This is the true story of Rémy and Grète, a couple of educators at orphanages in which, after WW II, children of Jewish Holocaust victims were taken care of in France. Where did Rémy and Grète come from? How did they meet and match? What did Rémy endure himself in the Death Camps? Why was Grete's life so short? What were the consequences for their own children? These are the central questions this book endeavors to answer. Moreover, it contains the most interesting, surprising and moving life stories of near relatives of Grète and Rémy.
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To Danielle and Fabien,
my dearest ones.
REFACE TO THE READER OF THE
OUR START IN LIFE
ACK TO A BIG CITY
SYCHIC CRISIS AND THEN SEAMSTRESS APPRENTICESHIP
ESIGNING FROM THE
ACK TO NORMAL LIFE
PORTRAITS OF MATERNAL RELATIVES
DVENTURE OF THE THREE
PORTRAITS OF PATERNAL RELATIVES
ICH MARRIAGE IN
HOULD ONE BELIEVE IN FAMILY LEGENDS
This is not a professional translation of the French original but an English adaption by the author himself.
My ‘mother language’ is German whereas my ‘father and school language’ is French. Therefore, my English, learned later and taught as a foreign language at school, cannot be as rich and accurate. In short, I am not an English writer. However, I wanted to try and produce the English edition myself because the matter of this book intermingles so much of German and French that who else could have been a good translator for it?
This said, I apologize for the sometimes poor, clumsy, even wrong words and phrases I might use. I strongly hope that the reader’s interest, pleasure and emotion will not be impacted excessively.
I also apologize to the British reader for using US-American spelling. I made this choice because I expected more American readers, starting with my American relatives and friends. With same hope as above.
Grète withMicha in Le Raincy in November 1951
Nobody was as present in my life as you, Maman Grète;1 I missed nobody as much as you. Why did you leave me so early? You abandoned me twice. First by taking sleeping pills on March 22, 1953, when I was but one year, four months and two weeks old. Deliberate action, irrational act, or Freudian slip? No one knows; I shall not know.
Second, without you being accountable for it, by and by, in the underground, you disappeared from conversations, evocations and pictures to look at.
I cannot bring you back physically, alas! But my desire is to erase the unspoken law of silence that weighed on me like a lead helmet. I want to call out your name to the whole world, Maman Grète! You have no grave anymore. Then this book shall be a monument to you.
Why do I call you Maman Grète? Because Papa, Rémy, married again two years later and there then also was a Maman Magali. As a matter of fact, my sister Catia and I used to speak for a while of Maman Grète and of Maman Magali. At that time for us still existed both the Margaret from Germany and the Margaret from Provence.2
Afterwards, speaking of the former, looking at her photo albums was discontinued, and the latter simply became Maman, voluntarily or not. Particularly after Gilles, our half-brother, was born, who had but one Maman. Later on, she became Mam, then la Mère (the Mother) and eventually just Magali.
My whole childhood was a blend of knowing and silence. As a young widower, Rémy was temporarily discharged from your children’s care by your parents in Hamburg. They were the only grandparents I have known, because Rémy’s parents perished in the Camps. As far as I can remember, they too did not speak of you to me. To have the offsprings of their own flesh and blood before their eyes without feeling allowed to speak of you, whom they had cherished so much, what a pain for them also!
Then I said to myself, in my little child’s head, that this is how it goes: ‘once people are dead, one should not speak of them anymore, it is unmannerly. The grief for the survivors is too unbearable, one should not let them suffer, that is nasty.’ Above all, I was thinking of Papa who, after having suffered a thousand martyrdoms in the so-called ‘Concentration’ Camps (what an understatement!), having lost there his father, mother, brother, uncles, aunts, cousins and others, furthermore had to endure your passing away, Maman Grète. I was to protect him, to keep at least him. Therefore I did not feel permitted to mention what burned my tongue.
My only conversations about the subject were with Catia, my elder sister. She would speak with a mysterious facial expression of these sleeping pills of which nobody knew whether or not you had taken too many intentionally when you were feeling too miserably. Of that falling out of the window that might have happened to you previously, perhaps while cleaning windows. Of that plaster corset that you seemed to have had to wear afterwards. But with adults… nothing anymore.
