From New Zealand to Prague through a burned letter
Helene Ritchie spent many years as a politician in her home city of Wellington, New Zealand. She has just written a book telling the moving story of her search for her family’s past. In 1945, Helene’s mother Lidi Hess, received a letter from a relative in Prague. It included a long list of names of members of the family who had been murdered in the Nazi death camps. Faced with the unimaginable scale of the tragedy, Lidi burned the letter, and went on with her life in her new country. It was only many decades later that she told her daughter how she regretted destroying it. This inspired Helene to try to piece together her family’s history, to find out who all these family members had been.
“I’m from New Zealand, where my parents fled to as refugees. We were a little refugee family. My mother came from Liberec in the north of Czechoslovakia, which was called Reichenberg, the German name, at the time. They fled to Prague, and she lived there with her mother and her brother at the time.”
And they fled to Prague after the Munich Agreement, when Hitler annexed the Czechoslovak border regions in 1938.
“In 1938. And she had eighteen months in Prague.”
And so, being Jewish, your mother and her family were in immediate danger.
“They were in immediate danger, but my mother actually didn’t want to leave Prague. She felt that she was forced to leave by her mother.”
Did she have no idea of the danger she was in?
“Well, it was interesting. I’ve written this book seventy or eighty years later. Of course, we know what happened. It was very hard to know then, although by 1940, when they left, certainly my grandmother was absolutely insistent. But her family thought she was crazy, and they all stayed behind and were murdered.”
They perished in the concentration camps.
“They did. So my mother arrived in New Zealand in 1940. She had left her home as an eighteen-year-old, as a teenager. She had had her first job in Prague, her first boyfriend. Her job was a kind of nursing/kindergarten combination – and she had a little boy, whom she had as good as adopted as her son. She had to leave him. Of course, when she arrived in New Zealand, it was a very different place from Prague, particularly the town they lived in.”
And this was your mother and your mother’s mother [Helene’s grandfather had died in Liberec in 1923]. Your mother’s brother joined them later, didn’t he?
“Their surname was Fantl, and he, Bobby Fantl, was put on a Kindertransport [organised by Nicholas Winton to save Jewish children] by his mother. So he left Prague in June 1939. He went to England, and only arrived in New Zealand months later. My parents both struggled. My father, Hans Hess, was a lawyer. He had studied at the Charles University in Prague, and of course he couldn’t practise Czech law in New Zealand.”
And your parents hadn’t known each other in Prague. They met as refugees once they were in New Zealand. How did your father get out?
“He got out on 28 March 1939. He was lucky enough to get out on the coat tails of his half-sister. Her husband was an architect and his profession was wanted in New Zealand, whereas my father couldn’t practise his profession. He was unemployed for a very long time. My mother was really the breadwinner.
“And then I arrived, and I probably wasn’t the easiest baby anyway. It was in the year that the camps were liberated, and that was the year that my mother also received all sorts of dreadful news through a letter. So my book is called ‘The Burned Letter – a New Zealander’s Holocaust Mystery’. That letter told her what happened to some of the family.”
The Burned Letter
And the year you are talking about is 1945. The war was over, but this was also when people realised the full truth of what had happened in the camps.
“It must have been a terrible year for her, and yet it was the year I was born. She burned that letter. She burned the letter because she thought that by turning it to ashes, she would get rid of the pain and the trauma, and the guilt which came afterwards of having survived. Of course, that didn’t work.
“The trauma remained. She would say later on, ‘Every day I’m in Auschwitz.’ She never was in Auschwitz. She would also say, ‘I still cry.’ That lasted her whole life. What she said repeatedly was, ‘All those relations just perished.’
