Our first day in London was short, but no less hectic than you’d expect considering we had friends and family to meet in the day and a half we’d have before heading on to Belgium. We made it to my aunt and uncle’s home in Hampstead in the late afternoon and had a few minutes to chat before taking the tube from Golders Green to Hampstead station where we were to meet Jonathan’s old roommates from LSE (London School of Economics).
In those few minutes I had in the kitchen with my aunt, I heard a new story about my great grandparents that I’ll never forget. According to my aunt, my great grandfather Herman lived in Muswinkle, Germany. “You can’t find it on a map,” she said, “it’s near Hanover.” He and his wife Yohana had two kids, my grandmother Edith (German name Esther) and her younger brother Allan (German name Gunther). “After the war nobody used their German names.” She said, “it was too painful.” Herman and Yohana employed a lot of the men and women in their town through the tanning and scrap metal businesses they owned. Their last name Burkenruth translates to Birch Root, which was used for tanning leather hides. My aunt was trying to make two points: my grandparents were very wealthy back in Germany, and they very influential within the community having employed so many of the families. That’s a little backstory.
Now, as the story goes, my great grandfather Herman was arrested by the Nazis and taken to a work camp on Kristallnacht, November 10, 1938. At this point the war had not officially started, but the life was becoming increasingly more difficult for the Jews in Germany and Austria.
Yohana, who was short and small in stature (probably not more than 4 feet tall), but as strong and stubborn as an ox, was outraged they would take her husband. Not only was he a leader in the community, but he was a decorated war veteran. She called up the chief of police (Who was a dear friend) and said, “this is insane! My husband was injured fighting for Germany in the first world war….he’s more German than most people.” And she had his iron cross to show for it. Determined to get Herman out of the work camp, she told the chief of police that she was going to get him out of there even if she had to do it alone. He said it wasn’t a good idea for her to go speak to the Nazis on her own and that he would try to get Herman out himself, but she wasn’t going to leave her husband’s fate up to anyone at this point, having lost a lot of faith in human decency. So she insisted on going herself. The officer friend realized there was no stopping her so he decided to accompany her to the work camp.
Together they bargained with the Nazis, starting with reason and then offering money. Nothing seemed to work. Finally, Yohana showed them Herman’s iron cross and ended up trading it for his freedom. This bought them enough time to get out of Germany and make there way to England.
At this point in the story, my aunt left the room to grab something she wanted to show me. When she returned, she had a black tattered book with a broken brittle spine sealed in a plastic bag for protection.
“What’s this?” I asked, trying to imagine what amazing journey this book had made in order to make it to the kitchen table in front of me.
“It’s grandma Edith’s siddur.” My aunt said, opening the fragile prayer book gently.
On the inside cover I could read in pencil: This is the mumies siddur that she gave me when I left Germany on January 5th 1938.
Then my aunt started another story. Before the war officially started in September of that year, my great grandparents could see the writing on the walls. The Jews were getting rounded up and persecuted and Yohana wanted to send Edith and Allan somewhere safe until they could come and get them later.
She’d learned about the Binai Brith Organization that was organizing a Kindertransport, to remove refugee children from Nazi controlled areas like Germany and Austria to the UK where they’d be safe and out of harms way. Yohana decided that was the best way to get her children out of Germany so she put them on a train where they were first sent to Amsterdam. She gave Edith (who was 12 at the time) her siddur and made her promise that no matter what she wouldn’t allow anyone to separate her and her younger brother Allan (who was 9).
When they arrived in Amsterdam they were supposed to be hidden for a few weeks with Anne Frank (we’re not sure if it was in the same house or in another home, but similar scenario), and the adults running the show wanted to separate the kids because they didn’t have room for them to stay together.
Edith insisted that she stay with her brother, because of the promise she’d made, and a few days later, they offered her the chance to get on a train to England, because that was her only alternative they could come up with. Edith chose England, and she and Allan took a train to the Hook of Holland in the Netherlands and then boarded a ferry across the English Channel to the UK.