Room had to be made for the re-composed family, in that the first one, your family, had to withdraw by being ‘swept under the carpet,’ in spite of the connection with your parents, our grandparents, being preserved. What a paradox! Up to Gilles, whom they generously treated like another grandson, without any discrimination. He will have to suffer from this situation, by the way.
Since then, I bear all this within myself, still now as a retired man, one prostate cancer later.
You were the Maman Grète of whom I was not to speak and therefore, in a certain way, a shame, a stain on my history. You have not deserved such a fame, neither have I deserved this diffuse feeling of guilt. In fear of another severe disease, I have taken again a psychotherapeutic support to get some help, so that all these things might clear up and calm down. One conviction came out of it: I had to loudly proclaim your virtues, your nature, your history.
To help me for these tasks, I am not without tools. First, Genealogy; Danielle, my wife and life companion, had started previously a comprehensive and exciting research on her family, in which I am taking an active part. When I felt that my father was going downhill, and when he told me some particulars about his relatives, I felt as early as in 1999 the desire to pick up the torch of memory. I was certain now that it was my turn to deal with the history of our family. In wide portions, it is your story, Maman Grète, and the one of your relatives.
Second, as sole heir of your brother, my dear Uncle Jacki, I came in 2007 into possession of the house your parents had built. And, because they never disposed of anything, I found in it treasures of memories: photograph albums and negatives, your school notebooks, your diary as a teenager, the diaries your mother kept from 1917 to 1943, as well as the complete family letter exchange, including your letters from France to your parents and Jacki, from 1947 to March 1953.
Your letters tell a lot about your personality, your intelligence, your culture, your manual and artistic capabilities, your commitment, your sincerity, your care for others—especially for children—, your humor and your joyfulness. They do not tell much about your moments of discouragement which eventually will tear you of this life, because you do not want your dear ones remaining in Hamburg to worry. However, as they are, they can be an invaluable source of knowledge about you, my own pre-history and the story of my beginnings.
Of course, these letters were written in German. Their style is very familiar to me. I almost could have written them myself (except that my script is not as regular and neat). No wonder since I had partly the same educators as you, having spent many months with your parents. The spirit of your family is also in me.
It was your choice to travel to France and share the life of Rémy, your great love, and to become an educator for orphaned children of Holocaust victims.
For some time, I have been in touch with some of them who knew you and can tell about you, which is very soothing for me because you left only good memories to them. On the insisting request of one of them I started to translate from German to French your 150 letters from France.
Translating is different from just reading and making an inventory. Your spirit and your feelings penetrate much more into me. This is where I shall take most of the material out of which this book is made, as a complement to my research on our family tree and family history.
1Italics are used in this book for words and expressions reproduced in their original languages, as well as for pseudonyms and nicknames. Maman is the French form of Mommy. Grète is the spelling of her first name used by my mother herself when she was living in France.
2 In German, Grete is a short form of Margarete. Some sources define Magali as a Provence dialectal variant for Marguerite; others rather from Magdalena; in the latter case, my sentence is not right anymore.
Grete and her parents
You come to this world as Grete3Meitmann, without a middle name, on Sunday, September 2, 1923 at 3:15 a.m. at the Frauenklinik (Women’s Clinic) in Kiel.4 Your parents were born in that town, as will be your brother Jacki, two years later. Your parents, although descending from Lutheran Protestants, were Socialists and no friends of priests. That is why you were not baptized upon your birth. But you were in the Nazi period, probably as a national-political obligation.
‘Grete,’ your first name, was not chosen without reason. This was the (shortened) name of your father’s first great love, with whom he maintained a lively correspondence during World War I, while he was a combatant in the trenches. This other Grete renounced him shortly before he got his home leave from the army, causing him a great grief of love.
Is it not a little burdensome, even unconsciously, to be—so to speak—a compensation child for a lost love? These things are not easy to be seen through, however I cannot but keep thinking that the choice of your first name will play a part in your destiny.
On your civil registration birth record, based on a statement from the Frauenklinik, your father Karl Meitmann, aged thirty-two, is said to be a police auxiliary. He is in fact a civil commissioner with the mission of facilitating the transition of the Schleswig-Holstein Police from the Empire to the Republic.
Your mother, the beautiful Else Meitmann, née Adam, is then aged twenty-one, a trained furniture and home interior designer. After one year of marriage, you are their first child.
