Racism | Jenny Hartland 

Jenny in 2010 

Erwin and brother Franz

Erwin in 1944

Wedding photo of Erwin and Doreen ('Tig') 1945

 

I am a pretty typical middle class, educated, white English woman.  Like many others who fit that description, I have a mongrel background and could, because of three of my grandparents, claim citizenship of the Republic of Ireland and/or Israel. Unsurprisingly, I cannot claim to have suffered racial prejudice anywhere in Europe, but I can claim to have suffered FROM it.

 My Father was a German Jewish refugee, sent as a thirteen year-old, by his forward thinking parents, to England in 1933 - very early compared with many of his generation. I suspect that the fact that the family lived straight across the street from the headquarters of the Gauleiter of Frankfurt, may have contributed to their forebodings about the future. My father tells me that he watched Hitler, Himmler, Goebbels and all the top brass of the Nazi Party going in and out of that building.

 My father will talk about the factual details of his childhood in Germany, and the remarkably happy experience he had of his later life in England, where, under the guardianship of a devoted great aunt, he attended boarding school, and then went into the British army. What he avoids describing are the characters of his parents, his relationship with them and what, if anything, it meant to his family to be part of the Jewish community of Frankfurt.

As a child, I probably learnt more about my Father's background from my English mother, than I ever did from him. And, despite my mother's best efforts, the effect of my Father's silence and his brilliantly practiced act as the perfect English gentleman, was to make me feel that it was all a guilty secret.

 That silence hides trauma and grief: the guilt of the survivor, who was unable to save his own parents from murder in a concentration camp. But I suspect that it also betrays a touch of racist indoctrination: the insidious belief by the persecuted race that it really is inferior, and deserves to be seen as a lesser form of being.

 My inheritance was some of that shame and guilt. It took me about 40 years to be able to talk about my ancestry without getting a tightness in my throat and a feeling that I was betraying my family. I am now free of those anxieties, and am as proud as anyone should be of their cultural history. But I am also only too aware of what racism is capable of doing at a very deep psychological level.