The document that saved my mother's life

May 26, 2016 12:16

My mother passed away in November nearly three years ago. She was a mixture of love and discipline: the love was for others and the discipline was for herself. She expected a lot of herself, teaching herself with great persistence to use a siddur and study Torah, but lavished time and attention on her family and those in the broader community who were in need.

One of her distinctive attributes was her gift for taking pleasure in and giving thanks for little things such as the colours and shapes of fruit, and the patterns on wrapping paper. Her capacity for appreciating what so many ignore might have been enhanced by her childhood, which was not easy.

My mother was born in Berlin during the rise of Nazism. She was evacuated on a Kindertransport train in the spring of 1939, and, miraculously, her parents managed to escape Germany even closer to the outbreak of war. They were educated, cultured and hard-working but they left Germany with next to nothing and starting from scratch in England was difficult. So my mother learned as a child to find happiness in the smallest things, transforming what could have embittered her into a joyous and spiritual approach to life which stayed with her always.

Recently, I was intrigued to learn that World Jewish Relief had enlisted volunteers to source the documentation of Holocaust refugees. You just contact them and give what details you can of the person you are trying to trace, and they look through their records to see what they can find.

So I sent off the email and, truth to tell, forgot all about it. Until an email arrived with my mother's maiden name in the subject line.

My grandparents left with next to nothing

I was suddenly apprehensive as I opened the document and scrolled to the scans at the foot of the screen. It was a point of honour for me that my mother should have been recognised as a human, that she should have made her mark, if only for the sake of her humanity.

The first thing I saw was a document from the Jewish Refugees' Committee documenting the date of her arrival in the UK (April 21, 1939) and her subsequent address in Derby. My heart jolted as I recognised my late grandmother's handwriting, the same that cheered me when I received her letters during school camping trips and when she wrote a dedication in a siddur she gave me.

And then there was a Document of Identity issued "with the approval of His Majesty's Government", adding in bold capitals, "THIS DOCUMENT REQUIRES NO VISA".

This was issued on April 21 1939 in Southampton, and bears my mother's name and date of birth together with the names and address of her parents who were still in Berlin at that time. The reverse has been stamped by an immigration officer in Southampton.

It was curious to see the marks of officialdom bestowed so punctiliously by these kindly British people who have long since left this world. Did they know how moving the traces of their clerical routine would be one day, how they were the divine plan made visible in a patch of type stamped on a form?

It probably never occurred to them that, in 2016, a date as remote from them as 2093 is from us, someone would thank them for helping his mother to live and give birth to him.

It probably never occurred to them that that uncomprehending little exiled alien would raise a family, rescue her own and her family's Jewish identities and leave behind a flourishing Jewish dynasty spanning three new generations.

Most poignant was her picture. Having bid farewell to my mother as a dignified, gracious and loving role model, I saw her as a little girl bearing a remarkable resemblance to my own daughter. A little girl with thick, unruly hair, her expression wavering between solemnity and apprehension, stared up at me, dark eyes boring up out of a computer screen and across seven decades of history. For a three-year-old who had just been dumped by her parents on a train and whisked off to a distant, foreign land with no notion of what was happening and no ability to communicate, she looked remarkably composed.

I thank WJR for this amazing service to the community. They have made me and doubtless many others feel more complete by restoring a part of my past, and have heightened my sense of gratitude for the gift of life.

May 26, 2016 12:16

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