Grave location: B JJ-8
Died Monday 13th October 2008, aged 100
Research Notes and References
Between the Nazis coming to power in Germany in 1933 and 1938 about twenty five thousand Jews left Germany to seek refuge in the Netherlands. One of the Jewish refugees was Frieda Gurtz who moved to Enschede where she met Kurt Munzer in his leather goods shop. Kurt was also a Jewish refugee from Germany. Frieda Gurtz explained that “I was nineteen and Kurt and I fell in love at once and in 1939 we were married in the synagogue.” The young couple moved to The Hague and in 1940 when the Netherlands was invaded they decided to get out as quickly as possible, “I was pregnant and did not want to live under the Nazis and on the 14 May we tried to get away by sea. We went to the beach at Scheveningen. Most of the fishing boats were full of people who had paid a lot of money. We jumped into a lifeboat, the Zeemanshoop. Four students were in charge and wanted to take us to England. We had no time to let our families know we were leaving.” Freda and Kurt Munzer landed at Dover and started a new life in England. Key their names above for a more detailed account of their lives in Germany, as refugees in the Netherlands, as internees on the Isle of Man and, finally building a new life in Leicester, England.
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Kurt and Frieda Munzer
Kurt Munzer’s story
Kurt Munzer, 1937/8Kurt’s story begins at Beuthen, a town in Upper Silesia with a mixed German Polish population which had been part of Germany for centuries. Kurt was born there on the 1 August 1908 and was eleven when the peace treaty assigned Upper Silesia to Poland in 1919. Germany protested and the treaty was modified to allow a plebiscite in 1921. Kurt never forgot the hysteria in the area leading up to the voting. In the end, the province was partitioned and Beuthen stayed in the German part. It was a period of instability that stayed with Kurt for the rest of his life. Beuthen finally became part of Poland after the Second World War and is now called Bittum.
His grand parents had some ten children, all shopkeepers owning shoe and draper shops, and although quite well off were not rich. Kurt had a sister who was four years older than him. They went to a Jewish infant school for three or four years but then attended the same school as other children. Kurt went to the Gymnasium, the equivalent of an English Grammar School, and learned English and French. There were only three Jewish boys in his class. When he was twelve he took extra English lessons and decided he would like to visit England some day. Kurt’s Mother died when he was fifteen. There was a large Jewish community and Kurt was not conscious of any anti-semitism. There was also massive inflation but by the time he left school aged 16 in April 1924 the currency had stabilised and he decided to join a local bank as an apprentice. He thought he was “not cut out for shop keeping”.
Germany’s defeat in the First World War and the loss of territory to Poland made people living in the border town of Beuthen feel insecure and Kurt decided to ” ‘Go West’ – as the Americans put it!” In 1928 he went to a small town near Berlin but a year later obtained a job as an accountant at a grain importer and exporter in Munster, a town in Westphalia near the Dutch border. With the rise of the Nazi party conditions for Jews became more difficult. Munster was Catholic and not too bad but when Hitler became Chancellor in 1933 “the real trouble started”. His neighbours remained friendly and he had no problems at work but his colleagues warned him that things would get worse. In 1935 mobs gathered outside the homes of Jewish families shouting and chanting and “conditions became unbearable”. There was a boycott of Jewish shops and the SA, the “brown shirts”, stopped people from entering. The Police were powerless to prevent this and the ordinary people did not dare protest, the SA “were like hooligans”. In September he went on a business trip in a chauffeur driven company car to Emden on the North Sea coast close to a concentration camp with “high walls, barbed wire and soldiers saying outside with machine guns”. The atmosphere in the hotel where he stayed was very bad and when he returned he told his boss he was leaving.
Jews could leave Germany but were not allowed to take any money with them. He left Munster on Christmas night with all his money taped on the underside of the car and on crossing the Dutch border was given permission to stay for two weeks. He claimed political asylum at the Police Station in Enschede the following morning and since he had sufficient funds was allowed to stay but was not given a work permit and made a living by trading in leather goods. The local people “were helpful and understanding in every way”. Between the Nazis coming to power in Germany in 1933 and 1938 about twenty five thousand Jews left Germany to seek refuge in the Netherlands. There were very few refugees to begin with but they increased rapidly, especially in 1938. Unless they managed to reach Amsterdam which had a large Jewish community they were turned back or interned at Camp Westerbork which in 1942 became the transit camp from which Dutch and German Jews were sent to the extermination camps at Auschwitz and Sobibor.
Kurt met Frieda in his leather shop early in 1938, they got engaged at Easter and he was 31 when they married the following year.
