Life & Culture

Stumbling towards a way to remember lost family

Peter Bradley will make a difficult trip to Bamberg this autumn


Kleine Hirschgraben, Frankfurt: Dad, self portrait

In October, in the beautiful medieval city of Bamberg, I shall reach another milestone in a journey which I shall never really complete.
It began with the discovery of a letter my father wrote to his parents shortly after he’d arrived in London in May 1939, a refugee from Nazi Germany. In stilted schoolboy English, he recounts “what kind my deepest impressions were in the first few days I spent in this country”; of the courtesy of the English and the geniality of their police; of women who smoke in public and men who push prams and fly kites; of the constant talk of weather. He reassures his parents that, “when you come here, you will soon learn this language”.
But, in his heart, he knew they would not come. He had said his last goodbye as he boarded the train for the Channel coast at Frankfurt South station on 10 May. The train his parents took in November 1941 carried them to the dark forests of Latvia.

And it was that image, of the two trains — one heading west to freedom, the other east to destruction -— that haunted me for the best part of a decade before I felt compelled, for reasons I don’t fully understand, to follow the path of Sonderzug Da 35, the “special train” which bore 1,000 Bavarian Jews from Nuremberg to Riga.
Had I been able to identify the precise route, I may have made my symbolic pilgrimage and left it at that. But no reliable record could be found and, in the end, my journey could only be approximate and symbolic.
But that failed attempt to find the answer to one apparently simple question prompted a multitude more about the fate of my grandparents, Sally and Bertha Brandes. I wanted to know what had happened to them during the Nazi years. But, above all, I needed to understand why it happened, how their fellow citizens had come to put them on that train. I wanted to know too why no-one would save them, why Britain, America and every other democracy barred their doors against them.
My quest led me from family papers to archives and libraries, from scholarly works to the testimony of survivors. It led me to Bamberg, to Buchenwald, where my father spent five terrible months, and to Riga.
Through the brief family chronicles my father and my maternal uncle had compiled, I could trace our family trees back to their roots, on my mother’s side to the founding of the first European ghetto in fifteenth century Frankfurt, on my father’s to 17th century Rotenburg, Baiersdorf and Bayreuth. Some of my forebears were prominent enough to be celebrated by memorialists; others left diaries and autobiographical sketches. Online, I discovered outlines of the lives of others who were less acclaimed but just as significant. Theirs is a story of poverty and prosperity; of anonymity and distinction; of segregation and emancipation, of optimism and disaster.
My book is a celebration of my family. But it is also a tragedy in five parts, each exploring a different stage in the evolution of an ancient and enduring hatred and its impact on the lives they lived. And it seeks, through the prism of their stories, to illuminate a longer and broader history, of faith and superstition, of power and its abuse, of human frailty and heroism, of despair and hope, of how ordinary people make the choice between right and wrong, or choose not to choose — of then but also now.
For we are living once again in times of great turbulence and uncertainty, when simple solutions to complex problems appear so alluring to so many. The politics of unreason are growing in appeal; democracy, it seems, is no longer inviolable. Against such a background, I sought in the book I wrote about my family, to understand and, perhaps, to explain why and how our story is relevant to an understanding of the forces, the truths and falsehoods, the beliefs and misbeliefs, that shape our lives and those of others today.
And so to the milestone I’ll reach in Bamberg. Or rather the stumbling stone, the Stolperstein. All over Europe, in cities, towns and villages, these little brass plaques, the size of cobblestones, have been appearing on the streets where the Jews who perished or fled during the Hitlerzeit once lived. Since 1996, the artist Gunter Demnig has dedicated his life and work to the monumental project he conceived. Now there are some 90,000 Stolpersteine, each lovingly hand-made, in at least 2,000 places throughout Germany and the many countries once occupied by the Nazis.
There are already Stolpersteine outside my grandparents’ former home opposite the grand synagogue, destroyed on Kristallnacht. But there is none to commemorate the life of Sally’s unmarried sister Meta. On his website, Demnig cites the Talmudic precept that “a person is only forgotten when his or her name is forgotten”. Meta will be remembered. in October. And my father will have two Stolpersteine, one with his beloved parents’, which is so beautifully maintained by local schoolchildren and their teachers, and the other outside the school, the Neues Gymnasium (now the Franz Ludwig Gymnasium) from which, in 1936, he was the last Jewish student to graduate.

It’s fitting that he will be remembered in this way. He loved Bamberg. He did not leave it through choice. And while he did not forget what happened to him, to his parents and to so many other members of his family, he remained fondly nostalgic about his childhood in that city. He cherished the friendships he made there, especially with those who had not turned on him when the Nazis came to power. He restored contact with many of them after the war and attended annual school reunions until late in life. He rarely spoke about the hardships or the injuries of the Nazi years, but he remembered every kindness. I think — I hope — he will be proud to be commemorated in the city of his birth.
Demnig quotes the child who explained that “you don’t trip on a Stolperstein, you stumble with your head and your heart.” When the students of the Gymnasium step over my father’s plaque as they enter their school I hope that, from time to time, they might stumble in this way.
I’m grateful to the dedicated local volunteers, led by the historian Andreas Ullman, who proposed this remembrance of my father and great aunt. They are a credit to the new Germany which, by facing up to its past with courage, clarity and resolution, has found the strength to build a better future. The ceremony in October will be as much an act of reconciliation as of remembrance.
I’ve spent a lifetime in politics and my book has a public purpose. But it also fulfills another, more personal one. In telling my grandparents’ story, I wanted somehow to make their abbreviated lives more significant, to reclaim for them their individuality and the humanity that had been stolen from them. I wanted them, through me, to have the last word. They are not forgotten.

‘The Last Train – A Family History of the Final Solution’ is published by by HarperNorth.

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