter, April 27th 1943. His mother took to her bed and tried to persuade Gerry to postpone the wedding but this ruse did not impress him and the ceremony went ahead as arranged.
It was a register office wedding. I bought a smart grey suit with a navy blue blouse from a dress shop in Bull Street, MacConville's: this has long gone now. I remember getting on a bus to go to town to the register office. A taxi would have been too much of an expense. Uncle Paul and Aunt Susan attended the wedding as did Peggy and her new husband, Eric. Marjorie, Gerry's sister, and Hilda and her young man, Walter, came too. The reception and lunch were held at Kunzle's, where I had booked a room. In spite of wartime restrictions and austerity, we enjoyed our chicken dish and lovely sweet. Gerry's mother had not relented and stayed away. However, to my surprise, Gerry's stepfather, Cyril Molesworth, came to both the ceremony and reception.
Photographs were taken and we had quite a few presents too, in spite of wartime shortages. In the evening, Gerry and I went back to Mrs Hocking's house, where we had rented an additional room until we could find a place of our own. Finding a house to rent was a difficult task in those days. So many houses had been demolished by the bombing and no replacements were being built. After searching for many weeks, I came upon a flat which was being repaired to make it habitable again. I spoke to the builder, who gave me the owner's name. The flat belonged to a confectioner who ran a large patisserie in Corporation Street and also had smaller shops elsewhere, one of them at 252 Ladypool Road, Sparkbrook. To cut a long story short, I got the flat. The rent was cheap too. Living over a cake shop was not too bad. The lavatory was outside in the back yard and the back gate opened on to a bombsite, while the upstairs front window gave us a view of the Red Lion pub across the road. I was pregnant and we needed to be in our own place, however humble. Mrs Hocking was not too keen on having a baby around the house either. The other alternative would have been to move in with my mother-in-law which we ruled out altogether.
The day I picked up the keys to the flat was one of the most memorable. We bought the barest necessities. The furniture available was called 'utility' - very plain but serviceable. We managed to furnish the flat reasonably well. The next step was to prepare for the coming baby. The child was not planned and we had a struggle to buy everything we needed. I left the factory early in my pregnancy and found an office job at Serck Radiators. I stayed with this firm until eight weeks before the birth. I decided to sell a diamond cluster ring, which I had bought as an investment earlier on, so I could buy a new pram for the child. My pregnancy was uneventful and I felt well throughout. I had always wished for children and I was looking forward to having my own baby. Gerry too was thrilled at the thought of becoming a father. Kathleen, Gerry's eldest sister who lived in Acocks Green, still believed the lies her mother had told her about me and we had no contact with her or her family.
At the beginning of November, I started labour pains. Gerry and I decided to walk the short distance to the Sorrento nursing home where I was booked in. When we arrived there, the pains stopped. I was told that they were preliminary labour pains and should return when I had the proper ones. A week later on November 16th 1943 at 6.00 pm, my son Trevor was born. He weighed 7 lb 9½ ounces. He was a lovely child. I was not very successful when I tried to breastfeed him though. I developed breast abscesses and ran a high temperature. After 15 days of pain, confusion and utter misery, I went home hardly able to look after myself, never mind a new baby.
When Trevor was a month old, I was rushed into Selly Oak hospital for an operation on my left breast. I could not have a child with me, so Gerry asked Kathleen to look after Trevor for us, which she very kindly did. I stayed in the hospital for a month. It was over the Christmas period and it was a very miserable time for me. Just when I thought I was ready for discharge, I developed another abscess. I was prepared for a second operation.
A few minutes before I was due to go to the operating theatre, the staff nurse came to my bed and asked me if I would let her do something that would save me having another operation. I did not really understand what she meant but nodded my head. She plunged her scissors into the abscess and burst it. I screamed out in pain and shock. The staff nurse made me promise not to give her away. When I was seen by the surgeon, he was surprised that the abscess had burst, but said that I needed no further treatment.
When I was discharged, Gerry took me to Kathleen's house. It was our first meeting and I certainly did not look my best. She apologised for her behaviour towards me and said that she had been wrong to listen to her mother's slanderous tales. We have been the best of friends since.
