Sylka’s wartime di­ary

Na­dine Wo­jakovski hears the story of a young girl’s es­cape from the Nazis

The Jewish Chronicle - - LIFE - HIS­TORY NA­DINE WO­JAKOVSKI

ON NOVEM­BER 10, 1938, the day after Kristall­nacht, 14-year-old Sylka Frank-Fund of Leipzig wrote in her di­ary: “To­day, ev­ery­thing has been made chorev [de­stroyed]. Ev­ery Jewish book, in par­tic­u­lar in the syn­a­gogues, ev­ery Se­fer To­rah has been burnt. She added, in

He­brew: Ev­ery Jewish man is in prison. Rib­bono Shel Olom, [Mas­ter of the Uni­verse] have mercy on us, be­cause in Your hands are the souls of the liv­ing and the dead.

This is the prayer that al­most all of us are say­ing.”

Sylka’s di­ary re­counts her fam­ily’s flight from coun­try to coun­try, record­ing the pain and suf­fer­ing all around her. And yet, like any or­di­nary teenage girl, she also found time to fall in love.

Born in 1924 in Prze­mysl, Gali­cia, South­ern Poland, Sylka, later known as Sylvia, passed away at home in Hen­don last month aged 93. Her son Ralph Koor­lan­der knew about the di­ary all his life, but only had the courage to ex­plore it fully since his mother’s death.

“The lan­guage of the di­ary wasn’t the bar­rier for me”, he says. “Hav­ing spent much of my youth here in north-west Lon­don in a strange bub­ble with my el­derly grand­par­ents, I was ac­tu­ally more fa­mil­iar with Ger­man and Yid­dish than English prior to go­ing to school. I’d read seg­ments of the di­ary over the years but found it too up­set­ting to read in full. That was the real bar­rier. The idea of a girl of that age, es­pe­cially my own mother, liv­ing through such tragic and tu­mul­tuous times was deeply dis­turb­ing to me.”

Fol­low­ing her mother’s early death, Sylka was sent to Leipzig aged four, where she was adopted by her aunt and un­cle, Anna and Natan Fund. At 14 she was a pupil at the Car­lebach­schule, founded by Ephraim Car­lebach, of the fa­mous rab­binic fam­ily. A gifted scholar, she had changed schools after be­ing hounded out of her pre­vi­ous nonJewish se­condary school.

De­spite the trauma of Kristall­nacht, days later Sylka’s at­ten­tion re­verted to the young man in her life, Wal­ter Rosen­baum, an ap­pren­tice lock­smith from Kas­sel.

She wrote on Novem­ber 15 1938: “Now I’ve given up all hope of a rec­on­cil­i­a­tion with Wal­ter. He doesn’t even say hello to me any­more. When I walked past him on Funken­burgstrasse he was with Sch­nuki and lit up a cig­a­rette and he blew such a big puff! And now I’m an­noyed with my­self, that I was too proud on Thurs­day.”

And then, four days later: “Wal­ter is back with us ev­ery evening. My par­ents have for­bid­den me to be alone with him.”

After this en­try there is a gap in the di­ary for al­most a year un­til Oc­to­ber 1939. Dur­ing this time, the fam­ily was on the run. Sylka stud­ied Span­ish with a view to find­ing safety in South Amer­ica but such was her de­vo­tion to her adop­tive par­ents that she re­fused to be sep­a­rated from them. That loy­alty en­sured their sur­vival. They moved to Aachen, on the bor­der be­tween Ger­many, the Nether­lands and Bel­gium. Even­tu­ally, they man­aged to reach An­twerp, Bel­gium, just a few days be­fore war broke out. There, Sylka was sep­a­rated from her par­ents for a short time, and sent to live in a con­vent.

She wrote on Oc­to­ber 1 1939: “To­day, one year since I be­gan, dear di­ary, the key to my heart to which I have en­trusted ev­ery­thing, …only to­day am I able to con­tinue to record my thoughts and feel­ings… Ac­tu­ally it would be im­pos­si­ble to de­pict the mot­ley col­lec­tion of con­fused ex­pe­ri­ences I’ve en­coun­tered dur­ing this pe­riod. Nev­er­the­less, were I only to pin down in words a frac­tion of what the re­cent past has meant for me and my dear par­ents then I be­lieve at least you, dear di­ary, noth­ing more than inan­i­mate ob­ject, would be more ca­pa­ble

of ex­press­ing life, hap­pi­ness and suf­fer­ing than many liv­ing be­ings. Clearly I see be­fore my eyes the day on which I sor­row­fully packed you into a suit­case with my other pos­ses­sions… Man may plan, but ul­ti­mately, it is God who de­cides. So we have had to ex­pe­ri­ence what it means to be­come home­less and to lose ev­ery­thing which years will not be able to bring back. Not only us, but all our brethren in the same way. Once again, it is we Jews who have be­come the sacri­fice of our time, des­tined to WAN­DER once again — the lot of the Jews for 2,000 years — which al­most ev­ery gen­er­a­tion has ex­pe­ri­enced, as the mean­ing of what it is to be a Jew.”

