Memoir
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Craig Raine writes: this document, written by Ernst Rosenfeld, was found on the desk of my mother-in-law Lydia Pasternak Slater after her death. It has been translated by Nicolas Pasternak Slater.

The story begins in the summer of 1943. Ernst, a Jew, is 46.

Ernst’s wife is Hedwig. She has a sister, Marie, who lives with Hedwig in a flat in Hechingen. Ruth, Hedwig and Ernst’s daughter, also lives in the flat.

Hedwig and Marie have another sister, Babette. She lives in another town and Ernst has never met her. Babette enlists the help of their Aunt Anna, plus Anna’s husband and daughter Bettina.

Sofie and Josef are other members of this extended family living near Hechingen.

*  *  *

At the station in Neukirch near Breslau, an extra platform had been built. It had to be connected to the existing ones by a wooden bridge. Most of the inmates of the nearby Forced Labour Camp for Jews were occupied with track-laying. A few were helping two ‘Aryan’ foremen to fit together and erect pre-cut beams and planks for the bridge. This group of forced labourers had only a single re-trained Dutch carpenter. The remainder were selected because judged capable of writing and calculating. I was one of those.

Although we often had to carry heavy beams, the work was less tiring than track-laying. And it had other, unexpected advantages. The two foremen were skilled carpenters who had been excused military service to do this construction job. They joined in with a will, and (together with that Dutchman) took over most of the jobs involving walking along the joists, which needed a good head for heights. Most importantly, unlike many (though not all) of their colleagues on the track-building and other workplaces, they swore little and never hit one. True, they never bothered themselves about the accommodation, living conditions or food of these ragged Jews, nor did they show any concern if one of us dropped out and was replaced. They were so trusted by the guards that this little party of Jews generally had no guard in charge of them. After all, none of these shaven-headed, emaciated, tattered figures would ever be able to run away. And where could they have gone?

After some weeks, the bridge was almost finished. A single foreman and just two Jews were detailed to finish the work. The Dutchman and I were selected. We seldom saw a guard, and the three of us now worked almost as a master with his two apprentices, like free men doing a job of work. In the camp or at our workplaces, all we Jews were addressed as ‘Du’ by everyone; at best, followed by our surname. But AW (our foreman) called us by our first names, and allowed us to call him ‘Herr W’ instead of ‘Herr Vorarbeiter’ [Foreman]. We realised this job could only last a few more days. I knew nothing of W’s personal circumstances or political views, but I hoped that, put to the test, he would at least not betray me. On one occasion, when the Dutchman was working a little way off, I quietly asked W whether he could get me a postcard so that I could write to my wife in Hechingen, and if he could post it for me, as the first sign of life from me for over a year. (That had been when I got the bus-driver ferrying us from the station to the camp at Drancy to accept and post a card from me. I had no idea whether it ever arrived). W nodded briefly. Next day he brought me the card (I had no way of paying him for it). He brought a pencil, too, and arranged for me to write the postcard unobserved. I never expected any further help from him. But he sent off the card with a covering note giving his address and expressing his readiness to let me read the answer. (It would have been too dangerous to hand me the answer itself).

And that was what happened. Hedwig’s sister Marie also immediately sent W a food-parcel for himself and me: he gave me some of the contents to eat in secret on the spot. Then – I don’t know whether he himself arranged this, or whether it just happened – but now only a single Jew was allotted to finish off the work. This delayed its completion a little as well. Now W repeatedly gave me food, and also gave me an old pair of trousers of his (with a Star of David stitched in) to replace my own. Replacing my jacket would have been too conspicuous. Other Jews in my hut naturally noticed the trousers. I told them where I had got them, and they never betrayed me. So I lived on in Paradise for a week or so. Then the end could no longer be delayed. W was required somewhere else. On leaving, he said he hoped that ‘the evening of all days’ hadn’t yet arrived for us.

