Over the years I gathered some of the stories about our family history, ably assisted by my father, Oskar Prager. I’m going to bring these stories here in order to keep them in one accessible place.
Additional stories from other family branches and from David and Dad’s roots trip to Germany will be found under the sub-headings of this page.
The first and most important story was written mainly by my father on a blog I used to frequent. Here are his words:
My family history is really nothing special – there are many many worse tales, more heroic stories, more stories of outstanding courage and bravery. But this story may possibly give you an insight into how 2 average families escaped (more or less) and rebuilt their lives in another country.
Tonight begins Israel’s Independence Day so I thought this might be good timing to send the post to you, emphasising the rebirth of the Jewish People from the ashes of the Holocaust to Independence under their own flag after 2,000 years of exile.
My mother’s family:
My mother and her family lived in a small town called Michelstadt, not far from Frankfurt where my grandfather, Leopold Strauss, worked as the shochet (ritual slaughterer), teacher and mohel for the Jewish community. My grandfather was arrested on Kristallnacht in November 1938, along with thousands of other Jewish men, and sent to Buchenwald (as far as we know). Before that, my grandparents saw what was happening with the rise of Nazism and with great foresight arranged for their 3 sons Uri (aged 5), Herbert (7) and David (9) and my mother (Judith Hilde), aged 3 to go on a kindertransport to Holland where my grandfather had a cousin. However when it was actually time to go, my grandmother (Daja) changed her mind at the last moment and decided not to send my mother on the train, thinking that she was too young to be without her mother and the boys were too young to cope with a little 3 year old girl. This little act saved my mother’s life.
At that stage, the Nazis would release from the camps any person who had a visa to another country. You couldn’t get a visa without someone acting as guarantor, so my grandmother contacted her brother Herman who was living in London and asked him to be a guarantor for my grandfather. Of course he agreed to vouch for the entire family, and my grandfather was released after about 6 weeks in the camps. He had to leave Germany immediately, (this was January 1939) and my mother says her earliest memory is of my grandfather on the steps of the plane (it was very unusual in those days to travel by air) waving his kippah at them in a goodbye gesture.
Meanwhile my grandmother had to arrange an exit permit to London for my mother, since her exit permit was for Holland and the Germans do like things to be “alles in ordnung” (everything in order). This took another few nerve wracking-months, but by the spring the family were all together in London.
My mother says that there was contact for quite a while between them and the boys in Holland, and she remembers letters being exchanged between them, and particularly stories about their new little sister who was born in London. My grandparents tried to arrange visas and guarantors for the boys to join them in London but this was more or less impossible during wartime. In any event the family – 6 souls by now – was living in a single room, and they didn’t know where they would put 3 extra boys.
So the boys stayed, safely they thought, in Holland. However the Nazis eventually invaded Holland, and the Jews were deported. The boys were sent to Sobibor where they were killed, presumably some time in 1942-3.
When the war was over my grandfather went to Europe to hunt for the boys or for information about them. He discovered the sad truth while he was there, but on his travels he also discovered 2 nieces and a nephew (Odette, Margo and Paul) who had been hidden in a convent in Belgium all through the war. The nuns were reluctant to give up the children at first, and the children were also reluctant to come to a strange house and an alien way of life as Orthodox Jews. In the end, the nephew decided to stay in Belgium, and contact with him has been very scarce. The two daughters came to London and the younger one lived with my grandparents for a while as if she was another daughter. The elder girl was quite traumatised by the war as one can imagine, and although she came to London she did not live with my grandparents. Both girls eventually married Jewish men and set up their own homes around London. I was very close with one of my second cousins during my childhood, though contact dropped off as we grew up and I emigrated to Israel.
I don’t know how my grandparents stayed sane, but what I do remember is that my grandparents’ house was always full of laughter, and my grandfather had a tremendous sense of humour. I always feel humbled by them. My Mother’s theory is that first of all, everyone at that time lost someone so it was considered a “normal” situation. Also, the boys’ death wasn’t a sudden occurrence. There had been contact with the boys for several years at first, and by the time they died they had been out of the house for such a long time that it seemed to me, looking on as a child, that it wasn’t felt as traumatically.
