Authors: Jeremy Josephs
The True Story of One Woman's Quest for a Lost Mother and a Vanished Past
Copyright © 2012 Jeremy Josephs
The right of Jeremy Josephs to be identified as author of this work has been asserted by him in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the copyright owner
ISBN : 978-0-9571538-2-0
t can hardly be described as perfect timing. For I only heard of Susi Bechhöfer's story a few weeks before I was due to leave England with a view to settling in France. But as soon as a few details of her biography were described to me I was immediately hooked and wanted to find out more. Interested in both the Holocaust -which provides a shadowy background to the Bechhofer case -and human psychology, I knew right away that Susi's tragic but ultimately uplifting story had to be the subject of my next book.
I was fortunate that Susi was equally anxious for her story to be told. The upshot was that Susi and I agreed from the start that we would pull no punches in telling her story, however unpalatable some of the facts might be. I must therefore put on record my deep appreciation of Susi's frank and open approach to the many hours of interviews to which I subjected her. Throughout our sessions I was all too aware of the pain that my constant prodding at unhappy memories was causing her, and yet she never lost sight of the fact that her efforts were in a good cause, and perhaps essential for her peace of mind.
In my view this is one of the most unusual of the many harrowing stories that have their roots in the Holocaust years, and I only hope that I have done justice to both its complexity and its sheer horror. One thing I am certain of is that its telling would have been far less easy without the skilful editing of Richard Dawes and the productive help from the staff at I.E. Tauris.
I should also like to express my gratitude to Cynthia Anton, Edward and Irene Mann, Frederick Stocken, Alan Stocken, Jerry Bechhofer, Bertha Leverton, Clare Fay, Lucy Morton, Edith Moses, Mavis and James Wainman, Sally George and, of course, Susi Bechhofer herself, whose determination to confront her past and bear the burden of what she found is surely an inspiration to us all.
In the Shadows
Forbidden by Decree
osa Bechhöfer had little cause to complain. Compared with the plight of many of the Jews of Fürth, she was positively well off. In the two years since Hitler had assumed power, the Bavarian city's Jewish community had been reeling from a string of harsh discriminatory decrees. First they had been barred from holding public office or working for the civil service. Then journalism, teaching, farming and the arts had become out of bounds. Perhaps one day Rosa's more modest employ might also be proscribed by law. But so far, her job as a sales assistant in her sister Frieda's shoe shop in the city centre had evaded the lawmakers' net.
Rosa complained all the same, although her unhappiness had nothing to do with the employment laws: it was simply that marriage had eluded her. Eligible Jewish men tended to seek out the daughters of wealthy families: with her thirty-seventh birthday not far off, and not a penny to her name, Rosa's chances of ever standing proudly beneath the
the Jewish wedding canopy, were looking increasingly slim. She wondered if she might fare better in the more cosmopolitan Bavarian capital, Munich, a ninety-minute train ride to the south.
If Rosa showed some reluctance to leave Fürth, it was under standable, for she had lived and worked in the historic city for more than thirty years, and it was the only home she knew. Although her parents, Sara and Gabriel Bechhöfer, had had thirteen children, of whom Rosa was number twelve, she had never basked in the warmth of family life -at least not for long. Her parents both passed away when she was six, and from that age, together with the youngest child, Betty, she had been brought up in Fürth's squalid municipal orphanage.
By the end of February 1935 Rosa had made up her mind to leave Fürth, having secured a job in Munich as a domestic servant with the well-to-do Kreschower family. But scarcely had she settled into her new routine than she was forced to begin looking for another position. Jews who could afford to leave Munich, or bid farewell to Germany itself, were deserting the city, and the Kreschowers had managed to obtain the documentation necessary to emigrate to the USA.
Ironically, Rosa had been working for only eight weeks for her next employers, the Grünbaums, in their well-appointed house in Kaulbachstrasse, when they too packed their bags and left Germany for good. This time, though, Rosa had herself managed to move rapidly. The very next day, i September 1935, she took up her third position, with the Levingers at 6 Rosenstrasse. She prayed, in those unsettling times, that she might at least be more secure in her employment.
But stability was not the lot of Germany's Jews during the 19305. Rosa had been in her new job barely a fortnight when she learned that she was to be stripped of her German citizenship. Nor was she alone in this, for she shared her fate with every single one of Germany's Jews. Over a decade earlier, Hitler had conceived two far-reaching legal instruments, both now unanimously approved at a convention of the Nazi Party in Nuremberg. The Law of the Reich Citizen could hardly have been more explicit. In short, the Jews of Germany were no longer full citizens but mere subjects of the state.