Perhaps three or four weeks passed in the usual way, then, one summer Sunday morning (these were reserved for cleaning out the huts and – if at all possible – mending our clothes), I was summoned and ordered to report immediately to the camp gate to put something right urgently on the station bridge. The others looked at me with sympathy. ‘We hope there’s nothing wrong.’ My alarm increased when I saw W standing by the gate in a furious rage. The guard handed me over to him with sadistic pleasure. No sooner were we by ourselves than W reassured me and added: ‘there’s a great joy in store for you today.’ We walked between the tracks to the station. Before we reached it, W opened the single door to a one-room railway service hut, where I found Hedwig and Marie sitting at a table laid for a meal. W had arranged for them to come to Breslau for the day. Both on their way up and back, they had been checked on board the train against an escaped-persons register. They hid their horror at my appearance. We were together for about an hour, with W keeping watch outside. No one disturbed us, and eventually W escorted me back to the camp, where I reassured my three comrades that it had only been a trivial matter. I later discovered that they had been making plans that day to help me escape.

Only a few weeks passed before higher authority took a hand in our lives. A transport was organised from Neukirch to Görlitz, and I was to join it. The camp at Görlitz was smaller and more humane than the one at Neukirch. It was situated in the grounds of the huge WUMAG motor factory, where thousands of workers, both free and prisoners, were housed in a variety of buildings. A column of us was set to work there with a column of ‘free’ Poles. One of us, a Frenchman of Polish origin, secretly made friends with one of the Poles. With his help I managed to smuggle news of myself to Hechingen. Now, once again, food parcels were sent from there for that Pole and my fellows and me, so once again I received much better food than our allocated rations. I heard nothing more from W. Some two months went by.

18 October, 1943, was almost as warm as a summer’s day. We spent the one-hour midday break (when no food was provided) lying on the ground at our workplace. Suddenly a tumult broke out. A man forced his way towards us, in a state of extreme agitation, cursing and swearing and shouting so that the guards could barely understand what he was saying. He was yelling ‘That one…That one’, waving his arms in the air and pointing at me. No one would have given a button for my chances. But in the same moment that I realised I was being pointed at, I recognised the shouting man as AW. Getting to my feet, I had no need to pretend that I was frightened (as a prisoner with no rights, one never knew what would happen next). The guard beckoned me and asked W if I was the man he was after. He said yes, grabbed my arm and dragged me away with him, without even asking permission from the bewildered guard. There was nothing too surprising about one man not knowing another in this gigantic factory, and this impassioned performance would never have raised a suspicion that it was all a show. No doubt I recalled the similar performance on that summer Sunday a few weeks earlier; but I probably wore an expression of fear and terror all the same. W shoved me along ahead of him, without stopping swearing, and we made our way unmolested not only as far as the factory gate, which I had never seen before (there must have been a number of them), but right past the guard-house and out into the street.

Not until we were outside did my escort calm down. Then he led me on as if we were on some legitimate business. It must have been a familiar sight to the people of Görlitz. Nobody stopped us. We did not go far. Soon we found ourselves on a highway outside the town, where we could talk without being overheard. W briskly told me that I had to escape from the camp that very day. When we reached a spot which he had pointed out to me beforehand, he sprang smartly off the road into a thicket. I followed him. No one saw us. He had set up a hiding-place there, with a complete outfit of civilian clothes (brought by Marie), a snack for now, and food for my journey for the rest of the day. I quickly changed, and W carried my rags further off into the bushes while I ate. A cap concealed my shaved head. I was given money and ration coupons to buy food on my way. W also gave me the passport of a dead man. The age was more or less right, but the photograph looked nothing like me. He told me to learn my new personal details off by heart, and to recite them again and again as I walked. If I was questioned, I was to claim to have been called up for community service (as he was himself), and to be on leave and on my way to K, a village some 10-15 kilometres away. He described how to get there, and how to find his parents’ house there. I should tell them I brought greetings from A. They were prepared, he said. I knew the names of the villages I had to pass through, and had no need to speak to anyone. It was, as I have said, a warm October afternoon, and I remembered that it was the date of the battle of Leipzig. No one took any notice of me. When dusk began to fall, I saw a car coming towards me, seemingly shining a revolving searchlight over the surrounding country. Was it the police? Were they searching for me? I stepped a few paces off the road into the fields, as inconspicuously as I could, and flung myself down on the dry earth until the car had passed.

