“But that I am forbid
To tell the secrets of my prison-house
I could a tale unfold whose lightest word
Would harrow up thy soul”
It was the pair of lederhosen which first prompted my curiosity. They were folded neatly at the back of the cupboard, unworn for sixty years. We only found them after my father’s death. My brother and I were very amused by these stiff and mildewed trousers from another era. I wanted to try them on, but it looked as if they would not fit. They were falling apart, and I worried that they would crumble into fragments if I tried. I imagine most British men do not have their own pair of leather shorts and braces at the back of the cupboard: I am not sure why my father kept his. They were the only physical evidence of an unusual feature of his childhood.
As well as the lederhosen, I inherited two boxes of papers, one from my father, the other from my grandfather. Geoffrey’s box contained a scrapbook of newspaper cuttings from his political career which I flicked through with interest. There were copies of the plays he wrote in retirement, which I put to one side. But then I noticed a battered photograph album. My father had never shown me photographs from his childhood, and I reached for it eagerly. The covers were missing, and the binding was falling apart. The pages that remained were filled with small black and white snaps of unidentified family and friends, sitting on misty beaches, or playing golf, or diving into swimming pools. Everyone seems to be having an uproariously funny time. To my extreme frustration, no one back in the 1930s took the time to label the photographs. I could identify my father, and my grandparents, but I had no way of knowing who these other well dressed strangers may have been, where the shots were taken, or in what circumstances. These photographs must have sat in my father’s study for years, and I felt sad to think that never once did he feel able to go through the album with me and talk about his past. And here at last, amidst the upper classes at play, were photographs of my father in his lederhosen.
My grandfather, conscious of the small part he played in great historical events, donated his more important political documents to archives. The Lloyd George papers went to the National Library of Wales. He served in the National Government until 1941, and his wartime papers went to the Imperial War Museum. Through the internet, I discovered that there are still files from Sir Geoffrey Shakespeare Bart in the archive. There was no problem about my consulting them. I felt I had to go. I set a date to travel down to London from Newcastle.
I took with me a precious relic that I also found in my grandfather’s box, and which I kept on my shelf for several years. It was his diary from the First World War, when he served with the Royal Norfolk regiment. His elder brother William joined the Royal Army Medical Corps, and served on the Western Front. Geoffrey was sent to the Near East. My great grandparents, unworldly Baptists, never understood what young men expected by way of parcels from home. Uncle Bill complained on Christmas Day 1914:
I was the only man in here who did not get a present of tobacco or cigarettes this morning: not even a letter. However, I’ll say no more.
Geoffrey later received the gift of a biography of Abraham Lincoln from his mother, while he was stationed in the desert. By way of thanks, Geoffrey composed a humorous poem which concluded:
It’s not that I ever shall read very fully
These five hundred pages – the leisure I lack-
But this I will promise, that, wrapped in my woolly,
I’ll take them wherever I go in my pack;
For the cause which is mine – how cheering to think on –
Is the same that inspired old Abraham Lincoln
And so, mother darling, though many a billow
Still rolls in between us, you never should pine!
Asleep in the desert, no Jacob had pillow
So soft as this ponderous parcel of thine.
When stars in the firmament drowsily wink on,
I am dreaming of thee, thanks to Abraham Lincoln.
Uncle Bill, who wrote poems in his army book and later published several volumes of war poetry, would have sneered at his younger brother’s light verse, written from the comfort of Egypt. But in 1916, Geoffrey and the Norfolks were posted to the Dardanelles, and his wartime journal reveals the misery of the Gallipoli campaign. He records the deaths of brother officers and his own orderly. He contracted dysentery, only to be shelled by the Turks while sitting on the latrine. After being wounded by shrapnel, he was finally evacuated to a hospital ship. At this point, and after months of short rations, the Shakespeare family obsession with food is fully revealed in the following diary entry:
Cold, exhausted and starving but happy at last. Given cabin. On the whole, happiest day of life because:
11.30 Given Bovril and thin biscuit
12 Orderly gave me a hot bath. Soaked and scratched, washed hair, everything. Clean pyjamas, bed socks, dressing gown. Returned to warm cabin and given lunch of cup of soup, semolina pudding and 3 rounds of bread and butter. Exquisite. Afternoon – slept. Doctor comes and wakes me up at 2.30. Splendid fellow. Light diet. No bacon at present.
4.30 Steward arrived with tea, bread and butter and a bite of cake. Brings cigs and choc. Ask for egg. Improve. But he says on hearing my sad plight, “What will you say to a good meal at 7.30pm of soup, fish, chicken, fruit?” Nearly fainted. Asked for loaf and butter too and cheese.
5.30-6.30pm Am writing this diary for last fortnight. Absolutely and completely happy. Clean, warm, smoking. Nibble chocolate. Read good story […] Seen real English nurse who comes from Wymondham, Norfolk and knows Norwich and bask in anticipation of top-hole meal. Never so happy before, hence write diary. Am now going to eat my meal in my mind so as to get full satisfaction morally and physically. Dear old steward.
7.30pm Dinner! Ye gods! Soup, fish and sauce (double portion), chicken, potatoes, greens (all), bread and butter, apples, choc. Felt more substantial and had a fair night. […]
Perhaps unsurprising, the entry for the following day records belly ache.
I talked to my brother and my mother, and they agreed that the diary would be safer in a museum than with me. I worry that in the mess of my office, the flimsy notebook will become dog-eared and torn, or that in my characteristic carelessness and haste one day I will spill my tea over it. The archivist is keen to see our treasure, as a possible contribution to their holdings of first hand accounts of wartime. But something also makes the three of us resist the donation. I think each of us feels a bit possessive of our unique document. We know that we can view it at any point in the Museum. But it seems like passing over something intimate. It’s a part of our family past, our personal link with history.
Despite the speed of the East Coast mainline, I don’t arrive in the capital till lunchtime. Eager to be getting on, I walk as fast as I can down the platform and into the crowded tube. Although it is October, London still overflows with tourists. On the tube train, I practise my new hobby of tracing family relationships through facial resemblances. A young child sits next to his father. I don’t have any doubt about that, because they share the same mouth. The train stops at a station and they slowly shuffle off, joining what I take to be the child’s mother, because she has the same cheeks as her son. I see another family, standing by the doors. The teenage daughter has the brown eyes, prominent nose and olive skin of her mother. Her father stands slightly slouched in a yellow golfing cap, unconsciously echoing the posture of his daughter. I imagine that if I was to follow these families from the train and eavesdrop on their conversation, I would be able to see deeper connections: their shared mannerisms, the tics of personal style that tie together the generations.
It’s less far than I’d feared from the tube station to the Museum, and it’s well signposted. That’s a good start: achondroplasia makes walking hard, and I’ve got a terrible sense of direction, presumably another genetic inheritance. Swarms of school children mill around the museum, and there are coaches drawn up in side streets. I am eager to see the papers, but first I need lunch. In the museum café, the queue is frustratingly slow and includes the hungry of every nation, most of whom seem to be opting for cake. As I eat my sandwich, opposite me an elegant young woman with her hair pulled back in a pony-tail eats coffee cake fastidiously with a knife and fork. Her companion reads the museum guide and chats away in Spanish.
