Friday, 14 July 2017

'Even finding an envelope takes so long...'

This week's blog is from Kim, our Employ.ed intern, who gives us an insight into letters from our Ernst Levin collection that make difficult reading:

It’s Kim again, the Employ.ed on Campus intern working with LHSA on Ernst Levin’s personal archive. Last week marked the mid-way point for my internship here in the CRC, which has made me feel somewhat nostalgic, it feels like I started yesterday! In the last five weeks, I have made incredible finds in the uncatalogued mountains of correspondence, particularly in relation to the themes of German-Jewish immigration and refugee history. Over the first few weeks, once I had got to grips with the general outline of Ernst’s story, I identified areas of interest in the collection worth closer inspection. Often this was a series of letters or correspondence of particular value, such as the letters sent between Ernst and his daughter whilst he was interned as an ‘alien’ on the Isle of Man in 1940. I have now almost completed the process of drafting these various ‘narratives of interest’ into blog posts which will constitute my final outreach resource. Hopefully, this will generate some interest in the collection to secure the funding it so greatly deserves. Keep following LHSA's blog and social media for the address of the final resource!

Wartime letter to Ernst, who was interned on the Isle of Man in 1940 (GD8/2)
This week has been very busy with exciting events: the University of Edinburgh hosted the British Association of Jewish Studies ‘Jews on the Move’ conference from Monday to Wednesday, with expert speakers on the subject of Jewish history, immigration and refugees, which supplemented my research into Jewish History as a context for this collection.

The following is an example extract of the kind of content which will feature on the resource I'm compiling about Ernst. Below is a series of letters written to Anicuta Levin, Ernst’s wife, by an old friend called Grete Vester, who was struggling to survive in war-torn Munich in the immediate aftermath of WWII from 1946-47.
Anicuta Levin, c. 1930s (PG8)
 At the end of the Second World War, with the Nazi’s defeat, the three major allied powers entered Germany from different fronts. German civilians, especially women, faced the wrath of victorious allied forces: horrifying stories of rapes across Berlin abound. The Russians liberated Berlin from the East, whilst the British moved through France. Munich, the Levins’ home prior to emigration, was a US occupied zone, as evidenced by the censorship stamps on the letters Anicuta received from an old friend Grete Vester. 
Censor's stamp on a letter from Grete, 1946 (GD8/2)
Germany entered a period of extreme economic devastation and hardship, and the people suffered under the extreme war reparations claimed in compensation for the horror of the Holocaust. Trials were held across the country to punish ex-Nazi officials and purge Nazism from society: this process, as Grete writes, was called ‘Entnazifierung’ [de-nazification].

A series of letters from Grete Vester in Munich, with envelopes marked ‘American Zone’, and stamped with ‘U.S. Civil Censorship’ were sent to Anicuta Levin in Edinburgh between summer 1946 and 1947. These embittered letters from the Levins’ old friend show the extent of damage to war-torn Munich and the suffering of Germans in the extreme economic hardship of 1946 and 1947. Grete Vester, identified as one of the ‘old group’ of Munich friends in which Anicuta and Ernst socialised, is described by her sister Marla as having had three strokes throughout the course of the war.

This series of letters touches on the major theme of German post-war identity – Grete expresses extreme anxieties around being deemed a Nazi by ex-neighbours and friends who had fled Germany due to persecution. She ardently claims that she was not a collaborator and in an angst-ridden tone bemoans the fate of German ‘innocents’. She describes post-war Germany as a ‘living hell’: the embittered people are murdering each other like savages. On several occasions, Grete expresses suicidal thoughts, reflecting the unbearably desolate circumstances in the ruins of central Europe.

Typewritten letters from Grete (GD8/2)
4th April 1946:
“After six years of never-ending bad luck and abandonment, I am now writing to you full of hope and joy … in 1939 I had the bad luck to have a stroke and have been paralysed in my left side since then, although I can move again now, though with difficulty. In this state I spent the war, although I was evacuated to [Bad] Aibling. Now I am back in war-torn Munich, which you would barely recognise. Through the wretchedness, everywhere you look the people have become mean and embittered. The only thing I now long for is death. Kluger of course left me a long time ago, married a woman and had a child with her, though they are divorced already now. Obviously he already has someone else, because men always fare better in this matter”
“Oh, Anicuta, what did we live through! … I actually barely know what I should write, it cannot be expressed in words! … I would love to come and stay with you, and help with the housework”

(undated) April 1946:
“For God’s sake stay where you are! Don’t even consider trying to alleviate your homesickness for Germany! … I, a nazi-hater, as you know, should actually have a say in their [the Nazis] punishment! But the so-called ‘entnazifizierung’ [‘de-nazification’] is in someone else’s hands completely. Even us, the blameless, are suffering! I truly marvel at the fact that I didn’t end up in a concentration camp because of my big mouth [anti-Nazi discourse]. I guess that’s luck, or bad luck, however you might see it now”

16th August 1946:
“The letters which I so undeservedly receive from abroad are like balsam on my wounds … I was evacuated to Bad Aibling after a heavy attack on Munich … in the bomb shelter, everybody was drinking and flirting … they wanted to live their last hours with courage, or at least in the spirit of gallows humour … the basement doors flew open and the sounds of the bombs exploded in my ears and I waited for the end to come at any moment. But it passed, as you can see … When the Americans came, we were glad”

19th August 1946:
“I am constantly completely alone, at best Marla stops by with a cold face and the oft-used words “I don’t have much time, will need to leave in a few minutes””
Writes that her sister Marla tends to her out of a sense of duty, but there is no compassion or kindness behind it. Sadly she is reliant on her sister for vital supplies. Grete pleads with Anicuta not to mention her complaints in her reply as Marla reads through her letters.

