As a child, the dark shadow of Nazi Germany and the horrors of Auschwitz almost seemed palpable. It was the stuff of long car journeys with my grandmother, bedtime stories or even songs. My Belgian grandmother was a huge part of our lives. She would come to London to look after my sister and me, whisking us off on holiday as my parents led busy professional lives.
Mémé, as we called her, had been married to a German Jew, Karl Rosenberg, who had escaped two concentration camps. They had fallen in love during the war and she risked her life loving him, protecting their daughter and saving Jewish children by transporting them from occupied Belgium to non-occupied France.
From the Synagogue to Auschwitz
Her stories were ones of horror, they would send ours hairs standing up on end. They would have us gripped as if we were experiencing these terrifying tales ourselves.
My grandfather’s family was from Ahlen in Germany. His father headed the Synagogue and his mother was an active member of the Jewish community. His parents and his aunts, my great aunts, were sent to Auschwitz.
For my grandfather, however, thanks to his prior internment in a concentration camp close to the Dutch border just before the onset of the war, he avoided Auschwitz. He had been imprisoned, not for being a Jew, but for being an active member of the Socialist party.
Head for the windmill
One night as he and fellow prisoners were clearing swamps, an older prisoner told him how to escape. He showed him a windmill on the horizon. That he was told was the Netherlands. If he could make it there he would be free. The prisoners were only counted when they returned to the camp. So, he had a short time before the guards would find out he was missing. He did as he was told and cheated death for the first time.
Karl had worked as a grain trader in Amsterdam before the war so spoke perfect Dutch. Once in the Netherlands he was able to blend in. He was taken care of by fellow socialists - my great grandfather was a leading member of the party. He took my grandfather in and tried to help him find a job and a new identity. There was little need for grain traders during the war so, somewhat bizarrely, he became a podiatrist.
The girl with the bad feet
Mémé had always had problems with her feet. My great grandfather saw an opportunity for his young protégé to get some practice. Mémé described their first meeting, her sore feet outstretched, their eyes locked on each other. They both recounted how it was love at first sight.
My Belgian family was in danger because of their socialist credentials and for helping members of the Jewish community. They moved to non-occupied France along with, the now lovers, Mémé and Karl. The journey was fraught with danger. They crossed the land under the cover of darkness, led across fast flowing rivers and borders by ‘passeurs’. Mémé told me how members of their group died along the way.
Rural idyll, but not for long...
They found a farm in the Limousin area of southern France and learned how to live self-sufficiently. If I recall correctly, Jews were told to check in with the French occupying forces. Karl hesitated, but my great grandfather urged him to go - telling him he should fear nothing. This was France after all. But it backfired. Before he knew it, Karl was staring death in the face again, transported in a cattle wagon of a train hurtling back to a concentration camp, this time in the Pyrénées.
Here, my grandmother bribed a local priest who managed to get Karl out for one night. As the tale would have it, my mother was conceived in a nearby hay shed that evening!
Karl escaped a second time, on this occasion with the help of the French resistance which he joined and with whom he fought for the rest of the war.
Survival and legacy
A dear friend of mine discovered Karl’s life had been documented by a historian of Ahlen. We are looking at this now - filling in the blanks of a distant life that has paradoxically always felt so close.
Karl survived the war. After the liberation he discovered his family had not been so lucky, his parents and the sisters he cherished had all been killed in Auschwitz.
The tales of that time fill my head. Songs from the Résistance were my bedtime lullabies, I can still hear my darling grandmother tell me matter-of-factly that though she survived the darkest of times, living so close to the threat of death had never again made her feel so alive.
75 years is a lifetime ago, but an anniversary like this one, brings ghosts of my past so close that I can almost feel them sitting and breathing beside me as I write.