The Sunday Post (Newcastle)
My family horror: Uncovering the truth about my grandmother’s past and the joy of finding relative I never knew I had
Writer reveals light after Holocaust hell and tales that inspired her novel
In a forest in Potsdam, on the border of Berlin, Eleanor Thom found the harrowing answers to questions that had haunted a lifetime.
Stacked before her on a table in a makeshift office, set up by the central archive for the state of Brandenburg, were the files of the wartime Jewish family she had never had the chance to know. Held by the Nazis in a detention centre, they were forced to list for sale – in their own hand – their meagre possessions, before being herded onto trains to die in the gas chambers of Auschwitz.
When she began her search, Edinburgh mum of two Thom, 44, had only known that in 1939 her late Jewish grandmother, Dora Tannenbaum, just 22, had been exiled to the UK and forced to leave behind her one-year-old daughter Ruth, who also perished.
Reliving the chilling moment that pitched her back to early1940s Germany and the horror her relatives endured, Thom told The Sunday Post: “I had the original files in my hands. These were documents filled in by the families while they were being detained in the days prior to being sent to death camps. They were told to list everything they owned, along with any rent paid or due, and details of family members left in the city. At the back of the file was another list compiled by an auctioneer after they had been murdered. It detailed their possessions with a price against each.
“The types of things listed were what was shocking. These were ordinary families, you are not talking about priceless artworks, but pots and pans and a few articles of children’s clothes, basic everyday items. My grandmother’s cousin had a young baby, and her pram was the most expensive thing on all the lists.”
Thom, who has penned a novel inspired by the families who perished and the life of her grandmother, who became Mrs Wilson and settled in Elgin, Moray, discovered that they were among the 40% of working-class Jewish Berliners who, because of poverty, had neither the means nor the social connections to aid their escape.
But out of the darkness came light. Thom, who had almost given up all hope of finding any survivors among the 20-plus family members she traced, did find one: Kitty – born Gittel – now 81 and living with her family in the US.
And, in a final, crowning glory, as part of the restitution for Holocaust survivors and their families, Thom, her mother and her children were last week granted German citizenship in a poignant ceremony at Berlin’s Bundestag.
Thom’s research into her grandmother’s story helped the Article 116 exclusions group, of which they are members, to bring about the long-awaited change in German government citizenship law. It is a triumph, Thom says, that would have pleased her “stateless” gran who had not wanted to leave her beloved homeland and did not hold its “ordinary” citizens responsible for Nazi atrocities.
“Dora barely spoke at all about the past. Everything I know about her – apart from my research in the archives – is from her daughters, my aunts,” said Thom, whose novel Connective Tissue (out in September) follows her Saltire award-winning debut The Tin-Kin, a fiction inspired by her late grandfather Duncan Wilson’s Traveller roots.
The author explained: “We are quite close and every time I am with my mum and her sisters they talk about their mum. I have been part of those conversations since I was small. My grandmother met and married my grandfather who was from Elgin. He died aged 31, before I was born. Dora died in her midsixties when I was one. It is a great regret that I never really knew her.”
Thom, who, with her artist husband Chris, 52, has a son Ivor, 13, and daughter Oona, nine, a wheelchair-reliant para-swimmer with Lothian Racers, revealed Dora had four daughters in Scotland – Thom’s mother Betsy the oldest at 80; Helen, born in 1946; Nancy, born two years later; and Elsie who died at 66 in 2016. Ruth, their halfsister, was born in September 1937.
“Dora didn’t leave willingly, but the fact she left saved her life,” she said. “She was classed stateless and not a German national. The policy was in 1938 to force as many Jews as possible out of the country.”
Her grandmother – also known as Deborah or Debbie – came to the UK on a work visa as a domestic servant. Thom said: “Her parents were already dead, but she had very close relationships with her cousins; her mother’s brother and his wife, their four children and their children. She lived with them. She was unmarried but had her baby, Ruth, who was also stateless and was ordered to leave the country too. The British Government wouldn’t give her a visa. She was initially in an infant home and later went to live with the cousins and the aunt.”