It feels strange that a museum which marks the horrors of war should also be a tourist attraction. It doesn’t make sense that flying bombs and poison gas canisters should be preceded by home baked gateau. WG Sebald talks of the way that concentration camps have become tourist attractions:
“If you were to look into the wastepaper baskets to see what people consume while they walked through these museum camps, then you would realise that visiting these places, in the way we do, is not the answer.”[i]
The experience at the Imperial War Museum made me feel the same way. People pose for pictures next to the huge naval guns in the park outside. Within, school parties are on a day out to visit the trenches and to learn about the Holocaust. Tidal waves of children surge around, and turn their heads and whisper when I pass. I hear snatches of teachers calling to their charges:
“We need to start the First World War”
“Keep together at the front”
“We’re not stopping till World War Two”
Before visiting the archive, I should see some of the exhibits. I notice that the guide-book warns that “Crimes against humanity is not recommended for children under 16 years of age”, and wonder about the grammar of that sentence.
I make straight for the Holocaust exhibition. The Nazis persecuted many people, including Communists and gay people and Jehovah’s Witnesses, but three groups were systematically exterminated: the Jews, the Gypsies, and disabled people. Often the numerical weight of the Jewish extermination overshadows the fate of other minorities in discussions of the Holocaust, so I want to check how the museum covers the story of the disabled victims of the Nazis.
The rooms are dark, full of people silently examining the chronology of genocide. It feels disrespectful to speed past quickly but still I bypass Kristalnacht heading for the corner reserved for euthanasia, next to a staircase down to the second part of the exhibition. It would be easy to miss the dimly lit display case. I make a mental inventory of the contents.
- Three photographs of children who were killed by lethal injection.
From August 1939, children under the age of three were registered on the grounds of a range of mental or physical impairments. Each file was evaluated by one of three paediatricians and marked for death or survival. By the end of the war, the criteria had expanded considerably, and even teenagers were being killed.
- Two case studies of adult disabled victims of the Nazis.
It is the first time I have seen the name and story and photograph of anyone who was killed. The secret scheme was codenamed T4, after the confiscated Jewish villa in Tiergartenstrasse, Berlin, from where it was planned and administered. Sterilization of “unfit” people had begun in 1933, but it was only on the outbreak of war that the Nazis started murdering disabled people and others whom they labelled “ballast existence” or “lives unworthy of life”.
- One dissecting table from a psychiatric hospital.
Doctors were more likely to join the Nazi party than any other profession. Hundreds of them volunteered for the euthanasia bureaucracy, marking patient files with a cursory plus or minus to seal the fate of a vulnerable stranger who had mental illness or intellectual impairment. Others profited from access to patients and cadavers for medical research. For example, Professor Julius Hallevorden, at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Brain Research in Berlin, dissected 600 brains extracted from the corpses of the dead. After the war, he continued to practice, having been exonerated from direct involvement in euthanasia, and to this day, Hallevorden-Spatz disease is the name of a rare neurological disorder.
- One photograph of a grey bus from the Gekrat patient transport company.
It was these buses which arrived at each institution, and loaded up the patients for transfer, never to return. The orderlies were recruited from the SS, and were known as “White Coats Black Boots” because they wore white coats over their uniforms.
- One photograph of Hadamar, one of the eight killing centres where disabled people were taken to be gassed. Seventy thousand people were murdered between 1939 and 1941. The smoke and smell from the burning bodies prompted complaints from the neighbours.
- One photograph of the staff from the Hadamar extermination centre
They stand gathered in rows to smile at the camera, a friendly and efficient team. I have read that this group had a special celebration to mark the killing of the 10,000th victim. This might have been the occasion when this photograph was taken. Hundreds of people were involved in the T4 programme, including doctors and nurses and builders and drivers and stokers and people to screw the little brass plaques onto the urns of ashes which were sent to the families of those who were killed, along with concocted death certificates giving spurious causes of death: “We are very sorry to report that your uncle has suddenly died from appendicitis, a few days after arriving at his new nursing home.”
- An extract from the famous sermon of Bishop Van Galen
Opposition to the covert euthanasia programme was muted at first, although it was an open secret as to what was happening to all the men and women who were disappearing from the asylums and nursing homes. A few doctors refused to take part, and wrote letters of complaint. The legal profession seems never to have objected to the practice, but instead demanded that the system be regularised: a law was needed to do this sort of thing, not just a secret order from the Fuhrer. Relatives began to query the official accounts: “That’s odd: my uncle had his appendix removed years ago”. But it took the Catholic Bishop of Munster to name and shame the regime’s barbarity, in a series of bold sermons on successive Sundays through July and August 1941.
As a result of the unwelcome publicity, finally the official euthanasia stopped. Some historians believe that it was only halted because it had already reached its targets. But it was only the end of the beginning. The bureaucracy and the staff were disbanded, to be redeployed in the East as part of the “Final Solution”. The poison gas showers, the gold tooth extractions and the ovens were all pioneered on disabled people, before being adopted for the extermination of the Jews and the other concentration camp inmates.
Nor did 1941 mark the end of the regime’s attempt to eliminate disability. Throughout the war, disabled people, particularly children, were poisoned and starved in different hospitals and clinics across Germany. For example, the Hadamar centre was used for the killing of children from April 15 1943, receiving young people of all ages from orphanages, juvenile homes, foster care and other institutions, And as the Nazis marched into Eastern Europe, they immediately eliminated all the disabled people they encountered. Sometimes they machine gunned them. Sometimes they poisoned them. On one occasion, in Minsk, they crammed people into a pill box and dynamited them. After limbs and other body parts were scattered across the landscape, they decided not to try that technique again. In Pomerania, it is said, military cars would drive through the countryside, and whenever the doctors noticed someone who appeared tubercular or eccentric working in the fields, they would shoot them on the spot, without leaving their vehicle.
Due to the variety of official and unofficial measures adopted, there is no agreed figure for the disabled people killed by the Nazis. At least five thousand children were murdered, having been selected for death by a team of three paediatricians and poisoned or starved to death in hospital. Even after the Allies occupied Germany, there were still cases where disabled children were being intentionally starved to death on wards. Seventy thousand adults were murdered in the official T4 programme. At least as many died in the subsequent “Wild Euthanasia”. The T4 staff moved onto the concentration camps, where they operated the 14f13 which selected disabled or weaker inmates who were incapable of working, for immediate death. Through these various schemes, at least a quarter of a million disabled people were murdered between 1939 and 1945.
How can this total be compared to the better known story of the six million Jews who died? Is it fair to complain that many historical accounts fail to explain about euthanasia at all, and that even the Imperial War Museum gives far less space to disabled people than to the Jewish victims? Perhaps it is inevitable that the enormity of Hitler’s attempt to eliminate an entire people overshadows all the others – disabled, gay, communist, Gypsy, Jehovah’s Witness – who were also targets. Moreover, Jewish historians and survivors have preserved the memory of the Shoah. Disabled survivors were in no position to record the fate of others, and disabled academics have come lately to the issue. Many museums or memorials hardly mention the disabled victims at all.
But I also wonder whether, in the case of disabled people, the lack of coverage relates to a deep down feeling that perhaps the “mercy killing” of people with severe mental or physical problems or limitations is somehow more justifiable, less illogical than the murder of people on the basis of their race or religion. After all, prejudice against disabled people in Germany predated the Nazis. The final item in the display cases is a copy of the 1920 book by Binding and Hoche which challenged ideas about the sanctity of life, and called for mercy killing of disabled people.
