Monday, 10 November 2008

Helene Stranz-Hurwitz - in memoriam and admiration

My great aunt Helene Stranz Hurwitz must have been quite a woman. She was the younger of my paternal grandfather's two older sisters. Maria Stranz Behrendt the older sister ended up emigrating to Argentina in 1939, aged 60.
Following the first world war Helene seems to have become very involved both in research and campaign work on the lives and rights of German war widows. The research was published in 1931 as Kriegerwitwen gestalten ihr Schicksal. Lebenskämpfe deutscher kriegswitwen nach eigenen Darstellungen. An earlier regional study was published with Ernst Behrend, who may have been her nephew - I really must try and find a proper family tree somewhere. What interests me about this now is that the study is very much about getting women to tell their own stories, a history from below project. I must try and dig through the books and papers I rescued from my aunt's house and see if I have a copy. Knowing this now - mainly thanks to the internet of course - I wonder if she was the one who in part inspired my father to study history. His own father and grandfather were both lawyers.
Helene and her husband, Hans, had just one child, a daughter, Else. Born in 1923 she was a year older than my father and a year younger than my aunt. The three cousins were very close as they all lived in Berlin. They developed their own language, speaking German backwards with clear but complex grammatical rules about stems of verbs being changed, "ch" tending to remain unreversed for pronunciation reasons, with endings also remaining unreversed while prefixes like "ge" would be inverted seperately - so egchrabt would be gebracht and chi would be ich. Within six months of arriving in Britain my Dad and his sister were doing the same with English. For a long time I thought that the German for toilet was olk ( it is klo) and that the German for robin (the red bird) was nibor (English backwards). As my brother and I didn't grow up bi-lingually understanding all of this was always a bit of a struggle in our childhood. I think everyone was a bit disappointed that we didn't seem to have inherited the speaking backwards thing.
Else never made it to England. She died suddenly in May 1936 of an infected cut which would after the war have been fairly easily treated with antibiotics.
Her parents emigrated to London less than a year later.
Quite apart from the public strictures against Jewish people and businesses, the family were also living through the private tragedy of the loss of an only child, a close cousin.
I have photos of Else in an album her parents made several copies of, for her two dear cousins as well as themselves and their parents. The card at the front celebrating Else's life simply says "auch die Knospe ist in sich Vollendung" - Even the bud is in and of itself completion.
There was no religious statement, no verse from Hebrew scripture on the card, and I wonder how Else's funeral took place in those difficult times. My great uncle and aunt were secular Jews and may not have felt comfortable asking for services from the local synagogue even in those circumstances. Sometime I really am going to have to try and go through the family archives I have saved and resolve some of these questions.
In his book Me and My Town, my father gives his aunt Helene the credit for securing the emigration of her brother's family to Britain. Since her own emigration the rules for entry into the UK had been tightened and refugees were only admitted on a transit basis (in my family's case supposedly the USA), and a person of substance had to be found as guarantor for each member of the family. Helene managed to bully Sir Stafford Cripps into being my Grandfather's guarantor - "My brother is a lawyer so are you ...", found places in Kathleen Freeman's "Welcome House" for her niece and nephew and got the Quakers to act as guarantor for my grandmother.
A grieving mother did all she could to find a safe home for her brother's family. She brought to it all of her campaigning and research skills, even in exile she was a doubty campaigner. I sometimes wonder whether the family would have escaped if Else had lived.
My grandparents lodged with Helene and Onkel Hans on arrival in London and my great grandmother later also joined them. Helene, who could not save her own daughter from terrible illness, saved three generations of the family.
I never met Helene, but through the bits and pieces that I'm beginning to learn about her life, I do feel as if I am beginning to get to know her a little.
Like her sister's and brother's sons, Helene suffered from Parkinson's disease at the end of her life. My father apparently recognised his own early symptoms because they reminded him of what he had seen her suffering from.
Thinking about her makes me realise by what a fragile thread any of us come to be born. Without feisty women and men like her, even more human lives would be lost to despots, bigots and genocide.
I also give thanks for her championing of the stories of people's everyday lives in the research on German war widows. Perhaps the best hommage I can pay is to try and find a copy of her work and read it. So if you have read Helene's work or know something about her life do get in touch, I'd love to know more.

1 Comment:

Anonymous said...

I have read "Kriegerwitwen gestalten ihr Schicksal." In the USA, it is only available in the New York Public Library. I made it apart of my own book about the aftermath of the Great War, and am now completing a new book, inspired by "Kriegerwitwen," about war widows from the First World War. I'm so pleased to find out more about Helene Hurwitz-Stranz. Thank you! Erika Kuhlman