Nick and his wife Sarah are among the founder members of SAMS and have lived in St Albans for more than forty years. Nick was SAMS’ first Treasurer and has held other positions, including Chairman and Head of Security, continuing a family tradition of service to the community. He speaks about SAMS’ beginnings and learning about his family’s history from an unexpected source:
My first job after graduation was in Stevenage, and Sarah was living in Kenton. St Albans was roughly halfway between the two, so when we got married we moved to St Albans and joined the United Synagogue, a small community, where we were members for around twelve years. We felt there was potential to grow the synagogue – during the Second World War the Jewish community had expanded to the extent that there was a kosher butcher near what is now the Odyssey cinema – and, together with Jackie and Stephen Gess and Andrea and Martin Strauss, we put a lot of energy into the synagogue. There were many instances of frustration with the United Synagogue, and eventually we decided to establish a community of our own, a Masorti synagogue. Twenty-five years later we’ve got our own building and an increasing membership.
My parents were born in Germany and met when my father worked as an interpreter for the British Army, stationed near Liverpool, where my mother was also living at the time. Until recently I knew very little about our family history. I knew that my mother and her two sisters got out of Germany on a kindertransport and that my mother, who was around fourteen at the time, was given responsibility for her sisters, probably aged ten and eight. They also had a brother who died at Auschwitz. I knew my maternal grandmother died of ill health and that my grandfather had gone to a concentration camp. But my mother and her sisters never talked about any of the details. Like so many people who’ve been through the war, and through the Nazi regime, they want to blacken out what happened at that time. They just don’t want to talk about it.
In 2015 I received an email from an American cousin saying there was an initiative to install some stolpersteine outside my maternal grandparents’ house in Frohburg, Germany. Stolpersteine are brass plates installed in place of paving stones to commemorate victims of the Holocaust. Each one is engraved with the name of the person who died, where they lived and which concentration camp they went to. My cousin’s father had corresponded with an 85-year-old non-Jewish man named Karl-Heinz Zschunke from Frohburg who had worked, along with his father, in the fabric-dyeing factory owned by my grandfather and his brothers, who were very good to them. Karl-Heinz wanted the family to be remembered for that and for their generosity to the community, how they brought jobs and wealth to Frohburg. Sarah and I, together with our children, represented the whole family at the unveiling event where we met Herr Zschunke, who very proudly showed me a book that my grandfather had given him about different types of weaves. It was very good for our children to know their heritage.
Students from the local high school gave us a presentation about our family, which they’d researched as a summer project. It was very strange: I had known nothing about the students or their village, and yet they were telling me about my history. I was flabbergasted that there was so much interest and respect for the family. There was quite a good turnout from local people. They were so very hospitable.
After the stones were laid, the mayor walked us around the village to the lovely outdoor swimming pool, which my grandfather and his brothers sponsored for local people in the 1930s. There’s a display board showing newspaper cuttings from 1935 when the pool was built and a plaque in memory of my grandparents. My grandparents, mother and aunts went to the pool’s opening ceremony, but since Jews were prohibited from using public facilities, they weren’t allowed to use the pool they had paid for. So it’s understandable that my mother and aunts had bitter memories of the town.
After Frohburg we were taken to Leipzig to see my maternal grandmother’s grave and learned that she died as a result of a blood clot. Being Jewish under the Nazi regime, she wasn’t allowed any medication or help from doctors. I suppose that’s better than dying in a concentration camp like my grandfather, who perished at Auschwitz – if you were healthy you were sent to the camp, and if you weren’t healthy you died of natural causes.
Sadly, the stolpersteine were desecrated soon after they were laid; someone had tried to eradicate the names with a chisel. The local community was extremely upset and funded the stolpersteine replacement. In May I returned to Frohburg to watch the new memorials being placed.
Interview and story by Caroline Pearce
Interview date 11 August 2015