Today, 22nd March 2017, is the 75th Anniversary of the deportation of over 300 Jewish people by the Nazis, from the Rhineland city of Koblenz, to their ultimate murders in the death camps in Poland.
Travelling on those trains were the parents of Joe Stirling, subject of my biography Escaping Hitler. Their names were Alfred and Ida Stern and I remember them today.
But I have an amazing co-incidence to share with you. In February this year Joe Stirling and I gave an illustrated lunchtime talk at the Norfolk Record Office, a wonderful venue for historians, genealogists and researchers. Amongst our audience was a young couple from Dereham in Norfolk. They told us before the talk that they were there because Ilan’s family had Koblenz war-time connections. I began the talk, and quite unusually included a slide of the Balduinbrücke, the main bridge across the Mosel in Koblenz. After we had completed our usual book signing, Ilan and his wife Anne approached our table and Ilan spoke directly to Joe.
He said that he was an Israeli Jew, Ilan Schönewald, whose family had originated in Koblenz. He had reason to believe, from listening to my talk and matching the details with those from his family folklore, that his great-grandmother BERTA SCHÖNEWALD, may be been on that same deportation train on 22nd March 1942, heading to her death in Sobibor death camp. It was if the past had reached out to cling to the present, bringing both Ilan and Joe together for a brief moment in honour of their close family members who had shared their last days in the most gruesome of circumstances. We exchanged numbers, Anne promising to email me photos of Berta. Once home, I double checked my research material, like a conscientious biographer (!) and found in a German newspaper report from 1992, the 60th anniversary of the deportation, the list that contained the names of Joe’s parents and step-grandmother Sabine. Sure enough, Berta’s name was also on the list. They had been together over that dreadful period, most probably both thinking of their children (Berta of her daughter escaped to England and Alfred and Ida of their son Günter (Joe) also safely in England).
It is co-incidences and remarkable encounters like these that make biography such a fascinating and rewarding genre. RIP Alfred, Ida, Sabine and Berta.