Dedicated to Avraham ben Yaacov Halevy and his early family.
On this special Holocaust Memorial Day, I am privileged to be able to speak about my late father Erwin Lieber from Berlin, and explain some parts of growing up as a second-generation Holocaust survivor’s daughter.
My German grandfather, whom I did not meet named Yaakov, was a soldier and serving officer in the German army in the First World War, fighting against the British, and my father was born exactly as the war broke out in August 1914.
My German grandmother died at a very early age before the second world war in 1926. I think she died in a flu epidemic.
My father wasn’t only a survivor he was also a fighter and that’s what I learned over everything else.
My father could be compared to a jigsaw puzzle. The ones with 1,00s monochrome pieces. Of course, it came with no picture on the front of the box. If you get my meaning.
As I grew up in London in the 1950’s, my father had a thriving business and factory supplying wigs in the doll industry.
One thing that was never even mentioned in our house, was the war.
I had absolutely no knowledge of the Holocaust because those things were so painful, that the survivors drew a line and suppressed their feelings, thoughts and emotion in order to “get on with life”
No therapist or PTSD counselors, available in those days.
They had come from Hell and back.
As children, I remember if a war film came onto the television, we were sent out of the room, he couldn’t bear for us to know or watch anything.
There simply were no words for what my father experienced during the 1930’s and his life in general until after the war.
He escaped to Barcelona as he was going to be arrested, and my grandfather was warned to get him out of the country.
He spoke a little about Barcelona, he loved Spain and during my childhood, he wanted to return to the places he had been to in the War. When he arrived in Spain, he was asked to join the army and fight Franco or go to prison.
He fought against Franco. 1936
So, I pieced together from (looking at my father’s documents, after he died) that he escaped to Spain as a fugitive in 1936 and fought in the Spanish Civil War, not for any ideological reasons, he said, just so they would eat.
He must have come back to warn his parents and younger brother to leave Germany, but he was arrested and put into the Dachau Concentration camp. He did not speak about Dachau ever, but after he passed away, a book came out, written by one of his British army comrades and an officer, like him, about what it was like in Dachau. It was a Death camp because they worked the prisoners to death. If you were young strong and fit and could work very hard and think very fast, you stood a tiny chance, but any man aged 40. 50 and up could not survive the harsh work conditions abuse and beatings.
This man wrote his war-time story and included several very brave actions and heroic missions my father had taken whilst fighting the Germans in France in the 1940’s.
My father got out of Dachau using an opportunity of sponsorship, funded by an American agency, to travel to Shanghai, which was the only transit port in the world to accept immigrants from this period of history.
On his way to Southampton UK where the ship was leaving for Shanghai, the war broke out in 1939.
He was asked the same question by the British
“Do you want to join the army or go to a camp and sit out the war?”
He said” I have enough camps!”
As an enemy alien, the young men from Austria and Germany could either wait out the war in Australia or the Isle of Mann in prison camps, or they could use their languages which were an absolute asset to the British, and join a company of pioneer corps. He later was made a sergeant and an officer and put into the intelligence corps, where later towards the end of the war, he served as a translator for the interrogation of captured Nazis.
He did tell me this one thing though, later in life,
He said he will never forget the look on the Nazi faces when they’re standing before them was an officer in British uniform speaking in fluent German.
They must have thought about how they learned to speak German like this…well in school! In Berlin.
Many Jewish German and Austrian men and women, were used in the war effort to gather Intelligence.
One day back at home in the 1970’s there was a program on TV again.
Celebrating a couple who had met in the war and married. My father’s picture came up on the television.
“Look mum dad’s on tv.”
You have to know my mother didn’t believe anything my father did dare to reveal. You couldn’t have been in all those battles, like Dunkirk and D-Day, in all those camps, in all those situations, in all those countries, was her one cry.
But you know. He was.
The picture on the T.V. screen was of my father holding up a pole for a make-shift chuppa made out of a tallis in Lubeck in Germany, where another young officer had fallen in love with a Polish Jewish nurse survivor in Belsen concentration camp they had liberated.
The young bride became known as the bride of Belson. Her wedding dress was made of parachute silk from a British parachute, and my father was at the wedding. Rev Hardman had said this was the first spark of joy, a wedding, in the ashes of that terrible destruction, after so many burials.
I am happy to tell you that two years ago, I went, with my son, and sister and her husband and their children to Berlin. We stayed in Hotel with kosher breakfast facilities ate in kosher restaurants and were treated very well. We went to lay stopple Steiner outside the house where my father was born. We went inside the apartment block which had been repainted and renovated and looked beautiful like a little museum with big heavy walnut doors and a staircase.
We laid the golden plaques in the pavement for his father, stepmother and a younger brother who all perished in Auschwitz.
We found the burial plot of the German grandmother in a most beautiful haunting Jewish cemetery, the largest in Europe. We took earth from Israel, to place in her grave, we said Tehillim, we apologized for being nearly 100 years to late to visit her. She was like a sleeping beauty in the forest. It rained we cried so much we went back to the Brandenburg Gate, took photos, and knew that we had at last given a semblance of closure for those beautiful lost souls our family, we never met, we said at the graveside and at the cemetery. Don’t worry grandma,
AM Yisroel Chai.
We still have not got all the pieces of the puzzle, of course, maybe we never will have them.
There was so much more to tell you, but for this time that’s where I am going to close.
When anyone asks me, what did my father do in his life?
I will answer them,
“He was fighting Amalek.”