Elsa Shamash, 91 ‘My fa­ther had ter­ri­ble night­mares that the Gestapo were com­ing for him’

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go­ing by ship to San Fran­cisco, be­fore head­ing south to Lima. Green says her mother kept a diary in which she recorded see­ing the Golden Gate Bridge, built just a few years ear­lier, from the deck of the ship. “To­day, if I visit my son in San Fran­cisco, where he is a sci­ence pro­fes­sor, if I stand at the first-floor win­dow of his house I can see the same bridge. It is such a cu­ri­ous link be­tween the past and the pre­sent.”

They wrote to her brother, who by then was in the Bri­tish army, to say they were safe in Peru – a re­lief af­ter six months of si­lence. But Green didn’t meet them again un­til 1952, af­ter her failed first mar­riage. She stayed in Peru for two years and en­joyed be­ing with her par­ents again, find­ing no dif­fi­culty pick­ing up where they had left off 13 years ear­lier, but she came back to the UK, re­mar­ried and had three sons, all of whom be­came sci­en­tists.

Her par­ents stayed in Peru and lived rea­son­ably hap­pily. Her fa­ther even prac­tised law again, and her mother started paint­ing. There is one of her mother’s paint­ings on the wall, and it is very good. But Green points out a de­tail that may re­veal her par­ents’ feel­ings – a beer tankard, hark­ing back to the fam­ily’s ear­lier life. Lima had given them sanc­tu­ary, but it seems that part of her mother’s heart was still in Bavaria and the world they had lost. Even 80 years on from her flight from the Nazis, Elsa Shamash re­tains a strong German ac­cent. She is a lit­tle deaf and her daugh­ter helps her un­der­stand my ques­tions. Her fa­ther was a pioneering ra­di­ol­o­gist and the fam­ily, which lived in Ber­lin, was wealthy. She and her brother Heinz were at pri­vate school be­fore Hitler came to power, but then had to trans­fer to a Jewish school. The fam­ily’s non-Jewish maid had to quit: it was no longer per­mis­si­ble for Jews and non-Jews to work to­gether.

Her fa­ther had been a med­i­cal of­fi­cer in the first world war, so was given per­mis­sion to carry on work­ing in medicine but, from 1936 on, he could only treat Jewish pa­tients. The fam­ily was con­sid­er­ing em­i­grat­ing: her fa­ther vis­ited Pales­tine, but felt it would never be peace­ful; they also had visas for Ecuador, but wor­ried that the cli­mate would be un­suit­able. It seems ex­tra­or­di­nary now that they would stay in Ger­many rather than flee to South Amer­ica be­cause of the weather, but Shamash says her fa­ther was 61 and wor­ried how he would make a liv­ing out­side Ger­many. “He didn’t ex­pect Hitler to last,” she says.

That mood changed af­ter Kristall­nacht. Her fa­ther’s med­i­cal prac­tice had been daubed with paint; the children were sent home from school; and her fa­ther was warned by phone – Shamash thinks by a former pa­tient – to make him­self scarce be­cause Jewish men were be­ing rounded up. Her fa­ther quickly left and hid for three days. “For the rest of his life,” she says, “he had ter­ri­ble night­mares that the Gestapo were com­ing for him.”

When he re­turned, they re­dou­bled their ef­forts to leave Ger­many. Elsa and her brother got places on a Kin­der­trans­port and left Ber­lin in March 1939. When war broke out, she feared she would never see her par­ents again but, with the help of rel­a­tives in the UK who were able to put up £500 as surety, they were able to fol­low Elsa and Heinz to Bri­tain shortly af­ter­wards. Elsa’s fa­ther was ini­tially in­terned on the Isle of Man as an en­emy alien, but was even­tu­ally al­lowed to prac­tise medicine again.

Shamash’s fam­ily was lucky in that they all sur­vived, but she says they were still trau­ma­tised. “My fa­ther was very de­pressed and he al­ways had those night­mares,” she says. “Of­ten in the mid­dle of the night he was scream­ing.” Over the past 10 years, fol­low­ing the death of her hus­band, she has de­voted her­self to work­ing with refugee groups in north Lon­don. She sees the resur­gence of the far right in Europe and the “hos­tile en­vi­ron­ment” to­wards dis­placed peo­ple in the UK as signs of rising in­tol­er­ance and fear of the other. Even in her 90s, she is de­ter­mined to re­sist.

She has, af­ter all, seen the con­se­quences of the al­ter­na­tive. As her fel­low Kin­der­trans­portee Ruth Bar­nett says, nazism took root in Ger­many be­cause there were too many pas­sive bystanders. The other way, she says, is to be an “ac­tive up­stander”. The tri­umph of evil, it has been said, re­lies on good men do­ing noth­ing. But when good men and women make a stand, good can carry the day. An ir­re­sistible mes­sage from six un­quench­able spir­its. Re­mem­ber­ing the Kin­der­trans­port: 80 Years On is at the Jewish Mu­seum, 129-131 Al­bert Street, Lon­don NW1 from 8 Novem­ber to 10 Fe­bru­ary ( jew­ish­mu­seum.org.uk)

Elsa Shamash now and, left, with her brother Heinz in 1936

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