Nor was “race improvement” confined to Germany. The shame is shared, to lesser degree by most other western nations. In 1933, the German campaign against disability began with the Law for the Prevention of Genetically Impaired Progeny. This policy of sterilizing people with heritable conditions was mainstream eugenics, approvingly cited by contemporary American commentators. After all, America had invented sterilization of the “feeble minded” in 1911, and 17 US states would end up with similar laws. The idea of “racial hygiene” was widespread in Europe and North America in the first decades of the twentieth century. France, Switzerland, Austria, Alberta, and all the Nordic countries had sterilization statutes. Disabled people were widely seen as a burden, a social problem that should be avoided, although only in Germany were phrases such as “ballast existence” or “life unworthy of life” used to describe them. This continuity between the policies in Germany and in the democratic countries caused problems when it came to prosecuting Nazi eugenicists after the war: how could they be criminalised for doing what also went on back home?
I wonder how many visitors noticed the forgotten victims of the Holocaust, how many strolled past the disability cases just as now I sped past the other exhibits in a hurry to visit the archives, already exhausted from 20 minutes exposure to human nature at its worst.
As I walked back down to the Museum reception, I noticed the wreckage of a plane, incongruous next to the intact examples of bombers and fighter planes and flying bombs hanging from the ceiling. The plaque announced that this fragment of fuselage and engine were from the Messerschmitt BF-110 flown by Rudolf Hess in May 1941, when he fled from Berlin. He was heading for the Duke of Hamilton’s estate in Lanarkshire in a quixotic mission to make peace between Great Britain and Germany. but ended up in a Glasgow Hospital.
A few minutes later, the first document I pick out of the red document box in the reading room is a memorandum prepared by my grandfather on May 14 1941, and sent to Churchill. It contains his assessment of the character and intention of Rudolf Hess. Underneath it in the box are two photographs, dated July 21 1934, which I have never seen before. In each, I recognise the wiry figure and prominent nose of my grandfather. He appears to be inspecting a newly built road. The bushy eyebrows of the man next to him seem familiar. I turn over the photographs, to find that they have been carefully annotated in German. My grandfather’s companions are listed as Rudolf Hess and his wife and son. The men are wearing characteristic Bavarian costume of leather shorts and braces. In one shot is a short squat figure wearing a flying helmet and goggles: it’s Martin Bormann who was to become head of the SS, and who was such an enthusiast for euthanasia.
The box also contains two carbon copies of a letter written by Geoffrey Shakespeare to Dr Franz Gerl, who appears to have been the person who took the two photographs. The date of the letter is September 7th 1934, and it opens
You will remember that when we parted you suggested and I warmly agreed, that it would be useful if either of us notified the other of facts which caused friction or misunderstanding between Germany and England.
The letter goes on to explain that a group of British companies are owed money by German firms. Contained with the correspondence is a briefing from the Board of Trade, giving the facts on which Geoffrey has drawn. A note from my grandfather explains that the letter to Dr Gerl was taken to Hitler by Herr Jung of the Colonial Office, and resulted in the settlement of the Anglo-German debt, “much to the annoyance of the FO”.
The two letters appear identical, but for the concluding paragraph. In one, my grandfather writes that he has written on Gerl’s behalf to Sir George Mclaren Brown of the Canadian Pacific and to Lord Duncannon, son of the Governor-general of Canada,
telling them that you are visiting Canada for a conference and that any kindness shown to you would be appreciated by myself. I hope to see you when you pass through London on your way home. With all good wishes to Frau Gerl.
The other carbon copy lacks this personal touch. Perhaps one version was to be filed away in Whitehall, and the other was the friendlier letter which my grandfather actually sent to his German contact. I realise suddenly that it was the original of this letter which was read by Adolf Hitler himself.
I knew from my father’s memoirs that he had spent time in Bavaria as a child before the war. He had been sent to have treatment, which it was hoped would cure his dwarfism. His friend Scottie told me that when William returned from these summers abroad he would sing German nursery rhymes to him. I don’t suppose they included the ditty that was popular in Munich in the late 1930s:
Lieber Gott, mach mich fromm, dass ich nich nach Dachau komm
Dear God, make me good I pray, and let me not go Dachau way.
But I had not realised that my family had been in contact with leading members of the Nazi hierarchy. According to my grandfather’s memo on Rudolf Hess, the Shakespeares had visited Germany for medical reasons each summer between 1933 and 1935.
I looked through the books on the open shelves in the Reading Room, until I found a volume of Holocaust survivor reminiscences. I had wanted to check whether it included any disabled testimonies, but as soon as I had read a few lines, I found myself sitting down to read through the whole book. 1933, when the Shakespeares first visited Germany was the year that the Nazis came to power. On May 10th, books by Jewish authors were burned in Berlin. There were banners in the streets reading “Jews are not wanted here”. From that date, the Hitler Youth would beat up Jewish children if they found them in the streets. The Hearst newspapers in America published a photograph of Jews being beaten up in Munich, the nearest city to Hindelang. The book explained that at the beginning of the school day, all children would give the Hitler salute, and give thanks to the Fuhrer. It also reprinted the typical frontispiece from classroom text books: it was a picture of a smiling Adolf Hitler holding a blonde boy and girl by the hand, against a backdrop of an Alpine mountainside. The caption read “Two things the Fuhrer loves best: children and flowers.”
As I put together the fragments of this strange story – my father’s visits to Germany for treatment, the strangely well-connected Dr Gerl – it seemed to me an extraordinary coincidence that all this was going on at the same time as the Nazis were sterilising their own disabled citizens – including people with restricted growth. I felt I wanted to know more about my father’s trips to Germany and the story of the mysterious Dr Gerl.
* * * * *
I find it hard to gauge the impact of my father’s childhood trips to Germany on his life. In his memoirs, he talks so positively of his memories of the beautiful countryside, and of the kindness of his hosts. He stayed in Bad Hindelang, a little village in the Allgäu, that part of southern Bavaria which includes the German Alps. He attended the local school, and mentions learning the Gothic traditional script, and swimming in the village pool. He was proud of being able to speak German, a skill he never entirely lost. It was typical of my father to minimise any trauma in his life. But could it really have been so easy?
After all, my father was being sent to be fixed. He had been taken to doctor after doctor, being prodded and measured and talked about. He went to Switzerland first, and then for the three long trips to Germany, all to find a cure. My grandparents must have been explained to him that he needed medical treatment which might help him grow. How does it feel, for a child, to know that you are broken and inadequate, that you are invalid, in both sense of that word?
How far did William know that his father longed for him to be normal? Twenty years later, my grandfather re-used the notebook in which he had written his Gallipoli diary:
April 24 1937 William was 3ft 5 5/8”
Feb 1 1938 – 3 6 1/8
April 2nd 1940 – 3 8 7/16
July 26th 1940 – 3 8 ¾ = gain 5/16ths
March 30th 1943 – 47 3/8”
These entries show Geoffrey still hoping for a growth spurt which would minimise my father’s disability. At the the final measurement was entered, my father was 15. How did this parental expectation and anxiety impact on him? I imagine it must have had a negative impact on his own sense of self, and his attitude to his disability.
My father was only five and his sister was only two when they first visited Hindelang in the summer of 1933. They had been sent away from the familiar house in Sloane Street and from their mother and father. They were in a strange land, staying with unfamiliar people speaking a different language. My father was a very visible oddity, and would have probably been stared at when he arrived somewhere new, particularly by other children. Of course, William and Judith had their nanny for company, but they must surely have missed their home and their family dreadfully. Like many disabled children even today, William’s long periods of residential medical treatment undoubtedly disrupted his education, as he later lamented. He had no regular formal schooling until he was nine. But perhaps it also contributed to a self-sufficiency which verged on introspection. Nor can being sent away from the family home have helped his little sister Judith, who was to grow increasingly troubled in later years.
