At the bottom of a drawer in my mother’s bedroom there was a large album full of sepia photographs. As a young girl I sometimes took it out and looked at it and wondered who all the people were. But I had learnt over time not to show it to my mother and ask her about it, because her eyes would immediately fill with tears.
My mother grew up in Leipzig. Her own mother died when she was ten and her elder brother left for Palestine in 1936. Her father remarried, and my mother loved her stepmother. I knew she had a young stepbrother, but I knew nothing about him.
In February 1939 my mother left Germany on a Kindertransport. She rarely spoke about her childhood in Leipzig, her experience on the Kindertransport, or what it was like living as a refugee in wartime London.
I always thought that one day she would tell me more about her life, or perhaps tell my own children as they grew up. It’s quite common that people talk more readily to their grandchildren rather than their children about their wartime experiences. But my mother died suddenly in 1996, while they were still young.
So my sister and I have tried to piece together her family story by speaking to surviving relatives, and by tracking down books which document the lives of the Jews who perished. A cousin discovered an amazing book in the German bookshop in London (in Poland Street, of all places) called “We Were Your Neighbours”, which documents pre-war Jewish life in Leipzig. It was written by Barbara Kowalzik, a non-Jewish author, and published in 1996, the year my mother died. In it there is a photograph taken in 1935 of my mother, Hilde Auerhahn, with her classmates in the Ephraim-Carlebach School in Leipzig.
How many of these teenagers survived the war?
We had never seen it before and it was very hard for us to think that we would never be able to show it to our mother, even though we knew it might be another sepia photo to be put away, along with the others.
A few years ago, we discovered in a book of memory published in Italy that my grandparents and Jacob were in internment camps in Tuscany and that they were arrested in Lucca on 30 November 1943. They were transported to Auschwitz on train number 6 on 30 January 1944 and were “alive for the last time on 6 February 1944”, when Jacob was five years old.
Now we knew that Jacob Auerhahn was born barely one month after Kristallnacht, which was one of the very few things about her pre-war life in Germany that my mother ever spoke about. She described the horror of the night the Gestapo pounded on the door of her family’s apartment, searching for her father. But she never talked about the newborn baby in the family.
We recently discovered that one of the photographs in our mother’s album that had remained unidentified is in fact of our grandparents and Jacob taken in 1940, when they were being held in an internment camp in Milan. It is the only photo we have of Jacob Auerhahn, our uncle, who would have been 74 had he lived – just 16 years older than me. It doesn’t bear thinking about.
In a strange way, I feel I’m intruding on my mother’s privacy even now, all these years after her death, by publishing these photos. But then it’s important to highlight the loss that I feel today, of grandparents I never knew, and of an uncle that barely had the chance to live.
And of my beloved mother, who suffered such heartbreak in her life; so painful she could never talk about it.
As the siren was sounded this morning, I held this photograph of Adele, Yisrael and Jacob Auerhahn in my hand.
I looked at it and thought of the utter despair my grandfather must have felt as he and his wife and their young son were herded onto train number 6. He probably understood the fate that awaited them, and he could only hope that by allowing his teenage son to leave for an uncertain future in Palestine in 1936, and by putting his young daughter on another train in 1939, he had at least ensured their safety.
Indeed he did, and between them they gave my grandfather seven grandchildren, 22 great-grandchildren and, to date, nineteen great-great grandchildren – seventeen of whom are today living in Israel.
How privileged we are to be here.