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Sylka's wartime diary

On the anniversary of Kristallnacht, Nadine Wojakovski tells the story of a young girl's diary of survival

    Sylka and Alfred on their wedding day
    Sylka and Alfred on their wedding day

    On November 10, 1938, the day after Kristallnacht, 14-year-old Sylka Frank-Fund of Leipzig wrote in her diary:

    “Today, everything has been made chorev [destroyed]. Every Jewish book, in particular in the synagogues, every Sefer Torah has been burnt. She added, in Hebrew: Every Jewish man is in prison. Ribbono Shel Olom, [Master of the Universe] have mercy on us, because in Your hands are the souls of the living and the dead.

    This is the prayer that almost all of us are saying.”

    Sylka’s diary recounts her family’s flight from country to country, recording the pain and suffering all around her. And yet, like any ordinary teenage girl, she also found time to fall in love.

    Born in 1924 in Przemysl, Galicia, Southern Poland, Sylka, later known as Sylvia, passed away at home in Hendon last month aged 93. Her son Ralph Koorlander knew about the diary all his life, but only had the courage to explore it fully since his mother’s death.

    “The language of the diary wasn’t the barrier for me”, he says. “Having spent much of my youth here in north-west London in a strange bubble with my elderly grandparents, I was actually more familiar with German and Yiddish than English prior to going to school. I’d read segments of the diary over the years but found it too upsetting to read in full. That was the real barrier. The idea of a girl of that age, especially my own mother, living through such tragic and tumultuous times was deeply disturbing to me.”

    Following her mother’s early death, Sylka was sent to Leipzig aged four, where she was adopted by her aunt and uncle, Anna and Natan Fund. At 14 she was a pupil at the Carlebachschule, founded by Ephraim Carlebach, of the famous rabbinic family. A gifted scholar, she had changed schools after being hounded out of her previous non-Jewish secondary school.

    Despite the trauma of Kristall-nacht, days later Sylka’s attention reverted to the young man in her life, Walter Rosenbaum, an apprentice locksmith from Kassel.

    She wrote on November 15 1938: “Now I’ve given up all hope of a reconciliation with Walter. He doesn’t even say hello to me anymore. When I walked past him on Funkenburgstrasse he was with Schnuki and lit up a cigarette and he blew such a big puff! And now I’m annoyed with myself, that I was too proud on Thursday.”

    And then, four days later: “Walter is back with us every evening. My parents have forbidden me to be alone with him.”

    After this entry there is a gap in the diary for almost a year until October 1939. During this time, the family was on the run. Sylka studied Spanish with a view to finding safety in South America but such was her devotion to her adoptive parents that she refused to be separated from them. That loyalty ensured their survival. They moved to Aachen, on the border between Germany, the Netherlands and Belgium. Eventually, they managed to reach Antwerp, Belgium, just a few days before war broke out. There, Sylka was separated from her parents for a short time, and sent to live in a convent.

    She wrote on October 1 1939:

    “Today, one year since I began, dear diary, the key to my heart to which I have entrusted everything, …only today am I able to continue to record my thoughts and feelings… Actually it would be impossible to depict the motley collection of confused experiences I’ve encountered during this period. Nevertheless, were I only to pin down in words a fraction of what the recent past has meant for me and my dear parents then I believe at least you, dear diary, nothing more than inanimate object, would be more capable of expressing life, happiness and suffering than many living beings. Clearly I see before my eyes the day on which I sorrowfully packed you into a suitcase with my other possessions… Man may plan, but ultimately, it is God who decides. So we have had to experience what it means to become homeless and to lose everything which years will not be able to bring back. Not only us, but all our brethren in the same way. Once again, it is we Jews who have become the sacrifice of our time, destined to WANDER once again — the lot of the Jews for 2,000 years — which almost every generation has experienced, as the meaning of what it is to be a Jew.”

    Following the bombing of Antwerp just prior to the German invasion of Belgium, Sylka wrote on May 10, 1940: “Loud bombardment since 4am in the morning. A factory in our street is burning as a plane has crashed into it….”

    And, the last entry, on May 16:

    “Everybody is fleeing. The news is unclear and there is a general fear that the German paratroopers will occupy the country and Belgium will fall. We will also flee. There are two reason which push us — the nights are unbearable, flashes, bombs are falling and the sirens hardly stop for a moment; it feels like the house could collapse any minute. And if Hitler really takes Belgium and Holland and German troops move in… then we are doomed. With the help of a few others, Papa and another man are pushing a three-wheeled cart towards France…”

    The attempt to enter France proved fruitless and the family returned to Antwerp where Sylka obtained false papers from the kind owners of a dry-cleaning shop, whose daughter, born around the same time, had died. For more than four years, while her parents were in hiding, she lived without a yellow star, and brought them food, all the while capitalising on her flawless Flemish and French.

    She had links to an underground movement which helped her falsify her identify. In addition to acts of sabotage and resistance, they produced clandestine identity documents and ration cards which she helped to distribute. She often spoke of families who came out of hiding and gave themselves up to the authorities simply because they lacked the necessary documents to obtain essential food.

    In August 1942, following big roundups in Antwerp, the family moved to Brussels where her parents remained in hiding and Sylka continued her clandestine activities. They stayed there until the liberation and she often joyfully recalled waving from the family’s balcony at the Allied soldiers on September 3 1942 as they marched through Brussels.

    After the war, Sylka met Alfred Koorlander in Brussels, a young British sergeant major who had fought in North Africa, Italy (where he had joined the Jewish Brigade), Austria, Germany and the Low Countries.

    They married in 1947 and moved to London where she lived happily for the rest of her life.

    Because of her traumatic wartime experience, as an only child adrift in Europe, Sylvia felt it was too dangerous to have more than one child. What if, one day, they needed to go on the run again? Having more than one child would be too much of a liability, too much of a risk. Sylvia and Alfred’s only son, Ralph, was born in 1949 and lived in Hendon with his parents and grandparents. He now has three children of his own.

    “Looking at the diary now, I think it’s an exceptional document which connects me with my mother in a very special way,” he says. “The amazing thing is that she survived. She had to survive because without her assistance, my grandparents would never have made it. And Hashem was undoubtedly guiding all three of them every step of the way.”

    Not only did she survive, living happily in London for more than 70 years, her adoptive parents lived long lives too. Natan, born in 1886, lived until he died at the age of 78 in Hendon in 1965. Anna born in 1888, lived to the age of 89 in 1977.

    What haunts Ralph most are the many people named in in the diary whose fate remains unknown.

    “What became of Edith, Leo, Margot, Jutta, Regina, Stella, Eva, Thea, Betty, Schnuki, Gisa, Egon, Helene, Klaus Sprei, Harry Loewenberg, Frau Salomons, Frau Nissenbaum, Frau Rabb, Dr Ochs, Herr Oppenheimer?,” he wonders. “I can’t stop thinking about them. Could some of these characters have survived?

    “And what of her special friend, Walter Rosenbaum, the apprentice locksmith from Kassel? Might he have made it? If so, my mother never spoke about him.

    “My mother was recording normal things in abnormal times,” he continues. “She was an exceptional linguist, self-reliant, head-strong, capable of passing herself off as a local non-Jewish girl and always intent on surviving and supporting her parents. Reluctant to speak about her war and pre-war experiences, they undoubtedly overshadowed her later life. But for us as a family, seeing her through the lens of her diary as positive, free-spirited and philosophical against the backdrop of such traumatic times is both very poignant and a tremendous inspiration to us all.”

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