Disability was even less accepted in the 1920 and 1930s than it is today. To my grandfather, it was a source of shame. This was also a time when the emotional needs of children were rarely taken seriously. In Jane Miller’s memoirs, she talks of being sent away to Broadstairs for nine months as a young girl, to recover from tuberculosis, far away from her family[ii]. It was an era where parents were encouraged to abandon their children in hospital when they were ill, and not to visit for fear of upsetting them. It was the norm, in privileged families for children to attend boarding school from the age of eight or nine. As a result, they would have had minimal contact with parents for twelve to fifteen weeks at a time. I remember my grandfather telling me that he had been sent away to boarding school at the age of three, back in the 1890s.
When my father first mentioned that he had spent time in Germany as a child, I found it very odd. Toy soldiers and Commando comics loomed large in my own childhood, and the idea of my dad visiting Nazi Germany in the 1930s did not quite add up. Later, I became obsessed with the coincidence of him going to Germany for treatment at exactly the same time as the Nazis took power and began their eugenic policy of sterilization of disabled people.
It was 1991, and I had just moved to Gateshead. I was living in Bensham, home of the largest rabbinical training college or yeshiva outside Israel. When I walked to the shops or to the bus stop, I would always encounter Orthodox families or sometimes a crocodile of young Jewish school boys with their yarmulkes and locks of hair. Everyone in the district was familiar with the Hassidim and their distinctive appearance, but those unusual little boys had never seen anyone like me before. These kids lived as their schetl ancestors had a century before: no access to television or popular culture, reading school books in which any information conflicting with the five books of Moses was Tippexed out. Anything unusual was fascinating, which is no doubt why they stared and laughed at me so much.
It all made me very self-conscious and frustrated. I just wanted to talk to them. I wanted to explain that disabled people too had been persecuted and that we therefore had something in common,, and that they should treat me with the respect with which I would aim to treat them. But the Orthodox community kept themselves away from the locals. There was an invisible border which neither side could cross. There was no way to connect.
* * * * *
It was not until March 2007 that I finally made the journey to Bavaria, exactly eleven years after my father’s death. I could never had done it without my Newcastle University colleague Thomas Rütten. Thomas originally trained as a doctor and then became a medical historian, with a particular interest in the Hippocratic writings. We met when we collaborated on a project to introduce school children to the history of medicine. He gave me a piece he had written about the Nazis and the Hippocratic Oath. I gave him something I had written about Nazi eugenics, and received in return a careful critique. When I started researching Dr Franz Gerl, my father’s physician in Germany, Thomas was the one who made the enquiries to the archives in Berlin and Bavaria. Not only did he have the German which I lacked, his standards of scholarship and rigour far exceeded my own.
From the beginning, I had planned to go by rail. I wanted to recreate, as far as possible, my father’s journey in the 1930s, and that was how he must have travelled. In the era before the Channel Tunnel, the Shakespeares’ nurse would have taken the two children on the boat train via the Hook of Holland, and then onwards down through Germany. In 2007, my other motivation was a desire to avoid the environmental impact of air travel. For years, I had been travelling the globe giving keynote lectures and visiting far flung relatives. Now, I was feeling guilty. My friend Tom Phillips had proved to me that it was possible to reach any European destination by train, thanks to the wonderful Seat 61.com website. It was time to reduce my carbon footprint. I would take the late afternoon Eurostar to Paris, and then connect with the Deutsche Bahn night train to Munich. Arrival at 9am would give me time to head out to visit Dachau concentration camp, before a rendez vous back at the Hauptbahnhof for the train to Sonthofen, the nearest stop to Bad Hindelang. Thomas Rütten had volunteered to interrupt a family holiday in the Harz to join me for the weekend and act as interpreter and guide.
In the event, things did not go according to plan. The morning of my planned journey was very windy. When I arrived at Waterloo International for the first leg of my journey, it became clear that something was very wrong. Due to “problems” in Northern France, all departures were cancelled “until further notice”. My journey had coincided with an unprecedented storm across Northern Europe: not just Eurostar, but all French and German railways were being cancelled. So much for environmentalism. If unprecedented climactic conditions were going to undermine my good intentions, I had no choice but to fly. I booked Easyjet for the following morning.
When I arrived at Munich Hauptbahnhof the next day, I bought myself a bratwurst with mustard and onions and looked about optimistically for guidance. But the swirling throng of passengers was strangely reminiscent of the previous afternoon at Waterloo. I learned later that the gales had affected Deutsche Bahn even worse than SNCF. Trees were down. Power lines were down. Even the computers were down. Every single centimetre of track had needed inspection. The trains of the day before had been cancelled, and were now all in the wrong place. No one knew what was happening. As I stood bemused in Munich, Thomas Rütten was engaged on a mammoth roundabout journey from the North to the South of Germany. The fabled Teutonic efficiency was in tatters. I had cleverly timed my journey for the single worst day in the entire history of the German Railway.
There followed a very roundabout, confusing and over-extended journey through south western Bavaria. I linked up with an English couple who I met on the platform, and we consulted the Dorling Kindersley guide to Bavaria which I had borrowed from Gateshead Municipal Library. It was a shiny, colourful book containing many pictures of fairy tale castles, lederhosen and beer festivals, but it could offer minimal practical help in travel emergencies. However, it did contain a very basic plan of the South Bavarian rail system, with which we were to become rather familiar over the hours to come. We changed trains again and again. I made a series of phone calls to
Frau Bessler, who was very understanding. Herr Dr Rütten himself had just arrived safely. Perhaps there was hope of a happy ending. We changed trains a few more times, standing anxiously on deserted railway platforms, in the dark, who knew where. Finally, I arrived at the tiny rural station of Immendstadt, nearly five hours after the beginning of what was scheduled to be a two hour journey. I waved goodbye to the kind English couple and turned to greet my waiting hostess. Frau Bessler was a pretty, smiling woman, perhaps a few years older than me. I liked her immediately. She waved away my apologies and embarrassment. I had arrived, which was the main thing.
Arriving at the house in the dark, Cornelia Bessler and I went straight inside to where Thomas and her husband were waiting. I was exhausted, but hugely relieved finally to have reached my goal. I sampled the first of the many bowls of soup and dumplings which I would eat over the next few days, and the first of many huge bottles of Bavarian beer. Othmar Bessler was a huge and taciturn man, at least twice the size of his wife. He sat nursing an arm which had recently been operated on and was still purple with disinfectant solution. The four of us sat in comradely silence, and I wondered what question to ask first.
In my bag, as I made the disrupted journey through Bavaria, were copies of my precious photographs. One of the main purposes of my trip was to discover the stories behind the snaps. The long lost family album contains several pictures showing the Bavarian Alpine countryside. There are photographs of my five year old father lying on a bed in his underwear, lined up in a row with other children, as if they are having an afternoon rest. There are images of nuns, who seemed to have served as nurses in the hospital. There are several shots of my father wearing his lederhosen, a year or two later. Here he is again, a little boy holding a small dagger in a combative pose. In another photograph, he is sitting on the bonnet of a large Mercedes car. In one shot, he appears to have his arm outstretched before him, as if he is demonstrating the Nazi salute which he would have made at school each morning. At the age of seven he could hardly understand the meaning of the gesture, but the image remains chilling.