By the time I reached K it was already dark, and there were no lights to be seen (because of the wartime blackout). I couldn’t find W’s parents’ house. With a sinking heart, I made up my mind to speak to a passer-by in the darkness. He led me the short way to the house, and did not omit to ask me what I was doing here. He was the first person I told about my leave from community service, and the greetings I had to deliver. In the darkness, my appearance did not arouse his suspicion. Herr W opened the door and welcomed me cordially once I had introduced myself. Of course, the house door had to be quickly shut because of the blackout. The only other person indoors was his wife. It turned out that the couple hadn’t been prepared in any way for my arrival. However, they didn’t want to send their son’s friend back out into the night, and, like me, expected that A was bound to turn up next day and explain everything. They shared their supper with me and made a bed for me in the drawing-room. Next morning we breakfasted together (as I have said, I had some ration coupons), and then Herr W went out to the yard, where there was a great deal of wood to be sawn and split for the winter. I helped him as much as I could, and he was glad to let me. We did not talk much. The weather was fine again, and remained so for many days.  We expected A to arrive any minute; but he did not come. And the evening and the morning were the second day. That day, A’s daughter G arrived from H. She was about 16 years old. She apologised for her late arrival and reported that her father had not come to H from his work for several days, but had told her before leaving that she was to travel to K and announce me there (giving the name on my passport). Or to recognise me, and to tell me to stay on with Herr and Frau W until he sent me further instructions. When we were alone she told me that she knew who I really was, but that she was not to tell her grandparents about me.

There was enough wood in the yard, so Herr W was agreeable to keeping me there a little longer, but he told me that I must report my presence to the Burgomaster. I explained that as I was staying for such a short time, there was no need to do that, particularly since I still had plenty of ration coupons. Although Herr W kept reminding me that I ought to report myself, he did not force me to – despite the fact that one or two of the neighbours had by this time seen me and spoken to me (as a friend of A). It was not until three days later that G returned, bringing the address of a woman in Breslau who was willing to put me up for the rest of my leave. So I thanked my hosts and took the train to Breslau, where I made my way without incident to the address I had been given.

When the train stopped at Neukirch on the way, I saw my Jews there, working on the railway track.

The Breslau woman was at home, but was appalled at my request. She did indeed know AW, though she hadn’t seen him for a long time. If he had ever suggested to her that she should put me up for a while, she would have indignantly refused. She was a married woman, she said, and her husband was away at the front. He would never have allowed her to put up a strange man in her home. Whatever would the other tenants and neighbours think? When I asked her at least to let me in, so that we could discuss things without witnesses, she refused. I found myself banished, lost in a huge town full of strange and hostile people. While wandering through the streets, I remembered that my wife Hedwig had a sister, Babette, who lived at Lähn near Hirschberg, only a few hours from Breslau by train. I had never met her. She was married to a butcher, and behind his back she had often sent us packets of sausages when we were in Italy. The husband himself occupied an important honorary position in the Party, which he had joined almost from the start. But in my present desperate situation I couldn’t think of a better idea, so I ran back to the station (it was already evening) and looked at the timetables for Lähn. Luckily there was a night train, which would give me a place to sleep as well. This journey, too, was undisturbed, and I even managed to sleep.