“At aged 92, just before she died, she said she regretted burning the letter. I didn’t know who all those relations were, and ‘just perished’ was a very strange expression. It was as if they had disappeared in a puff of smoke, which actually is what happened. So I set about trying to find out more. This was in 2016 and 2017. I worked very intensively – I said ‘no’ to everybody, put my head down and researched,
“But actually, the Holocaust was always part of my life – in the background, always there. When I was a young child, there wasn’t a lot of information – for a variety of reasons. People didn’t give testimony, but also in Poland and Czechoslovakia and other places where the camps were and where my parents had come from, there was communism, so there was repression of information. At the same time, my mother and my father didn’t really talk about the Holocaust. My mother particularly talked about how she loved her hometown – her home country, which she saw as Liberec/Reichenberg and the north of Czechoslovakia, and whenever she talked about life, it was here in the Czech Republic, or Czechoslovakia, as it was.”
On being different
It must have been a huge gap in your life, knowing that your parents had this world and at the same time not being able to connect with it.
“I was born in New Zealand and I identify as a New Zealander. The gap was the fact that I had no family. I had no extended family. I had nobody beyond my grandmother. So I didn’t know anything about who I was – in a way – or what my background was. My parents spoke German to each other [Reichenberg had been mainly German-speaking]. They didn’t speak German to us because straight after the war there were no foreign languages in New Zealand. There were very few ‘foreigners’, as we were called, and they made a decision not to speak German to us. But they spoke German at home.”
One of the points I love in the book is where you talk about how your family was a bit different because of the bread you ate.
“Yes, my mother just couldn’t understand the bread that people ate in New Zealand, which was very thin sliced, mostly with the crust taken off, and white. Also, the cheeses. There was one cheese, and she called it soap, because to her it was like soap – and it really does taste like soap.
“There were a few of us who were the children of refugees, the second generation, not many, and whenever they’re interviewed, they all talk about how they felt different because of the bread they took to school. The bread we took was black or dark brown, and often there were different cheeses. And then my mother specialised. She was actually quite a trailblazer in various ways. She also founded a health food company called Vitalia Health Food. She had a bakery. She made a variety of kinds of bread, a variety of cheeses, sixty health food products, sold nationwide – for fifty years! She was very successful in that regard. Never cared about money, she just loved working, eighteen hours a day.”
Another aspect of your family’s life in New Zealand is the remarkable way that your mother happened to end up in New Zealand during the war. It started, once again, with a letter.
“My mother had a cousin, who lived in Bayreuth in Germany, and she fled to Prague. She applied for visas all over the world. I think she opened an atlas and just put pins in various places. She got a visa to America, and then she got a letter from a New Zealand man. The letter was a kind of invitation to help refugees – to help her, Hilde Marx, get to New Zealand. Well, she already had a visa, so she didn’t need a second visa. She showed this letter to my mother and said, ‘Do you want to go to New Zealand?’ And my mother said, ‘No!’ But she agreed to show it to her mother.
“What had happened was that Hilde had written to the mayor of a very small town in New Zealand – a very provincial, very conservative and very Christian town, called Masterton. She had written to the mayor of Masterton, and he said he could not help, but he could put a letter into the local newspaper. The letter was headed in what seems to me a very strange way. It said:
‘Appeal by Jewess. German woman’s letter to mayor. Home desired in New Zealand. Conditions hopeless in Europe.’
“And then one upstanding man saw this appeal in the newspaper. He was an accountant, Mr Keith, a pillar of society in this very conservative town – and he ended up getting into a lot of trouble because of what he did. There is a photo of him in the book, sitting in front of his little wooden house. He decided he was going to help three people from the other side of the world, Jewish refugees, to get visas. And he really fought. He contacted Members of Parliament, he went to Wellington, the capital, and he argued with the people, the controllers there, who said, ‘No, we can’t do that. Look, there are thousands of people who want visas. Just look at the shelves.’ He just kept going.
“And how I discovered all this is that I met the grandson of Mr Keith. Completely by chance we emailed, and he started talking about my mother, but more particularly, about my grandmother and about Hilde Marx, the cousin. He had gone to see my uncle, Bob Fantl, who by then was quite elderly – this is only about ten years ago – and they had talked about my family [Bob died in 2016]. He knew much more about my family and about how they got out of Czechoslovakia to New Zealand than I did. It transpired that he had a folder of letters, a three-way correspondence between Hilde Marx, his grandfather and my grandmother, which was the story of how he got visas for them to enter New Zealand. If it had not been for that man, I would not be talking to you now.”