As the four of us sat around the Besslers’ kitchen table, I remembered the copies I had made. I went to my bag, and rummaged until I found the photographs and brought them back to the table. Frau Bessler stood by my shoulder. The first photograph I took from my folder was of two children – my father and my aunt – with a man in Bavarian traditional dress. He seemed like a big and hearty giant, carrying a small child on each arm. Cornelia Bessler’s face lit up in astonishment as she uttered a cry of delight. “Das ist mein Vater!” she told me.
Cornelia and I looked at each other with new eyes. We may have been two strangers meeting for the first time, hardly knowing each other’s language, but our parents had met in this very house, seventy years earlier. Suddenly, our family connection felt very real. We hugged each other with delight and with tears in our eyes. After all the stress of the previous 48 hours, I felt that this was the outcome I had wanted. I had come on a journey not knowing what I would find, or whether there would be anything to find. Friendly Cornelia Bessler, whose father had known my father and who was so pleased to have re-connected with me, showed that my instinct to return had been right.
After this breakthrough, and more beer, Thomas and I retired to our rooms upstairs. The Besslers still live in the same wooden house that my father himself stayed in from 1933-1936, and they still operate it as a guest house. As I climbed the staircase, I realised that Thomas and I were staying in the same self-contained flat where my father stayed. The furniture, I was told, had been specially made for Mrs Calthrop, a frequent visitor in the 1930s. We had just eaten in the same kitchen where my father had taken his meals. The Besslers’ daughter plays the traditional Bavarian zither and when she demonstrated it to us the next day, I imagined my father, encountering the same curious instrument, seventy years before.
After breakfast that morning, I went out of the door to survey the terrain. Turning back, I saw the house in daylight: a typical Bavarian wooden building, with a porch. Little has changed in the Ostrach river valley since my father’s time there. When we drove through the village, the Besslers pointed out the little school which he attended. Bad Hindelang lies in a valley, between the villages of Bad Obersdorf and Vorder Hindelang, at about 820 metres above sea level. Rocky mountains surround the valley – Breitenberg, Rotspitze, Hirschberg (1456) and the Spieser. In the 1930s, just as today, this was ski-ing territory. In winter, it must be truly dramatic, and in summer it is breathtakingly beautiful, like a backdrop to the Sound of Music.
Of course, in the 1930s the region was also the Nazi heartland. Hitler’s mountain retreat at Berchtesgarden is a short distance away. It’s now the Berchtesgarden Intercontinental Resort. Hermann Goring had built his house nearby. So did Martin Bormann. Rudolf Hess, chief of the Nazi party in Munich, had a house in Hindelang itself, which he visited every weekend. I knew from my grandfather’s memoirs that Dr Gerl and his friend Hess had taken my grandfather on a drive to Berchtesgarden. The fourth member of the party had been Martin Bormann. The photographs in the Imperial War Museum showed them inspecting the new road to Munich of which the Nazis were so proud. In his book, my grandfather recorded his mounting anxiety as they drew nearer the Führer’s mountain retreat. As a junior member of the British government, it would be dangerous and inappropriate for him to meet Hitler, and he was unsure of how to escape without embarrassment. To his relief, the car broke down and they were forced to spend the night in a house which his hosts requisitioned, returning to Hindelang the next day.
When the Besslers showed me their own family albums, among the pictures I spotted Hess’ bushy eyebrows in a group photograph. On another page was a young boy in Hitler Youth uniform. There was a photograph of a rally in the village, complete with swastika banners. And there were telltale blanks and gaps where photos have been removed. I did not ask, but I wondered whether these would have been the years of the Third Reich and the war, images which people today would not want to be reminded of.
With Frau Bessler as our guide, our first stop was to visit Frau Gerl, the daughter-in-law of Franz Gerl, the doctor who had treated my father, and whose clinic in Hindelang drew much of its clientele from the English upper classes. She was a genial, matronly lady in her eighties, twinkling and sprightly. Frau Gerl still lived in Dr Gerl’s own house, and it has hardly changed since his day, as we discovered when we were shown into the sitting room. From every wall, stuffed trophy heads stared blankly down at us. Antlers and horns bristled: specimens of deer of diverse species and of the chamois mountain goats. While drinks were served, alcohol being produced at any time of day in rural Bavaria, I counted 26 different heads staring out around the room. Frau Gerl explained that her father in law had been a great hunter. This I knew already, because my grandfather had mentioned accompanying him on hunting trips. Perhaps my grandfather had shot one of these very animals. I remembered reading that another local resident, Hermann Goering, had also been a very enthusiastic hunter. In 1937, he organised The International Competitive Show, an enormous display of hunting trophies. I asked why Frau Gerl still kept the trophies on the walls. She shrugged her shoulders. It was not her taste, but what could she do? She was only the daughter in law, it was for others to decide on these things.
Frau Gerl had married Franz Gerl’s son – also a doctor – in 1956, so she had never met my father. But she knew all about the background. Her daughter had come home especially to help explain about the history of the family, but she hardly got a word in edgeways. As Frau Gerl talked, and brought out letters received by her father in law before and after the war, we began to piece together the strange story of how this small Bavarian town became a leisure centre for the British upper classes, as well as the hub of an unusual foreign policy operation, in which my own family played a role.
Franz Gerl’s father had also been a doctor, and had opened a surgery in this small valley in the Allgäu at the turn of the century. After serving in the first world war, the younger Gerl had taken over the practice, and had developed a specialism in diseases of the glands. Goitre caused by iodine deficiency was common in mountain regions, where it was known as the “sports badge of the Tirol”, but Gerl’s investigations went beyond than local problems. He became very interested in endocrinology and conducted research in association with several universities as well as with the pharmaceutical companies Boehringer and Knoll. The outcome was a patent iodine preparation called Agontan, which he believed to be a panacea for all known ills. In the 1930s, hormone theories were in vogue. He was not the only doctor to think that the thyroid gland could hold the key to human health.
Gerl started his own clinic in Hindelang, which he staffed with nurses from the Mallersdorfer Order of nuns. Now he had beds to fill. Having cleared up the local goitre problem, Gerl needed to recruit more patients than he could find in remote rural villages. An Anglophile, he turned to Britain to fill the gap. This is where Mrs Eleanor Calthrop enters the picture, the lady who had installed her furniture in the Bessler guest house. Franz Gerl seems to have developed a very close connection to a Mrs Calthrop from about 1928 onwards. She was a prominent London hostess who had been brought up in Germany, and may have been one of his earliest patients. Through her, he had an entrée into the best circles. He would visit London and see his distinguished patients, even performing minor surgery in Mrs Calthrop’s house. The patients would come to Bavaria for further treatment and particularly for courses of the miraculous Agontan tablets.
Before my Hindelang trip, I had visited Sir Jeremy Chance, whose mother and aunt had been patients of Dr Gerl, and who had spent a year living in Hindelang in the late 1930s. Thomas Rütten had discovered his name, after his first conversations with our Bavarian contacts, and I had traced Sir Jeremy through the internet. He and his wife had been delighted to welcome me to Criccieth, where we talked of Lloyd George, whose nephew was their neighbour, and of Hindelang. Sir Jeremy’s father had been press attaché at the British Embassy in Berlin, but the family stayed in Bavaria. Sir Jeremy and his brother attended the local school, and relished ski-ing and all the other mountain sports. He had warm memories of Dr Gerl, a friendly avuncular figure, who gave him an air rifle when he visited the Chance family in Scotland just before the outbreak of war. Dr Gerl performed appendectomies on both boys, and according to Sir Jeremy, left the neatest stitches you ever saw. It seemed to me that the good doctor liked everything to be neat and tidy – whipping out unnecessary organs, tidying up people’s endocrine systems. When Cornelia Bessler showed me the family visitors book, I found a sketch of the house which had been drawn by Sir Jeremy’s mother. I was sad to find my father had not left a mark of his own.