I arrived at Lähn about 6 a.m. and wandered round the little town until daybreak. But it was still too early to visit my sister-in-law. I enquired cautiously for Knauer’s the butcher’s, saying that I needed to arrange something there. I discovered to my relief that Babette had divorced her husband, and I found out where she lived. She had a job at the town hall. About 7 a.m. I came to her home and told her that I was Hedwig’s husband, and that I had permission to leave my camp but not to go as far as Hechingen. She took me in, but soon realised I was lying, and I told her the truth. She, too, was naturally scared, but didn’t lose her head for an instant. Her work at the town hall began at 8. She shut me in her flat with a supply of food and a sofa to sleep on, until her midday break. I almost felt safe there. At midday she returned with a trusted friend, with whom she must have been discussing my situation while at work. Both women explained to me that it was impossible to hide me in the flat even for a few days, besides which people were bound to notice that I was a Jew, and perhaps see my shaved head. So I had to get away to Hechingen as quickly as possible, some ten hours away by train. Marie, who had instigated my escape, would go on protecting me, they said. In view of the dangers of this long journey – with changes at least at Breslau and Stuttgart, and of the poor rail connections at that time, and the on-board checks for escaped persons – I would have to break my journey about half-way, at Bamberg, where an aunt of Hedwig’s lived with her husband. Hedwig’s family comes from Forchheim near Bamberg. This Aunt Anna was married to an engine-driver, and she had an unmarried daughter who was also liable for community service. None of the three of them knew me, except possibly from photographs. Babette would wire her aunt to say she was arriving on a visit the next evening, and because of her heavy luggage and late arrival she would ask her aunt to meet her at the station. And Babette would send Marie another telegram to let her know.

This plan held out some hope for me again. Babette bought my ticket and found out the train times. I spent the night on my sofa, and stole out of the flat before dawn. I travelled back to Breslau and from there to Koburg, where I had to change for Bamberg, now not too far away. Once again, the unexpected occurred: even in this long-distance train, with all the soldiers coming home on leave from Russia, there was no check on our papers. At Koburg I had to wait several hours in the afternoon, so I slunk into a cinema. I wonder what film I watched.

At Bamberg station, no one was expecting me. I waited until most of the arriving travellers had dispersed, and looked out for an uncle, aunt or cousin, whose descriptions I had in my head and who ought to be recognisable because they were waiting in vain for a woman with a lot of luggage. When only a few people remained for me to choose from, I approached the likeliest of them and asked ‘Is your name Haller?’ And indeed, it was Cousin Bettina. I told her in a few words that Babette hadn’t been able to make the journey and had sent me in her place. Once we left the station I would explain who I was and why I had come. The opportunity soon presented itself, and despite her fear and anxiety she took me, her false cousin, home to her parents. Although all three regarded it as their Christian duty not to betray me, but to look after me, they still did it in fear and trembling, beset by understandable fear and hoping for a quick way out. But first they had to satisfy the insatiable hunger of this cuckoo-chick. So as not to arouse the suspicions of their baker and butcher at their suddenly increased requirements, they had to buy from unaccustomed shops as well. I still had ration coupons, and Marie could send more.

But on the very next day Marie turned up herself, and showed no understanding for the ‘cowardice’ of her relatives, who had in all seriousness suggested that I should go back to my camp. The uncle remembered that he had long meant to spend a couple of days with his sister in the neighbourhood, to tidy up her garden for the winter. So he happily yielded up his bed to Marie. Her plan, which she had agreed with Hedwig, Sofie and Josef, was for me to try to get to Gruol, some 20 km from Hechingen, and stay there until a spare room used as a store-room in the Hechingen house could be cleared and furnished for me. Only when I was sufficiently recovered to walk the distance were Josef and I to go on foot from Gruol to Hechingen, where I would move in. All the preparations and my stay had to be kept secret from little Ruth [his daughter] and of course from all outsiders. The trusted old housekeeper Josephine (Schossel) announced that she was willing to be in on the secret and play her part.

Josef had for some years been deputy teacher at the Volksschule in Gruol, and like the Rector and a lady teacher he had a flat in the village schoolhouse. The village was a good hour’s walk from the nearest station on the Eyach–Hechingen branch line. Eyach, in turn, lay on the Horb–Tübingen railway. I had remembered this arrangement, and must have passed on foot through Gruol in the past, but in the dark I did not know the road I had to take, although Marie tried to describe the geography to me as best she could. There was no chance, of course, of being guided by village lights on the way. And above all, I had to find the schoolhouse without being observed, for it might arouse suspicion if someone was seen looking for it or asking about it so late at night.