Trevor had grown quite a bit but did not know me and cried when I picked him up. I was very upset about that but realised that he would get used to me when I could look after him myself. I stayed with Kathleen for a week until I felt stronger. It took three months until I was fully healed up.
When Trevor was a little older, I had his photo taken at a local studio. The photographer asked my permission to display his picture in his window. Many people recognised him whenever we went out. Trevor was a very bright child and very much admired by my next-door neighbour, Elsie. She and her husband, Alf, kept the shop next door. They were childless. Elsie loved to have Trevor whenever she was free to do so. He started talking at a very early age, so much so, that Alf commented once, that he must have been born with a gramophone needle in his mouth. I could not make up my mind whether this was a compliment or not.
We had been married just over a year when one of Gerry's friends, who had been one of his mother's paying guests, asked him to go away on holiday with him. To my consternation and humiliation Gerry went off for a week's holiday, leaving me and Trevor behind. This did not enhance our relationship. I often wondered what the two young men got up to and Gerry certainly never let on.
Trevor cut his teeth fairly late: it was ten months before he had his first one. He nearly always suffered with bronchitis when he did cut one. When he had yet another bout of bronchitis when he was a toddler, I called the doctor in to see him No NHS then. He prescribed M&B tablets, but unbeknown to me had prescribed an adult dose. I only realised the mistake when the child reacted adversely to the tablets. He turned a pale purple colour and I could not wake him up. I was very frightened. I heated some milk and added some glucose to it. I managed to spoon some of the liquid into his mouth and after a while he began to swallow it and he revived. I went back to the doctor and complained but he played the matter down and in those days I was too timid to make an issue of it. I was thankful that my child was relatively unharmed.
When Trevor was well again, I decided to take on a part-time job to help out with the family finances. I had him looked after at a local nursery. I took him there in the morning and then caught a bus to Acocks Green village, where I worked part time. In the afternoon I called for Trevor and we both went home. I must admit I did not really like leaving him, especially as he cried every day when I left. I kept this up for twelve months and then decided to call it a day.
Gerry's mother changed her attitude as soon as I had produced her grandson. She was very eager to see him and Gerry used to take Trevor on some Sunday mornings to her house, while I prepared lunch. I believe she used to treat Trevor to a slice of cake, when he was old enough to eat it. He was about four years old when she died.
I was highly delighted when a letter arrived from Munich on the 20th May 1947. It was from my cousin Roman Vileinberger who had somehow managed to escape the holocaust. He was married with a month old daughter he had called Helen after his mother.
In the summer of 1947 we decided to take a holiday in Clacton-on-Sea. We booked in at a small guesthouse. It was Trevor's first time at the seaside and we enjoyed ourselves very much. One memory has stayed with me. The hotel was run by a Mr Bamford, who also did the waiting at table. Trevor was used to a woman dishing up food and consequently always addressed the unfortunate man as Mrs Bamford, to the great delight and merriment of the other guests. I do not think Mr Bamford was too amused.
Some weekends we did short trips into the country. Gerry had a motorbike with a sidecar then. This was a cheap mode of transport and it enabled us to get around. When something went wrong with the engine, it was not unusual for all the bits and pieces to end up on the kitchen floor. Eventually they would be re-assembled and the bike would be driveable again.
I had been making enquiries about my parents through the Red Cross and in June 1947 received a very distressing message that my dear ones had been deported to Riga in Latvia on December 3rd 1941 and nothing had been heard of them since. I felt devastated.
My aunt and uncle invited us to London at this time. We travelled by train and stayed at their small neat little flat. We went sightseeing quite a bit. Pity it rained almost non-stop. Uncle Paul and Aunt Susan decided to emigrate to the USA after surviving the terrible air raids in London. They stayed in New York for a short time and then settled in Portland Oregon. I was very sad that they went so far away. They were, after all, the only close relatives I knew I had.
Around the same time, I met my friend Ruth, who was married to a Norwegian. They had two daughters then, Karin and Ingrid, who had only been born very recently.