In your book there are lots of episodes where we see the good nature of people, but at the same time there is an undercurrent of great wickedness. When I was reading the book, I gave up counting the number of relatives of yours on both sides who were murdered during the Second World War.
“Hundreds. And when I looked at my father’s family, it was very clear that he had had a vast extended family. Most of them did not survive. I think I could count over two hundred.
A Central European Jewish family
Your book is quite long, and it didn’t take me long to realise why. You went to the trouble of trying to find out about everyone, or about as many of your relatives as possible. I found it very moving, how you researched and travelled, and gradually put the pieces together, bringing these names back to life – names of people most of whom perished and most of whom would otherwise be forgotten.
“It was very interesting for me. You know, you get to the end of the book and you’re in a different place. These people, who even now would not be alive, had they been able to live full lives, they came alive for me. It was really quite interesting. I now know who they were. I think it is really important that we recognise that these were people. They were not just numbers, they were not just six million who were given numbers. They were people with lives, who deserved to live full lives. They had families, they had children, and so on.”
And on both sides your family was very interesting. You had relatives, scattered across different parts of Central Europe – what is now the Czech Republic, Poland, Germany, Austria, Slovakia – and you mapped all their stories. To talk about the whole family would take several hours, but tell us about some of the family and the detective work that you did about them. They all seem to have made an impact in the places where they lived.
“Yes, they did. My grandmother adapted to New Zealand, but I don’t know how, because she came from a very wealthy family. As I understand it, she also trained as a musician, she started doing some kind of medical studies, I believe. That was in Reichenberg [Liberec], where she lived, in the north of Czechoslovakia.
"Part of the family was from Poland, from the town of Tomaszów Mazowiecki, south-west of Warsaw. As somebody wrote, when I visited for the first time, in other circumstances I would have been a textile tycoon! Well, maybe. The family there were very wealthy, they had a very large factory, which I discovered was still functioning, and they had a very large estate. All was stolen by the Nazis – and then communism, and then they privatised it in the end, and then it went bust, just ten or twelve years ago.”
So the family never got anything back.
“No, nothing. Not at all. When I first went there, there was absolutely no evidence that there had ever been a Jewish population there. Nothing.”
Even though they had made up a third of the town’s population.
“Absolutely nothing. And I had an interesting experience with the mayor. I visited the mayor in 2012, a long time after my first visit. We talked, and he gave me the trinkets and the calendar – the kind of things that mayors give people. And I said proudly, as I would have said in New Zealand, ‘I’m the great-granddaughter of Dawid Bornstein.’ After that there was complete silence. You could cut the air. And we left.
“So yes, there are still quite a lot of challenges, I think, in accepting and understanding what happened in the Holocaust, what could happen again. I felt I had a duty to tell the story and to find out what the story was, because who else was going to do it? There were many things, but I suppose my angle was that this should never happen again. We have to be vigilant. We have to understand what happened, we should not sensationalise the Holocaust, we should not sensitise it or glamorise it. We should tell it. A big part of what I have written is a cautionary tale. It could happen again. We have a rise in anti-Semitism, racism and authoritarian governments at the moment, and we must be vigilant. That’s also partly why I was also involved in politics, pursuing social and environmental justice as much as one person can.”
You talked about you mother all her life carrying the Holocaust within her, even though she herself had got out in time. Has your work, doing all this research, finding out about your family, made the tragic story of your family also part of you?
“That’s a very interesting question, and it’s very interesting for me now, having launched the book, to talk about it. For example, just yesterday and the day before, I talked with a person who had discovered me four years ago on the internet, who happens to be a second cousin and lives in Prague. She came with her granddaughter – her granddaughter came to translate for her – because she doesn’t speak English very well and I speak no Czech. So this lovely young woman translated, and then it transpired from this conversation that she had never heard this story before, the story of her mother’s family, what happened to her mother’s mother and grandmother. Her grandmother, who was with her, had actually told her mother – in writing – the whole story, but the mother decided not to involve her daughter in it at all. As a seventeen-year-old, she knew nothing.
