12. April 18, 2023
Holocaust Remembrance Day. Lion's nephew, Edgar Feuchtwanger's childhood as Hitler's neighbor and escape from Nazi Germany.
This is a photo of Edgar Feuchtwanger with then prince, now King Charles III appointing him Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) at 97 years old in the 2021 New Year Honours for services to Anglo-German understanding and history.
I spent the whole day yesterday in Holocaust remembrance without knowing it was Holocaust Remembrance Day (Yom HaShoah) until my friend Pamela Green posted about it. Pamela directed a documentary about Alice Guy Blaché (1873-1968) the world’s first female film director and producer for whom France is issuing its first effigy stamp on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of her birth in July. “Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité," the inspiration France has given democracies around the world, is what President Macron is not valuing highly enough, but I will return to the E.U. via Timothy Snyder’s “Making of Modern Ukraine” with its implications for Taiwan soon. I have one more post on WW2 after this one and it will focus on the Pacific War.
In February of 2017, I filmed an interview with Lion Feuchtwanger’s nephew, Edgar, in London, with his son Adrian Feuchtwanger present, at the home of his daughter, Antonia Cox, with whom I communicated yesterday. At age 99 this year, Edgar is less than one year younger than Henry Kissinger who will turn 100 next month. While Kissinger and his family fled Germany in 1938, Edgar escaped two months ahead of his parents, arriving in England in February 1939 when he was fourteen years old. Edgar Feuchtwanger and Henry Kissinger were the same age when they left Nazi Germany. And yet, in character and work they could not possibly be more different.
In 2013, at 89 years old, Edgar’s autobiography, co-authored with French journalist Bertil Scali, describing his childhood brushes with Hitler entitled “Hitler, Mon Voisin: Souvenirs d'un Enfant Juif,” was published. The English translation, “Hitler, My Neighbor, Memories of a Jewish Childhood, 1929-1939” came out in 2017, the year we met. Edgar’s other books include “From Weimar to Hitler: Germany 1918-33,” “Disraeli,” “Imperial Germany 1850-1918,” and “Bismarck.” He was a history professor at the University of Southampton for three decades until he retired in 1989. He received the Order of Merit from Germany in 2003, on January 30th, exactly 70 years to the date on which Hitler came to power.
Edgar’s father, Ludwig Feuchtwanger, (the second eldest son after Lion), was in and out of Dachau concentration camp. Their cousin Ingrid, who was stuck in Germany until 1941, had to wear the yellow star. And Edgar’s aunt, Lion’s sister, Bella, died in a concentration camp in Terezin, Theresienstadt.
When I asked Edgar about Bella, he said, “She was with me in Berlin in 1937. And she was a very jolly woman, you know. I liked her very much. She was a journalist. She made a marriage, a sort of pseudo-marriage, which gave her Czech nationality. And she could, of course, then move freely in and out of Germany, which she did. And this being able to get backwards and forwards gave her a false sense of security. And she was caught in Czechoslovakia, or in Czech Republic, when it was taken over by the Germans. And sent to this concentration camp, Theresienstadt, Terezin it’s called, which wasn’t exactly like Auschwitz, but not far off it, and there she died. And the Swiss, you know, got all that quite wrong. They sent, I think, a Red Cross delegation, didn’t they? To Terezin, to see, but they couldn’t get just how bad it was.”
I asked Edgar to tell me more about his childhood in Nazi Germany, his escape and his thoughts on what it all means for the future. The following are excerpts:
“My father Ludgwig became, at the age of 28, I think quite young, the director of this publishing house, Duncker & Humblot, which was a very prestigious publishing house. He was a protégé of a man called Gustav von Schmoller, who wanted to develop a social policy of Bismarck. It was called the Association of Social Policy, of which he was the head and he put my father into this publishing house. So he was really quite an important local at a very young age when Lion was still wandering around the world, not knowing what he was going to do next.”
“But unlike Lion, the sort of mistake that people like my father made was that he couldn’t really believe that it would go like this with Hitler’s rise in Germany so he didn’t do the right thing. He should have got out much sooner. As a publisher and a newspaper editor--he was just in denial about Hitler. I think they thought it would be a passing phase, something that would go away. When you’re in the middle of it you can’t make sense of it sometimes. That somebody like Hitler could turn everything upside down so quickly seemed almost impossible to imagine. Many Germans thought that Hitler and the Nazis were a joke, a hot flash of sorts who would eventually go away. They thought nothing would come of it all because the Germans are a "good people".”