Dora didn’t have the money to get her baby onto the kindertransport and was told to go to the UK and find help there to reunite them. Thom has evidence that she tried, but ultimately failed.
She said: “Dora never managed to talk about her daughter and family because it was too upsetting. They all died, mostly in Auschwitz, between late 1942 and mid-March 1943.”
It was when her own son was born 13 years ago that Thom began researching her grandmother’s history in earnest, at first contacting New York’s Leo Baeck Institute, where intern Fabian Wendler directed her to the book Jews In Nazi Berlin and a chapter written by historian Rita Meyhöfer that revealed new documents had emerged within, which were 100 files from the Berlin Jewish Association’s equivalent of child services. It included one on Ruth. The original, held by the Jewish Archive in Berlin and to which Thom was given access, held many names and addresses of Dora’s other relatives, along with their job details and an account of the first six weeks of Ruth’s life with Dora. It led Thom to the Nazi Minority Census of 1939 and resulted in her first visit to Berlin in 2015. The soul-searing significance of walking in her grandmother’s footsteps with her own toddler was not lost on her.
“In the first week I was there with my son who was two. I was wandering around the streets; all these old addresses that the family had some connection with. I felt like a ghost. I felt like I was haunting Berlin because I was connected to this city’s past more than its present. But it was a good experience and it felt like the right time to do it.”
Her most harrowing experience was in Potsdam. She remembered: “The archive was in a temporary building because they were making changes. There was a huge pile of papers on a desk that had been prepared for me. I was so shocked by what I found in them. But those details became incredibly precious. It was horrifying but, at the same time, they were the closest snapshot of what the families’ lives had been before the Holocaust happened. We have no photograph of Ruth or any of Dora’s cousins or her aunts and I wanted to know something about who they were, not just their names on a memorial or document.
“That was the only time I felt anger, but I don’t hold German people of today responsible for what happened then.
“The hardest thing was telling the rest of the family that Ruth was five when she was murdered. My aunt Elsie’s daughter Debbie in Elgin, who helped with the book, also had a five-year-old son at the time. We were both very upset.”
The highlight of her search also came in the forest of Potsdam, but she confesses she almost missed it. “When I went into that archive and found the list of belongings, I nearly missed a name, written very lightly in pencil on one of the forms,” she said. “Dora’s cousin Max wrote that he had a daughter, Gittel, who was only six months old and who wasn’t with the family because she was in hospital in Berlin. I saw the name on my second or third reading, it was an unusual surname, and I knew straight away that child had survived because I had seen her name on a list of orphans that were brought to the UK by the RAF. She was born in 1942 and was the youngest in the group, aged four.”
She was among the hundreds of children liberated from the death camps and brought by the RAF to Windermere, in the Lake District, to begin a new life and was later adopted. Further research located Gittel, now named Kitty Hwang, in Florida.
Thom said: “We have met lots of times on Skype. The first time I was nervous but it was amazing. We had a whole crowd of people from both families on both ends of the webcam. Kitty is the most warm, lovely person. She didn’t think any of the family had survived. She desperately wants to find pictures of her parents and her older brother, who would have been only three. Maybe someone out there will have a connection.” In the meantime Thom’s research continues. “I don’t think it will ever stop,” she smiled. “I was driven to write about Dora. But there is so much in Holocaust literature already, I thought: ‘Why am I so compelled to write this?’ Then I saw research by German historian Stefanie Shüler-Springorum that said about 40% of Berlin’s population was living below the poverty line even before 1933 and how little their experiences of the Holocaust had been documented. I knew that Dora belonged to that population and that I had a responsibility to tell the story as well as I can.
“But there are still parts of Dora’s story we know very little about. She always used to cry when she heard the carol Silent Night. We assumed it was something to do with her baby Ruth because she left Germany around Christmas 1939. Dora died on December 10 1981. There is a line from the carol on her gravestone in Elgin’s New Cemetery: “Sleep in heavenly peace.”