And if, in her quest for a happily married life, Rosa had as much as contemplated wedding a man from outside of her own faith, such a notion was dispelled from her mind by the Law for the Protection of German Blood and German Honour. This legislation, which came into force with the Law of the Reich Citizen, explicitly forbade marriages between Jews and Aryans, as well as extramarital relationships between them. This law in particular reflected a key element in National Socialist thinking: under no circumstances whatever should Jewish blood be allowed to taint Aryans.
Yet Rosa Bechhöfer surely had as good a claim to citizenship as any Aryan in the Fatherland. She could trace her roots back to the middle of the sixteenth century, when her seven-times great-grandfather was born. Not many Germans could point to such a pedigree. Rosa's distant forebear had been born and bred in Bechhofen, some thirty miles southwest of Fürth, and the ancient Bavarian village, with its famous synagogue and medieval cemetery, was where Rosa had spent the first six years of her life.
For centuries the Jews of Bavaria had no family names. Only in 1815 did surnames come to be required by law. Thus it was that, two years before this deadline, a certain Josef Ber, Rosa's great-great-grandfather, set about choosing a name for the family. What could be better than Bechhöfer, he thought, to denote people born and raised in Bechhofen.
Rosa's lineage nevertheless failed to impress the upholders of the Nuremberg Laws. From their perspective, the entire Bechhofer clan could have been resident in the same area since the primeval mists -it made not the slightest difference. Try as they might, they would never be deemed worthy of regaining the status of citizens of the German state. The reason was perfectly simple: the Bechhöfers were, and always would be, Jews. As if this was not enough, in time over a dozen additional decrees would outlaw Rosa and her race completely.
The blood circulating in the veins of Joseph Otto Hald suffered from no such shortcomings. Aryan through and through, it even had a touch of German nobility not so far in the past. For all that, Otto Hald did not boast the piercing blue eyes and blond hair of the Nazis' stereotype Aryan. He was slim, lean and dark-haired, with sparkling brown eyes. Twenty-eight years old and a welder by trade, Otto had been forced to abandon his work to serve in the German army, whose expansionary ambitions were belatedly beginning to sound alarm bells in London and Paris. Otto's heart was not in it, however, and in his case his rank of private reflected a total lack of commitment to the imperial vision of the Führer.
Born near Stuttgart, like Rosa he had travelled to Munich to improve his fortunes. His dream was that one day he would patent and then sell the welding substance he had devised. But the advent of Hitler and the relentless militarization of Germany had thwarted his plans. Unlike Rosa, however, whose lodgings consisted of a single room up an old stone spiral staircase above a chemist's shop, Otto Hald was living in some style. There was money in the family, especially on his mother's side, the von Eiffs. His elegant flat was situated just a stone's throw from that chemist's shop, on the other side of Munich's oldest church, the Peterskirche, built in the twelfth century.
The handsome soldier had deliberately chosen the old part of Munich. In part it was because of the charm conferred on the district by its wealth of fine baroque and rococo architecture. But more importantly, it seemed to Otto that this bustling city was the ideal place to pursue his two great passions: the seduction of women and the consumption of alcohol. A highly eligible bachelor, Otto knew that many women were attracted by his dark good looks and carefree manner. It was an arrangement that suited him well, for their feelings were more often than not reciprocated with great enthusiasm. Otto was, and would remain for the rest of his life, a perfect example of a ladies' man.
As the delegates to the 1935 National Socialist convention at Nuremberg began to disperse from the city, satisfied with the drafting of the Gesetz zum Schutze des Deutschen Blutes und der Deutschen Ehre, the decree which outlawed liaisons of any kind between Jews and 'citizens of German or kindred blood', Rosa Bechhöfer was confronted with a harsh biological fact. She was pregnant. And though she did not yet know it, she was carrying twins. As he was about to find out, the father was Otto Hald, he of the irrefutably German or kindred blood.
Little is known of Rosa and Otto's relationship. It may have been a passionate love affair that they were determined should flourish despite the prevailing intolerance, now sanctioned by law. Or perhaps it was just a one-night stand. Hard facts are in short supply, perhaps because, after all, they were anxious not to fly in the face of Nazi prejudice. Maybe Otto had some connection with the Kreschowers, the Grünbaums or the Levingers, Rosa's employers. Or perhaps Rosa and Otto had simply found themselves sitting next to each other in one of the many bustling beer-houses near where they lived and a casual conversation sparked off the chemistry of mutual desire. But in truth, how these two strangers, whose backgrounds could scarcely have been more different, became involved with each other, remains a mystery.