You reside in a western district of Kiel.
Kiel Hasseldieksdammer Weg 217 in 1925
From period photographs, I see that you live in a detached house where there is also a shop of the Consumer Cooperative. It has a garden where you can play in open air with Jacki, your brother, who will be born on March 12, 1925, and on this way discover Nature.
Your address is Hasseldieksdammer Weg 217 (Hasseldieksdamm Drive). This typical Northern-German dialectal name always would amuse your mother. You probably were provided with this residence by your maternal grandfather Hermann Adam, founder and manager of the Workers’ Consumer Cooperative, after he had lost his job on a shipyard because he had been part of establishing a socialist-oriented worker union and organizing a strike.
Your other grandfather, Johannes Meitmann, had a similar story, by the way, but he died on the day before your parents’ marriage. Too bad, you haven’t known that one.
Neither have you your paternal grandmother; your father had lost his mother when he was seven; he was raised afterwards by a stepmother, as I was. Who said once that History does not repeat itself but keeps stuttering?
Grete in 1925
You are a sweet little child, pretty round face, with blond, stiff, square-cut hair, wide-open eyes, rather more grey than sky-blue, like your whole family, including my sister. Mine are not; they resemble the water in a glass in which several water-color brushes were rinsed: the color of all colors mixed.
3Grete is the German spelling. For pronunciation reasons, her name was spelled Grète in France. I’ll use the latter when appropriate, i.e. after her immigration in November 1947.
4 See maps with the main locations mentioned, in the “Documents” Section at the end of this book.
In 1927, when you are about four, your family moves some sixty miles southwards to Altona. Later on, it will become a part of the ’Free and Hansa City’ (city-state) of Hamburg, but at that moment this location still belongs to the State of Schleswig-Holstein, although it is within the urban area of Hamburg. Its name comes from the dialectal expression ‘all to nah,’ meaning ‘much-too-near.’
Your Vati5 has been provided by his political party, the Social-Democratic SPD, with new responsibilities. He has established the Reichsbanner Schwarz-Rot-Gold for Schleswig-Holstein, a kind of paramilitary force that he leads, and he was elected as SPD District Secretary. He is more and more involved in his duties, so you now see him less often.
Simultaneously, you discover the large city of Hamburg, its maritime harbor, its subway and commuter trains, the Rathenaupark, which is more or less to replace your garden. Your address, by the way, is then ‘Am Rathenaupark,’ showing that you are very close to this large and popular public garden.
Two years later, in 1929, a new commitment change for your father, new moving (you will know so many in your short life!). You leave Schleswig-Holstein for Hamburg-Fuhlsbüttel, a few miles to the northeast, known for its international airport and its prison.
You reside in a little apartment house built out of dark red bricks topped by a high tile roof of with one upper story and roof apartments, located at Maienweg 231.
Fuhlsbüttel, Maienweg 231,in 2007
That house still is there in the twenty-first century century, the last one at the corner of the street to the indirectly visible prison, surrounded with a garden in which Jacki and you again will be able to tire yourselves out, even with little playing companions. Still today the architecture does not look old-fashioned; the pavement is tree-lined. A rather pleasant place.
Your father was promoted within the SPD; he was elected as Hamburg regional chairman, later as a member of the regional and civic Parliament, the Bürgerschaft. He is very busy; many appointments, speeches and public meetings are to be prepared and performed, leaflets and articles to be written, election campaigns follow one another, for the Bürgerschaft, the Reichstag, the President; social class fights are to be carried out, as well as political ones against that Hitler gang, which is becoming more and more dangerous.
Anni, Oma, Grete, Mutti and Jacki in 1925
On September 9, 1929, your Opa Adam passes away in Kiel. I can see you on photographs of 1925 in your grandparents’ home, perched on Hermann’s high leather armchair or on the lap of your grandmother Anna, née Feist. These two seem to have been fond of you. Oma,6 by the way, will survive you by eight years and even I shall know her. Your Opa’s7 death certainly caused you grief, to your Mutti too.
School excursion – Jacki is allowed to go with Grete and her classmates, 1930
A great event happens in April 1930: holding a giant paper cone8 filled with candies and goodies, with a brand new satchel on your back, you enter the elementary school. In that period, the school year would begin after Easter in some parts of Germany.
