Life & Culture

Review: How to be a Refugee: One Family’s Story of Exile and Belonging

As identity politics become more important worldwide, this book comes as an enormous shock


How to be a Refugee: One Family’s Story of Exile and Belonging

By Simon May

Picador, £20

Reviewed by Julia Neuberger

As identity politics become more important worldwide, and people identify more by faith group than by nationality or political allegiance, by tribe more than profession, this book comes as an enormous shock.

Three Berlin-born sisters — Simon May’s mother Marianne, Ursel and Ilse — simply denied, under Nazi rule, that they were Jewish. And got away with it. Of course, others had tried it before and during the Second World War. Some pretended to be Christian if that would help. But very few obliterated their ancestry, which the three sisters did — and, in their case, on both sides.

Their father had been a Jewish convert to Protestantism, a lawyer removed from office as soon as Hitler came to power. Their mother, Emmy, converted to Catholicism but was Jewish in origin, and lived in Germany all her life. Her brother became a Catholic priest who left Germany for Switzerland in 1934 after being tipped off by Franz von Papen, Hitler’s deputy Chancellor.

Of the three young women, one, Ilse, was the lover of Harald Boehmelt, Nazi party member and composer, and she, too, converted to Catholicism. Another, Ursel, secured Aryan status via a senior Nazi official, and became part of the German aristocracy, as Countess von Plettenburg; the last, Simon’s mother, Marianne, also became a Catholic, left Germany for England to pursue her musical studies, and married a German Jewish refugee. Simon May writes that “with the aid of their Catholicism, the three sisters had so transformed their inner world to purge it of Jewish life and cultural memory that, even decades after the war was over and the Nazis and their race laws were discarded, their belonging in any way to the Jewish people seemed to them unreal and absurd…”

They internalised their denial. Not for them the shame-faced whispered mutterings of, “By the way, my mother was Jewish…” Nor any pride in their brilliant father, Jewish until a late conversion. It was as if no one in the family had ever been Jewish.

But denial never works for ever. Curiosity, a sense of maybe belonging, emerged in Marianne’s son, Simon, whose upbringing denied him a clear place in the world. The sisters’ Germany was long gone, an idyll. Their Catholicism defined them, yet it only masked who they really were.

With the exception of Marianne, they stayed in Germany. And with the exception of their paternal uncle, none was deported. (He was murdered at Auschwitz.)

It was as if the tragedy was being played out on another planet, and yet they clearly knew there was danger.

Ursel was advised to “disappear” in 1943. In 1944, Ursel’s husband deserted from the German army and hid with her in the Netherlands until the end of the war. And Ilse was busy helping terrified Jews, as if she was not one herself.

There are many stories of what happened to those who left, and many Holocaust memoirs. But we rarely read about those who stayed and survived.

This book is important, not only for the story it tells, but because it demonstrates that you can deny who you really are and believe the lie — as May’s mother and aunts did. But that denial will not last down the generations.

The truth will out, the search will begin, and the Jewish community will gain new members, whose forebears pretended they did not belong, but could not pass that denial on with any conviction.

Julia Neuberger is Rabbi Emerita, West London Synagogue


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