Liesel Carter completes her journey | Janet Howley, November 2012
My mother, Liesel Carter came to England in 1940. Her story is quite remarkable. The daughter of a reasonably wealthy German Jewish family in Hildesheim, she was born in August 1935. Her Father, David Meier, had fought for the German army in WWI and had been decorated. They were an ordinary Jewish family.
In March 1937, David Meier was beaten up and died of his injuries by Nazi thugs. This was our information. Liesel never knew him and the family never spoke of what had happened. This is not the story of how she escaped from Germany, alone at the age of 4, to come to England albeit that this is remarkable in itself. This should be reported on separately. Nor is this about how lucky she was to escape the Nazis - being only 1 of 6 of the original 250 family members who survived extermination. This is about the completion of her journey and what we all have found out.
My mother came to England and made a good life for herself, marrying and having 3 children. She possesses only 7 family photographs and none of the previous family wealth. She also has very little family history. What she does have is a photograph of her father and a picture of his grave - these are her only memories of him.
For many years, she tried to locate his grave but had no success. This year, a final try to find the grave was made - a last ditch attempt for Liesel, who is now 77, to be able to visit and pay her respects.
Many letters and e mails were sent. No replies. A chance conversation with the Leeds Holocaust Survivors Friendship Association Chair Lilian Black resulted in a successful result. The Mayor's office in Hildesheim made contact and found the grave. Liesel was invited as a guest of the Mayor to visit Hildesheim and be a guest at the Kristallnacht commemoration on 9 November. Liesel travelled with me and my sister plus 2 of her grand-daughters. We did not know what we would find, and to say that my mother was nervous was an understatement.
On Thursday 8 November, Liesel was taken to the cemetery where her father is buried. His grave is clean, maintained and in good condition. Liesel brought stones from her Mother's grave in London which were placed on David Meier's grave. Stones were taken from his plot to return to London and reunite her parents. She said Yizkor and a Yahrzeit candle was lit. The moment was emotional.
Whilst there we found out that David's story is not what we thought at all. David Meier was a proud man and something of a "fire-brand". He stood up to the Nazi changes with all his strength. He did not see himself as merely Jewish - he was proudly German. In March 1937, he was set upon by four SD thugs and beaten. We believe he fought back. David ran into the bank. The Bank Manager sheltered him. It was suggested that as he was a Jew, he should leave the bank by the back door. "I have been a good customer of this bank for many years. I am German and will leave by the front door". He left. The four thugs were waiting and the beating continued. David finally got away and went home.
Three days later, he was summoned to a basement hearing at the local Gestapo on a charge of affray. He disappeared and nobody knew where he was. A few days later, the family found out that he had been taken to Buchenwald. He never returned. What happened? Nobody really knows - speculation is that he refused to sign a confession and was either beaten to death or regularly beaten until he died. The ultimate injustice was that he was cremated and his Widow had to pay to repatriate his ashes for burial. This is why he is the first victim of the Holocaust. His exact death date is not known which is why the Hebrew date is not shown on his headstone.
We also found out that from an initial population of more than 10,000 in 1939 from a total of approximately 72,000, that only 5 Jewish people lived in Hildesheim post 1945. Today, the city boasts a "thriving" community of 100 out of a population of more than 103,000, and the last burial was in 1987.
However, there is a strong student group called Beth Shalom - these students are not Jewish but visit the cemetery every Wednesday and tend the graves. The local schools openly study the atrocities of the Holocaust in their history lessons as a lesson that it must never happen again. There is no hiding from history or responsibility here.
We were invited to meet with the Beth Shalom group on the anniversary of Kristallnacht (Friday 9th November). What we found was a group of about 125 students waiting to meet Liesel. Their annual commemoration told the story of David Meier and his death - this year's commemoration was memorable for them as well as us and the students were enthusiastic to meet her.
The students were told of the Holocaust and a prayer was said at David Meier's grave side in tribute to this first victim. They asked Liesel to speak to the students and she thanked them for their dedication to maintaining the cemetery. She said she had worried that her Father had been all alone and it comforted her to know that he had visitors every Wednesday.
We then continued to a meeting with the Mayor to discuss our findings. We had visited the Street where Liesel was born and where the shop had been. Over 80% of Hildesheim was bombed and destroyed. Perhaps, quite fittingly, this part of the city was untouched. Landmarks have changed and she could not find her former home. She also had no memories and nothing felt "familiar" whilst we walked and talked.
However, the Mayor's office, armed with information from us, is now looking into this so we may yet get a final answer. From there, we moved to the formal commemoration service.
This is held annually in the ruins of the Synagogue. On Kristallnacht in 1938, the Rabbi was forced to open the Synagogue but prevented from going in. Fires were set and it burned to the ground that night. As a memorial to the Holocaust Victims, the outer boundary has been re-laid and a large carved stone cube placed in the centre. It shows images of historical Jewish persecution, Jewish history and the Holocaust.
At the event the Mayor gave a speech before Liesel told her story. Again, about 200 people attended. Wreaths were laid and Kaddish was said for the persecuted victims. The commemoration event is supported by all faiths who take an active part and there is no attempt to hide or justify what happened.
Did Liesel enjoy the visit to Hildesheim? Difficult to say. Everyone we met was very helpful, polite and friendly and we definitely got answers to the questions we had. However, the memories and fears are very close to the surface. Whilst we were visiting, there was a demonstration being set up in the market square. One protestor was holding a rolled up flag. The colours on it were red, white and black. In an instant, my mother was a 4 year old frightened child once again and had to be taken away. We later found out that the demonstration was actually for a Kurdish dissident. However, the deep childhood memories emerged very strongly. My mother said she felt quite uneasy during her visit and has commented on feeling scared that "they are coming to take me", even though nothing happened or was said that would have caused this feeling. When asked how she felt to have come home to Hildesheim, she replied "I am glad to be here but this is not my home. My home is England and I will be glad to return to it". Perhaps this is the measure of her story, but at least she has found some level of peace and completed her journey.