102. Red Riding Hood

By Peter Fraenkel

The date? Just after the torching of synagogues all over Germany – November 10 1938, a date widely known as “Krystallnacht”, because pavements were littered with broken glass – the windows of Jewish-owned shops smashed up by Nazi gangs.

Our family friend the painter Gerhard Neumann had come to call.  I, aged 11, was already in bed but I heard my mother, very agitated, shouting “Go away”.

What was happening? I crept out of my room. I was fond of Neumann. I called him by the nickname – Teddy – which they had given him at art school where, as the youngest, he’d been the school’s mascot.

“Go away,” I heard her shout again. “I don’t trust any German – not you nor any other. Scratch one and you’ll find they’re all anti-Semites. Go! Leave us in peace.”

My father was trying to calm her down but was failing. Eventually the flat became silent. Probably Teddy had gone. I crawled back to bed – sad. I was fond of him. He got on well with children.

We were preparing to leave Germany. Uncle Friedrich, in South Africa, had managed to obtain visas for us – one for Northern Rhodesia, another for Swaziland. Some good soul in the USA – we didn’t even know him – had also got us visas for Peru.

The Nazis were keen to get us out – but only after stripping us of our property. We had to exchange 100 Mark to obtain a mere 7 Sperrmark – a new invention – the ‘blocked Mark’.  These seven could then be exchanged for any foreign currency at current rates of exchange. It was daylight robbery. The Nazis were robbing us of 93% of our capital.

In fact it wasn’t really ours. It was grandmother Fraenkel’s money. She must have known she did not have long to live. She suffered from leukaemia.  So she made over to my father most of the inheritance he would receive on her death. Having salvaged our 7% we had a small sum in our pockets – though less than £100 – when we arrived in Africa. It was, however, more than many others had.

To come back to Neumann: The evening after that noisy altercation, he was at our door again: “Those things you said yesterday, I’m simply not willing to accept them.  I have been your friend for many years. I remain your friend.  In these difficult times you’ll need friends.  You said yesterday the Nazis would probably confiscate your valuables. Hand them to me. I’ll get them out of the country for you.”

“You’re crazy!” I heard my mother say. “I don’t want to be responsible for you ending up in a concentration camp.”  But after a while things quietened down. Probably the adults were now sipping cups of tea – perhaps with a shot of rhum. November nights could be cold at Breslau.  I crept back to bed.

Much later I discovered that Teddy did indeed deliver my mother’s jewellery to friends in Holland, the Schachnos with instructions to sell them and hold on to the proceeds until we too emigrated. We were awaiting a visa for Northern Rhodesia. We would travel through Holland and pick up the money.

Not much later there arrived a letter from the Schachnos. Everybody knew letters might be censored by the Gestapo.  The Schachnos were cautious. They thanked us for entrusting our two daughters to them. Such lovely children! They had tried to find a Dutch family to adopt them. Unfortunately there were now so many children from Germany up for adoption, it was difficult to find a good family. They suggested that on our way out to Africa we pass through Holland and take Rotkaeppchen – Little Red Riding hood – and Schwarzkoepfchen – Little Blackie – with us.  If later, in Africa, we were to find we could not afford to maintain them, we could probably find a better class of family to adopt them over there than they could now find in the Netherlands.

It did not take my parents long to decipher this: The best jewels that Teddy had smuggled out for us were two rings: one a red ruby, the other a black onyx surrounded by pearls.

I don’t know what happened, later, to the onyx.  It must have been sold at some stage when we were impoverished refugees in Northern Rhodesia. But the red ruby – that was still on my mother’s hand when she died over sixty years later.