Elfrieda Munzer with her Mother, 1920Elfrieda Gurtz was born in the small town of Hohenstein, sixty miles south east of Danzig in East Prussia, not far from the Russian frontier. Her family had lived in Germany for three generations and moved to East Prussia around 1900. In 1945 the Germans were expelled from Hohenstein and replaced by Poles, mostly from parts of Poland seized by the Russians. Hohenstein is now the Polish town of Olsztynek.
Hohenstein was a small place “like living in the country” and her parents had a grain import export business. Frieda was born on the 9 January 1920, the second of four children. She never knew her father who survived the fighting in the Great War on the eastern front but died the year she was born after an appendix operation. Her mother, Metha Sara Heimann (neé Zweig), remarried when Frieda was eight and took the name of her second husband.
The family were wealthy with a large house full of servants and Frieda grew up without any knowledge of cooking or domestic chores. She was told by her mother that the author, Stephan Zweig, who brought to life the final years of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in his autobiography, The World of Yesterday, was a distant cousin.
For Frieda “everything was wonderful before 1933”, she had lots of non Jewish friends and was very happy. People said “things are going to change, but not for you, for the others”, meaning Polish Jews. And when she was twelve things did change – for her especially. She was the only Jewish child at her Gymnasium and had to sit on a separate bench in class and at assembly and the other children were forbidden to speak to her. She begged her Mother to let her leave. She left the school at fourteen and from then on was tutored at home with her elder brother.
The boycott of Jewish shops ruined her father’s business. The customers were driven away and the staff left. The SA took down the name of one of her friends trying to enter their shop and threatened her with prison. The family moved to Berlin in 1936. “Berlin was wonderful, I was sixteen, people did not know I was Jewish, I did not look Jewish” and she had a good social life. Her father could not work and lived off his savings and they heard about people who “disappeared” into the Camps. She became an apprentice in a photography shop.
Frieda Munzer aged 17
Frieda Munzer was seventeen and an apprentice in a photography shop in Berlin when these “Cinephotos” were taken in 1937
Frieda Munzer and her Mother, 1937
Her Mother looks less relaxed than her playful daughter in
Her stepfather, Hans Israel Heiman, had three brothers living in the Netherlands which made it easy to arrange to move there. The family moved to Enschede near the German border in February 1938 and she met her future husband on her very first day in Holland, in the leather shop he ran with his partner. Frieda was young and more interested in living than settling down to married life but her Mother suggested that in such unsettled times it would be sensible to marry and have a more secure future. There were a lot of wealthy Jewish people in Enschede but they mainly mixed with fellow refugees. She started her own photography business, taking “Cinephotos” (Polyphotos) and producing enlargements. There was a lot of business from émigré Jews needing photographs for permits and she sometimes worked until four in the morning. She learned to speak Dutch within three months and found the Dutch to be very friendly.
Frieda MunzerKurt and Frieda Munzer with Kurt’s father, 1938Kurt Munzer 1938
Escape to England and Internment on the Isle of Man
The young family did not feel safe so close to the German border and decided to move to The Hague. Frieda’s parents stayed in Enschede to continue running the business there and Frieda started a new photographic business.
They were already living in The Hague when Chamberlain issued his ultimatum on the 3 September and Britain found itself at war. The Dutch expected to remain neutral as in the previous war but if the Germans did invade they planned to hold up their advance by letting the sea flood the land. They had not expected the Germans to drop parachutists or anticipated the bombing of Rotterdam. The invasion began on the 10 May and within three days Queen Wilhelmina left her country abroad a British destroyer and at 7 pm on the 14 May Frieda and Kurt heard the broadcast surrender of Dutch forces.
Frieda’s mother and sister were visiting them. Frieda admitted becoming “completely irrational”, screaming that they must get away. Kurt knew “there was no way out other than by the sea” and “did not expect to get away, it looked hopeless” but went to get their car. When they left he told her mother they would soon be back. Foreigners were not allowed out at night and they were stopped several times at road blocks manned by Dutch soldiers but Kurt spoke perfect Dutch and they were allowed through. The ten minute drive to Scheveningen took more than an hour. They hoped to buy a place on a fishing boat to England but nobody was willing to take them. They “found three boys with a little lifeboat” in which to go to England. “Would you mind if we come with you?” “No, not at all”. They told some youngsters, “take the car, here’s the key, just tell our Mother we’ve got away.” The message wasn’t delivered, the car was found wrecked and her parents assumed the worst.
There was a blackout when the Zeemanshoop left at 9pm but the lighthouse came on at midnight. There were 46 men and women, no conveniences, very few seats; the women sat and the men stood holding the rails and looking out at sea. It was cold but the sea was calm. Some passengers had brought poison to kill themselves if captured. The following afternoon they spotted smoke on the horizon, a British destroyer, HMS Venomous. They were taken aboard and given tea in the sailors mess.