Everybody we talked to about Franz Gerl had nothing but praise for him. Aside from his compulsion to slaughter animals, he would seem to have been a paragon. Sir Jeremy’s father was one of the many English friends who wrote in support of Franz Gerl when he faced Denazification Hearings after the war. His letter is typical of many in the folder which Frau Gerl showed me:
My dear Gerl
I understand from Mrs Calthrop that you have been threatened with dismissal from your post in Hindelang, owing to the fact that you were once a member of the National Socialist Party. I have written a letter to be used as she thinks fit, stressing your work and high standing in the medical profession, also my support for you, knowing that you were in danger of your life from the Gestapo whose vile actions you always opposed. I and my wife have never forgotten how much we owe to you and the many kindnesses we have received from your family. You have stayed in our house in Scotland, we regard you as our good friend, and if this tribute can be of any use, please show it to the proper authorities. It would be tragic if the fine work you have done at Hindelang was brought to an end.
Roger Chance, formerly Press Attaché, British Embassy in Berlin
May 5 1946
All these correspondents reiterated the similar points: that Gerl was an excellent surgeon, that he never displayed a portrait of Adolf Hitler, that he disapproved of the Sterilisation Laws, and that he treated Jews, even during the period of Nazi persecution. Either he was truly a good man, or he was particularly lucky in his friends.
Our morning with Frau Gerl, ended in a traditional Bavarian lunch in the neighbourhood restaurant, based of course on meat, to the chagrin of Frau Gerl’s vegetarian daughter. Next, I had a few hours to stroll around the valley before we were due for afternoon tea. I had been promised more elderly ladies. To my great excitement, these new contacts had actually met my father in person during his visits to Germany.
Our hostess was Frau Fuchs, the aunt of Cornelia Bessler. Frau Fuchs is a most elegant lady in her nineties. Her sitting room was well appointed with occasional tables and rococo ornaments. Plates of cakes and cups of tea in the English manner circulated. As I had begun to expect, stronger liquor soon followed. I sat balancing cup, saucer, plate and cutlery on my knee, when a new person entered the room. It was Irmela von Kampf, born a year or two before my father, who remembered him well, and had even attended school with him. I nearly scattered my crockery on the floor in excitement. Irmela is a very warm and enthusiastic woman, who set up a home for unmarried mothers, in the busy years before oral contraceptives. She has dedicated her life to raising 12 foster children. The party was completed by Frau Fuch’s daughter, and by Kiki, the daughter of a physician colleague of Dr Gerl.
Not for the first time, I was thankful to have Thomas with me. As the minidisk recorder whirled, he patiently chaired the discussion of the 1930s, of Dr Gerl, of my father, of the many aristocratic English families who had enlivened the quiet rural valley. I sat anxiously, munching cake and catching about one in fifty words. To start with, it felt important, as of we were on the edge of discovering something dramatic. But as the hours passed, it also became rather dull, sitting listening to these elegant ladies talking in German. Everyone seemed slightly evasive when it came to the war years. Frau Fuchs was delighted to have English visitors, and was enjoying being the centre for attention, but the sad truth was that she remembered virtually nothing of the past. She had been living in Hamburg in the 1930s, and had no memory of my father. From the animated Irmela von Kampf we mainly learned a huge amount about her own father, a prominent artist who had visited England on many occasions and had been elected to the Royal Academy. She also explained how unhappy the von Kampfs had been when Rudolf Hess bought his house at the Gailenberg.
Her memories of my father were scant, but she did recall him being dragged around in a wooden cart: he had some sort of trouble with his legs, she said. I wondered whether he could not walk, or whether he just had trouble keeping up with his playmates. Irmela remembered playing pelmanism with him and had a strong recollection of him having an illustrated book of poems: proudly, she demonstrated that she could still recite one by heart.
The question I hoped to resolve was about the extent and nature of Dr Gerl’s relations with the Nazi regime. It was not easy to ask, given my lack of German and the sensitivity of the subject, As the letters from the denazification process indicated, Gerl had started out an active and enthusiastic Nazi. Doctors were the professional group who were most likely to join the party, but Gerl appears keener than most, joining on the 1st of March 1932, well before the Nazi take-over made it politic to do so. I knew his friendship with Rudolf Hess had been extensive, because Thomas Rütten had ordered the file of correspondence between Gerl and Hess, comprising literally hundreds of letters. After Hess had flown to Scotland in 1941, Gerl had come under suspicion and been interrogated by the Gestapo in Berlin. According to a recent book on Rudolf Hess, he and Gerl had collaborated on informal diplomatic efforts with Britain. It was even alleged that in Hess’ pocket when he made the flight was a list of a proposed new government of a “new Germany”, post-Hitler, led by Hess and with Gerl as either Health Minister or even Foreign Minister.
Whether as an informal ambassador for the Nazi regime, or on a quixotic mission dreamt up by himself and Hess to foster better relations between Britain and Germany, Gerl had used his medical trips to Britain to develop strong connections with members of the British establishment. He would stay at the Golfer’s Club in Mayfair, and meet with politicians and opinion formers including Lord Peel, Lady Percy and Lord Rennell. Lady Percy was a relative of Lord Halifax, and I imagine that Gerl was connected to the English network who were promoting appeasement with Germany. After the Anschluss with Austria, Gerl and Hess provided briefings for their British contacts to use in Parliamentary speeches. According to one letter, he had visited Brasenose College, Oxford, for private discussions, as well as the north of England and Scotland. Several of his letters reporting on his diplomatic efforts in England were addressed to Wolf von Dewall, London correspondent for Die Frankfurter Zeitung. In one letter, he expressed concern that Germany would make the same mistakes as it did in 1914, underestimating the British Empire, France and the rising anti-German feeling in the United States. Although he believed that England would be defeated in a long battle, he felt pessimistic about the final outcome for Germany.
On his return to Bavaria, Dr Gerl would welcome his well-connected patients and their friends who came to spend the summer in the little spa village of Hindelang. According to Frau Gerl, somewhere there remains a card index with details of all the English patients. Just from the few names she could remember, they were a prestigious bunch. Diana Duff-Cooper, the Stanley Baldwins, the Stafford Cripps, Lady this and Lord that. These English visitors came for treatment or for relaxation, but also for political discussions. For example, Gerl seems to have held talks with George Bell, Bishop of Chichester, who was a strong opponent of Hitler and a brave supporter of the German people during the war. In June 1938, Gerl welcomed the Labour politician George Strauss and the diplomat Sir Philip Nicholas, together with members of the Baldwin family, writing to the Nazi party to report their arrival. He may have had a role in Lloyd George’s famous visit to Bavaria in 1938. Knowing of my grandfather’s close connection to the former British prime minister, I wonder whether he had been another go-between. One writer alleges that Gerl almost succeeded in getting Rudolf Hess invited to the Coronation of George VI in 1937.
