Sylvia has been a SAMS member since its early days. Here she talks about growing up in north London, her parents’ roots and memories of her grandfather, Otto Frank:
When Gil and I moved to Harpenden in 1993, we were expecting a child and looking for a synagogue. We found SAMS and it was like a big family: everybody knew each other and it felt very homely, family oriented and inclusive, and that’s what we liked. We’ve seen SAMS develop into a flourishing community. Both our daughters had their b’not mitzvah at SAMS.
I was born in Zurich when my father worked there, and moved to Edgware, a very Jewish area, when I was young. On the face of it my childhood was an ordinary north London Jewish childhood. We belonged to Edgware Reform shul. We weren’t very religious, but I went to a Jewish kindergarten and to Cheder every Sunday. I always knew there was something different about me and my family but couldn’t quite put my finger on it. My mum was born in Vienna and had a very strong accent, which in those days wasn’t so common, and sometimes I felt embarrassed about it. None of my friends’ parents, even my Jewish friends, had accents – they were all very English and had been here for several generations. Nowadays society is much more multicultural. When people asked Mum where she was from, she’d never say Austria, she’d say Holland. She wanted nothing to do with Austria and identified with the Dutch. She went back to Amsterdam after Auschwitz.
Mum struggled to start her life again after the war at which point my grandma, her mother Fritzi, had re-met Otto Frank. The two families knew each other before the war and had hidden in the same street. Otto suggested that Mum should go to London to follow her interest in photography. She was about eighteen, very shy and anxious after everything she’d been through, but she needed to try and make a go of it so she came over and got a job.
My dad was born in Ingolstadt near Munich. He lost his accent more than Mum and his English was better. Before the war, when Dad was a teenager, he and his family managed to get out of Germany. His father was in Dachau, but my grandmother sent letters and persuaded them to let him go. They went to Palestine before it became Israel, so they were lucky, but it was difficult, there was poverty. My parents met when Dad was working and studying in London. It wasn’t supposed to be a permanent move, but he and Mum were staying at a guest house for young Jewish immigrants in Cricklewood and they got to know each other and eventually got married. Otto Frank was originally from Frankfurt. He had lost everybody in his immediate family during the war, his wife Edith and daughters Margot and Anne, so it helped him a lot to have Fritzi and my mother as a new family. They understood exactly what he had gone through. Once my parents got married, Grandma felt it was OK for her to do so because now Mum had someone to look after her.
I really looked up to Otto. Basically he was my grandpa. Every year we spent holidays with him and Grandma in Basel, Switzerland; we’d go to the mountains and ski, sometimes staying in a chalet or a hotel. I loved his New Year’s Eve party bingo nights. He’d invite all the children in the hotel and there were prizes and I was so proud that my grandpa organised all this. He was very charismatic. He taught me to ride a bike when I was seven or eight. Staying at my grandparents’ place in Basel was hard, and I dreaded that part of the trip. Their home was full of pictures and books, a bit like a museum to the past. It was very scary when I was young. Sometimes I had nightmares. At times Otto talked to me about Anne. I liked writing and he said it was important to write a diary.
Mum often felt that her brother, Heinz, who died in Auschwitz, was not remembered in the same way as Anne. The message in her book, The Promise, came from their father who promised Heinz that everything he did left something behind. On the train to Auschwitz Heinz told Mum where he had hidden his paintings, some of which were done in hiding. After the war she went back and found them, and has since organised exhibitions. My daughter, Sophie, illustrated The Promise. And that’s the whole point: there’s a chain linking the generations together. Nothing is lost.
Interview and story by Caroline Pearce
Interview date 13 October 2015