Justice, however long delayed, is still justice
The most personal and moving part of my week in Berlin was an event in honour of my father in the court in which he was a judge for five years until the Nazis chased him out, literally at the point of a gun, in 1933. I knew very little about my parents’ pre-war life until this event, as I came to England on the Kindertransport at age four with my sevenyear- old brother in 1939, while my father escaped to Shanghai and my non-Jewish mother stayed in Germany through the war. I was thoroughly anglicised in my up-bringing in three foster families and a hostel during the ten years my brother and I were separated from our parents. Inevitably, I developed deep anti- German prejudice from British wartime propaganda and the desire to belong in England. Therefore, when my father returned from Shanghai after the war and I was repatriated to Germany against my will in 1949 at age 14, I experienced a repeat of the disjunction and disorienting effect of the Kindertransport. This soured both my relationship with my parents and my attitude to Germany and left me with shattered self-esteem and deep mistrust, a retraumatisation that took another 40 years to overcome. I have written about this in detail in “Person of No Nationality”, a book to supplement the Holocaust education talks I give regularly in schools and other places. The up-shot is that from the time we were reunited in 1949, talking about the past was taboo – too raw, frightening and dangerous. This meant that I had a huge blank over the prewar and war-time experiences of my parents that I was not confident enough to face until the Reunion of the Kindertransport in 1989. By that time both my parents had died, my mother in 1966 and my father in 1973.
Buried history has some strange ways of finding its way into daylight. A series of amazing events were set off when a German author, Ursula Krechel, won the Frankfurt Book Prize with her novel “Landgericht” (County Court). The first I heard of this was when I was sent a copy of the local paper by a friend in Mainz, in which there was a large photo of my family and the exposure of Krechel’s protagonist, Richard Kornitzer, as my father, Robert Michaelis. My publisher of “Person of No Nationality” wanted to sue Krechel when he heard that she had used my book (published in 2010) to write a chapter in her book about my brother and me, but I wanted to meet her and find out why she had not contacted me. Although she lives in Berlin, I met her in Mainz when I went there to give a talk for the Local History Association. I found her a very shy rather unforthcoming person, but with an excellent command of English. I thanked her for giving my father the recognition through ‘literary justice’ that he was never able to achieve when he returned to Germany after the war. “Landgericht” is not what I would call ‘reader-friendly’; even some German people have difficulty with it, but, in this book, I began to learn about the injustice my parents suffered not only before and during the war, but also in the decades after my father returned from Shanghai. I was not at all sure what was based on facts Krechel had found in archives and what was her imagination filling in the gaps in her research. So I decided to contact the court where Richard Kornitzer in her novel worked before the war. I was pleasantly surprised to get not only verification that my father had been a judge there but an invitation to meet a group of judges there. They had, of course, read “Landgericht”. I asked them to try and find a trainee who might like to research the real story of my father as a PhD dissertation. To my surprise and delight Dr. Bernd Pickel, president of the court, decided to do this research in-house with two colleagues, Dr. Thomas Heymann and Dr. Susann Mueller, both judges. They were interested in this piece of the history of their court, an awesome building, beautifully restored after misuse by the DDR and now dedicated to Hans Litten, the defence lawyer who had the courage to subpoena Hitler as a witness in the case against his storm-troopers’ assault on the Workers’ Club. The street, which was Friedenstraße, is now re-named Littenstraße.
The outcome of their two years of research, the real life and work of my father, was presented on May 28th in the court, where he had been a judge prior to the Nazi take-over, under the title “Ich bin meiner Ermordung zuvorgekommen” (I escaped my own murder). My father received the recognition he had fought for but was denied on his return after the war, when President Monika Nöhre opened the event by addressing him as a ‘former colleague’. He had never been addressed as a colleague in the Mainz court where he worked when he returned to Germany after the war and suffered severe discrimination and injustice again by ‘colleagues’ who did not want him there.
Dr. Pickel and Dr. Heymann described in heart-warming detail the achievements of my father as a brilliant law student, a judge at age 26 and whose advice was sought widely on extra-complicated cases. Even before the Nazi take-over he had to fight for due promotion in the face of anti-Semitic senior colleagues. He challenged the Nazi order for removal of Jews from professional posts, until the Gestapo hounded him out of his court at gun-point, and only left Berlin in 1939 after Kristallnacht made clear the Nazis’ intent. Dr. Mueller then presented a live conversation with me about my reactions to their research. I was amazed and gratified that nearly 200 people had come to this event in recognition of my father. Included among them were all three of my deceased brother’s children and their partners, so that it was also a very moving family gathering.
Hearing that I was coming to Berlin for this event, Minister Heiko Maas invited me, accompanied by my daughter, nephew and his son, to an informal discussion with a few members of the Ministry of Justice in Berlin. This turned out to be a group of over 40 people who were very interested in my family’s history. We also heard details of the ‘Rosenburg Projekt’ being researched by the Ministry of Justice to bring to light the details of how the legal system, located in the Rosenburg district of Berlin, functioned in the immediate postwar years, emerging out of the period of Nazi ideology. I was presented with the first volume of their findings.
While in Berlin I visited a number of exhibitions with my daughter: an open air exhibition of the end of World War Two at the Brandenburg Tor, the new Memorial for the Sinti and Roma murdered in the Holocaust, the exhibition under the Main Holocaust Memorial, the exhibition of German Resistance and the Topography of Terror. What impressed me was that these exhibitions, most of which I had seen before, have been updated and extended to contain so much new material from recent researches, and that they do not shrink from detailing the injustices in full. Inclusion of material about the Sinti and Roma part of the Holocaust is impressive and the Sinti and Roma Memorial is extraordinarily moving. The stories of numerous small cells and networks of resistance, including Jews and Sinti, in virtually all ghettos and concentrations camps expose the lie that ‘they went like lambs to slaughter’.
My current interest is in applying my knowledge of exposed former injustice to addressing current injustices, like denial of the Ottoman Genocide in World War One, that have not yet been fully exposed. Holocaust research, education and commemoration are essential but not enough. There has to be action to resolve current injustice against individuals and minority groups, especially the ignorant and prejudiced attitude to Roma and Travellers. Injustice can be brought to light and challenged but there are not enough people with the courage to care and the will to act. Indifference is, in many ways, a bigger problem than prejudice. My latest book, “Love, Hate & Indifference: The Slide into Genocide” aims to provoke readers to wake up out of their indifference and think. (Only available from the National Holocaust Centre, Laxton, Notts, or from me.)
Ruth Barnett, born Michaelis in Berlin 1935