“After the Night of the Broken Glass (Kristallnacht) in 1938, my father was sent to Dachau. November, 1938. And this was of course very traumatic for us. He was taken away, one didn’t know would one ever see him again? His library was taken away. His very upmarket, valuable library was put in great boxes and taken away. And it was a very traumatic moment for us. And my, I remember my, they called it “sicherstellen” which was the German word for “making secure.” They were stealing it, but that’s what they called it. And I remember my mother saying to one of them, do you also have to “sicherstellen” this thing? You know, they were still stealing. My mother had the courage to basically tell them they were stealing.”
“My mother was moving heaven and earth to try to get my father out of Dachau. And I mean, she used Karl Schmidt again. But she couldn’t really do anything, and in the end, of course they were released, anyhow. He returned after 6 weeks in very bad shape, of course. Because he had had a very big operation the year before in 1937 for a stomach ulcer. When he did come back just before Christmas 1938, he was in very bad shape. He had to go to bed immediately and so on. So it was a time of very great anxiety. And the way Dachau was, if you fell over, someone would just kick you out of the way and finish you off. And so you had somehow to keep standing in the freezing cold and all that sort of thing. And, of course, what we have recently found, what my son has found, is the postcards he was allowed to write from Dachau which are also quite interesting documents. But he somehow kept going. And, of course, the intention of the thing was not to kill the people there, it hadn’t reached that point yet, even in Auschwitz. The intention was to make them leave Germany, basically.”
“For me to be able to leave Germany, I went with my father at first. He accompanied me on the way to…you see, we got this visa, which was called a Capitalist Visa. 1,000 pounds had to be deposited with the British Treasury to enable us as a family to get out. And 1,000 pounds, of course, in 1939 was a lot of money. But, of course we had the relations, including Lion, and the one of whose granddaughter had just been within Israel, who were able to put up this money. And so we got this family visa to Great Britain, but I was sent ahead. The circumstances were a little bit similar to a “kindertransport.” You must have heard of all that. My father went with me on the train as far as the Dutch border. And on the Dutch border SS men came onto the train, examined the passports and they said to my father, “Why aren’t you immigrating?” So, my father said, “I am, I’m preparing it.”
“But then he had to go back to Munich and I crossed over into Holland on my own. And I remember feeling, although I don’t think Reagan had yet coined the phrase, I was leaving an “evil empire.” And I got into Holland, which was the first time I’d been near the sea. Of course it was dark, I couldn’t really see the sea, but could smell it and then I went across and it’d been arranged that I should go to a family in St Mawes in Cornwall. And I was picked up in London. I remember being taken by taxi from whatever it was to Paddington to go to Cornwall, and I thought, “Gosh it’s on the wrong side of the road, the way they’re driving. And so… But that’s how it was.” I then stayed in this place called St Mawes, which is a sort of resort with a doctor in the place, and then with other people there that had all been arranged. And that’s how I came. And then my parents followed two months later.”
“Once I was out, in 1940, I knew about the Charlie Chaplin film The Great Dictator. There was also a New York premier of a version of one of Lion’s novels, Jew Suss. And at that premiere Chaplin and Einstein were together. I don’t think Lion was actually there, but they sent a telegram to Lion, “to the master of it all.” Einstein was there, at the premiere, because he was also related to me on my mother’s side, you know.”
“I suppose one of the things to say about my uncle, Lion Feuchtwanger, is he did have this very clear view of how Nazism would take. I mean, it’s perhaps worth mentioning, but a book that he wrote very quickly in 1934, “The Oppermanns,” which has been shown as a TV series in the US, sold a quarter of a million copies in multiple countries in nine months during 1934. And it told you what it was going be like for the Jews in Germany. I mean, that book “The Oppermanns,” in many ways tells you better what it was like in Germany in 1933 than many history books, I would say.”
“One of the storylines in “The Oppermanns” is about a boy with Nazi teachers who want to force him to write in a particular way about German history. And it’s very powerful, and the boy in the end, kills himself. So, that is a storyline in “The Oppermanns” and just seeing my old school exercise book from when I was an 8 year old, being made to write Nazi propaganda, well, you know, that’s – we’re talking about the same thing. One of the ways that the Nazis transformed German society was through the schools.”