Fol­low­ing the bomb­ing of An­twerp just prior to the Ger­man in­va­sion of Bel­gium, Sylka wrote on May 10, 1940: “Loud bom­bard­ment since 4am in the morn­ing. A fac­tory in our street is burn­ing as a plane has crashed into it….” And, the last en­try, on May 16: “Ev­ery­body is flee­ing. The news is un­clear and there is a gen­eral fear that the Ger­man para­troop­ers will oc­cupy the coun­try and Bel­gium will fall. We will also flee. There are two rea­son which push us — the nights are un­bear­able, flashes, bombs are fall­ing and the sirens hardly stop for a mo­ment; it feels like the house could col­lapse any minute. And if Hitler re­ally takes Bel­gium and Hol­land and Ger­man troops move in… then we are doomed. With the help of a few oth­ers, Papa and an­other man are push­ing a three-wheeled cart to­wards France…”

The at­tempt to en­ter France proved fruit­less and the fam­ily re­turned to An­twerp where Sylka ob­tained false pa­pers from the kind own­ers of a dry-clean­ing shop, whose daugh­ter, born around the same time, had died. For more than four years, while her par­ents were in hid­ing, she lived without a yel­low star, and brought them food, all the while cap­i­tal­is­ing on her flaw­less Flem­ish and French.

She had links to an un­der­ground

move­ment which helped her fal­sify her iden­tify. In ad­di­tion to acts of sab­o­tage and re­sis­tance, they pro­duced clan­des­tine iden­tity doc­u­ments and ra­tion cards which she helped to dis­trib­ute. She of­ten spoke of fam­i­lies who came out of hid­ing and gave them­selves up to the author­i­ties sim­ply be­cause they lacked the nec­es­sary doc­u­ments to ob­tain es­sen­tial food.

In Au­gust 1942, fol­low­ing big roundups in An­twerp, the fam­ily moved to Brus­sels where her par­ents re­mained in hid­ing and Sylka con­tin­ued her clan­des­tine ac­tiv­i­ties. They stayed there un­til the lib­er­a­tion and she of­ten joy­fully re­called wav­ing from the fam­ily’s bal­cony at the Al­lied sol­diers on Septem­ber 3 1942 as they marched through Brus­sels.

After the war, Sylka met Al­fred Koor­lan­der in Brus­sels, a young Bri­tish sergeant ma­jor who had fought in North Africa, Italy (where he had joined the Jewish Brigade), Aus­tria, Ger­many and the Low Coun­tries.

They mar­ried in 1947 and moved to Lon­don where she lived hap­pily for the rest of her life.

Be­cause of her trau­matic wartime ex­pe­ri­ence, as an only child adrift in Europe, Sylvia felt it was too dan­ger­ous to have more than one child. What if, one day, they needed to go on the run again? Hav­ing more than one child would be too much of a li­a­bil­ity, too much of a risk. Sylvia and Al­fred’s only son, Ralph, was born in 1949 and lived in Hen­don with his par­ents and grand­par­ents. He now has three chil­dren of his own.

“Look­ing at the di­ary now, I think it’s an ex­cep­tional doc­u­ment which con­nects me with my mother in a very spe­cial way,” he says. “The amaz­ing thing is that she sur­vived. She had to sur­vive be­cause without her as­sis­tance, my grand­par­ents would never have made it. And Hashem was un­doubt­edly guid­ing all three of them ev­ery step of the way.”

Not only did she sur­vive, liv­ing hap­pily in Lon­don for more than 70 years, her adop­tive par­ents lived long lives too. Natan, born in 1886, lived un­til he died at the age of 78 in Hen­don in 1965. Anna born in 1888, lived to the age of 89 in 1977.

What haunts Ralph most are the many peo­ple named in in the di­ary whose fate re­mains un­known.

“What be­came of Edith, Leo, Mar­got, Jutta, Regina, Stella, Eva, Thea, Betty, Sch­nuki, Gisa, Egon, He­lene, Klaus Sprei, Harry Loewen­berg, Frau Salomons, Frau Nis­senbaum, Frau Rabb, Dr Ochs, Herr Op­pen­heimer?,” he won­ders. “I can’t stop think­ing about them. Could some of th­ese char­ac­ters have sur­vived?

“And what of her spe­cial friend, Wal­ter Rosen­baum, the ap­pren­tice lock­smith from Kas­sel? Might he have made it? If so, my mother never spoke about him.

“My mother was record­ing nor­mal things in ab­nor­mal times,” he con­tin­ues. “She was an ex­cep­tional lin­guist, self-re­liant, head-strong, ca­pa­ble of pass­ing her­self off as a lo­cal non-Jewish girl and al­ways in­tent on sur­viv­ing and sup­port­ing her par­ents. Re­luc­tant to speak about her war and pre-war ex­pe­ri­ences, they un­doubt­edly over­shad­owed her later life. But for us as a fam­ily, see­ing her through the lens of her di­ary as pos­i­tive, free-spir­ited and philo­soph­i­cal against the back­drop of such trau­matic times is both very poignant and a tremen­dous in­spi­ra­tion to us all.”

Once again we Jews are the \Kû[R»ûN of our time

PHOTO: GETTY IM­AGES

The ru­ins of the Tielshafer Syn­a­gogue in Berlin, burnt by the Nazis on

Sylka and Al­fred on their wed­ding day

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