Wear your vest, take a whistle

17th February 2006 at 00:00
A Thousand Kisses: the letters of Georg and Frieda Lindemeyer to their children, 1937-1941

Edited by Christoph Moss. Translated and abridged by Katharina Bielenberg

Bloomsbury pound;16.99

The Lindemeyer family letters only tell half the story, and are all the more readable and moving for that. Frieda and Georg Lindemeyer, German Jews who had converted to Christianity, were deported to Minsk from Dusseldorf in November 1941 and probably died the following year. For four years before that, their three children had been living in England as refugees.

The young Lindemeyers' replies to their parents' letters from Dusseldorf are likely to have been among the few treasured possessions Frieda and Georg took east, but there the trail ends.

Their younger daughter Edith and son Wolfgang came to England in 1937, aged 17 and 14, to finish their education, when it became clear that non-Aryans could not expect to stay at school in Germany. The older daughter, Eva-Maria, whose son David Gilbert has written an introduction to this compelling portrait of a family under duress, left school early and became a secretary until she too left for London in spring 1939.

The children's letters home, which are left to our imagination, were Frieda's lifeline. If they arrived on the expected day (the post worked like clockwork at first) and at the expected length, she was happy.

Frieda's own letters are infused with hope and stoicism long after hope should have died, with constant assertions that a family reunion must surely be imminent. Her last letter on the eve of deportation, and the couple's joint farewell to their children, saved from a year earlier, make unbearably painful reading.

Wary of the censor, Frieda's letters show her determination to take comfort in small pleasures and domestic detail. The day after the Kristallnacht pogrom in November 1938, she writes to Edith about the wool vests she is knitting for her. She presents the couple's increasingly more difficult daily lives as being too dull to write about. Georg's tone is slightly more businesslike, with lots of questions about studies, but no less affectionate. His letters usually end with "warmest kisses" and "many heartfelt kisses"; "a thousand kisses" being Frieda's standard sign-off.

Edith's school, Stoatley Rough in Surrey, was founded in 1934 by a German refugee teacher, Hilde Lion, as a mixed boarding school (though Edith lived in lodgings nearby) mainly for refugee children from Nazi Europe. It was recognised by the Ministry of Education in 1940 and Dr Lion continued to run it for a mixture of private pupils and disadvantaged children recommended by LEAs for another 20 years, until she retired and it was closed. Dr Lion, and Edith's English teacher, Emmy Wolf (another refugee), are drawn into the extended family by Frieda and Georg, who constantly urge Edith to consult them about her future and ask their opinions on Georg's academic writing about theatre and intellectual property (barred from practising as a solicitor, he had poured his energy into scholarship until he was forced to work as a gravedigger).

Stoatley Rough was part of a network that helped the young Lindemeyers to get by in England and, in Edith and Wolfgang's case, make trips home. The network included the Inter-Aid charity, church groups and the Society of Friends (Quakers).

Edith moved on to an apprenticeship as a housekeeper in a home for children with disabilities (from there, her tutor's family sponsored Eva-Maria to leave Germany after Kristallnacht). Later she got teaching jobs and there is a hint that by 1941, the year her parents' fate was sealed, she had a deputy headship, four years after arriving at Stoatley Rough with little English.

Her early letters home can be partly reconstructed through her parents'

responses, telling her not to work too hard, to safeguard her health, to take a whistle on the walk to her lodgings and not to complain about her lot (a phase she went through). When Georg and Frieda took Edith to task over her slapdash spelling and illegible handwriting, they were exercising one of the few parenting roles left to them.

Increasingly harsh regulations prevented the Lindemeyers from sending their children first money, then correspondence reply coupons, then clothes, then anything at all. Edith and Eva-Maria become the parents, trying to find jobs and an exit route for Frieda and Georg.

Wolfgang, the only surviving Lindemeyer child (Edith died in 1996, Eva-Maria died last year, but was able to attend the launch of this book's original German edition in 2002), seems to have been the least conscientious correspondent. His short letters to his sisters are the touchingly typical laconic efforts of a 14-year-old boy. Frieda and Georg fretted about his intermittent communication and his mixed performance at his boarding school, which he had to leave because support from the charity ran out. Just as his future seemed settled, with a job in a department store, he was shipped to Australia (possibly only aged 17) to be interned as an enemy alien; Eva-Maria was interned on the Isle of Man. By then communication was much harder, only possible through friends and the Red Cross.

Frieda and Georg knew by the time they were deported that Eva-Maria had been released (to live with Edith's tutor's family). They never knew that Wolfgang was able to return in time to serve in the British Army and join the victory parade in Berlin. Postwar letters from family friends show how the children learned in 1946 that their parents had suffered terribly in their final year and that Frieda had contemplated suicide, but also that they had many friends who stood by them at personal risk.

And alongside one unwritten story of a couple in desperate straits is another more optimistic tale, of three bright young people making their way alone in a new country with help from teachers and aid workers who were prepared to invest in them.

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