In 1946, 10-year-old Katrin Fitzherbert came to England from Germany. From then on, the young girl was told to conceal her origins. Colin Ward reviews her autobiography
There is profound truth in the old Jewish saying, "What the children want to forget, the grandchildren want to remember". Six years ago Gerald Posner published a series of interviews with Hitler's children, the middle-aged people whose parents were leading Nazi war criminals. His book gave a certain comfort to Katrin FitzHerbert, grappling with "the same agonising mixture of emotions".
Her father was for 12 years a Nazi party employee and activist, and for the last half of this time was also in the armed forces, as a political "cheerleader" for the troops. Moreover, a man with a very similar name was responsible for an appalling massacre of more than a thousand concentration camp prisoners in transit, burned alive at Gardelegen 24 hours before the American army entered the area.
The effort to find out whether the man who gave the order was her father - he wasn't - led Katrin to the literature of the Holocaust and the archives in London, Vienna and Jerusalem to discover the realities of the Holocaust for both victims and perpetrators. "This was something that, like most other Germans, I had managed to avoid very successfully for nearly 50 years."
She was conscious that she had been brought up as one of Hitler's children and that "my memories of Nazism were an integral part of my childhood and most of them were happy", and that, coming to England at the age of 10, in 1946, while "I evolved into a passable specimen of English girlhood, in the furthest recesses of my mind a confused closet Nazi continued to lurk".
For Katrin was as British as she was German and was obliged to become a thoroughly English girl, concealing her origins. "I, Kay Norris, a passably ordinary 14-year-old West Country schoolgirl in regulation gymslip and flannel knickers, was in reality Katrin Olga Thiele, born in Berlin." Accidentally she devastated the family Christmas one year by thoughtlessly placing the parcel from her estranged father under the Christmas tree in Totnes, Devon. She was conscious that she had spoiled everyone else's innocent pleasure, but meanwhile Papa and another family were starting a new life in Canada, having "adjusted superbly to North American values and culture". He chided his daughter for her lack of personal ambition and dreamy idealism, which she, in turn, associated with the "ideals of noble personal behaviour" that she felt she had inherited from Nazi ideology.
The family history is fascinating and is marvellously well-told in this book. Grandfather, known as Opa, was a barber and hairdresser, who, having completed his apprenticeship, joined London's 50,000 Germans - mostly shopkeepers and skilled artisans - a century ago. Grandmother, known as Oma, was from Brondesbury in west London, apprenticed as a wig-maker, but persuaded by Opa to shift to ladies' hairdressing. When they married in 1905 they opened their business, with a loan from Opa's father, on Haverstock Hill in Hampstead.
Their daughter, mother of the author of this absorbing memoir, was born in 1910, when anti-German sentiments were already "simmering beneath the surface of British society". In 1914 Opa, like thousands of enemy aliens, was interned behind barbed wire, and in 1918 was released but deported to Germany. There was legal provision for the British families of enemy aliens to shed husbands and fathers, but Oma decided to join her husband with her daughter of eight-and-a-half, and travelled to Germany in 1919, the year when a million German children were to die of malnutrition.
Just over a quarter of a century later, when many more children were starving, that daughter and her two German children (the author and her brother) were "repatriated" to Britain, and in the following year both Opa and Oma similarly returned, thanks to the Red Cross. The shift gave them a new lease of life and their grand-daughter watched them readjust to the ordinary habits of English life. She rejoices in the fact that they are now commemorated in the Totnes churchyard.
Katrin's brother, with a different temperament, simply wrote off his childhood and made a successful career in medicine, but she has been plagued by history, both national and personal. It has taken her years to exorcise the past.
Her story is full of sharp and keen observation, as well as telling judgments, like the fact that out of her 14 schools, Penzance County School for Girls has always stood out as her overall favourite. Classes there were large, but she enjoyed its "calm, unthreatening work ethic".
In fact her success in English schools was, she felt, undeserved. The exam system tested skills not otherwise seriously taught and valued here, but which were natural to the "swotting, drilling and learning by heart" she associated with her German schools, which frowned upon the invention and imagination encouraged here.
But beyond the absorbing detail, instantly recognisable to people who lived in wartime Germany or post-war Britain, she raises endless aspects of relationships within the family and of the role of mothers and grandmothers in holding the network together. Family loyalties were far more significant than those of nation and ideology. She also evokes that disappearing figure, the spinster friend who becomes the universal auntie,refuge and helper when life gets tough.
Colin Ward's most recent book is Reflected in Water: A Crisis of Social Responsibility (Cassell 1997)