November 5, 2010
Impact of personal writings
Nothing can equal a narrative written as it happens, when it happens; even the best historian cannot write subjectively or with the feelings that move a person at the moment of his particular experience,” writes Werner M. Loval (né Löbl) in his recently published family history.
Born in Germany, Loval has had quite a life – he was an Israeli diplomat, a pioneering real estate developer and a founding member of a Reform congregation, among other accomplishments – but We Were Europeans: A Personal History of a Turbulent Century (Gefen Publishing House, 2010) isn’t simply about him, but his family as well.
In addition to photographs, documents, letters and maps, an integral part of the book is excerpts from the diaries of Loval’s uncle, Robert Löbl, written between 1914 and 1917; Dr. Martin Morgenroth, head of the Bamberg, Germany, Jewish community before the Second World War; and Loval’s sister, Erica (née Erika), from 1938 to 1943, covering life in Germany, England and Ecuador. He also relies on the diary of his mother’s cousin and his own diaries, which he describes as “without room for descriptions but with all the important dates, happenings and places recorded.”
It is fascinating to read Löbl’s account of being in the trenches in the First World War – on the side of Germany. He is succinct, though even without much detail, he evokes some of the horrors of war, most notably in his Feb. 12, 1915, entry: “We are caught in a tremendous artillery barrage and we all advance by crawling. The most terrible minutes follow and I begin to doubt that I will survive. Artillery shells explode all around us and there is terror and fear on the faces of my neighbors. This frightening situation lasts a half hour.
“Suddenly, one of our men shouts, ‘They are coming!’ The attack starts. I get ready to shoot when my neighbor gets a bullet in the head and falls into my arms. He dies in the field hospital a week later.”
The entry continues to describe the battle, and his own injury, which a few months later led to his left eye being removed, replaced with a glass eye. There is fighting, boredom, food shortages, typhoid and other challenges to overcome, as well as better news – April 1916, “I am awarded the Iron Cross ...” – and hope for the future – Dec. 8, 1917, “The war’s end is still not in sight, but everybody is sure that Germany will win and so we enter the year 1918.”
Morgenroth’s diary follows the opposite trajectory, happy to sad, beginning with the description of a children’s Chanukah party and everyday community business, but quickly, in 1931, he mentions visits to Bamberg’s synagogue by non-Jewish schoolchildren to correct “the erroneous depictions of Jewish worship which are fed by the antisemitism of these troubled times.” In 1933, “In the wake of the takeover by the new regime [Adolf Hitler as chancellor], the following members of our community were arrested on suspicion of ‘subversive activities’....” The diary continues until 1938. It was confiscated on Kristallnacht, but is now in Jerusalem’s Central Archives for the History of the Jewish People.
Erica wrote in her diary from age 13 to 19. Her writing provides a sense of life prior to the Holocaust, and for someone who gained safety while others in their family did not. She initially writes of snowball fights, hanging out in cafés, school dances, track and field competitions, summer vacation, then there are pages about trying to leave Germany, which eventually she and her brother did, on the Kindertransport to England in 1938, without their parents or any other family (though their parents managed to get to Ecuador in 1940). The family was reunited in late 1942, and Erica described that experience: Oct. 16, 1942, “Now, it still seems like a dream to me to sit here in Guayaquil in a small hotel with Daddy in the same house, and suddenly all the travel has come to an end. It is almost too much all at once.”
We Were Europeans is an impressive, 520-page collection of family (and world) history. However, to be of value, something doesn’t have to be as expansive and ornate. This is the message that Cissie Eppel, founding president of the Jewish Genealogical Society of British Columbia, has been trying to convey for years. While she has compiled vast materials on her family history – including two books – her recent publications have been modest, but nonetheless important.
In 2009, Eppel produced a 39-page booklet called Before the Memories Fade: A Glimpse into the Past (Write your own story,” jewishindependent.ca, Oct. 30, 2009), about her early years in Bradford, England, in the 1920s. This year, Eppel has published the 89-page Benjamin Eppel’s 1914-1918 War: Letters Home. In the foreword, she writes, “Dormant for almost 100 years, a collection of letters sent by Benjamin (Bennie) Eppel to his mother at home in Edinburgh, Scotland, were brought to light by his granddaughter.... Conserved for so many years, I recognized the historical value of these letters and offered to transcribe them.”
She notes, “For reasons of censorship [for national security], Bennie’s letters do not include major details, mainly expressing his needs, which were the requirements for making conditions more tolerable whilst fighting in knee-deep muddy trenches. In addition to the torment of lice and vermin, being frequently deprived of sleep and adequate rations contributed to further discomfort.”
Cigarettes were a frequent request. Talk of the weather recurs: it being very hot, for example, so don’t send more underclothes, or it being very cold, so do send thick socks. In one letter, Eppel apologizes for not being able to come home for the High Holidays, “but I wish you all a good Yom Tov and that the Lord will spare me to be able to be home at Pesach.”
Heavy shelling in November 1916 put Eppel among the casualties: “Owing to thick mud, H.E. shells sank deep before exploding and I was blown up and struck temporarily dumb,” he wrote in his battalion notes. In a letter to his mother, he wrote: “I am feeling a bit better now, but my nerves are completely shattered, however I thank heaven I was able to get away from that bloody hell-spot (excuse the word) with nothing but a severe shaking.”
Eppel was wounded again in April 1917. He had to write home with his left hand because the bones in his right were crushed such that – contrary to his hope that it would only be “some time in clearing up” – even after several surgeries, he “was unable to return to the printing profession that he had held prior to volunteering in 1914.” (He became an antiques dealer.)
In addition to correspondence, Letters Home includes scans and explanations of several of Eppel’s war records, color photos of his service medals, a brief history of his regiment (the 5th Royal Scots), reminiscences from his grandson, a short biography and a few photographs of Eppel. It is the type of publication that most of us could put together about our own families, if we made the time to do so.