They landed at Dover around midnight and the refugees from Germany and Austria, about one third, were taken to the police station, interrogated and held there overnight. The next day they were taken by train to London where the married couples were separated. Kurt and the other men were taken to Pentonville prison and Frieda and the women to Holloway. Kurt described having to strip naked and hand over the contents of his pockets including six or seven hundred guilders. They were locked in prison cells. Kurt complained to the Governor and it was agreed that the doors of their cells would be left open. They were not to cross the threshold but could exchange news with men in the other cells on their corridor. Kurt was surprised to have a Professor as a neighbour, probably Otto Neurath. They were treated no different from German nationals living in Britain, all of whom were suspected of being fifth columnists, spies or saboteurs.
Frieda was taken to Holloway, the women’s prison. One of the refugees tried to help by telling a warden Frieda was “expecting”. She was taken to a special ward, became hysterical and was given bromide to calm her down. Frieda thought they were trying to abort her baby and dashed the pills from the warden’s hand. She was relieved to be returned to the others after a few days. The ordinary prisoners asked why she was there and were shocked when she told them she had done nothing. She shouted through the bars of her cell that she was innocent and ought to be freed. They were allowed out for half an hours exercise each day. They had no change of clothes, had to wash their things in the cells, there was nothing to read except the English Bible and they were not told what would happen to them. They were at Holloway for three weeks.
After a week Kurt and the men were moved from Pentonville to an army camp at Sunbury on Thames where he was robbed at gunpoint by an officer of his 700 Guilders. Two weeks later they were put on a train to Liverpool and after staying overnight at a Sailors Home were marched through the town to the docks. It was the 3 June, the day Paris fell to the Germans, but they heard that Churchill was still Prime Minister so they knew there would be no surrender. They boarded a ferry which took them to Douglas on the Isle of Man and were marched up the hill to Onchan Camp, a street of requisitioned hotels, where enemy nationals from all over Britain were interned. Kurt was placed in House 18, which was quite small with about eight rooms (but only one bathroom) and eighteen internees. The man on kitchen duty, an Austrian, had been head chef at the Savoy Hotel and did his best to make their rations palatable, often kippers for breakfast and kippers for dinner! There were two Nazis in their house who warned them, “You wait, Hitler will come here!” Kurt met many interesting people at Ochan Camp, a future chemist at a factory in Manchester, a man who became a diplomat at the German Embassy in London and a Professor.
It was two weeks before he learned that Frieda was in the Rushen women’s camp at Port Erin or Port Mary in the south of the island. Frieda had never heard of the Isle of Man when she got on the ferry at Liverpool. She was put in a boarding house with four to a room. They arrived in June still without news of their husbands. After two weeks they were told they could write to each other once a week. These letters, written in German in fine script, are kept by the family despite them not being able to speak or read German. Kurt composed a lengthy letter to Queen Wilhelmina complaining that while she had left for England in comfort aboard an English destroyer he and his wife, five months pregnant, had fled for their lives on a tiny lifeboat and were left with nothing. He was touched to receive a parcel containing a beautiful set of baby clothes as a gift from the Queen.
Freda recalled that many of the women had been working in domestic service in England when they were interned but as many as half were Nazi supporters. Everybody in the women’s camp spoke German. They could wander freely through the villages, she “clambered around from morning to night and really enjoyed it”, but everybody was terrified that the Germans would invade. There were plans to send many of them to Australia but because of a kidney problem Frieda was not considered and all such plans were abandoned after the sinking of the Arandora Star by a German U-boat while taking German and Canadian aliens to Canada on 2 July 1940. Her baby, Grace Evelyn (known as “Evi”), was “born in a wonderful maternity home in October” (the Jane Crookall Maternity Home in Douglas). The men in House 18 collected 18/- for Kurt and he was given an armed escort to visit Frieda. She and her baby daughter were given a room of their own.
Kurt and Frieda Munzer with “Evi”, Isle of Man 1941Cartoon of the birth of Evi at House 18, Ochan Camp, October 1940
The women could not understand why they should not live with their husbands in a mixed camp but the Commandant of the Rushen Women’s Camp, Joanna M. Cruickshank, indignantly said, “If our women can’t be with their husbands, why should you?” Eventually, mixed camps were created where husbands and wives could live together and Frieda lost her freedom to wander at will but they were able to live together as a family at Bradda Glen, Port Erin.
On their first day in the mixed camp Kurt met an old friend from his primary school in Beuthen. Alfred Silberberg, the son of a wealthy Jewish industrialist, and his wife Gerta escaped the Holocaust by getting jobs as domestic servants in Leicester in 1938. Like Kurt and Frieda they were interned as “Enemy Aliens” in 1940 but since they had jobs to return to were released much earlier. After interrogation Kurt and Frieda were classified as “friendly aliens” but they were not allowed to leave until they received an offer of a job on the mainland of Britain. They were interned on the Isle of Man for two years.