“My elementary school teacher was immediately a fanatical Nazi. I was told in secondary school that I had to go and listen to all the Nazi speeches. I also had to do the Nazi salute, stretch out my arm and such. I learned that. You get tired of holding up your arm and you can gently let it down on the shoulder of the boy in front of you, that I did learn. The whole thing generated more and more enthusiasm, no doubt about it. People were impressed by Hitler, no doubt about that, especially after he took over Austria.”
“Hitler’s moves all happened faster than anyone expected. There was this thing, the Anschluss, (the annexation of Austria by Germany), which was in the spring of 1938. And in the autumn there was the Sudetenland crisis, and then Chamberlain of course came to Munich. Neville Chamberlain, the British Prime Minister. And he thought it was a great sign of favor that he was invited to Hitler’s private flat! And he signed, he gave Hitler that sheet of paper which he then waved on his return to London, “peace in our time.” And we knew perfectly well that this was totally meaningless to Hitler. Hitler would sign it without even looking at it. But that’s how, of course, Neville Chamberlain deceived himself about that whole thing.”
“Goebbels of course was the great Nazi propagandist. Everyone who could be deceived by their propaganda was being deceived even though Germany was one of the most educated countries in the world at the time. I remember the family who lived in the flat above us who I knew really well. They stayed on in Munich in this flat in which my grandmother also lived. One of them was almost like a mother to me and I was sitting on her lap all the time, and her sister married a big industrialist in North Germany called Wolf. He used people from the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. I don’t know how it came about, I think they asked us to send silver polish, but I went back to him and suddenly he unleashed himself. He said things to me that he couldn’t say to other people He was sort of excusing himself for why he was involved with all those horrible events. He said things like, “But Hitler seemed a very energetic man,” and that sort of thing. And I was quite embarrassed as I sat there. I didn’t ask him anything. I was quite taken aback at him. I wanted to hear it all, but he obviously felt that he must unburden himself to me.”
I asked Edgar if he would say that Lion was a communist?
“No, not at all. I mean, he was, of course, a leftist person. Which I mean one would expect of him as an intellectual and so on and so forth. But a communist he was not at all. He wasn’t a Marxist or anything like that. I suppose that’s one of the reasons why he went in 1937 to see, and made himself agreeable to, Stalin because he could see that to defeat Nazi Germany you would probably need communist Russia, which of course you did need.”
We talked about the crisis in liberal democratic values around the world. In Europe and in America, there are neo-Nazis, other fascists and authoritarians in the streets and in government. Christian nationalists yearning for a return to the past and "traditional," "conservative" values because they feel that globalization, immigration, and changing racial and ethnic demographics threaten the "natural" order of things.
Edgar advised, “I think people should just be very aware, beware of, you know, people who peddle stuff. You know, anti-foreigners, anti-immigrants, anti- all this sort of thing. People like that, in a way, are very dangerous people. They are the present equivalent of what Hitler was. I mean, maybe not quite the same thing, but updated. But that’s what they are and people should be aware of that.”
“Let’s say from a German point-of-view, the Germans felt they were humiliated by the Treaty of Versailles and suddenly there was Hitler who reversed it all and made them top dogs again. That’s what convinced them.”
“Even when they were not Jewish, enemies of the regime could hardly really exist in Germany. I mean, openly. That wasn’t possible after 1933. I mean you’ve only got to see the pictures of the Reichsparteitag (Nuremberg rallies) and Hitler driving through the huge crowds. There’s nothing an individual could do against that.”
“For those who were not in Germany, one obviously did feel that the people who, the appeasers, were very, very mistaken. And one was in favor of everybody who, you know like Vansittart and so on, who realized just what it was all about and that any deal with it was impossible. And this we were very much aware of, I think I would say.”
“I mean appeasing Hitler wasn’t just about markets, was it? It was about more peace. And it was sought mistakenly by the appeasers, like Neville Chamberlain and so on, that they could make a deal and make peace with Hitler. This was of course quite wrong. And the people who knew it was wrong were, as it were, sidelined for vile by somebody like Neville Chamberlain.”
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