Armed with this information, Thomas and I felt that there was more to uncover, and were prepared for revelations. But in this respect, our visit to Hindelang was a disappointment. Our hosts knew little of Gerl’s activities, and refused to accept that he had been an active Nazi. He would never have been anti-Semitic, they promised us. Thomas asked how they could know that. What was his attitude to Jews? He treated Jewish patients, they said. And were there many Jews in Hindelang in the 1930s? None, we were told. It was my father who had told me of his memory of the local swimming pool, and arriving one year to find a new sign had gone up, announcing “Juden verboten”. He even remembered seeing people in the street running away, blood streaming from their faces. Whether this was Munich or Hindelang, I do not know, but it was almost certainly Jewish people who had been beaten up by Nazi thugs. According to Frau Gerl, the swimming pool sign would have been camouflage, there to assure the Nazis that people were taking the Nuremberg laws seriously, but not supported by the local population. The swimming pool itself had been funded by income from Dr Gerl’s work at the hospital.
From the archives, Thomas had found only one reference to Dr Gerl during the war. In 1943, Germany had been facing a shortage of insulin, and the famous endocrinologist Dr Gerl, President of the Reich’s Centre for Diabetes, had been recruited to help. An order had come authorising him to conduct research in concentration camps to try out synthetic alternatives. But the investigation failed when only about a dozen diabetics could be found, presumably because the sparse food provided in the camps meant that diabetes was the least of the inmates’ problems. Was Gerl a willing collaborator, or had he obstructed the research?
Above all, was Gerl still an enthusiastic Nazi in 1942, or was he involved in the anti-Nazi resistance, as our Bavarian hosts implied? The evidence is ambiguous. From the Gerls, we learned that Franz Gerl had been awarded the status of Professor by the Führer himself, rather than by any university, but that as a result he was never proud of the title. He was also awarded the Golden Medal of the Nazi Party. But the family also told us that he was connected to the underground groups run by von Hezl and by Canaris. Apparently, his role included building radio apparatus to communicate with other resistance networks and with foreign countries. After the war, his English patients and friends rallied in support of Franz Gerl, refusing to believe he could have done anything wrong. The correspondence which Frau Gerl showed me includes a 1949 letter from Isabel Cripps, on Downing Street notepaper, implying that Gerl would be visiting Stafford Cripps the following week. Another letter of support was sent by George Bell, the Bishop of Chichester, dated May 20th 1946:
I knew Professor Gerl some 10 years ago in 1935 when I stayed in Hindelang and saw a great deal of him. He was an enthusiastic German patriot and at that time believed that Hitler was saving his country. He knew that I disagreed with him profoundly about this. He was certainly unhappy about some aspects of Hitler’s policy, particularly with regard to the Jews. I saw Jewish patients who, in spite of its being very unpopular thing to do, he received in his clinic. This was just at the time that the Nuremberg laws were passed. Though he then put his trust in Hitler, Germany was to him much greater than Hitler. Subsequently he was disillusioned, and well before the war he came to see that Hitler was very different from what he had thought. From 1938 onwards he was kept under Gestapo observation because of his attitude to the Jews and his strong pro-British feelings. He was arrested during the war by the Nazis and sentenced to be shot. He is a brilliant doctor and it would be a real tragedy if he was permanently prevented from exercising his remarkable gifts. He has suffered much from his opposition to the Nazis, once he was disillusioned, he has great experience and has done wonderful research work with new cures for diabetes, asthma and other maladies. I hoped he would be allowed to exercise … He is a penitent who repents of his Nazism before the war and at real cost to himself.
* * * * *
The last place I stopped at the end of this hospitable weekend in rural Bavaria was unplanned. On the way to the train station, Frau Bessler drew up at a little house, and disappeared inside. She seemed to be talking for some time to the lady who lived there. Becoming worried about missing our train, I got out and went to find them. At this point, I was introduced to the householder. It was Frau Hess, widow of Wolf Hess, who had continued to be an apologist for his father and for the regime until his death. She explained to me politely that her house had never been visited by Rudolf Hess, because they had bought it after the war, and that therefore my grandfather would never have come there. Frau Hess was just another friendly German lady, but it felt for a moment as if I had got even closer to something dark and strange.
Back in Munich, I had one final journey to make. For my last night, I was staying with friends of my academic colleague Ninette Röthmuller, taking advantage of more generous German hospitality. On the Monday morning, Ninette and I took the S-bahn and then a bus to a little leafy suburb of Munich called Haar. I wanted to visit the mental hospital, one of the largest in Germany, which in the 1930s had been known as Eglfing-Haar.
It was a huge site, with many different houses and buildings dotted amongst the trees and paths. We wandered around until our rendez vous with the publicity director of the hospital. He was clearly not used to having visitors from Britain, particularly not disabled visitors. He was defensive and cautious in his explanation of the site, but he did point out the memorial to the wartime atrocities, and he did introduce us to the custodian of the hospital museum. As we climbed the stairs to the small exhibition, we passed photographs of the former directors of the hospital. Around one of them was a black border and a warning notice. This was Dr Hermann Pfannmüller, the director during the Nazi period, and one of the most enthusiastic proponents of the euthanasia programme. The museum told a story which was familiar to me from my previous reading, a story of sterilization and murder.
During the 1930s, years when my father and other British tourists had been visiting Hindelang, a few hours south, the residents of the Eglfing-Haar institution had become a popular attraction for crowds visiting from Munich. Between 1933 and 1939, according to historian Michael Burleigh, over 21,000 people visited, including 6,000 members of the SS, to stare at the disabled residents and to hear a lecture on the importance of eugenics. The storm troopers were heard to suggest that it would be best to set up a machine gun and kill all these “lives unworthy of life”, or as Pfannmüller described them, “human husks”.
After the outbreak of war, Pfannmüller used less dramatic but no less effective methods to eliminate his patients. Blocks 22 and 25, two of the buildings which we had been walking around earlier, had been designated “Hunger Houses”. Here residents were fed on a diet almost entirely lacking in nutrition. Pfannmüller himself would make unannounced visits to the kitchens to ensure the drastic regime was being followed. As well as promoting eugenics, he was keen to do his bit to save food for the war effort, rather than wasting it on “useless eaters”. For children, the other main approach was to use overdoses of the sedative Luminal. Children under ten were given 2 tablets a day, and three tablets for the over tens. Three women, Emma D, Emma L, Maria S were responsible for implementing children’s euthanasia at Elfing-Haar, under guidance from Dr Pfannmüller. As a result of their activities, 332 children died between November 1940 and May 1945.
The museum custodian who we met at Haar had herself been a nurse at the hospital, beginning employment at the hospital in 1953. It seemed to me strange that the hospital continued as normal after the war, despite the horrific events which had taken place there. The custodian remembered the day that the police came to the wards and took away the staff members who had been involved in euthanasia. I assume these must have been Emma D, Emma L and Maria S. She was not sure what happened to them. Probably not very much. Pfannmüller himself only received a five year jail sentence after the war.
Haar was the last stop on my German itinerary. I had to fly back to England, where I had an important commitment. At the end of the week was Holocaust Memorial Day, the ceremony for which was being held in Newcastle this year. I had been asked to read a statement describing and remembering the disabled victims of the Nazis. Initially, it had not been a role I was keen to perform. I am sceptical of those who claim victim status, as if persecution in an earlier era validates a contemporary political identity. But my attempt to offload the task onto someone else had failed, and I had been drawn into the process of devising and approving the text, and rehearsing the whole performance. I became increasingly impatient with the bureaucracy and formality of the process. The final straw was being instructed to report at the theatre at 845am on a Sunday morning, in preparation for a ceremony which was being held at 4pm that afternoon. I put on my suit, and selected a book to read, and felt cross at the disruption to my weekend.