Since it was the winter, Binai Brith had arranged to use some summer camp sites (I believe they were called Buddlands) in Dover Court to house the children until they could be adopted by foster parents willing to help out the war.
At the time, Michael Marks (who was Jewish) of the giant British retailer Marks & Spencer, took it upon himself to reach out to all of his suppliers and vendors and told them that they needed to adopt one of these children or they would jeopardize their contracts with M&S. Alec Taylor (a dress maker in London) and his wife Millie were unable to have children of their own (we don’t know if it was Alec or Millie who couldn’t produce), and with the threat from M&S they decided this was as good a time as any to bring a child into their home. At the time, there was an old wives’ tale going around that by bringing a child into a barren home would help get the woman pregnant with a child of her own. Millie ended up going to the Dover Court camps to pick out a child to adopt.
So while at the camp, Millie and the other foster parents were in a room with a curtain waiting for the children to come out from behind it to introduce themselves to the expecting future parents. None of the kids spoke a lick of English and they were terrified. None of them wanted to volunteer to go first and come out from behind the curtain, but since my grandmother was quite small for her age, another kid pushed her, and she fell to the floor and got up on the other side of the curtain. Millie picked her immediately thinking she had the most courage for going first and another family who the Taylor’s knew adopted Allen.
As soon as Edith could learn to speak enough English she begged for Alec to help get Yohana and Herman out of Germany. Two weeks before the war officially started for the UK, Alec wrote an affidavit and offered to sponsor Yohana and Herman in the UK and was able to bring them to London. Before Herman could make it through, he was interned on the Isle of White until it was verified that he wasn’t a Nazi spy.
First thing on his agenda when he made it to mainland England was to pick up Edith from a countryside camp where all the children had been evacuated to during the blitz. Since she was the only girl in a group of boys she’d been teased and picked on. She said they told her to go into the bakery and ask if there were any broken biscuits and then told them to “bloody-well mend them.” She got into a lot of trouble of that, but again, she didn’t know what she was saying. The other boys said in order for her to be accepted into their gang she would need to smoke a cigarette on top of a hay stack, which as you can imagine is pretty dangerous. Since Alec was already fighting for England in the war, Herman went to get Edith from the camps and brought her back to London until Allen was brought back at a later date.
Edith stayed with Millie, because Yohana and Herman lived in a small basement unit in South London where there was only enough room for the two of them. During the war, Yohana got a job in a factory wrapping copper wires to make batteries, and it’s unclear what Herman did. Back then, women finished school at 14 so my grandmother never really went to proper school. Towards the end of the war and after, she worked in Alec’s factory sewing dresses until she met my grandfather Maurice at a Maccabee singles Jewish event and got married soon after.
With the weight of that story on my shoulders, Jonathan and I met some friends of his from London School of Economics at the Holly Bush Pub in Hampstead and this is what we ate.
The Holly Bush Pub
First night in London and we went straight for the cliché British pub. Hampstead ended up being the most central of locations for the group we were meeting, and Jonathan saw that the Holly Bush had good reviews on Yelp.
He got a pint of London Pride, which he says he likes more than American beers because it’s less carbonated, and I got a Leffe, which was pretty close to an amber wheat beer.
We shared the seared duck breast with creamy polenta, grilled radicchio and braised fennel, and beef, ale and mushroom pie, mash, kale and gravy.
The quantity duck was amazing. I mean, that much duck meat in the US would have been $35 easily. Unfortunately, it doesn’t matter how much duck you serve your patrons if you don’t cook it right, and it tastes too gamey.
The beef pie on the other hand was delicious and I imagine any of the other pies they offered (squash, spinach & mushroom or fish pie with salmon, smoked haddock, and cod) would have been good too. The crust was flaky and moist and the substantial pieces of beef inside were soft and easy to chew.
And one of our friends (the one born and raised in Liverpool) ordered the bangers and mash, which were pork and leek sausages, mashed potatoes, onions and whole grain mustard. He ate them with sweet mustard though.
I tried to get the group to go to the Hamsptead Crepe cart for dessert crepes (the best crepe cart in the world), but it was late and our jetlag was starting to set in.