5th October 1946:
“I am living with complete strangers, not good or bad, just very uninteresting and also uninterested in me, we were just stuffed in here by the housing department, regardless of what you want. Otherwise you have to sleep in the street. The room is tiny, 2.5 – 4.5 metres, so I can’t put my few possessions anywhere … You cannot imagine what the city looks like now … I only get visitors when I have cigarettes and coffee from my American parcels”
[speaking of an old friend she has corresponded with] “Sadly I get the feeling that she holds us all in contempt, even me, who was anything but a Nazi. This hurts me as I cannot be to blame for being German, and cannot change this”
“The Unolds are somewhere in the countryside. Did you know Grete’s sister, Mrs Keis? She died and recently her son was murdered and robbed on a train. These things happen often these days. This is what desperation does. It doesn’t make people better. No one dares to walk the streets after dark, especially not women”

11th October 1946:
“I have been wanting to write to you about how I live, because I think this isn’t uninteresting to you. I think that all of you who left Germany, have no idea how it is here. Firstly, there is the devastation of the ‘luftkrieg’ [air raids], which is indescribable, although some people say that Munich is gold in comparison to some cities like Frankfurt [hit more intensely] … I need cod-liver oil and vitamin C. Of course you cannot get these in Germany, so I’ve written to New York and Switzerland and have received some already. We’ve had this appalling food for years and Hitler had been giving us low-quality food since 1933.”
“The atmosphere among the people is indescribable. It is as though one were among savages, no it is worse, since savages probably have na├»ve qualities that make them worthy of being alive … even the so-called ‘qualified’ people leave a lot to be desired. The whole of Germany has been completely ruined by the Nazireich”
[Grete asks Anicuta repeatedly not to be angry at her for requesting so many times that she join them in Scotland.]

2nd November 1946:
“As you can see, I am already writing on your new paper. Yesterday your package arrived. I thank you warmly and am so happy that at least this worry is alleviated. Sadly the package had been broken into and the typewriter ribbon was stolen out of it. But we are used to these things now … the ribbon clearly showed through the wrapping and someone decided to steal it. Here, people take everything. The people are so poor, that even an old cloth isn’t safe, if it can still be used to clean things with. Hitler left us a great country and through desperation, the people have not improved, but the opposite. This is the reason I can hardly bear it here anymore. Do you understand? … Even finding an envelope takes so long, because you have to go into many shops before you finally have the luck to find one or two”

17th November 1946:
“Today I have a big favour to ask you. In Edinburgh there is surely a phonebook for London, where you can find an address which I don’t have here. It’s the address of Dr Philip Hochschild, who emigrated there. He is a very wealthy man, and could I please ask you to write to him explaining my situation and asking him to help me a bit. I was often with him in the time of the Hitlerreich and so he knows, that I wasn’t a Nazi, which means he might be prepared to help me, considering my illness. From abroad, you can send a care-package through the Red Cross … [pleads Anicuta not to think worse of her because of this request] … we are starving and freezing. We don’t have access to the most basic amenities. Often we don’t have any light because the electricity goes. Then we also can’t cook anything, because we don’t have enough gas or fuel. We don’t even have any candles and not enough matches!”

26th December 1946:
“I received your long-awaited letter yesterday. It was truly the most wonderful Christmas gift. Hopefully it won’t just be a seasonal occurrence … letters are my only joy, and I receive them so rarely. So please don’t be so sparing! Remember than I am alone and lonely. Maybe then it will be easier for you to write more often”
“I am interested to see what we still have to live through, before life is over for us. Sometimes I think, I must have been a real piece of work in a past life, to have deserved such a punishment … no one laughs here anymore, at best cynically, which isn’t so nice”
“There are still Jew-haters here, Hitler really created long-lasting effects. It is awful. Us Germans are really suffering from this, even if one wasn’t a Nazi. And I think that won’t ever change, at least in my lifetime”

13th January 1947:
“My dear Anicuta, I thank you warmly for your last letter from the 18th December. I think I have already answered it, but am not completely sure, as I think of you almost all day long and therefore no longer know, whether I wrote to you or just meant to and thought of you intensely. I am alone for days on end. Marla often doesn’t come for a week, because as she says she has no time. And I sit here in my lonely room with hardly any wood to burn and a great sense of fear … Life is nightmarishly hard. I never dreamed that things would turn out this way. Maybe you can tell, that I don’t want to be alive anymore. But I am scared of death too. Do you understand this? There are also other things which I can’t write about. It would be such a joy if I could see you again … don’t be angry that I’m starting with all this again, because I really do think this would be the only thing that could save me now”

27th February 1947:
“You can hardly imagine what wretched lives we must lead now, even us, who were never Nazis! … You know, of course, what I thought [of the Nazi regime] and how I often opened my mouth to speak against them, even though I was spared the concentration camps. Even in Bad Aibling, where my hatred of the Nazis was well known! It seems disgraceful to have to re-iterate this to you, who knows all of this so well! But when one reads and hears how so many Nazis are trying to wash themselves clean [of their crimes], one thinks, perhaps even friends like you might believe this of me”

15th September 1947:

“I hardly dare to ask, if I couldn’t come to you [in Scotland], you seem to stall which makes me very unsure. Please don’t be offended, but just say yes or no. It is awful in Germany. You can only get medicine in very extreme cases, and life is horrible”

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