Trevor was five years old when the doctor advised us to have his tonsils removed. I took him to the Children's Hospital on the appointed day for his operation. When the doctor checked him over, he found that he was slightly chesty and I had to go home again and wait until he was quite clear. The next time we went, which was three weeks later, he did have the operation. Trevor only stayed in one night. When we fetched him the next morning, we were shocked to see him wearing only a short bloodstained little vest. He looked very sad and forlorn. My tears were not far away. I dressed him hurriedly and hugged him all the way home. I remembered my own tonsillectomy and how I had felt. He complained of earache and a very sore throat, which even an ice cream failed to improve. I was thankful when, after a week, he began to get back to normal. He was soon his sunny and rosy self.
At five years old Trevor started at a nearby local infants school, which was quite close to where Ruth lived. I always took him to school and fetched him. He took to his new life very well, liked learning and got on with his lessons right from the start. At six years old he used to read the newspaper to me.
Ruth had a son about this time, Eric. When I visited her to see the new baby, I began to long for another child myself. In spite of the trauma I had been through following the birth of Trevor, the yearning for another child was very strong indeed. I consulted the doctor and asked him if there was a chance of the same thing to recurring. There was no definite answer: it probably would not or it might. I hoped for the best and I was soon pregnant. I was usually very well while I was expecting a child and looked positively blooming. Unfortunately, later in my pregnancy, Gerry fell ill with pneumonia. He was very ill and I nursed him at home. During this illness he developed asthma and this distressing condition never cleared up. He had to rely on inhalers for the rest of his life. Nursing a sick husband during my pregnancy did not do me any good and I began to lose weight. It was several months before Gerry was fit enough to go back to work.
A letter dated June 20th 1949 arrived from Lola telling me that Sigmund had died two months previously. One day he was not feeling too well, so he let his wife persuade him to consult a doctor. While he was sitting in the waiting room, Sigmund had a heart attack and died. I have no doubt he died of a broken heart. Lola was inconsolable. I sent her several letters, but got no reply.
On Friday August 19th 1949, I started labour pains in the morning. I was determined to leave everything in good order at home before I phoned Gerry at work. I gave Trevor his midday meal too. Gerry arrived very soon after and took me to Dudley Road hospital, while Trevor stayed with Elsie. Howard arrived at 9.50 pm weighing 7 lb 3 ozs. I was thrilled with my lovely baby, my precious child. My children have always been the pride and joy of my life. Even now that they are grown-up, people who knew them as children remember them as being exceptional. Gerry too, was highly pleased with his second son. On the eighth day after the birth I was to go home. Unfortunately, I had developed breast abscesses again. The new wonder drug penicillin was then in use and I was given several injections of it. Elsie's husband Alf volunteered to fetch me home in his car. He duly arrived with Gerry and Trevor. Howard was not satisfied with the breast feeds and consequently cried. Trevor was very surprised that such a tiny child could make so much noise. He was pleased to have the brother he had wished for but disappointed that he was not big enough to play with him. As soon as we arrived home, I made up a bottle feed for the hungry lad and he was soon asleep after drinking his fill. I could not breast feed successfully because of the abscesses and had my milk swayed away by some pink tablets. It was my bad luck to be allergic to penicillin too. Not much was known about allergies to the drug in those days and my reaction to the injections was developing in quite a frightening way. I was swollen and purple all over and the irritation was really dreadful. One night I felt so ill, I was certain I was dying. Gerry fetched the doctor, who gave me a heart stimulant. It took almost a year for the effects of the allergy to clear.
As Howard grew older, life in the flat became more difficult. Our landlord decided to have a new staircase put in to make the shop and our flat completely separate. Our kitchen was moved upstairs and the attic turned into a bedroom. Nevertheless, even after the alterations were finished, the flat was not an ideal home for a family. I approached the housing department for the allocation of a house but was told I would have to go on the waiting list. Eventually, I managed to make a rather strange deal with my landlord, Mr. Pattison. If he would accept a married couple from the corporation housing list, we could have a council house in a more rural area. The medical officer of Birmingham visited us and after listening to my story about Gerry's pneumonia and consequent asthma and the two youngsters, we were recommended for a house. We chose to live on a new estate in Bartley Green, where the air was fresh and unpolluted.