What is not a matter of speculation, however, is the ominous clarification provided on 14 November 1935 by the first supplementary decree of the Nuremberg Laws. This defined precisely what a Jew was. A Jew was a person with at least one Jewish grandparent. Further legislation was intended to complete the process of segregation, with Jews now forbidden to 'employ in domestic service female subjects of German or kindred blood who are under the age of 45 years'. Before long Jewish passports were being stamped with a yellow 'J' for 'Jude' and Jews were compelled to adopt Jewish names, so as to be more easily identified.
None of this was of much concern to Rosa Bechhöfer, who had never denied her Jewishness. Both her grandparents were Jewish, as had been their grandparents before them, and all of them were strictly orthodox. Admittedly she had yet to acquire a passport upon which some zealous official could then stamp his large golden gothic lettering, but unsurprisingly she was more worried about developments going on inside her own body. Her employers, the Levingers, pledged that, if she wished, she could continue to work for them until the very end of her confinement. They were prepared to stand by her. However, of much greater concern to Rosa was whether Otto would do likewise.
He did not. By the time Rosa was halfway through her pregnancy, in February 1936, Otto had gone. He too knew all about the consequences of flouting the Nuremberg decrees. Jews and Aryans discovered to be in relationships with each other were already being sent to concentration camps. The camp at Dachau, the first to be built in Germany, just five weeks after Hitler had become Chancellor in January 1933, was rather too close for comfort, being only some twelve miles north of Munich. Otto Hald had no intention of joining its growing number of inmates.
Otto's flight from Munich left Rosa in a predicament. Part of her was happy to have at last conceived. For many years she had hoped one day to bear a child of her own, longing to be a mother rather than an aunt. But the circumstances of her pregnancy were hardly what she had had in mind. Naturally she wondered if her large, if somewhat dispersed, family might now break with their past behaviour and show compassion towards her. They did not. The depressing truth was that most of the Bechhöfer siblings who remained in Germany viewed their errant sister's condition with dismay. As soon as they were old enough to understand, the message had been drummed into them that for a man and a woman to produce a child out of wedlock was a violation of Mosaic law. The teachings of the Jewish scriptures had been spurned. And when, inevitably, they discovered that the father was not only a Gentile but a serving member of the army of Adolf Hitler, there was precious little sympathy on offer.
Hermann Bechhöfer, the third born, was particularly disgusted. At long last he was on the point of being granted the various visas he needed to set off to America. It had been a complicated process which had taken up a great deal of time and energy. Might there not be consequences for Hermann and his wife Jenny if the authorities learned that the strict laws concerning racial purity had been so flagrantly violated in his own family?
Among the Bechhöfers, Rosa's pregnancy soon became a taboo subject, something shameful only to be whispered about behind closed doors. For orthodox Jews from Fürth it was nothing less than a blot on the family name, and a potentially dangerous blot at that. Not for the first time in her life, Rosa found herself alone.
Or almost alone. Only her sister, Frieda Behr, in whose shoe shop Rosa had worked before leaving Fürth, showed genuine concern. A married woman without children, Frieda decided that the most practical help she could give her younger sister was financial. And she was right, for Rosa's meagre wage as a domestic servant barely covered her living expenses. Even though Rosa had not made contact with Munich's Jewish community since arriving there, Frieda suggested that she should consider giving birth in the city's Jewish hospital, a private, fee-paying institution -Frieda would meet all the costs. Rosa gratefully accepted.
Sensing that the twins might arrive prematurely, Rosa decided on a course of action that she hoped would herald a new beginning. Her employers, the Levingers, were in the process of applying to emigrate to the USA. Seeing the writing on the wall, Rosa's brother Isaak had done the same within a year of Hitler's accession to power in 1933. Now Rosa decided to follow their example. With the Levingers' permission she dashed around Munich, from one office to another, in an urgent attempt to gather together all the papers she needed before the twins arrived.
Rosa was well aware that her chances of success would be much better if Isaak and his wife Martha, now both American citizens, would swear an affidavit endorsing her application. She also knew that the USA, only just emerging from the Depression, could ill afford to receive refugees destined to become a burden on the economy, however deserving their case. Rosa wrote letters to her family in New York pleading for an affidavit. Isaak Bechhöfer contacted his cousin, Julius Selling, the only well-to-do member of the family in the USA. Selling promised he would 'do something'. But, despite several visits by Isaak and his daughter Senta, Julius Selling never kept his promise. Isaak was in no position to provide an affidavit: he lacked the necessary assets.
Whether an affidavit would have smoothed the way for Rosa is a matter of conjecture. To obtain a visa to enter the USA a person needed to be registered at the US Consulate in Stuttgart and receive a 'quota number'. Unfortunately, many people's numbers were never reached before they were deported by the Nazis. There is no knowledge of Rosa's quota number. Had it been a low one, and had Julius Selling sent an affidavit, she and her children might have been given the coveted visa.