On other pictures, I can see you in the school yard, in front of the brick building, boys and girls aligned in mixed pairs, departing for a school excursion. Surprisingly, your little brother was allowed to come along; you are holding his hand. The boys wear a mariner suit or leather shorts, the girls flat round caps or a bell-shaped hat; all have small shoulder bags or backpacks.
I keep your school notebooks, among which the ones with your first writing attempts. You learn the Sütterlin script, a standard German neat handwriting you will keep until the end of the Nazi period. You write with heed, regularly and well-rounded. In his correspondence, your little brother Jacki, for his part, will dare our usual Latin script as early as in 1940.
You are a quick learner and will become a good pupil, particularly gifted for foreign languages, singing, music, drawing and handicraft.
Jacki too will have his turn to enter a pupil career, shortly before the events that will overturn the life of your whole family, of Germany, later of Europe and of the whole world.
5 German form of Daddy, pronounced ‘fahti.’
6 German form of ‘Granny’.
7 German form of ‘Grandpa’.
8 A German tradition for children’s comfort on their first school day; one can see all new pupils holding huge cones on their way to school.
The disaster occurs in January 1933. Adolf Hitler and his brutal, ruthless gangsters win the Reichstag election with a relative majority, form a government with the goodwill of the president, the elderly Lord Marshal von Hindenburg, and everything crashes.
Since all other parties were forbidden, your father begins a secret opposition. He contributes to spreading underground papers, to semi-official meetings.
With the Communists, the Nazis are incredibly brutal and quick but they also will act against the Socialists. In Hamburg, your Vati is at their head. Therefore they particularly target him. He gets arrested three times during meetings, on March 24 for three days, on May 2 for a couple of weeks and finally on June 16.
This time he does not come back so quickly. The Fuhlsbüttel prison had been changed into a concentration camp for political opponents and is named Kolafu in the Gestapo jargon. There he is in custody, so close to you, his family, so inaccessible. What an anxiety for your Mutti and for her children!
Some photographs show you during the summer vacations in Kiel with uncles and aunts, with Oma but without Vati. You now have a short hairstyle with shorter hair than your curly-headed brother. You are at the beach, laughing, because you are children, but how burdensome, how threatening must the general mood be!
Since the beginning of the dictatorship, your Mutti has interrupted her diary. Nothing at all written between January and November 1933. That is why I lose your track for a while, after the summer. Did Jacki and you return to Hamburg and to school? The times are uncertain. What will become of you, now?
Late in October, the events will happen in a rush. After the conclusion of some developments I shall explain in detail further down when telling his own story, your Vati is released but with the stipulation that he leaves Hamburg within twenty-four hours and refrains from any political activity. At last! That passed close by you all. There have been so many who never came alive out of the claws of Gestapo and SS!
Only: your whole life is to be re-built. The Meitmann family needs a home, an income, schools, a minimum of safety. In the underground, a network of helpers is at work. After waiting for a few days at the home of friends—which I could not identify—in Niendorf by the Lübeck Bight, your parents give you children in charge to your Oma and they settle far away in a lost West-Prussian hamlet.
Early in November 1933, your Mutti resumes her diary, with her arrival in Schmagorei, in the middle of nowhere. In that far East, she wonders if she is somewhere “between Mongolei and Mandschurei.” In fact, the place is located East of Frankfurt/Oder, in the Kreis9 of West-Sternberg, between the communities of Drossen and Zielenzig. After the war, this area will become Polish and the place will be named Smogory. Apart from the railroad station, its sole particularity is the lignite mine. That brown coal has been the traditional energy source in the eastern parts of Germany. With the complicity of a party mate who is a manager of the mining kombinat,10 your Vati is employed in the mine office as a payroll accountant.
Schmagorei November 1933
As it seems, the mine provides a service accommodation in a cottage. Light-tinted plaster, steep tile gable roof with attic rooms, gable windows, small garden around, entrance through a small glazed veranda on top of a few steps. Electric power is provided, but cold, very cold water only outside from the manual pump with wooden casing. A single lignite oven is the sole means of heating and cooking. The surroundings consist of village margin and fields as far as the eye can reach. Mine, station and village school are reachable by foot.
