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This is the the third of four extracts that I'm posting this week ahead of the publication on Thursday of my memoir, Is Anything Happening?
The main reason I wanted to visit Lithuania [in 2014] was that my maternal grandmother, Ilse, had been murdered there by a Nazi death squad in 1941. It was only in the early 2000s that my mother found out what had happened: she knew that her mother had been arrested [in Breslau] in November 1941 and deported with thousands of other Jews, but she never made any further inquiries because she was terrified of learning that she had died in a gas chamber.
All she knew was what she had been told in a letter from a non-Jewish aunt who had stayed in Breslau throughout the war and who wrote to her in 1946:
'Your mother was picked up by two Gestapo men on the morning of 21 November. The bell rang, she opened the door, still in her dressing gown, and then she had to get dressed in their presence … Herr Metzner, the chemist, who had rented your dining room, immediately called on me to tell me the terrible news … They were told they were going to Kovno [Kaunas] … We tried to find out what was going to happen to all these people, and where they were going to be sent, but we couldn’t find out anything. Once they had gone, there was never any sign of life from them again. However cruel it was that your mother had to be included in this first transport, at least she and the others with her were unaware that they were being taken to their deaths.'
Over the next three years, there were to be sixteen further deportations of Breslau’s Jews, most of them to the concentration camp at Theresienstadt, in Czechoslovakia, where they perished. The deportees were told they were to be part of ‘resettlement’ or ‘work duty’ programmes; among them was the grandmother of a friend of my father’s, the cellist Anita Lasker-Wallfisch, who survived both Auschwitz and Belsen. (Anita and my father had shared the same cello teacher in Berlin, although she was originally from Breslau and had returned there before her grandmother was arrested.)
'A Gestapo man sat at a table reading out names, and the people who were called had to walk past the table to the other side of the yard. When he called ‘Lasker’, my grandmother walked past the table, but not without stopping in front of the Gestapo man. She looked him straight in the face, and said very loudly: ‘Frau Lasker to you.’ I thought he would hit her there and then, but not a bit of it. He just said simply: ‘Frau Lasker’. I was extremely proud of her.'
I would love to think that my own grandmother displayed similar fortitude.
The Nazis had invaded Lithuania in June 1941, and over the next six months, they murdered nearly all of the country’s 200,000 Jews. In Kaunas, a nineteenth-century fort that had been used as the city’s prison became the site of the mass murder of Jews, under the command of a Swiss-born SS colonel, Karl Jäger. (He escaped capture at the end of the war and was arrested only in 1959. He had been living in Germany under an assumed name and committed suicide in jail while awaiting trial.)
The Ninth Fort at Kaunas is now a grim, Soviet-era memorial and museum to the 30,000 people who were killed there. I took with me on my visit some of the last letters that my grandmother had written to my mother in the months before her death. They were all carefully written, probably not only because my grandmother feared that they would be read by Nazi censors but also because she may well have wanted to put on as brave a face as she could when writing to her only child.
March 1941: ‘Unfortunately things are not going the way I had hoped. I have to be extremely patient, but I am not losing courage. I am still hoping that one fine day, we shall all meet again.’
June 1941: ‘My journey to Uncle Ulle [her brother living in Chicago] seems to be impossible. Everything is upside down at the moment – all the work and all the money that has been spent seems to have been in vain.’
September 1941, shortly after her forty-fourth birthday: ‘My mood was below zero. I hope next year I will feel happier.’
It was a glorious summer’s day when I visited Kaunas, and it took an immense effort of imagination, as I stood on the edge of a field dotted with wild flowers, to conjure up an image of what it must have been like in November 1941 as thousands of terrified people were herded towards mass graves and shot.
Journalists get used to reporting atrocities dispassionately, and on my visit to the Ninth Fort, I slip into my journalist’s coat of armour all too easily. I compose images in the viewfinder of my camera, I record interviews and make notes. But then I stop and force myself to take off the armour. ‘Ilse,’ I say, as I stand at the edge of the killing field, ‘I was here today. You are not forgotten.’