‘Arbeit macht frei’
10 November 2014
Today I was astounded to receive a letter from Hilde Herrmann.
I was thunderstruck as I had neither seen nor heard from her in more than seventy years.
The very sight of her signature was so shocking that I began to tremble quite violently and when I picked up the glass I’d used at breakfast, it fell from my hand and smashed into the kitchen sink.
Hilde Hermann – together, her names mean ‘battle warrior’ – stormed into our lives for six weeks from early January 1940.
She was brought to England during the Children's Transport rescue scheme that helped youngsters escape Nazi Europe. But she was not the underfed, docile waif delivered to other willing foster families.
Not Hilde! Then aged 12, she had supposedly been orphaned well before the war and was somehow manoeuvred on to a convoy leaving Berlin. But she was like a cuckoo in a nest, much taller than average and enormously fat.
To begin, my mother enjoyed watching her fairly demolish everything on the dinner table. But she had to keep an eye on our wartime rations and more than once, discreetly asked her to leave something for everyone else.
Hilde suffered disturbed nights and from the first, we heard her moaning endlessly in her sleep, then waking and prowling the landing by the half-hour.
The Kindertransport authorities either were unaware or refrained from advising my parents that Hilde had long endured far more than the fear and ritual humiliations heaped on German Jews during Kristallnacht on 10 November 1938. Uncommon for the times – especially in the Jewish community – she had not only been conceived out-of-wedlock but had been abandoned soon after birth.
My darling, sweet-natured father intended that she would become a sister for me, his spoilt, precious only child. But it was not to be. Instead, she scared me witless; shouting, pulling, sometimes hitting me when we were supposed to be playing quiet ‘girls’ games’.
Matters grew darker when items in the house began to disappear. First, went the loose change on the hall table that Daddy always removed from his overcoat when he returned from work. Then he couldn’t find his mother of pearl cufflinks and Mummy’s carefully hoarded stash of sweeties vanished without a trace.
But worse was to come and Hilde’s continuing antics frightened even my parents:
Next, the night-time prowls became goose-stepped stomps up and down the stairs. “Sieg Heil, Sieg Heil,” she’d chant just loud enough for us to hear.
Then one night – no, two nights together – I peeked from my bedroom doorway as she strutted down the stairs, out through the front door and slammed it behind her.
Despite the freezing winter air and wearing nothing but her nightdress, she remained in the front garden for some time before banging on the door with a broken brick, demanding to be let back in.
My parents were kindly, gentle people who rarely raised their voices, even in a crowd.
“But”, said Daddy in Yiddish after the second and most desperate night, “genug ist genug – enough is enough”.
After he’d run down stairs to rescue her and gently coaxed her back between the covers, he returned to his own bed hoping for a few hours’ rest before the alarm clock rang.
But Hilde did not stay in bed for long and started shuffling about, scraping the bedroom stool in front of the three-winged dressing-table mirror.
I was now so anxious that I plucked up enough courage to creep out of my bedroom, push her door barely ajar and kneel on the floor watching what she did.
“Bad girl! Wicked girl!” she hissed at her now seated reflection. Then, her face contorted with rage, she rose, leaned across and wielding the rear-side of Mummy’s silver-backed hairbrush, began hitting the three glass panels with all her might and main.
I’m still awe-struck when I recall Hilde’s hysterical accuracy and precision. She smashed each part in turn. First in half; then quarters, then eighths, smaller and smaller, screaming louder and louder until her work was done.
As everything went quiet, I realised that Mummy and Daddy had been standing behind me as Hilde’s performance raged on.
Then they motioned me to go back to my room, somehow propelled Hilde into their bed and went downstairs for what remained of the night.
Everything else that happened became a blessed blur. I believe Daddy contacted the Kindertransport authorities early the next day and Hilde was sent away.
She must have had an amazing cure because, so Mummy reported, soon after the war a large, carefully wrapped parcel arrived at the house.
It was a gift of glassware with a brief note attached inside:
“Dear Mr and Mrs Selwyn
“I’m feeling a lot better now and want to thank you for your kind hospitality when I first came to England. It’s true, you know. Work really does make you free.
And the letter I received from her today?
It was to say that she’s returned to North London after a peripatetic life; has discovered I still live in my parents’ house and would like to get in touch.
But the very idea appalled –frightened -me afresh. So I took the paper; folded it in half, quarters, then eighths and tore the pile to shreds. It’s still lying on the table next to me as I jot this note.
Perhaps later, when I feel less fragile, I’ll go into the garden and make a bonfire. Like Hilde said, work can make you free.
(© Natalie Irene Wood – 11 November 2014)