Bruno Neurath-Wilson tells about his father Willi Neurath, who survived various concentration camps as a political prisoner, and his mother Eva, who supported her husband in his resistance activities, about his childhood and early youth with a father who remained true to his ideals and why he wants to share his parents’ story with the public.
My father Willi Neurath
My father came from a family with a socialist “tradition”. His father was Viennese and a printer. My father was a bookbinder – a well-read and educated worker. He was born in Erfurt in 1911.
After his death I inherited his library and was amazed at his reading diligence and his reading speed: in every book he noted when he bought and read it. Hegel, Lukacz, Bloch, Hannah Arendt – many others and of course the socialist classics.
He had three more brothers. Three of the four were Communists – one was a Social Democrat.
Unfortunately I was only 13 years old when my father died in 1961 as a result of imprisonment and torture, so I was not able to question him about his political development:
He was arrested in Cologne as a communist – and freed as a social democrat. But he obviously never let himself be put into one of the party-political stereotypes.
He was excluded from the KPD (Communist Party of Germany) because he was considered a “Trotskyist”. He joined the so-called “Left Opposition”. I know from my mother that he was outraged about the “social fascism theory” of the party leadership. For a time he also worked as a full-time functionary for the KPD (with the Cologne “unemployment committees”, a propaganda organization of the party) and attended party school.
In 1935 he was arrested and sentenced to five years imprisonment in a treason trial. He belonged to a network whose radius of action (mainly distribution of illegal printed publications) extended from the Ruhr area to the Rhineland. A brother of my father (Hans) was also involved in the resistance. He provided his address for the distribution of illegal printed publications from Amsterdam and was sentenced to two years imprisonment.
During his imprisonment in Vechta Prison he met a comrade from Cologne who asked him to visit his wife after his release and to deliver a message to her. He did so and on this occasion met the stepdaughter of this comrade. She later became his wife.
Between prison and concentration camp (the second arrest in 1942) my parents got married in Cologne.
It was a “strong marriage.” My mother stood by her husband unconditionally and worked with him in the resistance. She often brought flyers to Düsseldorf by bicycle.
In my mother’s old documents I later found a thick bundle of letters he had written to her from the Buchenwald and Neuengamme concentration camps. My mother visited her husband in Buchenwald without prior notice – I think that’s great and it has to be told.
A courageous visit
She and her mother behaved as if they went for a walk on the Ettersberg near Weimar to scout out the guards. They found out that one of the young guards of the outer guard ring spoke Lithuanian – their mother tongue. The next day she dared to do the unbelievable, addressing this very young Lithuanian in his mother tongue and telling him that she wanted to go to the camp to visit her husband. He let her through and..
shortly afterwards she stood in the commandant’s office and asked for her husband. In fact she could see him for half an hour.
My father was one of the survivors of the “Cap Arcona”. Therefore my sister and I were born in Neustadt/Holstein. My mother had lost contact to him in the last weeks before the liberation. She probably knew that he was in Neuengamme, but that he had been taken on the ship, she did not know. She was a naval assistant and in the course of the dissolution of the navy she was stationed in the submarine school in Neustadt. Like all people from Neustadt, she saw the ships lying out in the sea for weeks and saw them burn on May 3rd – and did not know that her husband was on board. Of course he also didn’t know that his wife was only a few kilometres away from him ashore …
In Neustadt there was a lot of rumours about these ships, because nobody knew anything specific about them, about crew, purpose and destination. One rumour was that “criminals” were on board … On the morning of May 4th she went to the beach. Later she told again and again, that she often wondered afterwards, what had drawn her there.
On the other side of the road a dirty, injured and unrecognizable man came towards her. She wanted to pass him, but he came straight to her and said “Muppel” to her … her pet name.
It was her husband … she couldn’t have recognized him. In shock and incomprehensible joy she fainted and fell into a ditch. They had each other again!
My father couldn’t swim. That’s why he didn’t dare jump into the cold water, but stayed on the capsized, burning ship. In the evening of May 3rd the British took him and some other survivors from the ship.
The British military administration gave my parents a large villa with a thatched roof as a temporary home. This villa, which is said to have belonged to a wealthy Nazi, became the birthplace of me and my sister (she *1946 – me *1948).
My maternal grandmother came to Neustadt and her husband (… whom my father had met in the Vechta prison and who had been in other prisons and camps without interruption until 1945 – in the end almost three years in Dachau), also came.
The villa stood (… still stands) not far from the place where my parents met again. It stands not far behind the memorial cemetery on the beach. It is known in Neustadt as “Haus am Kiebitzberg”.
This event, this miraculous meeting of my parents on the beach of Neustadt “hovered” over our family for decades, and after the death of my father it kept my mother (and us children) busy and agitated again and again.
After the liberation
After liberation my father immediately became politically active again. In Neustadt he worked for the administration of the municipality. Together with some comrades he took care of the salvage of the bodies of the “Cap Arcona” and the construction of the memorial cemetery on the beach.
Later he worked in the Ministry of the Interior in Kiel. Here he was head of the department responsible for political reparations cases, i.e. for the cases of his former prisoner comrades. He left this work in strife.