This village certainly reminds your Mutti of her parents’ rural Lower-Silesian roots. In the past, she had paid visits to her uncles, aunts, and cousins in these also distant easterly but further southerly regions, a lengthy, adventurous railroad trip with poultry in the compartment and chamber pot for the children under their mother’s protecting skirt.
In December, your Oma brings you too to Schmagorei, your little brother and yourself. There are also long railroad hours from Kiel via Hamburg, Berlin, and Frankfurt/Oder. Your grandmother stays over Christmas and New Year with you. She travels back later than planned because she sprained one of her ankles by falling on black ice.
For you as a city child, Maman Grète, it means discovering a rural environment: much nature, little comfort, many animals, a small school, peasant classmates.
It also is a time of reticence. Do not tell who you are, where you come from, what your father did before. In your father’s employment record book is written under “Previous occupations of longer duration” plainly “representative.” Anyway, in these times of general prudence, nobody seems to be too curious. You all have kept your true identities, but in this lost corner of Germany the authorities are not too persnickety. Only the mine manager is informed; he is friendly and among your protectors.
Nonetheless, the atmosphere is burdensome. You miss your books, your toys, your records, your accustomed domestic devices, and your furniture. Your Vati is gloomy. Politics was his whole life. He misses speeches, discussions, convincing others, managing, acting. He is like a lion in a cage. Trifles can make him furious.
A little ray of sunshine for you, as early as 1934. Your friend and protector from the kombinat management comes visiting, with, as a gift, a very young German shepherd dog; Tello will be his name.
Tello, Grete, and Jacki 1934 in Schmagorei. Notice the water pump.
You shine; you have a special love for pets. I can see how you bathe him in a big metal tub close to your house; I also see him in other photographs, sometimes in a large wire-mesh cage. One year later I see you in company of a Fox Terrier, Axel. How strange … do dogs not last long with your family, or is it someone else’s dog?
Fortunately, you spend your 1935 summer vacation in Kiel, as evidenced by some photographs. Even your Vati is there with you. Only sixty miles from the location where he is forbidden to stay, is it not a little risky?
Summer 1935, Grete (arrow) with family and relatives onboard her uncles’ fishing boat in Laboe
Anyhow, I see him with you on the wooden fishing boat belonging to his brothers and in the seaside resort Laboe by the Baltic near Kiel.
In fall 1935 the small village school in Schmagorei is not sufficient anymore. Your parents provide a more upscale educational institution in Drossen, the next location to the West. You commute daily by rail.
You spend the 1936 summer vacation in Lower Silesia, in the root farm of the Adam family in Putschlau near Glogau, still operated by one of Mutti’s aunts, and at the home of cousins in Polkwitz, a little further to the southwest. With a shining face, you are riding bareback a white draft horse fitted with a thick collar. The family archive shows that it was not a pure leisure trip. Like all Germans under the Nazi regime, each one of your parents must set up his own so-called Ahnenpass11 with baptism and marriage certificates of his ancestors, to prove there are no Jews among them. Your mother seems to have taken a liking to it and she complements her research on the spot, of which I keep her notes.
A few years afterwards, you will draw a large family tree in which all persons are provided with their professional attributes. When you know their faces, you draw caricatures. You depict yourself with a beret on your head and carrying a violin case because you will receive serious music lessons. I keep your violin and its case as a precious relic together with the family archive. Strings and bow horsehair have disintegrated into dust.
I would use this instrument as a music toy during my vacations at your parents’ home. When I asked Mutti whose violin it was, she told me it was hers so she did not have to mention you. Too bad! I would have been so proud of you. I only understood much later.
Drossen, in 1936
Drossen, in 1936, view from the balcony
In October 1936, the whole family moves to Drossen. Your Vati will now have to be the daily commuter by rail. You reside then in a large, apparently brand-new kind of mountain lodge with plastered ground floor, wooden upper floor with a balcony. It is large enough, as it seems, for two families. You are at the city margin; your wooden balcony overlooks a lake and a wide landscape; in the background, to the right, the little town around its church tower. You seem to be better equipped than in Schmagorei. In spite of it, you only stay shortly there since the next moving (again!) takes place as early as April 1937.
9 District, county.
10 Large industrial enterprise.
11 Literally, ‘ancestor passport.’
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