We moved to 3 Trippleton Avenue in December 1951, just one week before Christmas. It was a brand new house with two bedrooms, a large lounge and reasonably sized kitchen. The garden was as yet unmade and there were no footpaths or road made up, just soil and mud. When the removal men had gone and we had tidied the house as much as we could, it was time for bed for the children. When I put Howard to bed in our new home for the first time, he said, 'When are we going home, Mummy?' We all felt strange and the child had just expressed all our feelings very aptly. Trevor, who was only eight years old, was a great help to us in the move. It was probably a great adventure for him. During the day, our new neighbour at No 1, May Brawn, brought us a tray of tea to make us feel more at home. May lived there with her husband George and their two young daughters Linda and Jennifer. It was a very friendly gesture which I have never forgotten.
It took some time to make the house cosy. Also, the surrounding area was quite a problem. There were no footpaths or proper road surfaces. The garden was in a similar state. We dared not go out without wearing wellington boots. Even shopping was difficult. The nearest local shop and Post Office was in the 'old village', quite a walk from the house. The bus service also started from there.
Trevor started school at Woodgate School. He never complained, although he must have felt very strange at first. It is never easy being the 'new boy'. Luckily he did not have any difficulty with any subjects. After some time the roads were made up and some temporary shops were built too. It was becoming more civilized all round.
Gertie and I had stayed in touch with each other and now and again she very kindly sent some gifts, which were highly appreciated during the rationing period. She had met a young man - a Jew - and they fell in love and got engaged. She was very happy and sent a photograph of herself and her fiancée. But alas, the engagement did not last and Gertie was heartbroken. Then one day I received a more cheerful letter, telling me about a new romance. Her young man was also called Gerald, but abbreviated to Jerry. He was not a Jew, much to her family's anguish. Jerry's family made Gertie very welcome but her parents would not even meet him. This attitude caused a lot of heartache for the young couple. They were in love, the marriage went ahead and they settled down in an apartment for a time. They were very happy but their happiness was marred by the loss of their first baby.
In Bartley Green, I missed my friend Ruth very much. I tried to strike up new friendships closer to home but never succeeded in making a real friend in the area. I was told by Gerry that I was too distant and too fussy etc. I probably could not find anyone with similar tastes and outlook. However, I was very busy with my little household and the children were thriving.
Quite often we would visit Kathleen and John, who still lived in Acocks Green. They now had three children. The youngest was Roger, who was an unscheduled baby. I believe she never got over the chagrin of his arrival. Whenever we went to see them, we were always made very welcome and the children had a happy time playing together. Kathleen used to keep chickens in her back garden and many a time we had the welcome presents of new laid eggs to take home with us.
In the summer of 1953, the coronation of the young Queen Elizabeth was on the horizon and everybody was planning a celebration to mark the occasion. Individual street parties were to be held and our avenue was no exception. A fancy dress competition was arranged which kept mothers busy making costumes for the children. Gerry decided on a weird idea for Trevor. He was to appear as the headless woman. Howard was to go as a Chinese coolie. Presents were bought for the children as a memento of the occasion. When the day arrived, June 2nd 1953, the weather let us down: it rained most of the day and there was a cool wind too. Tea was served in a neighbour's house, instead of outside and the presents were handed out to the children in our lounge. When everybody had departed, our floor was covered in mud and it took me days to polish out the scratch marks on the Marley tiles. Those were the days before we had fitted carpets. Nevertheless we all had a good time.
I always kept up my correspondence with Uncle Paul and Aunt Susan. They seemed to like living in the States. Gertie also wrote at intervals, informing me how she was getting on. She still took a great interest in events over here, like the coronation for instance. All Americans love the pomp and circumstance which surrounds occasions like these.
After Easter 1954, it was Howard's turn to go to school. I was a little anxious about how he would take to it. We walked up to Woodgate Infants School on the fateful morning. The classroom was full of mothers and children: some were calm, others visibly upset. Howard looked round and saw a tiny little girl almost dissolving in tears. He went up to her and put his arms round her to console her. Roslyn Humphries gave one look at her comforter, stopped crying immediately and fell in love with him. Weeks later she decided to pay us a visit after school and have tea with Howard. Unfortunately, she did not inform her mother of her intentions and while she was enjoying tea and biscuits with her friend, her poor mother was going frantic with worry, wondering where her little daughter had disappeared to. Later, she remembered her partiality for Howard and called on me. She heaved a sigh of relief when she found Roslyn safe and sound. Nevertheless, the girl must have had a severe reprimand, because she did not repeat her visit, but she always retained her fondness for Howard.