I know from my mother that he was deeply disappointed by the not very generous way in which reparation claims of socialist and communist resistance fighters were often handled.
On the occasion of my research for an article about the “Cap Arcona” in the “ZEIT” in 1995, I found records about my father by the British military administration of Neustadt in the “Public Record Office” in London (the British State Archives). According to these records he was considered an unyielding and (not only with political opponents) probably also partly unpopular man. He was chairman of the SPD faction in the district parliament of Oldenburg/Holstein and was called a “dictator” in the records, which even his counterpart from the majority faction of the CDU was not up to.
Later in the Schleswig-Holstein SPD he was on the verge of a career as a member of the Bundestag – but even here he must have caused some discussions, because nothing came of his candidacy.
My mother told me that he had maintained his political convictions and remained
a socialist at heart,
but did not feel at home in the political reality of post-war Germany. In many cases he had to deal with people who had “arranged” themselves during the Nazi era and who were now once again in influential positions. He saw the restorative development of Germany coming early on, but for his part was never able to “come to terms” with it … which is probably where his intransigence came from.
After our move to Cologne (1954) he did not become politically active any further. His power reserves were exhausted – both physically-healthily and obviously “ideologically”. Once, in Kiel, in a company where he was a works council member, he had stood up for five female colleagues who were to be dismissed. His fight against this dismissal was successful, but the five women did not thank him with a word and a little later he was dismissed himself. My mother often said that he never got over this.
In Cologne he needed all his strength for his family and work. Sometimes he went with me to wrestling and weightlifting competitions or to the football ground.
I will never forget how he once explained the Otto engine to me on the way there.
He read a lot. Sometimes after Sunday breakfast he would keep the family with him at the breakfast table and read something to us.
He was an excellent craftsman and repaired our shoes himself. He loved birds and built them big wooden cages (the biggest one was 2 m long and stood in our children’s room). For me he made a “Märklin” metal construction kit: He bought some original parts, rebuilt dozens of parts in months of work in the basement and gave it to me for Christmas.
When we were small children, there was a Christmas tree. When we were older, he thought that we did not need this ” fuss”, as he would probably have said. The Christmas tree was abolished…
Several physical ailments (diabetes, rheumatism, heart attacks) were recognised as direct consequences of imprisonment. He worked to the maximum in his profession and did not want to be limited by his battered body. My mother once told me that he went to work in the morning and she thought he was not well. She followed him and saw him stop on the way, leaning against the wall of a house … and walking on. She brought him back, and a few days later came a heart attack.
Talking about the past without words
He was a strict father – sometimes very strict and hard. But my sister and I never lost respect and love for him, even when, as children, we naturally could not understand why he was so hard.
But somehow we must have had a feeling for his life, because in our living room there were etchings from life in the concentration camp hanging on the walls: A four-part series with motifs of cruelty, suffering and solidary help.
We children were constantly confronted with these pictures – maybe they told us something about him without words.
He hasn’t told us children anything about the years of imprisonment – not even my sister, who was two years older. He had a small scar from Buchenwald on his forehead. Nobody knew what incident led to this scar – not even his wife.
The last years of his life were marked by the hard struggle against the decline of physical strength. Several hospital stays – he was ill for long weeks. In his company – the German Doctors Publishing House, where he worked as a bookbinder – he was highly regarded by colleagues and the management.
My father died at home (on April 13th, 1961). He knew it was coming to an end, gathered us around his bed two days before his death and said goodbye to us.
My sister and I promised that we would always stand up for the socialist goals and ideals.
I am grateful for these parents. They have deeply influenced my life and filled it with “purpose”.
A monument for my parents
It was always my wish to make this story of my parents available to a wider public. It was – and is – my intention to create a monument not only for my parents, but also for all the many unknown “nameless” resistance fighters. For those who already risked their lives and their health when many men of July 20 still felt obliged to take the oath to their “leader”.
In 2013 I have presented the idea of creating a film about my parents as the subject of a student exam to Professor Reiner Nachtwey from the University of Applied Sciences Düsseldorf. Professor Nachtwey took up the idea and presented it to Tatjana Krause and Sebastian Kentzler. Tatjana and Sebastian created a 15-minute short film of the story and submitted it for their master’s thesis in the Department of Design. In a few years’ time, when all the eyewitnesses have died, the question will arise as to how we can still tell the “stories of those days” – this question is already being asked today.
It will only be possible via media – this is the only way to “store” events and make them “tellable”.
As the son of a concentration camp prisoner and his wife, who stood by her husband with great consistency and strength, it was always my deepest wish, to make a concrete contribution to the future culture of remembrance by telling the story of my parents.
The story of their reunion on May 4th 1945 in Neustadt is also the prehistory of my own existence.
On July 17, 2015, the film was shown to the public for the first time as part of the open day of the FH Düsseldorf. With an enormous expenditure of time, commitment and creativity Tatjana Krause and Sebastian Kentzler succeeded in making an impressive film. Here is the website about the making-off of this film: http://4-5-45.de/
The film itself can be seen here on vimeo: https://vimeo.com/201824159/48f672a5bb
Translation: Nathalie Döpken