As I sat in the Green Room feeling bored, an old man came into the room, and sat quietly on a chair, waiting patiently. One of the organisers introduced me to him, and then left us alone. He called himself Harry, although that was not his real name, and he was in his eighties, and he spoke with a thick accent, which blended Eastern European and Geordie. I offered to make him a cup of tea and without any prompting he began to tell me his story. He seemed diffident, as if he needed to justify his presence. Harry was a retired builder. He had come to Britain in 1946. By chance, he had ended up in Newcastle, and done well for himself in the trade. He was married to a local lady, and he had many children and grandchildren. Until recently, he had never spoken of his past.
He had been born Chaim Nagelsztajn, near Lublin in Poland. His father Schlomo had been a builder. Chaim had been fourteen when the Nazis came to take his people away in 1942. When the Nazis arrived at their village, his family had gone into hiding. The others had been discovered and killed. Eventually, shortage of food forced him to emerge from hiding, and he joined a surviving detachment of young Jewish men who the Germans used as labour. Their first task was to dig mass graves for the bodies of their families and friends.
When the work ran out, Chaim was sent to Majdanek concentration camp, where his head was shaved and he was given the striped uniform. An older man told him he must lie about his age and tell the guards he was a builder. First he helped build a barrack block. Even when he was weak from typhoid, he knew he had to work. Then he volunteered for a detachment which was sent to build a pickle factory at Zamusch. When they returned to the camp, the Russians were on their way. The Germans argued whether to kill everyone, or save the good workers. Chaim was sent to Auschwitz, where he kept his head down and went on laying bricks. By the end of 1944, the Russians were closing in, and he was sent by forced march and then train to Ebensee, in Austria, where the Germans were preparing for a last stand in the mountains. At liberation, he was lying in the hospital wing, weighing only six stone and so weak from dysentery that he could not even cheer when the Americans arrived. He was unable to join the prisoners who ran to the village and gorged themselves on food, eating so much that several died from the excess.
In the story that he told me, Harry emphasised how over and again he had faced death, but luck had intervened, and each time he had been saved. He had been secular all his adult life, but now he wore the yarmulka and attended synagogue. For nearly forty years, he had believed all his family had died in the Holocaust, and that he was the sole survivor. But then on January 25 1982, he had received a call out of the blue. It was from America. A stranger was asking did the C stand for Chaim? Yes. Was Chaim from Hrubieszow in Poland? Yes.
“I think you had better sit down, because what I am going to say will shock you. My name is Mike Korenblit. My mother is Manya.’”
Manya was Chaim’s sister, whom he had always believed lost. She had survived the camps, emigrated and married Meyer Korenblit, her childhood sweetheart. Now they lived in Oklahoma, with their son. Four days later, Chaim and Manya and Meyer were reunited at Newcastle airport. 8,000 Jews had lived in Hrubieszow before the war. By 1945, only 200 survived.
I had never met a Holocaust survivor before. I was able to sit in the quiet little room behind stage at the Theatre Royal, and hear Harry tell this story, the story he had been unable to tell for nearly sixty years. Now he told it over and over again to anyone who would listen, but particularly to local school children. He wanted a new generation to understand the reality and the horror of the Holocaust. The privilege of his company for several hours was the blessing I had not expected. I knew that this was a moment I would never forget. It was exactly the ending that this strange week required.
* * * * *
I had gone to Bavaria to find out the truth, but I came away full of confusion and mixed feelings. I had been so warmly welcomed by everyone in Germany, starting with Thomas, who had gone out of his way to help me with my research and continuing with these friendly Hindelang ladies, and the younger generation in Munich who had hosted me, and enabled me to visit Haar. Nowhere in Bavaria was I stared at or laughed at in any way. Particularly in the rural areas, it felt like a more civilised, gentle and welcoming world than I usually experienced in busy urban Britain. I liked the people I met and the places I saw.
I found it difficult and perturbing, trying to talk about the events of the 1930s and 1940s in Germany. Just as at Fawlty Towers, the war was something which could neither be mentioned nor ignored, like the pages in the Bessler family photograph album which were turned over so quickly. In asking my questions, I wanted my new friends to know that I was not accusing them of anything. I liked them, and I wanted them to like me. I felt diffident, as if I was threatening a carefully constructed edifice of normality. When they explained that their relatives were never Nazis, and that Hindelang had always been a good place, I wanted to believe them. They certainly were not deceiving me, I am sure of that. That was how they saw things, and perhaps that was how it was. After all, it is not always a simple matter of truth versus fiction. As Thomas Rütten pointed out to me, everyone experiences history for themselves, and there are always different perspectives on shared events.
But at the same time, this was the closest I would ever come in my life to the reality of Nazi life. I met the daughter-in-law of Rudolf Hess and saw several places where he had lived. I visited a mental hospital from where hundreds of disabled people were taken to their deaths. I met an older generation who had lived through the war, who had seen everything, and of whose attitude at the time I could not be certain. I followed the footsteps of my English grandfather who had been a friend of Franz Gerl and who might even have counted himself as a friend of Rudolf Hess and Martin Bormann, at least until the outbreak of war. I learned more about the regime to which my own father had been a frequent visitor, and under which, had he been German, he would almost certainly have been sterilized. And at the end of all that, I met a man whose village and almost his entire family had been murdered at the order of Franz Gerl’s fellow party members, a few hundred people among the millions of Jews, gays, disabled people, Gypsies, communists, Jehovah’s Witnesses and other victims.
As Thomas and I talked about our time in Bavaria, it seemed as if the war years were a terrible aberration in a rural landscape where old traditions now continued, almost as if nothing had happened. We were looking for the irruptions of the 1930s, but we found continuity with the past. The villages were unspoiled, and the houses as picturesque as ever. The children were still playing the zither, and their parents were still drinking beer and eating meatballs, as they had been for hundreds of years. The storm had passed over.
We had expected to find something dark and undiscovered, a secret that would make sense of the strange role of Dr Gerl. He had certainly been a Nazi in the 1930s, thinking perhaps that the Party would save the country he loved. According to his English friends and local supporters, he had a change of heart in the 1940s. Maybe, like me, they all wanted to believe the best of their friend. We could not know exactly what Franz Gerl had or had not done, let alone understand his motivation.
And if he was guilty so, in a different way, was my own grandfather, who had fraternised with genocidal thugs, and continued sending his family to Germany even after British papers printed evidence of the growing persecution of German Jews in the mid 1930s. Eventually, he realised the way things were going. In November 1938, he made a speech in his Norwich constituency after reports of anti-Semitic violence in Germany:
I sincerely hope that the German nation realises that appeasement with this country is not helped forward by exhibitions of unrestrained mob law and the persecution of people whose only fault is their race… I cannot believe that the ordinary decent German folk are really proud of their country for exhibitions such as these.
What a phrase, “whose only fault is their race”! At best, benign paternalism, at worst, the unconscious anti-Semitism of the British establishment. Certainly not the words I would choose to defend a persecuted minority. I do not think my grandfather was a racist, but he clearly had eugenic views. He was determined to have his disabled child “fixed”. He remained very unhappy about the possibility that the shame of achondroplasia would be passed onwards to future generations.
Although at times on my journey I had felt like a voyeur, a mawkish tourist of euthanasia, I could not escape the fact that this story had come close to my own family at several different points. This was not a history that I could disown. Apart from anything else, had my father been German, I would never have been born. I count myself lucky that when it came to reproducing and bringing up children, my own father chose to accept disability, and welcome his disabled son. I was never made to feel ashamed of my difference, never sent for treatment, never expected to become normal. But the mindset which prepared the ground for eugenics and euthanasia in the 1930s and 1940s is still with us today.