That year we bought our first TV set.
The head mistress Miss Eamer was a very sweet lady and obviously took a great interest in her small pupils. After a very short time she asked me to call on her. She drew my attention to Howard's unusual musical talent. She advised me to send him to a school of music. I wish I could have acted on her advice but money was very short and I could not see how we could afford it. Howard was very versatile and extremely good in other directions. Practical things and art seemed to come to him with ease, so it was difficult to choose the best subjects. He was always ahead of his form mates. Eventually, he skipped a class and from then on he was always the youngest of all the pupils he was with. Almost from babyhood he could see at a glance how things were constructed and he could take them apart and reassemble them.
I used to accompany Howard to school and call for him, just as I did with Trevor when he was younger. Howard would not stay for school meals and it was a tiring schedule for me for a while. Trevor did have school meals: he preferred to stay and save himself the walk. An embarrassing situation arose one day. My neighbour May, who worked as a cook at Woodgate School, casually asked the children how they enjoyed their meals. Trevor replied that he quite liked them but Howard, with a child's candour, said that he preferred my cooking. May took it in good part and explained that she had certain recipes to work to and that was the reason the food was different from home cooking.
Howard was very keen to learn to play the recorder when he was about eight years old. Trevor read the instruction book and taught Howard to play the instrument, although he could not do so himself. Howard was soon proficient and joined the recorder group at school. He played at a recorder festival at Moseley Hall. It was a very moving occasion to see so many youngsters from dozens of schools play with so much joy and real skill.
Gerry had taught himself to play the banjo some years ago and had quite a repertoire of various songs. George Formby was one of his favourites. He played by ear only, as he could not read music. He was also an inveterate teller of jokes. He must have remembered and told hundreds of jokes in his lifetime and he also made up funny satirical rhymes about people and occasions. It was a tragedy that he did not have the opportunity of a good education and a reasonable home life after the age of seven. He used to entertain our children on many occasions with songs and games and was very inventive and clever with mechanical things. He was a good parent and very proud of his sons.
In 1955, I decided to help out with the family budget again. I applied to the Birmingham Corporation to obtain a job in the school meals service at Woodgate School. I got the job. It was a three hour stint serving lunches to the children and clearing up afterwards. It had the great advantage that I was at home when the children were, including holidays. I kept this up for almost three years. The children never came home to an empty house. The money I earned was not very much but was put to good use.
Trevor sat his eleven plus exam that year and to my utter astonishment did not get a place at a grammar school. He had always been in the first three in class and I had fully expected him to pass the exam. I made some inquiries how such a thing could have come about and found out that the headmaster had not given him a recommendation for a place. Apparently it depended on this, not only on the pupil's answers. Trevor was heartbroken and I was absolutely furious. He had no choice but to start at the local secondary modern school at Adams Hill. He had no interest in the work there and seemed utterly bored. After several months, I received a summons from Mr. Gilpin, the headmaster. I still remember the first words he spoke to me: 'What is Trevor doing at this school? Why is he not at a grammar school?' To cut a long story short, he insisted that Trevor sat another entrance exam for grammar school when he was thirteen. He took a lot of persuading because he had lost faith in the fairness of the education system. Eventually, he agreed to sit the exam and passed with flying colours. He opted to go to George Dixon's Grammar School in Edgbaston.
His new headmaster, Mr Rumsby, wanted to meet his new pupil and we went to the school one day by special appointment. We arrived outside the gate a little before two o'clock and not being familiar with the location of the headmaster's room, I asked a man, who had just arrived on a bicycle. His answer will always stay with me. 'You'd better come with me. I am going that way'. When we reached the room, the cyclist opened the door and sat behind the desk. It was Mr Rumsby himself. He was a very kind man and invariably did his best for his pupils. He arranged for Trevor to have extra tuition in various subjects by members of his staff. After Trevor had been at the grammar school for three months, a very nice letter arrived from Mr. Rumsby, congratulating him on his achievements. Trevor had started off in the D-stream, but was now fit to join the B-stream. It was one of the happiest days in our lives. Trevor never looked back, as the saying goes. He simply blossomed at George Dixon's. He went on to take two other languages besides Latin: German and Spanish.