Family life in Leicester
Frieda Munzer, 1950 Their friends, Alfred and Gerta Silberberg, were able to get Kurt a job doing war work, grinding lenses at The English Glass Co Ltd. in Leicester. The company had been saved from bankruptcy by Josef Oplatek, a refugee from the glass producing area of Czechoslovakia, and most of the male employees were foreigners, mainly glass workers from Czechoslovakia.
Frieda and Kurt could only stay with their friends for two weeks and spent every night looking for somewhere to live. That was not easy for foreigners with a baby and no money. They never admitted to being Germans, always claimed to be Dutch. After eight months in furnished rooms a friend found them two unfurnished rooms (which were cheaper) on condition that they left when their landlady’s husband returned from the war.
Frieda learned English and obtained a job at a photographer’s shop, Fisher & Potter, working in the darkroom. They had to put up with comments on buses about foreigners, who should be interned or shot. They worked on Saturdays so could not attend the Synagogue which made it difficult to meet members of the Jewish community in Leicester.
Frieda was very worried about her parents. In September 1942 all the Jews in the Netherlands had been forced to live in Camp Westerbork before being transported to the Camps. Frieda eventually received a long letter via the Red Cross which they had written to friends in Switzerland shortly before they were deported. They had known what was coming and had given all their treasured possessions to Dutch friends to keep for Frieda to collect once the war was over. By then Kurt’s widowed father was also living in Enschede and both families, including Frieda’s twelve year old half sister, Ruth Heimann, died at Auschwitz.
In 1943 a second daughter was born and named Ruth after her aunt. Kurt and Frieda worked every minute they could, saved every penny and in 1944 were able to borrow money from Kurt’s boss for a deposit on their first house (Otto L Hartheimer, a wealthy jeweller in Birmingham, also helped) which they bought at auction. They had intended to return to the Netherlands after the war but now decided they would remain in England, the country where their two daughters were born. VE Day was “a glorious time” which they celebrated with friends and neighbours. In 1945 Frieda started her own photographic business, her third, which she ran until 1964. The photograph above left was taken in 1950 at “Foxy Hollow”, a favourite excursion for the children. Frieda kept in touch with Marie Neurath who visited them while the children were growing up and brought them copies of her illustrated children’s books. Whenever she came the conversation always turned to their escape from Holland on the Dutch lifeboat and the debate amongst the passengers whether the time had come to take their own lives.
Kurt worked at the English Glass Company for six or seven years before he finally managed to get a job as a bookkeeper for a coal merchant. To make ends meet he had two or three jobs, always as a book keeper. He could not face having to start again, studying to become a chartered accountant. They were naturalised in 1947 and it was wonderful to visit Holland and Germany in 1951 travelling with a British passport. At Enschede they met by chance their best friends who had survived by hiding in the woods with their two children and being sheltered by brave Dutch farmers. They were grey haired despite being much the same age as Kurt and Frieda.
The firstr grand childKurt Munzer on his 80th birthdayEva with her mother, Frieda, and husband, Martin
Frieda insisted that their daughters would continue with their education and not leave school to bring in money to help support the family. Ruth Henig (neé Munzer), had a successful academic career as a historian at Lancaster University and wrote:
“My interest in history was there from an early age but my interest in modern European history was stimulated by my parents experiences. I was able to dedicate one of my books, Origins of the Second World War, to my grandmother Meta Goetz and Grandfather Oscar Munzer. And my book on the Weimar Republic undoubtedly benefited from what they told me about their early lives.
It took my mother a very long time to recover emotionally from the loss of her family, if indeed she ever did fully. On my father’s side, things were a bit better. His eldest sister and husband died in Stettin ghetto, but her two sons were sent to England on the kindertransporten in 1938 or early 1939, aged 10 and 8. They grew up in England and were our only known relatives. They are still alive – married with children and lots of grandchildren. My cousin John says that`s how they got their own back on Hitler.”
Return to Enschede on Golden Wedding Anniversart in 1989Kurt Munzer and his nephews who came to England on the Kindertransport
In 1989 she arranged for them to celebrate their Golden Wedding Anniversary at Enschede where they first met in 1938 and were married in the Synagogue the following year. A Dutch newspaper arranged events for them and published their story.
Ruth described her older sister Evi who was born on the Isle of Man as “very sporty, school tennis champion, brilliant footballer…and very close to my mother. I always felt my mother s death affected her profoundly, and in some way contributed to her own too early death from cancer. She trained as a primary school teacher but retired once she got married and started her family.” Ruth and Evi each had two sons – no daughters.
Ruth Henig was raised to the peerage as Baroness Henig of Lancaster, in 2004.
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