I could take a direct train from Bamberg to Stuttgart without changing; the journey would take five or six hours. We chose a really late train, so as to shorten the time till I had to take the train on to Horb. Once more, I was not checked on the way. In Stuttgart I looked at the timetables, made a note of the early train to Horb, and bought my ticket straight away. Then I was obliged to go to the waiting room, which was not particularly crowded. Half-sleeping, half-waking, the hours passed by. Suddenly I was appalled to see a policeman enter the room and speak to one passenger after another, or shake them awake and examine the papers they showed him. I felt sick, but had to pretend to have no worries, and obsessively repeated my personal details to myself. When it was my turn, the policeman asked me coolly and impassively where I was bound for. Horb, I said. Have you got a ticket? Yes, here it is. He looked at it, thanked me and moved on. Might he have checked me more carefully if I hadn’t already got my ticket?

The half-empty train for Horb set off while it was still dark. The town was about an hour and a half away. Then I soon had a connection to Eyach, just two stops further on. There I had to while away the time till the evening train to Stetten (the station for Gruol). The weather was still fine, so I took a side-road going uphill, signposted Bieringen 2 km. The solitary road wound through autumnal woods; from the edge of the woods one could see the village lying in the sun, and I could immediately see and hear that half the villagers were busy about the threshing machine. Sounds and dust drifted over to me. It was such a homely, un-warlike view, my heart lightened and I felt like a carefree wanderer. Then I went back into the woods, lay down on my back, looked up at some clouds wandering past as free as I, and fell into a gentle sleep. I slept a long time, and then spent the rest of the day undisturbed in this friendly countryside.

From Eyach to Stetten was only a couple of miles. It was already dark when I got off the train, with a few other passengers, and since they all set off along the same road, I followed them a little way behind. Marie had rarely gone that way. All she knew was what Sofie and Josef had told her. In accordance with my instructions, I did not cross the track in the direction of Stetten village, but took the road along the side of the track. Only this was in the wrong direction – not back towards Eyach but onwards towards Hechingen. So the first village I reached, a few kilometres on, was not Gruol but Owingen. There was nothing for it – I had to ask the way. Although it was dark, it was not late yet, and I was not afraid of these peasants. I had to return to Stetten station, and a little way beyond it I found the turning for Gruol. At Gruol I absolutely had to find my way myself, and reach the schoolhouse unaccompanied and unseen. Despite this, a man met me on the way (it was ‘Raffel’, I later learned) and gave me ‘good evening’, but luckily didn’t talk to me or follow me. I could see a tall house silhouetted against the night sky, and tried to work out whether it looked like a schoolhouse. Then I heard someone snapping their fingers by the open window of a room on the middle floor. I understood. Sofie had been lying in wait for me, and now she came straight down to the front door, pulled me inside and up the stairs. I had reached my destination.

There was room enough in the flat, but the Rector’s family (four people) lived on the same floor, and most importantly of all, neither flat had its own lavatory. There was a shared lavatory for both flats on the stairs. The lady teacher lived above us. Furthermore it was inevitable that visitors would turn up, and it was important that none of them should notice anything. In particular, the girl who delivered the milk would come up every evening for a chat, and might stay a long time. Sofie was the leading spirit in getting round these difficulties. She was one of the most timid creatures I’ve ever known – a thunderstorm was like the end of the world for her, even if she was indoors. But now she thought only of the need to save me from the Nazis, and was absolutely fearless about it. Josef had other, more manly duties. Although he had to carry on with his public role, which he had to fulfil without deviation, he also had the idea of helping me to escape to Switzerland, rather than sending me on the dangerous journey to Hechingen and hiding me there.