“That doesn’t surprise me. Different people today, in the Czech Republic, in New Zealand, wherever, cope with the fact that the Holocaust was a big part of their families’ lives in different ways. One part of the family, for example, converted to Catholicism – the children went to Catholic schools, and so on. Another part of the family – and I know that there are sensitivities – changed their name and disappeared. We didn’t find them again until ten or fifteen years ago.
“New Zealand is different, of course, from the Czech Republic – a different experience, and so on, and I’ve had a very fortunate life. I’ve had a very free life in New Zealand in lots of ways. I’ve been able to pursue what I thought was important. That’s a real privilege, given the history of what has happened to the Jewish population – and the restrictions, particularly around the Holocaust, but also even before, restricting the Jewish population from work, and so on. So, in New Zealand I didn’t need to say or express that I was Jewish – there was no need to. I just got on with life. I married a Scottish-English lovely man who unfortunately died very young, and we lived a really lovely life. I was on the council, I worked as a psychologist, as well. We lived in the country, but very close to town, we really loved living there together as a family. My kids are now grown up – lots of outdoors, doing the occasional work!”
And have your children and grandchildren taken an interest in your work?
“That’s a very good question. I have a grandson who’s a lot older than the others. I was quite young when he was born. And he has recently read a lot about the Holocaust. In the writing of this book, I’ve talked about it much more with the children, and particularly the younger children – the grandchildren. That is also something that seems to be happening, that the third generation – we talk about ourselves as the second generation, the children of the refugees and survivors – the third and fourth generation, with some distance, I think, see this as interesting and something that they want to know about. So this young woman here in Prague, whom I just talked about, she was absolutely fascinated. Her grandmother wrote me an email just now, saying, ‘Now we’re talking, we’re talking all the time’ – she and her granddaughter. I didn’t intend that, but I think it’s a major achievement. As for my sons – one son came with me to Auschwitz. We were the last people there, we went on a tour, and he didn’t want to leave. The other son, I’m not sure yet what he thinks. You know, it’s just their mother! They don’t need to say anything about what she does!” [Helene laughs]
And you are going to read us a poem that reflects how you have thought about these things.
“In the course of the book I have written poems. Some poems I wrote right at the beginning to set the scene – a prologue called ‘Burned’ in which I reflect on the word. When I left Auschwitz, I wrote poems about my experience there. This I wrote right at the end. So, if I could just say two things. First of all: I didn’t intend this book to be about my mother. When I got to the end, I realised I’d written about my mother. It couldn’t have been otherwise, because it was mostly her relatives. It isn’t about me either, but it kind of is. And that’s what this poem is.
That black hole in my stomach
For me, through my life, there was a different grief, more of an absence, a black hole, a silence.
I just had to know – if I could – who they had been, what happened and where.
I found out.
I survived the fractured family I came from, a family fractured in many ways.
Now, that black hole in my stomach has gone.
There is some internal peace in just knowing who ‘all those relations’ were and what happened to them. They somehow have come ‘alive’.
The family story was shocking and sad.
But I had lived with it all my life.
It had made me some of who I am.
It was part of me,
A secret part of me,
A partly secret part of me,
A sometimes secret part of me,
An always sometimes secret part of me.
A not-so-secret part of me.
Part of me?
Part of me.
“Perhaps I’ll just add – I questioned myself throughout. Should I be telling this story? There are funny bits too, but it’s such a tragic story. Do I really want to do this? And I put it down many times because it was too hard – too hard to motivate myself, but also the story was too hard. And the answer to the question that I put to myself was that if people could tell their testimonies about their terrible personal experiences, then I could do this.”
The Burned Letter, by Helene Ritchie, is available through Aotearoa Books in New Zealand.