On parents' day, which I attended on my own, the two masters, who took Trevor in their respective languages, almost fell over each other, when I asked how my son was progressing. They shook my hand and congratulated me on my brilliant son. I remember feeling a little embarrassed, but oh so proud! My heart felt fit to burst. Trevor has always been far too modest and never let on about his achievements. Mr. Gilpin had realised Trevor's potential and he will always have my gratitude. I believe in education for its own sake, to enhance people's lives, not only to help with earning a living in adulthood. Trevor excelled in most other subjects too, perhaps not so much in mathematics, but even there he was quite adequate. For his A-levels it was difficult to advise him which side to choose: Arts or Science, He chose science and kept art as a hobby. Music is also one of his loves. He taught himself to play the guitar, which was also taken up by Howard.
Gertie still sent gift parcels now and again. One arrived in 1956. She also informed me that they had moved to a better apartment and were busy decorating it. The following year, their son Bruce was born on August 11th 1957. To say they were thrilled would be the understatement of the century. Gertie's mother and sister visited her. Her mother could not ignore her new grandson and finally met her son-in-law. Her father would have liked to see his new grandson but Gertie would not allow that unless he also met Jerry. In the event, Grandfather never saw Bruce and neither did he make the acquaintance of his son-in-law. This stiff-necked attitude of her father caused Gertie a lot of anguish over the years. Only his death put an end to it.
During the time the children were growing up, Gerry's health was not a source of rejoicing. His frequent bouts of asthma and bronchitis were very worrying. I looked after him when it was necessary and tried to do jobs that could be upsetting him, myself.
Another great and constant worry was the absolute silence from my parents. I wrote many letters to the Red Cross and other organisations to try and get some sort of information about them. After years of searching, a letter arrived in November 1958 from the Red Cross with a devastating message: my parents had been deported by the Gestapo to Riga. They had left Vienna on 3rd of December 1941 and their names did not appear in the lists of Jewish people who had returned to their homes after deportation. The pictures conjured up in my mind were indescribable. I cannot put into words the hurt and deep unhappiness I felt then and still do. For the sake of my dear family, I tried to push my sad thoughts and the torment I was going through to the back of my mind. I even sought the help of my doctor but found that drugs did not alleviate the pain in my heart. I took refuge in work and looking after my husband and children. I had my own private hell, which I could not escape from. It is still with me and will be until the end of my days. In my blackest moods I long to get away from my own body and thoughts. 'If I could only get out of my own skin!' I used to cry. Very childish, but understandable perhaps only to people in similar circumstances. The holocaust is an apt description of the disaster which overtook six million Jews. Apart from the victims, it also affected countless people related to these poor men, women and children, bringing utter mental misery to them.
At this time I had a part-time job at a local firm. I worked from nine till two in a small works office at Birmetals Ltd. It was a very easy job, which needed no qualifications. My immediate boss was a randy man, but otherwise kind. He loved to talk and was very sympathetic to my worries. The advantage of working there was that I could walk to the office, which was very pleasant in good weather. I vividly remember one severe winter though. We'd had some heavy snowfalls and then freezing weather to follow. In Bartley Green, that meant weeks of frozen surfaces and a spate of broken limbs, as people slipped and fell down. I too fell one morning walking to work and cut my knee quite badly on some ice. Luckily I did not do any other damage.
As time went on, I decided we needed more cash to come into our household. Gerry would or could not save any money. Any saving was done by me. I tried to persuade him to put a certain sum of money into a bank account, which I had opened in both our names. Every week we would both put the same amount in and this worked for a few weeks. Soon however, I was the only one who would deposit any savings. Gerry would excuse himself by saying he had no spare cash. After a time I became very disgruntled and changed the account to my name only. Gerry had taken up hair cutting in a small way. First of all he just cut our children's hair, because they both disliked going to the barber's. Then their friends wanted it done too. The venture grew like Topsy. He did not charge very much but it was a little extra cash coming in. Unfortunately, he did not save the money. The newly opened Social Club was a big draw to him and the money was mostly spent there. For a time I accompanied him once a week but I got bored playing Bingo and I suggested we went to a theatre for a change. Gerry was not interested. He only ever came to the theatre once with me. Peggy used to join me, whenever there was a play or ballet on I wanted to see.