Of course this is not to belittle the tremendous tragedy that befell my grandparents. My mother’s aunt tells us that they were tormented by the loss of their sons for the rest of their lives. My brother David recently told me that towards the end of her life, as our grandmother became seriously ill, she would talk to David as if he were her son David, and not the grandson named in his memory.
However our grandparents never let their anguish be felt by us grandchildren, the Second Generation. Their ability to hide their sorrow in front of us youngsters seems to me a sign of true heroism.
In the 60’s my grandfather arranged for a stained glass window to be put up in a synagogue at a kibbutz in their memory, and my mother and her sisters have filled in documents at Yad Vashem to memorialise their lost brothers. My elder brother and several cousins are all named after the lost boys.
My father’s family
My father’s family lived in Fuerth, Bavaria where my grandfather, Fritz Prager, was the principal of the Jewish school, teaching Jewish studies as well as his major subjects of Maths, Chemistry and Physics. My grandfather hadn’t thought the Jews were in any real danger until Kristallnacht, although many people had seen the danger ahead and had fled earlier. After witnessing the terror of Kristallnacht he tried frantically to get a visa to any country that would take them. The only place for which they could get a visa was Shanghai, China. However this involved days and weeks of travel by train, and my grandmother (Lina) refused to take on this journey with 4 small children, including baby twin girls.
At that stage Mr. Henry Pels from London who worked together with Rabbi Solomon Schonfeld (who was involved in the Kindertransport to London) in the Chief Rabbi’s Emergency Council came to the rescue. Somehow he had heard of my grandfather, and he contacted Mr. Yakob Rosenheim from the Agudah organisation who was arranging for visas for teachers to come to England. He was advised what to do, and Mr. Pels called my grandfather in Germany and told him that if he could arrange a guarantor in England, he could get a visa immediately. My father’s grandmother had a cousin in Switzerland, Felix Guggenheim (yes, of THE Guggenheims, though a very distant relative). He was called, and he put down a guarantee in a bank in England the same day. Within 24 hours my grandparents had visas to England. My father remembers going to have his photo taken at the Gestapo in order to get his passport.
However the Germans would not issue an exit visa for my father’s grandmother, for no discernible reason. She died in the death camps.
The family travelled by train from Germany via the Hook of Holland to London, arriving there on 5th May 1939. My father’s cousin arrived from Germany on 31st August 1939 – the day before the outbreak of war and moved in with them too.
As official “enemy aliens” my grandparents were not allowed to work in England. However they made ends meet by baking and selling cakes (Lebkuchen) that my grandmother baked and they sold door to door. Soon the cakes were so successful that they were making them commercially and were looking to employ workers at the bakery. Because they could contribute to easing the unemployment which was rampant at that time in England they were then given work permits. Eventually they had to close down because they couldn’t get hold of the ingredients any more due to rationing. (I still remember the delicious taste of my grandmother’s Lebkuchen to this day!)
Around 1940 my grandfather was then interned as an enemy alien on the Isle of Man. (However that was still better than the alternative). In order to be released from the internment he volunteered for the British Pioneer Corps, which was the only unit accepting enemy aliens. However during training he contracted TB so he was released; thereafter he received a small pension from the British Army.
The children of the family were evacuated to the country during the Blitz but they hated it so much they preferred to stay in London during the bombing! My father has told me many times of running through the blackout during breaks between air raids as he went to his barmitzvah lessons.
And here is an interesting side-note. When my grandfather was finally allowed back to work he had to improve his English in order to go back to teaching. Through the army he was found a small job at lab of Alexander Fleming, inventor of penicillin.
Eventually he went back to teaching and remained as Jewish Studies and maths and science teacher at the Jewish Primary School in London until he retired.