One of his ex-pupils now worked as a border guard near Waldshut (Upper Rhine), and had once sent him a New Year card from there. If he were to tell that man cautiously about me, and hint that he might help me escape across the border, there was of course the risk that the man might refuse, but not that he would betray me. So Josef undertook the complicated trip to the frontier – a journey that would arouse suspicion (and even mere suspicion could have led to my discovery in Josef’s flat). He found the soldier and managed to speak to him, but was given such an impressive description of the measures taken there to catch fugitives – more than a single border guard could handle – that we had to give up the plan.

On Sundays, Josef and Sofie used to take the train to Hechingen to visit the family. Now they kept this up, to avoid attracting attention. So I would remain alone in the flat. Any noise from inside would have made people think that a burglar had got in.

The house in Hechingen, too, contained more than just Marie, Hedwig, little Ruthle and Schossel. Upstairs there was a painter with his wife and four children. The ground floor consisted of the shop with a large covered space behind it, known as the ‘feather-store’ (for bedding-feathers). Beyond it was a narrow staircase leading up to two store-rooms on a half-landing. One of them had been cleared and furnished with a bed (or rather two mattresses one on top of the other), a bedside table, a washstand, a cupboard and an armchair. The room, about 3 metres by 2½, was heated by an electric fire. It had a window overlooking the courtyard, where the children of the house and the neighbours’ children played; I could see and hear them, but they must never see me. Sneezing and coughing were forbidden, let alone any more serious illness. The children, who played hide-and-seek everywhere else, were strictly forbidden to go up the little staircase.

Preparing my room had to be done at night, so that the upstairs tenants wouldn’t notice anything. Once everything was ready, I had to get to the town by night, completely unseen (since various people still knew me there), and get into the house. Josef wanted to guide me, and I needed him. By now I had been fattened up sufficiently to be able to endure the several hours of marching in the dark, avoiding  night patrols. We set off about 8 p.m., when the country roads were almost empty. The calendar told us there would be no moon. We had to pass through several villages. In one of them we met a troop of Hitler Youth, coming back from an evening party. In the last village, Weilheim, I was so exhausted that I had to rest on the stone parapet of a bridge. But everything went according to plan. It was not till 1945 that a woman living at Hechingen told us that she had seen us just before we reached Marie’s house, and recognised Josef. So now we were home and dry, so to speak. And that was indeed to be my home for the next year and a half.

I spent my days doing gymnastic exercises and reading. Josef ordered books from the local library in his own name, from a list I gave him – though we were a bit afraid of attracting attention by doing that. And it was similarly risky for Hedwig to get hold of a book catalogue from the Hechingen municipal library, in which I underlined the books that interested me so that Hedwig could borrow them in her own name. Once Ruthle (11 years old) and Hedwig were in bed together, Marie would get me over to the flat, where I could use the lavatory, listen to the broadcasts from England, and have a proper wash.

Any unused rooms, or rooms considered to be superfluous, were at that time liable to be requisitioned to accommodate people made homeless by Allied bombs. There was always the risk that an official from the accommodation bureau might inspect our house for the purpose, and discover both my hiding-place and me. As a last resort, I had attached a rope in my room so I could let myself out of the window and down to the courtyard. That could also have been necessary if the house had been set alight by flying bombs, since of course I could not go down to the cellar where all the other inhabitants of the house would have gone.

We had immediately sent a coded message to AW to tell him of my arrival, and some months later he announced he would come and visit. It was not until then that we discovered why he had not been able to make arrangements for me during my first days in K. When he visited the WUMAG factory grounds, he had to leave his pass at the gate. When he came back to collect it, he was arrested on suspicion of being the same man who had got me out. He denied it and was locked up in prison, where he immediately began to make himself useful and appreciated by doing all kinds of urgent carpentry jobs. He was confronted with the security guard, but the man was uncertain whether this was my abductor, or just looked like him. Very soon, AW’s firm (which needed him for urgent war work) intervened, and he was ‘provisionally’ released. We never challenged him about his mistake with the woman from Breslau. He died soon after the end of the war, but his widow, who lives at H in East Germany, still writes to us.

Anno Domini 1977, aetatis meae LXXX.

Ernst


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