In July 1959, we went to Prestatyn holiday camp for a week's holiday. We all enjoyed ourselves and benefitted from the change of air and surroundings. In the same year, Howard passed his 11-plus exams and started at Bournville Technical School. Trevor passed his O-level exams in 1960 and decided to carry on at George Dixon's for his A-levels.
For a long time I had been contemplating writing to Mrs Kvapil, my old friend from childhood days. One day in 1960, I sat down and composed a short letter and sent it off, not expecting to hear from her. To my great surprise and delight, I received a long letter from her by return of post. She had been wondering about my fate for many years and was genuinely thrilled to hear from me. From then on we stayed in correspondence until her death.
In another letter in 1961, she said she wanted me to visit her, but I could not bear the thought of going back to Vienna. Her daughter Martha, my playmate, had got married and had twin daughters. Sadly her marriage did not last and she went to live in Italy, where she met a man with whom she lived for a time. She had the misfortune to be involved in a bad car crash, which severely injured her feet and she could not walk properly after that. Mrs. Kvapil wanted her to go back to Vienna, so she could look after her, but Martha declined.
Mrs. Kvapil also mentioned various other people I used to know and how they were getting on. She also thanked me for a small gift I sent her for Christmas, which happened to be her only present in 1960. One of our old neighbours, Frau Brichta had refused to speak to me after the Anschluss. She apologised for her behaviour via Mrs Kvapil.
In September of the same year, another letter arrived, giving me more details of her life and her daughter's. Apparently, Mrs Kvapil was still carrying on with her philately business, although she was aged seventy then. She went on holiday for three weeks in the summer. Martha was living in the Dolomites in northern Italy and her only income was her ex-husband's alimony payments. So her mother was sending her money periodically to supplement her finances. Martha's twin daughters matriculated that year and decided to go to England as au pair girls to improve their English. They were staying in London. I was even given their addresses, but did not feel I wanted to make the effort to meet them.
Trevor passed his A-levels in 1962 and applied for a university place in several cities. He chose Manchester University for his studies. We were very proud of our son. There were not many children in our neighbourhood who had made the grade for higher education. Trevor's best friend David Benham got a place at Keele University. This was an important step for Trevor but I hated parting from him. He left home in 1962 and from then on I only saw him during his vacations or on rare occasions, when we visited him. It was, no doubt, a very difficult time for him too. I helped him financially as much as 1 could but probably not enough. He was never one to complain and I most likely never knew of half the things he went without, because he did not want to be a burden. He wrote every week, which we appreciated very much. It was important to keep in touch. I later decided to have a telephone installed, so we could ring each other more easily.
Another letter arrived from Mrs Kvapil. She apologised for not replying to my last letter sooner, but she had been quite ill. I had asked her whether she knew anything about my parents' fate. She confirmed that after they had to leave their old flat, they were allocated one room at 1 Wessinger Strasse. She visited them there. It was very dangerous for both parties to be seen together, so they had to meet in a dark gateway. Usually it was my father who came but sometimes my mother would come down too. Jews were allowed only meagre rations and my dear friend used to take them some extra food to help them out a little. She said the happiest days for my parents were those when they received some mail from me. It was only a sentence or perhaps two, which was allowed via the Red Cross. Otherwise they lived from day to day with their misery.
One day nobody came to meet her. She asked the caretaker where they were and was told that they had been 'fetched'. She knew then that she would not see them again. The Gestapo had done their vile work. I was very touched to hear that my parents had at least had one friend who came to their assistance while they were still in Vienna. It was very brave of Mrs Kvapil to even go to see them.
The knowledge that my parents were transported to a concentration camp in Riga, where they were starved, abused and murdered, and then buried in a mass grave still gives me nightmares. This is a wound that will never heal.
This account is based on part of my mother's (Anna Kings nee Lamensdorf) notes for her autobiography. She continued to keep these notes up to 2004.
I have edited the account to make it consistent and coherent but not changed the events, writing style or phraseology.
Anna's first husband died in 1970 and she then married John Kings, a widower. He predeceased her by a few months. Anna died the day after her 90th birthday in September 2010.
Trevor Williams 2013
from the October 2013 Edition of the Jewish Magazine
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